MANAMA, Bahrain – When the boys at the head of the column bolted, so did we. A colleague and I had been observing their nighttime march through Diraz, an older, poorer suburb of Bahrain's capital mostly populated by members of the country's Shiite majority. Teenagers and young men walked in front, women in black chadors behind them, chanting "down with Hamad" – Bahrain's king. The protest was intended as a rebuke to the Formula One auto race Bahrain's ruling family was about to stage in late April to show the world that all was well in the Gulf kingdom after a ruthless crackdown on dissent and more than a year of unrest.
We watched as the youth of Diraz peacefully made their way toward a main road. The riot police waited for them there. Maybe we should have stood fast, on the notion that police chase those who run. But when Bahrain's finest suppress demonstrations, they often fire birdshot and tear-gas canisters directly into the crowd. And the magic words "I am an American" have an effective range far shorter than that of a riot gun.
So we sprinted away with the scattered marchers down one darkened alley, then another. When it was clear the neighborhood was surrounded, we took shelter in a house. The police broke in and pepper-sprayed our eyes; I spoke the magic words, which seemed to calm matters, though we heard screams coming from other parts of the house.
At the police station, we waited as they verified our permission to be in the country. Outside, police tear-gassed mothers of the boys arrested with us, who had come to demand their sons' release. The gas drifted into the station. Everyone – police, protesters, and we two foreigners – tasted the sting of Bahrain's crackdown on dissent and its inexorable blowback.
Two days later, we met Maj. Gen. Tariq al-Hassan, Bahrain's chief of public security. We chatted amiably about our experience, reassuring him that we were not mistreated. But we also told him about what we had heard from families in a village next door to Diraz. Their sons had been arrested after a demonstration earlier that week and were taken to the same police station where we'd been detained. Superficially, their story was the same as that of the protesters arrested with us, with two exceptions: No foreigners were watching, and according to multiple eyewitnesses, police had beaten them brutally after their arrest, throwing some off the roof of a building onto a neighboring balcony.
In November 2011, Bahrain had a golden chance to end this kind of police brutality for good. King Hamad had appointed the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry, chaired by the esteemed international jurist Cherif Bassiouni, to look into the human rights violations committed when the country's pro-democracy movement was suppressed last year. Bassiouni wrote an honest report, documenting the arrest and torture of opposition leaders and urging far-reaching reforms to punish those responsible and end human rights abuses. To his credit, the king accepted the report and promised to implement it. The government dropped charges against some dissidents accused of speech "crimes," reinstated many people who had been dismissed from work and school for attending protests, and reduced abuse of prisoners in formal detention facilities.
Since then, the momentum has dissipated. There has been no real resumption of dialogue between the government and opposition to pursue what moderates on both sides agree is the only viable solution to Bahrain's crisis – a constitutional monarchy in which government ministers are chosen by an elected parliament rather than appointed by the king. This course of action would necessarily give Bahrain's Shiite majority more say in running the country, a prospect that is anathema to portions of the island's ruling family as well as its regional backers.
The government has also not ended human rights abuses against protesters. As we would see during our visit, police torture and abuse have simply moved from police stations to the alleyways and back lots of Shiite villages. The courts have agreed to retry key opposition leaders, but the government still refuses to release them, though their convictions were based on nothing more than the content of their speeches and participation in meetings and rallies challenging the monarchy. Also, for the first time in months, there is no approaching milestone – no committee to be appointed, or report to be issued, or deadline to be met – that might give moderate leaders reason to ask their people to be patient. The absence of hope is radicalizing both sides.
Relentless messaging in official media has convinced many Sunni supporters of the monarchy that opposition calls for democracy are an Iranian plot to impose a Shiite theocracy on Bahrain. Some demand that the king reject any compromise. Additionally, there are growing whispers about Sunni jihadi groups taking advantage of these fears to gain a foothold on the island. Meanwhile, in opposition strongholds, protesters who are beaten and gassed only come back more angry and determined to confront the police. In this climate, the toughest boys, the ones who fight back, become the heroes. Opposition leaders who preach nonviolence risk being marginalized.
At the Interior Ministry, police officials showed us videos of protesters throwing Molotov cocktails at police. In the opening sequences, the gas bombs are thrown from a distance; as the weeks go by the protesters get closer, until they are right in the officers' faces before dousing them with flames. The officials wanted us to see what their police go through, and they succeeded. Inadvertently, they also showed us that their repressive tactics are failing. Protesters are not retreating – they are losing their fear.
Much of Bahrain's police force consists of Sunni foreigners, recruited from countries like Syria, Pakistan, and Yemen. Sent to subdue Shiite neighborhoods that are alien territory, they seem bewildered by the youth who come at them every night. Some may also be transposing their homegrown prejudices onto Bahrain's struggle. A Bahraini college student told me that after being arrested at a protest, a Syrian policeman, obviously from that country's Sunni majority, beat him while shouting, "Do you like Bashar al-Assad? He is killing my family."
If King Hamad hopes to break this vicious cycle of violence, he will have to assert the authority he is so eager to preserve and make a bold gesture soon, even at the risk of angering his hard-line family and supporters. The best way to do this would be to release Bahrain's remaining imprisoned opposition leaders, including Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, a hero to the young Shiite protesters who has been on hunger strike for more than 80 days. If freed and given a stake in the political process, these leaders might have the moral authority to calm opposition supporters and restore their faith in peaceful struggle.
The hard-liners in the ruling family don't want to release these men because some called for replacing the monarchy rather than reforming it. But there may be another factor: Although most of the remaining high-profile prisoners are more uncompromising than the leaders of al-Wefaq, Bahrain's main legal Shiite opposition party, some are also arguably more secular. One, Ibrahim Sharif, is the Sunni leader of a secular-left party; another, Abduljalil al-Singace, is a human rights activist and political leader who studied under U.S. President Barack Obama's ambassador to Russia, Michael McFaul, at Stanford University.
Government hard-liners want the world to believe that the conflict in Bahrain is strictly sectarian, with all Sunnis on one side and all Shiites – manipulated by Iran – on the other. This helps them generate support from their base and from other Sunni monarchies, while making Western governments wary of the protest movement. It allows them to make the argument one government minister used on me: "The king wants an elected government, but first we need a nonsectarian opposition."
Meanwhile, they keep some of the strongest secular-minded leaders in jail.
Some critics of the Obama administration accuse it of siding with Bahrain's ruling family and being silent about its repression. The truth is more complex. Last year, State Department officials made an all-out effort to broker a compromise between the government and al-Wefaq, a deal that ultimately fell apart. When the king decreed emergency rule, the United States helped convince him not to ban the opposition party and, later, to appoint the Bassiouni Commission and release many detainees. But few Bahrainis in the opposition give the United States any credit for its actions because it has exerted pressure quietly, always leavened with public pledges of fealty to the U.S.-Bahraini partnership.
The contrast with America's condemnation of abuses in Syria and Libya is, to them, obvious and painful. As one of Bahrain's most popular opposition figures, Nabeel Rajab, has said, "The Western governments have supported the other revolutions and are tough against dictators. We want one policy. We don't want to be treated differently."
Bahrain gets different treatment, of course, because it hosts the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, helping the U.S. military project its might in the Gulf and contain Iran. U.S. military leaders have backed up the State Department in urging King Hamad to reform, but balk at any statement or action that they fear would jeopardize their base. While they acknowledge that Bahrain's repression of its Shiite population plays into Iran's hands, they worry about what would happen if the Shiites won their rights. One U.S. commander recently told me, "If there were one-man, one-vote in Bahrain, we wouldn't be here."
In fact, the most prominent leaders of Bahrain's dissident movement say they do not oppose the U.S. military presence in their country. No one knows whether that sentiment will hold in the face of continued repression, but from the U.S. point of view, that is an argument for urgency in demanding reform, not caution. Bahrain's Shiite majority isn't likely to be kept down forever. It is surely in the U.S. interest to be seen supporting its legitimate aspirations before disappointment in the United States devolves into rage.
The problem with U.S. policy toward Bahrain is not that it takes geopolitics into account. It's that U.S. officials may be calculating the geopolitics incorrectly. There is a growing feeling in the Middle East that, however high-minded Obama's rhetoric about democracy may be, the United States will always line up with its autocratic Sunni allies in the Persian Gulf against their opponents, especially if those opponents are Shiite. To many, it looks like the United States opposes dictators like Syria's Assad not for the sake of oppressed people, but to aid one side in a Saudi-Iranian cold war. The Iranian government, as well as every anti-American group in the region, benefits from this perception. Bahrain is the place where America can disprove it.
In May 2011, Obama condemned the Bahraini government's use of "brute force" and said there could be no "real dialogue" in Bahrain "when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail." The administration should be projecting more of that kind of clarity and urgency today – for the sake of both principle and national interest. Weapons sales to Bahrain should remain suspended until the government eases up on peaceful protest and resumes political reform. While it is true that the U.S. security partnership with Bahrain gives it a degree of influence with the ruling family, it is time to convey what is equally true – that America's military presence on the island won't be sustainable if the government responds to protest by intensifying violent repression to an intolerable point. If Bahrain's rulers believe the United States will continue to depend on them no matter what they do, they will be less likely to heed U.S. concerns. Showing a willingness to reconsider the partnership may be the best way to save it.
When we were released from detention, we walked out to the courtyard of the police station, where Rajab, the activist, waited for us. A youth I later interviewed told me that police had made him shout "down with Nabeel Rajab" as they beat him after an arrest. But here was Rajab, having a good-natured conversation with policemen and government officials. Nearby, a well known blogger who had been arrested with us calmly debated a police official who was upset because the activist had accused him of torture on Twitter.
Bahrain is almost broken, but not entirely so. The government is persecuting its critics, but not killing them on a large scale as in Syria. As everyone we met told us, Bahrain is a small country: The protagonists on both sides know each other, and there still seems to be room for compromise. But the window is rapidly closing, and once it shuts – as in Syria – it will be hard to turn back. Preventing this outcome by holding Bahrain to the commitments it made to the Bassiouni Commission, and encouraging political compromise, is America's paramount interest in Bahrain.
*Tom Malinowski is director of the Washington, D.C. office of Human Rights Watch.*