Editor’s Policy Analysis: Bahrain’s Political Roundabout
In February this year, to mark the third anniversary of crisis in Bahrain, the militant group the Youth of 14 February called for the occupation of the Pearl roundabout leading to the ambushing and killing of a police officer—dozens more have since been murdered and wounded in bombing attacks. Since 2011, commentators have obsessed over why violence erupted instead of why violence erupted there? So, what makes the roundabout (a.k.a the Pearl, a.k.a. the Lulu but actually the GCC roundabout) so important to the Youth? Why do they want to occupy it? They vaunt its former statue, they adorn their flags and logos with it, and are ready to die and kill for it.
Unlike Cairo’s Tahrir Square, which is situated in the heart of the city and is a bustling urban junction, Bahrain’s GCC roundabout is a bizarre location for demonstrations. It is not directly adjacent to more dense urban spaces that could keep a movement fed and reinforced. It is remote and typically does not act as a gathering place. Events planned for the roundabout have to be well organised in advance; it is only really accessible by car.
The roundabout is a traffic junction which butts the new financial harbour towards the tail of Government Avenue where most important governmental facilities are located and is the gateway to the villages along the north-western coast of Bahrain. Holding the roundabout severs the country and that was the main reason for its selection by Bahrain’s opposition groups; they sought – under guidance from Iran’s Hezbollah – more than a platform for demonstrations.
These indicate a very different set of reasons for the outbreak of hostilities in 2011. They certainly were not part of some ambiguous set of democratic revolutions in the Arab world. Given the venue, coupled with the tactics deployed by al-Wefaq (politically) and the Youth (among others), it is likely that the roundabout escapade was an organised attempt to set in motion a series of events to ultimately bring Iran directly into Bahrain.
If it were not for the deployment of the GCC’s Peninsular Shield force, Iran may very well have entered Bahraini territory. The dynamics on the ground were telling:
Firstly, demonstrations were called – approved by Bahrain’s government – by opposition leaders from al-Wefaq and others. Once these were organised and people began to camp out on the roundabout, groups of the Youth were dispatched with weapons into the tent-city. At the same time, Iran lent operational support and, reportedly, dispatched members of Hezbollah from Lebanon to Bahrain. Then, according to a mid-ranking naval officer, two Iranian warships were spotted off Bahrain’s north-western coast. The stage was set. All that was missing was the trigger. On 13 March, with the roundabout still teeming with people, the Youth initiated a campaign of violence in nearly a dozen locations around the country including at Bahrain University and the roundabout. The Youth had successfully hijacked the month-long festive demonstrations at the roundabout and plunged the country into an existential crisis. And it was not only the police and civil society that would suffer. The Youth were prepared to sacrifice Bahraini civilians – Sunni and Shia – in the crossfire.
This may shed light on a perplexing problem of the 2011 violence: why were the majority of demonstrators wearing sandals to demonstrations? Why were they ill-equipped to run away from the police if, for the better part of the previous month they had been engaged in tit-for-tat street battles with Bahrain’s security forces and were publically and repeatedly warned that the roundabout was about to be cleared? Wearing sandals on 13 March 2011 meant that the bulk of demonstrators would be unable to evade police once violence commenced. This was intentional. The violence which targeted the police intended to illicit a harsh response so images could be captured and projected to force a foreign (Iranian?) intervention, as occurred in Libya, in support of “defenceless” demonstrators.
There were, of course, many in the crowds not wearing sandals. There were those who had come prepared and wore trainers and boots. They had organised transportation and medical staff (including ambulances), were armed with weapons and a plan. When the clock struck 0800 on 13 March 2011, it was these hardliners that drew first blood, charged and attempted to lynch police officers and have graduated in their violence to acts of arson, assault and cold-blooded murder.
All this in the name of a roundabout?
The situation in Bahrain should act as a reminder of the misuse of symbols for the sake of realpolitik objectives. For Bahrain’s civil society, the roundabout was and remains unimportant except for the daily commuters. Its significance has only been hoisted by the geopolitical swaggering of the Youth and their al-Wefaq and Iranian allies. However, the roundabout is only a roundabout and is not worth a single life. So, the next time the Youth declare a thousand martyrs to occupy a roundabout … well, how can you negotiate with them? It is beyond the pale of civilisation.