JUFFAIR, Bahrain – First came the chants: Frenzied teenage voices full of fury, fear and collective courage, demanding democracy from a regime reluctant to give an inch.
Soon, on a warm night a week before Christmas, the mass of poor Shia teenagers in sandals, masks and soccer jerseys turned a corner and approached the fortified police station.
Shopkeepers lowered the metal gates on their stores, retreating inside.
A police bullhorn warned the protesters, armed with nothing but Bahraini flags, to disperse.
Then, pop pop pop — canisters of tear gas arced through the night sky, heralding the beginning of another police crackdown.
The protesters screamed and scattered.
It was a scene that has repeated itself nearly every night for months now, as the battle for Bahrain simmers on. Young Shia men, inspired by the Arab Spring uprisings across the Middle East, demand the resignation of the Sunni government led by the ruling al-Khalifa family, as well as parliamentary elections and a new democratic constitution. The regime’s security services reply with force, determined to silence them.
But unlike the other Arab Spring flashpoints, Bahrain’s unrest unfolds a few hundred yards from the gates of the Naval Support Activity Bahrain, home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, with some 6,200 sailors, civilians and family members.
Yet thanks to realpolitik and the imperative to safeguard American strategic interests in the Arabian Gulf, U.S. policymakers find themselves on the opposite side of the protesters, backing an undemocratic regime that continues to brutalize its citizens.
“There is a tension between the U.S. rhetoric and preference for democratic systems and regional requirements when it comes to Bahrain,” said Emile Hokayem, senior fellow for regional security at the Bahrain offices of the International Institute for Strategic Studies.
This tiny island of 1.2 million people has served as a crucial American ally in the region for decades, providing the U.S. military a base for naval forces that are a vital counterweight to Iranian influence in the oil-rich Gulf.
As a result, U.S. officials have tried to keep the unrest at arm’s length, gently counseling reform and dialogue in their public pronouncements.
“Our countries have many shared strategic interests and a relationship that includes decades of working together to defend regional security,” Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said last November. “In this context, it is essential for Bahrainis themselves to resolve the issues identified in the report and move forward in a way that promotes reform, reconciliation and stability.”
The noncommittal U.S. stance has disappointed human rights activists in Bahrain.
“We are victims of being a United States ally,” said Nabeel Rajab, director of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights who said he has been a regular victim of police abuse. “We are victims of being in an oil-rich country that many people don’t want to upset and anger.”
The Pearl Roundabout, the symbolic heart of Bahrain’s protests, was torn down by the government after the largest demonstrations were quashed in February and March last year. Unrest ebbed over the summer but has picked up again in recent months.
Last month, protesters burned tires and sent pillars of smoke into Bahrain’s skies during the country’s annual air show, which included U.S. jets, according to an Associated Press report.
Even the smallest protests are met with police tear gas and rubber bullets.
At least 60 people have died in the protests since they began on Feb. 14, 2011, human rights activists say. Many more have been injured, imprisoned or lost their jobs.
“I have a tough time seeing the situation in Bahrain getting any better,” said Andrew Exum, a senior fellow with the Center for a New American Security think tank in Washington, D.C. “If it worsens and gets more violent in 2012, I think it’s going to force a rethink of our posture in Bahrain and our policy toward Bahrain.”
U.S. support persists
While the crackdown on protesters continues here, the White House is pushing a $53 million weapons sale to the Bahrain government. The U.S. has sold the monarchy $1.4 billion in military gear since 2000, according to the State Department.
U.S. Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., and Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., introduced legislation last year to block the latest arms sale.
“Our country should not be rewarding a regime that fires on peacefully assembled protesters, and one that indiscriminately imprisons its citizens simply for voicing a political viewpoint,” Wyden said at a Bahrain forum in December.
Such pressure might have limited impact here, however, because U.S. Central Command is the dominant arm of the U.S. government in the region, Hokayem said. When a four-star general comes to Bahrain, he carries real clout and will meet with everyone in the top tier of the government. That is not so when a senior State Department official arrives, Hokayem said.
“Fundamentally, the size and visibility of the U.S. military presence in the region suggests that the U.S. Gulf policy is Pentagon-heavy,” he said. “It’s not the State Department that is flush with resources. It’s the CENTCOM commander.”
As a result, leaders like the al-Khalifa family in Bahrain believe that as long as defense-related concerns are squared away, human rights violations can be overlooked, he said.
Clashes between the monarchy and the disenfranchised Shia majority have flared before. But today, both sides appear to be dug in for a long fight.
The al-Khalifa family, rulers of the island since the 18th century, have promised democratic reforms but have been reluctant to follow through, viewing any change as a threat to their existence.
Bahrain’s Shia majority have demands similar to protesters across the region: a government that reflects the will of the people and ends a discriminatory society where they are excluded from certain jobs and government assistance.
The government stands to lose a lot more this year if the ruling family continues to block meaningful reform, according to a professor at the University of Bahrain who asked not to be named, fearing government reprisal.
Bahrain has become a hub for Western finance in the Gulf. The way the professor sees it, the al-Khalifa family risks losing Bahrain’s reputation as an open place to do business if clashes continue and violence increases.
Reports of brutality
A 500-page report commissioned by the king after U.S. prodding and released in November by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry sheds light on how bad things were on the streets in 2011.
The report faults the government for systemic brutality in putting down the protests in February and March, which marked a return to the “pattern of impunity for torture and other mistreatment by law enforcement personnel” last seen when similar unrest engulfed the country in the 1990s.
In one chilling example cited in the report, Isa Abdulhasan Ali Hussain was in the streets Feb. 17 as protesters clashed with police.
A policeman pointed a gun at Hussain’s head, and a witness “heard a loud shot and saw the man’s head explode.”
“Another witness reported that the police did not allow a nearby ambulance to assist him,” the report states. “The relatives of the deceased were not permitted to see him in the morgue, as the injury was too extensive.”
In a statement posted Dec. 16 to a Bahraini government website, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa praised the report and its “objective and constructive criticism.”
“We emphasize that we extend our hand to every Bahraini loyal to this beloved country and acting within the rule of law and order,” the statement reads. “We also praise the role of the national security forces in maintaining the safety and integrity of the country against all threats and risks.”
Clinton praised the al-Khalifa monarchy for commissioning the report and for promising to create a follow-up committee to implement reform.
While activists say the U.S. could do more to pressure the government to change, it’s not as simple as pulling up anchor and leaving Bahrain.
“It is important to note that we have a long-standing relationship with Bahrain,” 5th Fleet spokeswoman Lt. Rebecca Rebarich said in an email. “They are an important partner in the region and a valued member of the Combined Maritime Forces.”
If the Navy relocated elsewhere in the Gulf, it would be an expensive and massive logistical undertaking, according to Exum, and the U.S. would forfeit any existing leverage it has over the al-Khalifa regime.
“If the U.S. does leave and yet Bahrain is still supported by Saudi Arabia and the Saudis are still in favor of a crackdown, does that make the situation for the Shia Bahraini any better?” Exum said.
Human rights activists and protesters increasingly regard the U.S. Navy as a pillar of support for the regime, according to Rajab.
“The U.S. has not been doing anything so far, except for supporting the regime here,” Rajab said.
“They are the main player in our country. They could influence more inside the country than the United Nations, but they are playing a negative role.”
Protesters planned a sit-in Dec. 23 near the water in the capital of Manama, but police blocked all access points hours before it was to begin.
Still, as 3 p.m. neared, people started to gather around the headquarters of al-Wefaq, the main opposition party.
A police truck was parked across the street. Opposition officials say it is always there, watching, even though the party is supposed to be legal under Bahraini law.
As protesters coalesced, armed police appeared and fired volleys of tear gas canisters their way.
Screaming, bleary-eyed, gagging protesters fled back into the safety of the headquarters.
Police bombarded the building with more tear gas and rubber bullets.
Men, women and children sat inside trying to alleviate the noxious effects of the gas, some breathing in red onions to stave off the tears. Others vomited, collapsed and had to be helped to the bathroom.
“Every peaceful protest is met with violence like this,” Rajab said during the protest, as his driver maneuvered through the tear-gassed traffic, horns blaring furiously all around.
“For how long we are able to hold people to be peaceful, I don’t know.”