Bahrain’s uprising, four years later

On February 14, 2011, hundreds took to the streets in the small island nation of Bahrain in a march against the ruling al-Khalifa family. Four years later, AJ+ takes a look back at the uprising, how it started and where it stands today.


2011 | The beginning of an uprising

Anti-government graffiti covers the walls in Sanabis, Bahrain. It’s often removed by security forces, and painted over again by activists. Photo: Matthew Cassel

February 14, 2011: Day of Rage

The first day of major protests drew thousands to the streets nationwide on the anniversary of Bahrain’s 2002 constitution. Inspired by similar uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, demonstrators dubbed Feb. 14 the “Day of Rage,” and called upon King Hamad and the Bahraini government to answer their grievances.

Protester demands included an end to discrimination against the Shia majority population, an elected prime minister, the release of political prisoners, and an end to the use of torture. Protesters also requested that the government amend the 2002 constitution.

Protests in Sanabis

It wasn’t long before state security began cracking down on the protests, dispersing demonstrators with tear gas and rubber bullets.

Many in the capital city of Manama continued to protest and flocked to the Pearl Roundabout, a monument that quickly became a symbol for the uprising.

By the end of February, at least seven people had died as a result of what the Bahrain Center for Human Rights called the government’s “excessive use of force.”

Photo: Nabeel Rajab

March 14, 2011:

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates sent troops to help quell the ongoing violence in Bahrain, according to Gulf Daily News and Reuters. Some on social media wondered what the outcome of outsourced troops would be:

Others participated in a rally that took place against the influx of Saudi troops on March 15, 2011.


March 18, 2011: The Destruction of Pearl Roundabout

On the morning of March 18, 2011, the Bahraini government — with the backing of Saudi security forces — razed the Pearl Roundabout, announcing via state television that the monument has been “violated” and “desecrated” by the “vile” anti-government protests, and had to be “cleansed.”

Known as “Lulu,” the Arabic word for pearl, the roundabout had become a symbol for the uprising.

Photo: Lewa’a Alnasr, CC-BY-SA 3.0

The government-run Bahraini News Agency reported that the roundabout would undergo a “facelift” to “boost flow of traffic.”

The roundabout was dubbed “Martyr’s Square” as a testament to those who died in the uprising. Its destruction was seen as another government tactic to suppress the growing unrest.


April 9, 2011: Arrest of Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja

Continuing the ongoing crackdown against dissent, authorities arrested Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, a Bahraini-Danish human rights activist who is former president and co-founder of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights.

Al-Khawaja was sentenced on June 22, 2011, along with eight other activists, to life imprisonment.

In February 2012, Al-Khawaja started an open-ended hunger strike until “freedom or death.” The strike lasted for 110 days, and resulted in his being force-fed by authorities. Al-Khawaja’s daughter, Maryam, is now acting president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights.

Below is an animation of Al-Khawaja’s story by Front Line Defenders.

Video: Front Line Defenders

November 2011: Bassiouni Commission Report Released

The Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry released a much-anticipated report investigating the allegations of human rights abuses stemming from the February 2011 uprising. Professor M. Cherif Bassiouni, who previously investigated war crimes in Libya and Bosnia for the United Nations, led the commission.

Among some of the findings in the 500 page report:

The Commission finds that 13 civilians died during the relevant period [Feb. 14-April 15, 2011] and these deaths have been attributed to Security Forces…five persons allegedly died as a result of torture (pg. 223)
The Commission received a total of 1,624 complaints from individuals alleging that they had been dismissed or suspended from employment as a result of the events of February/March 2011 (pg. 331)
…the Commission has received anecdotal evidence suggesting that government representatives directly encouraged companies to dismiss employees suspected to be involved in the events of February/March 2011 (pg. 353)
Shia employees were often treated differently from similarly-situated employees who were not Shia, thus creating a reasonable presumption that many were subjected to discrimination. This is the case especially in circumstances where the employer admitted not dismissing Sunni employees who had been absent during the events of February/March 2011 (pg. 354)
…there is no doubt that what occurred in February/March, and subsequently, was the result of an escalating process in which both the Government and the opposition have their share of responsibility in allowing events to unfold as they did (pg. 415)
Between 21 March and 15 April 2011, security forces systematically raided houses in order to arrest individuals, and in so doing terrified the occupants. These arrests were performed during the night and in pre-dawn raids by hooded persons, who intentionally broke down doors, forcibly entered and sometimes ransacked the houses (pg. 419)

The full report can be found here.

Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa promised sweeping reforms the day the report was released, though most of the changes have yet to appear.


2012 | Protests continue

March 9, 2012: Thousands March Against the Bahraini Government

The largest protest in the history of Bahrain took place in Manama.

Estimations of the number of protesters range between 100,000–250,000, a considerable amount in a country of less than 600,000 citizens.

The protest was held ahead of the Formula 1 Grand Prix events as demonstrators called for the cancellation of the race, which was initially to take place on March 13. The government claimed that the Bahraini unrest had subsided and that the race would still go on as planned in April.

An online campaign to cancel the race began as activists put together this simulated video, with protesters stopping the race cars at the end of the track.

Despite international calls for the race to be canceled due to growing concern over human rights violations, the race went on as planned.


2013 | Two years on, an uprising continues

February 13, 2013: Protests Erupt Ahead of Two Year Anniversary

Thousands protested against the regime as the second anniversary of the uprising loomed.

This video shows a protest in the town of Sanabis.

On the anniversary, clashes between protesters and security forces grew violent.


2014 | Cracking down on dissent

August 30, 2014: Maryam Al-Khawaja Arrested

Bahraini-Danish rights activist Maryam Al-Khawaja is arrested upon arriving in Bahrain.

Photo: Bahrain Center for Human Rights

It was a risky trip — Al-Khawaja was set to visit her ailing father, imprisoned human rights activist and dissident Abdulhadi Al-Khawaja, who was on a hunger strike to protest his arrest.

She was released on September 18, 2014.

Later that year, Maryam Al-Khawaja was sentenced in absentia to one year imprisonment on charges related to an alleged assault on a police officer in Bahrain’s airport.

Her sister, Zainab, was also sentenced to three years in prison for various charges, including tearing up a photo of the king.

Photo: Bahrain Center for Human Rights

December 28, 2014: Sheikh Ali Salman Arrested

In another move to suppress dissent, authorities arrested the leader of the Al-Wafeq opposition party, Sheikh Ali Salman, for protesting against the country’s general elections. Salman, a Shia, was a staple of the anti-regime movement and a major opposition figure.

Photo: Al Wafeq Party

His party released a statement that reads in part:

…targeting prominent national leader Shaikh Ali Salman, is a perilous and arbitrary adventure which will seriously complicate the political and security scene in Bahrain.

Angered by his arrest, supporters of Sheikh Ali Salman took to the streets and demanded his release.

He was later charged with attempting to overthrow the government and is currently awaiting sentencing.


2015 | Four years later, activists continue to demand change

January 20, 2015: Nabeel Rajab Arrested

Photo: Nabeel Rajab

Nabeel Rajab, well-known political activist and president of the Bahraini Center for Human Rights, was sentenced to six months in prison over a tweet he posted which was deemed insulting to public institutions.

He posted a photo as he walked to his appeal on February 11, which was eventually postponed until March 2015.

Rights activist Maryam Al-Khawaja, who is no stranger to the crackdown on dissent in Bahraini herself, tweeted:

Previously, Rajab was detained in 2012 for “insulting Bahrainis” on Twitter, and was later sentenced to three years imprisonment on protest charges.


January 31, 2015: 72 Bahrainis Stripped of Citizenship

Citing the responsibility of Bahraini citizens “to act in ways that do not harm the interests of the Kingdom,” the government stripped 72 people of their citizenship.

The 72 names were listed in a press release on a government websites, and included several journalists and bloggers.

The move was widely-criticized and circulated by rights groups.


February 9, 2015: Bahrain Shuts Down Al-Arab TV

The Bahraini government shut down Saudi-backed Al-Arab TV after the channel featured an opposition leader who criticized the government for stripping dissidents of their nationalities.

The Bahraini Information Affairs Agency released an official statement, saying that the channel was shut down because it lacked the necessary permits. They also stated that the channel “failed to match the standards of regional and international practice agreement.”

The IAA stresses that the decision has no impact upon principles of media freedom and is strictly based on the government’s commitment to ensuring the diversity and impartiality of media outlets in the Kingdom.

As the fourth anniversary of the uprising looms, activists are preparing for another set of protests against the regime.

Protests continued ahead of the anniversary.

One artist, who goes by the pen name Mr. V, created this drawing in commemoration of Bahrain’s uprising.


Compiled by Carmel Delshad, Hagar Shezaf, Ahmed Al Majid and Danna Fakhoury.