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Bahrain, Where Every Day Is a Friday
by Tarek Abd al-Hayy
Manama -- At the airport in Manama, there are fewer passengers than usual. Most of the flights are operated by airlines from the Gulf -- Qatar Airways, Emirates, and Oman Air. It is clear that international airlines have reduced their trips to Manama in the wake of ongoing unrest. Inside the building, which is beyond luxurious, the entry procedures are quite methodical. Bahrainis are asked where they live, foreigners about the purpose of their visit. Here, everyone is welcome -- except the media.
Half an hour on the streets of Manama is enough to break the barrier of fear. At first, things appear deceptively quiet: high-rise buildings, seven-plus-star hotels, and shopping malls are scattered across the cityscape. But everyone in the city is prepared to speak about the uprising. Some blame the regime, its security forces, and Saudi Arabia, while others praise the King and the Saudis and blame an Iranian conspiracy attempting to annex Bahrain. But they all agree on one thing: Bahrain is not Egypt, Libya, or Syria.
Everyday life in Manama is tense. You can see the effects on people's faces, in luxury and popular shopping areas and cafes, among students, employees, and merchants. Their faces communicate uncertainty about the country's situation, seemingly saying, "What is happening in our country, until when and where to?" They might also wonder why Arab TV channels have not carried news from Bahrain. A young activist says that some media outlets sent teams to Manama, but the authorities asked them to leave when the crisis began in the middle of February. Coverage in other countries has also been scarce, because many Arab leaders are aligned with the Bahraini regime. The activist adds, "If you want to follow news of Bahrain, you watch Syrian TV, which is now interested in the country because of Bahrain's position on the violence in Syria."
Many Arabs hold their largest protests on Fridays, but the people of Bahrain come out in force every day of the week and at any time of day. Close to Martyrs Square Bridge, opposition forces are preparing to move. They call this protest "The Flood of Manama." Someone in a car approaches and tells us to go to February 14 Street, named after the revolution. Hours pass and the flood begins, but the international media barely mentions the event.
Near the destroyed Pearl Roundabout, now called the "Bahraini Tahrir Square," the atmosphere is extremely tense. For days now, protesters accused of provoking violence have been receiving harsh sentences. Medics are charged with tending to wounded protesters and threatened with arrest. A doctor sentenced for 15 years to jail says, "When I was under arrest, they made me sign a confession titled 'The Doctors' Conspiracy to Overthrow the Regime.'"
In the corridors of a Manama hospital, a nurse discusses the arrest of Dr. Ali al-Ikri, who volunteered to go to Gaza during the Israeli aggression in 2008. His participation in humanitarian activities was enough reason for the authorities to accuse him of receiving weapons training while he was in Palestinian territories.
The Pearl Roundabout is truly the center of Manama. Built in the eighties as a symbol of the Gulf Cooperation Council, its monument was shaped like a handgun with a pearl in the middle representing Bahrain. The roundabout is the crossroads where all the country's roads meet. To the east, there is the popular central market and to the west is City Center Mall. The police station is at the southern edge of the roundabout and monitors all movements in the area. Bahrainis recall that, in the fifties, the first protest movement in the country began at the same location. At the time, it resulted in elections for the Committee for National Unity.
The roundabout has become a focal point for the regime's security forces. If two cars stop at the same time, officers become nervous and aggressively ask the drivers why they have stopped. But from the ruins of Pearl Square, it appears that the revolution is about to rise again, despite the frenzied proliferation of Gulf security forces. Something about people's movements suggests a return to the vigorous activity of the first days of the revolution.
It is strange to hear the different accents and languages spoken by security forces here -- some Saudi, Yemeni, Jordanian, Egyptian, Pakistani, Indian, and Afghani. Activists say there are very few Bahraini security officers, which led King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa's regime to grant citizenship to many foreigners in order to secure a protection force for the regime.
There are others at the roundabout who enthusiastically support the security forces. One man says, "The protesters came here with swords and poisoned daggers. Their aim was to built a Shiite state"; and he believes "the doctors and nurses in Salmaniya Hospital joined the protests because they are sectarian." He claims to be an eyewitness and insists that he is "exposing terrorists with aims to spread the influence of Iran in Arabia."
The City Center Mall is another prominent feature on the streets Manama. Though from the outside it appears no different from any other shopping center, its pillars and windows have witnessed protests beginning from within the building and ending with the brutality of security forces. Inside the premises, groups of people are closely monitored by building security. If a few individuals gather on any floor, security officers rush toward them, along with men wearing dark clothes -- members of another security outfit. The officers would beat and arrest everyone, with no regard for gender. Those arrested are then piled on top of each other, in scenes similar to those from Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq. The detainees are then transported to security centers for processing and whatever else happens behind the secrecy of those walls.
This article was first published in Al-Akhbar English on 9 October 2011 under a Creative Commons license. Read it in Arabic at <www.al-akhbar.com/node/22978>.