Jihan Kazerooni and I drove past scores of armed riot police on Budaiya highway as her iPhone buzzed non-stop: phone calls, Skype calls and, incessantly, Twitter. I had wondered what the phrase “Twitter revolution” really meant when I heard it used in connection with Iran in 2009 and Egypt in 2011. Here, in the small Gulf Kingdom of Bahrain, I was beginning to grasp the concept.
I was in that country for three weeks as a part of the Witness Bahrain initiative, a group of internationals seeking to document and expose human rights abuses perpetrated by the regime against protesters and activists. Aside from brief spurts of coverage, the crisis in Bahrain had largely been ignored by the US media.
Perhaps the lack of coverage of the predominantly Shiite uprising against an increasingly repressive Sunni monarchy can be explained, in part, by this: Washington considers that monarchy its close ally; Bahrain is the home of the Navy’s 5th Fleet, and the beneficiary of US arms sales. Perhaps it has to do with the US-Saudi friendship, and the increasing tension between the United States and Iran. Bahrain has been portrayed as a battleground for influence between neighboring Saudi Arabia (a supporter of the monarchy) and nearby majority Shiite Iran.
Ignoring the revolution underway there and its demands for freedom and democracy is, however, perilous. If activists move from largely peaceful demonstrations toward the use of violence, Bahrain could prove the powder keg that might set the Persian Gulf aflame. Peaceful activists like Jihan currently hold sway, but given the brutality I witnessed, it’s unclear how long the Bahraini revolution will remain nonviolent.
Jihan took me under her wing, introducing me to dozens of Bahrainis who had been directly affected by the regime’s crackdown on the pro-democracy uprising. They were not difficult to find. There was someone in nearly every Shiite family, Jihan’s included, who had been fired from his or her job, arrested, injured or killed. Sunni opposition activists (though much fewer in number) had been harshly targeted as well.
Hitting the Road
Jihan, her hair tucked underneath a brown silk scarf and wearing fashionable sunglasses, opened an app on her phone as we tried to reach the march that had been called by a coalition of opposition parties.
“I’ll tweet that I am here in Budaiya Road, and there are no checkpoints in the area, but there are lots of riot police.” A new tweet came through before Jihan could finish composing hers. She scanned it quickly as she skillfully guided her car around a traffic circle. “Okay. The attack started,” she said. “It’s just at the next roundabout. We might be able to see it from the car.” Jihan rolled down the window. “Can you smell the tear gas?” she asked, began coughing, and immediately rolled her window up again.