The streets of Bahrain swelled with protesters, so numerous that the security forces could not contain them with their firearms and tear gas. They poured in from every town and village and marched to the capital, Manama, where they defiantly chanted “Tamorrod!” It seemed that all of Bahrain was there. Their united voice could not be suppressed, and the government was forced to stare the reform movement in the eye.
That at least was the vision of the leadership of the Tamorrod – Rebellion – movement . At a Beirut press conference on 7 August, spokesperson Hussain Yousif called on the people to “break the prestige of the tyrannical and tribal state and their repressive tools. It will be of the people for the people: such will be Tamorrod Bahrain.” Inspired by Egypt’s movement by the same name which played a part in the ousting of President Mohammed Morsi, Tamorrod was called for 14 August, the day on which Bahrain secured its independence from the UK.
The protests were meticulously planned. On 12 August, there was a marked decrease in the incidence of small-scale protests, in line with a direct request from the Tamarrod leaders to suspend protests in the days leading up to August 14. The police set up new checkpoints at roads leading into Manama. One Bahraini described the atmosphere as the “calm before the storm”.
But the storm never materialised. The people did not come out in the numbers Tamorrod had hoped for, and even had they the razor wire barricades that stood at the mouth of every village would have had to be overcome. There were some small scale protests, the police threw tear gas and shot at some protesters, and in Shia villages, shops stayed shut. It was not a normal day by any means, but nor was it particularly memorable.
However, despite Tamarrod’s failure to muster the street on its side, 14 August is still a watershed moment in Bahrain’s unravelling political drama. The opposition failed to mobilise, but the threat of Tamorrod – which, had it lived up to its own expectations, would have been the biggest protest march this year – gave the Bahraini government the justification it needed to further empower its security apparatus and grant it sweeping powers not seen since the National Safety Law of 2011, an emergency law in everything but name.
The holy month of Ramadan fell in July and early August this year. Usually a passive month where few possess the energy required for any concerted effort, this year the police kept themselves busy: at least 200 arbitrary arrests occurred according to Bahraini monitors. Amongst those arrested was Mohammed Hassan, a citizen journalist, and his lawyer, who was detained after tweeting that his defendant had been tortured.
In late July, an emergency meeting of Parliament was convened where 22 recommendations for new laws were made to the King. Since the King does not need Parliamentary approval or consultation to pass decree laws it is difficult to see the event as anything other than an attempt to paint a democratic veneer over a decision taken by executive fiat.
Amongst the recommendations were bans on demonstrations in Manama and the revocation of citizenship for anyone convicted of terrorism offences – many activists and opponents of the state are being charged with these offences, even though in many cases their offence related to their exercising their right to free speech or assembly. The King duly accepted these recommendations and passed them back to the government for implementation as decree laws.
Most of the recommendations are either being codified into law or are in the process of implementation. Amongst them is the blanket ban of demonstrations in the capital and a newly legalised form of collective punishment: the father of an under-16 protester can now be fined, jailed or both for the actions of his son.
Will the extension of repressive powers end there? Jordanian and Pakistani police detachments have been brought into Bahrain to help quell the Tamorrod protests. With hindsight, their deployment was probably overkill, but it is not yet clear whether they constitute a temporary or permanent increase in security personnel. Similarly unclear is the permanence of new blockades: cement blocks and barbed wire now close many entrances in and out of Shi’a villages, giving the police control over the movements of activists and general Bahrainis alike. Increasing usage of police cameras at these checkpoints also serve to increase state monitoring of potential trouble makers. The message is clear: opposition to the state, no matter how great or small, is a crime.
And opposition will in all likelihood be small from now. Manama is currently a demonstration-free zone, and if protesters cannot march on government buildings, they can be more easily ignored. The individual villages are contained too, so that protest marches cannot generate momentum. Will Bahrain ever again see tens of thousands marching in unison for reform, such as it saw in 2011? That’s what Tamorrod was meant to be, after all. But not only did it fail to muster the streets, to shout and be heard by the Government and its international allies, it also served as just the opportunity the Bahraini state needed to make sure that no large-scale protest movement could be organised again.
Things have not been plain sailing for the government though: shops closed in all the Shi’a villages and the Manama shopping centres were quiet that day, despite the Prime Minister’s visits to some of them in the morning to promote the narrative of business as usual. If effective suppression comes at the cost of commercial paralysis, prolonged civil conflict hurts all of Bahrain’s people in the long run. Such a burden may only be overcome with political settlement.