MANAMA, Bahrain — The battle began soon after sundown. And for the next six hours, in air heavy with heat and tear gas, phalanxes of police officers in helmets battled scores of youths in ski masks, as customers at a Costa Coffee not far away sat like spectators.
No one won in the clashes, which erupt almost every night in this Persian Gulf state. Five months after the start of a ferocious crackdown against a popular uprising — so sweeping it smacks of apartheidlike repression of Bahrain’s religious majority — many fear that no one can win
“This is all cutting so deep,” said Abdulnabi Alekry, an activist whose car was stopped at one of the checkpoints of trash bins, wood and bricks the youth had fashioned during the clash in August. “The fabric here was never that strong, and now it is torn.”
In the revolts that have roiled the Middle East this year, toppling or endangering a half-dozen leaders, Bahrain, an island kingdom once best known for its pearls and banks, has emerged as the cornerstone of a counterrevolution to stanch demands for democracy. While the turmoil elsewhere has proved unpredictable — the ascent of Islamists in Egypt, the threat of civil war in Syria and the prospect of anarchy in Yemen — Bahrain suggests that the alternative, a failed uprising cauterized by searing repression, may prove no less dangerous.
The crackdown here has won a tactical and perhaps ephemeral victory through torture, arrests, job dismissals and the blunt tool of already institutionalized discrimination against the island’s Shiite Muslim majority. In its wake, sectarian tension has exploded, economic woes have deepened, American willingness to look the other way has cast Washington as hypocritical and a society that prides itself on its cosmopolitanism is colliding with its most primordial instincts. Taken together, the repression and warnings of radicalization may underline an emerging dictum of the Arab uprisings: violence begets violence.
“The situation is a tinderbox, and anything could ignite it at any moment,” said Ali Salman, the general secretary of Al Wefaq, Bahrain’s largest legal opposition group. “If we can’t succeed in bringing democracy to this country, then our country is headed toward violence. Is it in a year or two years? I don’t know. But that’s the reality.”
For decades, Bahrain’s relative openness and entrenched inequality have made it one of the Arab world’s most restive countries, as a Shiite majority numbering as much as 70 percent of the population seeks more rights from a Sunni monarchy that conquered the island in the 18th century. But February was a new chapter in the struggle, when the reverberations of Egypt and Tunisia reached Bahrain and, after bloody clashes, protesters seized a landmark known as Pearl Square, where they stayed for weeks.
The toll of the ensuing repression was grim: in a country of about 525,000 citizens, human rights groups say 34 people were killed, more than 1,400 people were arrested, as many as 3,600 people were fired from their jobs and four people died in custody after torture in what Human Rights Watch called “a systematic and comprehensive crackdown to punish and intimidate government critics and to end dissent root and branch.”
Activists trade stories of colleagues forced to eat feces in prison and high-ranking Shiite bureaucrats compelled to crawl in their offices like infants. Human rights groups say 43 Shiite mosques and religious structures were destroyed or damaged by a government that contended that it faced an Iranian-inspired plot, without offering any evidence that Tehran played a role. Backed by the armed intervention of Saudi Arabia, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa declared martial law in March, and though it was repealed June 1, the reverberations of the repression still echo across the island.
“They told me, ‘There are two ways we can deal with you — as a human or as an animal,’ ” Matar Matar, 45, recalled being told after he was arrested by men in civilian clothes in May and jailed for three months.
It mattered little, Mr. Matar said, that he was a popular former lawmaker, or a father of two. Beaten twice, he spent half the time in solitary confinement in a windowless room. He often heard the screams of others.
From the time of Mr. Matar’s arrest to his release on Aug. 7, the ferocity of the crackdown eased, though it remains pronounced. Despite government promises to return people to work, no one has given Mohammed al-Hamad his job back at the Bahrain Islamic Bank, where he worked for four years until he was fired March 31 for “bad behavior.”
“Any Shiite in Bahrain knows he’s targeted,” Mr. Hamad said. Just last month, 18 professors were fired from Bahrain University. Predictably, all were Shiite. “It was meant to frighten us, scare us and intimidate us,” said Abdulla Alderazi, secretary general of the Bahrain Human Rights Society and one of the 18. “But we can’t be intimidated anymore. That’s it. Enough is enough.”
Even amid the crackdown, officials insist that Bahrain remains a democratic country adhering to, in the words of Abdulla al-Buainain, a judge, the “rule of law.” (E-mails to the government information office and a public relations firm hired by Bahrain went unanswered.) But the frustration of Mr. Alderazi is evident across the kingdom. The most despised government figure for Shiites, Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, the king’s 75-year-old uncle and the world’s longest-serving prime minister with four decades in office, has become the center of an attempt at a personality cult; his portraits adorn intersections. “Glory of the nation,” one describes him.
Checkpoints remain around Pearl Square. Its emblematic statue was torn down.
Most dangerous, though, is the exacerbation of sectarian hatred in a country that has never really reconciled the narratives of the Khalifa family’s long-ago conquest. No one claims that Sunnis and Shiites ever lived in harmony here. But the country stands as a singular example of the way venerable distinctions of ethnicity, sect and history can be manipulated in the Arab world, often cynically, in the pursuit of power.
Programs on state-owned television like “The Observer” and “The Last Word” baited activists as traitors and encouraged citizens to inform on one another. Vociferous battles were waged over social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter; boycott lists circulated by e-mail urging Sunnis to avoid Shiite-owned businesses. (Costa Coffee is Shiite-owned and the Starbucks franchises are Sunni-owned, residents said.)
“People are busy fighting each other, getting frightened by each other, forgetting about reform and letting the government and the system have everything,” said Munira Fakhro, a 69-year-old secular Sunni activist. “It’s an old game but it’s still working.”
As the status quo endures — some believe that the king may introduce reforms this month, while others remain skeptical — anger among many Shiites toward American policy has deepened. Though some appreciated President Obama’s criticism of the crackdown in May, many lament what they see as a double standard. In contrast to the treatment of Syria and Libya, they point out, no administration official is calling for sanctions against Bahrain, a country where the United States has its largest regional naval base, for the Fifth Fleet.
“Democracy isn’t only for those countries the United States has a problem with,” said Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. Bahrain was never the stereotypical Persian Gulf confection where skyscrapers make no sense in the expansive desert. By the standards of the gulf region, education came early, and civil society flourished. But since the crackdown, the economy posted an anemic growth rate of 1 percent in the quarter ending in June after shrinking in the previous quarter. International meetings were canceled. So was the Formula One race this year, an event in which many in Bahrain took pride. Crédit Agricole, a French bank, is moving its regional headquarters to Dubai, United Arab Emirates, this year.
The metaphor often used by those who lament the splintered society is fabric, as in torn, tattered and frayed.
“You know how it is,” said a 25-year-old protester named Hassan, who was arrested for demonstrating in June and whose last name is being withheld for his safety. “When you cut off hope, you leave no alternative.”
“Show me your beautiful face,” Hassan quoted a police officer as telling him before punching it three times. He said others joined in, beating him “as if eating cake.” He keeps a picture of one of those officers on his cellphone, as a reminder.
“There’s no other choice but violence,” he said. “We can’t back down.”