The Middle East has had its share of volatility over the years, driven by oil, arms, and power—whatever it takes to turn man into a monster. But the recent unrest in Egypt, followed by Tunisia, Yemen, Libya and Bahrain has been one game of Dominoes that we could all have done well without!
Demonstrators in these countries were demanding democratic rights and equal opportunities; a change of leadership perhaps. Freedom from oppression in some cases. All of them shared one thing in common….these unrests were promoted through social networks like Facebook and Twitter. The power of cyberspace cannot be questioned, but what is in question is the true motivation behind all of this.
Bahrain is a haven in the Middle East. It is called the “Pearl of the Gulf” and had been its banking centre for years, before Dubai took over. It is the Formula One capital in the Arab world, the weekend get-away for its Saudi neighbours. It has so much going for itself. And look at it today…..
What started on February 14, 2011, touted as a series of protests for the incarceration of a Professor of Human Rights, turned overnight into a sectarian issue between the ruling Sunni faction and the Shiite masses. Smaller groups of Shiite Bahrainis were easily held back in the villages that surround the capital, Manama, over Monday and Tuesday. Inexplicably, they were all able to gather in Manama on Wednesday, February 16th—late in the evening—so that by the time 3 a.m. on the 17th rolled in, a couple of thousand people were gathered at the Pearl Roundabout. It was then that the security forces let loose, firing tear gas and rubber bullets to scatter the crowd, causing the inevitable chaos and pandemonium.
For a bystander, watching from my balcony, the change in scenario on the morning of February 17th was unsettling. Where a crazy busy highway that runs in front of our home is normally chock-a-block with traffic heading in both directions, there was an eerie emptiness to be seen. The reason soon became evident, as convoys of armoured trucks and tanks came pouring in, headed for the now infamous Pearl Roundabout. I didn’t realise that armoured tanks came in different sizes—not until that morning. It was unnerving, but it was exciting in a bizarre sort of way too. So I rushed out to my balcony, busily photographing the troops, when I noticed a couple of them waving out to me. So here I was, thinking what friendly soldiers we have, and waving right back, when I realised scant minutes later that they were really telling me to stop with the photographs and get my sorry butt back into my home. Whew! Good thing we live on the 12th floor.
For the expatriate community residing in Bahrain, these are uncertain times. While some international employers took precautionary measures to relocate their personnel to safer locations, the local institutions preferred to show solidarity with the system and instructed all their staff to report in to work. Many families are at the brink of relocating the women and children to safer climes. In these “wait and watch” situations, timing is of the ultimate essence. Personally, I would never choose to leave my family behind in such turmoil, even if I am stuck at home, unsure of basic necessities, wondering where and when the next spark will be ignited but, then, that is a personal choice.
A few dead, many injured, countless traumatised….the saga is not over. A second attempt to regroup at the Pearl Roundabout was foiled by the troops the evening of February 18th. The protest has been taken to new heights where demands are driven more by passion and anger than reality. Forgiveness is now a bad word in the dictionary, and revenge and self-righteousness are paramount. Who is right? Those who wield power or those who feel it is misplaced? There are no perfect answers in this less than perfect world. The monarchy does the best it can, given the limitations, but is that ever enough? Is it fair? Depends on whom you ask.
The morning of Saturday, February 19th saw an interesting reversal…tanks have been pulling away from the Pearl Roundabout all morning. They are now sporting the red and white Bahrain flag! The streets are sporting civilian cars again, many of them tooting their horns in support of the Ruler-Army-Country, and the mood appears to be euphoric. Has a compromise of sorts been reached? Is this a strategic move by either party? We are waiting with bated breath to see how it unfolds, because this is not the end, for sure.
As they say in the Arab World…Inshallah. by the grace of God, let there be as happy a resolution as is humanly possible, and let it be soon, for this is surely detrimental to the country and the people who should be proud to call it home.
February 21, 2011….The calm after the storm? While schools still remain closed, the choppers still fly overhead, and traffic still snarls around the Pearl, at least there is now a semblance of normality. As an expatriate born in Bahrain, I can only pray that it turns out well, and in the long term, for the local Bahrainis have shown restraint and the government should obviously be for the people and by the people.
Ritika Malkani is an artist living in Bahrain.
Photo by Rachel Gorski via Creative Commons.