Bahrain’s monarchy has executed a bloody crackdown on anti-government protests in recent weeks, delivering a final blow Friday by dismantling the opposition movement’s most powerful symbol, a pearl at the center of Pearl Square in Manama. The state-controlled Bahrain News Agency called the change a “facelift” designed to “boost the flow of traffic.”
The destruction of the monument is not the only tactic being used to suppress dissent in Bahrain, a collection of islands off the coast of the Arabian Peninsula with just over a million inhabitants. In an early morning raid Thursday, government security forces swept up seven prominent opposition activists and whisked them to a secret detention facility, refusing to tell their families where they would be held or why they were being detained.
The son of one of those opposition leaders — Ebrahim Sharif Al Sayed, head of the secular National Democratic Action Society — described the circumstances of his father’s arrest in an interview Friday with Need to Know. Sharif Al Sayed, a 19-year-old student at the University of Michigan, said his father had been taken away in a car at about 2 a.m. Thursday morning, after a band of government loyalists surrounded his house and pointed a gun in his face.
“They were wearing plainclothes and they had their faces covered,” Sharif said. “They looked like thugs. They didn’t have any official uniforms or anything.”
The account of the elder Al Sayed’s arrest was relayed by Sharif’s mother, who was in the house at the time of the incident. The family was awoken in the middle of the night by the sound of about 40 men outside the gate, some of whom had scaled a wall surrounding the property. They were not dressed in official uniforms, and Sharif’s mother suspects they may have been “thugs” loyal to the government. “At this point, my parents still have no idea who these people are,” Sharif said.
After one of the men pointed a gun in the face of the elder Al Sayed, he spoke with two security service officials who were apparently the leaders of the armed gang. Sharif’s mother could only hear snippets of the conversation. “What she understood from what happened is that they wanted to interrogate my father,” Sharif said. “He calmly went with these men, and they put him in the car and they went.”
The armed men who remained behind refused to answer questions about where Al Sayed was being taken, despite his wife’s repeated pleas. They joked that Al Sayed was being taken to a mall in Manama, the capital city, and that his wife should call there for information about his whereabouts. “They laughed her off,” Sharif said.
The family later learned through intermediaries that Al Sayed was being held in a government “investigations building,” and that he was reportedly being treated well. “We still cannot get in contact with him,” Sharif said. “We see this as a violation of basic human rights.”
The Bahrain government has apparently accused Al Sayed and the other opposition activists of inciting violence that led to the “killing of citizens and the destruction of public and private property,” according to Human Rights Watch. The government has also called the activists “leaders of the sedition ring who had called for the downfall of the regime and had intelligence contacts with foreign countries.”
That, Sharif said, is most likely a reference to Iran, which has encouraged the protests in Bahrain as a way of asserting its influence. Bahrain is led by an elite Sunni minority, and the protests have been fueled in part by Shiites clamoring for equal rights. A prominent Sunni cleric in Bahrain dismissed the uprising Friday as the work of “a sect, assisted by foreign sides.”
Part of what Al Sayed was advocating for, Sharif acknowledged, was equal rights for the Shia majority. But the party he leads, the National Democratic Action Society, is a secular party that advocates mostly for constitutional reforms.
“This is not a group that professes supremacy for any one religion,” Sharif said. “This group tries to encompass everybody, and is trying to bring more justice to Bahrain, and more transparency in how the government is handled.”
At the time of the protests, Al Sayed was calling only for an open dialogue with the government, rather than the downfall of the monarchy. “Even in the middle of the protests, when these groups had the most support, my father and his political party did not take a hardliner stance,” Sharif said. “They took a moderate stance, and they were trying to convince the protesters that dialogue with the government was probably the best option.”
For now, the brutal repression of Bahrain’s popular uprising seems to have quashed any hope of serious reform. Sharif, for his part, said he hoped the change his father was fighting for was still possible.
“I still have faith that we can make something out of all this violence,” Sharif said. “All the deaths that both sides have suffered, they don’t have to be in vain. We can still make Bahrain a better place.”