On a warm October night in suburban Manama, the capital of Bahrain, families gathered at a revamped office block. They were there to tour the labyrinth of simulated explosions, wax corpses, and interactive torture chambers in the so-called "Museum of Revolution"—an exhibition set up by members of the opposition to showcase the nastier realities of an uprising and crackdown that's consumed the island for more than two and a half years.
The unrest began in Feburary of 2011, when protesters who were inspired by the Arab Spring in Tunisia and Egypt gathered in villages around Manama to call for greater political freedom and equality for the Shia population. The regime, headed by the Bahraini royal family, responded with force—in one bloody predawn raid on an encampment of protesters, the police killed four people and injured around 300. That in turn led to more calls for reform and for an end to the monarchy. By March of 2013, 122 protesters had been killed according to some estimates, and an unknown number had been imprisoned and tortured for taking part in antigovernment actions.
"We're not trying to frighten people, and this isn't a matter for entertainment," explained one of the exhibition wardens though his balaclava, donned to re-enact interrogation scenes for the audience. "We just want the world to know the reality of the crackdown that the Bahraini people are experiencing every day."
Less than 24 hours after my visit, the museum's contents were seized in a raid by police. The crackdown was part of a police raid on the premises of Al Wefaq, Bahrain's largest authorized opposition group (political parties that oppose the regime are generally banned in the country). The government claimed the exhibition was "inciting hatred" and later summoned the head of the society, Sheikh Ali Salman, to answer accusations that he was insulting the authorities.
After a six-hour interrogation, an official statement indicted Salman with "denigrating and disparaging the Interior Ministry." In response to the crackdown on the museum, Al Wefaq said it would file a complaint to the UN special rapporteur for freedom of expression.
The raid came during the same week that the government and the opposition—including Al Wefaq—were supposed to resume a conciliatory "national dialogue." Originally opened in February of this year, the long-awaited talks were going to jumpstart a reform program conceived of by the Sunni royal family in response to the civil unrest. But after seven months, the process has yielded far more discord than discourse.
The talks came to a standstill in September, when opposition societies pulled out in protest at the arrest of Al Wefaq's assistant secretary general, Khalil al Marzooq. After he spent 38 days in jail on charges of inciting violence and terrorism, the former member of parliament was released in late October to await a hearing scheduled for Novermber 18.
"The whole case against me is fundamentally political," Marzooq said shortly after his release. "The regime has not seriously represented any of our demands in the dialogue. They are simply playing with us for time and using the process to deflect criticism."
The charges against Salman and Marzooq, who resigned from parliament following the regime violence in early 2011, reflect the reported escalation in rates of imprisonment, harsh sentences, and other injustices since the "dialogue" started. Despite some police reforms ennacted last year, the crackdown has continued, and the country's rulers have continued to indefinitely postpone a visit from the UN special rapporteur for torture.
The Bahraini authorities have also continued to fortify the island nation against the foreign media, refusing entry to reporters and repeatedly deporting and detaining international news crewswhile simultaneously paying tens of millions of dollars to Western PR firms to spruce up the regime's reputation abroad. Many Bahraini journalists and bloggers have been driven underground or into exile, tortured, or imprisoned. Human Rights Watch has documented the ongoing arrest and detention of children, many of whom endure horrific conditions while in jail.
The government has also come under criticism for its liberal use of tear gas, with Bahrain boasting the highest tear gas use per capita in the world. The substance has been responsible for the bulk of casualties incurred during the ongoing civil unrest, and this month a leaked document revealed the Ministry of the Interior’s plans to import some 1.6 million canisters of the gas—for comparison, there are only about 1.3 million people on the island. According to the opposition, the continued severity of the security forces' actions demonstrate just how insincere the government's overtures toward "dialogue" are.
"Nothing has seriously changed in the attitude of the authorities," says Marzooq, whose arrest came after a speech in which he promoted a nonviolent approach among more radical young protestors. "They are dealing with people with no mercy… Those who carry out explosions and other violent acts in the name of protest are the enemies of the Bahraini people and of the revolution. But there is no way that people can conduct a dialogue under this kind of threat."
In the Shia villages around the capital, the sense of siege is palpable. Nightly protests persist, while tear gas, tire-burning, and Molotov cocktails are fixtures of daily life. On a drive around Sitra, one of the centers of the uprising, an activist pointed me to the swathes of graffiti. Slogans such as "Down with the king" and "Here lie the martyrs" are gradually being replaced with more extreme calls for the death of the monarchy and the rejection of mainstream opposition parties like Al Wefaq.
“People have become more radicalized,” explains Marzooq. “Many will no longer accept reform [that leaves the existing political order intact]; they will be satisfied only with a republic.”
Government ministers have called—apparently without irony—for a "renunciation of violence" by all sides, claiming that talks can only proceed from consensus around the "rejection of sectarianism, hate speech and exclusion." Similarly, the official charter for the national dialogue,describes one of its primary purposes as "building new communication bridges between all parties and… repairing demolished relations."
The appointment of the more reform-minded crown prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa as deputy prime Minister shortly after talks opened in March this year raised hopes among many—including opposition members like Marzooq—that some kind of progress was on the way. Al-Khalifa, whose moderate influence was welcomed as a counter to his uncle Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, the hard-line prime minister, has since acknowledged that his country’s problems stem, in part, from a "political issue."
Echoing his line, other government officials have insisted that "the only way for all the parties is through dialogue." And Bahrain’s Western allies have reiterated their support for the supposed reform efforts, most recently in last month’s meeting between the crown prince and UK Foreign Secretary William Hague. However, with literal walls being built to segregate Shia and Sunni communities in some neighborhoods, and with the government continuing to target moderate opposition leaders with arrests and prosecutions, skepticism is the dominant mood.
"I can’t see any positive signs of progress in Bahrain at the moment," said Toby Matthiesen, a research fellow at the University of Cambridge and author of a recent book on Arab Spring–related uprisings in the Gulf region. "The hardliners in the ruling family have got the upper hand again and there hasn't been adequate pressure on the Saudis to do anything differently. The international community hasn't taken much action on Bahrain, and I can’t see that changing."
Matthiesen still has some hope in the predominantly peaceful character of the uprising. "It is important to see that the conflict has not gone down a really violent path," he told me. "After two and half years, it could have become a sectarian civil war, but it is quite remarkable that the opposition has largely decided not to use violence."
In a growing climate of antagonism and insecurity, the primary aim now is getting the various parties to the same table, but—for the moment—that's looking increasingly unlikely. "The environment now is not at all conducive to dialogue," said Matthiesen. "The targeting of Al Wefaq in recent weeks is really worrying. They have given reasonable demands so far, but there is no way they will agree to be arrested in the morning and go to dialogue in the afternoon."