Many Bahrainis noticed a very different manner in which the recent 14 February rioting was policed.
During major bouts of rioting during 2013, for those of us who lived near village hotspots, we usually had to endure a whole weekend of being cut off from the outside world, due to burning tyres, roadblocks and substantial numbers of rioters out on the streets.
Significant areas of Bahrain; Sitra, Aali, Saar… felt like they had been abandoned to their fate. The security forces mainly withdrew from these areas and only intervened if events got out of hand.
No attempts were made to unblock roads and clear away piles of rubbish, burnt tyres and tree stumps until the rioting came to a halt; so that civilians could leave their homes for essential supplies, get their children to school or getting to work.
February 2014 was very different.
Prior to February 14, rioters spent the evening building large roadblocks and preparing for three days of violence and unrest.
However, by mid-morning that Friday, police convoys had demolished almost all of the roadblocks. Large quantities of materials for blocking roads had been removed including bricks, dumpsters, large water tanks and nail boards; and through an assertive police presence, most rioters had returned to their homes.
And despite vandals’ attempts at rebuilding these roadblocks, security forces could be seen continuously clearing the roads and removing debris. For ordinary Bahrainis the difference was huge. Instead of being stuck inside our homes all weekend we were able to go about our business as normal.
It was Valentine’s Day, so restaurants and public places were crowded with people out enjoying themselves. For some people, venturing out on such an evening would have been unthinkable or impossible a year ago.
The police didn’t achieve this through violence, or smothering everyone in tear gas. They maintained order through a carefully-planned campaign, and a proportionate response to all attempts at violent rioting and vandalizing the streets.
The opposition was given the chance to stage organized, licensed protest rallies, which were also sensitively policed; despite the inevitable attempts round the margins to stir up trouble.
This high-profile policing came at a terrible cost; one policeman died in a bomb attack and a colleague was seriously injured. There have been other reports of police being injured after attacks by rioters. This adds to the tally of 10 police killed and over 2,500 injured over three years of unrest; an unacceptable cost.
We have learnt by bitter experience that whenever a protestor has died; (including rioters killed by their own explosives); the opposition have relentlessly exploited this “martyrdom” to incite further unrest.
Assertive, but restrained policing over the past year, particularly over the February 14 weekend, has ensured that hardly anybody has died over this period in direct confrontations with police. Even though, when large numbers of people are put in confrontational situations, occasional tragedies are inevitable; a responsibility which the opposition refuses to shoulder. Tear gas may not be pleasant, but it is a non-lethal means of avoiding police having to carry firearms.
The opposition’s strategy of rioting and roadblocks does nothing to advance their political goals. They are not pressurizing the Government; they are harassing and intimidating ordinary civilians; innocent and peace-loving Bahrainis and non-Bahraini residents.
By ruining the lives of citizens in this way, the direct result of their actions is destroying community relations and increasing sectarian tensions; a terrible cost that Bahrain may have to spend the next generation coming to terms with. The opposition doesn’t recognize this cost, because it doesn’t recognize the existence of those who don’t agree with it.
This is where we are seeing the results of a long process of police reform and training to enable them to appropriately handle civil unrest, as well as new codes of conduct and independent processes of scrutiny to handle complaints of abuse.
However, Bahrain’s problems cannot be solved by better policing. Already this year, boat-loads of weapons smuggled in from Iran have been impounded and several terrorist plots have been thwarted. Elements of the opposition are becoming increasingly militant and have received training and support outside Bahrain.
Now we have got the 14 February anniversary weekend out of the way, the sides have to make renewed attempts at moving the Dialogue forward. Those 12 year-olds out throwing rocks and firebombs at police have to see that there is a political formula for improving their lives.
The religious figures who have routinely legitimized and condoned rioting must stop encouraging violence among the youth on the streets. And the opposition has to recognize that political reform is achieved through returning to Parliament and contesting elections, not by trying to tear apart Bahrain’s system of Constitutional Monarchy.
So we commend the police on their growing capacity to manage unrest and rioting with restraint. We also pass on our sincere regret to them and the families of brave officers who have died in the line of duty. But we hope for a time when they will not be required to fulfil this task.