This is the fifth February since the outbreak of unrest on February 14 2011. Here Citizens for Bahrain looks back at what took place on each occasion this date came around.
Why is February 14 special to Bahrain? February 14 is the National Action Charter Day, when 98.4% of eligible voters voted in a referendum for an amendment to the new Constitution in 2001, which gave people further rights and set the cornerstone for democratic progress in the Kingdom. Thus, it is highly unfortunate that opposition forces chose this date to trigger the unrest.
As we shall see below, with each year that has passed, the opposition’s ability to mobilize supporters and challenge the authorities has decreased. Therefore, this February 14 will be a key test as to whether the opposition can still claim to be a significant force with sufficient support to shape events in Bahrain.
February 14; 2011
After the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia, in early February 2011 various Bahraini groups started calling for protests on February 14. Secretary General of Al-Wefaq Islamic Society Ali Salman supported these calls and Ayatollah Isa Qassim proclaimed that a wind of “unstoppable” change was sweeping through the whole region.
Groups like Wa’ad, Haq and Amal also gave their support to the protests and the shadowy “February 14 Coalition” started agitating online in favour of protests. On 14 February itself, protests started in Bahrain, varying in size from tens of people to hundreds of people.
Mainstream opposition groups were calling for reform in the context of Constitutional Monarchy, and many people were articulating socio-economic grievances, while some radical elements were beginning to agitate for violently overthrowing the Monarchy.
Police were deployed across Bahrain, but were largely unprepared to handle such widespread activity. Protestor Ali Al-Mushaime was fatally shot when a rally of around 800 people “attacked a police patrol of eight police officers, using rocks and metal rods”. After police had “exhausted their supply of tear gas and rubber bullets, police resorted to firing one shotgun round”. [BICI Report]
The opposition proclaimed Mushaime to be a ‘martyr’ and as a result, over the coming days protests escalated across Bahrain.
February 14; 2012
After a year of instability and increasingly violent rioting, there were fears that February 14 2012 might set the stage for further escalation. However, after weeks of agitation, the opposition’s attempts to mobilize people for mass protests were remarkably disorganized and the result was a lot smaller than many had anticipated.
The Bahraini security forces had also been through months of retraining in order to better handle social unrest using minimal force and respecting the rule of law. So this anniversary’s protests were in part a testament to their better ability to manage protests, without events getting out of control.
The most prominent figure organizing the protests was Nabeel Rajab, but he failed to get his supporters anywhere near their planned destination of Pearl Roundabout, where many of the previous year’s political activity had been focused.
It’s worth noting that nearly a month later, the opposition organized more rallies, with Ayatollah Isa Qassim ordering people out on the streets. This time the faithful did what they were told and turned out in larger numbers, for rallies that were granted official permission by the Bahraini authorities. However, extensive rioting once again ruined the rallies and one protester was left dead after a tear gas canister hit him on the head.
February 14; 2013
After two years of political unrest, occasional protests were beginning to feel like normality in Bahrain, so the 14 February events seemed somewhat less traumatic this time around.
The three day strike was organized like a military operation, with road-blocking equipment being dropped off around Bahrain and threatening leaflets warning store-holders that they would “suffer the consequences” if shops opened and children being told to stay away from school.
Rioting was even more localized this year, with intense activity being focused against police in the village hotspots. By now, hundreds of police had been hospitalized in increasingly severe violence against the security forces, in the form of firebombs, simple weapons and even makeshift explosives.
But for most of Bahrain, lives went on as normal and untroubled.
February 14; 2014
In early 2014, the Crown Prince met with senior representatives from the major political societies, including leaders from Al-Wefaq and other parts of the opposition, with the aim of re-launching the National Dialogue.
However, instead of engaging in confidence-building measures, the opposition agitated for a “Pride Strike” extending over the 14 February period and forced local shop owners to close their businesses.
In the event, the rioting and rallies organized by the opposition were fairly low level and served to demonstrate how active support for the unrest was declining. The protests around the Grand Prix shortly afterwards were similarly weak.
February 14; 2015
Once again, tensions are relatively high, in the context of the trial of Ali Salman, the Secretary-General of Al-Wefaq, who is charged with inciting violence and other offenses.
Over the past few weeks several policemen have been injured in rounds of localized violence by militants protesting the detention of their leader, so there is a likelihood that the situation may turn ugly around 14 February in certain locations.
However, the opposition’s ability to mobilize supporters has decreased sharply over the past year. After their refusal to participate in the November 2014 parliamentary elections and their failure to enforce a boycott; the opposition will be desperate to show that they can still mount a serious challenge.
Therefore, February 14 2015 will be a key test to see whether the opposition is fading into irrelevance. All sides will be watching carefully to see how events play out.