Bahrain: Martial Law Is Lifted, but the Veneer of Calm Proves Easily Broken

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Mazen Mahdi / EPA

Mourners carry the body of 63-year-old Bahraini protester, Salman Isa abo Idreas, as they march during a funeral procession in Manama, Bahrain, June 3, 2011.

By lifting its 13-week martial law decree on Wednesday, Bahrain's government meant to signal the end of a violent crackdown against its Shi'ite opposition — and show a nervous international business community that normality had been restored in the embattled island nation. Instead, however, the day was marked by tear gas attacks on peaceful protesters in the Shi'ite enclave of Sitra. They continued on Thursday and Friday with government forces firing tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters marching on the site of the torn-down Pearl roundabout, as activists elsewhere were called into police stations to face charges of anti-government activity.

Most prominent Shi'ite activists are either missing or behind bars, leaving those remaining to protest the government's attempt to paint a patina of normality over the turmoil that has engulfed the country since February. "Bahrain's not going to go back to normal; that's not going to happen anytime soon," says Joost Hiltermann, deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa at the International Crisis Group. "The lifting of emergency law is done to placate international opinion, which has been very harmful to the business climate in the country."

Maryam al-Khawaja, head of the foreign relations office at the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, says the crackdown will continue even as the country reopens for business. "Things are not going to change... the [lifting of] martial law is just the government realizing that they need to save some of their tarnished international image."

The biggest reason the regime is looking to quickly restore its tarnished reputation is to ensure that the Bahrain leg of the Formula 1 Grand Prix — arguably the most high-profile international event on the country's calendar — is held later this year. The auto race was supposed to have been held in March, but was postponed as a result of the turmoil. On Friday, the world motor sport's governing body, the FIA, announced it would restore the race to this year's calendar. FIA chief Bernie Ecclestone had told CNN earlier this week, "If it's safe and everything is good, then I think the teams will be happy to support it." In a statement, the FIA said that their decision "reflects the spirit of reconciliation in Bahrain, which is evident from the strong support the race receives from the government and all major parties in Bahrain, including the largest opposition group."

The F1 showpiece isn't the only reason the regime is trying to portray a restoration of normality. Bahrain's role as the Middle East epicenter for foreign investment banking has been threatened by the defection of nervous Western expats and a decrease in foreign investment since violence erupted in downtown's Pearl roundabout in February, and Saudi tanks arrived to violently suppress protests. "A lot of banks are thinking of leaving and relocating, so they have been really worried," Hiltermann says. "Keeping martial law in place is not good for business or for its image. [Bahrain's] reputation has taken a hit and they want to overcome that as much as they can."

Bahrain's Crown Prince, Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa, said in a statement Tuesday that military forces had begun withdrawing from the streets of Manama. "As a nation, we face several challenges ahead as we seek to address issues of concern, while continuing efforts to prevent extremism and sectarianism taking hold in Bahrain," he said. "We are seeking to fairly balance out the need to maintain law and order with the desire for freedoms. This will require responsible actions on both sides. Alongside this, the government will be seeking to address key areas where recent events have shown a need for investigation, accountability and change."

His father, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, said that national dialogue would commence at the beginning of July, "a process that will involve all sections of society, will be fully inclusive and allow the people of Bahrain to participate in their vision for country's future." In his May 19 Middle East policy speech, President Obama had directly addressed himself to Bahrain's rulers, warning that "you can't have a real dialogue when parts of the peaceful opposition are in jail."

The weeks preceding the announcement lifting martial law saw a stepped up effort to silence voices of dissent. Under martial law, the state was legally able to detain citizens for what it deemed anti-government activity, and to try them in closed military courts. At least four Shi'ites have been sentenced to death, accused of injuring or killing police officers. Nabeel Rajab, the outspoken president of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, was finally brought in for interrogation last week, as was Mazen Mahdi, one of few Bahraini journalists still allowed to work. MP Matar Ibrahim Matar, considered a friend of the opposition Wefaq movement and arrested in early May, was finally allowed to call home this week, though he remains in jail. Ali al-Salman, Wefaq's head, told Reuters that his organization was not against the regime, signaling that the opposition that has finally bowed to government pressure.

"The government escalated and continued with oppressive measures to stamp out any opposition before the lifting of martial law," says Shadi Hamid, research director at the Brookings Doha Institute. "There are these last pockets of dissent that are now being crushed. Everyone's been silenced." The Human Rights Center's al-Khawaja says hers was the last group left to speak out — "everyone else has been captured or is in hiding abroad." Her sister, Zainad, became one of the country's most famous female activists when she staged a hunger strike following the arrests of her father, brother, husband and uncle. On Thursday, she headed to the police station for a final summons.

Even with the lifting of martial law, as reports of torture continue to pour out of Manama, it remains to be seen how Bahrain will deal with the leaders and activists still awaiting persecution. "They won't have the trappings now that will allow them to try people in military courts," Hiltermann says. "But they can still bring people in, intimidate them, cow them. There's a lot of things you can do under regular law. The question to me is whether the people who were charged under martial law will still be tried in these courts after the law is lifted. That will tell us much about how the government intends to go forward with this."