Several weeks ago, Bahrain began its springtime celebrations. They were reflected in ubiquitous banners, exhibitions, declarations, musical concerts, cultural festivals and workshops, all paid for out of the public coffers. The island country is filled with celebratory receptions for delegations of celebrities (artists, singers, musicians, authors and so on) whose arrival and every movement are hungrily recorded by the cameras. They have come from all over the world to a country whose income depends on the charity of its neighbors. Perhaps most of them had never even heard of Bahrain before. But whether they intend to do so or not, they help to endow a dubious political arrangement with legitimacy.
Bahrain’s main streets and roadways, and all its media outlets, have been crammed with promotional advertisements of various kinds. On the one hand, Bahraini flags flutter across the length of the main highways, alongside old flags for the Formula 1 Grand Prix. The latter, a sporting event followed by millions and one of 19 Grand Prix races held worldwide every year, was recently held for the ninth time in Bahrain, lasted some three days and concluded on April 21. It attracts considerable international attention to Bahrain. The race makes its profits from paid advertisements in host locations, as well as from rights to the TV broadcasts. Meanwhile, it is said that the public treasury must bear $40 million in yearly expenses to keep Bahrain part of the race.
In a similar vein, a campaign of arrests was waged to keep the race secure and to prevent any sign of protests from being noticed, despite the ongoing, daily clashes. In response, the opposition announced, in its words, a “grass-roots” political escalation which included organizing protest marches and vigils. The February 14 Youth Coalition also announced it would be organizing activities that it termed “Flaming Volcanoes.” These were held all along the main roads overlooking the areas and villages where protests were being held, so that visiting tourists were able to see the metal fence constructed by the security authorities to wall off these areas, as well as the concrete barriers and constant security patrols around the entrances to residential towns and main areas. These were offset by other barriers erected by the populace — barriers that consisted of pieces of stone, refuse bins, palm tree trunks, and some bits of furniture, wood and the like. There were also flaming tires that young protesters had placed to block the main roads and those leading into their villages.
Violent skirmishes continued between youths throwing stones and Molotov cocktails on the one hand, and armed police force members firing heavy, indiscriminate barrages of tear gas and shotgun cartridges on the other. In addition to the human victims, some locals complained about the deaths of some of their farms’ livestock and birds, and damage to their crops. People's way of life in Bahrain has changed drastically, lending a surreal atmosphere to the country’s political climate. Pictures are frantically plastered in every corner, atop street lights on the highway leading to the racetrack, in malls, on the facades of public facilities, both inside and outside, in schools, hospitals and elsewhere. And they all bear the same message: “The country is just fine.”
Is the country really “just fine”?
In the days of the Formula 1 race, and during the heyday of formal celebrations, a particularly jarring contrast was struck during the opposition rally in the village of Al-Daih a few meters from Bahrain International Airport. Dozens of children marched with symbolic bandages covering their eyes and carrying pictures of the five-year-old boy, Ahmad al-Naham, whose tragic story had been prominently featured on social media networks. They carried pictures of him lying in a hospital bed after his left eye — which had been struck by fragments fired from a mercenary’s shotgun cartridge — had been surgically removed. The boy who had been wounded during the raging clashes was pictured sitting on his father’s lap while the latter sold fish.
Meanwhile, public relations’ delegations defend childhood at international conferences, along with some lawmakers desperate to pass laws that would punish parents who bring their children to protests (Naham was not wounded at a protest), and it is also said that they intend to punish those who force their children to wear school uniforms in the middle of protests. If one looks at the situation in its totality, one sees a pseudo-democracy, whose sight is an ugly thing to behold. In observing the Bahraini political scene, along with the way its leaders handled the events surrounding the Formula 1 race, one might justly say that it is as surreal as politics gets. In its contradictions, its ambiguity, and its complexity, it transcended reality and was truly beyond the control of anything resembling reason or logic.
Translated by Al-Monitor