Bahrain: Crackdown will make citizens more determined, writes member of Bahraini Society for Human Rights

The Guardian

The 14 February marked the 10th anniversary of the National Action Charter, which is considered to be the blueprint of the Bahraini reform project. In 2001, the charter was accepted almost unanimously by eligible voters, with the aim of leading to a constitutional monarchy. This chapter in Bahrain's history was supposed to end decades of authoritarian rule, emergency law and repression of political activists. The results are mixed – but the main outcome is superficial democracy. The state wanted to use this year's anniversary to create a pompous spectacle to legitimise the ruling family. Organised public rallies and parties, as well as glossy newspaper ads and posters, were pervasive.

It is a twist of history that this display of regime power coincided withwidespread protests and dramatic changes across the Arab world. InBahrain, arrests of several hundred political dissidents and human rights activists have been taking place since August 2010. The state used all of its means to portray those that tried to topple the regime as dangerous elements, especially the so-called group of 25 Shia dissidents. It wanted to tell the existing opposition that you are "either with the state or against it". In addition, the regime successfully foiled the fate of many leftist candidates in the parliamentary elections of October 2010. But to a wide spectrum of Bahraini society these widespread arrests only served as evidence of the authoritarian nature of the state.

So while the local political atmosphere was very tense and there had been many demonstrations in the past, the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt have totally altered the Arab political sphere. Bahraini online activists saw that the time was ripe and emulated the Tunisian and Egyptian example, calling for a "revolution in Bahrain" on 14 February on social networking sites such as Facebook. This day has a symbolic value for Bahrainis as many think they were deceived by the promises of the regime and so the organisers, emboldened by Hosni Mubarak's downfall, made the most of this moment. While many were sceptical about its success, several thousand demonstrators turned out. The leftwing al-Wa'ad party openly supported the demonstrations and the Shia alliance al-Wifaq endorsed it, but the majority of the demonstrators were young Bahrainis without political affiliations.

The strategy was to demonstrate peacefully in many different villages and quarters in order to strain the security forces. The main demands are a constitution written by an elected constitutional assembly and the release of political prisoners. The organised political opposition groups have largely been taken by surprise by these developments but they are trying to form a common stance. Galvanised by the deaths of two young protesters, the demonstrations moved from the villages to one of the busiest roundabouts – Pearl Square – of the capital Manama, close to the financial district.

The two sides were well entrenched and there were hopes for a long process of negotiation, inclusive of the non-partisan youth. At the time, there was still a chance to broker a deal, while recognising the legitimacy of the King. Yet, while the Tunisian and Egyptian examples have shown that a violent crackdown is not in the interests of any regime, this lesson has obviously not been learnt in Bahrain. At 3am this morning, a surprise attack was launched on the men, women and children peacefully assembled in Pearl Square. Most were asleep at this early hour, and were suddenly woken up by a barrage of tear gas, rubber bullets and raging waves of anti-riot police forces.

Even ambulance workers were attacked, and we hear that so far four people have died, including a medic, and hundreds have been injured. The army has been deployed all over Manama and a security operation has been launched to locate and arrest activists. These events mark a turning point. After what has now happened, it is difficult to imagine the possibility of negotiations. Pearl Square has been cleared, but the funerals of those who were murdered will be full of shocked citizens even more determined to confront the regime. The British foreign minister visited Bahrain last week and did not call openly for serious reforms. The UK has much influence in the country and a great deal of leverage over its rulers. It should use this opportunity and stand with the Bahraini people.

Abdulnabi Alekry, Thursday 17 February 2011 11.21 GMT