The revolt in Bahrain resulted not in elections or new leaders but in 3,000 arrests, an epidemic of torture and innumerable crushed souls. The Sunni-led government and private employers fired thousands of workers, nearly all of them Shiite Muslims. A people united in a spring of hope were by fall spurning friends who descended from a different sect.
In each country, revolution brought disparate groups together in a burst of people power organized through social media. But the second, slower phase of change has exposed and highlighted religious, ethnic and class differences. Young, secular liberals who were instrumental in the Arab Spring revolts have been pushed aside as Muslim groups long suppressed by secular autocrats won favor from voters who associated them with honesty and community service.
In Bahrain, the government and its media allies stoked sectarian conflict, stirring fears among the country’s Sunni elite of an Iranian-controlled Shiite takeover. Many Bahrainis grew up knowing little or nothing about the historical division between Sunni and Shiite Muslims, but after the protests began, the government put out word that the mostly Shiite demonstrators — Bahrain’s population is about 70 percent Shiite — were acting on behalf of Iran, the much-feared neighbor across the Persian Gulf.
Just days after the demonstrations began, the country’s security police joined with masked thugs to break up the protests with metal batons, tear gas, rubber bullets and birdshot.
Saffar and her colleagues worked round-the-clock tending to injured protesters. But in the next days, dozens of doctors and nurses — nearly all of them Shiites — began to vanish from the hospital, taken away by masked security men. One day in March, Saffar got a call at home: Come to the police station for questioning or we will come get you. She dressed in a suit and heels and called her attorney. Change into jeans and a shirt, he told her.
When Saffar arrived at the police station, the nurse, like dozens of other medics who had treated injured demonstrators, was blindfolded, handcuffed and thrown into an ice-cold cell. For five hours, she was forced to stand ramrod straight, interrogated by people she could not see. A policewoman hit her about the face with her hands. A man slapped her, pulled her hair and poked at her with an electric prod. They called her a whore. They accused her of inciting hatred at a public gathering. They called her “filthy Shia.”