Eyes watering and coughing up gas, human rights activist Said Yousif al-Muhafdah ran to his car and tapped out two messages reporting news of the clash, in Arabic and English, to his more than 70,000 followers on Twitter.
Violence is rapidly rising in this Persian Gulf island nation, a key U.S. ally that hosts the Navy’s 5th Fleet. The escalation comes about 21 months after dozens of people were killed and thousands arrested when Bahraini security forces brutally quashed an Arab Spring pro-democracy uprising.
Almost every night, security forces clash with marchers demanding that the monarchy be replaced with an elected government. In recent weeks, police have fatally shot two protesters, and a police officer was killed with a homemade bomb.
On Tuesday, Bahrain’s Interior Ministry issued a ban on all public rallies and gatherings, the government’s most aggressive move against protesters since it imposed martial law for three months last year. But rather than ease tensions, the move seems only to have stoked them.
Several protests against the ban were held Friday. Muhafdah tweeted photos of tear gas being used against demonstrators in the village of Bilad al-Qadeem, just west of the capital.
Later in the day, the activist was arrested while trying to photograph an injured protester, and police said he will be charged with violating the ban on public gatherings, Maryam al-Khawaja, who works with Muhafdah at the Bahrain Center for Human Rights but lives in exile in Denmark, said in a telephone interview.
As the standoff intensifies, U.S. policy is coming under fire, criticized by both protesters and the government as feeble and disappointing. U.S. officials say the ruling al-Khalifa family should not be compared to the brutal regimes in Libya and Syria that have killed thousands of their own people. But Washington is under pressure to defend pro-democracy activists who are being systematically arrested and tear-gassed — and even jailed for tweets critical of the government.
The State Department expressed deep concern this week about the protest ban but overall has been more measured in its criticism of Bahrain’s government than it has been with other repressive governments in the region.
“We only want democracy,” Muhafdah said recently. “In the United States, you have a new elected president every four years. But here we are living with a king and the same prime minister for 42 years.”
On the street, protesters said President Obama is not living up to his pledge, made in the last presidential debate, that “America has to stand with democracy.” They said pro-democracy demonstrators are not getting the U.S. support they need because the monarchy allows American warships here, just a few miles from Saudi Arabian oil fields, to help keep vital shipping lanes open and serve as a counter to Iranian belligerence.