By destroying the focal point of resistance the regime entrenched the Pearl monument in the collective consciousness
Last March, after the Bahraini regime had dramatically destroyed the Pearl monument in Manama it triumphantly screened pictures of its actions on state TV: a clear message to protesters who had dared challenge its authority by gathering there. The monument became part of the physical and psychological conflict between a state and its people. To the government it is a “bad memory”. To the revolutionaries it has become a utopian symbol of freedom and resistance. Today, on the one-year anniversary of the uprising, these two mindsets have come to a clash once more, as the revolutionaries tried to return to the area where the monument once stood. Some predicted a bloodbath but, going by the latest reports, it appears the government may have learned its lesson: more blood will hasten its downfall not delay it.
Reflecting on a year’s protest, it is clear that the regime has underestimated the comeback the razing of the monument would trigger. Even younger, more liberal-minded loyalists expressed shock at the time. The government also failed to co-ordinate an official line to justify this act. While the foreign minister was honest enough to describe the monument as a “bad memory”, other officials claimed the destruction of the monument was designed to “improve traffic flow”. If the latter was true, one has to wonder why this new intersection has been closed off for the past 11 months. The roundabout, five minutes from the financial district, is now an army barracks; every entrance is guarded by military tanks, and several tents are set up to house troops.
In hindsight, the destruction of “Lulu”, as the monument is known among demonstrators, might have been a blessing in disguise. In destroying the focal point of the resistance movement, the government has entrenched the monument in the collective consciousness.
Police violence and the ensuing repressive crackdown that saw 3,000 arrested, 4,500 people sacked and almost 60 dead over an 11-month period, has unified the protesters. Knowing that focus on one site would run the risk of making the protest static, radical groups marched on to the royal court and royal palace. The new faces and new names who met at the Pearl roundabout, unknown to the intelligence services, managed to escape the clasp of the authorities while thousands of others were arrested.
At first, the “14 February youth” had no definite, collective plan of action. Autonomous action was encouraged, and the necessity for total decentralisation was agreed. This was initially suggested by Abdulwahab Hussain, now sentenced to life imprisonment. If there are no official leaders, and no central source of information regarding the range of activities to be undertaken by various groups within the movement, it becomes virtually impossible to infiltrate the organisation and preemptively shut it down.
The enduring memory of the protesters’ experience at the Pearl roundabout has become sacred to many people who found existential meaning there. Its iconography is seen in graffiti, in small effigies carried during protests, in promotional videos. A 3D animation on YouTube is but one example of how the memory of a monument that haunted the regime is rising like a phoenix to challenge the regime once again.
A week before the anniversary, the biggest opposition party, Alwefaq, surprisingly granted permission to set up camp in a small village called Migsha in the residential area of Budaiya highway. A stage was set up, and functional areas were designated for media, seminars, arts etc. Alwefaq desperately tried to dub this as a rehearsal for the “eventual” return to the Pearl roundabout, without officially endorsing the 14 February attempt at returning.
What was missing from this “authorised” gathering was the anarchist spirit of rebellion that directly challenges the system and which the rebels are determined to overthrow. Alwefaq now finds itself faced with the same dilemma it found prior to February 2011: does it side with the youth and endorse their revolution, or will it sit back and observe to avoid confrontation with the state. Statements from Ali Salman, claiming that the roundabout is not a target for the movement, indicate that he seeks the non-confrontational approach.
Crushing the icon of resistance and forcing out the impassioned protesters has only served to fuel revolutionary sentiment over the past year. As the revolutionaries once again try to return to the former site of Pearl roundabout, they will be driven by a sustained utopian cultural memory consisting of a rare sense of freedom and autonomy about how the Pearl roundabout was, and their right to go back there. The government will be faced with the same situation as last year: does it turn its tanks on its own people, or not.
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