In The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, German sociologist Jürgen Habermas wrote about the mutual dependency of space and democracy: public space, according to his definition, is “made up of private people gathered together as a public and articulating the needs of society with the state”. Democracy is not, of course, a word that features often in the Gulf states’ core vocabulary. That absolutist monarchs want to avoid the fate of France’s Louis XVI is unsurprising. That they protect their power by circumscribing places of public congregation is equally expected. Nowhere is this acute agoraphobia more evident than in Bahrain, the only Gulf state to experience sustained, large-scale protests during the Arab Spring. The principal site of these protests, the Pearl Roundabout, was not only demolished in March 2011, but also removed from Bahrain’s 100-fils coin. In its place today is an ordinary traffic intersection bearing no traces of either the monument to the pearl trade’s role in Bahrain’s early twentieth-century economy or the grassy roundabout that, for several halcyon weeks in 2011, housed tents, speech podiums, and tens of thousands of protesters.
Laughable though this literal erasure may be—the destruction of signs does not ensure the destruction of memory—it represents an oversimplified understanding of public space on the part of Bahrain’s elites. Public space is, by definition, an unregulated space in which members of the public may freely congregate. Such spaces provide a forum for civic activities that are often far more innocuous than revolution, including charity fundraisers and neighborhood recycling initiatives. Unless hosting rallies or demonstrations, civil society does not, strictly speaking, require physical public spaces. Non-governmental organizations, trade unions and political parties all rent private office space; spontaneous fundraisers are planned in private homes and held at fairs, festivals, or weekend markets; and public deliberation and speech, the cornerstone of the public sphere, has long flourished on online platforms in the Gulf.
What office space, market stalls, and Twitter cannot fully replace, however, is the galvanizing power of being seen—in this case, by dozens or hundreds of other like-minded individuals who have the same or similar goals that can only be achieved collectively. The experience of being seen and seeing in the public sphere spurs frustrated individuals into action by virtue of reassurance: through this process, one learns that one is not only supported by one’s friends and family, but by a community of strangers.
So while Bahrain’s elites might think they can quash civic activism by demolishing a roundabout, it will require much more to prevent the people from seeing and collectively acting in the service of shared objectives – even in Bahrain.