Perhaps the shallowest headline of the Sunday in Bahrain came from CNN, which proclaimed --- alongside a scary Photoshop special of a masked youth holding a Molotov in front of a blaze of tyres --- "Despite Protests, Bahrain Grand Prix Runs Without a Hitch".
While the race was completed without interruption, there were plenty of "hitches" for anyone looking past the chequered flag. Formula 1's cameras had to skirt past largely-empty stands, and a group of women tried to stage a post-race protest --- they were quickly hauled away, but not before cameras caught the incident. (The regime reassurance: "It has been reported but not confirmed that two women have been detained out of 50,000 attendees.")
But two days after tens of thousands of protesters had overtaken the Grand Prix with their calls for reform and justice, the hitches were always going to be well away from the circuit isolated in the desert. Police did prevent youth from reaching the symbolic centre of Pearl Roundabout, demolished soon after the rising began in February 2011, but only at the cost of carrying out running raids and skirmishes.
The cost came in the highlighting of the regime's crackdown not only on demonstrators but on anyone who dared report, or even watch, the events. Bahraini authorities, caught between the desire to publicise the glory of their Grand Prix and the desire to avoid unwanted attention, had already taken a gamble by turning away foreign journalists, from the Financial Times to the Associated Press to Britain's Sky News, whose partner Sky Sports broadcasts Formula 1. Now its security forces were seizing the correspondents inside the country, as well as the Bahraini activists assisting them. Two Japanese journalists were reportedly detained, then it was the Chief Foreign Correspondent of Britain's Sunday Telegraph and Bahraini Mohammed Hasan (his second detention in two days), then it was the team from Britain's Channel 4, along with activists Ala'a Shehabi and Ali Al A'ali.
As protests were "contained", at least to the point of preventing a mass gathering, all the correspondents and activists were freed, but the sting of a night of tension and concern remained. The British Government was pushed to the point of expressing worry for its journalists. Shehabi's seizure in particular brought a consternation which may continue to ripple, given her high profile among international analysts of the Middle East. Consider, for example, the reaction of Marc Lynch, one of the leading US-centred bellwethers for portrayal of the region who admitted he brought forward this column from Monday to Sunday when he heard that Shehabi had been seized:
This week's Formula One-driven media scrutiny has ripped away Bahrain's carefully constructed external facade. It has exposed the failure of Bahrain's regime to take advantage of the breathing space it bought through last year's crackdown or the lifeline thrown to it by the Bahrain Independent Commission of Iniquiry. That failure to engage in serious reform will likely further radicalize its opponents and undermine hopes for its future political stability.
The regime is probably hoping that the international media will set aside conflict for a moment of self-congratulation --- one journalist tweeted, "Bahrain F1 brought an avalanche of media coverage to political unrest in a country that has receded from the headlines" --- and then leave the Kingdom alone. After all, many outlets wrote off coverage in spring 2011 with the (incorrect) summary that the regime has crushed all protest, after the killings and mass detentions of a crackdown backed by the Saudi-led militaries of the Gulf States. After all, many of those outlets had continued to look elsewhere, missing the mass demonstrations as well as the nightly marches in the villages and even the hunger strike --- now on Day 75 --- of detained human rights activist Abdulhadi Alkhawaja. Only showcase events such as the release of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry's report, subsequently set aside for the most part by the regime despite the King's proclamation of "sweeping and broad reform", the trial of doctors and nurses (but not that of political prisoners such as Alkhawaja, some of whom were given life sentences), and the drama of violence, preferably setting tear gas against Molotovs, could yield stories in the Middle East sections of websites and the middle pages of newspapers.
I'm not so sure. Some reporters are putting out the message this morning that eyes have been opened by a weekend in Bahrain, and there are immediately possibilities for stories. The political prisoners, including the medics and Alkhawaja, have hearings in court today. Alkhawaja's daughter Zainab, who has become a symbol of defiance, is still in jail after she was detained this weekend. And Alkhawaja himself could die at any time.
"Without a hitch"? Not at all. The serious issue now is whether the regime will be successful in reducing the near-future to "just a hitch" which does not impede its legitimacy. The best it can hope for, however, is that media shrug their shoulders with the narrative of a "divided" Bahrain: that at least gives the authorities the Emperor's new clothes of stalwart support from a minority on the island, facing a more dangerous minority (Molotovs. Religious Extremism. Iran.) ---- and thus stability must be assured.