The 45 helmeted men, armed with rifles, their faces masked, came for Ibrahim Sharif at 2 a.m. on Friday. They hopped the fence and entered his home, carted him off to jail — or Saudi Arabia — no one’s really sure. "They were ringing the bell and shouting ‘open, open, open,’" the dissident’s wife, Fareeda, told TIME later that day. "Ibrahim told them to lower their guns, to calm down. They took him anyway. It took less than 10 minutes." The vans outside, she said, sported the insignia of Bahrain’s national security forces.
Sharif, the leader of the Bahrain’s opposition Waad party, was among several key anti-government activists arrested in a wave of pre-dawn raids on Thursday and Friday. At 4 a.m., on Friday, shortly after the raid at Sharif’s home, the Waad headquarters was set on fire. All that remains of the two-story office building are charred walls and office furniture, gutted meeting rooms, giant shards of glass littering the floor. In a subsequent press conference, Foreign Minister Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa, dismissed the blaze as a random act of arson. But it comes as the regime of his cousin, King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa, stages an increasing ferocious crackdown against the Shi’ite majority, a campaign abetted by the unprecedented prescence of Saudi Arabian troops sent in to preserve the Sunni monarchy.
Until the end of last week, the political opposition had been rapidly been gaining steam, and support. Then, on March 11, the government let lose with the first of a series of increasingly ferocious responses. Now, Waad party leaders and even younger activists fear for their safety. On Friday morning, TIME received a text message from a protest organizer who said he had been warned that a crackdown on youth was underway. He said he had not left his for more than a day. "The streets are not safe," he texted, adding that his bank accounts had been frozen, phone tapped and every move monitored by police.
The government said it had offered numerous opportunities to begin negotiating with opposition leaders, and that the leaders had "hindered the dialogue." They had been arrested, the foreign minister said during his press conference, for inciting agitation against the regime. But a separate press conference was set up at the burned-out Waad offices to counter those claims. Dissident spokesman Abdullah Al Derazi denied that the opposition had been intransigent. He said that they had "given our issues and points for dialogue. We presented our vision and views, but suddenly [there are these] attacks. it looks like a military solution is the one the government has taken in order to stop us from demanding democratic reform."
Elsewhere in the capital of the island nation, gangs of masked pro-government thugs wielding chain batons, bats, guns and even swords were stopping cars and ordering drivers to open trunks. The Foreign Minister said they were likely neighborhood vigilantes, not in any way related to the police force. But the government’s forces aren’t making any effort to stop them . At one checkpoint, TIME saw a police car idling nearby while masked teenagers searched passersby.
The government denies that there is a strategic plan to escalate violence, which this week included repeated tear gassings and live ammunition air strikes from Cobra helicopters against protesters across the capital Manama. "It’s a very volatile situation," Foreign Minister Ahmed Al-Khalifa said. "In volatile situations, you do expect violence to happen. There is no systematic violence against the people… we’re not waging war, we’re restoring law and order."
Apparently as part of the effort, the government has torn down Pearl Monument, which dominated the roundabout that was epicenter of the protests. It also demolished the tents set up there and ripped up the very asphalt lanes of that made up the square, obliterating the protesters’ main encampment, the site of bloody clashes between riot police and protesters. It had been the geographic emblem of the movement. "They kill us there, now they take it down," one protester said. Ahmed Al-Khalifa responded that the tear-down was merely the "removal of a bad memory."
Meanwhile, the Pearl Monument — a tribute to Bahrain’s historic pearl gatherers — is being replaced by something Bahrain Television calls "the GCC Monument." Those would be the initials of the Gulf Cooperation Council, the umbrella group under which Saudi Arabia sent 100 tanks into Manama on March 13. In Manama, a political scientist, speaking in confidence, said the Bahraini government was shifting more and more power to the Saudi military, even though Bahrain’s regime maintains the forces are only there to help protect the island nation’s physical assets.
Saudi intervention in Bahrain is seen as a way for the government in Riyadh to warn its own people away from protests. "Dear brave men in all military sectors," Saudi King Abdullah said in a speech on Friday, "especially your brothers the security personnel at the interior ministry, you are the shield of this homeland and the fist which strikes down anyone who dares threaten its security and stability. God bless you and all your good work." Predominantly Sunni Saudi Arabia is particularly worried that its Eastern province, which has a substantial number of Shi’ites, may be infected by Shi’a unrest in Bahrain.
With the Pearl roundabout literally plowed under, the new locus of the protest movent is in the impoverished Shi’ite town of Sitra. Late Thursday, residents here climbed to their rooftops, chanting "God is great" in protest of the government crackdown. And on friday, thousands of mourners came out for the funeral procession of Ahmad Farhan, a protester who had been killed Wednesday in Sitra. The procession moved down the road without incident even as exit points were blocked by hundreds of riot police and the roofs of surrounding buildings occupied by sniers. Despite the security presence, a few protesters began chanting "Down with the King." Then the chants became louder: "Death to the regime," they said in Arabic. "Death to the King."
Nabeel Rajab, director of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, said that he "waits every night for them to come and arrest me." But despite the crackdown, opposition factions are determined to continue their protests. Asked if she thought she would eversee her husband again, Sharif’s wife did not hesitate. "Of course," she said. "But first they’ll cook up things like fake confessions. We know the drill."