Bahrain on the Brink

As pro-democracy demonstrators grow more daring in their demands for change, the Saudis send in troops, angering protesters – and fellow Shiites in Iran.

Bahrain (photo credit: Reuters)
(photo credit: Reuters)
WITH POLITICAL UNREST OVER whelming the under-manned security forces on the island of Bahrain, the monarchy declared a state of emergency and turned to its patron Saudi Arabia to quell the turmoil rocking the country. As Saudi military units rolled March 14 across the causeway linking the two countries, the country’s Sunnis cheered.
“The situation can only improve now. The protesters must know they cannot scare us in our own country,” said Daoud Mohammad, a 34-year-old bank manager, reached by phone.
While the country’s Sunnis were celebrating, its Shiites were nervous. “I am afraid they will slaughter us and the world will do nothing,” said Hussain Mahdi, a protester who spoke in a phone interview from the opposition stronghold of Sitra.
Bahrain is a country divided against itself. The ruling Sunnis, who comprise only 30 percent of the local population (some 500,000, there is a similar number of expats in the country), refuse to share power with the Shiites, who constitute the other 70 percent of the tiny island’s inhabitants.
Disenfranchised and discriminated against, the Shiites have long agitated for their rights, with demonstrations often turning violent and bloody.
Now however, inspired by peaceful revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, the embattled Shiites have chosen civil protests and sit-ins in favor of the tire burning and Molotov cocktails of the past. But Riyadh’s intervention in Bahrain risks turning a largely domestic affair into a regional struggle between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the Shiite powerhouse, which has long viewed itself as the defender of Shiites across the Middle East.
When unrest erupted in February, Shiites took to the streets to demand political and social reforms. They harbor a number of grievances against the regime: It forbids them government jobs, confers citizenship on foreign Sunni Arabs to dilute their majority, and refuses to modernize their villages with state funding. The Shiites seek a constitutional monarchy, where true democracy would translate their majority status into real political power.
Emulating the protesters in Egypt who camped out peacefully in Cairo’s Tahrir Square for weeks, Bahrain’s Shiites took over Pearl Roundabout, a key downtown landmark. They pitched tents and erected makeshift booths to brief the foreign press on their demands. Their leaders held rallies there and called for peaceful change.
The non-violent protests, however, have consistently been met with brute force by the security forces. On February 17 they cleared out the roundabout, killing four protesters. Though demonstrators again took the roundabout February 19, the regime sent in troops to disperse them on March 13, killing one.
FROM THE UNREST’S OUTSET, THE government has sent conflicting signals to the protesters. After the first deaths in February, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa offered his condolences, promised an investigation, and told the opposition that they could camp out in the roundabout for three days. But before this grace period expired, the monarchy again sent troops to clear the area. After four more deaths incensed demonstrators, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa announced a national day of mourning and offered to begin negotiations with the opposition.
These talks have failed to yield any progress as the government refuses to concede any political power to the opposition. These radical policy shifts suggest that the royal family is just as divided as its population. Political analysts here say that Prime Minister Khalifa bin Khalifa, the king’s uncle, has pressured the monarch to take a hard line toward the protesters. On the other hand, Crown Prince Salman has tried equally hard to persuade his father to embrace a moderate approach and to reach out to the pragmatic opposition such as al-Wefaq, the Islamic National Accord Association, a Shiite religious party that holds 18 out of 40 seats in the parliament. Al-Wefaq has demanded incremental political reforms and shunned calls by exasperated youths for the fall of the monarchy.
“The king has often tried to adopt a conciliatory approach. But every time he does, the opposition makes more demands, leading the hard-liners in the regime to try to reel him in,” says a local political analyst who supports some political reforms, and who asked not to be named.
It is not only domestic players who seek to influence King Hamad. Saudi Arabia, Bahrain’s leading regional supporter, has often counseled the island nation to suppress Shiite aspirations and to keep a firm grip on power. The Saudis fear that Shiite unrest could spread to their borders, where discrimination against a large Shiite minority occurs on a much wider scale than in Bahrain. The Saudis are also worried that a shift toward democracy could inspire its own citizens to demand greater political freedoms.
SO WHEN THE PROTESTERS began marching on the royal family’s palaces and blocked roads leading to the financial district, the Saudis sprang into action by sending in 1,000 National Guard troops as part of the Gulf Cooperation Council’s Peninsular Shield Force, a military contingent that also includes 500 policemen from the United Arab Emirates and non-military support from other Gulf states. But their decision to do so risks inflaming already boiling sectarian tensions, marginalizing al-Wefaq and drawing Iran into a burgeoning conflict.
On the heels of the arrival of Saudi troops, the monarchy declared a state of emergency giving the government wideranging powers including prohibiting mass gatherings, suspending the printing of newspapers and arbitrary arrest powers.
The military ratcheted up its activities and Bahrainis reported helicopter gunships were hunting down protesters in streets and alleys in Shiite slums and strongholds.
A statement by the Bahrain Center for Human Rights called it a “mass systematic murder against the unarmed people of Bahrain.” Reliable figures of the casualties are hard to come by, but seven protesters were reportedly killed in February. Since the Saudis entered, three have been confirmed dead, but some reports say that as many as eight have been killed.
It was not only the protesters that the monarchy crushed. Desiring to eradicate all vestiges of the uprising, the regime demolished the Pearl monument at Pearl Roundabout, the landmark that had become the symbol of resistance to the government.
Tehran was quick to denounce the Saudi move and the ensuing violence. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad called the Saudi military’s invasion “a foul and doomed experience,” while Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said that “the presence of foreign forces and interference in Bahrain’s internal affairs is unacceptable and will further complicate the issue.”
But beyond offering moral support, there is little the Iranians can do at this time.
Though Bahrain frequently claims Tehran’s agents are building networks and fomenting unrest, American diplomatic cables released by Wikileaks note US intelligence agencies have discounted such allegations. Iran’s supporters on the island have little power and Tehran has not invested much effort in building a viable network as it has with Hizballah in Lebanon.
“Bahrain is not Lebanon where the Iranians can make a phone call and operate a dormant cell,” said a Western security analyst who lives in the capital and closely scrutinizes Iranian foreign policy.
Despite this, the youths leading the protests are now more prone to view Iran as their backer of last resort and susceptible to potential calls from Tehran to embrace violence.
“I am afraid we will lose our credibility on the street, and our voices urging caution will be lost among the loud calls saying we are facing a tsunami of Sunnis,” says an al-Wefaq parliamentarian who supports dialogue with the regime.
Though Bahrain’s Sunnis largely welcomed the Saudi move, some are just as worried as the al-Wefaq parliamentarian.
“The situation was becoming very difficult and the Saudi troops are restoring stability,” said a former member of the upper parliament.
“But if the Saudis are here, that means the Iranians need to do something. I am afraid they will invade the island and Saudis and Iranians will shoot each other while we Bahrainis will die.”
EVEN HOSPITALS HAVE NOT been spared the violence that is rocking the country. In the weeks preceding the Saudi invasion, Manama’s Salmaniya Medical Complex was bustling with personnel and protesters. Most of the dead and wounded were brought there for treatment. But then security forces took over the facility and the large crowds that gathered there daily disappeared. This is in contrast to the scene a few weeks back when I visited the hospital following the deaths of two protesters. Doctors and hospital staff rushed in and out of the building as bystanders tugged at their sleeves to glean any news. Near the entrance, a poster affixed to a bulletin board listed the names of about 60 people still missing from recent security sweeps at Pearl Roundabout.
“We meet the soldiers with our arms open and they respond by killing us. Is this regime not crazy? Do you fire on people without reason?” remarked 26-year-old Sa’id Muhammad, as he scrolled through the text messages on his phone.
As he did, Mahdi, one of the activists, grabbed me. He thrust his cell phone into my face. “This is how they treat us! Instead of giving us jobs, they give us bullets!” he yelled, the screen displaying a hospital room picture of a man on a white bed, tubes in his mouth and coagulated blood on his head and on the sheets.
Apickup truck drove up to the entrance of the emergency room. A man in the bed held up a picture of King Hamad and then violently threw it down, crushing the glass frame.
Four more jumped up and together stomped on it. The crowd let out an approving yelp and began chanting, “Death to the Khalifas!” Hounded by the security forces and silenced by their bullets, the protesters have retreated to their homes. They have no answers to the overwhelming firepower the monarchy has unleashed on them. Many are hoping the international community will intercede. But with Washington unwilling to anger its key oil supplier Saudi Arabia, Iran unable defend the protesters, and the international community focusing on Libya, Bahrain’s demonstrators can only expect more bloodshed.