More than 100,000 protesters packed Pearl Roundabout in Bahrain's capital, Manama, on February 22, demanding an end to the regime of King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa.
Protester Muhammad Abdullah told The New York Times: “This is the first time in the history of Bahrain that the majority of people, of Bahraini people, got together with one message: this regime must fall.”
If the Khalifa family — which has ruled the tiny island nation for 200 years — falls, it could have major implications for the region and world politics.
Bahrain is an important finance centre for local and foreign capitalists. It is a major centre for the refining of crude petroleum, including imports from nearby Saudi Arabia.
Bahrain also hosts a naval base for the US Fifth Fleet and a US airbase, vital for maintaining US interests in the Persian Gulf. This includes maintaining a military threat against nearby Iran and protecting the large oil and natural gas reserves exploited by US and allied interests, JuanCole.com said on February 16.
Under serious pressure from the protests, the government released 308 political prisoners on February 23, The Wall Street Journal reported that day.
King Hamad left for Saudi Arabia on February 23, Reuters said, although other members of the royal family remain in the country. Saudi Arabia has pledged to use “all its capabilities” to support Bahrain's rulers, Associated Press said on February 22.
The wave of protests began with a “day of rage” February 14, inspired by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.
They began with demands for political reforms and the removal of Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa — the king’s uncle, who has held the position for 40 years. However, many protesters now demand the complete removal of the monarchy, The WSJ said on February 23.
A manifesto issued by a Bahraini youth group demanded abolishing the monarchy, replacing the military with an “army of citizens”, and putting officials on trial for attacks on protesters, said AP.
Protests have continued to grow despite violent repression from the Bahraini military. At least seven people were confirmed dead, AlJazeera.net said on February 22, after several episodes of security forces firing on protests and funeral processions.
These included a police attack on sleeping protesters who were occupying Pearl Roundabout on February 17, Counterpunch.org said on February 21. At least three were killed and hundreds were badly injured, including children and doctors treating the wounded. Police also attacked a makeshift clinic set up by doctors who were defying a government ban on treating injured protesters.
A medical orderly told British Independent journalist Robert Fisk on February 19: “The people in Bahrain have changed. They didn’t want to run away. They faced the bullets with their bodies.”
Another doctor told Fisk: “This is the Bahraini government doing this to their own people. I was in Egypt two weeks ago, working at the Qasr el-Aini hospital — but things are much more fucked up here.”
However, protesters retook Pearl Roundabout on February 19 after police withdrew, The NYT said that day.
The US praised Bahrain’s leadership for making steps towards “opening a national dialogue”, just days after Bahraini soldiers opened fire on peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations, AlJazeera.net said on February 22.
US state department spokesperson PJ Crowley said: “We commend the steps taken by King Hamad as well as Crown Prince Salman and others to restore calm to Bahrain, to allow peaceful demonstrations to take place.
“We view recent announcements to launch a national dialogue and the release of political prisoners as positive steps towards addressing the concerns of Bahraini citizens.”
LATimes.com reported on February 20 that when US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited Bahrain in December, she said: “I am very impressed by the progress Bahrain is making on all fronts — economically, politically, socially.”
Bahrainis appear to be less than impressed. Bahrain's majority has suffered under a system of discrimination, inequality and brutality, which began about two centuries ago, when Bahrain fell under the influence of the British Empire.
Under the control of Britain since the 1820s, Bahrain became an official “protectorate” of Britain in 1861, Leninology.blogspot.com said on February 19. Bahrain’s geography made it a key naval position from which Britain could protect its economic interests in the area.
The Khalifa royal family and the British divided Bahraini workers by favouring the Sunni Muslim minority in economic and social terms over the Shia Muslim majority.
After Britain’s withdrawal in 1971, the US took over as Bahrain’s imperial patron.
Today, 54% of Bahrain’s 1.2 million people are migrant guest workers, JuanCole.com said on February 16. Nearly half of them are from India. Used as cheap labour, guest workers have little chance of gaining rights as citizens.
Of the native Bahrainis, about two-thirds are Shiites, who are discriminated against in favour of the Sunni minority, which includes the royal family. The Shiite majority is excluded from top jobs and officer positions in the military.
If the regime in Bahrain falls, the US military may be forced to leave, and Bahrain's system of inequality may be overturned.
It may also spark revolts in Saudi Arabia, which represses its own Shia population, as well as other Gulf states. “The Saudis and even other states fear the domino effect Bahrain could have in the Persian Gulf,” Moqawama.org said on February 21.