Bahrain: Protests escalate against US-backed monarchy

March 5, 2011
February 22 protest in Bahrain.

Pro-democracy protests have escalated in Bahrain after the US threw its support behind the monarchy and tanks from Saudi Arabia were seen entering the country.

Up to 200,000 people marched in the capital, Manama, on February 25, The New York Times said that day — a staggering size given Bahrain's population is only 1.2 million, and more than half of these are foreign guest workers. The protesters converged on Pearl Roundabout in two huge crowds.

Protesters have begun holding rallies at strategic places around Manama while keeping a permanent protest base at Pearl Roundabout, said on March 1.

A blockade of the parliament was held on February 28. It stopped a meeting of the Shoura Council, the upper house, made up of royal appointees, Xinhua press agency said that day. Protesters demanded the council be disbanded. They then moved on to protest at the state TV headquarters.

On March 2, reported that a rally was held to demand freedom for political prisoners.

All 18 opposition members of the Bahraini parliament resigned in protest against the parliament’s inaction on the killing of protesters by security forces, AFP said on February 28.

The US government has backed King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa’s calls for a “national dialogue”. US President Barack Obama said dialogue was an "opportunity for meaningful reform", The Wall Street Journal said on March 1.

Bahrain is strategically important for the US, hosting the base for the US navy's fifth fleet, as well as being an important centre for international finance and oil production.

Nearby Saudi Arabia is fearful of the protests spreading to its shores. There were reports of tanks being transported into Bahrain, across the bridge connecting it to Saudi Arabia, said on February 28.

Siras Abi Ali, an analyst on the Persian Gulf region, told on March 2: “These were supposed to be Bahrain’s tanks returning from Kuwait: that is not a credible story.

“There is no good outcome from this for Saudi Arabia. If Bahrain offers concessions, the Saudi Shia will demand similar concessions. If they crack down, they risk an uprising. These people do not want to live under the House of Saud.”

While the protests are hugely popular, there are differences between the demands of protesters in the streets and a more moderate coalition of opposition groups, which includes large political parties.

In a March 1 statement, the coalition called for the “formation of a real constitutional monarchy and an elected government, parliamentary elections that grant fair representation to all segments of society, the resignation of the current government and the formation of an interim cabinet”.

However, many protesters, having faced brutal violence from government security forces, have demanded the complete removal of the regime. "The people want the fall of the regime" was a prominent chant at a huge rally on March 1, AFP said that day.

Sheikh Mohammed Habib al-Muqdad, a cleric who was among political prisoners freed due to pressure from protesters, told AFP on March 1: "Dialogue is only an option once the regime steps down."

The Bahraini elite has raised fears about the “sectarian” nature of the protests. Most of the anti-government protesters are Shia Muslims, while Bahrain’s monarchy and elite are Sunni Muslims.

“Without Washington's support, Bahraini officials told the Americans, the kingdom risked slipping into a ‘sectarian divide,’ pitting a Shiite majority against ruling Sunnis,” the WSJ reported.

“Bahraini officials also warned the US that Iran would be the big winner should the ruling family fall.” This refers to speculation that a potential Shia-based Bahraini government might have closer relations with Shia-led Iran.

Bahrain has been divided along sectarian lines for 200 years, with the Sunni monarchy, backed by British colonisers, instituting a system of economic and social discrimination against Shias.

Ali Abdulemam, an activist and blogger recently released from prison, told on March 1: “The situation here is the same as in other places in the Arab world. There is similar anger and disillusionment. The ruling strata enjoy the same unjust advantages in distribution of wealth in the country. We have no freedom of expression or belief.

“We have the same anger as Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. We also all share a desire to live in freedom and dignity. All of these are causes for the revolution.

“[The rulers] hate anyone who is opposition, it doesn’t have as much to do with sectarianism. It is known that the majority of Shia are opposition, but there are Shia loyalists, and there are Sunni opposition. They hate whoever opposes the system.”

Jawad Fairooz, a senior member of al-Wefaq, the largest Shia party, told on February 28: “The government is just inciting fear. We don’t want a Shia prime minister or a Shia state. We just want equal rights and an end to injustice.”

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