Peaceful Protests Meet Violent Results in Bahrain

A protester in Bahrain cries out.

Bahrainis, especially majority Shiites, came out in an unprecedented peaceful demonstration demanding constitutional reforms, political freedom and justice. However, the autocratic minority Sunni regime responded with a violent crackdown raining death and destruction. As a result, the people who once asked for political reforms now demand the removal of the king and his regime, to pave the way for a government run by an elected parliament.

Bahrain, with a chain of 30 islands and a territory of 446 square miles, has a population of around 800,000, of whom about three quarters are Shiites. They accuse the regime of shutting them out of housing, healthcare and government jobs. They also complain of unemployment and poverty and accuse the government of employing expatriates—according to 2010 U.N. figures there were 235,108 expats.

Some of the Shiite villages lack even basic needs in contrast to the mansions of the elite in exclusive areas. The island is ruled by the Khalifah family, Sunni Muslims, which captured power in 1783 after expelling the Persians, who still view Bahrain as a renegade province exacerbating sectarian tensions. The two sides do not trust each, with suspicion that is deep rooted.

Bahrain, a British protectorate under the 1861 Treaty with the United Kingdom, became independent on August 15, 1971. In February 2002 the country became a hereditary monarchy with a toothless and cosmetic bicameral legislature and a powerless consultative Council.

The political system is a medieval-style autocratic tribal rule, as is the case with the rest of the Gulf countries. Sunnis dominated by the ruling Khalifa family remain a privileged lot with all the powers and perks. They control the armed forces, the government, government machinery, business, wealth, land, exclusive beaches and almost everything other than the air that the Khalifas cannot prevent the Shiites from breathing.

Bahrain is pro-West and corrupt. Liquor flows freely, and some areas are known for prostitution involving Muslim women from poverty-stricken North Africa, Central Asia and several other countries, including Iraq. Friday is usually a Holy Day for Muslims worldwide. However, in Bahrain it is a day of fun, wining, dining and sinning starting from Thursday onward. Saudis and others from the region flock to the island for their weekend indulgence.

Though a tiny island, Bahrain has huge regional and international political dimensions and implications. For example, Iran has been sympathetic towards the Shiites. This causes serious concern in Saudi Arabia, which has a sizable suppressed Shiite population in its eastern region, which is known for its oil wealth, which is controlled by the Saudi ruling family. To ward off any potential Iranian threat, Saudi Arabia built a multibillion-dollar causeway linking Bahrain with the Saudi mainland. Bahrain is also the home for the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, which is a shield for American forces against many countries, especially Iran.

It was under such circumstances that the Bahrainis, encouraged by political developments in Tunisia, Egypt, Jordan, Yemen and Alegria, came out on peaceful demonstrations on February 14 to draw attention to their longstanding grievances. They called for a new constitution that would move the country toward democracy as well as limited state control for the monarchy over top government posts and all critical decisions.

The regime responded with force, using clubs, tear gas and live ammunition, killing a peaceful demonstrator and injuring many. The ruler King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifah apologized. The death prompted the opposition to call for massive participation.

When people gathered for the funeral, the regime, once again, unleashed violence, killing more peaceful demonstrators. In a single pre-dawn assault by riot police on protesters sleeping in Pearl Square, four people were killed, 231 wounded and 60 others were missing. The attack has been strongly condemned by members of the international community, including the United Nations.

One columnist said, "The king Hamad has blood on his hands after his mercenary security forces—Pakistani, Indian, Syrian and Jordanian—with no previous warning, attacked sleeping, peaceful protesters at 3 am on [February 17] at the Pearl roundabout. Altogether seven peaceful demonstrators were killed, hundreds injured and scores disappeared—some believe killed. In the midst, 18 members of the Bahrain parliament resigned from their posts to protest against the violent crackdown."

Shiite cleric Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Kassim, who described the killing as a massacre, warned that Bahrain's Shia uprising has just begun, and if Manama fails to satisfy the people's legitimate demands for change quickly, it will pay a heavy price. He urged Bahraini authorities to release innocent prisoners and to fight the widespread corruption. He also criticized Manama for not trying to prevent the spread of atheism in the country, warning that if the government does not change its policy in the near future, atheism will prevail.

In this volatile and tense environment, King Hamad praised the troops for what he described as their "bravery." This was not only provocative but also insulting to peaceful demonstrators. The result was the people who call for political reforms now demanding the removal of the king himself and his government. Shiites dug in at the Pearl roundabout, the Bahraini version of Cairo's Tahrir Square, stating they will not leave until their demands are met.

The United States, Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf rulers will not allow the fall of King Hamad and his regime. Change of regime means a nightmare scenario for U.S. and the Gulf States, as it would be tantamount to handing over power to a pro-Iran Bahrain.

In Bahrain it is Iran versus the United States, Britain, Israel and the Gulf sheikhdoms that were brought under the U.S. security umbrella during the past two decades. Perhaps it is time for serious and meaningful reforms meeting some of Shiites' demands.

Latheef Farook is a Sri Lankan journalist who, after working for Ceylon Daily News and Ceylon Observer for almost a decade, led a team to Dubai in February 1979, where he relaunched Gulf News. After almost a quarter century in the Gulf he is now based in Colombo, Sri Lanka.