Fearing an Egyptian-style inferno, Bahrain’s security forces have moved aggressively to douse a political brush fire that burned for several days in the capital. At least five people were killed and hundreds injured when the protest camp set up in Manama’s Pearl Square was levelled early Thursday morning.
It was a familiar pattern: In each of the past four decades, whenever people – usually Shia Muslim Bahrainis – protested too vehemently for political or economic reform, the government summoned the same forces.
And the forces have been specially chosen for the task. They are almost entirely made up of foreign nationals, mostly Sunni Muslims from Pakistan; often with contempt for Shiites whom they regard as heretics. The forces’ officers hail from Bahrain, Saudi Arabia or Jordan.
“It’s not like a domestic police force or army,” said Barry Rubin, director of the Global Research in International Affairs Centre in Herzliya, Israel. “These guys are paid to beat people such as these protesters and to do it without feeling.”
When you’re an embattled minority ruler such as the Emir, Sheik Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, “it’s what you do to stay in power,” Mr. Rubin said.
Security and armoured military forces remain deployed throughout Manama to enforce a ban on any and all protests.
“The country was on the brink of a sectarian abyss so it was a very important step that had to happen,” Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Sheik Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa said. “Police took every care possible.”
Although the government worries about the deep cleavage between Shia and Sunni communities, it has been the government’s own pro-Sunni practices that mostly are responsible for the division.
“It’s the smallest Arab state,” Mr. Rubin said, “but it’s the most complicated situation of all.”
Though only an island with just over a million inhabitants, the overthrow of Bahrain’s monarchy would have major strategic implications.
To be fair, the emirate has tried reforms. There was the 1973 constitution that established a legislative assembly, and the 2001 reforms that gave women the vote. But in every case, the government found reasons to suspend or circumvent them.
The current complaints by the mostly Shia protesters are about the lack of jobs and housing, and the failure to reinstate the 1973 constitution.
Unlike protesters in Tunisia and Egypt, these people are not calling for the ouster of the King.
This is not Egypt, said Judith Kipper, director of Middle East programs at the Institute of World Affairs in Washington. “The problem is the Prime Minister,” not the King, she said, referring to Sheik Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, the King’s uncle.
The Prime Minister, she explained, is of an older more autocratic generation, and King Hamad is more modern and progressive.
It was the King who quickly appeared on television this week and apologized to the people for the first two deaths in the security forces’ efforts to quash the protests.
The security forces report to the Prime Minister.
But there’s a limit to how far even a benevolent King can go in a country such as Bahrain.
While figures vary, there are about 1.2 million people in Bahrain. About 650,000 of them are non-Bahrainis. Of the 550,000 Bahraini citizens, more than two-thirds, or about 370,000, are Shiites. This means that fewer than 200,000 are the privileged Sunni Bahrainis.
The Sunni population generally doesn’t want for things, and most of the foreign population is employed, that being the reason foreigners were brought to the country and allowed to stay.
Those lacking quality jobs, decent housing and real political rights hail from the Shia majority.
For the Emir and his privileged family, however, permitting complete democracy would be political suicide.
On paper, Mr. Rubin said, “Bahrain is at the top of the list of countries ripe for overthrow.”
“It’s ruled by a minority-community King who’s prone to make concessions.”
In the event of such an overthrow, all agree there could be serious strategic consequences.
It would undoubtedly extend what Jordan’s King Abdullah II has called a Shia crescent, that runs from Iran, through Iraq to Lebanon and into the Gulf. And it might mean a Bahrain that takes its marching orders from Tehran.
It might even jeopardize the ability of the U.S. Fifth Fleet to continue to use Bahrain as its base in the Persian Gulf.
Neither Ms. Kipper nor Mr. Rubin, both of whom are very wary of Iranian designs, think these things are likely – in large part because the opposition doesn’t appear interested in overthrow.
The Shiites in Bahrain are divided into several groups, following various religious figures in Iran, Iraq and Lebanon. Politically, most are not very pro-Iran. “They’re Arab Shiites and profess their political loyalty to Bahrain,” Ms. Kipper said.
So one should not see their political ascendance as an extension of Iran, she argued.
Neither would their political empowerment necessarily jeopardize the Fifth Fleet, Mr. Rubin said. The protesters’ demands have been mostly economic and political; not at all anti-American, he noted.
But empowering Bahrain’s Shiites will have at least one major consequence, both analysts agree: It will roil the monarchs in nearby Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states. All of them fear the spread of Shiism, and are concerned that the substantial Shia population in Saudi Arabia, and maybe in Kuwait, will agitate for increased power of their own.