The winds of change sweeping the Islamic East have reached the shores of the tiny island state of Bahrain as well. The ruling Khalifa family resorted to brute force to terrorize peaceful protesters in the capital Manama’s Pearl Square on February 18 that resulted in the deaths of five protesters and left hundreds injured. The city’s Salmaniya Hospital was overwhelmed as the dead and wounded were brought in. Distraught relatives rushed to the hospital turning it into a new venue for protests.
Like protesters elsewhere in the Islamic East, the Bahraini protests were also completely peaceful. Families came out with children carrying flowers and food. The atmosphere was more like a carnival than a rally although the people’s demands were genuine and serious. They demanded reform of the political system that deprives the majority Shi‘i population a fair representation in governance as well as the utilization of resources. The decades old Khalifa family rule comes from the minority Sunni population.
The protests that started on February 14 were beginning to turn into a long drawn-out affair in the manner of the Egyptian uprising and Tahrir Square where demonstrators were camped for 18 days. Into their third day, while the Bahraini protesters were sleeping in Pearl Square, troops riding tanks and armoured personnel carriers started firing at them without warning. Helicopter gunships were also pressed into service firing at people on the ground. Snipers stationed atop high buildings then joined the shooting spree and the police started firing tear gas shells into the crowd. There was absolute pandemonium. Children were screaming and women were wailing as they pulled out the dead and the wounded. It appears as if the Khalifa family wanted to prevent the demonstrations from turning into an Egypt-style revolt that ousted Hosni Mubarak from power in 18 days.
If the aim was to terrorize the protesters and drive them away as had happened on every occasion in the past 20 years, it seems to have backfired this time. After the raids, Bahrain’s ruler, Shaikh Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa visited the military headquarters to discuss his regime's ongoing strategy of crackdown with Commander-in-Chief Marshal Shaikh Khalifa bin Ahmed al-Khalifa, Minister of State for Defence Affairs Lieutenant-General Dr. Shaikh Mohammed bin Abdulla al-Khalifa, and Chief of Staff Major-General Shaikh Daij bin Salman al-Khalifa. The line up of top military brass shows that only members of the Khalifa family are trusted with defence affairs or top government posts. It is also at times like these that frightened men cling to each other for support.
Having secured support of the military brass, Shaikh Hamad then addressed troops “praising” them for their bravery and readiness to assume their national duties. “You are the guardians of the nation who defend the motherland in all situations,” the king told the soldiers. They had just perpetrated a blood bath of innocent civilians in the Pearl Square.
After his meeting with the military and soldiers, Shaikh Hamad issued a statement from the military base responding to, but in stark contrast to the February 17–18 crackdown. “We have widened the scope for peaceful and legal freedom of expression to be exercised within the framework of laws, regulations and guarantees warranted in the constitution and the National Action Charter,” he said. The king said such rights need to be exercised in “a civilised, free and democratic atmosphere, inspired by true Islamic precepts and genuine Bahraini and Arab values.”
No sooner had the king left the base, when 60 to 70 tanks and armoured personnel carriers in a convoy descended on Manama. Check-points were erected around the city, secured by barbed wire. Patrols of troops were seen circulating in the streets and at public places. This was hardly “a civilized” expression of goodwill that he had just talked about when calling on people to exercise their rights in a “free and democratic atmosphere.” There is nothing free or democratic about an absolute monarchy in which the ruler’s whim is the law.
As the anger mounted and people’s defiance became more assertive, Shaikh Hamad announced that he had ordered the crown prince and Prime Minister Salman bin Hamad to open dialogue with the opposition. On the evening of February 18, the crown prince made a surprise appearance on a television talk show calling for dialogue that would exclude no one. He also said the army would be withdrawn but the police would oversee law and order.
Recruits from Pakistan, India and Jordan have been inducted into the Bahraini police. The regime has deliberately played on sectarian tensions in order to keep its grip on power. The hired foreign mercenaries are too happy to play this game so long as they get a handsome salary, something denied them in their own countries. The ruling family, however, has not offered them citizenship despite calls from Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa to artificially boost the Sunni population to undercut the Shi‘i majority.
As the army was withdrawn, the people returned to Pearl Square, the main roundabout in the city center. The police with guns drawn, watched from a distance but the people while determined, carried flowers and showed a determination that soon overpowered the police’s menacing weapons. As the protesters approached, the police were ordered to leave. Manama’s Pearl Square has become the equivalent of Cairo’s Tahrir Square although it would be stretching the point to expect similar results as in Egypt.
Bahrain is a floating US military base. The American Fifth Fleet is based there from where it carries out attacks in Afghanistan and Iraq as well as tries to undermine Iran’s influence in the Persian Gulf. Bahrain is also seen as an important outpost for the jittery Saudis that feel threatened by Iran’s growing influence and assertiveness. The Saudis want to make sure that Bahrain remains under American control so that Islamic Iran cannot make more inroads, as it has done in Iraq, into the region. Further, Bahrain is like a huge casino where the Saudis and other rich Arabians come to gamble, drink and have “fun”. Every Thursday (start of weekend in the Middle East), thousands of Saudis drive into Bahrain using the 15-mile causeway linking the two countries. Unlike Saudi Arabia, Bahrain has no constraints, moral or otherwise, on alcohol consumption, gambling and prostitution. Not surprisingly, it is also a favorite destination for prostitutes from Europe, East and West, and Central Asia. They service both the Americans as well as the Saudis.
But beyond moral degeneracy that deeply offends Muslim sensitivities, lies the even more serious aspect of US, Saudi and Israeli geo-strategic interests. The tiny kingdom of Jordan that thrives on US handouts has warned against Iran’s Shi‘i arc extending into Bahrain and from there into the Arabian Peninsula and beyond. The illegitimate rulers of Jordan and Saudi Arabia should justly feel scared but why should the majority in Bahrain pay the price?
Bahrain has a parliament of sorts. It has 40 members (the country’s total population is 800,000 plus expatriates). The Shi‘i-led party, al-Wefaq has 18 members that boycotted parliament after the February 17-18 killings. Initially, there were calls only for political reforms but after the massacre some are demanding an end to the monarchy as well. This will not be easily achieved. The Americans and the Saudis have too much at stake. In fact, there are reports that Saudi troops were rushed to Bahrain and were involved in firing at the peaceful protesters. The Saudis would rather fight for their survival in the streets of Manama than have to wage the same battle in the streets of Riyadh or Jeddah.
While the Bahraini rulers may not be so easily dislodged — this is what most observers had said about Mubarak in Egypt — but the winds of change blowing through the region are certainly having a sobering effect on all tyrants in the Middle East. They are talking about reforms in hopes of weathering this unexpected storm