On February 14, 2011, exactly one month after former Tunisian president Zine ElAbidine Ben Ali left Tunisia, and only a few days after former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak stepped down, the Kingdom of Bahrain experienced a similar start to their protests. Like in Tunisia and Egypt, those who led calls for reform in Bahrain were youth protesters who didn’t appear to have specific leaders or any explicit political or social affiliations. However, unlike the Tunisian and Egyptian protests, these original February 14 protests called for reform, not removal, of their government leaders.
Executive power in Bahrain, a chain of islands off the Arabian Peninsula, lies with King Hamad bin Isa AlKhalifa, who appoints most of the government. In the past he has appeared to take a more conciliatory approach towards the desires of his people, unlike other rulers in the region. “People trusted the king in 2001 when he claimed he was committed to reform. He even initiated some reforms and the people loved him for it,” said Maryam AlKhawaja, the head of the Foreign Relations Office at the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR).
In fact, a similar reform movement in the 1990s was met by the king with promises of change as AlKhawaja noted — one of which included the establishment of the BCHR. However, according to AlKhawaja, as the years progressed many of these changes did not materialize and those who continued to speak out against the government were arrested and silenced one by one. The government closed the BCHR three years later, she said, when “its former president stated at an open seminar that the Prime Minister [was] responsible for the economical problems in Bahrain.”
According to AlKhawaja, the most likely catalyst for these recent protests came in the fall of 2010, when “there was a huge crackdown in which around 500 people were arrested, many prominent leaders and religious figures, and a big number of children, and they were subjected to the worst forms of torture.”
Nearly four months have passed since the beginning of these protests and Bahrain is continuing not only to witness demonstrations, but overwhelming government force to suppress them. Soon after the February 14 uprisings, the Bahrain’s main Shia political party, AlWifaq, resigned from the government to protest the use of violence against demonstrators. In mid-March, King Hamad announced martial law as foreign troops from other Gulf nations entered the country.
These armed forces intervened at the King’s invitation to help the government quell the protests, following a meeting in which the six nations of the Gulf Cooperation Council, including Bahrain, agreed that sending GCC forces would protect the interests of the association. Forces from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates then entered the country with Bahraini government support.
AlKhawaja pointed out that because of the nature of this intervention of foreign forces, the protests in Bahrain had taken on a much different turn than many of the protests around the Arab world. “In other countries, protesters faced their own governments,” she said. “In Bahrain protesters face all the monarchies of the Gulf Cooperation Council. In Libya, foreign troops intervened to save Libyan lives. In Bahrain foreign troops intervened to quell peaceful protests.”
However, not all Bahrainis view their country’s situation in the same manner. Rasha Yousif, employed in the financial sector and an avid user of Twitter, identifies herself “only as a Muslim Bahraini.” Of the foreign players who are currently involved in Bahrain, she says Iran is the main aggressor, stirring up protests and dissent within Bahrain. According to her, many Bahraini Shias have historically held close religious ties to Iran, as they follow many of the Iranian religious leaders. However, she said, that also meant that many of the demonstrators carried Hezbollah flags in the beginning of the protests and had to be specifically told not to (since the focus of the movement was domestic).
Interview with another Bahraini Citizen (Part I) whose identity remains anonymous for security reasons:
Iran’s support of the protests, she cautions, is very threatening to their nation’s peace and stability. She supports the GCC’s decision to send foreign troops into Bahrian, saying, “we Bahrainis have welcomed them to protect the country from any foreign threats…The GCC Peninsula Shield is sought as a protector of vital entities in Bahrain.” Yousif also brought up the fact that there are other, often unrecognized, religious groups within Bahrain, many of which support the government. She cited The Gathering of National Unity as an example of a movement loyal to the government which is made up of Sunnis, Shias and Christians.
As for the United States’ response, AlKhawaja said that she and many Bahrainis were disappointed; “People in Bahrain believe that the US is directly complicit in the ongoing campaign of terror against the citizens.” AlKhawaja pointed out the contrast between the pledge of the US government, whose Fifth Naval Fleet is stationed in Bahrain, to “stand by human rights, freedom and democratic aspirations” and the fact that security forces in Bahrain carry weapons made in the United States.
The initial February 14 protesters did not seem to identify themselves with any particular political or social movement, but according to Yousif, the uprising has grown. Many have started to call for the removal of the government, a change she attributes to the influence of Shia protestors.
Yousif, however, says she is satisfied with the current government, noting that, “Bahrain has always been business friendly and society friendly and this could not have been achieved without the guidance of the current governments and rulers.” She agrees that reform is needed and says that she is not necessarily against demonstrations, which, as she points out, are legal in the kingdom. For her, protesting becomes a problem, when it is carried out in important areas such as the harbor or hospitals where it can become disruptive and even harmful.
The discrepancy in the very make-up of Bahrain’s religious communities is striking as well. Before the protests of February 14, there were not many official statistics to be found on the percentages of Shias and Sunnis within Bahrain. In 2007, Bahrain’s ambassador to the United States, Dr. Naser AlBelooshi, acknowledged Iraq and Iran as the only Gulf countries with majority Shia populations without mentioning Bahrain. The CIA World Fact Book now states that Bahrain has an “approximately 70% Shia-majority population”.
Yousif said that it was disappointing to see the Western media continuously describing Bahrain as a country with a majority Shia population ruled by Sunnis, when “there was never any census based on [Bahrain’s religious sects].” She said she believes the percentage of Sunnis and Shias in Bahrain is equal.
Regardless of these statistics, AlKhawaja says, the makeup of the protesters cut across demographic lines with both Shias and Sunnis represented, whose demands for human rights and freedoms “are definitely not exclusive.” She believes that the government has “been doing everything in their power to turn the situation in Bahrain into a sectarian issue to divide and conquer.” The humanitarian situation is the issue that should be of focus, she says, with thousands being detained and laid off from their jobs, medics being targeted and the conduction of widespread torture.
While the situation in Bahrain is still unclear to many of us observing from afar, one thing is for sure: Bahrain’s current political situation is far more complicated than the simplistic “Shia-Sunni struggle” that much of the mainstream media has made it out to be.
Written by Sarah Rangwala, a student at Washington University in St. Louis