Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Middle East/African Revolution/Protest Series: Bahrain

The protests in Bahrain kicked off on February 14, 2011.
See the whole Middle East/African Revolution/Protest Series.
Bahrain is a country that caught my attention during the protests. I found myself having an unusually emotional reaction to what was going on there. Hopefully, you'll see what I mean after I get through explaining their protest struggles.

Basic History
Bahrain's official name is the Kingdom of Bahrain. Geographically, it is an island country located near the western shores of the Persian Gulf. Since it's an island, there are no bordering countries. The capital is Manama. The population is estimated at 1.2 million people. The language is Arabic.

Bahrain's most recent leader is King Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifa. The government is setup as a constitutional monarchy. The head of government is the Prime Minister. The Prime Minister is Shaikh Khalīfa bin Salman al Khalifa. The Prime Minister presides over a 25 member cabinet that is composed of mostly royal family members from the al Kalifa royal family. Bahrain does have universal suffrage where the population votes for members of the upper and lower houses of parliament. The Islamists of both Shia (I've been calling them Shiites in previous posts. I believe it's interchangeable) and Sunni ethnicities have been using their electoral strength to pass laws that reflect their religious views and don't necessarily reflect the views of more liberal Bahrainis.

In terms of  independence, Bahrain gained independence first from Persia in 1783. Way back then, the area that is Bahrain now drew attention from outsiders because of the wealth it offered, and this was even before the oil was discovered. A war was fought and the Persians lost. Since that time, Bahrain has been under the rule of the al Khalifa royal family. They ended a treaty with the British in 1971. That treaty had rules about the Bahraini's involvement with other countries, and also rules about what to do with their land disposal and acquisitions. Ending the treaty was something all sides agreed on. Bahrain couldn't agree with terms of a union with other Arab countries, so they became completely independent. Since that time, they have stayed under the monarchy of the al Khalifa royal family.

The Protests
The main causes cited as the reasons for the protests include: discrimination against the Shia majority of Bahrain, lack of secular representation in government, lack of political freedom, hatred of the 2002 constitution, no longer having a constitutional assembly, and no longer wanting the monarchy ruling over the country.

Bahrain already has a history in recent decades of responding harshly to criticism and uprisings from its people. A number of the problems facing Bahrain now are the same problems that caused unrest in the 1990s.

The protests in Bahrain started on February 14th with an emulation of Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt. The protesters gathered at the Pearl Roundabout in the capital city of Manama and made plans to stay for many days until their early demands of more equality for the Shia majority were met.

The Bahraini government ordered a night raid on February 17th that enraged the protesters and led them to add the ouster of the Bahraini monarchy to their list of demands. The people gathered to protest were numbered in the thousands with more showing up each day to join in. There were reports of live ammunition being used against the protesters by security forces. There was no showing of restraint in spite of the large presence of women and children from the beginning stages of the protest.

As February wore on, the protests were joined in large number by people from all walks of economic life in Bahrain. Protesters lost, then regained Pearl Roundabout as clashes with security forces waned. There began to be reports of pro-monarchy protesters out and gathered in large numbers around Manama to support the monarchy. Those numbers conflicted with the number of anti-monarchy protesters and the total number of the population of Bahrain.

At the end of February, the protesters organized a day to mourn those who had been killed during the protests and the security forces didn't bother them that day. Also around this time, King Hamad ordered the release of over 300 political prisoners.

As February rolled into early March, the King fired some ministers and rescinded loans. Those loans were part of the problem that the majority saw as discrimination in Bahrain. But the changes didn't appease the opposition. They said the government was trying to placate them by making changes they never asked for and avoiding the real issue. There were protests each day, some that blocked various government buildings and shut them down for the day. The protesters also continued to occupy Pearl Roundabout.

On March 3rd, the first reported incident of sectarian violence took place between young Sunnis and Shiites in Hamad Town. The police had to use tear gas to disperse them. The protests the next day called for Sunni-Shia harmony in addition to their other chants. The opposition leaders announced around this time that they were willing to enter talks with the government to address their grievances and they submitted their demands to the government.

 The protesters numbers continued to grow and as March wore on, the protests began to regularly include marches to government buildings, calls for the ouster of the king and a formation of a Bahraini republic, and calls for Sunni-Shia harmony and unity.

On March 14th, the protests were happening all over in large numbers of thousands at Pearl Roundabout and small numbers of not even 100 at local schools. The government called in troops from other countries to help suppress the protests and guard key facilities, such as oil and gas installations. The protesters remained in the roundabout for a month, after which the king declared a state of emergency (on March 15th), which was to last three months.

The calling in of troops from other countries has led some in Bahrain to feel the king has declared war against the opposition. Some of the opposition leaders support talks with the government to bring about reforms. Others do not. This situation is evolving daily, and I'm on the edge of my seat waiting to see what will happen next.

More information can be found at wikipedia.org, washingtonpost.com, and http://www.guardian.co.uk/.

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