Bahrain: Protesters remain defiant

Brutal attacks and repression fail to stop demonstrations

The masses in Bahrain have overcome their fear of confronting the repression and brutality of the ruling regime. The government thought that it has crushed the protest movement after the brutal police attack on sleeping protestors at midnight last Wednesday and when they cleared Pearl Square. The regime also deployed the army to frighten the masses. But thousands of protestors came out on the streets on Thursday and Friday and confronted the brutality of the security forces. At least a dozen protesters were reportedly killed Thursday in clashes with police. More than 66 were injured last Friday when the army fired live ammunition at demonstrators. This leaves more than 15 dead and over 350 injured since last Monday. Nearly one hundred are still missing and it is feared that many may be arrested or killed by the security forces during bloody raid.

If the government thought that by stepping up repression and displaying state brutality against the protestors will solve its problem, they found their answer in the thousands who turned out for the funerals of two of those killed, shouting slogans such as “Down with the government!” together with calls for those responsible for the killings to be punished. Some have gone beyond the initial demands and are even calling for the removal of the royal family.

The scale of the protests and determination of the masses have shaken the regime. In a bid to stop further demonstrations, the Crown Prince announced the intention to withdraw army from the streets.

Initially the protesters were calling on the Sunni monarchy to adopt more liberal policies, democratic rights and also grant more rights for the country’s majority Shiite population. But as the movement grew in strength the demands of the protesters have become bolder, calling for jobs, better housing conditions and release of all political prisoners.

Thousands of cheering Bahrainis flocked to Pearl Square last weekend as the military and the police withdrew from the area. They raised their hands in victory as they reached the roundabout and began setting up tents.

Protesters said they planned to camp at the site until their demands were fulfilled.

The tiny kingdom of Bahrain is a key part of Washington’s military counterbalance to Iran, hosting the US Navy’s 5th Fleet. Bahrain’s rulers and their Arab allies depict any sign of unrest among their Shiite populations as a move by neighboring Shiite-majority Iran to expand its clout in the region.

While part of the recent revolt in the Arab world, the underlying tensions in Bahrain are decades old and pit the majority Shiites against the Sunni elite. The willingness to resort to violence against largely peaceful demonstrators was a sign of how deeply the monarchy fears the repercussions of a prolonged wave of protests.

The protesters have two main objectives: force the ruling Sunni monarchy to give up its control over top government posts and all critical decisions, and address deep grievances held by the country’s majority Shiites, who make up 70% of Bahrain’s 500,000 citizens and claim they face systematic discrimination and poverty and are effectively blocked from key roles in public service and the military.

Many protesters called for the government to provide more jobs and better housing, free all political detainees and abolish the system that offers Bahraini citizenship to Sunnis from around the Middle East.

Thousands of mourners in the village of Sitra, east of Manama, chanted slogans calling for the ousting of the regime of the al-Khalifa dynasty, as well as songs urging unity between the Shiite majority and Sunni minority.

Protesters have taken efforts to avoid actions that would give them a sectarian image, waving the national red-and-white Bahraini flag and chanting slogans such as: "There are no Sunnis or Shi’ites, just Bahraini unity."

They chanted "people want to overthrow the regime" — the slogan used by anti-regime protesters across the Arab world inspired by the uprisings of Tunisia and Egypt which brought down the former two strongmen of the Western-backed countries.

In addition to withdrawal of security forces, the main opposition demands are the release of political prisoners, resignation of the government and talks on a new constitution.

Calls were made for Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa to step down after nearly 40 years in power.

Divided royal family

It is becoming clear that there are differences in the royal family and ruling Sunni elite. One faction led by Crown Prince wants to give concessions to the protesting masses to calm down the situation but the other faction led by the long time prime minister opposes giving any concessions and wants to crush the protests with state power.

A decade ago Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa enacted a constitution allowing elections for a parliament with some powers, but royals still dominate a cabinet led by the king’s uncle who has been prime minister for 40 years. Formally speaking, Bahrain is a “democracy”, with a constitutional monarchy that was established back in 2001. In 2002 a 40-member parliament was elected in the first elections for 30 years. However, the monarch maintained supreme authority and his family members occupy key posts in politics and the military apparatus. The Khalifah family has in fact ruled the country since 1783, although for years it was under a British protectorate status.

There was growing speculation that Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa will be replaced with the crown prince on an interim basis.

Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa is posing himself as a moderator and reformist and some one different from the rest of ruling elite and royal family. Both the factions wanted to keep the control over the country. The only difference is that one wanted to keep ruling through some reforms and other wanted to continue to rule with iron hand.

Speaking on Bahrain State TV, Crown Prince Salman expressed regret for ’these painful days’ and called for unity. ’We are at a crossroads,’ he said. He told Al Arabiya television that "We want to correct this situation and prevent its repetition…The protesters in Pearl Roundabout represent a very significant proportion of our society and our political belief," the crown prince told CNN. "But there are other forces at work here. This is not Egypt and this is not Tunisia. And what we don’t want to do, like in Northern Ireland, is to descend into militia warfare or sectarianism," he said in the interview, aired late on Saturday.

For more than two decades, the king has been favoring a minority of non-Bahraini emigrants and denying the native citizens employment and participation in certain governmental sectors.

He is desperately trying to avoid the Egyptian like situation in which mass mobilisation and massive demonstrations forced Hosni Mubarik to resign. But he himself, his family and ruling elite is responsible for the miserable conditions faced by the masses. He is not the solution but integral part of the problem. The only way to correct the situation is the removal of the royal family and ruling elite from the power and replaced by the genuinely elected democratic government of the working masses. The replacement of the Sunni ruling elite with the Shia ruling elite or deal between the two will not solve the basic problems faced by the masses.

According to the World Bank, in gross national product per head was estimated to be $40,400 in 2010, far higher than most countries in the region. The country is a centre for banking and a financial service centre and has what is considered to be a “reasonably prosperous economy”. It has the structure of an advanced economy, with only 0.5% of its GDP coming from agriculture, while industry provides 56.6% and services 42.9%.

But official youth unemployment presently stands at 19.6%. While this is the case for most young people, the country is treated as a playground for the rulers of neighbouring countries, such as Saudi Arabia, who while they impose strict Islamic laws on their own people have no qualms about enjoying the more Western-style entertainment available in Bahrain.

The social contradictions, in what is formally a wealthy country, are at the root of the present protests. But it is not merely a question of social and economic problems. It is also one of a people that has suffered under an authoritarian government, albeit one with a “constitutional” monarchy, that yearns for freedom. The events in Egypt have shown the people of Bahrain that even the most oppressive of dictatorships can be overthrown.

And now, as in Egypt, Western governments have suddenly discovered the need for “restraint” and for the government of Bahrain to “listen” to the concerns of the protestors.

The hypocrisy of western governments stinks to high heaven. For years, they have done good business with the rulers of Bahrain. The UK government even provides them with the weapons, including the tear gas that is being used on the protesters today. Now they will have to face the consequences in the form of the revolt of the working people of Bahrain.

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February 2011