UPDATED Feb. 16 at 8:50 a.m.
Bahrain is emerging as a key focal point in the unrest sweeping across the Middle East, as protesters staged a third straight day of demonstrations today and vowed to bring at least 50,000 to the streets on Saturday.
After the fall of secular dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, democracy movements across the Persian Gulf now face a sterner test as they confront autocratic monarchs such as Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa, whose ruling Al Khalifah family has held absolute power for more than two centuries.
The king made a rare apology yesterday for the death of two protesters in clashes with police earlier this week, and promised to set up a committee to investigate the killings. The kingdom's Sunni rulers, who face an increasingly restless Shiite majority, have also promised grants of $2,500 to each family and an increase in food subsidies.
But antigovernment protesters are insistent in their demands, which include political reform and improved human rights in the diminutive Persian Gulf kingdom. The country's political opposition has suspended its participation in parliament, and hundreds of protesters today occupied a central square in Bahrain's capital, Manama.
Seven opposition groups have come together to organize protests for Saturday, hoping to draw as many as 100,000 but expecting at least half that, the Wall Street Journal reported.
While experiencing tremors similar to those elsewhere in the Middle East following Tunisia and Egypt's revolutions, Bahrain has the added element of sectarian divisions, which are adding fuel to the calls for greater political freedom. The Al Khalifah family belongs to the Sunni sect of Islam and trace their origins to the Arabian peninsula but are a minority in the country. A majority of the population is Shiite, with strong links to Iran.
Furthermore, the powers that be have consistently practiced a form of sectarian apartheid by not allowing Shiites to hold key government posts or serve in the police or military. In fact, the security forces are staffed by Sunnis from Syria, Pakistan, and Baluchistan who also get fast-tracked to Bahraini citizenship, much to the displeasure of the indigenous Shiite population.
Unlike oil-rich Qatar, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain doesn't have petrodollars to spend on the cradle-to-grave welfare systems that have kept a lid on reform movements in those countries.
Christopher Davidson, a specialist in Gulf Affairs at the University of Durham in the United Kingdom, says the situation in Bahrain should be seen as a case of economic disenfranchisement magnified by underlying sectarian tensions.
“Post-oil Bahrain has unemployment and few opportunities for the young population," he says. "However, there is the added dimension of sectarian unrest, with the Shia majority population having historically been second-class citizens to the ruling Sunni elites.“
Not a new phenomenon
Unlike the shock that greeted the uprising in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, Bahrain has long been the scene of political discontent. During the Iran-Iraq War in the 1980s and again in the 1990s, the Bahraini government repeatedly jailed member of Shiite political groups calling for greater political representation.
Such actions were justified in terms of national security threats amid lingering territorial claims by Iran over Bahrain. Attempts at political reform in 2002 that changed the country from an emirate to a constitutional monarchy have so far failed to yield meaningful change.
However, if the current maelstrom of political reform rushing through the region unites both the Shiite underclass with middle-class Sunnis tired of the status quo, the Al Khalifah dynasty may be forced to cede more power to the people, or use greater force to suppress dissent.
In a country where “divide and conquer” has been so exquisitely practiced, the protesters’ chant of “Not Sunni, Nor Shia, but Bahraini” is one certain to cause concern among the ruling family.