By Evgeniya Novikova:
The Shia minority in Bahrain demands political change. Even though yesterday’s protests were suppressed, there was bloodshed and tanks in the center of the capital, showing that the opposition is getting ready for new mass actions. The army insists that the situation is under control and is employing all means to provide security. Russian analysts say that the actions of the opposition have been coordinated from outside and targeted at the Americans.
For a new Constitution!
The first demonstration unfolded in Karkazan, a Shia village south of the capital, on Sunday, February 13. Then, the second demonstration was held in a Nuvaydrat village, the island of Sitra on February 14. People poured into the streets of the capital on February 16. Under the guidance of their own party, Shiites demanded political reforms, release of political detainees and the resignation of the Prime Minister, Khalifah ibn Sulman al-Khalifah, the uncle of the reigning king. Some Sunnites joined them, guided by the idea that asking for political freedom was not enough. Media reports estimate that there were several thousand demonstrators. The opposition did not call for change of the regime.
The Shiites, in order to amend suspicions of possibly changing a civil regime to a theocratic one, stated: “We’re not looking for a religious state. We’re looking for a civilian democracy… in which people are the source of power, and to do that we need a new constitution!” At least, that’s what Sheikh Ali Salman, the leader of the Shiite opposition group Al Wefaq, said.
The king tried to defuse the revolt by promising to give cash payouts of $2,700 to anyone who was dissatisfied; some of that money had already been transferred to citizens’ bank accounts. However, the effort did not prove effective. Demonstrations continued and the government had to use force. Last night, the police dispersed a tent camp set on the Pearl Roundabout of Manama using truncheons and fired tear gas at the demonstrators. The opposition informed that about four people were killed and 95 injured. The authorities promised to investigate the case. The monarch has expressed condolences and confirmed his intention to continue with the reforms.
Bahrain is one of the most open and liberal countries in the Arab world. Abundance of oil, fresh water, fishing grounds and colonies of pearl oysters constitute the basis of this country’s economy. The vast majority of the country is Muslim, 30 percent Sunnis and 70 percent Shiites. Sunnis have full power, including kingship. Shiites consider themselves an oppressed majority. Both assertions are deemed equal under the law. Since 1999, the monarch Khalifah ibn Sulman al-Khalifah has been passing democratic reforms as much as it is possible to do in the East. One of the reforms passed by the king is extending the right to vote to women and, in general, equal rights for men and women. In addition, a bicameral Parliament was created where the lower chamber is democratically elected and the upper chamber appointed by the king. The monarch has even appointed women, Christians and Jewish representatives to the upper chamber. During the last parliamentary elections, various opposition groups such as al-Wefaq, and Sunni and Shiite radicals, were democratically elected and received almost half of the seats in the lower chamber. Together, they are fighting against democratic innovations imposed by the king.
Dialectics of a blow
It is worth to note that Bahrain has one of the largest U.S. naval bases in the region. The Persian Gulf, with the Strait of Hormuz and the Bab-el-Mandeb Strait, open access to the Red Sea and the Suez Canal have been under the control of Washington for almost 40 years. Alexander Ignatenko, President of the Institute for Religion and Politics, believes that Shiite unrest in Bahrain is a political game played by Iran as a response to U.S. attempts to encourage Iranian opposition to the Ayatollah regime (see yesterday’s material). Also, in his interview to the Expert Online he suggested that: “The Iranian people, by initiating this revolt in Bahrain, are aiming not only at Al Khalifa, the king of Bahrain, but at the American interests in this country.”
The recent events in Bahrain are not connected to the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, although the organizers have used the current chaos and panic in the Arab world as a tool. Unlike economically disadvantaged Tunisia and Egypt, small and oil rich Bahrain provides its citizens with quite a good quality of life. Dissatisfaction is not economically motivated; that is why there were no economic related demands.
Tehran suspects that the U.S. and Israel are assisting the Iranian opposition. Yesterday, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the President of Iran, voiced this suspicion. Also, Hillary Clinton did not reject the accusation and just stated that the U.S. State Department has created accounts on Twitter in Farsi to communicate with the Iranian people. “The Iranian ‘Green Movement’ is in no way associated with the Americans. But the movement involves large groups of people: the youth, students, etc. Americans use the opposition in their favor by radicalizing it and leading it in the direction they find beneficial,” says Alexander Ignatenko. “The American goal is to throw off the regime using the opposition.”
Indeed, it is known that Americans work with Iranians in exile, inside the country. At the least, Tehran fishes out American spies, every now and then. “The U.S. has long been working on destabilizing the situation in Iran,” confirms the analyst. “And Iran does the same for the U.S., in their area of interest. As an example, people from the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps live in Lebanon on a permanent basis while the Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of Hezbollah, has an official position as the authorized representative of Rahbar Khamenei in Lebanon,” reminds Ignatenko. Besides, Iran has a strong influence over Southern Iraq, particularly over the oil province in the region of Basra, populated by the Shiites. “Not long ago, a Shiite-Iraqi leader Muqtada al-Sadr, visited the province. Previously, he had spent several years in Iran, improving his theological qualification in Qom. He does not conceal the fact that he is an Iranian emissary,” says the analyst. Taking into account that the U.S. is withdrawing its troops from Iraq, acts of Shiite defiance can be expected.
Moreover, Saudi Arabia, the U.S. ally, can also become destabilized at any moment: King Abdullah II is ill, there is a dispute among the elite about the throne succession and not all the members of the family agree that a direct heir should come to the throne. It is possible that the leader of “al-Qaeda,” Osama bin Laden, now lives in Saudi Arabia and is against the Abdullah family. Shiites densely populate Al-Hasa, the western province of the country where all the oil is located. “It is also possible that the Iranian people will try to organize revolts in the countries that the U.S. plans to use to attack Iran,” reflects Ignatenko. However, it is possible that for the first time Bahrain will be enough.
Will the monarch al-Khalifa be able to stay in power? He is now in a very complicated position. The problem is that there was bloodshed and Shiite martyrs have emerged. This worsens the religious conflict. Submitting to the opposition is a great risk and no matter what the concessions are, the demands will be growing. But the tanks are out there in the streets and they may become a hefty instrument in this game.
As it became known late on Thursday evening, any gatherings and demonstrations had been prohibited; the army was on the streets blocking civilian attempts to organize rallies or demonstrations. Trucks took organizers away to police stations. The Ministry of Internal Affairs has promised to use any means possible to restore order.
U.S. President Barack Obama requested a report on the situation in the Arab world in the summer of 2010. The report warned about the readiness of the countries in the region to start revolts. According to The New York Times, the report addressed the problem of linking U.S. strategic interests and the desire to avoid disturbance to the democratic demands of protesters. But Washington did not yet define its position on the crisis in Bahrain.
Translated By Natalia Dresner