Demanding equal rights in Bahrain

Many Shia citizens of Gulf island demand ouster of PM, and less power for the ruling Khalifa family.

Bahrain Pearl protesters
Abdul Amir Al-Basri says he was beaten by police after peacefully protesting in Bahrain [Ben Piven/AJE]

Manama, Bahrain – Abdul Amir Al-Basri looks sullen and defeated, with a deep black bruise below his right eye, a large bump on the top of his head, and further evidence of police mistreatment on his right hip and ankle.

A driver for the Almoayyed Group, one of Bahrain’s biggest conglomerates, Al-Basri missed at least one week of work, as he was detained in Hod Al-Jaf prison on the island of Muharraq near the airport. He says he spent four days there, along with two other detainees who were also picked up on the morning of February 17, when Manama police raided peaceful protesters camped out at Pearl Roundabout.

Authorities accused Al-Basri, 37, of monitoring the security services on behalf of the protesters. He admits to being an informal organiser for the anti-government demonstrators who occupy the symbolic heart of the city. But he denies that he was spying on the police. His case is illustrative of tensions that were significantly inflamed by last week’s clashes.

Al-Basri has suffered worse brutality than most Bahrainis who side with the opposition. But his case is representative of the gripes that predominantly Shia anti-government protesters harbor against Bahrain’s ruling clique.

For him, political issues top the list, but economic problems are not far behind. And socioeconomic disparities between the Sunni elite and Shia protesters are accentuated by sectarian differences. Many believe the government is keen to play up the religious rift as part of a divide-and-conquer strategy.

Shia are a majority of Bahraini nationals, though citizens are only half of the country’s approximately 1.2 million population – the other half being migrant workers, mostly from South Asia.

Defusing the political crisis

Bahrain’s king has sought negotiations to end the long-running political standoff that escalated February 14 with the first in a string of anti-government protesters shot dead.

The main Shia Islamist bloc, Wefaq, had rejected the advance as long as the military was in the street. Although the army pulled back a week ago, Wefaq seems poised to take advantage of political cachet gained after security forces killed seven protesters in a public relations catastrophe for the regime.

Bahrain’s anti-government camp is calling for a genuine constitutional democracy in which “the royal family is no longer a ruling family, but just a royal family”, says Ibrahim Sharif, leader of the secular-liberal Wa’ad party and the most prominent Sunni member of the opposition.

The protesters are requesting a new prime minister who is popularly elected and a bicameral parliament – with newly enhanced powers – that is fully elected. Currently, the upper house of parliament is selected by the king and dominates the lower house, elected by the people as per the 2002 constitution.

“We don’t yet know whether [the government] is serious and whether the principle of the dialogue is to end up with a constitution where the people elect 100 per cent of the parliament,” Sharif tells Al Jazeera. “If not, then there’s no point sitting at the table.”

Wefaq leaders explain their party’s platform [AJE]

Core structural changes – if enacted – could pacify the protesters, who complain that about half of cabinet posts are filled by members of the Khalifa family.

During the past few days, the government has already moved to sack five ministers and has announced the release of 300 prisoners, including 23 alleged terror suspects. The selection of two Shia to become housing and health ministers likely aims to reverse discrimination in public services.

At Bahrain’s protests, “Down, down, Khalifa” (in English) is a common slogan. While hard-line protesters want to boot the whole family, every demonstrator is passionate about the ouster of Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, who assumed office in 1971.

In his address to the nation on February 18, accomodating Crown Prince Salman, whose job is more secure than the prime minister’s, said, “Youths are going out on the street believing that they have no future in the country … But this country is for you all, for the Shia and Sunnis”.

Despite this claim, protesters say the situation on the ground is different. The Bahraini security forces are mostly made up of Sunnis from countries like Jordan, Yemen and Pakistan – allegedly including those who opened fire on Bahrainis in their own capital.

Economic malaise

Continued political upheaval in the island kingdom threatens to derail a vibrant economy, but protesters say they have waited long enough, that a Formula One Grand Prix event cancellation by the crown prince is a small price to pay.

The Index of Economic Freedom, published by the Heritage Foundation and the Wall Street Journal, lists Bahrain as the freest economy in the Middle East/North Africa. It is tenth overall in the world, just behind the US.

Unlike many other Gulf states, Bahrain is not entirely driven by petroleum. The government has fashioned Bahrain as a business and commercial hub to attract investment. Decent employment and a piece of national prosperity are the main economic demands of anti-government protesters.

In the 2010 Corruption Perceptions Index, Bahrain was ranked 48th in the world, reflective of a gradual decline since 2003, when it was ranked 27th. This is a shift grasped by protesters, who reject the domineering Khalifa family – which makes up less than half of one per cent of Bahrain’s population.

Many young Shia suggest that pervasive bias prevents them from advancing professionally. And they also accuse the government of bringing in foreign Sunnis instead of hiring Bahraini Shia.

A young woman who gave her name as Mona says she could not get a permanent contract to work in a public sector department because she is Shia.

“At my previous government job, I was referred by a Sunni friend, but they didn’t know I was Shia,” says Mona. “Then they asked her why she had helped advance a Shia’s career. In certain sensitive projects, they just don’t want us involved.”

Mona extrapolated the current Bahraini situation onto the pyramid representing psychologist Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. “Al Khalifa wants to keep people wanting to fulfill just basic necessities,” she says. “Once we move up, then we’ll demand more and more political goodies.”

But Mona also says that the psychology of the protest movement is rooted in the particularly Shia concept of suffering and Imam Hussein’s struggle.

Mona also alludes to a doctrinal difference that compels Bahrain’s Shia – who largely belong to the sect led by Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, based in Najaf, Iraq – to overthrow their political leadership if it is taking the country in the wrong direction.

Mona believes that the struggle for political change in Bahrain is religiously infused, but she acknowledges that their demands are socioeconomic at heart.

“I grew up in a mixed area of Manama, and most of my friends are Sunni. Half my family is Sunni. Three of my cousins are married to Sunnis. My mother’s brother is married to a Sunni,” Mona says. “And two of my husband’s siblings are married to Sunnis.”

She continues, “They used to celebrate Ashura with us. If a Sunni woman couldn’t get pregnant, she would come eat our rice to increase her fertility”.

Deep sectarian split

“We had no dates for Valentine’s Day, so we came here on February 14 [Bahrain’s ‘Day of Rage’] to have a date with our country”

Maryam, anti-government protester at Pearl Roundabout

One young Bahrain University student at Pearl Roundabout named Jasmine says she has Shia friends with grade point averages of 97 out of 100 who are unable to get good jobs.

But Jasmine also says that she was happy with the sense of camaraderie generated by the protest movement, mentioning a banner that reads: “Thank you, Khalifa. You brought us together”.

Another college student, Maryam, studies at the New York Institute of Technology in Manama. She remembers the first day that she and her two sisters came to Pearl Roundabout.

“We had no dates for Valentine’s Day, so we came here on February 14 [Bahrain’s ‘Day of Rage’] to have a date with our country.”

Maryam says that after the February 17 police raid on Pearl Roundabout, many of her Sunni classmates who normally say “hi” in the hallway simply do not acknowledge her.

“And at least 12 people un-followed me on Twitter,” Maryam says, explaining how many of her Sunni friends did not approve of her tweets in support of the opposition.

Jasmine, the Bahrain University student, adds that she de-friended 10 of her 222 Facebook friends to avoid the awkwardness of pro-government classmates reading her anti-government status updates.

One student from Sacred Heart high school, Mohamed Al-Arian, identifies as an anti-government protester. He comes from a mixed marriage, with a Shia father and a Sunni mother. He summarises the conflict bluntly, “They [Sunnis] just don’t want to be ruled by Shias”.

Protest leaders say that few Sunni anti-government people can be found at Pearl Roundabout, but Mesh’al Mohamed, 22, an electric guitarist, has returned many times.

“Most Sunnis are afraid to come here. Their biggest fear is physical safety,” he says, adding that he considers himself apolitical. “But no one would agree to see their brothers and sisters killed without doing anything about it.”

Pearl Roundabout casualties

“We like Hezbollah, yes. Iran, yes,” says Said Jalal, a 45-year-old accountant from Manama. “Everybody likes Hassan Nasrallah. And we all watch Al Manar and Al Alam [television networks run by Hezbollah and the Iranian government, respectively] … But this current political crisis is an internal matter to be resolved by the Bahraini people”.

His acquaintance, Nabeel Murad, 38, follows that line of reasoning. “Bahraini people don’t have any problem with people of any nationality. We are friendly people. There aren’t any terrorists [in Pearl Roundabout].”


Jasim Husain Ali, a university professor and former member of the lower house of parliament from the Wefaq party, says that the February 17 assault on peaceful protesters at Pearl Roundabout “only prolongs the crisis”. At a press conference the following day, he says, “The crime of the day only makes things worse. We call for a probe into the military crackdown.”

In the aftermath of the attack, Bahrain’s state TV showed pictures of pistols and knives that had allegedly been kept by protesters at Pearl Roundabout. State media also said that security forces gave fair warning before evicting demonstrators from the symbolic heart of Manama.

But opposition members say that if people had guns, they would have been used to protect women and children. They also say that people would not have brought families to the roundabout if they expected violence.

Eyewitnesses said that demonstrators yelled “peaceful, peaceful” at the police but were only given a one-minute warning – from a tiny megaphone not audible from most of the square – before the police began firing tear gas, rubber bullets, and shotgun pellets at close range.

Abdul Rahman, a Sunni Bahraini who has a family-owned optical business at upscale Seef Mall, believes that the protesters were largely at fault. He argues that no one was actually sleeping at the square and that proper warning was given. Rahman also says the current parliamentary system works perfectly well.

“A lot of Shia don’t even agree with what’s happening,” he says. “But tomorrow, if the government makes certain changes against my interests, then I’ll be sitting in that roundabout too.”

Khalil Marzouk was vice president of the parliament before his Wefaq party withdrew to protest the speed of reforms. Marzouk says that the regime had no excuse to use the army. “You cannot go up to someone sleeping and say go home and then start shooting him,” he says. “But, the bottom line is nobody cares who rules as long as they get human rights.”

Though hard-liners on both sides may have had the upper hand last week, the region anxiously waits to see whether cooler heads in the government and the opposition manage to prevent a “slow burn”, as anti-government protesters have warned.

“The dialogue should start at Pearl Roundabout” remains the stance of disaffected Bahrainis who fear that yet more citizens will have to die before the government meets their demands.

Source: Al Jazeera