Black smoke billows from burning tents in Pearl Square. Manama, Bahrain, March 15, 2011.
The following is a basic primer on what's happening in Bahrain. You can also jump straight to today's updates.
The hospitals of the tiny Gulf kingdom of Bahrain were packed with wounded after the military opened fire on large crowds of protesters and mourners on February 18.
Nabeel Rajab, a persecuted activist who directs the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, has been dodging tear gas, rubber bullets, and live ammunition as a leader of Bahrain's pro-democracy uprisings. "People are very shocked that the king has ordered his troops to kill the people," he told Mother Jones in a phone interview while leaving the funeral of a murdered protester. "It's a sad time. I fear things are going to deteriorate."
What follows is an overview of what's brought Rajab and up to 10,000 other demonstrators onto the streets of this Gulf island—and led to the brutal crackdown on the 18th.
Bahrain at a Glance
Bahrain is home to 1.3 million people and located off the coast of Saudi Arabia. It has been ruled by the Sunni Muslim Al-Khalifa family for more than 200 years. Bahrain receives military aid from the US, provides logistical support for US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, and hosts the US Navy's Fifth Fleet. Its oil-driven economy has created concentrated wealth, particularly in Bahrain's liberal, cosmopolitan capital city of Manama.
Yet the glitz and glamour of Manama’s skyscrapers and shopping malls mask the country's grinding poverty and deep sectarian divides. The nation's residential communities are starkly segregated— Sunni Muslims, westerners, Shiite Muslims, and South Asian migrant workers (who are not citizens but constitute almost half of Bahrain’s population) generally live in separate neighborhoods. The impoverished villages and slums surrounding Manama almost exclusively house Shiites. Shiites are culturally and ethnically distinct from Sunnis, and hold different interpretations of their Islamic faith. The majority—around 70 percent—of Bahrain's citizens are Shiites.
Although some sympathetic, progressive Sunni Muslims are participating in the current uprisings, the vast majority of protesters are Shiites. (A small fraction, including Rajab, are of mixed Sunni and Shiite background.)
What sparked Bahrain’s uprisings?
The Feb. 14 "day of rage" launched via Facebook by Bahraini youth was, of course, inspired by the successful uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. However, anger among Shiites in Bahrain had been bubbling for decades. For the past several years, Shiite youth in outlying villages have organized small scale protest riots that garnered little media attention.
In the early 2000s, some Shiite exiles returned to Bahrain after a new king instituted democratic reforms, including elections for a parliamentary advisory council. A few years later, however, the government resumed its aggressive censorship, intimidation, and torture of regime critics, most of whom are Shiite. One Sunni critic, women’s rights activist Ghada Jamsheer, was put under media blackout by the Bahraini government after blasting the regime’s Sharia'a courts in the Arab media. Time Magazine honored her as one of four "heroes of freedom" in the Arab world.
In the later half of 2010, the Bahraini government escalated is suppression of civil society. Authorities reportedly detained about 250 people, used torture to extract "terrorism" confessions, and closed numerous websites, publications, and non-profits that had criticized the government—including Rajab’s Bahrain Center for Human Rights. "All the time there are articles describing me as a traitor or a terrorist," says Rajab. "For a human rights activist here, this is the environment."
Faraz Sanei, a Bahrain specialist for Human Rights Watch, says that Rajab's experience is part of a troubling trend. "There are very few independent human rights organizations in Bahrain today," he said. "Most are essentially pro-government and are very close to the government."
What do demonstrators want?
Earlier this week, Bahrain's protesters were clamoring for equal political and legal rights, as well as protections against job discrimination. However, following the government’s lethal suppression, the protesters have hardened their demands. "Now they want to change the whole regime, instead of having reforms," says Rajab. "I don’t know how we can accept a leader who killed his own people."
How is this similar / different from Tunisia and Egypt?
In Egypt and Tunisia, Sunnis make up the vast majority of the population, and no major sectarian conflict drove the protests. Secularists, Islamists, Christians, the poor, the middle class, the wealthy, and ultimately even the army united against dictatorship. So far, the protesters in Bahrain have been overwhelmingly Shiite. Bahrain’s military is overwhelmingly Sunni and many of its soldiers harbor racist prejudices against Shiites. Bahrain arguably has much more in common with Iraq, a country with similarly stark divides between Sunni and Shiite communities.
What are the strategic implications for the US?
Bahrain's western and Saudi allies fear that, if the Shiite majority gain full control of the government, this could strengthen their adversaries in Shiite-ruled Iran. (Shiites constitute a majority of citizens in only four countries: Iran, Iraq, Bahrain, and Azerbaijan.) Wikileaks cables revealed that Saudi and Bahraini leaders urged US officials to take military action against Iran's nuclear program. The US considers its Fifth Fleet, which is hosted by Bahrain, to be an important counterbalance to Iran. Some Bahrainis have alleged that Saudi troops are helping to put down the uprisings.
On the eve of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s visit to Bahrain three months ago, Bahraini human rights organizations co-authored an open letter urging her to denounce the government’s escalating human rights abuses. (Rajab was one of the signers on the letter.) Clinton, however, chose not to publicly condemn a staunch US ally.