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Security Presence in Bahrain Squashes Embers of Uprising

May 13, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
Ray Suarez gets an update form Margaret Warner, who is reporting in the Bahraini capital, Manama.
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RAY SUAREZ: Margaret Warner is now in the Bahraini capital, Manama, reporting for the NewsHour.

Margaret, you have been on the ground in Bahrain a few days. What can you see? Are you aware, as you move around, that this is a country putting down an uprising?

MARGARET WARNER: Absolutely, Ray.

In Manama, the capital, you see tanks by the side of the road. You see riot police and military manning checkpoints around the city. It is not a heavy, heavy security presence here in this financial hub that is the capital.

But you do — you do feel it. The situation is very different when you go out to the Shiite villages. And we went to one today, Diraz, to hear the Bahraini Shiite ayatollah deliver the Friday prayers. And there you do see armored vehicles out on the highway, checkpoints, military convoys cruising around, riot police cruising around.

And the — just by happenstance, the mosque that we had chosen to visit over the night — overnight, we were told, had been vandalized by security forces, the television sets and sound system ripped out, other allegations of other kinds of destruction.

Now, when we got there, new TVs had been installed, and the sound system appeared to be working fine. But what was striking, at least to my producer and I who were on the women’s side of this, with about 1,000 women, was a pervasive sense of fear.

A lot of women, all in their black abayas, clustered around us wanted to tell us their stories about night raids on their villages or friends or relatives or co-workers who had been in detention. Some of these women from nurses, some were doctors, some were teachers. And yet they were afraid, most of them, to talk on camera.

One woman said imagine what it is like to be sleeping in bed with your husband and masked men come in. And another woman said, we want to tell our — tell the world our story, but we’re afraid we will be targets.

And even when we drove out of town on our way back to Manama and stopped at a really upscale coffee shop, when my cameraman tried to start shooting out the — out the plate glass front at a convoy of riot police going by, the manager rushed over and said, no, no, please don’t do that, or they will come in and trash my place.

RAY SUAREZ: It sounds like a pretty heavy government response. Have you been free to move around?

MARGARET WARNER: Oh, actually we have, Ray. This is not Syria.

It is not so heavy that — that — and we have not been inhibited, actually, at all. What we’re finding is people we want to talk to feel inhibited.

RAY SUAREZ: And can you see continuing resistance as you do your reporting?

MARGARET WARNER: Ray, that’s another huge difference with Syria. There aren’t signs of continuing resistance, or not much.

Today, for example, the February 14 movement, an Internet-based movement, had called for massive protests if all women in detention weren’t released. There was no massive protest across this country. There were flash protests in some of the villages. For example, in Diraz, where we were, a group of young men told us they tried a little gathering around 3:00, and immediately the police came in and dispersed them and detonated what they call here sound bombs, which sort of scatters people.

The fact is this is a country under a state of emergency. And so any group larger than five or six can be broken up by police. All protests are disallowed. So, yes, we see graffiti that say things like “Death to the ruling gang.”

But this — I think the test will come when, on June 1, as King Hamad announced earlier this week, the state of emergency is going to be lifted earlier than expected. That will be the test of whether the protests resume.

RAY SUAREZ: The world has watched as, one after another, countries have taken to the streets. How is Bahrain different from Tunisia, Egypt, and Yemen, where you reported, Syria?

MARGARET WARNER: Well, big difference certainly with Tunisia and Egypt, this is, first of all, a sectarian divide. This is not a predominantly Sunni country.

This is a country where a smaller Sunni royal family and minority rules over a Shiite majority that says it feels oppressed and discriminated against. And so you have got this built-in tension that is already having repercussions throughout the region.

Secondly, you have got the neighbors with big stakes. Tiny Bahrain is sandwiched between two Persian Gulf antagonists, Saudi Arabia and Iran. And each in its own way is exacerbating tensions here.

Another difference is U.S. stake. Bahrain actually matters a lot to the United States. The U.S. Navy Fifth Fleet is based here. And U.S. oil interests in the Gulf come into play. Even though Bahrain’s oil production is not terribly high anymore, the Saudi royal family is concerned that any real unrest here will inflame tensions in its own Shiite minority, many of whom live in one of its big oil-producing regions.

RAY SUAREZ: That’s our Margaret Warner joining us from Manama in Bahrain.

Thanks a lot, Margaret.

MARGARET WARNER: Thank you, Ray.

JIM LEHRER: Margaret’s reporting from Bahrain continues next week.