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In Bahrain, Will Violent Crackdown Break or Bolster Opposition?

February 18, 2011 at 6:21 PM EST
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Protesters defied a ban on mass demonstrations Friday in Bahrain, holding funeral processions for those killed in clashes. Growing unrest could also be seen in Libya and Yemen. Jeffrey Brown gets perspective on the violence and the king of Bahrain's proposal for dialogue with the opposition with Gary Sick of Columbia University.
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JIM LEHRER: Troops in Bahrain opened fire today on crowds of protesters who defied a ban on demonstrations. Hospital officials said at least 50 people were wounded.

It came a day after a government crackdown in the Persian Gulf kingdom, where the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet is based.

We have a report from Jonathan Rugman of Independent Television News.

A warning: Some of the images are disturbing.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: It’s dusk in Bahrain’s capital, and volleys of gunfire are heard near the city’s Pearl Roundabout. Government forces have been shooting at anti-government demonstrators — eyewitnesses and a doctor telling us that one man was shot in the head.

MAN: One bullet! I see his head bleeding, well, I swear, bleeding! What happened? Where is USA? Where is the British?

MAN: They shot us bullets, not tear gas, no way, bullets live.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: The regime here is acting as if it’s fighting for its very survival, calls by its allies for restraint falling on deaf ears.

Earlier, Bahrainis in their thousands came to bury their dead from yesterday’s early morning attack by government forces. It was part funeral and part protest, Bahrain’s Shia majority calling for the Sunni king to be thrown out.

WOMAN: We don’t want this king. We want freedom. We want a true parliament and true government. We are a peaceful people.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: They’re chanting, “Down, down with the regime,” the same chants that we heard in Egypt. They’re calling this a revolution. And they say it won’t stop until they’re listened to.

And like Egypt, Bahrain is locked in a showdown with its own people, age-old tensions in danger of spilling over into what Bahrain’s foreign minister has called a sectarian abyss. Wrapped in the national flag is the body of Ali al-Moamen, just 22, shot dead in the early hours of yesterday.

We found his father saying goodbye to his son. “The king has broken his pact with the people,” he told me. “He must leave, and America must help us.”

Outside, they chanted for the downfall of the king and his regime. A week ago, sacking the prime minister might have sufficed, but, after so much violence, democracy is what many Shia want now.

MAN: What we’re demanding is to live just like any human being in this world.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: Are these protests going to continue?

MAN: Surely, yes.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: Why?

MAN: Well, look at the people, everyone who is here, right? They know 110 percent that they will be attacked at any second, because this is what we expect always from them. And they are still here.

JONATHAN RUGMAN: There was a pro-government demonstration broadcast on state television, massive rallies in support of wise leadership, they call this. And though the government has banned demonstrations, this one went ahead unhindered. Bahrain’s crown prince is tonight talking of the need for dialogue, but the more funerals and the more state brutality, the more dangerously divided this country becomes.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Late today, the king of Bahrain did appoint the crown prince to open a dialogue with the opposition.

Jeffrey Brown has more on the situation there.

JEFFREY BROWN: And we get that from Gary Sick, senior research scholar and adjunct professor of Middle East politics at Columbia University. He’s executive director of Gulf/2000, which tracks political developments in the Persian Gulf, and served on the National Security Council staff in three administrations.

Well, Gary Sick, start with the new crackdown. Why do you think the government is resorting to this level of force?

GARY SICK, Columbia University: I think there are two reasons.

First of all, I think they are really scared. There is a battle within the administration itself, within the royal family, with hard-liners, such as the prime minister, who is the uncle of the king, taking a completely hard line, and the king himself apparently not so willing to do that.

And the second reason is real pressure coming from the other Gulf states, who are absolutely terrified at the prospect that they might see a downfall in Bahrain or in any Gulf state similar to what happened in Egypt.

JEFFREY BROWN: There was a meeting, in fact of — it’s the GCC, right, the Gulf Cooperation Council. That’s the group…

GARY SICK: Gulf Cooperation Council.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes.

There was a meeting. It includes Saudi Arabia. So, you are saying they are putting pressure on the Bahraini government?

GARY SICK: I think so.

They called — as soon as these — these broke out, these demonstrations, they called an emergency meeting of the foreign ministers in Manama, in Bahrain itself. And they came there. You know, Bahrain is tied to Saudi Arabia almost like umbilical cord. There is a causeway that runs across from the eastern province of Saudi Arabia, where all of the oil is, and runs over to Bahrain, which is a 70 percent Shia population.

As it happens, the population of the eastern province of Saudi Arabia is also Shia dominantly. And I think the Saudis are really frightened that the kinship relationships between the Shia in Bahrain is going to spill over that causeway and affect the Shia in their country.

I think they’re offering Bahrain anything that they need to put a stop to this.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, when you think now about the potential effectiveness of these new strong-arm tactics, I guess the question is, how strong is the opposition in turn? Can they — can they stand up to this?

GARY SICK: Well, you never know.

Sometimes, brute force will, in fact, stop people in their tracks. That happened in Iran. It has happened elsewhere. In this case, you know, it — the other alternative is that it actually will build opposition.

A few — you know, just a few days ago, if the government had come out and said they were going to replace the prime minister, who has been in that job, the uncle of the king, if they were going to replace him, that would probably have settled everything, and everybody would have gone back off the streets.

Today, after the shootings and the brutality — and these are — these are really brutal attacks. They have people attacking the square when children and women are asleep in their tents, you know, firing bullets at them from short range. This is — this is really brutality.

And I don’t think that the government of Bahrain is going to get away with this. I think they have — they have really fouled their nest in such a way that it is going to be hard for them to live there.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, we — as we heard, President Obama called for restraint. The Fifth Fleet, of course, is based there. Given our presence, how much influence does the U.S. have there?

GARY SICK: I think the U.S. has relatively little. I don’t think anybody’s paying a lot of attention to our words at this point, actually any much more than they were in Egypt.

We may have some — in Egypt, we had some restraining power as far as the military was concerned. In Bahrain, you know, the — I’m not sure who has authority, because the king, yesterday, or — actually made a — actually, he issued a statement through the crown prince, saying that the army should get off the streets. And they didn’t. He’s the commander in chief of the armed forces.

Who are they listening to? Who is actually in charge here? It’s pretty clear that the king is not — wasn’t, at least, very happy about this brutality. And he seems to be losing the battle. So, there are multiple battles going on at the same time?

JEFFREY BROWN: Well — well, and, briefly, that leads to the last question, because, just today, the king asked the crown prince to start what he called a national dialogue with all parties.

But you are suggesting it is just really not clear who would be in charge of that or who would participate.

GARY SICK: Or what they are prepared to offer.

If they cannot promise that, in fact, the military will be off the street, if they are not controlling that, if somebody else in the government is controlling that, what can they offer the protesters that will, in fact, convince them that they’re serious about this?

So, it’s a — as a dialogue goes, we’re all in favor of dialogue, but I really think that, if they want a dialogue, this was absolutely the wrong way to go about it. You’ve had 48 hours of chaos and mayhem, and that really is a bad way to launch a dialogue.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, we will leave it there.

Gary Sick, thank you very much.

GARY SICK: Thank you.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Meanwhile, there was renewed violence in Libya, as Moammar Gadhafi’s regime called out more troops to put down protests. Doctors said at least 35 people have been killed since Wednesday.

We get that story from Lindsey Hilsum of Independent Television News.

LINDSEY HILSUM: The Green Book, Col. Gadhafi’s gift to the nation. First chapter, democracy, it says.

The crowd in Tobruk don’t buy it anymore. In city after city across the Great Socialist People’s Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, they’re attacking the symbols of the state. Tens of thousands of Libyans, maybe more, have broken the fear barrier. Journalists can’t get in, so we’re relying on amateur video shot by protesters.

Today, dozens of clips have been posted on YouTube. These pictures apparently show the crowd after Friday prayers in Al Bayda. They’re shouting, “Martyrs, martyrs,” referring to an unknown number killed in clashes yesterday.

At this point, it’s calm, but later reports suggest there were pitched battles between protesters and police this afternoon. An ambulance arrives at Al Bayda Hospital. A man I spoke to there on the telephone said 500 injured people had been admitted, 10 of them with serious bullet wounds. He said there weren’t enough medicines or doctors, and that today’s wounded were policemen hurt in running battles with the protesters.

Ajdabiya, another tumultuous city. These are not Gandhi-esque proponents of civil disobedience, but young men seemingly determined to take on the security forces. Such scenes have been repeated in half-a-dozen towns, including Libya’s second city, Benghazi.

Today, they held funerals for those killed in Benghazi yesterday. It can’t be confirmed, but protesters are claiming that the army is now on their side, helping them fight the police. Some protesters calling themselves the Youth appear to have taken over the radio station, and are broadcasting locally and online.

MAN (through translator): We call upon you to release all the prisoners, whoever they are. Forty years is enough. Strike. Don’t go to schools or the shops.

LINDSEY HILSUM: Early this morning, Col. Gadhafi briefly appeared at Green Square in Tripoli, surrounded by supporters, but saying nothing.

Later, state TV showed people demonstrating their loyalty, as if nothing had changed in Libya, as if the country were immune to the revolutionary contagion spreading across the Middle East.

JIM LEHRER: In Yemen, protesters dubbed this the Friday of rage, and at least five people were killed. Government supporters fought with protesters in Sanaa and other cities. Police used tear gas and gunshots to disperse the crowds.

Security forces also clashed with protesters today in Jordan and Kuwait.

And, in Egypt, an enormous crowd, more than 1 million, by some estimates, turned out to celebrate the ouster of President Mubarak one week ago. They also demanded the rest of his Cabinet be ousted. Late in the day, Egypt’s ruling military council warned it will take legal measures to stop the continued strikes and protests.