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In Bahrain, Protesters Look to Tap Into ‘Regional Momentum’

February 16, 2011 at 5:58 PM EDT
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Margaret Warner talks with Rutgers University's Toby Jones and Simon Henderson of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy's about the continued political unrest in the tiny nation of Bahrain, and the implications for the U.S., which has a naval base there.

JUDY WOODRUFF: For more on what is happening in Bahrain, we turn to Margaret Warner.

MARGARET WARNER: Why has this tiny Gulf nation of one million become the latest scene of protests on the Tunisia-Egypt model?

To explore that, we turn to Toby Jones, professor of Middle East history at Rutgers University — he’s lived in Bahrain — and Simon Henderson, a former Financial Times reporter who directs the Washington Institute for Near East Policy’s Gulf and Energy Program.

Welcome to you both.

Toby, more — beginning with you, are you surprised that, of all the Gulf kingdoms, all the Gulf countries, the Bahrain has suddenly emerged as a place where you have protests that seem to be trying to model themselves after Egypt and Tunisia?

TOBY JONES, Rutgers University: Hi, Margaret. Thanks for having me.

No, I’m not surprised at all. Bahrain has a long history of political activism and civic sophistication. Over the last decade or so, Bahrainis have been agitating for political reforms of various kinds, reform to a constitution that they consider to be unfair, free and fair elections, and a more equitable distribution of power and material resources, social justice, if you will, amongst the country’s majority Shiite population.

But, clearly, what we see here, too, is — is an effort on the part of a group of Bahraini activists to tap into a sense of regional momentum. They have identified a very important moment historically across the region and are seeking to capitalize on what they believe to be a kind of energizing moment and to sort of secure some sort of legitimacy for themselves and to rally their fellow countrymen.

MARGARET WARNER: Simon Henderson, what would you add to that? And paint us a word picture of Bahrain. I mean, is this a typical Gulf oil sheikhdom? What’s it like?

SIMON HENDERSON, Washington Institute For Near East Policy: Well, it isn’t typical, although there are similarities.

Bahrain is the country where oil was first discovered in the southern Gulf. Ironically, now, it has very little Gulf oil left at all, and relies, frankly, on Saudi Arabia for the extra revenues it needs to live.

It’s an island state. It’s halfway down the southern coast, opposite Iran, and alongside the peninsula country of Qatar. Its closest ally is Saudi Arabia, with which it is connected by a causeway of 15 or so miles of bridges. And it’s a place where it has a majority Shia population ruled by a Sunni ruling family, and a large banking and financial sector where — so expatriates live there, Westerners live there and find it comfortable to live there.

But over the years, it’s been overtaken in this sense of being a commercial financial center by the other Gulf sheikhdoms, like Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Toby Jones, back to you on the protesters.

Now, do you have — are these young people energized and organized on the Internet, or is this the traditional opposition, or a mix? And what are their main grievances?

TOBY JONES: Well, they’re — they represent a number of different things. And this is evolving very quickly over the last few days.

Several weeks ago, at the height of Egypt’s revolution, when it became very clear that Egyptians were going to be able to rally through various media, social media and other kinds of media as well, other networks, Bahrainis began organizing. A group of young activists began organizing on Facebook and in other places preparing for what they call the day of rage this past Monday.

And they managed to energize enough folks to draw enough people into the street to constitute a significant presence. But they also alarmed Bahraini security forces, and police — the police responded, as Bahraini police have done over the last few years, with incredibly brutal tactics, killing at least one person on Monday and then killing a second person on Tuesday.

And the consequence of that is what might have been a relatively small outpouring of people, continuing the tradition over recent years of small public protests and civil disobedience, has now turned into arguably a movement with national and much more significant consequence.

So, the demands of the younger generation are very clear. And they’re focused on a key set of political things: reform of basic institutions of governance, the parliament, the constitution, as I mentioned earlier, but also a readjustment of the material relationship and the kind of — you know, the socioeconomic status of the island’s majority Shiite population, which faces a number of different kinds of discriminatory practices on the part of the government.

The government has taken a dim view of its Shia community over the last several decades and has implemented various oppressive and repressive apparatuses to make sure that they don’t enjoy any kind of considerable political influence.

MARGARET WARNER: Let me interrupt you there and go to Simon Henderson.

Now, one ingredient is the “success” — quote, unquote — of Tunisia and Egyptian uprisings was that, in both cases, you had an army that did not fire on its own people. What about the Bahraini military? What are…

SIMON HENDERSON: Well, the Bahraini military doesn’t count for much in these circumstances. There’s only a very small force.

It’s the Bahraini security forces which are the — the crucial force. And they are — perhaps won’t fire on the demonstrators. They will certainly crack sticks over their heads and break some skulls. And people will die from shotgun injuries and things like this.

MARGARET WARNER: And is that because — I’m told that, actually, a great proportion of them are in fact foreign-born…


MARGARET WARNER: … Sunnis from other countries.

SIMON HENDERSON: Yes. This is a very contentious local issue that, in what appears to have been an attempt by the government to gerrymander the population, they have been bringing in foreign Sunnis and recruiting them to their security forces.

This both increases the Sunni minority in the island, and they’re full of people who have no qualms whatsoever about hitting the local Shiites.

MARGARET WARNER: In our remaining time, which isn’t terribly long, let me go back to you, Toby Jones. I want to talk about the U.S. stake here, U.S. interests, and the U.S. response.

Yesterday, the State Department issued a very carefully worded statement, saying — they called on both sides to show restraint, regretted loss of life but did not specifically call on the government to implement any of the reforms being demanded by the protesters.

How key is the U.S. stake in Bahrain, and what do you think explains the reaction?

TOBY JONES: Well, the American stake is considerable.

The U.S. has maintained a significant naval presence in the Persian Gulf for quite a long time. Bahrain is home to the headquarters of the U.S. Naval Fifth Fleet. The U.S. has been the sole provider of security for many of the Arab states in the Gulf, including Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, as demonstrated by several wars against Iraq in the last 20 years.

So, the U.S. has a vested interest in seeing the durability and the stability for the Al Khalifa, the ruling family in Bahrain. And this of course is tied over the long term to American material interests in the Persian Gulf. It’s about oil.

MARGARET WARNER: And what about the — I will turn to you, Simon Henderson.

What about the Saudi factor here? I mean, is the U.S. at all hamstrung by the fact that the Saudis are watching these developments incredibly carefully?

SIMON HENDERSON: Well, you’re absolutely right. Saudi Arabia is watching this intensely and focused very much on it, because, in Saudi Arabia, just across the causeway, that’s the area of where the Saudi Arabia oil fields are mainly concentrated.

It’s also the area where Saudi Shias live. And in that area, Saudi Shias are a local majority, and the Saudis are probably apprehensive about the Shias causing trouble in Bahrain. They’re also apprehensive about contagion from that population through — perhaps with some help from Iran to their own Shias.

MARGARET WARNER: And let me ask you both briefly, in like one sentence, do you want to hazard a prediction? Is there only one way this can end, in the way Egypt and Tunisia did, with the ouster of the ruling party, of the ruling family, or somewhere in between?

Toby Jones, you first.

TOBY JONES: Oh, my sense is that, if there’s any sort of — sort of reconciliation here, it will be through political reform and not regime change.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, and Simon Henderson?

SIMON HENDERSON: I suspect the position of the Bahraini prime minister, who’s been in the job 40 years and has a renowned reputation for corruption, is perilous tonight.

MARGARET WARNER: But you think they can — they can do it through reform and not wholesale regime change?

SIMON HENDERSON: That’s what we’re praying for, and that’s what the Saudis are praying for. It’s probably what the Bahraini ruling family is praying for as well.

MARGARET WARNER: Yes, no doubt.

All right, Simon Henderson and Toby Jones, thank you both.