Analysts: Bahrain Conflict Not Necessarily Sectarian

BY Larisa Epatko  February 18, 2011 at 4:44 PM EST


Bahraini Shiites at the funerals of two men killed in anti-regime protests in the village of Sitra (Joseph Eid/AFP/Getty Images)

Demonstrations erupting in Bahrain reflect a mainly Shiite population’s discontent with the Sunni ruling family, but some analysts are cautioning against describing the strife as simply sectarian.

The small Persian Gulf island’s population of about 738,000, according to the CIA World Factbook, is made up of about 65 percent Shiites and 35 percent Sunnis. The Shiite Muslims say they experience discrimination in finding housing and jobs.

Because Shiites make up the bulk of the population, they experience the burden of what’s unjust under a regime that doesn’t want to lose its grip on power, said Toby Jones, a professor of Middle East history at Rutgers University. “It’s not about sectarianism, it’s about authoritarianism and democracy,” he said.

Protests picked up speed Monday in the capital Manama when anti-government protesters clashed with police, who fired tear gas and rubber bullets to contain the crowds, killing one person. The funeral the next day led to more protests, which continued throughout the week.

On Thursday night, security forces drove protesters out of their temporary encampments in Pearl Square, leading to five more deaths. The government said it kept streets open to give protesters a means of leaving on their own.

And on Friday, as thousands of protesters were heading back toward the square, soldiers opened fired, wounding at least 50 people, according to hospital officials, reported the Associated Press.

President Obama said Friday in a statement read to reporters by White House spokesman Jay Carney that he is “deeply concerned” about the reports of violence in Bahrain, Libya and Yemen and condemns the use of violence against peaceful protests.

“The United States urges the governments of Bahrain, Libya and Yemen to show restraint in responding to peaceful protests and to respect the rights of their people,” Mr. Obama said.

The United States considers Bahrain a strong Arab ally and has had a Navy base in the country since the early 1990s.

Bahrain’s Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, appeared on state television Friday, calling for calm and promising to hold a national dialog. “The dialogue is always open and the reforms continue,” he said. “This land is for all citizens of Bahrain…All honest people at this time should say ‘enough’.”

The promise of dialogue might be too little, too late, said Jones. Other elements of the regime are playing up the sectarian difference, saying the Shiite uprising in Bahrain is inspired, even directed by Iran, he said.

Bahrain’s government is framing the unrest as a sectarian issue — and exacerbating tensions between the communities — in order to mobilize Sunni support, said Joe Stork, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa division.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if we see counter-demonstrations of Sunni Bahrainis,” he said.
“So I think it’s a very dangerous situation in terms of things spinning out of control.”

The government also seems to have learned from Egypt’s uprising, using a security force made up of non-Bahrainis, including Pakistanis and Jordanians, to crack down on the protesters and prevent them from congregating in Pearl Square, said Stork.

When the Egyptian army moved into Tahrir Square during that country’s unrest, they were intent on keeping the peace and when they didn’t rise up against the opposition, it was bad news for now deposed president Hosni Mubarak, said Jones.

But a foreign mercenary force is not going to refuse orders to fire on a crowd that could contain their brothers, he said.

On Friday’s NewsHour, we’ll have more on the protests in Bahrain and Libya. View all of our World coverage and follow us on Twitter.