The country is effectively under martial law after violence that left five dead as Bahrain’s Shiite majority, dissatisfied over their place in a Sunni-led monarchy, followed the mood of protest in other Arab countries and pushed for reform.
Tanks and other military vehicles patrolled the capital and remained in control of key intersections. Banks and some grocery stores closed. The main Shiite political party announced its withdrawal from parliament, and leaders called for a “Day of Rage” after Friday prayers – hoping to emulate the protests that brought down President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.
Other leaders among the Persian Gulf countries rallied to the defense of Bahrain’s monarchy, denouncing any outside influence in the country’s affairs and praising the quick action of Bahraini leaders to counter the protests. Though the violence was “regrettable,” said Bahraini Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmad al-Khalifa, the protests were pushing the country toward a “sectarian abyss.”
Most residents of the gulf states are Sunni, and there are enduring concerns among the region’s leaders about Iran’s influence over Shiite communities, particularly in Bahrain and neighboring Saudi Arabia.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton urged the government to use restraint in response to the protests, telling the Bahraini foreign minister in a phone call of “deep concerns” over the police-led violence.
Bahrain is the first of the oil-rich gulf monarchies to be significantly rattled by the protests that have broken out elsewhere, forcing the United States and other countries to again balance strategic interests with the democratic demands of the population. Along with its proximity to Saudi Arabia, Bahrain hosts a major U.S. naval base that serves as a staging ground for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Bahrain’s roughly 12,000-member military is made up predominantly of Bahraini nationals. But the Bahraini security forces, including riot police, are filled with Pakistanis and other foreign-born troops and officers “who are happy to do whatever they have to do to keep law and order,” said Bruce Riedel, a former Middle East CIA analyst now with the Brookings Institution in Washington.
The situation in Bahrain is further complicated by a palace feud between the country’s prime minister and his nephew, the country’s king.
The police involved in Thursday’s violence are answerable to the prime minister, Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, and the force’s reliance on Pakistanis and other foreign recruits has long been a source of tension in the country.
What remains unknown is whether King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa agreed to the action – he had apologized publicly for earlier police violence – and whether the crackdown will continue.
“There’s always been a question – and it’s completely opaque – as to just how much the king controls . . . and just how much the prime minister controls,” said Gregory Gause, a Persian Gulf specialist in the political science department at the University of Vermont. “You have the king making certain signals the one day and then the next day the troops move in.”