Bahrain Protests: How This Country is Becoming the New Egypt
As anti-government protesters clashed with Bahraini riot police in neighborhoods around the capital earlier Wednesday, the United States temporarily closed its embassy, and stores shut their doors amid opposition calls for a general strike.
While the tight security clampdown seemed to have stopped large-scale demonstrations in the city, this band-aid solution highlights the greater concern that the Bahraini protesters pressing for democratic change can only be silenced for so long. As protests gain momentum in Bahrain, the international community must take notice of this widespread dissent and the government's draconian measures to suppress it.
Inspired by the movement in Egypt to overthrow President Mohamed Morsi last month, protests have been organized by a group called "Tamarod," meaning "rebellion." Stepping up a two-and-a-half year campaign to push the Sunni Muslim ruling family to implement democratic rule, protesters hope to gain momentum by marching into upscale districts near center of Manama.
In 2011, the government crushed demonstrations by bringing troops from neighboring Sunni-led nations and ordering security forces to clear a protest encampment in the capital.
The opposition cites wide-spread discrimination against majority Shi'ites in employment and public service. The Bahraini government denies such discrimination.
According to Reuters witnesses, "up to 100 people marched peacefully in the village of Saar west of the capital Manama in the morning, waving Bahraini flags and chanting anti-government slogans." They dispersed peacefully before security forces arrived.
However, Bahraini police reportedly fired tear gas and bird-shot at demonstrators in Shakhoora, a village west of the capital, during a standoff that evolved into a clash between about 300 demonstrators and the authorities on either side of a barbed wire fence the police erected.
While Egyptian forces were backed by the military, Bahrain's security forces have remained loyal to the ruling Bahraini government.
King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalida issued a decree last week banning "demonstrations, marches, assemblies and sit-ins." He also issued harsher penalties for "terrorism," an all-encompassing term the Bahraini government uses to describe any form of political dissent including jailing parents if their children participate in protests, lengthening prison terms and stripping people of Bahraini citizenship.
As the opposition prepared to mobilize protesters last week, King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa issued a decree banning almost all "demonstrations, marches, assemblies and sit-ins" in the capital.
"The government will forcefully confront the suspicious calls to violate law and order and those who stand behind them," Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa said.
Widespread protests are not new to Bahrain, which experienced similar civilian unrest in the 1990s aimed at reinstating the parliament and restoring the national assembly. However, King Hamad made political reforms only after these large-scale protests ensued. He eventually passed the National Action Charter "that returned the country to constitutional rule, modestly lifted the security apparatus, and allowed for members of the lower parliament to be elected."
Although his move did stabilize the country and satisfy citizens' demands, the government is unrelenting in dealing with the current protesters. As seen in Egypt, anti-government protesters cannot be repressed forever.
Whether or not Bahrain will become the next Middle Eastern nation to experience a violent outbreak remains to be seen. The international response to the repression must be stronger. As protesters insist they will remain peaceful and defiant, they need the support of foreign governments to respond and condemn police violence against them.
"We’re still looking for help from the U.S. and the U.K. to support our demands for democracy, just as they support those calling for democracy in Egypt," said Said Yousif.
As with any political dissent, violence is always a dangerous possibility. At least 60 people have been killed since the unrest began with multiple attacks in recent weeks including some bombings with natural gas canisters.
The protests, however, are far from over.