The small, but strategically significant kingdom of Bahrain moved one step closer toward complete civil anarchy when thousands of anti-government protesters clashed with security forces in what was the fiercest confrontation to date between the ruling monarchy and opposition groups. The encounter also led neighboring Gulf states to send military troops into Bahrain in an effort to help restore order.
Over the weekend thousands of protesters in the capital of Manama took control of the main highway into the city’s financial district before they were dispersed with tear gas launched from government security forces.
However, Bahraini authorities were not as successful when–using a combination of tear gas and rubber bullets–they tried to dislodge demonstrators from their tent compound in Pearl Square, the focal point of the protest movement since it began one month ago.
While government officials pledged that “the right to security and safety is above all else,” they also grimly warned that the escalation in civil disorder had placed the nation’s “social fabric” in serious jeopardy.
If protesters did not understand the warning, Bahrain’s neighbors certainly did. One day after the violent encounters, a contingent of military troops were sent into Bahrain by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), a six-nation group whose members are Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Oman and the United Arab Emirates. The role of the estimated force of 1,000 GCC soldiers was reportedly to protect key buildings, roadways, and oil facilities in the kingdom.
The GCC deployment highlighted how profoundly concerned Gulf leaders have become over Bahrain’s escalating internal unrest and the threat it poses to their own rule. With large Shiite populations themselves, they fear any crack in Bahrain’s ruling system could embolden other challenges to the family dynasties that hold power throughout the region.
However, the GCC deployment also brought harsh rebuke from Bahrain’s opposition groups who called it “an occupation and a conspiracy against the people of Bahrain.”
These latest events had been preceded only days earlier by a call from a coalition of intransigent Bahraini Shiite groups for an end to the reign of Bahrain’s Sunni royal family and the establishment of a republic in its place.
Three Shiite groups—Haq, Wafa and the Bahrain Freedom Movement—calling themselves the “Coalition for a Bahraini Republic,” wrote in a joint statement: “This tripartite coalition adopts the choice of bringing down the existing regime in Bahrain and the establishment of a democratic republican system.”
Included in the coalition is the popular Shiite leader of Haq, Hassan Mushaima, who, upon his recent return from self-imposed exile in England, initially had hinted he would be in favor of a settlement with the ruling al-Khalifa regime. However, Mushaima has now appeared to place the fate of the royal family into the hands of the people in Bahrain’s growing anti-monarchial movement.
Saying he would support the ouster of the monarchy if that was the wishes of the protesters, Mushaima declared: “Our demands will be what the street demands. We can’t impose any demands on the street — not me or any leader of the opposition. It’s the people protesting on the streets who will unite with demands.”
Those demands come chiefly from Bahraini Shiites, who make up over 70 percent of the kingdom’s population. They are rebelling over what they say is long-term discrimination at the hands of the ruling Sunni minority, policies which include granting citizenship and employment preferences to Sunnis from other Sunni Arab countries.