State of Emergency in Bahrain after Deadly Crackdown; Opposition Party Withdraws
By Janine Zacharia
Friday, February 18, 2011
MANAMA, BAHRAIN - The state of emergency imposed Thursday over this tiny Persian Gulf state followed a crackdown by a police force heavily composed of foreign nationals and controlled by a widely despised prime minister.
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.''
An architect of past efforts to suppress Bahrain's Shiite majority and a known skeptic of democratic reforms, the prime minister has been in office for four decades. Some of his powers were stripped after his nephew took the throne in 1999, but he remains an influential figure. While Hamad is believed to want to transfer even more authority to his son, the U.S.-educated crown prince, observers here say family politics make it impossible for the king to replace his uncle.
The crackdown prompted some to call for the entire Khalifa family to be overthrown: "3 days ago, we demanded political reform, but today... after this massacre, we want to overthrow this criminal regime," posted someone using the name "anmarek" Thursday afternoon on Twitter.
Social media were alight with updates after Thursday's crackdown, with witnesses posting photos of the wounded and video of the police assaulting the demonstrators, many of whom were asleep in a traffic roundabout in the city's capital when police moved in.
A golf tournament of oil engineers from Saudi Arabia, including many from the American firm Halliburton, was halted Thursday as tanks rolled toward the center of Manama. Employees were swept off the golf course and sent home on a chartered flight.
After taking power, Hamad began implementing changes to try to bridge the divide with Bahrain's disenfranchised Shiite community and to defuse criticism.
He pardoned exiled Shiite leaders, held a referendum on a package of changes to the constitution, and restored parliament after a 27-year hiatus. But while the lower house is elected, it can be disbanded by the king at any time and has no power to choose a prime minister or government, which the king appoints.
"The problem with Bahrain is that what the king implemented back in the early 2000s was far beyond what Saudi Arabia or Qatar or Oman or the United Arab Emirates had done, but it was less than what Bahrain had in the '70s,'' said Gause, the Vermont professor.
The Bahrain Defense Forces, predominantly trained by the United Kingdom in the past, today receive strong financial support and training from the United States, which bases the Navy's 5th Fleet here.
U.S. military sales to Bahrain since 2000 have totaled $1.4 billion, according to the Congressional Research Service, and have included Apache helicopters and F-16 fighter aircraft.
Gause said the fact that the riot police include a significant number of naturalized foreigners has been a major point of conflict within Bahrain.
"There has certainly been an effort by the ruling family to make sure that the security forces are loyal to the family, and thus they import Sunnis from other parts of the world and give them citizenship," Gause said. Not only does that provide a steady stream of potential recruits, but it helps "change the demographic balance of the country," he said.
Staff writer Joby Warrick in Washington contributed to this report.