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Monday, February 21, 2011

Crackdown in Bahrain - Jean-François Seznec | Foreign Policy

Crackdown in Bahrain - Jean-François Seznec | Foreign Policy: "The crackdown was brutal.

At 3 a.m. on Feb. 17, hundreds of Bahraini riot police surrounded the protesters sleeping in a makeshift tent camp in Manama's Pearl Square. The security forces then stormed the camp, launching an attack that killed at least five protesters, some of whom were reportedly shot in their sleep with shotgun rounds. Thousands of Bahraini citizens gathered in the square on Feb. 15, in conscious emulation of the protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square, to push their demands for a more representative political system and an end to official corruption.

The tanks and armored personnel carriers of Bahrain's military subsequently rolled into the square, and a military spokesman announced that the army had taken important areas of the Bahraini capital 'under control.'

Perhaps alarmed at the recent revolutions that toppled the regimes of Egypt and Tunisia, the Sunni ruling family in Bahrain has been taking no chances against its young and mostly Shiite protest movement. Bahrain's King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa has been able to overcome past troubles by posing as an enlightened autocrat, willing to show leniency. But divisions within the monarch's family, which he relies on to maintain his authority, may be forcing the king into a harsher position. And that spells trouble for Bahrain's stability, as well as the country's halting reform efforts.

The United States has a considerable national security stake in what goes on in this tiny island kingdom. Bahrain is home of the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, which protects the vital oil supply lines that pass through the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz -- an important asset for the United States in the event of a conflict with Iran. Bahrain is also a key logistical hub and command center for U.S naval operations in Iraq, Afghanistan, and the Indian Ocean.

For the past few years, quasi-Salafist and arch-conservative elements of the Khalifa family have been gaining power over more liberal members of the family, who advocate widening the economic and political involvement to all spheres of Bahraini society.

Prime Minister Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, the oldest and richest member of main ruling clan, has emerged as the leader of these conservatives, who seek to ensure the Khalifa family's continued stranglehold over the politics and economy of the country. His resignation has become one of the protesters' primary demands.

While the successful mass protests in Egypt and Tunisia clearly inspired the protesters in Manama, trouble has been brewing in Bahrain -- which is divided between a Sunni ruling family and a majority Shia population -- for years. Skirmishes broke out between young Shia Bahrainis and police forces last March, and political dissidents were arrested in the run-up to the Oct. 30 parliamentary elections.

The growing influence of the more extreme Khalifas was on full display during the Feb. 17 police crackdown. The police force that raided the camp is legally under the control of the prime minister. The brutality with which the raid was conducted may have been a bid to create a state of emergency on the island, forcing the more liberal members of the family to side with them against the protesters.

Jean-François Seznec is a visiting associate professor at Georgetown University's Center for Contemporary Arab Studies.

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