Mar 7, 2011
Since February 14th, the population’s anger has burst out against al-Khalifa, the dictator of Bahrain. The monarchy of this little island in the Persian Gulf owed its prosperity to oil discovered in 1932. But after the Lebanese civil war of 1976, Bahrain became more of a financial and real estate center on the model of Dubai.
The U.S. Navy bases its Fifth Fleet in Bahrain. The Fifth Fleet patrols the waters around 20 countries of this explosive and vital region and keeps about 6,100 U.S. military personnel, Defense Department civilians, contractors and their families in Bahrain.
On February 20th, a denunciation of police torture against oppositionists appeared. Last summer, the government imprisoned 450 oppositionists, including human rights and religious activists who protested against torture. Twenty-five were given sentences, and some were even accused of trying to overthrow the government.
The fall of the dictators of Tunisia and Egypt obviously encouraged the population of Bahrain to try to get rid of this hated regime. The choice of the date February 14th wasn’t accidental. Nine years ago, following a referendum, the king established a constitutional monarchy. But it didn’t change much. The real power remained with the king despite putting in place a prime minister. An upper chamber whose members are appointed by the king can veto any law passed by the lower chamber.
The February 14th demonstration was repressed, with one demonstrator shot dead. The next day, the police killed a person attending the funeral of the demonstrator. The king hypocritically expressed his regrets on television, promising a commission of inquiry and giving each family $2,650. Thousands of people assembly on Pearl Square, in the center of the capital Manama. At 3 a.m. the police attacked the sleeping demonstrators, killing four more and wounding a hundred.
On February 18th, the army again attacked the population marching to Pearl Square after another funeral. But the crowd wasn’t impressed by the army tanks and vehicles. Up to now those in power have been forced to tolerate the occupation of Pearl Square. Demonstrators continue to demand the resignation of al-Khalifa, who has been in power since 1971, as well as the freeing of all political prisoners, the end of torture, the revision of laws on citizenship, freedom of the press and religion, access to jobs and non-discriminatory housing. Out of some 1.2 million Bahrainis, 70% are Shiite Muslims. The al-Khalifa dynasty, which has ruled for two centuries, is Sunni. The regime constantly discriminates against Shiites.
The dictatorship and its repression has led to the demonstrators questioning the right of this regime to exist. And this has U.S. officials very nervous. “As a longtime ally and home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, Bahrain is an important partner and the department is closely watching developments there,” said a spokesperson for the U.S. military.