Pro-Democracy Forces in Bahrain Face Unique Challenges

By Eric Stoner 03-18-2011

After a month of largely peaceful pro-democracy protests in Bahrain, the situation has taken a dramatic turn for the worse this week. On Monday, 2,000 soldiers from Saudi Arabia and other allies in the region entered Bahrain at the request of King Hamad al-Khalifa. The king then announced a three-month state of emergency and yesterday his security forces moved on Pearl Roundabout, where the protesters have been encamped since the movement began on February 14. At least 6 people were killed and more than 1,000 were injured. The violent crackdown has continued today, with the arrest of six leading opposition figures.

The pro-democracy movement in Bahrain faces challenges that those in Egypt and Tunisia did not. The Sunni-controlled Bahraini government systematically discriminates against Shiites, who make up more than 70 percent of the country's population. And as last week's very insightful episode of Al Jazeera's People & Power explains, virtually no Shiites are not allowed in the police or army, and the "king brings Sunni immigrants from abroad to police the streets, giving them citizenship and housing."

This makes dividing the loyalty of the security apparatus -- which is often a key to the success of any nonviolent movement -- in Bahrain far more difficult than it was in Egypt. While they are all Muslim, because of the sectarian split, Bahrainis will have a harder time appealing to the army and police on religious grounds.

Moreover, since many are brought in from other Sunni countries, the opposition can't even appeal to them as citizens of Bahrain. This fact makes them in some ways comparable to mercenaries, in that the financial motive is likely more central to their thinking than anything else. They are totally dependent on the current regime for their livelihoods, which would potentially be jeopardized if the predominately Shiite pro-democracy movement emerges victorious.

Given this reality, and the presence now of Saudi troops in the country, the opposition may want to consider changing gears. While the police and military are always an important pillar of support to any regime, in this case it would appear to not be very vulnerable. Therefore, the pro-democracy movement may want to consider focusing on undermining other sources of the ruling family's power. Rather than focusing on mass demonstrations to register their dissent, for example, Bahrainis could shift towards tactics -- like strikes, boycotts, and tax refusal -- that will put economic pressure on the regime and disrupt the day-to-day functioning of the state without providing such an easy target for repression.

Eric Stoner is a writer based in New York, and an adjunct professor at St. Peter's College. His articles have appeared in The Guardian, Mother Jones, The Nation, In These Times, and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He is on the national board of the War Resisters League, and the advisory board of the Center for Peacemaking at Marquette University. He travelled to Afghanistan in December with Voices for Creative Nonviolence. He wrote a feature article in Sojourners March 2011 issue.

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