Tensions Mount in Bahrain as Friday Protests Get Underway

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The golf clubs are primed, the clubs studded with nails. As a group of anti-government protestors makes its way from downtown Manama towards the Royal Court in Riffa, hundreds of government supporters are standing in wait, armed and spoiling for a fight. Bahrain is readying for a conflagration that could transform a weeks-old peaceful protest calling for constitutional reform into a sectarian bloodbath. Pro-government Sunnis are swearing to fend off the advance of Shiites that have splintered from the main protest at Lulu Roundabout and are calling for the downfall of the monarchy. “Plz plz plz #lulu people don’t come to riffa,” pleads one Tweet. “People are really angry here and its really scary.”

For nearly a month Bahrain has been paralyzed by a protest for political and constitutional reform that, while inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt, is unlikely to result in a similar outcome. What started out as a pro-reform movement has splintered into competing agendas, with one hardcore group demanding the total overthrow of the monarchy while others look to establish a constitutional monarchy promised, but never realized, by a 2002 referendum. And while the unofficial motto of the protest has long been “Not Sunni, Not Shia, Bahraini,” the protests have also calcified along sectarian lines: the royal family is part of a Sunni minority that has ruled over majority-Shia Bahrain for nearly 250 years.

Demands for the overthrow of the regime have become potent propaganda for a leadership that is trying to couch demands for reform into a threat to the Sunni minority. “They have good intentions, but there is no point in provoking the authorities, and Sunnis at large,” says former parliamentarian Jasim Husain Ali, of those marching on the royal court. Ali, whose moderate opposition party resigned from the government last month to protest a brutal military crackdown on protestors, will be taking part in another march on Lulu Roundabout calling for the overthrow of the 2002 constitution—one that reversed promises of greater civilian say over government by instituting a hand-picked Shura Council with veto power over the democratically elected parliament.

According to Ali, the majority of the protesters see no need to overthrow the king. What they want is a greater say in how their government is run. But nearly all the protesters can agree on one man they want gone from the scene: Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa ibn Salman Al Khalifa, the King’s uncle who, at 40 years and counting, is the longest serving leader in the Arab world. The military crackdown on February 14th has been popularly attributed to the prime minister, who oversaw a notorious police state in the early days of Bahrain’s post-colonial history. The retreat of security forces a week later has largely been credited to the efforts of Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, a young, tech-savvy reformer who, courtesy of his time spent at American University in Washington DC, has long promoted the idea of a more representative government in Bahrain. The king, loyal to his uncle (who, as the country’s first and only prime minister, was nominated by the King’s father) and supportive of his son, is caught in the middle. “There is a duality in the country,” says a Bahrain-based diplomat. “You have the old guard in one court saying we are already moving too fast, and you have the prince who wants to move beyond economic reform. You have the king in the middle trying to balance ‘how fast you can push before you go too far and create a backlash’ against ‘how slow do you go and [risk] an uprising’”

So far, it’s the Prime Minister who appears to be gaining. Bahrain’s protests have been characterized by an effective state propaganda machine that consistently transforms demands for constitutional change (and the Prime Minister’s departure) into a sectarian threat against the Sunni minority, who have been convinced that greater democracy would mean a reduction in Sunni privileges. And the Crown Prince, who spent the past 10 years working on economic reforms that have significantly cut down on corruption while building up the country as a substantial player in the region, is now seeing all his efforts derailed. Primary among them is the loss of the Formula One season opener, which was scheduled to start today.

Few expect to see Bahrain’s security forces coming out on the streets again. It was a miscalculation, says the diplomat. “I think somebody suggested that it would be useful to have an overwhelming show of force and that it would calm things down. The King bought into it once, and he saw what happened.” By that he means international condemnation and strong words from U.S. president Barack Obama. But that doesn’t mean there won’t be violence. Reports are already trickling out of attacks on TV crews following protestors to Riffa. Bahrain’s protests may yet share one other similarity with others in the region: state-sponsored thugs fomenting violence and egging government supporters along.