Unrest has spread to Bahrain following the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia that led to the fall of both countries' presidents. However, unlike those countries, sectarian divisions between the majority Shiite population and the ruling Sunni al-Khalifa monarchy are at the root of Bahrain's current domestic turmoil.
Protesters clashed with police in Shiite-populated villages in and around the Bahraini capital of Manama late Feb. 13 and Feb. 14, with security forces reportedly using tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse demonstrators. The protesters took to the streets after young activists called for a "Day of Rage" on social media websites, inspired by demonstrations in Egypt and Tunisia that played a central role in removing the presidents in those respective countries. Unlike the protests in Tunisia and Egypt, the current unrest in Bahrain is rooted in the country's long-running sectarian tension between its Shiite population. which constitutes 70 percent of the population, and the Sunni al-Khalifa family that has ruled Bahrain since 1783. Though these protests have not shaken the ruling regime's hold on power, they have raised the government's concerns over its restive Shiite population, particularly given the ascendancy of the Shiite power in the region — Iran. The sectarian divide — and the ruling family's approach on managing it — has long been a key feature of the Gulf state's political makeup. After gaining its independence from Britain in 1971, Bahrain's government consisted of a parliamentary monarchy from 1973 to 1975, which ended when King Sheikh Isa bin Salman al-Khalifa abrogated the country's first constitution and instituted an absolute monarchy after parliament refused to ratify a security law that would strengthen the government's ability to crack down on political unrest, much of it conducted by the Shiite majority. During the 1990s, violent revolts staged by Bahraini Shia demanding wider political representation and better economic opportunities were crushed by the government's security apparatus. In 2001, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa introduced a constitutional monarchy with the aim of addressing some of the Shia's demands and quelling the discontent, but the opposition claims the regime has done little toward that end in the course of three parliamentary elections since 2002. The Shia contend that they are still barred from senior posts in the government and the security apparatus, which is composed largely of Sunni officers but also includes non-Bahrainis from Pakistan and some Sunni Arab countries. The last major row between the Shiite population and the ruling government took place before parliamentary elections in September 2010. About 160 Shia were arrested before the elections, 23 of whom were Shiite political leaders and were accused of being involved in plots to topple the al-Khalifa regime. A prominent Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Hussein Mirza al-Najati, was stripped of his citizenship due to his links to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most prominent Shiite cleric in Iraq. Even though the country's largest opposition bloc, Al Wefaq, increased its presence in the lower house of the parliament to 18 seats in the elections, it fell short of a majority. Moreover, the upper house of the parliament, where members are appointed directly by the king, remains a political tool to limit Shiite influence. This, coupled with the regional uprisings that led to the resignation of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Feb. 11 and the overthrow of his Tunisian counterpart, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, on Jan. 14, is the context for the current demonstrations in Bahrain. Fearing that what happened in those two countries could possibly unfold in Bahrain, the al-Khalifa regime has taken some precautionary steps to undermine the revitalized Shiite unrest. King Hamad ordered the distribution of $2,650 to every Bahraini family Feb. 11 — the same day Mubarak resigned — and the government promised media reforms demanded by Shia. Though the regional contagion from Tunisia and Egypt is responsible for the timing of Bahrain's unrest, it does not appear strong enough to instill a serious fear of collapse into the al-Khalifa regime. The Bahraini regime maintains the ability to offer concessions or modest reforms to appease the Shiite majority, or use its security forces to crack down if demonstrations get out of hand, though the Al Wefaq-led political opposition may try to extract greater political and economic benefits from the regime — but not the complete overthrow of the regime — given the circumstances in which the region finds itself. As Bahrain is dealing with the domestic unease, the United States is closely monitoring the situation in the country, which is both a host to the U.S. 5th Fleet and a cornerstone in U.S. strategy to limit Iranian influence in the Persian Gulf. Iran could try to take advantage of Shiite agitation in the country, over which Tehran has made historical claims of authority. Though these protests have not reached the critical mass necessary to threaten the regime, Shiite unrest in Bahrain — if prolonged and intense — could have as significant an effect on the regional balance of power as it could for the ruling family.