The most recent protests in Pearl Square, the main roundabout in Manama, however, are different. “This is the worst it has ever been here,” says Steven Sotloff, an American journalist in Bahrain, who has been covering the turmoil. As in other Arab countries, the demonstrations that began in mid-February were initially coordinated by young people who utilized social media such as Facebook and Twitter. In the wake of Egypt and Tunisia’s success in ousting aging autocrats, the protestors demanded better jobs, more housing and government reforms. Many also demanded an end to the monarchy.
Three days into the protests, after trying to appease Bahraini citizens by offering each family approximately $2,650, the king sent the army into Pearl Square, where soldiers fired on the unarmed crowd, enraging the demonstrators and eliciting international criticism. The crown prince, whom the king put in charge of sorting out the crisis, pulled the army back and called for negotiations but was unable to diminish the determination of the protestors and crowds, who called for the resignation of the prime minister—the king’s uncle, who has held the position for 40 years.
“Bahrain’s biggest challenge is overcoming the sectarian issue,” says Toby Jones, a professor of Middle East history at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. This divide—which does not exist in Tunisia and Egypt, where the Muslim populations are overwhelmingly Sunni—is exacerbated by the two-tiered parliament created by King Hamad: he appoints the upper house, while the people elect the lower one. In 2002, Shiite leaders boycotted the elections because gerrymandering ensured a Sunni-majority vote in the lower parliament; before the protests, the Shiite opposition bloc, Wifaq, held only 18 of the lower parliament’s 40 seats despite the community’s significant size. The Sunni “have an absolute grip on political authority,” says Jones. “The legislature is a shadow institution that doesn’t really have a lot of power and certainly is not representative of Bahraini society.” The Sunni government is also waging a demographic battle, importing Sunnis from other countries, such as Yemen and Pakistan, to serve in the army and police force. These foreign nationals can easily obtain citizenship, helping the Sunni elite to change the Sunni-Shiite balance in the population.
Bahrain’s leaders have always kept a wary eye on Shiite-run Iran, which views Bahrain as in its sphere of influence—in 2009 a prominent Iranian cleric even called Bahrain a “province” of Iran. Responding in an interview with The Washington Times, Nonoo said, “It’s a small gulf—we are just 26 miles away from Bushehr [an Iranian nuclear site]. So if Iran becomes nuclear, it will become an issue.” Bahrain’s Foreign Ministry quickly issued a statement that her remarks were misheard and taken out of context. But it was recently revealed through WikiLeaks that in a meeting with U.S. General David Petraeus, King Hamad fingered Iran as the source of much of the trouble in both Iraq and Afghanistan. He argued forcefully for taking action to terminate their nuclear program, by whatever means necessary. “That program must be stopped,” he said. “The danger of letting it go on is greater than the danger of stopping it.”
Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia shares these concerns about Iran. Bahrain is Saudi Arabia’s close ally and in some ways its social pressure valve; connected by a 16-mile causeway, it is where burka-clad women can go to wear jeans and men can go to get a drink, mingle with tourists and watch the Grand Prix. To thwart Iran’s influence on Bahrain, the Saudi monarchy helps prop up the Al-Khalifa government with money and oil. The Saudis also provide security, as Saudi troops could easily cross the causeway to quell any unrest.
In an interview last year, Nonoo initially declined to discuss this civil discord, but when pressed, took a hard line, saying the complaints were “taken out of proportion.” She downplayed the Sunni-Shiite conflict by comparing it to tensions between Ashkenazic and Sephardic Jews. She also criticized August’s protests, saying they are “not peaceful demonstrations if there are Molotov cocktails.”