Sectarian Differences Underpin Bahrain Protests

The majority of Bahrainis are Shi'ites who have long chafed under the rule of the Sunni minority. Michael Slackman of The New York Times provides an update from Bahrain, and NPR's Deb Amos explains similar sectarian splits in other Persian Gulf states.

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NEAL CONAN, Host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

Over the past few days some of the largest street protests in the Middle East took place in the tiny Arab kingdom of Bahrain in the oil-rich Persian Gulf.

On Monday, largely peaceful demonstrators occupied the main square in the capital, Manama, until last night when government forces swept them aside in a brutal show of force. At least four protesters were killed, hundreds more injured.

While there are similarities to protests in Tunisia and Egypt, there are important differences, too. Muslims in the Arab states of North Africa are almost entirely Sunnis. The majority in the population of the island kingdom of Bahrain are Shiites who have long chafed under the rule of the Sunni minority.

The Khalifa monarchy has ruled the country for the past 200 years and they are important allies of the United States which bases the U.S. 5th Fleet in Bahrain. If you've been to the region, or if you're familiar with it, what should we know about Bahrain?

Give us a call 800-989-8255; e-mail us talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Later in the program, the link between global warming and extreme weather. NPR's Richard Harris will join us. But first New York Times correspondent Michael Slackman joins us on the line from Manama.

Thanks very much for being with us.

Mr. MICHAEL SLACKMAN (The New York Times): Sure thing.

CONAN: And has the violence subsided today?

MR. SLACKMAN: Oh, the violence has subsided because there's no room for anybody to actually gather as you said when you opened the segment. The military has pretty much taken control of the city. Pearl Square which had become the central place for the protests was surrounded by armored vehicles, barbed wire and police all day today.

The only place where there was any kind of demonstration was outside Salmaniya Medical Complex, the main hospital in the city where thousands of protesters had turned to mourners as they went there to find their loved ones who had been injured or killed in the attack on - was it - Wednesday night.

CONAN: And you said in a story in The New York Times today it appeared that some of those people may have been shot and killed in their sleep.

MR. SLACKMAN: There's no question that the police opened fire with shotguns and live ammunition. I was in the morgue this morning and I saw personally that there were three dead people: one whose head was almost blown off and the other two who were covered splattered with shotgun pellets.

There was a man in the morgue who was extremely distraught and he said that he had been in the Pearl Square area when the police came in and he said that the police walked over and fired at these two men who were sleeping, killing them.

CONAN: Was the demonstration continuing at the hospital or as you say were these just mourners at that point?

MR. SLACKMAN: I mean, look - the nature between politics, mourning and anger -you know, the border between those is all kind of blurred at this point. The people were furious, extremely angry. I mean, they had been - two days earlier, 24-hours earlier, they had been over and over saying peaceful, peaceful, peaceful.

I was down in the square when the police attacked, or moments after the police attacked, and even then while battling the effects of a blanket of acrid teargas, people were saying we have to remain peaceful, we have to remain peaceful.

Well, that wasn't what they were saying outside of the hospital. They were giving with the shocked realization that they had been opened-fire on and what they were chanting was death to Khalifa in reference to the king.

CONAN: And this was also seen as something of a betrayal a day before the king had said, wait a minute, the police are being withdrawn. We're going to investigate two earlier killings and see what's going on but that peaceful demonstrations are okay.

MR. SLACKMAN: This is all unchartered territory for these guys. You know, you've had authoritarian rulers across North Africa and the Middle East have limited free speech for generations now. And suddenly you see a unity of purpose among young people and other people in the region who are looking for democracy rule of law and greater social justice and economic opportunity.

I think when the protests here kicked off, the regime reverted to form and dispatched the police. I reported in the Times that the police didn't allow any kind of gathering on the streets and actually just opened fire on anybody, aiming their teargas canisters right at them. Two people died.

Things seemed to escalate because of that and that was when the government here became under pressure and I suspect inside the government there are some people who were relatively reform-minded and suggested that they allow some room for peaceful demonstrations. So they backed off and they withdrew the police and the king went on TV and said we regret the deaths. The interior minister said we regret the deaths. And then something happened that I don't think they banked on that was actually quite remarkable.

Tens of thousands of people poured out. This wasn't a small protest. This was huge. It appeared that Bahrain was on the precipice of dramatic change in the status quo. And that must have frightened them because they went from allowing free speech to dispatching the police and allowing them, in fact, ordering them to open fire without warning.

CONAN: We saw in Egypt the military declined to open fire on demonstrators who remained largely neutral in Tahrir Square. As the demonstrations there continued, why is it different in Bahrain, do you think?

MR. SLACKMAN: Well, first of all Egypt, we don't know what the behind the scenes calculation were initially with the regime's attitude towards the military. You know, the military was loyal to President Mubarak and for a very long time, up until the very end, appeared to be trying to ease it so that President Mubarak could stay in office until the end of his term in September.

With that said, it's a people's military. It's an institution that's widely respected. It fought against Israel. It regained Arab or - excuse me - Egyptian dignity when it crossed the Suez Canal. People's children serve in the military. It's an Egyptian military. It's an institution that preserves respect.

That is not the case here in Bahrain. The military here in Bahrain is essentially foreigners that are recruited by the king. They come to Bahrain for good salaries, for a chance at housing, and they get fast-tracked for nationalization. And they have absolutely no connection to the people.

I'll tell you something, this is a little anecdote I haven't written yet, but the night of the attack on the square I was trying to make my way back to the hotel where we were staying and we were surrounded by a group of police in plainclothes who were carrying shotguns.

It was terrifying because you didn't know if they were just going to open fire. So I identified myself and the leader of the group came over and he took my hand and he said, oh you're an American. We love Americans. We're so glad that you're here. I'm here to protect you. And then he looked at me and he said, we're not trying to get you; we're going to get the Shiites. I wasn't even Bahraini.

CONAN: The foreign minister of Bahrain said today that the intervention by the riot police last night in Pearl Square had to happen or the country was going to sink into sectarian abyss. This is a familiar theme, I guess, in Bahrain where the Sunni elite complains that they are worried about Iranian influence of the Shia community.

MR. SLACKMAN: Well, those are two slightly different issues, right? I mean you have the Shia-Sunni divide here and then the allegation, concern among Sunnis that Shiite-Bahrainis are somehow more loyal to Iran as a nation than to their own nation.

It is true that this nation has defined its community along sectarian lines. There's almost no common ground for Bahraini interests. You ask people: Do you identify as Bahraini? They'll say Bahraini Shiite, you know, Bahraini Sunni. And therein lies one of the fundamental problems.

Necessity, if you move to a democracy, the people who are benefitting from the system that's in place now will lose. They'll lose something, because they will have to compromise. That's the nature of a democracy.

CONAN: And is there legitimacy to the complaint that Iran has influence over the protestors?

Mr. SLACKMAN: I haven't seen any Iranian influence over the protests. You know, I would suspect that all of the regional and world powers are trying to play their hands here and have an influence over the direction of events here. I can tell you that all the people that I spoke with have very personal reasons why they were out protesting.

This is not an international issue. I mean, they're not - this is not - like in Egypt and in Tunisia, people are protesting because they primarily have economic demands. There are a large number of young people out there who just want jobs. They want a house. They want to be able to get married. They want a life. They're not talking about Sunni-Shia issues. They're talking about very human issues.

CONAN: And finally, Michael Slackman, the United States Fifth Fleet is based there, I think over 2,000 U.S. personnel, most of them in the Navy. What role has the United States played in this, and is there a threat to the United States Personnel there?

Mr. SLACKMAN: The United States Fifth Fleet, I believe, has been based here for something like 60 years. This is the only place where the U.S. military has an open and casual presence, if you will, in the Persian Gulf.

Military personnel are able to walk around malls here and go shopping here. They don't have hide. Ships pull in. They dock in Bahraini ports. It's a very open and relaxed atmosphere. There's been no indication that that has changed.

And as I said, the demands of these protestors and the need for this conflict is very much homegrown. At the moment, it's not about the United States. It's about, you know, empowering a local community that feels that it's been disenfranchised and discriminated against.

I am certain the United States has been operating behind the scenes, that the State Department has been in touch with the royal family here, expressing its concern over the brutal tactics that were employed initially. And I suspect that was the case now, too.

The United States has been in a very difficult position, as its seen its allies, it's leaders - it's allies across the Middle East now, again, relying on, you know, hammer-fisted tactics to try to preserve their authority.

CONAN: Michael Slackman, thanks very much for your time today. We appreciate it.

Mr. SLACKMAN: All right. Thank you.

CONAN: Michael Slackman, Berlin bureau chief for the New York Times, formerly Cairo bureau chief for the newspaper. He joined us from Bahrain, where he's covering the story for the New York Times.

And coming up, more about the kingdom of Bahrain and long-time Sunni-Shiite tensions - well, not just there, but elsewhere throughout the Persian Gulf.

We want to hear from those of you who are familiar with Bahrain. What do you think we should know as this story develops? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. NPR's Deborah Amos will join us in just a moment.

Stay with us. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, in Washington. We're talking about the kingdom of Bahrain this hour, where last night, government forces cracked down on anti-government protests. And we want to hear from you.

If you've been to the region, if you're familiar with it, what should we know about Bahrain? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Joining us now is NPR foreign correspondent Deborah Amos, the author of the book "The Eclipse of the Sunnis." She joins us on the line from a hotel in Dubai, also in the Persian Gulf.

Deb, always nice to have you on the program.

DEBORAH AMOS: Thank you very much, Neal.

CONAN: And are people throughout the Gulf glued to their television sets now, as they were when Egypt was underway?

AMOS: Well, they're glued, but they have been complaining today. The two big powerhouses, Al Jazeera Arabic and Al Arabiya, many people here claim that they have sort of hedged on their coverage.

And I met an editor of one of the Gulf newspapers, and he (technical difficulties) his boss called him and said don't cover Bahrain. This is family. Let me explain that this two television stations, Al Jazeera in Qatar, they have close links with the Bahrain royalty. Al Arabiya is a link to Saudi Arabia.

Also, they (technical difficulties) this kind of uprising in Bahrain. It is very possible that both of those stations did hedge their coverage a little bit and certainly, the editor of the newspaper.

I just said look, we can't not cover this. We will lose complete credibility. But we're going to play it straight. We're going to put every side in our newspaper.

So it's an indication (technical difficulties) this part of the Gulf is because now, you have demonstrations that have reached this part of the Arab world.

CONAN: And this part of the Arab world, we mentioned Shias are the majority in Bahrain - not necessarily true in other parts of the Gulf, where you are in Dubai, in Saudi Arabia, in the other Emirates, but nevertheless, important parts of the population through the most oil-rich part of the planet.

AMOS: Well, here is what is interesting and the connection. Saudi Arabia and Bahrain are connected (technical difficulties), and many Saudis go - can drive there. You can get from Riyadh to Bahrain - it depends on how fast you drive -between three and five hours.

As you pass through the eastern province of Saudi Arabia, that is where Saudi Arabia's Shia population is. It's about 20 percent, certainly far from a majority, but very close to (technical difficulties). In fact, many of those Saudi Shias cross the causeway and go to mosque on Friday with Shias in Bahrain.

So there is some nervousness in, certainly, in Saudi Arabia, that the contagion, as Arab leaders call what is happening across the region, could move across that causeway into their own Shia population, who also feel neglected. They feel that they don't have a voice.

In some ways, they are the poorest members of the Saudi population. (technical difficulties) That is the real concern with Saudi Arabia, that this could spread across that causeway.

CONAN: And Michael Slackman was telling us that the forces that attacked the demonstrators last night in Pearl Square in Manama, those are foreigners, and -well, Deb, it's been quite some time since I was there, about 20 years or so. But there was a hierarchy at that time of foreign workers in Bahrain, with Koreans at the very bottom and Filipinos, who worked as domestics and maids in the hotels, all the way up to Americans and Britons who worked as airline pilots and managers at banks and that sort of thing.

How reliant and how pervasive through the Persian Gulf is the structure, that sort of parallel structure of foreign workers?

AMOS: Well, this is an interesting statistic. Unemployment in Bahrain is 19 percent, yet the government keeps importing these foreign workers (technical difficulties) no trouble, because they cannot. Any foreign worker that would even think about going out on the street in a demonstration would be deported in a second.

So these are (technical difficulties) to make money to send it back home. Even here, where I am in Dubai, my hotel is next to a Western Union Office. The place is always packed with people sending money back home (technical difficulties) and there's a structure for what it costs to send it home to India or Indonesia or the Philippines. All of these Gulf countries depend on foreign workers.

At the same time, all (technical difficulties) rather large unemployment among the youth, and this has been a constant complaint in all of these countries. There is a fundamental structural problem in the way that these countries create jobs.

And so you have a disaffected, young population. More and more of them are educated, and more and more of them are having trouble having work. And what that means is that marriage is put off. Becoming an adult is put off. And this is an incredible waste of talent. And in some ways, it is one of the issues, certain not the issue, but one of the issues of the discontent that you are seeing across the region.

CONAN: Let's get some callers in on the conversation: 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. If you've been to Bahraini, if you're familiar with the region, what should we know about it?

And we'll start with Craig, and Craig's with us on the line from Castle Rock in Colorado.

CRAIG (Caller): Hi, Neal. How are you doing?

CONAN: Very well, thanks.

CRAIG: Bahrain has to be seen through the prism of Saudi Arabia, as your last guest was discussing. The fear factor of the spillover across the causeway and the interlinking relationships between Saudi Arabia, both the Shias from the point of view of the province where, say, Aramco is and where all of the oil is, versus the royal families, which are both intertwined.

I was assuming that the heavy-handedness today, in Bahrain today and yesterday, were a - basically, something that was put forth probably by the royal family in Saudi Arabia trying to minimize any spillover into their country, as this has been a problem over the past several years, where Bahrain would have these flare-ups, and precisely for what your guest was saying: the reasons that they're disenfranchised, the unemployment is high. They're unable to get married.

There's a myriad of sort of social stigma that go along with being unemployed, and I think this is a reflection of those issues. They're not the same issues, per se, as were in Egypt, and they're also the issues that have come up before in the past and have always been put down rather quickly and rather firmly.

CONAN: Deborah Amos, is there any suggestion that there was a phone call from Riyadh last night to the capital, the palace in Manama, saying time to end this?

AMOS: I don't think that the king in Bahrain needed any advice from (technical difficulties). What you see in Bahrain, in some ways, is panic. They have tried every strategy they can think of. None of them (technical difficulties) for the moment, and that's why they resorted to force today.

I think it is fair to say that the Saudis are nervous about what they are (technical difficulties). I do know that they have offered, and that has been taken, financial support.

Bahrain is not a particularly rich country, and so when the king gave money out to the population, you can bet that that support came from Saudi Arabia. They want to be sure that the king has enough money to try to buy his way out of this.

But it is not working, and it hasn't worked across the region. (technical difficulties) Michael Slackman put it very well when he said that most of these rulers have no experience in this kind of civil unrest. They all (technical difficulties) coups. Their military is trained to protect them from coups.

And so none of them is really sure what their military will do when faced with the (technical difficulties) to shoot the people or to shoot the ruler. What we saw in Egypt is that they - they chose - the military chose not to shoot the people. And I think all of these leaders are worried about what their military will do.

Bahrain has a little different structure. It is not one of those militaries where the young are conscripted (technical difficulties) the military, and so you do have some connection with the people. This is a different kind of military.

CONAN: Craig, thanks very much for the call. Let's go next to - this is Chuck, and Chuck is with us from Portland, Oregon.

CHUCK (Caller): Hi, Neal. Yeah, I have only a very brief experience of Bahrain, and I was only there 24 hours, but I - it's a very strange place, a very unusual place from what I know for the Persian Gulf in that because it doesn't have much oil, it's become a traditional R&R spot for a lot of oil workers, Western oil workers and soldiers and sailors and so forth.

And it's kind of like a little mini-Reno in the Gulf. I was in Qatar attending a series of meetings, and then I wanted to meet with a couple Saudis, but -because it was difficult to get into Saudi Arabia, and because they wanted to have a chance to be in a bar and drink, they said: Let's meet in Bahrain. So I met them there.

And it's full of a lot of very kind of sleazy bars. Some of them have slot machines. They all have musicians of all different types, but they're all Filipino. So, rock-and-roll musicians, country and Western, even folk. There was a very - actually, a very nice restaurant we went to that had a wonderful folk music. The performers were also Filipinos. And it's also full of Thai prostitutes. You go into any of the bars and there's tons young Thai women there who have been recruited for prostitution. It's a really weird place, and quite a contrast to Qatar, which I just left, which doesn't allow drinking except for one international hotel and certainly didn't have anything like that.

CONAN: I do remember one particular interesting English county and western band I saw when I was there at a naval bar. But, Deborah Amos, is this depiction of Chuck - Chuck's depiction of Bahrain today, accurate?

AMOS: That is pretty typical, the description of Bahrain. You know, Saudis go there every weekend. The place is packed with Saudis. You are warned to never try to cross that bridge on a Thursday night, Friday and Saturday being the days off, because you'll wait for an hour to get over that causeway because there are so many Saudis going back and forth on the weekends.

I suspect not many of them went this weekend. This has to work itself out. I did see, today, that the major - the Shiite party and the parliament is now saying that they are going to pull out of that parliament. I think that their demands are rising, you know, in the beginning of this (technical difficulty) replacing the prime minister. He has been in office since 1971. And it is his nephew who is the king. But (technical difficulty) who is running the show, making these decisions on what the police do, what the army does. And now that the demands have moved from (technical difficulty) talking about the king, this has become a serious issue in Bahrain.

CONAN: Chuck, thanks very much for the call.

CHUCK: Well, thank you, Neal.

CONAN: We're talking with NPR foreign correspondent Deborah Amos who's been covering the Middle East. She's currently in Dubai, fresh from Riyadh. We're talking about the situation, though, in Bahrain, the Arab kingdom in the Persian Gulf.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, which is coming to you from NPR News.

And, Deborah, let me go back to the broader issues that you discuss, some, in your book. And that is the picture of the greater Persian Gulf region. We have a - an Iraq now, which is controlled by a Shiite-dominated government. Of course, there is Iran, a - in terms of the regional powers, the greatest regional power, except for maybe the United States. And, of course, then on the Arab side of the gulf, you got all of these Arab emirates and kingdoms and -that are now worried about this Shia uprising in Manama.

AMOS: You bet they are, Neal. This is their nightmare. One more state (technical difficulty) out of the Sunni column and into the Shia column. Because if there is a democracy in Bahrain and the population is 70 percent Shia, then they will have the majority in the parliament. And it really, really keeps all of these monarchies in this region up at night to think that there is one more state where (technical difficulty) and I think you saw all of that in, for example, the stock market today - took a bit of a tumbling in Qatar and here in Dubai. And all of them are, you know, have their televisions and are watching every detail of this one and hoping that the king is wise in the way that he handles it.

CONAN: And as these various governments - we have to apologize to our listeners. We had a better quality line with a lot of digital dropouts from Dubai. We're now listening to Deb Amos via cell phone, and we hope that'll hold up as well. Just a couple of minutes we have left.

The United States Fifth Fleet, it's role there, obviously, during the war in Iraq, it was to support that conflict. But can it be said going back to the days when it was escorting reflagged Kuwaiti tankers during the Iran-Iraq war was to support Arab governments - Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and the Emirates and the various others - in a, sort of, geostrategical argument with Iran?

AMOS: Yes, indeed. Those were a different times, Neal. And that was before Iraq was out of the picture. And with Iraq out of the picture - Saddam's Iraq out of the picture - Iran is a much stronger regional power here. And that is why, you know, what's happening in Bahrain is so important to the Sunni Gulf rulers. They are not happy with a Shia majority exercising their rights, which is why there has been such tension there all along.

You can't have a population of - 70 percent of the population who feel excluded from power circles and think that you can do that forever, certainly not now, when so many of these young people have learned from Egypt - have learned how to organize and most interesting, I think - and today was an interesting example of this - have tried to keep their protests nonviolent. It is the state that is using violence against what are essentially peaceful protesters. They took that lesson from Egypt and from Tunisia, that you get further if you keep it nonviolent on the street. The problem is that, that you will find, that when they open fire, you know, you are the one that will pay the price.

CONAN: And we should point out that in Bahrain and, indeed, all along the Arab side of the Persian Gulf, the Shias there share religion with Iran but not language, and they are not ethnically the same. Their culture is Arab and not Persian.

AMOS: But, indeed, what was very interesting was to watch how the government played this. They - on state television today, they accused the protesters of carrying the flag of Hezbollah, which is the militant Shiite group in Lebanon. And it was a way to say to the Sunni minority, who have benefitted from the way the state is run, you know, this is Iran. This is Hezbollah. If you let this go on, if you join with these, you know, disgruntled Shia, then we're going to have a takeover here. We are going to be ruled by Iran. Because the worst thing that could happen in terms of the regime is that Sunnis join with Shiites on the street.

Now, the protests that I've seen all day on television, there has been no hints of this, you know, sectarian protest. It is - it has been simply about disenfranchisement, a more open government. You know, 10 years ago, Neal, there was...

CONAN: Deb, I'm afraid...

AMOS: ...a referendum...

CONAN: Deborah Amos, I'm afraid we're going to have to end it there. I do apologize. We've run out of time. Thanks very much for being with us. There from Dubai, NPR's Deborah Amos.

When we come back, we'll be talking with NPR's Richard Harris about global warming and storms.

Stay with us. This is NPR News.

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