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Bahrain - Politics

Bahrain is a constitutional monarchy. Citizens do not have the right to change their government or their political system. Bahrain is ruled by a Sunni royal family. Sixty to seventy percent of Bahrain's 500,000 citizens are Shi'a. The other half-million residents are guest workers. The majority of Bahraini citizens are part of the Shi'a underclass, and their grievances, expressed both in legal political activity and in street skirmishes between youths and police, are at the center of all domestic politics here. Shi'ites say they are denied equal housing, health and education benefits and that most government institutions refuse to hire them. Sectarian violence continues to simmer and political life is becoming increasingly polarized.

King Hamad Bin Isa al-Khalifa, the head of state, appoints the cabinet consisting of 29 ministers; 13 of those ministers, excluding the deputy prime ministers, are members of the Sunni al-Khalifa ruling family. The parliament consists of an appointed upper house, the Shura (Consultative) Council, and an elected Council of Representatives.

While some Shi'a activists complain that King Hamad's reforms have not given them enough politically or economically, many Sunni hard-liners think the King has given away too much. With the exception of a few merchant families, Shi'a Bahrainis are poorer than Sunni Bahrainis. Most Bahraini Shi'a are Arabs, but about 10-15 percent of Bahrainis are ethnically Persian, and speak Persian at home. Many of these descend from families who came here to work in the British administration or, starting in the 1930s, in the oil industry. Persian-speakers (mostly Shi'a, a few Sunni) now tend to belong to the professional classes. Shi'ites claim they are treated like second-class citizens.

The Bahrain of 2010 was a far cry from the unrest of the 1990s. State security courts had been abolished, street protests were considerably fewer and less violent, and Wifaq, as a legal, parliamentary opposition, has proven its ability to channel most Shia political energy into non-violent protests.

Conditions in Bahrain continue to simmer. Small but violent bands of Shi'a underclass youth, frustrated with persistent discrimination and what they perceive as too gradual a pace of reform, clash with police nearly every week. In 2007, each weekend since 26 October saw small gangs in impoverished Shi'a areas set tires alight after dark and thrown rocks at police vehicles. On several occasions the young men also threw Molotov cocktails. There had been no injuries. Local media reported these incidents as juvenile delinquency and omitted any reference to their sectarian nature. Similar clashes in the Spring petered out in April when the Gulf's ferocious summer heat set in. Bahraini authorities and some Shi'a establishment contacts dismiss the rock-throwers as young men seeking weekend excitement. The incidents fell somewhere between juvenile delinquency and the venting of pent-up frustrations within the Shi'a community. The skirmishes, which remained confined to weekend evenings, appeared to lack significant support within the Shi'a community. Broader political participation and freer press have done much to channel Shi'a energy in positive directions over the previous eight years. On the other hand, the lack of economic and social opportunities continued to frustrate many Shi'a and was being exploited by radical populists.

The government of Bahrain observes a holiday each December 17, the anniversary of King Hamad's accession to the throne. However, for more than a decade Shi'a hardliners have called on Shi'a (who are about 70 percent of Bahrainis) to observe the same day as "Martyrs' Day," and to mark the deaths in the 1980's and 1990's of a number of Shi'a in street clashes with security forces. One man died during an evening of clashes between Shi'a youths and security forces on 17 December 2007. While preliminary results of an autopsy supported the government's account that he died of natural causes, many Shi'a credited rumors that the man died at the hands of security forces. Websites and text messages used the term "martyr," and his death provided a rallying point for further protests.

The Sunni minority, which rules the country and controls all security forces, generally acted with restraint, but it takes only one mistake to provoke a potentially disastrous escalation. Many feared just such a scenario when, on the evening of 09 April 2008, a policeman was killed in the Shia village of Kazarkhan by youths who threw rocks and Molotov cocktails, igniting his vehicle. The murder of a law enforcement officer crossed a red line and concern was high that security forces would react with a massive crack-down, further inflaming sectarian tensions. In fact, it appears that all sides - Shia and Sunni, regime and opposition - looked over the precipice and decided not to take the leap. All walked their followers back and made a conscious decision to advocate restraint and tolerance. The police have arrested 14 people believed to be connected to the attack. All major political societies, including the largest Shia party, Al-Wifaq, issued strong statements condemning the killing and supporting the security forces. Other than the arrests, there has been no security crackdown. King Hamad recognizes the danger that violence and political stalemate represent for his democratic reforms and is playing a behind-the-scenes role to encourage moderation and compromise among political leaders.



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