What's behind Bahrain's protests?
18 Feb 2011

Eric Avebury outlines the systematic repression that has brought the people of Bahrain onto the streets

Bahrain is an hereditary dictatorship masquerading as a parliamentary democracy. The state has been ruled by the al-Khalifa family since the end of the 18th century, and still today all ministers are appointed by the King, who chooses 80 per cent from his near relations. The Prime Minister, who is the King’s uncle, has occupied the post since 1971, when Bahrain got its independence.

The al-Khalifas are Sunnis, but the majority of the population was Shia, at least until very recently. The regime has engaged in long-term demographic engineering, by granting citizenship, jobs and housing to Sunni immigrants. At the same time a clandestine organisation headed by another relative, Shaikh Ahmed bin Ateyatalla Al Khalifa, works to ensure that the Shia remain powerless, economically and politically. Gerrymandering at the last election saw to it that although 60 per cent of the votes were for Shia candidates, only 16 of them were elected to the lower house of parliament.

The smouldering resentment of the people against a system of governance that keeps them tightly under control has now burst into flames. There were nightly demonstrations even before the “Day of Rage” on 14 February, calling on the King to ease tensions by releasing detainees, dissolving the National Security Apparatus and engaging in serious dialogue on disputed issues. There are said to be 514 people officially detained, 116 of them children.

The Bahrain Center for Human Rights, which continues to operate from abroad after it was closed down by the government in 2004, was asking the authorities to avoid the use of force against peaceful protests, and to guarantee basic rights such as freedom of assembly and freedom of opinion including the free use of social networking.

These pleas fell on deaf ears. It was reported that one demonstrator was shot dead, and another critically injured by blows to his skull on the Day of Rage, and further deaths and serious injuries have been reported at continuing demonstrations since then – five on one day, prompting remonstrations by President Obama and UK Foreign Secretary William Hague.

Meanwhile, the 25 prominent human rights activists who were arrested in August have made several court appearances. To a man they said they had been tortured into signing false confessions, which they now repudiated. One of them, Abduljalil al-Singace, Professor of Engineering at the University of Bahrain and Human Rights Director of the opposition Haq Movement has become partially deaf from a blow to the side of his head.. Their lawyers asked the court to investigate this allegation before the prosecution made their opening speeches, and when this was refused, they withdrew from the case.

The activists are said to be accused of supporting “terrorist” cells seeking to overthrow the ruling system, though it is not clear whether formal charges have been made. The law dealing with “Protecting Society from Terrorist Acts” allows for extended periods of detention without charge or judicial review.

The west has tolerated human rights abuses by Arab dictators up to now, because they are seen to produce stability. In the longer term this may turn out to have been a mistake, because when the people do elect their governments freely, they may not be so friendly to states which colluded in their oppression.

Eric Avebury is a member of the UK House of Lords. He blogs at

5 responses to “What’s behind Bahrain’s protests?”

  1. […] Eric Avebury provides some political background on the tiny Gulf state. Bahrain is an hereditary dictatorship […]

  2. […] Eric Avebury provides some political background on the tiny Gulf state. Bahrain is an hereditary dictatorship […]

  3. Fredwillie says:

    Dear Journalists at Al Jazeera,
    I respect the site and have admired its courage. However your coverage from Bahrain is turning into one sided coverage and bias. The reasons are following:-
    1. These protests are different from the protests in Egypt and Tunisia. In the former two cases the whole population was united. It was not secretarial . The protestors owed their allegiance to the country. Not to another country or ideology and to true equality.
    The protestors here are totally different. Their allegiance is not to equality of all humans rather to a single sect and to a different country , Iran. All the disturbances precipitated in this country have been directly and indirectly instigated by Iran.
    2. The many opposition parties under the guise of opposition, Al Wefaq, Al Waad and various other human rights organsations need to answer one question, why do all their members belong to a single sect, the shia’s and are not inclusive of other sects or nationalities. The so called democratic organsiations are based on a single ideological basis of superiority of one Islamic sect over the others.
    3. These same organizations cite human rights abuses. However they fought heavliy for the acquital of youths responsible for burning of a security personal by a Molotov cocktail. These organizations and their followers used every tactic to delay or disrupt the course of law for the dead security personal ( is one human life inferior to another). This is a single incident . There are others. Unbiased journalists have a moral obligation to look at both sides of the story.
    4. These protestors and their representatives should be asked about the killing of poor foreign workers living in their areas. What was their crime ?
    5. Rumors have surfaced of two Pakistani men having their ears chopped off in one of the shiite villages. What was their crime?
    6. Journalists should also question the biggest minority here , the Sunni’s , why are they fearful of the Shia’s gaining ground? The Ruling family alone is not Sunni.
    7. The question arises again and again of naturalized Sunnis’ from other backgrounds. A majority of these people were who lived here for 25 years or more. So , are they not entitled to be citizens of this country. It is not as if they weer brought in overnight.
    8. The Shia’s are not exactly the oppressed here, unlike the African Americans in the USA, who were totally devoid of power. The Shia’s control Public Health, The Ministry of Electricity and Water, businesses, Batelco ( Bahrain’s Major Telecom Provider). They control the biggest Civil Hospital In Bahrain, Salmaniya, where corruption is rampant.
    9. Ask these protestors about the discrimination they institute on an ideological basis again the Sunni’s in the above mentioned ministries. Sunni doctors find it difficult to get a job in Salmaniya. Sunni patients especially if they are of other nationalities are discriminated against . I ask the Journalists of Al Jazeera and BBC and other to interview these people.
    10. Do not be deceived by the so called innocent demands of these protestors. They have 18 representatives in the parliament. During days of Asshoura their areas become no-go areas for other sects. Their demand is not for a fair soceity. Their allegiance is to Iran and hence a Shite Tehocratic State.
    11. The Journalsits should ask the common Sunni, why do they fear a Shiite majority? its becuase of its inherent discrimintaion against sunni’s. The sunni’s know it.
    12. want to find out about the discrimination against sunni’s , visit the website SunniOnline of the current oppressed state of sunni’s in that country. Howcome you all missed that oppressed community.*

  4. Fredwillie says:

    What does Lord Avebury know – to see WHO is behind the riots watch this –

  5. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Press Freedom, Index on Censorship, สฤณี อาชวานันทกุล, Mike Bennett, Laura MacPhee and others. Laura MacPhee said: RT @Indoncensorship: Eric Avebury gives excellent background on #Bahrain protests […]