Unlike most popular uprisings and revolutions that have occurred in the Arab world over the last year, some of which have led to a regime change, in Bahrain, the demands of the uprising’s leaders as well as those of the people's were clear from the very beginning of the popular protests. Establishment of a real parliamentary system, appointment of a prime minister based on parliamentary majority, confrontation with economic corruption, elimination of discrimination, and abolition of the law, which grants citizenship to foreigners as means of enforcing demographic change in the country are among the major demands of the Bahraini people.
Bahrain is an island with almost a little more than one million inhabitants. Indigenous people make up only half of the population and the other half is comprised of foreign economic and labor forces. In a country where it is assumed that only half a million of the residents are entitled to political and citizen rights, 30,000 people participate in anti-government protests, which is a large figure.
Nearly 200 years ago, the Al Khalifa family occupied the island and has been ruling it ever since. Until not long ago, the island was considered part of the Iranian territory. The Shah of Iran agreed in a deal with the West to the independence of the island, which had been governed by Britain's colonial forces for a long time. The ruling Al Khalifa family has made almost three-quarters of the country's land, which is worth USD billions, its personal possession. The power is exclusively in the hands of the ruling family and, in the past 41 years, Khalifa bin Salman, the Bahraini king's uncle, has been holding the post of prime minister.
When Bahrain gained independence, the power was divided between former Emir Isa bin Salman Al Khalifa and his brother. Isa died, but his brother has refused to resign from premiership. The main cause must be traced back to the tribal system in Bahrain, the change in whose name from an emirate to a kingdom has failed to likewise change the country’s nature. When the crown prince presented his plan for solving the current crisis and somewhat succeeded in drawing the attention of the opposition, the prime minister both isolated the prince and pushed a pall over his plan.
If free elections are held in Bahrain and all lawmakers are elected and not appointed and if the prime minister is also elected by parliamentary majority, Khalifa bin Salman has to say farewell to power for good. This is the main reason behind the opposition to the implementation of fundamental political reforms in Bahrain. The suggestions he has so far presented for reforms avoid the prospect of the prime minister’s handover of power and this causes the people not to welcome his proposals.
Bahrain has witnessed many uprisings against the ruling family since the country's independence. The uprising of 1991 led to an agreement between Emir Hamad bin Isa and opposition parties on the return of those in exile and the release of political prisoners. Eventually, the new constitution was approved on February 4, 2002. However, the agreement with the opposition was canceled and the emir called himself the king and took back all the concessions he had made to the opposition. Under the new constitution, Bahrain founded an 80-member bicameral parliament, with the members of the first house being elected by the people and those of the other all appointed by the king. Therefore, even if the opposition groups manage to secure a two-thirds majority in the parliament, the king can offset their win by bringing into play the 40 members of the second house. Every bill must be approved into law by the majority of the 80 parliamentarians and it is clear that the elected and appointed supporters of the king are in majority.
Bahrain's Shias comprise more than 70 percent of its inhabitants. This does not mean, however, that the country’s Sunni people do not participate in the anti-government protests or do not oppose the current regime. At present, one of the influential Sunni leaders of Bahrain is in jail. In order to change the demographics of the country, the Bahraini regime has, over the past decade, granted citizenship to a large number of foreigners, from Iraqis to Pakistanis and Bangladeshis. Some of these residents have been employed in the security apparatus and play an important role in the suppression of the protesters. The majority of Bahraini people are prevented from reaching higher positions in the Army and security forces, while also being denied part in economic activities. Such discrimination is one of the main reasons behind the protests against the ruling family.
Over the past few years, Bahrain's king has tried to win the Western states’ consent. While there are less than a handful of Jewish citizens in Bahrain, the government sent one of the female Jews to the Bahraini Embassy in Washington and a Christian woman to its Embassy in London. These measures, along with Manama’s providing the US Navy Fifth Fleet with extensive military facilities, have caused some American senators to support the monarch.
So far, more than 60 people have lost their lives in attacks by security forces on the protesters and hundreds have been fired from work, while many others have been imprisoned and tortured. The Bahraini king strived to turn the popular movement for reform into a security problem. He selected a committee, headed by an American-Egyptian judge, to investigate the events of the last year. The poor results of investigations conducted by the committee did not succeed in convincing the Bahraini public. According to human rights organizations, the king has even failed to put the recommendations of the body into practice.
The main opposition leaders have tried to define the establishment of a free parliamentary system as the topmost popular demand, but the security situation in Bahrain and the government’s move to seek foreign assistance to suppress the protesters increase the likelihood that the people’s slogans and requests turn more radical. This is the very mistake the king of Bahrain insists on committing.