DOHA, Qatar — Following sympathy demonstrations in front of the Egyptian Embassy in Manama, Bahrain, on Friday, Feb. 4, protesters there have declared a "day of rage" on Feb. 14, nine years to the day after the country declared itself a constitutional monarchy. King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, a Sunni, rules over a Shiite-majority population that has long called for greater political representation -- though certainly without the urgency that has characterized recent opposition rhetoric, which includes a list of 14 demands: "releasing all [political] detainees and compensating them, reforming the judiciary system … banning alcohol and prostitution … [and] halting torture and human rights abuses." Is the revolution coming to the Persian Gulf states?
The Persian Gulf was meant to be immune to the types of social and economic pressures that have been thought to be the catalysts for recent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt. The oil-rich Gulf monarchies, from Kuwait to Oman to Bahrain, have so far remained largely untouched by the wave of political protests sweeping across the region. But in the past few days, that has begun to change. Now, the Arabian monarchs -- historically protected from the need to democratize by their massive oil fortunes and close relations with the West -- are confronting a serious and growing threat to their legitimacy from protesters empowered by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt.
Bahrain has a long history of subduing its Shiite minority, which has been involved in past attempts to take over power, dating back to the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Bahrain, an Iran-backed Shiite group that attempted a coup in 1981. Last August, possibly cracking down in prelude to the Oct. 23 parliamentary election, the government detained hundreds of Shiites during anti-government street protests. Many of the detainees allege that they were tortured while in jail. In the days before the election, government officials blocked the opposition party's website and banned local news coverage of the arrests.
Sheikh Ali Salman, the leader of Al Wefaq, the main Shiite political group, alleged that at least 2,000 voters were blocked from casting ballots in October because of incomplete lists. Al Wefaq has claimed that Bahraini leaders gerrymandered voting districts and created a program to give citizenship to Sunnis from across the Middle East to alter the country's demographic balance.
The government has also clamped down on the press and NGOs, said Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch, blocking websites and arresting activists. And 25 Shiites from last fall's round-up are currently being tried under terrorism charges (two in absentia), trials that have only inflamed sentiments on both sides.
The latest protests are being organized by the same Shiite groups that organized the last round of demonstrations in the fall. But they are joined by Islamists, human rights activists, intellectuals, and several Sunni groups, according to Christopher Davidson, an expert on the Persian Gulf region at Durham University in Britain.
In an attempt to address popular grievances, King Hamad this week ordered a hike in food subsidies and reinstated welfare support for low-income families to compensate for inflation, according to the state-run Bahrain News Agency. Opposition groups expect further concessions during a scheduled speech by the king on Feb. 12.
But these efforts may not go far enough to stave off a revolution, Davidson said.
"Bahrain is the most likely of the Gulf monarchies to face a broad opposition-led demonstration," he told me. "[The problem] is not merely a sectarian issue, but rather a widespread concern over an increasing wealth gap between regular Bahrainis and the ruling elite. I believe there is potential for an unseating of the current regime."
In a statement on their Facebook page, organizers of the Feb. 14 rally accuse the Sunni-lead government of "suppress[ing] the legitimate rights of the people" and call for a new constitution and investigations into "economic, political and social violations."
"Events in Tunisia and Egypt convinced the Bahraini [opposition] that change could happen if there is a will," said Bahraini human rights activist Nabeel Rajab. "People have realized that they are stronger than they thought."