Overshadowed by the violence and civil war in Libya, the situation in Bahrain continues to deteriorate. On March 15, King Hamad al-Khalifa declared martial law and invited troops from Saudi Arabia, along with other neighboring countries, to help calm the situation. That move, unprecedented in the country’s history, may only stoke the flames of discontent. Inspired by protests that overthrew governments in Tunisia and Egypt, thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of Bahrain last month to demand reform. The first gatherings were intended to support the uprising in Egypt — the demonstrations occurred outside the Egyptian embassy in Bahrain. They evolved into protests against the Bahraini government itself, drawing on longstanding grievances based on discrimination against the Shiite Muslim majority by the Sunni government and the ever-present desire for democratic reforms and freedom.

As the protests escalated, they were punctuated by violence. The Al Wefaq National Islamic Society, one of the leading political parties, joined the protestors, raising tensions. In the middle of the night of Feb. 17, riot police moved in to disperse protestors who had camped in the city center, killing several Bahrainis and injuring hundreds more. That sparked international condemnation but did not quell the protests. As hundreds of thousands of Bahrainis took to the streets — by some estimates as much as 50 percent of the population was involved either protesting or supporting the government — King Hamad took steps to diffuse rising anger, releasing over 300 political prisoners, dismissing some Cabinet ministers and canceling some housing loans.

None of those steps was sufficient to stop the demonstrations and clashes between security forces and protestors intensified. Finally, the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) authorized the dispatch of troops to help restore stability. With that order, over 1,000 Saudi Arabian forces and forces from other Arab Gulf states entered Bahrain — and the king declared a three-month period of martial law. But protests continued. On March 16, Bahrain riot police and troops cleared Manama’s Pearl Square of anti-government demonstrators. The crackdown, supported by tanks and helicopters, killed at least five demonstrators and two police officers, and injured many more.

The unrest in Bahrain reflects the uneasy coexistence of Shiite and Sunni communities in the country and throughout the region. The kingdom’s rulers are Sunni, who are, like other governments in the region, a minority in their own country: In Bahrain, Shiite constitute over 60 percent of the population. The protestors have thus far insisted that their demands are not sectarian in nature — they seek an end to discrimination and genuine democracy, rather than Shiite rule per se.

Both prospects — real democracy and another state in the hands of a Shiite government — unnerve Bahrain’s leaders and neighbor governments. The readiness of the GCC to take the extreme step of sending military forces into the territory of another member state is driven by fear that Bahrain could be a democratic contagion and that any concessions could inspire Shiite populations elsewhere in the region.

There is one exception to this general state of alarm: Iran. Indeed, there is widespread fear that the Shiite population in Bahain, and elsewhere, is the stalking horse for a Tehran-influenced political movement. That fear is the most effective tool that rulers in the Middle East use to fend off demands for democracy and greater political participation by Shiites.

The problem is that continued repression only increases social tensions, resulting in yet more violence and alienating the public from its rulers. In such situations, disaffected Shiites will be ready to take support from wherever it comes and radical alternatives will look even more appealing. Iran’s record of repression and antidemocratic behavior matters little in the face of homegrown suppression and violence. The Saudi intervention threatens to further radicalize its own Shiite minority. Their grievances look much like those of the Bahrainis: They complain about discrimination and they chafe under autocratic rule. Their government’s readiness to help suppress the aspirations of coreligionists across the border is likely to inflame their own anger. For Saudi Arabia, that is particularly worrisome since its eastern provinces, which are closest to the island, are 70 percent Shiite and home to the majority of Saudi Arabia’s oil production facilities.

The solution should be genuine power sharing among Sunni and Shiite. That sounds easy, but in practice is very difficult. The best solution will end discrimination and give the Shiite community more political power. The GCC should be seen as facilitating that response, even though it is likely to create pressure for change in their own societies. The lesson of recent weeks is that repression is a temporary answer at best. It does not solve problems but merely pushes them underground where they fester and intensify. It is better to be in front of change, trying to steer it in productive and peaceful directions, than steamrolled by it.

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