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Sun 13 Feb 2011 03:52 PM

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Bahrain protests to add to pressure on government

King tries to appease opposition after Egypt, Tunisia; first protests planned for February 14

Bahrain protests to add to pressure on government
CASH HANDOUT: King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, trying to defuse the tension, said he would give 1,000 dinars ($2,650) to each local family (Getty Images)

Anti-government protests by Bahrain's marginalised Shi'ite majority on Monday are not likely to rival the Egyptian revolt, but will add to the pressure on the king to make more concessions to his people.

Gulf states are not expected to face full-scale revolts thanks to a golden bargain under which their rulers trade a share of their oil wealth for political quiescence, but Bahrain is among the most vulnerable to popular pressure.

"There's a deep sense of frustration among large segments of Bahraini society," said Toby Jones, professor of Middle Eastern studies at US-based Rutgers University.

"If there was one place in the Gulf that I was going to predict that there would be something similar (to Egypt), it would be Bahrain," he said.

Bahrain is a small oil producer with a majority Shi'ite population that has long complained of discrimination by the ruling Sunni al-Khalifa family, well before popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt emboldened activists across the region.

Across their island country, Bahrainis sounded car horns and waved Egyptian flags on Friday night when news broke that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak had stepped down.

The first protests in Bahrain since the events in Egypt and Tunisia unfolded are expected to take place on Monday.

King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, trying to defuse the tension, said he would give 1,000 dinars ($2,650) to each local family, and the government has indicated that it may free minors arrested under a security crackdown last year.

"I think it is no coincidence that the government has chosen this time to announce new grants to all Bahraini families," said Jane Kinninmont, analyst at the Economist Intelligence Unit, who expected Mubarak's fall to strengthen protesters in Bahrain.

Diplomats said the early concessions could blunt the scale of the protest.

Non-OPEC Bahrain, which unlike its Gulf Arab peers has little spare cash to throw at social problems, said last week it would spend an extra $417 million on social items, including food subsidies - a reversal of attempts to prepare the public for cuts in subsidies.

Shadi Hamid, analyst at the Brookings Centre in Doha, said protests in Bahrain were unlikely to draw support from across sectarian lines, and this could limit the size of demonstrations in a country with just over half a million Bahrainis.

"Not everyone in Bahrain agrees that democracy is a good thing because that will put the Sunni minority's power at risk," he said.

Villages in Bahrain regularly see night-time clashes between security forces and Shi'ite youths erecting barricades and attacking police with fire bombs.

The government launched a security crackdown last August against some Shi'ite groups to stop this, but it has loosened its grip since the revolts in Egypt and Tunisia.

The trial of 25 Shi'ite men arrested in the crackdown and charged with inciting violence to topple the government has remained the main bone of contention. The trial is stalled after a series of lawyers resigned, and observers are wondering whether the king might pardon some of the detainees. Bahrain, home to the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, is one of a string of Sunni-led U.S. allies in the region that Washington depends on to curtail the regional influence of Shi'ite Iran.

Top oil exporter Saudi Arabia, which has a sizeable Shi'ite population in its eastern provinces adjacent to Bahrain, is worried it might lose allies to counter Iran.

Bahrain's main Shi'ite opposition group, Wefaq, will play a decisive role in Monday's protests as it could quickly mobilise tens of thousands of supporters and send them into the streets.

But observers and analysts say Wefaq is a cautious group that will not join street protests on a large scale but will wait to see how many more concessions the government will make.

The group has taken part in parliamentary elections introduced as part of political reforms launched by the king in the early 2000s to draw Shi'ites into the political system and quell the large-scale street protests of the 1990s.

"Wefaq is fundamentally constrained by the position it put itself in, it's decided to work within the system, it's decided not to provoke the Sunni regime so they're stuck in that paradigm right now," Hamid said. ($1=BHD0.3769)

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