DUBAI (Reuters) - Fear of gains by the Shi’te Muslim majority in upcoming elections has moved Gulf Arab state Bahrain to arrest opposition figures who the Sunni government accuses of plotting a coup, analysts said on Tuesday.
Bahrain on Saturday accused more than 20 Shi’ite opposition leaders arrested in a broad crackdown of plotting to overthrow the Sunni monarchy by promoting violent protests and acts of sabotage — an escalation in a game of push-and-shove between government and opposition that has lasted over a decade.
Those arrested include prominent Shi’ite clerics and human rights activists.
On Sunday King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa used a televised speech marking the final days of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan to justify the arrests, saying it was to stop a civil unrest that plagued the country in recent years.
“They are spreading corruption on the land through acts of violence, rioting and terrorism and the rules of sharia law are clear in forbidding that,” he said in an address that, in a rare departure, dealt directly with such arrests.
“Therefore, the law which is above everyone was enforced to protect society and the state, protect security and spread peace and safety,” he added.
The government would step up monitoring of religious sermons in a move to promote moderation, he said, though it was not clear if this was directed at Shi’ite or Sunni rhetoric or both.
Since the mid-1990s night-time clashes between security forces and young Shi’ite protesters burning tyres and throwing petrol bombs have been a frequent occurrence in Bahrain, a regional offshore banking hub and home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet.
But diplomats and analysts have suggested the arrests are an effort to press the opposition to temper protests before parliamentary polls in October and New York-based Human Rights Watch called last week for an investigation into torture claims.
This is basically the government moving very strongly because of the elections. They want to pull the rug from under the opposition,” said Saudi writer Turki Al-Rasheed, who has monitored Bahraini and Kuwaiti polls. “They want to say the country is in chaos (to scare voters), but it is not.”
He said the escalation against the opposition was the result of hawks winning out in a recent debate among the ruling elite over how to handle the coming elections.
“It’s a local issue. There are poor people who have no money and they want jobs. So they burn things. All that can be controlled,” Al-Rasheed said.
Bahrain and Kuwait have the only elected parliaments in the Gulf Arab region, but bills need approval by an upper house whose members are appointed by the king.
“This is election season again in Bahrain. They are cracking down a bit harder this time,” said Theodore Karasik of Dubai’s Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis.
“The government is afraid of what’s going to happen. There could be concern that the Shi’ite majority could make gains.”
Shi’ites complain that, though they make up a majority of the population they are excluded from job opportunities and access to housing, while the government is granting some Sunnis from outside the country citizenship to change the demographic balance, though Manama denies this.
The fear of ascendant Shi’ite power is compounded by Iran. Sunni ruling families fear the Shi’ite Islamist regime in Tehran could use Shi’ites to strike at Western interests in the event of an Israeli or U.S. attack on Iran over its nuclear energy programme.
Iranian officials have periodically made comments suggesting claims of sovereignty over the island state, some of whose inhabitants are originally from Iran.
Mustafa Alani, a Dubai-based political analyst, said Bahrain’s rulers felt the Shi’ite opposition was exploiting the king’s democratic experiment to ask for fuller rights.
“The names that appeared (in prosecution charges) are those who rejected from the beginning the reconciliation,” he said, referring to the Haq opposition movement.
Bahrain is accusing them of orchestrating the street violence, a charge that two opposition figures based in London, Hassan al-Musheimea and Saeed al-Shihabi, have denied.
Alani said Bahrain has had little success in persuading Britain to curtail activities which involve calling for a parliamentary system where the monarchy has only symbolic power.
Such claims are tantamount to seeking a coup in the ruling family’s eyes, analysts say.
“The major concern of the Bahrain government and others is that if these activities are not brought under control it could be a dangerous challenge to Bahrain and the region,” Alani said.