Bahrain protests: Will Libya push Bahrain out of the media spotlight?

Notes from different corners of the world.
Feb. 22 2011 5:26 PM

Bahrain's Protesters Hope There Is Safety in Numbers

Now their biggest worry is that the international media will forget them as Libya takes center stage.

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"We protest because we have demands: freedom, better wages, and fixing our living conditions," Abbas Hussein Hassan, a carpenter, tells me in his house in a low-income Shiite village. He lives in a two-floor home with 19 other family members.

"The whole thing has to go: the ministers, the king, everything," he said. "I'm 48 years old, and this is the only situation I've ever known. We need to try to change it."

Abbas says he goes to the square almost every day after work—he won't skip a shift, fearing that he will be fired and replaced by a migrant worker. His house is shabby; the beige walls are smudged, and the brown carpet is worn. As we sit on pillows on the floor, a montage of Shiite clerics from around the world gazes down at us from a tattered poster hanging on a door.

His niece, Fatma Younis, graduated from university last year, but the 23-year-old doesn't have a job. "I don't have anything to do but sit," she says.

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Maryam Alkhawaja, a Shiite who works at the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, told me about the various kinds of social discrimination against Shiites. For example, religion classes in school are taught using a Sunni curriculum. She says teachers lower their students' exam scores if they don't provide the correct Sunni answers. "Ever since they were young, they have had to sit in class and listen to people tell them they're not real Muslims," she says.

For its part, the government has called for a national dialogue, but so far the opposition has refused to negotiate, saying that certain conditions, such as the firing of the prime minister, must happen first. Others say they will not negotiate until the king steps down, an echo of the Egyptian revolution.

Although many say their demands are economic, this is the Gulf, and most people are relatively well-off compared with residents of other countries in the region, such as Yemen, where citizens are protesting. The problem seems to be in the distribution of riches between Sunnis and Shiites.

Maryam takes me to visit Shiite villages. We drive past Sunni neighborhoods of fancy multi-story mansions; we take a turn around the prime minister's quarters, which stretch for blocks and cordoned blocks. The Shiite villages are shabby in comparison, but they are so close to the Sunni properties that you can see why people are angry. (Of course, not all Sunnis live in these megamansions, but I have yet to meet any Sunnis agitating for change in the square.)

People also complain that Bahrain's security services import Sunnis from other countries to serve in the army and police force, because they don't trust home-grown Shiites. "I can afford things, but do they listen to my voice?" asks Abdulla Thamer, a young demonstrator who works in the Ministry of Labor. "If a Pakistani is shouting at me in front of my kids, it's not about money, it's a matter of humanity."

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Sarah A. Topol is a journalist based in Cairo. She has reported from Yemen, Libya, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank. Her writing has appeared in the Atlantic, Foreign Policy, Newsweek, and the New Republic, among others.