The tiny state of Bahrain was thrust into the international spotlight this month when its regime violently suppressed pro-democracy protests. Although seemingly an extension of Tunisia’s and Egypt’s opposition movements, protests are not new in Bahrain, nor are clashes between demonstrators and police. The popular protests that began on February 14 have deep local roots and reflect frustration with a political system that promised more democratic reform than most others in the Middle East but has largely failed to deliver.
Bahrain has a highly developed civil society compared to other Gulf countries. It is historically a relatively cosmopolitan trade hub and was the first of the Gulf monarchies to discover oil, in 1932, giving it an economic head start. Its formal education system developed relatively early -- its first modern school for boys opened in 1919 and its (and the Gulf region’s) first girls’ school was founded in 1928. Education expanded further in the 1930s, as oil-funded state institutions developed. In 1935, the country became the center of the British Empire’s administration in the Gulf -- a position it retained until its independence in 1971. The empire’s bureaucratic apparatus contributed to the growth of an educated, professional class.
Bahrain’s strong civil society fostered a tradition of political activism. The principles of elected representation are not new there. Municipal elections to fill half the seats on local councils began earlier in 1926. (Neighbouring Saudi Arabia did not follow suit until 2005 and has since indefinitely postponed elections.) The principles of protest are not new to Bahrainis, either; demonstrations date back to the 1920s and probably earlier, although older records are scarcer. Modern labor activism in the country began in earnest in the 1930s, at the Bahrain Oil Company, where striking workers called for access to better education and fairer courts, as well as pay raises and improved working conditions. By the 1950s, as Arab nationalism spread through the region, Bahrain’s opposition demanded independence from Britain. Support for the opposition came from across all
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