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Shashank Bengali: Struggle in Bahrain over economic justice, not religion

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PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay in Washington. In Bahrain, the Saudi policemen have taken to the streets. One of them apparently has been killed. They were invited into the country by the Bahrainian monarchy as the protest continues to grow more intense. Now joining us to talk about the recent events in Bahrain is Shashank Bengali, who covers the Middle East and these affairs for the McClatchy Newspaper chain. Thanks for joining us.


JAY: So what’s the most recent?

BENGALI: Well, today the monarchy in Bahrain declared a three-month state of emergency in response to the one-month long protest so far. As you mentioned, there was a death of a Saudi security official who was in Bahrain, invited in by the monarchy to help put down the protest. They arrived in big numbers yesterday, for the first time that we’ve seen, really, an international intervention in a country in the Middle East where protests have been going on. So it’s quite an escalation.

JAY: Now, the Bahrainian police, I read, took off. What does that mean? They didn’t want to stand and fight, ’cause their sympathies are with the protesters? Or somehow they were overrun?

BENGALI: It’s unclear whether–some of the protesters–whether some of the police clearly side with the protesters. But it wasn’t clear whether there were orders given for the police to melt away or not. The same thing happened in Egypt when the army took the streets, remember. So–.

JAY: But there there was an army. They didn’t bring in outside, like, Saudi troops or something, Saudi policemen.

BENGALI: Right. Right.

JAY: So to create–you would think they wouldn’t have faded out unless they had their own military. What is the situation in Bahrain in terms of the Bahrainian military?

BENGALI: Well, the Saudi military is part of this Gulf Cooperation Council. It was invited in as part of the GCC, actually.

JAY: Why can’t Bahrain do this themselves?

BENGALI: Well, I think they don’t have the same size military as the Saudis do, and they’re not nearly as well armed. And it’s clearly a show of force by the monarchy that they want to put down these protests after four weeks.

JAY: So just to remind everybody (anyone following the story knows this), the American Fifth Fleet is based there.


JAY: So there’s a lot at stake geopolitically for the United States here. But the way the media’s been describing this is a Sunni-Shia conflict, almost suggesting this is, like, based on religious, ideological divisions. Is that what you think is going on?

BENGALI: I think, clearly, Paul, it’s an issue of economic opportunity. I mean, the Sunnis are the minority and they hold all the power. The Shia are about 75 percent of the country, and they are discriminated against for jobs, for positions in the military, in the government sector. So it clearly is a very neat division between Sunni and Shia. However, I don’t think–if you asked any of the protesters in the streets, you wouldn’t find them saying that they want a Shia-led theocracy or anything like this. They want economic opportunities. So it happens that the Sunni monarchy has been lording over them, and the Shia majority just want to see more opportunity for themselves.

JAY: So you think it’s somewhat disingenuous then to portray this as Saudi Arabia coming to the rescue of Bahraini monarchy–in other words, to stop Iran, which is the way this thing’s kind of being positioned, especially by the television pundits.

BENGALI: It’s really easy to say, you know, Sunnis and Saudi on one side, and the Shia majority and Iran on the other. And I think clearly both Saudi Arabia and Iran, the two regional powers, are jockeying for influence here. Bahrain is tiny, but as you say, very strategic, and I think both sides, both outside powers are going to try to use this for their advantage. Now, I don’t think the majority of people in Bahrain want to see an outside power dictate what happens in their country. However, you know, the monarchy, you know, Saudi is their biggest backer, apart from the US, for example, with the Fifth Fleet there. The monarchy, the Khalifa family, depends on the Saudi monarchy. And Saudi Arabia’s also very eager to avoid any kind of spillover from what’s happening in Bahrain into eastern Saudi Arabia, where there is a very large and very unhappy Shia population as well.

JAY: So this is more about defending the privilege of these elites than it is about stopping the onslaught of the Iranian Shia hordes, as the kind of picture we’re painted for us.

BENGALI: Well, I think if they can stop, if they can put down the rebellion, they’ll be happy. And that also means that they can keep Iran out of Bahrain. That’ll make them [inaudible]

JAY: Is there any indication that the Shia that are protesting in Bahrain want Iran in Bahrain?

BENGALI: I don’t think so. I’ve heard nothing to suggest that the Shia are trying to invite anybody inside to resolve these issues. They want the monarchy to go, and they want a constitutional system where they can, you know, have rights.

JAY: So there’s no reason to think this isn’t a democracy movement, as it is in other countries of the Middle East.

BENGALI: Yeah. That’s what they’ve been demanding from day one.

JAY: Thanks for joining us.

BENGALI: My pleasure.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End of Transcript

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Shashank Bengali reports for McClatchy from more than 25 countries and covered conflicts in Somalia, Sudan, Lebanon, Iraq and Georgia. Before moving to Africa in 2005, he was a roving correspondent for The Kansas City Star. Originally from the Los Angeles area, Shashank studied at the University of Southern California and at Harvard University, where he earned a Master's degree in public policy. He speaks French and broken Kiswahili.