While the unrest roiling Bahrain on its surface mirrors the early stages of the revolt in Egypt that toppled President Hosni Mubarak, experts say the conflict on the island nation is very different in several key respects.
Most important is the huge economic gulf that exists between Bahrain’s ruling Sunni Muslim minority and the impoverished majority Shiites who are driving the protests.
"In Egypt, you have a relatively homogenous Sunni population," said Lawrence Pintak, dean of the Edward R. Murrow College of Journalism at Washington State University and a longtime CBS correspondent in the Mideast. "In Bahrain, you have the majority Shia, who are oppressed, and the minority Sunnis, who have all the money and all the power. That's a pretty volatile combination."
The extent of the economic divide between the Sunni ruling class and the Shiite majority is shocking, said Toby Jones, an assistant professor of history at Rutgers University and an editor at the Middle East Report political journal, who lived in Bahrain for several years in the mid-2000s.
"Nationally, Bahrain is a very poor country and the wealth that does get created is concentrated in the hands of the rulers and the influential," he said. "… I’ve never seen wretched poverty like I’ve seen in Bahrain."
He described visiting a Shiite village in 2003 with human rights activists and meeting a man who lived in a mud hovel with his cow.
"He had to walk around in rubber boots" because of cow dung all over the floor, he said.
Protest not purely secular
While the prospect of an ascendant Shiite influence in Bahrain is worrisome for neighboring Saudi Arabia and the West, several experts who spoke with msnbc.com on Thursday said that it is a mistake to characterize the protest movement as purely secular.
"Though the economic, political and social discrimination against the Shia is very real, the sectarian aspects of the protests should not be exaggerated, as there are progressive pro-democracy Sunnis supporting the pro-democracy movement as well," said Stephen Zunes, professor of politics and chair of Middle Eastern studies at the University of San Francisco.
He said that while a radical Bahraini Shiite resistance sprang up in the wake of the Iranian revolution in 1979, it was harshly dealt with by the country’s rulers and was effectively dismantled. He sees the current Shiite protesters as having a much more moderate agenda.
"The resistance then was more violent and radical, but it never got very big and was crushed pretty thoroughly," he said. "This one is nonviolent, and appears to have much more popular support."
Jones, the Rutgers professor, agreed that the Bahraini protests are aimed at gaining access to the political system rather than igniting a revolution.
"They are not calling for a Shia Islamic state," he said. "They are calling for a democratic state in which everyone can participate."
Other key differences between the Egyptian and Bahraini opposition movements mentioned by experts interviewed Thursday by msnbc.com:
- The armies. While Egypt’s army is well-respected by the country’s citizens, Bahrain’s security apparatus enjoys no such popular support.
That’s in part because ranks of the Egyptian army are filled by universal conscription, meaning most Egyptians have close relatives serving in the military, said Pintak. It also had a history of staying out of domestic conflicts, leaving it to the police to deal with those considered threats to the Mubarak regime.
The Bahraini army, on the other hand, is in large part composed of Sunni recruits from countries such as Pakistan, Yemen and Jordan, who are essentially nothing more than paid mercenaries, said Jones. It also has a long history of suppressing the opposition.
"In Egypt, the army rolled in and kind of saved the day," said Jones. "There is no possibility that the Bahraini army would behave in the same way. They are completely bound up with the regime and will do its bidding, no matter what."
- Foreign-born population. Unlike Egypt, Bahrain has a large foreign-born population — both foreign guest workers and Sunni Muslims recruited from other countries in the region to try to offset the demographic strength of Shiites.
“In the run-up to the last election, the government apparently was handing out passports to non-Bahrainis like candy,” said Pintak.
While the guest workers are likely to “lay low” during the unrest, the new Sunni immigrants will likely be key players, because of their heavy presence in the security forces, the experts said.
- Sheer size. In Egypt, with a population of more than 80 million, according to CIA estimates, protest organizers had little difficulty attracting tens of thousands to its shows of force in the streets. In Bahrain, with a population of roughly 738,000, opposition leaders have a much smaller pool to draw from, especially if you subtract most of the 30 percent who are Sunnis, the guest workers and other foreigners, including U.S. personnel who work at the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet base on the southern end of the island.
That can work both ways, the experts say: It makes it easier for opposition leaders to engage in organizing, but it also provides the regime with the ability to “cut the head off the snake” by arresting or otherwise incapacitating a relatively small number of organizers.
- Wealth. Bahrain is considered a relatively wealthy country, with gross domestic product per capita of $40,400 as of 2010, according to the CIA, compared to Egypt’s $6,200. But as noted previously, that wealth is concentrated in the hands of relatively few.
Similarities also seen
Despite such differences between the Egyptian and Bahraini protest movements, the experts noted numerous similarities.
Chief among them is that the Bahraini protesters “modeled their actions on the Egyptian protests,” said Jones.
That included using social media to organize and spread their message outside the country, he said, noting that the Bahraini regime clamped down on domestic Internet traffic, the same way that the Mubarak government did.
By Wednesday, users of Bahrain’s Batelco high-speed Internet service were complaining of “service degradation.”
“The telecoms operator did not specify what caused the disruption, but many believe it is the direct action of the government,” reported the Middle Eastern blog, Bikya Masr. “…The government has not spoken to the issue.”
The Bahraini protest leaders also followed the lead of organizers in Tunisia and Egypt by "committing to civil demonstrations and nonviolence," said Jones. And most of the protesters appear to be young, echoing the generational demographics seen in those countries' uprisings, he said.
"They identified this as a turning point in the region and wanted to tap into that," he said.
But the biggest similarity between the Egypt revolt and the unrest in Bahrain is the uncomfortable position that both have put the U.S. in, since both are staunch allies in the volatile region, the experts said.
That discomfort was evident Thursday in the tempered comments by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton on the situation in Bahrain.
Clinton told reporters that she phone Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Sheik Khalid bin Ahmed Al Khalifa and "directly conveyed our deep concerns about the actions of the security forces" in cracking down on the protests early Thursday.
Noting that Bahrain had long been a friend and ally, she continued, "We call on restraint from the government to keep its commitment to hold accountable those who have utilized excessive force against peaceful demonstrators and we urge a return to a process that will result in real meaningful changes for the people there."
That contrasted with her strong statement earlier in the week on the protests in Iran, when she said she wanted to "very clearly and directly support the aspirations of the people who are in the streets."
Pintak said the different shades of support for pro-democracy movements in the region can only add fuel to charges of U.S. hypocrisy.
"Hillary saying Iranians rise up and Bahrainis cool it, what’s the difference? The difference is we have a strategic interest in the Iranian government being overthrown and we have a strategic interest in stability in Bahrain because of the military base and other things," he said.