It was just another night in this small Shiite Muslim village on the Persian Gulf. A mattress and chairs were set on fire in the street. The police shot tear gas canisters at the crowds. Neighborhood children taunted the police. The police fired more tear gas.
There were smiles all around, not on the faces of the police, who were sweating and trying not to inhale their own tear gas. The people from the village were nearly festive, egging the police on, with rocks and slogans and the speed of youth. They darted. The police lumbered. Their tormentors got away.
It was just another night, and there would be another and another and another all over this sliver of a nation where, as in Iraq before the U.S.-led invasion, a majority Shiite population is ruled by Sunni Muslims.
It is an inherently unstable arrangement, and the Shiites frequently complain that they are marginalized and discriminated against. As in Iraq, the situation has endured for decades, and no one is suggesting that the security forces are in danger of losing their grip.
But Bahrain, the base for the U.S. Navy's Fifth Fleet, is in turmoil.
"We are demanding the release of political prisoners," said Ihsan Abdel Reda, 25, explaining why he and his friends take to the streets nightly. "We are against sectarian discrimination."
Coastal villages are marred by these confrontations. Walls are stained with antigovernment graffiti written at night, and then painted over in the morning by the government. "No, no to oppressing freedoms," read one slogan that had not yet been whitewashed. The roads are scarred with soot from burned tires.
"These people who demonstrate in the streets have demands; it is not sectarian," said Muhammad Jamil al-Jamir, a Parliament member whose family has long been a leader in Shiite political movements. "The Shiites say they are not treated equally."
For years there have been tense relations between Bahrain's Sunni elite and the Shiite majority. That tension exploded into regular protests this year after the police arrested 23 opposition organizers, including two popular figures, Hassan Mushaima'a and a Shiite cleric, Sheik Mohammed Habib al-Moqdad. Prosecutors accused them of trying to destabilize the government and planning terrorist attacks.
But their supporters say they were just trying to organize political opposition and peaceful demonstrations. "We sacrifice our souls and our blood for you, Mushaima'a," young men chanted, fists pumped in the air until the police gave chase.
Then they ran.
Compared with other places in the Persian Gulf, tiny Bahrain feels laid back and calm in the capital and the better neighborhoods. More than half the nation's one million residents are expatriate workers, giving the streets a relatively cosmopolitan feel. Bahrain also has a not-too-hidden seedy side. Prostitution is rampant in the hotels and nightclubs, and the streets are filled with "massage parlors." Bahrain is a destination for sex tourism.
Bahrain's politics are heated, too. The 40-member Parliament is controlled by religious parties, Sunnis and Shiites, who have turned it into a sectarian battleground. The country is run by a self-declared king, Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, who presides over a police force staffed primarily by foreigners: Syrians, Iraqis, Jordanians, almost anyone who happens to be a Sunni and is eager to earn a Bahraini passport.
Shiites are all but banned from the military and security forces — certainly from command positions — one of their primary grievances.
The Shiite majority complains that the government has a plan to naturalize as many Sunnis as possible, to change the demographic balance. The government and its supporters insist that is not true.
But the Shiites do not believe them. "I don't work, and I don't go to school," said Muhammad Nasser, 19. "I am demonstrating because there are no jobs because of naturalization of foreigners, because of the political prisoners, because of the abuse of the rights of the citizen."
The government and its supporters say that the Shiites are not discriminated against, but that they also cannot be trusted to serve in the security forces.
"There are so many riots, burnings, killings, and not even one case is condemned by the Shiites," said Adel al-Maawdah, chairman of the parliamentary committee on foreign affairs, defense and national security and a member of a fundamentalist Sunni political party. "Burning a car with people inside is not condemned. How can we trust such people?"
In fact, plenty of people condemn the violence. But the young people are so bored, and so agitated by religious leaders who define the conflict as sectarian, that they see protest as both entertainment and a duty.
"When we demonstrate peacefully, when we just hold banners, they don't like it," said Salman Hassan, 20, with a touch of sarcasm and defiance. "They want us to burn things so that they can say, 'See, you are destructive."'
There was no plan to throw rocks and light fires, or at least that is how it seemed when the protest here began. About 4 p.m., three dozen young men, some children and a small group of women gathered in a traffic circle carrying banners in support of political prisoners. They set up a small speaker, and a local religious leader, Al Sayyid Sadeq, began to speak.
Within minutes a fleet of police cars with flashing blue lights started toward them. Some in the crowd held their ground and jeered at the police. A second group of police charged in from a side road. The protesters ran. The crack of tear gas guns filled the air, followed by clouds of white acrid smoke.
Soon everyone was gone but the police.
But the young men quickly regrouped and blocked the road with construction materials. Two young boys dragged furniture into the street, and the older men doused it with gasoline and set it on fire. Only 11 officers were left, hardly a show of force.
The police made a final push, with a second group charging from another direction. They still failed to catch anyone. By 6 p.m., with the fires burned out, the police seemed exhausted, and the young men had faded into the neighborhood, excited and ready to do it again.