Dubai: What began last month with the arrest of an opposition leader in Bahrain has mushroomed into a full-blown political offensive pitting the government against a growing opposition movement.
On Sunday, Bahrain's King Hamad Bin Eisa Al Khalifa gave a national address to decry "strife, aggression and terrorism" and announce plans for greater government monitoring of "religious forums" — an apparent reference to clerics challenging the government.
"We hope and expect that everyone will stand firm to protect this nation from strife and evils in the face of violence and terrorism in all its forms," he said.
A day earlier, state media released the photographs of 23 opposition figures ranging from professors and taxi drivers — accused of conspiring to overthrow the government. They include opposition leader Abdul Jalil Al Singace, whose arrest on August 13 marked the first salvo by officials.
Since then, Bahrain's leaders have steadily ramped up the pressure and rhetoric.
Rights groups say more than 250 people have been detained. The backlash spilled onto the streets with gangs and police clashing on opposite sides of barricades of burning tires.
On Saturday, officials took their strongest swipe yet — portraying the 23 detained activists as part of a plot to overthrow the government.
"This sophisticated terrorist network with operations inside and outside Bahrain has undertaken and planned a systematic and layered campaign of violence and subversion aimed squarely at undermining the national security of Bahrain," said a statement by public prosecution official Abdul Rahman Al Sayed after the arrests were announced on Saturday.
No details of the alleged coup plot have been made public.
But the tough line raises questions about whether officials could clamp down even harder during the approach to October 23 elections for parliament, where Shiites currently have 17 of the 40 seats and could make a bid for a majority in the upcoming balloting.
Shiites have long complained of discrimination in state jobs and housing and claim they are barred from influential posts in the security forces.
But the deeper repercussions touch on Bahrain's commitment to press ahead with its democratic reforms in a region still dominated by tribal dynasties.
The confrontation also showcases Bahrain's role as the centrepiece for Gulf concerns about Shiite Iran.
Gulf states are seen to harbour suspicions about Iran's effort to expand its regional clout. Yet only Bahrain has a Shiite majority that is seen as a possible beachhead for Iran on the Arab side of the Gulf. "Part of all this is definitely fear of the Iranian threat," said Shadi Hamid, a Gulf affairs researcher at the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar.
"There is more and more concern about Iranian influence even if it can be proven or not."
Bahrain — about 530,000 nationals on an island smaller than New York City — was once an international business hub for the Gulf, but that role has been mostly eclipsed by Dubai and Qatar's capital, Doha, in the past decade. Instead, Bahrain has banked on its strategic role as the centre for US Naval operations in the region.
At the same time, Bahrain has experimented with a Gulf brand of democracy: It has an elected parliament, but the government still set key policies.
Rights groups have demanded investigations into claims of abuses among those detained since mid-August.
Media advocates, meanwhile, have denounced the closure of some independent Bahraini websites and a gag order for local media on reporting about the arrests.