It's unclear if the popular uprising in strategically located Bahrain, however, will achieve the same result as in Egypt, where President Hosni Mubarak was forced out of power after 18 days of pro-democracy rallies.
The ruling dynasty in the Persian Gulf island that's home to the U.S. Fifth Fleet has been in power for more than 200 years. And 10 years ago, Bahrain held a referendum in which a majority of citizens endorsed the current system, a constitutional democracy. The question is whether that's changed in recent days, with an onslaught of violence at the hands of the regime.
Riot police armed with clubs and knives fired grenades and tear gas on the capital's Pearl Square early this morning, where protesters -- including women and children -- were camping out. Amnesty International cited reports saying six people were killed. A BBC correspondent wrote on Twitter that there was "clear evidence police used live rounds against protesters."
Surprised demonstrators ran, gasping for air, and armored vehicles blocked key roads in and out of the capital Manama. Plainclothes police roamed the littered square with shotguns.
"Police are coming, they are shooting tear gas at us," one demonstrator told Reuters by telephone. Another said, "I am wounded, I am bleeding. They are killing us."
Three people were killed and more than 200 injured, CNN reported citing a government official and media reports.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called the government of Bahrain and expressed her "deep concern" about the crackdown, Voice of America reported.
Foreign Minister Khalid Al Khalifa told reporters that the crackdown was necessary because protestors were "polarizing the country" and pushing it to the "brink of the sectarian abyss," The Associated Press said.
Doctors organized a patrol at daybreak, marching to protest the attacks on what they said were unarmed people merely sleeping. The Interior Ministry called the protest camp "illegal" and warned people to stay off the streets. Later, the army announced on state TV that parts of the capital were under lockdown, and public gatherings banned.
"We were asleep, and they started slicing through our tent," Nabeel Ebrahim, who was sleeping alongside two trauma surgeons, told The Guardian. "They started firing gas from the overpass and attacking us from all directions."
Now Pearl Square looks hauntingly similar to the center of Egypt's revolution -- Tahrir Square -- where dozens died in clashes over 18 days, while hundreds were killed across the country. By some estimates, the Manama protests have drawn up to 10,000 participants -- one in 50 Bahrainis.
In Egypt, the numbers neared 1 million nationwide -- only one in 80 Egyptians.
Bahrain is an otherwise tidy, affluent little kingdom. It has half a million citizens and about the same number of foreign workers living there. Inspired by popular revolts in Tunisia and Egypt, citizens took to the streets earlier this week, demanding political reforms and better opportunities for the country's majority Shiite Muslims. Some accuse Bahrain's government of inviting Sunni Muslim foreigners into the country and giving them citizenship, to dilute the number of Shiites there.
Some protesters who complained of being beaten in Pearl Square this morning told the AP that the policemen attacking them were speaking Urdu, one of Pakistan's main languages. Many Sunnis from Pakistan have been awarded Bahraini passports and encouraged to join police and security forces -- posts many native Shiites are denied.
Bahrain is different from its neighbors, Sunni Muslim powerhouses like Saudi Arabia, in that it has sectarian divisions, more like Iraq under Saddam Hussein than modern-day Egypt. About 70 percent of the country's citizens are Shiite Muslims, ruled by a Sunni king. Protesters say they were inspired by popular revolts in Tunisia and Egypt, but their aim was slightly different, calling for equal rights rather than a total government overthrow -- at least initially.
Now, a government crackdown on protesters, rather than defeating them, has inspired many to take their demands a step further, calling for a new regime altogether. The same thing happened in Egypt two weeks ago, when plainclothes security agents sought to put down demonstrations with force, the people rebelled and their numbers swelled even bigger.
Both situations reveal a mistake on the part of Arab regimes that have been used to ruling with an iron fist for generations, said Jane Kinninmont, a senior research fellow at London's Chatham House think tank. Their use of force this time backfired, emboldening opponents. And in the new age of social media, the world was watching.
"We saw the same phenomenon in Egypt and Tunisia, when police used heavy-handed tactics, but they actually ended up having the opposite effect," Kinninmont told AOL News. "The escalation has polarized people and does seem to have made more people call outright for the removal of the ruling family, which in turn makes reforms and compromises more difficult."
A crackdown on protests Monday left two people dead in clashes with security forces and sparked sharp criticism from Bahrain's Western allies, including the U.S., which operates a huge naval base in Bahrain's harbor.
After Monday, it looked as though Bahrain's rulers were trying to rein in security forces. King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa went on TV to apologize and withdrew troops from Pearl Square.
But in an apparent change of tactics, tanks rumbled down Manama's streets before dawn this morning, and new confrontations erupted. State media quoted an Interior Ministry official who said today's clashes were an "evacuation of the crowd" that was conducted only after "exhausting all opportunities for dialogue with them," CNN reported. But protesters who survived with gunshot wounds told a different story of unprovoked police brutality.
Like Egypt, Bahrain is longtime U.S. ally, and the popular uprising by mostly unarmed pro-democracy protesters poses a political dilemma for Washington. U.S. officials have been criticized for picking and choosing which pro-democracy protesters to support -- first standing behind Egypt's Mubarak and then effectively switching sides and backing protesters calling for his ouster. Bahrain's 61-year-old king has been a strong ally to neighboring Saudi Arabia as well, and Washington isn't likely to turn on him.
British Foreign Secretary William Hague condemned today's crackdown on protesters, calling on Bahrain's government to "exercise restraint," the BBC reported.
But Kinninmont said she thinks Iran's role in Bahrain is "often exaggerated."
"Certainly the [Bahraini] government has always been concerned about Iran's influence over its [Bahrain's] Shiite population. But the main Shiite party in Bahrain says it doesn't believe the Iranian model is right for Bahrain," Kinninmont said. "Iran may well welcome the unrest, but it's not a fundamental driver."