Bahrain Takes the Stage With a Raucous Protest
Wednesday 16 February 2011
by: Michael Slackman, The New York Times News Service | Report
A protester waves a flag among the 10,000 people that packed the capital's central Pearl Square in Manama, Bahrain, on February 15, 2011. (Photo: Andrea Bruce / The New York Times)
Manama, Bahrain - Hours after thousands of protesters poured into this nation’s symbolic center, Pearl Square, hundreds of people carried pro-democracy protests into a third straight day on Wednesday, joining a procession to mourn a demonstrator killed in a clash with security forces.
Emulating the occupation of Cairo’s Tahrir Square that helped toppled President Hosni Mubarak, news reports said, around 2,000 people camped out at the major road junction in the city center demanding a change in the government of this strategically-placed Persian Gulf kingdom that is home to the United States Navy’s 5th Fleet.
Police massed nearby but did not intervene, apparently anxious to avoid further violent confrontation like that on Tuesday when Fadel Matrouq, a demonstrator, was killed, propelling a further day of protest centered on his funeral. Two people have been killed in confrontations with the authorities since Monday.
The renewed unrest was the latest in a wave of dissent and unrest spreading from the shores of the Gulf as far west as the Mediterranean coastline of Libya where, for the first time, demonstrations were reported to have broken out overnight in the second city of Benghazi. Police reinforcements also took to the streets of Sana, the Yemeni capital, as hundreds of demonstrators for and against the pro-American government massed for a sixth consecutive day. And there were reports of fresh clashes in Iran between government forces and protesters at the funeral of a demonstrator killed on Monday.
Late on Tuesday in Bahrain, protesters entered Pearl Square in a raucous rally that again demonstrated the power of popular movements that are transforming the political landscape of the Middle East.
In a matter of hours on Tuesday, this small monarchy experienced the now familiar sequence of events that has rocked the Arab world. What started as an online call for a “Day of Rage” progressed within 24 hours to an exuberant group of demonstrators, cheering, waving flags, setting up tents and taking over the grassy traffic circle beneath the towering monument of a pearl in the heart of Manama, the capital.
The crowd grew bolder as it grew larger, and as in Tunisia and Egypt, modest concessions from the government only raised expectations among the protesters, who by day’s end were talking about tearing the whole system down, monarchy and all.
Then as momentum built up behind the protests on Tuesday, the 18 members of Parliament from the Islamic National Accord Association, the traditional opposition, announced that they were suspending participation in the legislature.
The mood of exhilaration stood in marked contrast to a day that began in sorrow and violence, when mourners who had gathered to bury a young man killed the night before by the police clashed again with the security forces.
In that melee, a second young man was killed, also by the police.
“We are going to get our demands,” said Hussein Ramadan, 32, a political activist and organizer who helped lead the crowds from the burial site to Pearl Square. “The people are angry, but we will control our anger, we will not burn a single tire or throw a single rock. We will not go home until we succeed. They want us to be violent. We will not.”
Bahrain is known as a playground for residents of Saudi Arabia who can drive over a causeway to enjoy the nightclubs and bars of the far more permissive kingdom. Its ruler, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, is an important ally of the United States in fighting terrorism and countering Iranian influence in the region.
It is far too soon to tell where Bahrain’s popular political uprising will go. The demands are economic — people want jobs — as well as political, in that most would like to see the nation transformed from an absolute monarchy into a constitutional one. But the events here, inspired by the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, have altered the dynamics in a nation where political expression has long been tamed by harsh police tactics and prison terms.
In a rare speech to the nation, the king expressed his regret on national television over the two young men killed by the police and called for an investigation into the deaths. But in an unparalleled move he also instructed his police force to allow more than 10,000 demonstrators to claim Pearl Square as their own.
As night fell Tuesday and a cold wind blew off the Persian Gulf, thousands of demonstrators occupied the square or watched from a highway overpass, cheering. Where a day earlier the police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at any gatherings that tried to protest, no matter how small, or peaceful, people now waved the red and white flag of Bahrain, gave speeches, chanted slogans and shared food.
The police massed on the other side of a bridge leading to the square. A police helicopter never stopped circling, but took no action, to the protesters’ surprise.
By 10 p.m., many of the people headed home from the square, with many saying they had plans to return the next day. A core group planned to spend the night there in tents.
“Now the people are the real players, not the government, not the opposition,” said Matar Ibrahim Matar, 34, an opposition member of Parliament who joined the crowd gathered beneath the mammoth statue. “I don’t think anyone expected this, not the government, not us.”
Bahrain’s domestic politics have long been tangled. The king and the ruling elite are Sunni Muslims. The majority, or about 70 percent, of the local population of about 500,000, are Shiite Muslims. The Shiites claim they are discriminated against in jobs, housing and education, and their political demands are not new.
The demonstrators have asked for the release of political prisoners, the creation of a more representative and empowered Parliament, the establishment of a constitution written by the people and the formation of a new, more representative cabinet. They complain bitterly that the prime minister, Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, the king’s uncle, has been in office for 40 years.
They also want the government to stop the practice of offering citizenship to foreigners willing to come to Bahrain to serve as police officers or soldiers, a tactic they say is aimed at trying to reduce the influence of Shiites by increasing the number of Sunnis.
While the demands are standard here, what is new is the way the demonstrations have unfolded, following the script from Egypt and Tunisia. Young people organized a protest using online tools like Twitter and Facebook. They tapped into growing frustrations with economic hardship and political repression but were not aided by the traditional opposition movements.
The day began early, around 7 a.m., at the Salmaniya Medical Complex, where Ali Mushaima, 21, died the night before from a shotgun wound to his back. About 2,000 mourners lined up in a parking lot behind a truck that carried his coffin on its roof.
As soon as the procession exited the hospital grounds, a young man bolted from the crowd and charged at the police standing nearby. He threw a rock and the police fired tear gas into the crowd. They fired other weapons, too, and Fadel Matrouq, 31, was killed.
Nadim Audi contributed reporting from Bahrain and Alan Cowell from Paris.
This article "Bahrain Takes the Stage With a Raucous Protest" originally appeared at The New York Times.
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