Protest Wave Rocks Bahrain
Friday 18 February 2011
Over 10,000 people pack central Pearl Square in Bahrain's capital, Manama. (Photo: Andrea Bruce / The New York Times)
Manama - Bahrain, unlike Egypt with its 83 million people, has a population of only just over a million. And so when protesters settled down to sleep at a central roundabout in capital Manama, the police swooped down and manage to clear them away.
But not before strong resistance and many deaths. Ali Salman, general secretary of the leading opposition party Al Wefaq, said four protesters died, and hundreds were injured.
The masses of people who turned out to attend funerals on Friday were testimony to the scale of the anger against the ruling family.
Al Wefaq has called on international parliamentary unions to intervene urgently to stop the killing of Bahrain people by security forces.
Ministry of Interior spokesman Brigadier Tariq Al Hassan says 92 protesters and 50 policemen were injured. State television showed footage of weapons said to have been seized from protesters.
Brig. Al Hassan said the weapons included guns and swords, and pointed to the Islamist political group Hezbollah based in Lebanon as the source. Salman disputes the allegations.
The scepter of the Hezbollah raised by the spokesman highlights a lingering issue between Sunni and Shia Muslims in the tiny Arab nation. Shias form the majority in this nation, that is ruled by a Sunni elite. The government is seeking to blame for Shia groups for the unrest. Protesters insist they are looking for basic political and human rights.
Prime Minister Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa, the uncle of the Bahrain ruler, has been in his post the past 37 years. The protesters want the constitution amended to give the public the right to amend the constitution to end such rule.
The protesters want only one term for parliament, and for the upper house to be scrapped. Members of the upper house are appointed by the ruler.
Al Weqaf has emerged as a strong opposition, winning 18 of the 40 seats in the lower house in elections in February last year. The party has now withdrawn from parliament over the deaths of protesters. The withdrawal has raised major issues for the functioning of the government and in particular for passing of the annual budget.
The presence of the opposition party in parliament has not been enough to channel public anger, and protests spilled out to the streets. Clashes broke out on the eve of the tenth anniversary of the National Action Charter on Feb. 13. That charter was put out by King Hamad ibn Isa Al Khalifah on that date in 2001 to contain continuing unrest through the 1990s.
Bahrain is the only country in the region after Kuwait to have an elected parliament and a degree of rights for political societies and trade unions.
But after Egypt, the concessions in the charter do not seem enough. In the first protests, two youths, Ali Mushama and Fadhel Matrook, died in the police crackdown. The victims, both Shia Muslims, had been among many calling through e-networks for strong protests to push for further reforms.
Shia Muslims have been at the forefront of protests in Bahrain, marking a difference between the protests in Bahrain and those in Egypt and other countries.
King Hamad has announced the formation of an investigation panel to look into the deaths of protesters. The King said in his address that reforms will continue – but this assurance did little to calm down protesters, or the opposition.
Minister for foreign affairs Shaikh Khalid Al Khalifa announced in the face of protests that the process of reforms is ongoing. The reforms would ensure human rights principles and freedom of expression, he said.
The crackdown on the protesters was ordered in fear partly of the economic consequences. The roundabout that protesters occupied is just a few kilometres from the Bahrain Financial Harbour and the World Trade Centre in capital Manama.
Bahrain has only limited oil resources compared to its neighbours in the Gulf. It counts on its open market policies and a friendly investment climate. Bahrain is considered the freest economy in the Middle East and North Africa – but also has high unemployment.
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