Protesters calling for reform and democracy in Bahrain reoccupied Pearl
Square in centre of the capital, Manama, as the government called a truce
after a week of bloodshed in the tiny Sunni kingdom.
Bahraini police retreated as thousands of jubilant demonstrators erected tents
in the square just three days after being driven away from the square in a
savage raid that left four dead. "Maybe they will attack us again but we will
stay. And if they drive us out we will come back," said 19-year-old Mohammed
Jaffa, as the crowd passed around drinks and packets of Jeetos, an Iranian
snack. "They tried to make this about Sunni against Shia but it is about basic
rights. That is all we are asking for."
Bahrain’s crown prince, Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, ordered troops off the
streets and offered to begin talks with the protesters. Opposition groups are
calling for steps towards a constitutional monarchy, a new cabinet and the
release of political prisoners.
At least six people have died and hundreds have been injured in a week of
clashes that have shattered Bahrain’s coveted image as a friendly tourist
destination and business hub. The protesters have said they will target the
first race of the Formula One season, scheduled for next month which would
do still more damage. Many are still missing after Thursday's attack and there
have been accusations of a cover-up and calls for the minister of the interior to
Al Wefaq, the main Shia opposition party in Bahrain, postponed a
demonstration planned for yesterday while it pondered the Crown Prince’s
offer. But many remain sceptical about the regime’s true intentions.
"We are still not convinced they are serious about dialogue. If we see a
timeframe and a roadmap to reform it would help build confidence," said Matar
Ebrahim Ali Matar, one of the party's MPs. They walked out of parliament in
protest at the violence this week. Al Wefaq has little sway over the protesters
in Pearl Square anyway. The uprising has been led by local youth groups
inspired by the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt who have used social
networking sites to organise the demonstrations. The government insists that
the crown prince’s offer of dialogue extends to all parties but the opposition
has no clear leader to negotiate on its behalf.
The government has also come under immense international pressure to stop
the violence and allow peaceful protests to continue. The Obama
administration is furious that its appeals for restraint were ignored last week.
Instability in Bahrain threatens American interests throughout the Gulf region.
America will have to work out how to deal with another ally cracking down on
its own citizens.