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Protest in Bahrain swells following violence

Organizer vows peaceful stand; king speaks up

Thousands of protesters gathered at Pearl Roundabout in Manama, Bahrain. A man was killed in clashes at a rally earlier. Thousands of protesters gathered at Pearl Roundabout in Manama, Bahrain. A man was killed in clashes at a rally earlier. (Hamad I Mohammed/Reuters)
By Michael Slackman
New York Times / February 16, 2011

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MANAMA, Bahrain — Thousands of demonstrators poured into this nation’s symbolic center, Pearl Square, late yesterday 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, this small, strategically important 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 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 the capital city.

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 yesterday, the 18 members of Parliament from the Islamic National Accord Association, the traditional opposition, announced 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 gathered to bury a young man killed the night before by police clashed again with the security forces.

In that melee, a second young man was killed, also by 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 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 a small, strategically important nation in the Persian Gulf best known as a base for the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet and 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 for the deaths of two young men killed by 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 yesterday 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 anyone who 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, and a police helicopter never stopped circling, but took no further 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 crowds 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 are Shi’ite Muslims.

The Shi’ites say they are discriminated against in jobs, housing, and education.

The demonstrators have asked for the release of political prisoners, the creation of a more representative and empowered Parliament, establishment of a constitution written by the people, and the formation of a new, more representative Cabinet.

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