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Is Bahrain Different? Demonstrators Must Overcome Shia-Sunni Divide

Will the Bahraini royal family be the next Arab domino to fall? As pro-democracy demonstrations in Bahrain enter a second week, protestors hold fast in the face of brutal army repression.

Young protester in Pearl Square
Young protester in Pearl Square
Laure Stephan

MANAMA – Like a river that has burst its banks, the flood of words is relentless. On the Pearl Square roundabout, the meeting point for protestors in the heart of the Bahraini capital Manama since February 14, a young man talks about the ongoing uprising, and its repression. Others gather around him. Everyone wants to explain something, add a detail. Most of the protesters are young, between 20 and 35 years old.

They feel compelled to talk. Because "the kingdom of Bahrain is going through a historic moment, and without the foreign media our movement will be suffocated," says Ahlam, a 32-year-old teacher dressed in the traditional Abaya, trendy jeans and shoes poking out the bottom. Because they see themselves as heirs to the revolution coursing through the Arab world: "If the regime falls, the uprising will spread to neighboring gulf countries," says Ahmad, a young businessman. Because they feel they have been cheated by the authorities when the state television channel doesn't show any footage of their protests.

But while their protests are not being shown on Bahrain TV, young Bahrainis are documenting them with their own cameras. Those who were not present at the bloody expulsion of protestors from Pearl Square by the army overnight on February 16, have downloaded images of the approaching tanks and shared them on the Internet.

These young people are the lifeblood of the protests on the square, which they reoccupied on February 19. They parade around the roundabout, waving pictures of "martyrs' -- the people wounded or killed in the uprising. Six people have died since February 14. They gather around a makeshift memorial: flowers, candles and a Koran have been placed beside blood stains. The blood belongs to Rida. The 32-year-old was shot in the head on Friday night. He's now in intensive care, but clinically dead. They drink tea next to their tents dotted about the square. Some of them act as volunteers, supporting the team of first aid doctors or distributing food. Their motto: silmiya (pacifism).

To justify the heavy military crackdown, an official says "arms were found among the protesters'. A member of the security forces even claimed that "blood supplies were stolen from hospitals and emptied onto the square to suggest the army killed people." The young protesters adamantly deny such accusations.

Most of the demonstrators are Shia, like the majority of this small country's population, which consists of 700,000 residents living on just 700 sq kilometers of territory. They deny any tensions with the country's Sunni population, to which the Al-Khalifa royal family belongs. "Sunnis and Shias, we are all brothers," they chant. It is of course a call for unity but it can also be interpreted as a request: we would like to all be brothers, but that means, for the young Shias, "no longer being the object of discrimination when, for example, it comes to access to certain state jobs."

The anger isn't directed at Sunnis, there are even a few present on the square. It is aimed at the royal family, who they would like to see "clear off to Saudi Arabia," a staunch regime supporter and Sunni giant in the region. Riyadh is following the situation in Bahrain closely. On Sunday, it called on protesters "to be reasonable in the way they express their ideas' and "to accept the offer the government has made" to dialogue.

For the opposition this is not an option: dialogue will only be possible once the leadership resigns. It has also called for a new mass protest on February 22. The protesters have no intention of moving on either: "the people want the regime to fall" is one of their leitmotifs.

It is no longer only about the demands made in the early days of the protests for measures against the rising cost of living and a revision of the constitution giving more weight to popular representation embodied by the elected Parliament. At present the upper house – the Shura – and the government are appointed by the king. "Our requests have changed because of the army's use of violence. The authorities have to take responsibility," says Ahlam, the school teacher.

The young protesters' priorities differ according to their social status. For Zouhair, 34, expectations are essentially political: "I hope for independence and the end to a system where one family decides the destiny of our country." Mariam, 35, would like "a decent life, not to live with her family packed in one room because the rents are too high." Hussein, 32, believes "Bahrain can be summed up in two words: tourist attraction." "The royal family are champions at impressing foreigners with ostentatious luxury. But it does nothing for its people. I'm unemployed although I've got a good degree." For Hussein, social reforms implemented by the regime in recent years have had no effect.

One placard brandished by a demonstrator shows a photo of former Tunisian President Ben Ali next to a number 1, a photo of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak beside a number 2, and number 3 with a question mark. For young Bahrainis, there's no doubt: the Al-Khalifa family is next on the list of fallen leaders.

An older man, sympathetic with the opposition, is less convinced: "Young people think that by gathering on the square they'll get change like in Cairo. Insha'Allah (God willing). But the situation is very different. Egypt's Muslim population is much more homogenous, almost exclusively Sunni; here the fact that there are both Sunnis and Shias makes the situation potentially explosive. Added to this, Egypt's army is Egyptian. In Bahrain, a lot of the army is foreign, and of Sunni extraction. That's why they opened fire: they didn't feel like they were firing on their own people."

Security forces left Pearl Square on Saturday. But the helicopter flying over the square day and night reminds protesters that while the authorities have backed off for now, they are still in control.

Read the original article in French.

Photo - Al Jazeera

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