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Shiites Step Up Protests As Bahrain Teeters Between Reform And Repression

Authorities in Bahrain have lifted the state of emergency first put in place in April, when police began cracking down hard on the country’s Arab Spring-inspired protest movement. Tensions, however, remain palpable as talks that were supposed to ease the

A March 4 protest in Bahrain
A March 4 protest in Bahrain
Nathalie Gillet

MANAMA -- Bahrain's Shiite villages and neighborhoods have been playing a dangerous game since the country's state of emergency was lifted on June 1.

In Bilad al-Qadeem, a modest suburb on the western edge of Bahrain's capital, Manama, the clock has just struck 4 p.m. An hour from now an "unauthorized" demonstration, organized via Twitter, is scheduled to begin. Though the weather is very hot, some small groups of three or four people are nevertheless waiting near the entrance of a house or between two cars. They know that nearby riot police are already patrolling the neighbourhood. All the approach roads have been closed off. Nearby the open space where the demonstration is supposed to start, about 20 young women have already gathered. "Clear out Hamad!" they shout to the king.

Nabeel Rajab, a member of a respected human rights organization, gets out of his car and approaches the slowly growing crowd. Faces brighten. People cheer him. Some want to pose with Rajab for a photograph. Others offer to buy him drinks. Today Rajab is the most popular figure in the country, a kind of national hero for the Shiite community. Despite having been beaten up by several hooded men last March, he remains one of the last people who continue drawing open attention to human rights abuses in Bahrain.

In small groups men arrive to join the women who are already there, but it's too late. Dozens of police officers emerge out of nowhere. Without warning, they shoot rubber bullets and tear gas barely 100 feet away from the crowd. Everyone scatters and the policemen fire off again. A young woman screams out in pain. She looks down to see her hand covered in blood. Her index finger has been mutilated. The policemen catch up to the latecomers and begin to beat them.

At the foot of the building, doors open briefly to offer refuge to fleeing demonstrators. In the streets, cars create intentional traffic jams to block the police. People are honking their horns in a sort of rhythmic provocation, always in the same way: two long honks, two short honks –as if to echo the now well-known "Go away Hamad" refrain. People again assemble, at other points throughout the neighborhood. This cat and mouse game will last for nearly two hours.

Every evening in the Shiite villages, gun shots are heard. In the center of Manama, however, there is now a semblance of normalcy following the violent police crackdowns on March and April. Still, things aren't quite as quiet as the authorities want people to believe.

High level discussions were set up to steer the country back to normal. But, just two weeks after the talks began, the main Shiite opposition party, al-Wifaq, withdrew its participation. "These discussions are a joke," explains Saeed Hadi, a high ranking Wifaq party member. "We only count for 1.6% in the government while we won 64% of votes in the last legislative elections. Since the beginning of the negotiations, no one has been listening to us. There's no use in going on."

Most of Bahrain's population belongs to the Shiite community, but the country is led by the Al-Khalifa Sunnite dynasty, which arrived less than three centuries ago. The Shiites complain about being treated as second-class citizens. They demand less discrimination, particularly in civil service, and more political reforms. Above all, they are calling on all legislative powers to be transferred to the Parliament. In this respect, the Shiites and their fellow Sunni citizens are more or less in agreement. Where they differ is in their open hostility toward the powers that be. Inspired by the revolts in Tunisia and in Egypt, Shiite opposition has stiffened and now openly encourages people to overthrow the monarchy. Their hard line has frightened off many Sunnis.

A civil war in the waiting?

"We were about to lose the country," says an independent Sunni deputy. "When I saw some Sunni youngsters getting armed in their districts, I told myself that we were heading towards a civil war. It's better to have 30 dead people than 3,000."

The director of an automobile company adds: "Our women are the only ones in the Persian Gulf who can walk around wearing shorts skirts. Do you want our country to come back to Stone Age?"

In his office, the Sunni Cheikh Abdellatif al-Mahmud, a quiet and agreeable man, is preparing for the next session of the national talks. In February, he organized big pro-government counter-protests that led to the creation of a new movement. "The Shiite community actually wants a religious government like they have in Iran," he says. "They hide their true intentions behind some speeches about political opening. It's a purely parochial movement."

Since the crisis began, the government has been trying to frighten the public by saying Iran is actively encouraging the protest movement. Critics say the authorities use this focus on Iran as a way to avoid talking about political reforms, or about the very real problem of social discrimination in Bahrain.

Ibrahim Sharif, head of the secular left-wing al-Waad party and the only Sunni leader to have taken an active part in the protest movement, paid a heavy price for his political involvement: he was sentenced to five years in jail. Like other leaders of the opposition, he was tortured. Troops from Saudi Arabia and from the United Arab Emirates came to support the repression, which observers described as merciless. State forces killed 30 people and injured hundreds. Hooded police officers in plain clothes made arrests in the middle of the night, and people were consistently tortured. More than 2,000 Shiite people, furthermore, lost their jobs.

Fatima, a 50-year-old teacher, is still suffering the consequences of the repression. "I was betrayed by a colleague because I had taken part in a strike," she says. "They came for me at the school in early April." Fatima lifts her abaya (a Middle-East material that Muslim women usually wear as some kind of dress) to show fading bruises on her shinbones.

Since then, the government has showed some willingness to compromise. Indeed, it lifted the state of emergency and released some 200 prisoners. Trials are ongoing. Bahrain's king, Hamad II, appointed an independent commission with well-known international attorneys to investigate human rights violations carried out during the repression.

The biggest concession was the ongoing national talks, which were supposed to rebuild trust among Bahrain's different factions. But that's proving much more difficult than expected. Analysts worry that other political groups could follow al-Wifaq's lead and withdraw from the working group. Even at the outset, of the 300 people handpicked by the monarchy to take part in the negotiations, only about 30 were from the opposition.

Read the original article in French

Photo - Al Jazeera English

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