Unrest Grows in Bahrain as Police Kill

Andrea Bruce for The New York Times
Protesters gathered at Pearl Square in Bahrain on Tuesday.
February 15, 2011

Unrest Grows in Bahrain as Police Kill
a 2nd Protester

By MICHAEL
SLACKMAN
MANAMA, Bahrain — Thousands of demonstrators poured into this nation’s
symbolic center, Pearl Square, late Tuesday 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 on-line call for a “Day of Rage,” progressed within 24 hours
to an exuberant group of 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 on Tuesday, 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 United States Navy’s 5th 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 into a
constitutional monarchy. But 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 incidents. 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. But as night fell Tuesday 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. Police massed on the other side of a  bridge leading to the square,
and a police helicopter never stopped circling, but took no futher 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 the
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, or about 70 percent, of the local
population of about 500,000, are Shiite Muslims. The Shiites claim they are
discriminated against in jobs, housing and education, and their political
demands are not new.
The demonstrators have asked for political prisoners to be released, 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. They complain bitterly that the prime minister, Khalifah
ibn Sulman al-Khalifah, the king’s uncle, has been in office for 40
years.
They also want the government to stop the practice of offering nationality to
foreigners willing to come to Bahrain to serve as police or soldiers, a tactic
which they say is aimed at trying to reduce the influence of Shiites by
increasing the number of Sunnis.
While the demands are standard here, what is new, is the way the
demonstrations  have unfolded, following the script from Egypt and Tunisia.
Young people organized a protest using on-line tools like Twitter and Facebook. They tapped into growing
frustrations with economic hardship and political repression but were not aided
by the traditional opposition movements.
The day began early, around 7 a.m., at the Salmaniya Medical Complex, where
Ali Mushaima, 21, died the night before from a shotgun wound to his back. About
2,000 mourners lined up in a parking lot behind a truck that carried his coffin
on the roof. As soon as the procession exited the hospital grounds, a young man
bolted from the crowd and charged at police standing nearby. He threw a rock and
the police opened fire, shooting tear gas into the crowd. They fired other
weapons, too, and the second man, Fadel Matrouq, 31, was killed.
The mourners regrouped a block away and walked slowly for about 90 minutes
behind the coffin to the Jidi Haffiz cemetery, a dusty expanse of sunbaked land
dotted with simple graves. For more than an hour  thousands of people milled
peacefully around the area in a blend of politics, mourning and faith.
Mr. Mushaima’s father was escorted by both arms gently through the crowd,
after his son was laid out on a white tile table, washed for burial and wrapped
in a cloth decorated with golden Arabic script from the Koran. When the body was
brought to the gravesite, there were as many as 10,000 people in the street,
some mourning, some calling for the government to be dissolved, some chanting
slogans and prayers.
Some people carried protest signs stating their political demands, while
others carried black, yellow and red flags that  said “Ya Hussein,” referring to
the most revered figure in Shiite Islam.
When the body was in the ground, the crowd moved toward Pearl Square, not
knowing if they would arrive at their destination or be cut off by police,
again. When they made it, they rejoiced.
“The government has brought us past the tipping point,” said Abd Al Amir
al-Jawri, 40, an activist who was elated, as he recorded events with a video
camera. “This is it.”
Nadim Audi contributed reporting.
Copyright.2011. The New York Times Company. All
Rights Reserved
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