Bahrain King in Saudi Arabia to Discuss Unrest
By Michael Slackman and Nadim Audi
The New York Times
February 23, 2011
MANAMA, Bahrain — A day after one of the largest pro-democracy demonstrations this tiny Persian Gulf nation had ever seen, its king was in Saudi Arabia, a close ally and neighbor, to discuss the unrest engulfing the region.
The visit of King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa on Wednesday, reported by The Associated Press, came just as the aging Saudi ruler, King Abdullah, returned to the country after three months of medical treatment in the United States and Morocco.
Even before King Abdullah landed in Riyadh, the capital, the Saudi government announced that it would pour billions of dollars into a fund to help its citizens marry, buy homes and start their own businesses, The A.P. reported, citing state television. Reuters said the package was estimated at $35 billion.
King Hamad had already tried his own payout — offering $2,650 to every Bahraini family in the days before large protests broke out more than a week ago — but the economic concession was not enough to stem the tide of opposition from the country’s Shiite majority. As in Saudi Arabia, the ruling class of Bahrain is made up of members of its Sunni minority.
In a nation of only 500,000 citizens, the sheer size of the gathering on Tuesday in Manama, Bahrain’s capital, was astonishing. Tens of thousands of men, women and children, mostly members of the Shiite majority, formed a ribbon of protest for several miles along the Sheik Khalifa bin Salman Highway as they headed for the square, calling for the downfall of the government in a march that was intended to show national unity.
“This is the first time in the history of Bahrain that the majority of people, of Bahraini people, got together with one message: this regime must fall,” said Muhammad Abdullah, 43, who was almost shaking with emotion as he watched the swelling crowd.
But for all the talk of political harmony, the past week’s events have left Bahrain as badly divided as ever. Its economy is threatened and its reputation damaged. Uneasy Standard and Poor’s lowered its credit rating this week, Bahraini authorities canceled next month’s Bahrain Grand Prix Formula One race — a source of pride for the royal family — many businesses remained closed, and tourism was reported down.
On one side of the divide is the Sunni minority, which largely supports King Hamad, as the protector of its interests. On the other is the Shiite majority, which knows the changes it seeks will inevitably bring power to its side. The king began releasing some political prisoners on Tuesday night, and the crown prince, Sheik Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, has called for a national dialogue to try to bridge differences, preserve the monarchy and unite the nation. But so far in Bahrain, there is no substantive dialogue between the sides. There is a test of wills, as the Sunnis fight to hold on to what they have and the Shiites grapple for their fair share after years of being marginalized by an absolute monarchy that has ruled the nation for two centuries.
“I’m really excited, but I don’t know what is going to happen,” said Fatima Amroum, a 25-year-old woman in a black abaya who was quietly sending text messages as she watched the procession on Tuesday. “I’m a little scared of uncertainty; we might get what we demand, but freedom will be chaotic at the beginning.”
The days of protest and repression have mostly been about the Shiites speaking up and the Sunnis cracking down. But on Monday night, in the wealthy neighborhood of Juffair, tens of thousands of pro-government demonstrators poured into Al Fateh Grand Mosque to express their support for the embattled king.
The pro-government crowd borrowed some of the opposition’s slogans, including “no Sunni, no Shia, only Bahraini.” But that was where the call for unity started and ended.
This was an affluent crowd, different from the mostly low-income Shiites who took to the streets to demand a constitutional monarchy, an elected government and a representative Parliament. The air was scented with perfume, and people drove expensive cars. In a visceral demonstration of the distance between Sunni and Shiite, the crowd cheered a police helicopter that swooped low, a symbol of the heavy-handed tactics that have been used to intimidate the Shiites.
“We love King Hamad and we hate chaos,” said Hannan al-Abdallah, 22, as she joined the pro-government rally. “This is our country and we’re looking after it.”
Ali al-Yaffi, 29, drove to the pro-government demonstration with friends in his shiny white sport utility vehicle. He was angry and distrustful.
“The democracy they have been asking for is already here,” he said. “But the Shias, they have their ayatollahs, and whatever they say, they will run and do it. If they tell them to burn a house, they will. I think they have a clear intention to disrupt this country.”
On that point there is agreement: the Shiite opposition does want to disrupt, but with peaceful protests aimed at achieving its demands. The public here has learned the lessons of Egypt’s popular uprising and the power of peaceful opposition.
“I feel freedom like I never felt it in my life, but I’m also a little worried,” said Hussein al-Haddad, 32, as he marched with the Shiite protesters on Tuesday. “What is going to happen next?”
On Feb. 14, Shiites tried to hold a “day of rage,” modeled on the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt that forced out autocratic presidents. The police gave no ground, firing on crowds with tear gas and rubber bullets and leaving one man dead, shot in the back. The next day, at the funeral, another man was killed the same way.
The protesters marched into Pearl Square, the symbolic center of Manama, the capital, and set up camp. In the early-morning hours, the police raided the camp, killing three men. Then, last Friday, a group of unarmed protesters tried to march into the square. The army opened fire, and one young man, Abdul Redha Mohammed Hassan, was left with a bullet in his head. He died Monday and was buried Tuesday.
The army’s attack on unarmed civilians shocked even the government’s supporters, and the military was withdrawn. The demonstrators poured back in, setting up a camp and a speaker’s podium and making it clear that they would not leave until their demands were met. The first demand, now, is the dissolution of the government and an agreement to create a constitutional monarchy.
“They are the ones who made the demands grow bigger,” said Mohammed al-Shakhouri, 51, as he watched a procession of thousands follow the coffin of Mr. Hassan to the cemetery for burial.
The government seems to have accepted that violence will not silence the opposition and has shifted its strategy. It has set up a press center to get its message out and is working with a public relations firm.
The opposition has stuck with its tactic of peaceful protest. On Tuesday, the Shiite political parties, chief among them Al Wefaq, called for the demonstration to start at the Bahrain mall and march into Pearl Square. Even the organizers were surprised as turnout swelled, packing the eastbound side of the highway from the mall to the square.
“It is a revolution,” said Hussein Mohammed, 37, a bookstore owner and volunteer for Al Wefaq. “It is a big revolution. It is unbelievable.”
J. David Goodman contributed reporting from New York.