Protesters in Bahrain Demand More Changes
By Michael Slackman and Nadim Audi
The New York Times
February 25, 2011
MANAMA, Bahrain — In by far the largest protest yet here, tens of thousands of demonstrators packed the city’s streets on Friday and closed a stretch of highway as they demanded that their king dissolve the government and agree to a transition to a true constitutional monarchy.
The protest — which appeared to be twice as large as one on Tuesday that drew about 100,000 people — cut through Manama, the capital, with staggering numbers for a population of just 500,000. They marched in two huge, roaring crowds from the south and from the west, converging at Pearl Square.
“This is another great day for our movement,” said Abbas al-Mawali, 30, a security guard who joined the march. “We won’t stop until our demands are met. We will have a march like this every day if we have to.”
But after 11 days of protests, King Hamad ibn Isa al-Khalifa has slowly moved to meet protesters’ demands, taking incremental steps. Late Friday, he fired three cabinet ministers, but not the prime minister — one of the opposition’s top demands. He also has not addressed the issue of democratic change.
His emphasis appears to have been on defusing the protests and repairing the damage to Bahrain’s international reputation after the army fired on protesters last week, as well as on limiting concessions to ones that do not affect the government’s power.
“The government released prisoners and said it will investigate what happened; it will make some small changes in the government,” said a rights worker who is not being identified to protect him from potential reprisals by the government. “The whole region is changing. Now is our chance. I am saying, If we don’t do this now, we never will.”
The protesters, meanwhile, have not articulated a strategy for bringing about change, beyond new protests and camping out in the square.
The unrest has been led by members of the nation’s Shiite majority, who have long been politically marginalized and who have accused the Sunni king and his government of discrimination.
In a shift on Friday, it was the Shiite religious leaders who called for protests, rather than the political opposition. Although some of the chants on Friday had a religious cast — with some people shouting “victory comes from God” — the protesters’ demands remained the same, emphasizing a nonsectarian call for democracy and the downfall of the government.
Since the start of the crisis, the government’s response has evolved. First the king unleashed his armed forces, who killed seven protesters and wounded dozens. Then, under international pressure, he withdrew the police and military from the capital, called for a national dialogue, released 300 political prisoners and pointed to the protests as evidence of his government’s tolerance.
His government is also working with a public relations agency based in Britain, the Bell Pottinger Group, which says on its Web site that “we understand how to create, build and protect reputations in the modern age.”
On Friday, Bell Pottinger staff members distributed a statement from the government’s spokeswoman, Maysoon Sabkar, saying in part, “The Crown Prince has called on all parts of society to engage in the national dialogue to progress reform.”
On Thursday, Ms. Sabkar read a statement referring to the killings by government forces as “regrettable incidents” and announced that the king’s son, the crown prince, had called for Friday to be a national day of mourning, and that the king “extended condolences to the families” of the dead.
Ms. Sabkar also said there were no shots fired from a helicopter or from a building last Friday. But she said she was not authorized to say who ordered the army to fire at all or where the shots came from that killed one man and wounded dozens of others. Witnesses said they had seen shots fired from a helicopter and a nearby building.
The statement also said that large crowds at the hospital prevented emergency workers from doing their jobs. But witnesses said they had seen soldiers fire weapons at ambulances as they tried to pick up the wounded, and doctors in the ambulances said the security forces had prevented them from picking up wounded people.
The government’s message inflamed some people in the square.
“These were not ‘incidents,’ ” Said Shamlouh, 37, an accountant, said, referring to last week’s protests, including one in which security forces shot at protesters sleeping in Pearl Square. “This was a massacre. It was people sleeping, families, children. And they opened fire on them. That’s not an incident.”