In Bahrain, Protesters Look For Signs Of Change

Anti-government protesters gather at Pearl Circle on Monday. One activist says calling off the protests during talks with the government would be political suicide for any opposition party.

Anti-government protesters gather at Pearl Circle on Monday. One activist says calling off the protests during talks with the government would be political suicide for any opposition party. Peter Kenyon/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Peter Kenyon/NPR

In Bahrain, the economic cost of a week of demonstrations is rising, with the news that a multimillion-dollar Grand Prix race will not be held next month because of the unrest.

The violence has died down, but there has been no discernible progress on the crown prince's call for a national dialogue between the Sunni-led government and the mostly Shiite protesters.

There are signs the government is willing to offer more reforms than it has implemented in the past.

At a very large pro-government rally at the Grand Mosque in the capital Manama, Sheik Abdulatif Al-Mahmood, a Sunni who is a respected former member of parliament, called for equal treatment of all Bahrainis in salaries, housing and standard of living.

In the audience, a man who gave his name as Hejris — many Bahrainis are still fearful of being identified in the media — said people reject the notion of a sectarian divide, but there is a division over tactics.

"We cannot say Sunni/Shia — we are all family. I'm not against you. I am actually with you," he says. "Your demand is my demand, but there is a way to ask for it. ... If you're not at the table, how can we talk?"

Pro-government protesters shout slogans as one holds up a picture of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa during a march in Manama on Monday. i i

Pro-government protesters shout slogans as one holds up a picture of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa during a march in Manama on Monday. Hassan Ammar/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Hassan Ammar/AP
Pro-government protesters shout slogans as one holds up a picture of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa during a march in Manama on Monday.

Pro-government protesters shout slogans as one holds up a picture of King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa during a march in Manama on Monday.

Hassan Ammar/AP

Others in the crowd blamed the international media for overemphasizing sectarian issues. But none of the people at the mosque approached by a reporter could point out any Shiites in attendance.

Similarly, Shiites demonstrating at the now well-known Pearl Circle said of course Sunnis were supporting them. But they couldn't find one for a reporter to talk to.

As protesters listened to demands that young Bahrainis would like put to the government, an academic named Fadel said talking with the royal family hasn't worked in the past, and there's no reason to think it will now.

"Till now, there are no talks. Until the regime change, nobody would like to talk to anybody. ... If they would like to open the dialogue, they have to change the government," he says. "The regime should go out of Bahrain."

A lawmaker from the largest Shiite movement, Al Wefaq, says the opposition needs a sign from King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa that real reform is possible. Ibrahim al-Mattar says a key demand remains a constitutional monarchy, with an elected and term-limited prime minister.

Men hold a sign comparing all British prime ministers since 1971 — eight of them — and Bahrain's prime minister during the same period, Sheik Khalifa bin Salman, in power for four decades. Demonstrators want, among other things, an  elected and term-limited prime minister as part of a constitutional  monarchy. i i

Men hold a sign comparing all British prime ministers since 1971 — eight of them — and Bahrain's prime minister during the same period, Sheik Khalifa bin Salman, in power for four decades. Demonstrators want, among other things, an elected and term-limited prime minister as part of a constitutional monarchy. Peter Kenyon/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Peter Kenyon/NPR
Men hold a sign comparing all British prime ministers since 1971 — eight of them — and Bahrain's prime minister during the same period, Sheik Khalifa bin Salman, in power for four decades. Demonstrators want, among other things, an  elected and term-limited prime minister as part of a constitutional  monarchy.

Men hold a sign comparing all British prime ministers since 1971 — eight of them — and Bahrain's prime minister during the same period, Sheik Khalifa bin Salman, in power for four decades. Demonstrators want, among other things, an elected and term-limited prime minister as part of a constitutional monarchy.

Peter Kenyon/NPR

"If he just send a message, a signal, that he's accepting this concept, then we can sit and dialogue with the ruling family about the details — about the roadmap, about the timeframe for the change," he says. "We believe that any change will require the time. But what we want to see now, we want to see that there is a will for this move."

The government has not yet shown a willingness to consider such a sweeping devolution of power. Still, Wefeq does seem to be working within the framework of dialogue and negotiation.

But university teacher and activist Ali Salman says calling off the protests during talks with the government would be political suicide for any opposition party. Salman was at Pearl Circle with his wife and children Thursday morning when riot police moved in. He says while he deplores violence, the lesson young Bahrainis have learned from Tunisia and Egypt is that protest, pressure and sacrifice are what bring real change.

"I just told my friend: The more you give, the more you will get. I'm talking about myself, now — the more blood you give, the more rights you will get," he says.

For the moment, pro-government Bahrainis seem frustrated that what they see as the government's extended hand is being rejected. Anti-government demonstrators who saw previous promises of reform reneged on are suspicious — not only of the government but also of their own political leaders.

Through it all, many on both sides insist that they are not Sunnis or Shiites, but Bahrainis. Whether that saying can become a political reality remains to be seen.

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