Despite Protests, Bahrain To Hold Runoff Election

The Sunni-led Persian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain is in the process of replacing 18 Shiite members of parliament who walked out of the 40-seat legislature to protest the crushing of street protests in March. An opposition boycott ensured dismal turnout in last Saturday's special election, and a run-off for nine seats is set for Oct. 1. The government insists it can move forward on its own with reforms that will restore Bahrain's reputation as a secure and moderate banking hub. But with street protests and civil disobedience occurring almost daily, opposition leaders say a new dialogue is the only way forward.

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On Saturday, voters in Bahrain go to the polls for the second time in a week to fill empty seats in parliament. Empty, after opposition members resigned in response to the kingdom's effort to crush ongoing popular protests. Opposition leaders, those who aren't in jail already, say only real reforms will end the near daily demonstrations. But the government has held firm, using force to try to restore Bahrain's reputation as a safe and socially moderate banking haven. NPR's Peter Kenyon just returned from Bahrain and he has this report.

PETER KENYON: New Bahraini MP Sausan Takawi is a reminder that politics here is not simply a matter of a Sunni minority ruling over a Shiite majority. Takawi is one of the Shiites who have prospered under the current system. And when she looks back at this spring's uprisings, she sees not a cry for equality but a costly blow to the kingdom's economy. She insists that the damage is not irreversible.

SAUSAN TAKAWI: That's us. We will be better with the hand of the Bahrainis, the loyal - the real Bahrainis.

KENYON: The new 40-member parliament, with independents replacing the 18 opposition MPs from the Shiite Al-Wefaq Party, is expected to back the government's approach to the crisis, which mixes limited reforms with a harsh crackdown on dissent.

Thousands of Shiite workers have been sacked from their jobs and students expelled from schools with only some of them reinstated despite promises from the king. In the face of a huge security deployment, street protests flare regularly in the Shiite villages in and around the capital Manama.

In the meantime, there are growing signs that international banks and others are reconsidering their view of Bahrain as an oasis of calm and relatively liberal social mores in the Persian Gulf. The French bank Credit Agricole announced this week that it will close its mergers and acquisitions operation in Bahrain, and the website arabianbusiness.com said the kingdom may see a wave of company exits in the coming months.

Shaikh Abdulaziz bin Mubarak Alkhalifa, with Bahrain's Information Authority, says so far, the departures have been limited, but there is an urgent need to turn things around.

ABDULAZIZ BIN MUBARAK ALKHALIFA: I think what we need to do is go back to basics and start from afresh, unfortunately, making sure that Bahrain's image is corrected, that it is not only the financial but cultural hub - a major one in the region. You know, there's a lot of work to be done.

KENYON: Critics say the repair job isn't being helped by hardliners in the ruling family, who have ordered security forces to contain street demonstrations, which they do quite aggressively.

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KENYON: Abdullah Sibhe(ph) opens his smartphone to play a video that appears to show his brother Jaffar being beaten by police after he tried to stop the arrest of women protesters.

ABDULLAH SIBHE: That's right.

KENYON: He's lying on the ground now, and they're beating him.

SIBHE: Yeah. Yes, they are beating him.

KENYON: With the clubs.

SIBHE: Yeah, with batons.

KENYON: With batons

SIBHE: The gas also. He was - they would shoot by gas.

KENYON: Joost Hiltermann, Middle East and North Africa analyst with the International Crisis Group, has called Bahrain the first successful chapter of the Arab counter revolution spearheaded by Saudi Arabia.

Speaking earlier this month, Hiltermann said the next key event will come at the end of October when an independent commission is due to report on the alleged brutalities that occurred in the crushing of the spring demonstrations. But he says until Al-Wefaq, the most mainstream of the Shiite opposition parties, rejoins the political process, Bahrain's bid to turn back the clock on the unrest will be a struggle.

JOOST HILTERMANN: Right now, we have stalemate. And I think it will be very difficult to convince the international community - including the business community - that things are back to normal when that political situation has not been recreated.

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KENYON: For now, Al-Wefaq leaders say they hope the government will begin a genuine dialogue with the Shiite majority in Bahrain, while government officials say it's up to the opposition to come back to the national dialogue that began in July. That leaves large numbers of security forces on the streets every day. And in a sign of escalating tensions, some of the young protesters defying them have begun to use Molotov cocktails. Peter Kenyon, NPR News.

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