Young Protesters Turn To Militant Tactics In Bahrain

Bahrain's strongest Islamist group, Al Wefaq, has consistently called for peaceful protests. But now it faces pressure from younger militants throwing Molotovs and advancing more radical demands. Al Wefaq will hold a rally on Friday, the first time it has defied the national protest ban.

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AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

We turn now to the Persian Gulf kingdom of Bahrain. For the past 22 months, protestors have taken to the streets there demanding reform. For the most part, the demonstrations have been peaceful, but amid greater repression by the security forces, some of the younger protestors have turned to violence, and that has prompted a rift in the ranks of the opposition. Independent producer Reese Erlich paid a visit to Bahrain's capital, Manama.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #1: (Foreign language spoken)

REESE ERLICH, BYLINE: As people gather for peaceful rally here on the outskirts of the capital, a small number of men cover their faces with checkered Arab head scarves. They're among the angry youth who no longer follow moderate opposition leaders.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Allah-u-Akbar.

ERLICH: Recently, the traditional opposition has not sought direct confrontation with Bahrain's monarchy. But one young protestor, who gives only his first name, Ahmad, advocates the overthrow of Bahrain's monarchy, headed by King Hamad.

AHMAD: (Through translator) King Hamad is a criminal. He's responsible for killing people last year and this year. He and his family control the whole country and its wealth.

ERLICH: In recent months, some youth have defied traditional leaders and hurled Molotov cocktails at police. Abdul al-Khalifa, a government spokesperson, says such violence has become the norm, and that's why authorities banned all demonstrations in October.

ABDUL AL-KHALIFA: Every time there is a, quote-unquote, peaceful demonstration, there are elements in those marches that turn to violence. And therefore instead of letting things spiral out of control and have total anarchy on the street, this is a temporary suspension of these marches and protests.

ERLICH: Opposition leaders acknowledge that a growing number of youth are turning to more militant tactics. In one incident the government says demonstrators killed a policeman. And in another, five bombs went off in Manama, killing two migrant workers. The opposition says the government exaggerates the threat to justify more repression. Opposition leaders also note that the temporary ban on demonstrations has no time limit. Ali Salman, who heads Al Wefaq, Bahrain's largest opposition group, says his organization continues to advocate non-violence.

ALI SALMAN: We are against the violence from any part of the community or the policemen. And let us continually, like the majority of the peoples now, demand for peaceful demonstration, the peaceful method.

ERLICH: Salman admits that his group is losing some support to the more militant youth. Feeling the pressure, Al Wefaq and other traditional opposition groups have called for a rally this Friday, their first since the protest ban enacted one month ago.

CROWD: (Chanting in foreign language)

ERLICH: Back at the earlier rally, activist Ahmad says so far, most young people remain nonviolent. But they want change soon. He notes wryly that Bahrain has had the same, unelected prime minister for 41 years.

AHMAD: (Through translator) I spent all of my life with one prime minister. I want to see another one in my lifetime.

ERLICH: Protestors say they will gather peacefully Friday on a major road leading to the capital. But they fear an attack by government forces. Reese Erlich for NPR News.

CORNISH: The Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting provided a grant to Reese Erlich for reporting from Bahrain.

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