Freed Activists Offer Reminder Of Bahrain's Past Demonstrators in Bahrain cheered the government's release of political prisoners — among them veteran activists from past protests. But for many, the freed activists also serve as living reminders that negotiating with the Sunni-led government is filled with pitfalls.
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Freed Activists Offer Reminder Of Bahrain's Past

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Freed Activists Offer Reminder Of Bahrain's Past

Freed Activists Offer Reminder Of Bahrain's Past

Freed Activists Offer Reminder Of Bahrain's Past

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/134032332/134034814" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Anti-government protesters march Wednesday in a parade welcoming newly released political prisoners to Pearl Circle in Manama, Bahrain. Hasan Jamali/AP hide caption

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Hasan Jamali/AP

Anti-government protesters march Wednesday in a parade welcoming newly released political prisoners to Pearl Circle in Manama, Bahrain.

Hasan Jamali/AP

The release of political prisoners by the government of Bahrain has given new life to the mostly Shiite demonstrators camped out in the capital, Manama.

Among those released are veteran activists from past protests. They don't claim to be leading the opposition now. But many people see them as living reminders that negotiating with the Sunni-led government is a path filled with pitfalls.

The young protesters who have been on the front lines of today's demonstrations have been reluctant to take up the government's offer of a national dialogue. And for some, it's people like the recently freed Abduljalil al-Singace who fuel their worries that negotiated victories can disappear once the pressure is off the government.

Singace is one of the leaders of the al-Haq movement, which has refused to participate in Bahrain's elections on the grounds that the government reneged on its promise of a Parliament with real powers.

Abduljalil al-Singace (center), a Bahraini Shiite political activist who was released Wednesday, stands with his wife and other relatives outside the main police station in Manama, Bahrain. Hasan Jamali/AP hide caption

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Hasan Jamali/AP

Abduljalil al-Singace (center), a Bahraini Shiite political activist who was released Wednesday, stands with his wife and other relatives outside the main police station in Manama, Bahrain.

Hasan Jamali/AP

A Long History

In an interview with a small group of reporters at his home, Singace framed the current crisis in the kind of historical terms that are anathema to supporters of Bahrain's Sunni royal family. He calls himself one of the "indigenous people of Bahrain" — the mostly Shiite tribespeople who were here when the al-Khalifa dynasty began more than two centuries ago.

"The indigenous citizens of this land have put forward their lives in order to be truly represented in the public life," he says. "Those who have been in the front have been eliminated by the regime. It's a pity that the regime has not really learned from history."

It's a view that gives short shrift to the island's history as a key trading post that attracted a polyglot population over the centuries. Many Bahrainis of Indian, Omani and Persian descent claim a long lineage here. Through it all, the Shiite population has felt like second-class citizens.

But the reform movement does have a long history. Singace says the constitution of 1973 included much of what demonstrators today are calling for. But that constitution was abrogated two years later, the Parliament dissolved and emergency rule put in place for the next 17 years.

Singace says the struggle to regain those lost rights has brought some hard lessons.

"Bahrainis have always considered themselves as decent, and they have been seeking peaceful means to seek these demands," he says. "Unfortunately, this has been seen as being too pacific, as being too weak to ask for higher demands."

'They Will Have Victory'

The other major force that rose up, especially in the wake of Iran's Islamic Revolution in 1979, was religious fundamentalism. A brief Shiite uprising in 1981 confirmed the Sunni royal family's fears, and those of their patrons in neighboring Saudi Arabia, that there was a danger of the island's Shiite majority being hijacked by religious forces.

Bahrain's last major uprising was in the 1990s, when people like Abdel Wahab Hussein were important players. Hussein attended funerals last week for some of the young men killed in the latest protests and said the youth had taken the struggle to a new level.

"There is a lot of difference between what's happening now and the 1990s," he says. "There's more street experience now — people have learned from Tunisia and Egypt. They will have victory. No one can stop the young people now."

Hussein remains a bright-eyed and cordial elder statesman — tall and slender, clearly revered by the young men who surround him. He argued that the mistake of the 1990s was to back off when the government promised reforms, only to water them down later.

"The protests in the '90s succeeded in bringing the National Charter, the king's promise of real reform. But the government wasted its golden chance when it produced a constitution that didn't live up to those promises," he says. "What you're seeing today are the results of that failure."

But other Bahrainis warn that if young Shiites today decide that only pressure and confrontation can achieve their goals, they risk another violent crackdown, especially if the Saudi leadership decides things are getting out of hand.

All sides are watching closely as the young demonstrators search for their next step.