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

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The mostly Shiite demonstrators camped out in Manama, the capital of Bahrain, got a boost today. Their government released a number of political prisoners, including veteran activists from past protests.

Those released don't claim to be leaving the opposition now, but NPR's Peter Kenyon reports that they are seen by many as living reminders of the pitfalls of negotiating with the Sunni-led government.

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

(Soundbite of protestors)

KENYON: Singace was among those whose freedom was celebrated at the Central Pearl Circle. He's 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.

(Soundbite of chanting protestors)

KENYON: 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 tribes people who were here when the Al-Khalifa dynasty began more than two centuries ago.

Professor ABDULJALIL AL-SINGACE (Engineer/Chairman, University of Bahrain, Al-Haq Movement): The indigenous citizens of this land have put forward their lives in order to be truly represented in the public life. Those who had been in the front have been eliminated by the regime. It's a pity that the regime has not really learned from history.

KENYON: 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. But through it all, the Shiite population has felt like second-class citizens.

But the reform movement does have a long history here. 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.

Prof. AL-SINGACE: Bahrainis have always considered themselves as decent, and they have been seeking peaceful means.

(Soundbite of protestors)

KENYON: The other major force that rose up here, 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.

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

Sheikh ABDEL WAHAB HUSSEIN (Shiia Religious Leader/Political Activist): (Through Translator) There is a lot of difference between what's happening now and the 1990s. 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.

KENYON: 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.

Sheikh HUSSEIN: (Through Translator) The protests of 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. What you're seeing today are the results of that failure.

KENYON: 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.

Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Manama.

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