February 7, 2011 5:45 pm

Bahrain braced for next wave of protests

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Protestors in Bahrain

Bahrainis in Manama last week showing their support for protests in Egypt

Last Saturday saw the return of unrest to Bahrain’s streets, the atmosphere once more filled with the smell of tear gas.

Police broke up protests by a crowd made up mainly of women outside the home of Abduljalil al-Singace, the jailed opposition leader, who is in hospital after a heart attack while facing trial for allegedly plotting against the government.

As demonstrators continue to demand the removal of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak, other opposition movements in the region have seized on the moment of popular unrest to prompt discussion of their own grievances.

Bahrain’s “day of rage” is set for February 14. The protests have been instigated by youths, inspired by events in Egypt and Tunisia, rather than political parties. A Facebook group rallying support for the demonstrations has been blocked on the island, according to rights groups.

The expected protests may not mark a shift in the political dynamic in this small but strategically important state, where unrest – outside the bubble of expatriate comfort – has punctuated daily life in the Shia “villages” for decades.

But the government’s concern about the potential for Egyptian contagion affecting the Sunni-Shia dynamic has already secured concessions.

“There will be some turnout but it won’t be a turning point,” says Jasim Husain Ali, a member of Bahrain’s elected parliament, from the opposition Wefaq group. “The good thing is we are seeing positive repercussions. The mood has changed.”

Bahrain, where Shia form the majority but the ruling Sunni Khalifa family continues to dominate government, has a decade of hesitant political reform under its belt since King Hamad restored an elected lower house of parliament.

Last summer saw violent protests on the island but this was met with a crackdown ahead of the October elections. Tough security has kept the streets quiet since – until last Saturday.

The protests are scheduled for February 14, which is the ninth anniversary of King Hamad, previously an emir, creating a constitutional monarchy.

Domestic opposition groups believe the regional groundswell towards reform will translate into concessions on issues that underpin Shia grievances, such as discrimination and unemployment, prompting a broader discussion across the country.

Claims that the government has been granting Sunni Arabs Bahraini nationality also grates with the Shia, who believe it is an attempt to change the country’s demographic balance.

Informal talks have been opened with members of the opposition, activists say. The government has raised subsidies on staples such as poultry and flour. King Hamad has also re­instated welfare support for low-income families to compensate for inflation.

Opposition groups expect further concessions during a scheduled speech by the king on February 12.

Rumours are circulating that such measures could be accompanied by the release of dozens of political prisoners or the reinstatement of some opposition newspapers, banned around the time of the last parliamentary elections, which resulted in moderate gains for the opposition.

Nabeel Rajab, president of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, says there are as many as 500 political prisoners in the country, a huge percentage for such a small state. “It would be smart of the government to release them but there are no signals yet that will happen,” Mr Rajab says.

Exiled opposition groups believe that handouts will not be enough to damp down the protests.

“Bahrain will explode because there is a lot of anger,” says Hassan Mushaima, the London-based general secretary of Haq, an opposition party. “The people are ready to do anything. The government can either continue to hit people, as they have before, or learn from Tunisia.”

Last September, soon after the summer protests, Mr Mushaima was charged with seeking to overthrow the Bahraini government, in spite of being in London for cancer treatment. Other opposition politicians were also charged.

Saeed Shehabi, another prominent London-based opposition figure, argues that more subsidies and promises of reform will not head off the protests.

“In the Gulf, people are hypnotised by money,” he says. “We expect some ‘gracious’ acts from the king in the next few days but it won’t stop us. They feed us with cheap food and cheap fuel but we want rights, freedom and our dignity.”

The official domestic opposition, however, believes these concessions are a prelude to more, not less, openness. “We are already seeing the positive spillover of the Egyptian effect,” says Mr Ali of the Wefaq group.

The government declined to comment.

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