Protesters reclaim hub of dissent from troops
Bahrain's crown prince orders riot police to leave crucial roundabout
Published 20/02/2011 | 05:00
Protesters have reclaimed Pearl roundabout in central Manama as a hub of anti-government dissent after security forces abruptly surrendered the site they had violently seized three days ago.
Bahrain's crown prince yesterday ordered troops and riot police to withdraw from the site they had blockaded since Thursday morning.
He announced a day of mourning for the seven protesters killed during a week of clashes between the tiny nation's Shia majority and forces loyal to the ruling Sunni dynasty. Around 200 more people have been wounded.
By nightfall, one of the biggest public gatherings in Manama in more than 20 years had swelled to around 40,000 people, with thousands more streaming towards the roundabout that has taken on Tahrir Square-like significance in Bahrain's anti-government movement.
The end to the stand-off came suddenly, after brief skirmishes between scores of youths draped in Bahraini flags and retreating riot police, who peppered them with rubber bullets and tear gas before leaving.
Crown Prince Salman Hamad al-Khalifa said the troops would not return, and protesters could remain in the area without fear.
As several dozen protesters were being taken to hospital, hundreds more began descending on Pearl roundabout. By last night they were re-pitching tents.
Thousands prayed, while others did victory laps, cheering ambulance drivers, who were being hailed as heroes.
The jubilant atmosphere was tempered by widespread distrust among demonstrators, who began their protests several weeks ago, calling for political reform, and claiming that the Sunni minority had discriminated against the Shia majority for decades.
"They will come for us again, we know they will," said one protester, Sayed Majid, as he pointed out Indian food rations left on the square by the troops.
The overwhelmingly Shia demonstrators are particularly incensed that the security forces they have clashed with are mainly foreign nationals who have been given citizenship and jobs by the regime.
"I know the way they think. Their pride has been wounded and they will try to strike back," he said.
Fatima Majid, who had returned to her homeland to join the protests, said: "It is a mercenary corps protecting an artificial regime. The more of us they kill, the more powerful we become."
Yesterday, as in previous days since the toppling of autocratic leaders in Tunisia and Egypt, this sense of defiance was felt across the region.
In Algeria, hundreds of protesters calling for more democratic freedoms from President Abdelaziz Bouteflika's regime were thwarted by riot police brandishing clubs.
In Yemen, mounting dissent worsened when supporters of President Ali Abdullah Saleh, dressed in civilian clothing, opened fire on a group of students who had gathered outside the capital's Sana'a University, injuring at least four people, one critically.
In the eastern province of Saudi Arabia, not far from Bahrain, Shia Muslims staged a protest to demand the release of prisoners detained without trial.
The protest, reported on Rasid.com, a Shia website, was said to have been silent, with no banners for fear of provoking the authorities.
There was no such restraint at Pearl roundabout, which last night had an almost folk festival feel to it, as well as a palpable sense that reform was possible. "The government is listening to us now," said Mohammed Najib.
"Not because they like us, but because we are in a strong position. The world is watching us and international opinion matters."
A national dialogue, chaired by the crown prince, is due to begin this week. The demonstrators want the kingdom to be a constitutional monarchy, removing some powers from the king.
The opposition party, which walked out of the government last Thursday in protests at the raid, is calling for parliamentary reforms, which would mean an end to the country's deeply unpopular prime minister of 30 years and many of his ministers.
"We will not stop at regaining a piece of land," said Bassema Mousawi, draped in a banner that read in Arabic: Bahrain is me and I am Bahrain.
Meanwhile, those wanting to protest in Iran and Morocco are preparing for demonstrations to ram home their message to their countries' rulers.
In the North African country, where the regime of King Mohammed VI claims to be more liberal than its regional neighbours, pro-democracy campaigners are urging people to take to the streets in the cities of Casablanca, Rabat, Marrakech and Tangier.
In Iran, the opposition has called for fresh street protests to commemorate the deaths of two pro-democracy youths killed during rallies last week.