Bahrain monument gone, but grievances linger

Six months on, the Pearl Roundabout, where tens of thousands of Bahrainis converged to demand reforms, is gone but the problems that provoked the protests linger.
The Pearl Monument in Manama was the focal point for pro-reform protestors in March this year.
The Pearl Monument in Manama was the focal point for pro-reform protestors in March this year.

MANAMA // What used to be an arching monument to Bahrain's pearl-diving heritage in the heart of its capital has vanished, replaced by a nondescript road junction that masked soldiers and armoured personnel carriers block any car from entering.

Yet just six months ago this was the Pearl Roundabout, where tens of thousands of Bahrainis converged to demand reforms and insisted on an end to policies they said discriminated against the country's Shiite population.

While the symbol of Bahrain's past has been demolished by authorities and supplanted by the characterless Al Farooq Junction, the demands voiced in its shadow have not been drowned out.

Almost six months on from the outbreak of demonstrations and the government's harsh response, opposition supporters say they have not given up their goals.

On a recent Friday afternoon, thousands of people, many draped in the red and white of the Bahraini flag, flooded a main road in the Budaiya neighbourhood for a demonstration organised by Al Wefaq, the country's main Shiite opposition group. Several girls wore scarves over their black abayas with the words, "Ready to die for Bahrain" - an indication, they said, of the seriousness of their convictions.

"We will remain in the street, remain fighting," said a 29-year-old who would identify herself only as Leila. "After six months, there should be something going on, something happening. But, [the government] faced this revolution in a wrong way. At least do some of what we asked."

Like many in the crowd, Leila said she has been directly affected by the heavy-handed response to what she described as pro-democracy protests. Her 19-year-old brother was arrested close to their home and was held for two and a half months before his family were finally notified of his whereabouts. As a helicopter hovered overhead monitoring the gathering, Leila maintained that he still had not been charged with a crime.

"We know it is difficult, but at least the government and the prime minister should be changed and all those who did this should be punished by the law," she said, referring to those she believes were responsible for the estimated 35 deaths since the crisis began.

While the Al Wefaq demonstration went off without incident, the same cannot be said for the almost nightly gatherings or protests in the largely Shiite villages, where raids by security forces have continued. Police have still resorted to the use of force, firing tear gas and sound grenades inside densely packed neighbourhoods, according to residents in areas including the Shiite stronghold of Sitra.

A school counsellor in his 20s, who would only be identified as Nabil, said the core problems remain - discrimination, slow pace of reforms and limited political rights.

"But I'm optimistic because we were in very bad conditions and the revolution made our demands heard by everybody," he said. "Nothing could be worse than the past situation. I'm insisting to have a better life."

On the other side of Bahrain on the island of Muharraq, Saudi Arabian flags can be seen fluttering alongside Bahrain flags - an apparent tribute to the GCC troops stationed on the island since the government's crackdown in March. Ahmed Othman, a 40-year-old father of three who lives in a largely Sunni area of Muharraq, said he is starting to feel optimistic about the kingdom's future.

"Many indications gave me a positive feeling - increments in salaries, the national dialogue," he said. "I like the government and I want them to stay." He said now citizens better understand politics and have become more engaged.

Bahraini authorities have taken some conciliatory steps. They appointed a panel of international legal experts to investigate allegations of human-rights abuses, including torture and unlawful killing.

There have also been pledges to expand the power of Bahrain's parliament and dozens of people linked to the protests have reportedly been released from detention.

Still, sectarian hatred appears more entrenched than ever. Mr Othman from Muharraq rejects the contention that Shiite Bahrainis are discriminated against. And he believes Iran provoked the protests.

Off the streets, the rhetoric on both sides has become increasingly bitter, particularly online and in the local media. Hardline regime supporters accuse the opposition of betraying their country. Others blame the government for inciting the sectarian tensions.

Suhail Al Gosaibi, 38, is an entrepreneur and blogger who describes himself as "moderate pro-government". He described the widening sectarian and political divides as "horrifying".

"We have a pro-government and an anti-government camp. There was a while where there were people in the middle, but you can't be in the middle any more. You've got to make your position clear," he said. "The other divide is Sunni-Shia, which is also very, very sad. We have a sectarian rift now, which we've never had before, at least not to this extent."

Esam Fakhro, a well-known figure in the business community, readily admits that there are legitimate issues facing the country. Housing shortages, he says, and job opportunities, still need to be addressed.

However, six months after the crisis began, he is among those who continue to reject attempts to lump Bahrain in with Tunisia, Egypt and talk of the Arab Spring.

"We have started this reform process 10 years ago and reform has taken place," Mr Fakhro said. "Despite what is said, the Bahraini people will come to their senses. No one wants to see jeopardy and chaos."

zconstantine@thenational.ae

TIMELINE

February 14, 2011 Anti-government “Day of Rage” inspired by popular upheavals in Egypt and Tunisia.

February 17 Police storm the Pearl Roundabout, the focal point of protests, on a Manama square. At least seven people are killed.

February 21 Bahrain cancels its Formula One Grand Prix.

March 14 About 1,000 Saudi troops are deployed in Bahrain. The UAE says it will send 500 police.

March 15 Bahrain declares martial law.

March 16 Bahraini forces crack down on protesters, clearing hundreds from the Pearl Roundabout.

May 31 King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa calls for talks on reform involving all parties “without preconditions”.

June 1 Bahrain lifts its state of emergency.

June 22 Bahrain sentences 10 Shiite activists to life in prison for plotting a coup during the protests.

June 29 Bahrain announces it is setting up an independent fact-finding commission to investigate the weeks of protests.

July 2 Talks between Bahrain’s opposition and pro-government groups begin.

July 17 Wefaq says it plans to pull out of a national dialogue.

July 28 King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa approves parliamentary reforms submitted by the national dialogue.

Published: August 11, 2011 04:00 AM

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