Bahrain: A fissured future in a ‘fictitious democracy’

Thousands of demonstrators came to support the friends and family of Mahmood Makki Abotakki on Feb. 18. Mahmood was shot and killed during the Pearl Roundabout uprising when police stormed the square at 3 a.m.

February 27, 2011

Jesse McLean

Lucas Oleniuk/Toronto Star

MANAMA—Mohammed Khalil sits on a curb, his back to the towering monument in the middle of Pearl Roundabout, and takes a long drag on a Marlboro cigarette.

The 22-year-old Bahraini was among the first throng of protesters to rush back into the landmark square on Feb. 19 after riot police retreated. But he hasn’t been able to sleep well since.

“I keep worrying: What happens now?” he said softly.

Two days before the square was reclaimed, a pre-dawn assault by police killed four protesters, their bodies peppered with shotgun pellets.

After criticism from the international community, including its U.S. allies, the crown prince of Bahrain’s Al-Khalifa royal family ordered police and tanks to withdraw from city streets and announced demonstrators would be free to protest. The prince also said he would talk with opposition groups to restore calm in this tiny Gulf kingdom.

But opposition politicians and blocs have struggled for days to coordinate a response to the government’s call for discussions, revealing fissures in the protesters’ ranks. Now that it’s time to make their demands, they have to decide exactly what it is they want.

“We have people who want many things, different things. I’m very scared some people will be here, and here and here and there,” Khalil said, moving his hands in the air, left to right, along some invisible spectrum.

The protesters do have core demands, articulated in a press release by seven main opposition parties, calling for the dissolution of the current government, a constitutional monarchy and democratic reform that will end the nepotism that has seen the prime minister and his cabinet, many of whom are members of the Sunni ruling family, handpicked by the king. They want solutions to unemployment and housing shortages, problems that plague the country’s Shiite majority.

But many of the youth are at the extreme end of the spectrum described by Khalil. They want to oust the monarchy itself. With each demonstrator killed — there have been seven deaths since protests began on Valentine’s Day — the discontent among the youth intensifies, as do their demands. They no longer just shout slogans for the prime minister to resign. They yell, “Death to Al-Khalifa.”

“The strongest card in the hands of the opposition are the youth who are willing to give their lives (for change),” said Ebrahim Sharif, the middle-aged secretary general of the secular-leftist Waad party. “They have to be represented so they don’t feel the revolution has been hijacked by my generation.”

If negotiations with the government move ahead without the protesters having a single agenda, “It will break this whole movement into small pieces,” Sharif warned. “That will only help the regime.”

Which leaves demonstrators having to reconcile their differences and figure out the question that Khalil keeps repeating to himself as he lies awake at night:

“What happens now?”

When King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa ascended to power in 1999, a new era in Bahraini politics was expected.

The country’s parliament and constitution had been suspended since 1975. The Al-Khalifa simply ruled. By 1994, demands for reform by Shiite and secular activists turned violent, sparking five years of protests that ended with more than 40 people dead, many at the hands of government forces, and hundreds more in jail for dissidence.

Hamad, taking the throne from his father, set out to calm the unrest. He released all the political prisoners, abolished the draconian state security laws and decreed that women had the right to vote. He also promised a new constitution and, with it, a constitutional monarchy.

But Hamad was revealed to be a pragmatist, interested more in defusing a crisis than in reforming his family’s regime. The new constitution was presented to the country as a given with no negotiation. There would be a 40-person elected National Assembly, but any legislation they passed would have to go through the government, chosen by the king.

“The constitution has made Bahrain into a total authoritarian monarchy instead of what we were promised. Everything is in the hands of the king,” said Mohammed Jaleel, a former member of parliament.

“It’s a fictitious democracy.”

Underpinning protesters’ discontent with Bahrain’s political system is historical discrimination against the Shiite majority, who make up as much as 70 per cent of the country’s 550,000 nationals. Unemployment sits at 15 per cent, mostly Shiite youth.

Hassan Ahmed, 28, is from Sitra, the poorest village in the country. Like all of his friends, Ahmed has been jobless for more than five years. And, like all of his friends, he is quick to launch into a tirade against the government’s naturalization policy, through which it gives citizenship to Arab Sunnis from nearby countries, allegedly to alter the sectarian balance. Bahrain’s army has soldiers from Pakistan, Yemen and Syria. “The people shooting us, they’re not even Bahraini,” he said.

These new citizens are also given houses immediately, he claims. The average Shiite family waits as long as 15 years for a house from the government.

In 2006, a government advisor turned whistleblower released a 240-page report contending that the Bahraini rulers enlisted a network of religious leaders, government-backed civic groups and even foreign intelligence agents to drown out Shiite voices and strengthen Sunnis’.

“There is no justice, no freedom, if you are Shiite,” Ahmed said in Arabic. “We’re encouraged by what happened in Egypt and Tunisia. The youth brought the change. We will bring change here.”

Ahmed Abotakki leans against the wall in the Salmaniya hospital’s morgue, steps away from where his brother lays dead on a metal table. His face is stained with tears but he is no longer crying.

“I blame the king for my brother’s death,” said the 29-year-old, touching his younger brother’s hand. Mahmood Makki Abotakki, just a month shy of his 22nd birthday, was shot when riot police stormed the Pearl Roundabout on Feb. 17 at 3 a.m., while the settlement of protesters slept. Doctors pulled 200 shotgun pellets from his chest and arms.

“My brother’s death is very expensive to me. But democracy in Bahrain is more expensive,” Abotakki said. “We are ready to pay. I am ready to die for freedom.”

After the first two protesters were killed in pre-Feb. 17 clashes — the second was shot shortly after leaving the funeral for the first — fellow dissidents proclaimed them as martyrs for political reform. But something changed after the police fired upon sleeping protesters. It was no longer enough to demand the country become a constitutional monarchy and to oust the prime minister, who has held the position for 40 years without facing an election.

“Now, we demand the king must go, too,” Abotakki said.

The anger has produced different factions among protesters, whose demands range from political reform to jailing the entire royal family for murder. There are now thousands of men and women ready to die for a better Bahrain, but they don’t share a vision for what that Bahrain might look like.

Will the king merely be a symbolic position with no political clout? Will there be a king at all?

The conciliatory gestures from Bahrain’s crown prince — the talks with the opposition, the freeing of political prisoners — have eased some pressure.

The kingdom’s foreign minister said on Thursday that the leadership is willing to discuss any demand and that he expected formal talks with the opposition to start within days. Sheikh Khaled bin Ahmed al-Khalifa also said that Hassan Mushaimaa, the London-based leader of the Shiite Haq movement, could return to the country.

“These are small steps but they’re a good sign,” one Shiite politician said even before the latest announcement. “But overthrowing Al-Khalifa is not something that is possible, I don’t think. There are people demanding things that are not realistic.”

Sharif, the Waad party official, is confident the protesters can reach a consensus on their demands. “The boys have been convinced not to use rocks and Molotovs when they were attacked and attacked again. They are maturing,” he said. “With a little time, I think, they can be convinced to have more reasonable demands.”

But protesters are adamant that they want the entire regime, monarch and all, overthrown.

“If Hamad stays in power, what is the point of this?” asks Saad Mirza, 29. He stands in the crowd at Pearl Roundabout as a stream of young prisoners are presented on the makeshift stage. The men — most of them teenagers, their bodies gaunt, their beards unkempt — came to the square directly from jail. “If they think making these men free is enough, they are wrong,” he said.

He nods approvingly at a sign carried by a child a few metres away. It reads: “We won’t calm down until Al-Khalifa comes down.”

Pearl Roundabout is now its own city. Striking teachers give lessons inside tents. Volunteers collect garbage and hand out free food. There are even two barbers who work through lengthy list of patrons, their names scribbled on to a scrap of cardboard. The protesters have pledged that the demonstrations won’t end until their demands are met and they’re preparing for a long grind of negotiations.

Mementos of the brutal attack by police have been collected and placed on a carpet for all to see. Empty tear gas canister. Rubber bullets. Concussion bombs. A single child’s shoe, presumably lost in the panic as protesters scrambled for safety.

Above the display, a young boy’s sweatshirt has been pinned against a palm tree. There is a cluster of bullet holes on the back and it still reeks of tear gas.

“We can’t forget what the police did to us,” Khalil said.

He believes the concessions are only the first of many and that government will eventually give in to protesters’ demands. However, he admits it’s more likely there will be compromise. Perhaps a constitutional monarchy such as Britain, where an elected body will run the country and Al-Khalifa will be a symbolic king, one who reigns but does not rule.

But anything short of overthrowing the regime will not make him happy.

“It will happen. They will listen,” he said. “It’s hard to change the prime minister, the king, everybody. But we will stay in Pearl Roundabout until they are all gone or they kill us.”

Bahraini Opposition

The most prominent factions fighting for change:

Al-Wefaq: The largest Shiite political party, its members have held seats in Bahrain’s National Assembly and tried to enact change through legislation. It favours realistic reform and negotiations with the government.

Waad: A secular leftist party, it joins Al-Wefaq and several other smaller parties in hashing out a list of demands to give to the government.

Haq: Formed in 2006 after hardliners split from the more mainstream Al-Wefaq, their demands are expected to be more radical, wanting nothing short of overthrowing the regime. Its leader plans to return to Bahrain after being accused of plotting against the state and exiled.

The youth: Unorganized but emboldened, the youth, in the words of one Shiite politician: “put all fear behind them and took the cause on their backs.” Many of them are enraged by the killing of seven demonstrators and demand Bahrain’s entire royal family be removed.

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