Opposition leaders call for a day of protests to demand greater political freedom and more jobs
Bahrain deployed anti-riot police as opposition leaders, inspired by uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, called for a day of protests to demand greater political freedom and more jobs.
Residents of the Shiite Muslim village of Nuweidrat said clashes broke out between activists and police after morning prayers. Police were present on the outskirts of the area, where Shiite flags adorned buildings along alleyways.
“Protests are accepted and sanctioned by the law,” foreign minister Khalid Bin Ahmed Bin Mohammed Al Khalifa said on Monday in an interview in the capital, Manama. “I don’t see any reason for violence from any side. This is something we aren’t seeing as a domino effect. Maybe some people will look at it because it happened in Tunisia, because it happened in Egypt, let us have one day in Bahrain. To have the same effect, no, it will not.”
A group called “the Revolution of 14th February in Bahrain” is using Facebook to promote the protests today and has more than 13,400 followers on the social-networking website. The date marks the anniversary of the establishment of Bahrain's second constitution in 2002, which provided an elected parliament and made the kingdom a constitutional monarchy.
King Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifa ordered an increase in food subsidies and social welfare payments as the government sought to ease the burden of rising food prices, the Bahrain News Agency said February 3. He also ordered the payment of BHD1,000 ($2,653) to each Bahraini family. The Information Affairs Authority began talks yesterday with the media on a new regulatory framework.
The Arab world has been shaken over the past two months by anti-government demonstrations that drove Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali from office on January 14 and forced Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak to resign and cede his presidential powers to the country’s armed forces on February 11.
The cost of insuring debt sold by the government of Bahrain rose 11 basis points today to 248, the highest since February 4, according to CMA prices for credit-default swaps.
“Bahrain, of any Gulf state, is the most susceptible because of the deep grievances of the majority Shiite population,” said Theodore Karasik, director of research at the Dubai-based Institute for Near East and Gulf Military Analysis. “The Shiite population is excluded from many types of government employment and municipal services in Shiite villages are below standards in other Sunni neighbourhoods.”
The island nation, home to the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, experienced clashes between Shiites and police before parliamentary elections in October. Shiites, who represent between 60 and 70 percent of the population, say they face job and housing discrimination by the government.
Sheikh Khalid said the push for change across the region isn’t a concern for his country and may be beneficial.
“We are not worried, and are looking at it in a positive way,” he said. “This wind of transformation in the Arab world is something we should look at positively. It will be a long period of transforming societies. Let us benefit from it. The problem is socioeconomic. It isn’t as profound here in the Gulf. If it will impact in a way, it will impact the minds of the people, seeing a society opening up in a way. I am not talking about Bahrain in this case. I am talking about the wider region.”
Bahrain’s royal family has close ties with Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia, the largest Arab economy. Many among Bahrain’s populace retain cultural and family links with Shiite-dominated Iran, Saudi Arabia’s main regional rival.
The main Shiite opposition gained one seat in October elections and now has eighteen legislators in the 40-seat parliament.
Ahead of today’s planned protests, a Bahraini human rights organization urged the monarch to release detainees and open talks with opposition groups.
The king must “start serious dialogue with civil society and opposition groups on disputed issues,” the Manama-based Bahrain Centre for Human Rights said in a letter to the monarch dated February 12. Measures must be taken to avoid use of violence by security forces against peaceful protests, it said.