We noticed you're blocking ads.

Keep supporting great journalism by turning off your ad blocker.

Questions about why you are seeing this? Contact us

Font Size

- Aa +

Thu 17 Feb 2011 01:07 AM

Font Size

- Aa +

Bahrain protesters rally for third day

Thousands joined a long and winding Shi'ite funeral procession for the man shot dead on Tuesday

Bahrain protesters rally for third day
Hundreds of Bahraini protesters shout slogans as the attend the funeral of Shiite Fadel Salman Matrouk who was shot dead a day earlier where mourners gathered for the funeral of another comrade (Getty Images)

Protesters in Bahrain, emboldened by revolts that have toppled Arab rulers in Tunisia and Egypt, poured into the centre of the capital on Wednesday to mourn a demonstrator killed in clashes with security forces.

A crowd estimated at more than 1,000 people joined a long and winding Shi'ite funeral procession for the man, shot dead on Tuesday when fighting erupted at the burial of another protester.

Around 2,000 others were camped out at a junction in the centre of the Gulf island kingdom's capital, hoping to emulate the rallies on Cairo's Tahrir Square. They demanded a change of government in Bahrain, where a Sunni family rules over a Shi'ite majority.

The protests, in their third day, are some of the most serious since widespread Shi'ite unrest of the 1990s, and appear to be driven by familiar complaints of economic hardship, lack of political freedom and sectarian discrimination.

"The people demand the fall of the regime!" protesters chanted as men pounded their chests in rhythm, a mourning gesture which is distinctive to the Shi'ite branch of Islam.

King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa has expressed condolences to relatives of the two dead men, and said a committee would investigate. The Interior Ministry has promised legal action if it finds police used unjustified force.

In the Sunni town of Riffa, home to many members of the ruling family, at least 1,000 pro-government demonstrators waved flags and held pictures of King Hamad in a show of support.

Though itself only a minor oil exporter, Bahrain's stability is important for neighbouring Saudi Arabia, where oilfields are home to an oppressed Shi'ite minority.

Bahrain is also a hub for banking and financial services in the Gulf and home to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet.

Protesters, their tone hardened by the deaths of two Shi'ite men within 24 hours, want the removal of the prime minister, Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al Khalifa, who has governed since British rule ended in 1971.

For now, they have not sought change at the very top -- his nephew King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa has ultimate control over the 1.3 million people in Bahrain, half of them foreigners.

"We are requesting our rights in a peaceful way," said Bakr Akil, a 20 year-old student. He wore a sheet stained with red ink that he said showed his willingness to sacrifice for freedom.

Women dressed in black abaya cloaks followed the procession with their own chants calling for peace and Bahraini unity.

Mourners tossed stems of sweet-smelling basil onto the car ferrying the cotton-wrapped body, draped in a green Islamic banner, through winding alleyways toward a small cemetery for burial. Black flags of mourning flew.

Bahrain's Shi'ites, whose branch of Islam is found mostly across Gulf waters in Iran and among Arabs in Iraq and Lebanon, complain they are shut out of public housing, healthcare and government jobs and also that their rulers have tried to shift the demographic balance by making Sunni immigrants citizens.

A Bahraini central bank official said the protests would not affect the country's economy or financial sector.

But in a measure of investors' concerns, the cost of insuring Bahraini debt against the government defaulting rose to its highest level since August 2009, with 5-year credit default swaps up 13 percent in the past two days.

Near the protest site at Manama's Pearl Roundabout, police kept their distance, massing on a nearby dirt lot in dozens of cars. The Interior Ministry said roads were all open on the island, which at 750 square kilometres (290 sq mile) is about the size of Singapore.

The main Shi'ite opposition group Wefaq, which boycotted parliament in protest at the clampdown by the security forces, said it would hold talks with the government on Wednesday.

"We support the people here. We are not the decision makers," said Ibrahim Mattar, a Wefaq parliamentarian who had joined the funeral procession.

"The people are the decision makers," Mattar said, adding that Wefaq would call for direct election of the prime minister.

Bahrain was considered the most vulnerable among Gulf Arab states to popular unrest in a region where, in an unwritten pact, rulers have traded a share of their oil wealth for political submission. Discontent has been expressed in sporadic unrest since the mid-1990s, well before popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt emboldened activists across the region.

Activists also want the release of political prisoners, which the government has promised, and a new constitution.

An upset in Bahrain could embolden marginalised Shi'ites in Saudi Arabia, the world's biggest oil exporter. The US has called for restraint on both sides.

"The US is very concerned by recent violence surrounding protests in Bahrain," State Department spokesman PJ Crowley said in a statement. "We also call on all parties to exercise restraint and refrain from violence."

The Sunni-Shi'ite schism dates back 13 centuries to disputes over the succession to the Prophet Mohammad. Sunni rulers in Saudi Arabia and other Arab states share Western fears that Iran -- a non-Arab Shi'ite state -- is seeking to become a nuclear power with ambitions to dominate the region.

Protesters in Bahrain were at pains to deny any sectarian motive and any involvement from Iran, just across the Gulf.

Arabian Business: why we're going behind a paywall

Real news, real analysis and real insight have real value – especially at a time like this. Unlimited access ArabianBusiness.com can be unlocked for as little as $4.75 per month. Click here for more details.