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Sun 21 Aug 2011 04:07 PM

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Bahrain’s anti-gov’t graffiti tells of unhealed rift

Gulf state has yet to heal divides stemming from crackdown on protesters

Bahrain’s anti-gov’t graffiti tells of unhealed rift
A Bahraini girl stands next to graffiti reading We reject humiliation at an impoverished neighbourhood in Manama

The defaced walls of the Bahraini village of Burhama reflect
the mounting tension between Muslims from the Shiite community and the
Sunni-led royal family.

Every day, the village’s Shiites spray anti-government
graffiti on the facades of its buildings. And every day, the offensive language
is concealed by police under a strip of white paint, until it reappears atop
another white layer the next day.

The graffiti is just one indication that steps taken by the
Sunni-led government have yet to heal rifts stemming from a crackdown this year
on mostly Shiite pro-democracy protesters. Shiite villages have held rallies
almost every night since the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan began August 1,
while al-Wefaq, the Shiites’ largest party, has announced it won’t participate
in next month’s special elections to fill the parliamentary seats of its
members who resigned to protest the crackdown.

“Those in power should be in harmony with the will of the
people,” said Hadi al-Mousawi, one of 18 al-Wefaq members who quit the
parliament. “But they just turn their backs to what the opposition wants.”

The grievances that sparked the demonstrations in February
and March have intensified because the government has ignored core Shiite
demands for higher living standards and equal representation, Mousawi said in a
telephone interview August 14.

Government measures to try to calm the situation weren’t
enough, he said. The steps included releasing political detainees, reinstating
many employees suspended from work on suspicion of participation in the
protests, and hosting reconciliation talks.

A so-called national dialogue, called for by King Hamad bin
Isa Al Khalifa, last month brought together 300 pro-government Bahrainis,
activists and representatives of political parties. Its recommendations will be
released after they’ve been reviewed by the king.

The situation probably will remain tense in the absence of
signs that “the government has the political will to embark on a serious
process of political reform at this time,” Jane Kinninmont, a senior research
fellow for the Middle East and North Africa at the Chatham House foreign-policy
institute in London, said August 14 and 15 in response to e-mailed questions.

“The limited steps that have been taken to build local and
international confidence around the national dialogue have generally involved
reversing some steps taken during the crackdown” rather than structural change,
she said.

The unrest has hurt the economy of the country, which has
promoted itself as a business center to rival nearby Dubai. The economic cost
is $1.5bn to $2bn, Esam Fakhro, chairman of Bahrain Chamber of Commerce and
Industry, said in an interview with the Asharq al-Awsat newspaper published
August 8. Gross domestic product shrank 1.4 percent in the first quarter from
the previous three months. The central bank cut its economic growth forecast
this year by two percentage points to 3 percent, Governor Rasheed al-Maraj said
in a June 16 interview.

Al-Maraj said Bahrain’s main economic interests, including
oil, had seen little impact from the unrest, while service industries such as
retail, hotels and restaurants suffered what would only be a “temporary”
slowdown and would recover.

“Our major industries remained operational throughout the
period,” he said in the interview. “The biggest part of our economy has not
really been hurt much.”

The unrest has harmed the image Bahrain has been building
for more than 10 years as a liberal hub for business, Kinninmont said.

“It is harder to see multinational companies picking Bahrain
as their regional business hub today,” she said.

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Credit Agricole SA (ACA), France’s second-largest bank by
assets, will relocate its regional headquarters out of Bahrain, two bankers
familiar with the matter said yesterday. They declined to be identified because
the matter is private. A spokeswoman for Credit Agricole in London declined to
comment on the plans.

The violence left 35 people dead, according to Cherif
Bassiouni, a professor emeritus at the DePaul University College of Law in
Chicago who now heads an independent commission ordered by the king to look
into allegations of human-rights abuses during the crackdown.

Bahrain is expected to “experience persistent political
unrest” and “a significant threat” to the ruling family’s authority, the
Economist Intelligence Unit said July 18 in a forecast for the country through
2015. The king’s response “will determine Bahrain’s political landscape over
the next five years,” it said.

Bahraini officials say the only way out of the deadlock
sparked by the protests is by maintaining open channels of communication and
participation in the political process, including the Sept. 24 special
elections.

Sheikh Khalid Al Khalifa, the justice minister, said in
several statements this week that shunning the elections was a mistake. In a
news conference on August 16, he said the government would like to see everyone
take part in the polls. “Political life in Bahrain will continue and it won’t
wait for anyone to participate or boycott,” said the minister.

Ali Salman, secretary-general of al-Wefaq, said building a
“democratic, civil state is the solution.” He called for a referendum to gauge
Bahrainis’ opinions on several issues, such as whether they prefer an elected
Cabinet to one that is appointed.

Al-Wefaq “will continue working for a peaceful transformation
to democracy,” Salman said at a news conference yesterday.

Officials in the country of 1.2 million, which became a
monarchy in 2002, have accused Shiite-led Iran of supporting the protesters, an
allegation al-Wefaq denies. Saudi Arabia, a Sunni kingdom linked to Bahrain by
a causeway, is a rival to Iran for influence in the region.

Bahrain’s Shiites represent about 70 percent of the
population, according to the U.S. State Department, and have long demanded
rights equal to those of Sunnis, including appointments to senior government
and military posts. In the 1990s, Bahrain was shaken by violence stemming from
Shiite disaffection.

Those feelings linger. The authorities set up checkpoints on
the evening of August 11 within a 2km radius of a traffic circle that was the
center of the protests, after messages posted on social media websites urged
Shiites to march toward it. The circle, previously known as the Pearl
Roundabout, has been destroyed by the government and replaced with an
intersection. An army checkpoint 500m away restricts access to the area to the
residents of three nearby high-rise apartment buildings and their visitors.

On Aug. 15, the walls of houses and buildings carried
further demands that appeared a day after previous graffiti was painted over by
the police: “We want our freedom.” “People want to overthrow the regime.”
“Freedom to our prisoners.”

In the evenings, Shiite youths use horns attached to air
canisters to blare tunes. Riot police respond by chasing the noise, firing tear
gas and rubber bullets, while another group toots a similar tune in another
spot, said Mousawi.

“The kids are just taunting them. It’s like a ‘Tom and
Jerry’ game,” said Mousawi.

He said such “peaceful” manifestations of anti-government
protests escalated during Ramadan and will continue after the holy month ends.

“People have no other choice,” he said.