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Thu 24 Feb 2011 05:14 PM

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Radicalism has little role in Bahrain uprising

Protesters display nationalist, not Shi'ite, imagery as Egypt lessons take root

Radicalism has little role in Bahrain uprising
PEACEFUL PROTEST: Bahraini protesters have made Bahrains national flag the symbol of their uprising (Getty Images)

Bahrain's young, angry and Shi'ite protesters have learned a lesson: peaceful demonstrations are a more powerful weapon than religion-fuelled rage.

From their Pearl Square tent camp, the protesters have made Bahrain's national flag the symbol of their uprising. They alternate hardline slogans demanding the fall of the monarchy with chants of "Peaceful, Peaceful".

It was the same chant heard on the streets of Cairo, the same clarion call that brought down the three-decade rule of Hosni Mubarak without spiralling into chaotic violence.

Even as protesters bemoan discrimination -- a top Shi'ite complaint -- that has denied them jobs and services in favour of minority Sunnis, they also have kept Shi'ite imagery off the streets and welcomed sympathetic Sunnis into their fold.

"These are not very religious protests. I am very startled by the lack of religiosity in these protests as opposed to if you go to places like Lebanon or Iraq. They are taking a very secular Western approach," Barak Barfi of the New America Foundation said.

"A lot of them are willing to die for their cause and to be martyred. And they are willing to rush security forces. But I don't see them using violence at this point," he said."People here are not radicals."

Seven people have died and scores more wounded as Shi'ite protesters took to the streets last week to demand an elected government in the tiny Gulf Arab island where a Sunni king rules a Shi'ite majority.

Bahrain, home to the US Navy's Fifth Fleet, is seen by Western and Arab allies as a bulwark against the influence of nearby Shi'ite power Iran. Saudi Arabia is concerned unrest in Bahrain might spread to its own Shi'ite minority.

Yet the protests, which pose the greatest challenge yet to the ruling al-Khalifa family, have been largely led by educated Web-savvy youth who seem largely disconnected from the country's more traditionally conservative Shi'ite opposition groups.

They complain that widespread Shi'ite unrest of the 1990s, characterised by low level violence, that prompted the king to introduce a new constitution, did not bring enough results. So they have taken a new tack.

"What we are seeing around the region in copycat now is very much focusing on peaceful protesting whenever possible," said Salman Shaikh, director of the Brookings Doha Centre. "People realise that this kind of unarmed peaceful protest is much more effective."

The crown prince has offered dialogue, removing the army from the streets, allowing protests and freeing prisoners. But the monarchy has yet to persuade the opposition it is serious about constitutional reforms, and no one has gone to the table.

"This is about the young people... Now it is our turn," said Hussein Habib, an activist with the February 14 Youth, as protest organisers have come to be called.

The young activists, who like to say they are all "leaders of the revolution", profess willingness to walk in front of tanks to get their demands and have adopted the language of peaceful civil disobedience.

"The thing about violence is that all it takes is just on the hand to throw something or another and the whole place would go up in flames because everybody is just waiting for that catalyst either to enflame the situation or calm it down," said Bahrain blogger Mahmood Al Yousif.

Crown Prince Salman Bin Hamad Al Khalifa has said the protesters represented a significant proportion of society, but also has suggested that "other forces" were at work and said he wanted to avoid descending into sectarianism or militia warfare.

Analysts said that while Bahraini Shi'ites, whether in the youth or opposition, may admire Iran or even the Lebanese Hezbollah group because of religious affinities, they did not see them as a model.

"Their loyalties don't lie with Iran," Barfi said.

Funeral-goers at the burial of those who died chanted slogans declaring those who died were martyrs for Bahrain, not just for Shi'ites. While an Islamic banner draped the shrouded corpse of one of the first dead, for later funerals the bodies were draped in the red and white Bahraini flag.

Yet one Shi'ite activist, angry after police had killed four people in a pre-dawn raid on Pearl Square, said the "bin Laden option" was all the government would listen to, referring to the Sunni leader of al Qaeda. But he stopped well short of suggesting it as an option.

Another suggested activists could go underground. But once the army and police pulled back from the square, and calm returned to the streets, such talk faded.

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