Protesters demanding sweeping political reforms from Bahrain’s rulers held their ground yesterday in an Egypt-style occupation of the capital’s landmark square, staging a third day of demonstrations that have brought unprecedented pressure in one of Washington’s most strategic allies in the Gulf.
Security forces have pulled back sharply — apparently on orders to ease tensions — after clashes that left at least two people dead and dozens injured.
Police helicopters, however, flew low over a major funeral procession for one of the victims in which mourners called him a “martyr” and pledged more protests in the island nation — home to the US Navy’s 5th Fleet.
Thousands of people spent the night in a makeshift tent camp in Manama’s Pearl Square, which was swarmed by demonstrators a day earlier. One demonstrator used a bullhorn to call on protesters to remain until their demands are met, as the Arab wave for change takes hold in the Gulf.
“I slept here. I will sleep here today until our demands are met,” Hussein Attiyah, 29, said. “Those include releasing all detainees, and the resignation of the prime minister,” Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, King Hamad’s uncle, widely despised by the opposition, who has been in office since 1971.
The protests began on Monday as a cry for the country’s Sunni monarchy to loosen its grip — including hand-picking most top government posts — and open more opportunities for the country’s majority Shiites, who have long complained of being blocked from decision-making roles.
The uprising’s demands have steadily reached further. Many protesters are calling for the government to provide more jobs and better housing and free all political detainees. Increasingly, protesters are also chanting slogans to wipe away the entire ruling dynasty that has led Bahrain for more than 200 years.
“This is your only and last chance to change the regime,” read a banner carried by protesters who descended on Manama’s Pearl Roundabout late on Tuesday.
Social networking Web sites were abuzz with calls to press ahead with the protests as well as insults from presumed government backers calling the demonstrators traitors and agents of Iran.
However, lawmakers from the main Shiite opposition bloc have joined the protest movement.
Demonstrators want a “contractual constitution and a peaceful transfer of power,” said Member of Parliament (MP) Mohammed Mezaal of the opposition Islamic National Accord Association, whose 18 MPs walked out of the 40-member parliament.
Bahrain’s state TV have given limited reports on the protests.
The pan-Arab broadcaster al-Jazeera, founded by the emir in Qatar, also gave sporadic coverage. That compares with nearly round-the-clock attention to Egypt’s turmoil, suggesting worry by Qatar’s Sunni rulers about the unrest coming to their doorstep.
In Washington, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said on Tuesday that US President Barack Obama’s administration was “very concerned” about the violence against protesters.
“The United States welcomes the government of Bahrain’s statements that it will investigate these deaths, and that it will take legal action against any unjustified use of force by Bahraini security forces,” Crowley said. “We urge that it follow through on these statements as quickly as possible.”
On Tuesday, Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa made a rare nationwide TV address to offer condolences for the deaths, pledge an investigation into the killings and promise to push ahead with reforms that include loosening state controls on the media and Internet.