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article imageChange at last in Bahrain? Special

By Christina Schulthof-Fernandes     Mar 7, 2011 in World
Manama - Anti-government protesters are determined to stay in Bahrain's Pearl Roundabout until they have achieved their goal. Their efforts are aided by technological developments such as Facebook, YouTube and WikiLeaks.
There are tea stands, carpeted seating areas, and even a popcorn machine. People are everywhere, standing, sitting or lying down. One could be forgiven for thinking this is a funfair, if it wasn’t for the constant forceful speeches blaring from the loudspeakers at a stage in the centre of the roundabout where men, women and even children are spurning on the masses to continue their struggle.
The sit-in is a spontaneous action taken by individuals, not an organised move by a political or religious group. The protesters have established a camp in the area where people sleep in tents and free water, tea and food is distributed. Many have stayed in the roundabout since the protests began and many others travel there daily to lend their support.
A protest sign has fallen to the ground in Pearl Roundabout  Manama.
A protest sign has fallen to the ground in Pearl Roundabout, Manama.
The bloody removal of protesters from Pearl Roundabout on February 15 was followed by military occupation of the area but when the opposition refused to even consider a dialogue with government representatives unless “the streets were free of tanks,” the crown prince ordered all military to leave the roundabout as international goverments were watching.
Protesters have continued to occupy the area, ignoring government deadline after government deadline for them to leave. The only police presence in the area now is traffic officers preventing drivers on the highway from stopping to stare at the unmoving masses. However, on days with major protest marches even those traffic officers vanish.
“The actions that have been taken in Bahrain recently have been the initiative mostly of Bahraini youths,” says Mattar Ebrahim Ali Mattar , an MP from the main opposition party, Al Wefaq. “It wasn’t organised by anyone and we have no influence on it. These people will not leave until their demands are heard.”
The opposition have been calling for a British-style constitution monarchy and the protesters have been echoing this demand. As it stands, the government is largely controlled by the ruling family. Eighty percent of the cabinet, which is appointed, is made up of members of the ruling al Khalifa family. The Shura Council’s 40 members are also appointed while the Council of Representatives, whose forty members are elected, held 18 Shia members, all of the main opposition party Al Wefaq, until they collectively resigned from their posts as a result of the recent violent clashes. The MPs say they will not stand for election until reforms have been put in place.
“The main obstacle to political reform in Bahrain is not the GCC, the USA or the Sunnis. It’s the ruling family,” explains Mr. Mattar.
“Until now, there has been no willingness by the government to put in place political reforms that will allow people to elect their own government.”
Mr. Mattar is skeptical of the ruling family’s plans to implement reforms. “We don’t feel that the government is serious about political reform, by which we mean the implementation of a constitutional monarchy,” he explains. “So far, all of Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al Khalifa’s [the crown prince’s] speeches about reform are vague, without a clear scope or frame.”
A tent in Pearl Roundabout  Manama.
A tent in Pearl Roundabout, Manama.
The national, let alone international media, have rarely paid much attention to these issues until the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia kicked off a series of protests that swept the region.
The clashes in Bahrain are not a result of the revolutionary spirit currently sweeping large parts of the Middle East, though one might be forgiven for mistakenly thinking so, since riots in the kingdom haven’t received much interest in the international press until recent events. But the attention that was on Bahrain during those days quickly moved to Libya as the protests there turned increasingly violent.
Protests have been a weekly occurrence in Bahrain for years. Disgruntled Shia citizens, dissatisfied with the ruling Sunni elite, have taken to the streets, setting fires and shouting disapproval every weekend. Police in riot gear are a common sight at the main intersections leading to the villages with particularly persistent protesters, such as Jidhafs, Karannah and Diraz. Every Friday angry sermons echo from the loudspeakers of mosques, followed by riots usually involving burning tyres and trash bins as well as teargas being fired on the protesters.
Although not directly caused by these current events, the escalation of protests and resulting violence from government forces in Bahrain is nevertheless a domino effect of the revolutions in North Africa. Witnessing their fellow Arabs’ victory over hated regimes on TV and in the press inspired hope in the Bahraini protesters that they too can bring about change. This resulted in more forceful and persistent protests while government forces, no doubt nervous about developments in the region, reacted more violently than usual.
The bloody clashes in Pearl Roundabout between February 14-18 played prominently in the global media and resulted in condemnation from governments around the world. Foreign Secretary William Hague condemned the use of excessive force, saying he was “deeply concerned” by the “unacceptable violence.” German president Christian Wulf cancelled his imminent trip to Bahrain. A German government speaker said at the time that in the face of the brutal actions of Bahraini security forces a visit by Wulf to the Gulf state was out of the question, adding that the right to congregate and freedom of opinion must be guaranteed fully in Bahrain. The US administration, including Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and President Barak Obama, also condemned the violence while the UK government revoked arms export licences for Bahrain to prevent supplies being used against protesters.
The violence in Pearl Roundabout and the international media coverage it received have damaged the image of Bahrain, which had previously been seen as a quiet and peaceful ally of Western governments.
There is significant pressure on King Hamad bin Isa al Khalifa to rectify the situation. Recently, particular pressure has come from Saudi Arabia, as King Abdullah, worried about a Shia uprising in his own country, has told the Bahrain government that Saudi troop will intervene if protesters are not brought under control.
King Hamad has begun making concessions to the protesters by sacking four ministers, two of whom belonged to the royal family, and pardoning 308 prisoners, including 23 Shia activists such as Hassan Mushaima, the leader of the Haq opposition movement. Meanwhile, the opposition has agreed to engage in talks with the government.
A Shia girl at the Pearl Roundabout sit-in  Manama.
A Shia girl at the Pearl Roundabout sit-in, Manama.
These developments show the power of the global media, as there is hope for reform now, after years of protests never achieved change. Although riots haven’t been as violent as of recently, protesters were killed by police (and protesters killed bystanders) before, but it never registered in the international media, no government leaders made statements on it, nor where arms export licenses ever revoked.
WikiLeaks, for one, has influenced the debate in Bahrain as it dispelled a particularly persistent rumour that the protests in Bahrain were backed and organised by Iran. US diplomatic cables released by the website showed that the accusation made by the Bahraini government, and often repeated by its supporters, is not backed by hard evidence.
You Tube is also playing a role as protesters from both sides are posting videos of various events taken on their mobile phones.
Meanwhile numerous pro- and anti-government groups are turning up on Facebook and engaging on ongoing discussions about the situation in Bahrain.
“For decades, they [the protesters] have failed to achieve the destruction of our country,” British-born naturalised Bahraini Betsy Mathieson wrote on pro-government We Are Bahrain Facebook page. “They will continue to fail, because the people of Bahrain will continue to stand unstintingly behind their leadership.”
There are several pro-government pages on Facebook, including We Are Bahrain, We Are With You Bahrain (United against the Protests) and Yalla Bahrain! We are with you King Hamad.
There are of course also Facebook pages in support of the protests, such as I love Bahrain (Arabic version) and Virtual Protest in Bahrain to Support Democracy.
“Seventy percent of the population are oppressed,” reads a post on Virtual Protest. “Living under a Sunni King and his corrupt family that owns everything…Support the people, support freedom, support democracy.”
While many discussions take place on designated pages, various Bahraini residents also voice their opinions on their own pages, engaging in heated discussions with other Facebook users.
“I think the violence the military used against protesters is unacceptable,” wrote a Lebanese expat. “They have been extremely violent with peaceful people… I don't support any of the parties in conflict but I can't stay neutral concerning the serious violence exercised by the security forces.”
Adel Faraj, a Bahraini Shia, was more supportive of the government. He wrote: “I am afraid of Bahrain coming under Shia Bahraini, rule. Although I am a Shia myself I support the royal family all the way, no matter what.”
There are hundreds of discussions like this taking place every day.
As media attention is waning, Facebook and other Internet channels have proved to play an integral role for protesters as well as government supporters to keep their cause alive and to continue to reach a global audience. This worldwide communication has become a way for people to shed light on their causes.
It is influencing the way governments react to crises as they know their actions can become public internationally.
Although the legitimacy of information disseminated this way can oftentimes not be verified, new communication channels are nevertheless changing the way conflicts and crises are viewed and handled.
A protesters sleeping in his tent in Pearl Roundabout.
A protesters sleeping in his tent in Pearl Roundabout.
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