Huge Bahraini counter-protest reflects rising sectarian strife

McClatchy NewspapersFebruary 21, 2011 

MANAMA, Bahrain — Tens of thousands of Bahrainis rallied in support of their beleaguered government Monday, dwarfing the opposition's movement and raising new questions about whether the calls for major reforms will lead instead to more sectarianism for a key American strategic ally.

What began a week ago as a call by Shiite Muslims for a constitutional monarchy has instead opened a rift between the majority Shiites and Sunni Muslims in a nation that up until now enjoyed some the best relations between the sects in the region.

Sunnis said they didn't talk to their Shiite colleagues anymore about the protests because it led to arguments and broken friendships. The Sunnis also said they resented the Shiite tactics, and that they thought reforms already were happening at a reasonable pace.

Meanwhile, Shiites complained that the deaths of six protesters, allegedly by government forces, have forever marred relations with the Bahraini leadership. Rather than calling for a new constitution, some have chanted for death to the king.

Both sides bemoaned that their nation increasingly was divided along sectarian lines.

On Monday, Sunnis, backed by some Shiites, made their concerns heard publicly for the first time. They poured into a large courtyard in front of al Fateh Mosque to hear the proclamations of scholar Sheikh Abdul Latif, the founder of a two-day-old party, the Gathering of National Unity, the first party declared here in support of the government.

Until this week's clashes between anti-government protesters and security forces, newly joined members said, this nation never needed a pro-government party. The party is made up largely of the ruling monarchy's Sunni sect, the minority here.

"We are here for those who have not had anyone to represent them," Latif told the cheering crowds.

More than supporting the new party, attendees at the mosque gathering said they were there to let out of week's worth of frustration over calls for the resignation of the prime minster and other government officials, even as they agreed the regime is corrupt. For a week, they said, they weren't heard.

"Peaceful is not just about not having weapons. When you say death to the king, that is not peaceful," said Dr. Hala Abdel Wahab, a dermatologist at Salmaniya Medical Complex, where injured protesters were treated and anti-government demonstrators rallied when officials blocked access to Pearl Square, the capital's main traffic circle.

Many of Abdel Wahab's Shiite colleagues helped distribute photos of the injured, which angered her: "We can all agree that a hospital is not a place where politics should be practiced. Our utmost priority should be the patient. But we cannot talk to our colleagues about this."

As pro-government protesters left their demonstration — their cars adorned with pictures of the king and the prime minister — they clashed with anti-government citizens staked out at Pearl Square, the site of weeklong demonstrations.

The massive gathering of pro-government supporters made the opponents' stakeout seem far smaller. But assigning numbers is hard, as both sides exaggerate figures. State television said there were 300,000 at the pro-government rally Monday night in a nation of less than a million. Those calling for change have said they've had 20,000 in Pearl Square even as there at times appeared to be no more than 5,000.

Hours before the largely Sunni crowd gathered at the mosque, many Shiites met at the morgue near Salmaniya Medical Complex to mourn the death of the sixth person killed in clashes with the government. Declared brain dead Sunday, Ridha Mohammed Hasan, 32, died Monday afternoon, refueling outrage at the government's decision to attack protesters last week.

While both Muslim sects have always gotten along well, everything here has had a tinge of sectarianism. As many as 70 percent of the country is Shiite, and while they have a proportionate number of jobs in the police force, for example, those jobs often are lower-level ones.

Sunnis who attended Monday's nighttime rally rejected that contention, however.

"If they have no power, how could they stop the country's economy with all their strikes?" said Abdel Rahaman, 26, a banker who refused to give his last name because he said it would hurt business with Sunnis. "We are terrified to go to Pearl Square now."

Throughout the past week of protests, there were small signs of Sunni and the elite Shiite satisfaction with the status quo. In Sunni neighborhoods, residents kept pictures of the monarchy and the Bahraini flag on their vehicles and drove them through the streets. Whereas Shiite teachers held strikes Sunday, Sunni neighborhood schools remained open. The protests were spurred by the movements in Tunisia and Egypt, which led to the resignations of those countries' presidents.

Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, which operates across the Middle East including the Strait of Hormuz, which separates the Persian Gulf from Iran.

For Saudi Arabia, a top U.S. ally, instability or a Shiite-led government in Bahrain could lead to similar uprisings in its eastern provinces, which not only are major oil producers but also are home to its Shiite population.

The Bahraini government first countered protesters with army tanks and riot police, at one point shooting at sleeping protesters in what appeared to be an effort to intimidate the movement. But the violence instead galvanized the fractious opposition movement and attracted some Sunni supporters. By the end of the week, the army and riot police left the square and relinquished control to the protesters. King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa appointed his son to lead a national dialogue.

Those talks have stalled, however, as each side determines what an unacceptable outcome is. Monday's protest, it seems, nullified calls for the end of the monarchy. But opponents are planning to bury Hasan and stage a major protest Tuesday, which may allow them to recapture momentum.

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