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Tens of Thousands Join Protests in Bahrain's Pearl Square

Feb 21, 2011 – 3:59 PM
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Sarah A. Topol

Sarah A. Topol Contributor

MANAMA, Bahrain -- A group of men cheered when a taxi drove over a poster of the royal family in the center of Pearl Square today, as protesters poured in by the tens of thousands. Gaining momentum after a week of clashes, the crowds are gearing up for Tuesday's mass demonstrations and the return of Hassan Mushaimaa, a self-exiled opposition figure.

Tents have sprung up sporadically on the grass since protesters retook the square on Saturday. Fierce clashes with security forces last week left six dead. A protester who was wounded in the fighting died today. His funeral is expected Tuesday morning.

Bahrain pro-government supporters
John Moore, Getty Images
Tens of thousands of government supporters gather for a demonstration at the Al Fateh mosque in Manama, Bahrain, on Monday. The event was designed to counter the anti-government protests at the Pearl roundabout.
"We are marching with all of Bahrain, asking for our rights -- nothing more than normal human rights," said Um Jawwad, a retired English teacher who walked to the square with human rights activists and teachers.

Jawwad declared allegiance to Mushaimaa, the leader of the Haq movement, Bahrain's largest opposition party, who is due to arrive in Bahrain on Tuesday.

"Hassan Mushaimaa is a very good person. He is not asking for something more than our rights, but he was attacked by the government. If he is going to be attacked by the government again, we will not accept that. We have been waiting," Jawwad said. "We want our rights."

Mushaimaa, who is considered an enemy of the state, has previously been detained by the government for calling for democratic reform. He is being tried in absentia with other Shiite activists, accused of plotting to overthrow Bahrain's Sunni leadership. Bahrain's Shiites make up approximately 70 percent of the country's 525,000 citizens. The young Shiite population hoped to spread the mobilization to the Sunni minority.

But in another part of the city, tens of thousands of pro-government protesters pledged their support for Bahrain's Sunni monarch, chanting pro-government slogans and waving Bahraini flags. The crown prince, Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, continued to call for a national dialogue toward reconciliation, a demand so far eschewed by protesters.

Shiites complain of discrimination and favoritism toward Sunnis, including foreigners.

"I want a better job," said Hajar Haddad, a 25-year-old accountant. "The outsiders take all the good jobs, and they keep the bad jobs for us."

Bahrain is an important U.S. ally, as it plays host to the American Navy's 5th fleet, a counterbalance to Iran's military power in the Persian Gulf.

Neighboring gulf countries such as Saudi Arabia are worried about Shiite unrest within their own borders and have been increasing pressure on Bahrain's government to settle the conflict. So far, calls for dialogue have not dissuaded protesters, who initially called for a constitutional monarchy. But after Thursday's violence, many young people are demanding the king step down altogether.

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"It's a matter of humanity," said Abdulla Thamer, an employee of the Ministry of Labor. "After shooting and killing people, they were sleeping. We do not want to negotiate."

Tuesday may mark a new page in the ongoing unrest in Bahrain, after tonight's pro-government rally and tens of thousands of anti-government protesters amass in the Pearl.

"The government is using every tactic possible to create divisions. They want the international community to think they have support. That's what's important to them," said Maryam al-Khawaja, a young activist. "The thing that worries me is if they arrest Hassan Mushaimaa at the airport, people aren't going to accept that."
Filed under: World, AOL Original, Arab World Unrest
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