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Bahraini protesters throng square to press demands

Teachers on strike not endorsed by labour federation.

February 21, 2011 12:22 by



Bahraini protesters camped out in Manama’s Pearl Square pressed demands for a new government on Monday, backed by a teachers’ strike that closed many schools.

“No teaching until the government falls,” chanted more than 1,500 teachers gathered at the square in the Bahraini capital.

Up to 10,000 demonstrators packed Pearl Square, at the heart of week-long protests led by majority Shi’ites demanding more say in the Sunni-ruled kingdom, a close U.S. and Saudi ally.

Near the group of teachers, a dangerously leaning chair had been erected, representing the government, on top of a box painted blood-red. Arrows were stuck into the chair, which had a rifle strapped to it. They bore labels such as corruption, joblessness, naturalisation and the blood of martyrs.

“In the eyes of the people the government has already fallen,” said Amir Ahmed, 38, a government oil sector employee.

The opposition is demanding a true constitutional monarchy that gives citizens a greater role in a directly elected government. It also wants the release of political prisoners.

King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa has asked his son, the crown prince, to conduct a dialogue with all parties, but after the bloodshed on the streets, opposition parties are wary.

EXILED LEADER

A Shi’ite opposition leader, tried in absentia in Bahrain for attempting to topple the government, indicated that he would return home from London on Tuesday, raising the stakes in the stand-off between the government and its foes.

A status update to his Facebook page said HassanMushaimaa, leader of the Haq Movement for Liberty and Democracy, planned to “see if this leadership is serious about dialogue and if it will arrest him or not”.

The Haq movement disputes the legitimacy of the reform process launched by the king a decade ago and boycotts elections. It broke away from Bahrain’s main Shi’ite opposition group Wefaq when it took part in a parliamentary poll in 2006.

Haq’s leaders have often been arrested in recent years, only to receive royal pardons. Some were rearrested in a crackdown in August, when 25 Shi’ite activists, including 23 now on trial, were charged with trying to overthrow the government violently.

Ibrahim Mattar, a lawmaker of the main Shi’ite Wefaq party, said the crown prince should signal willingness to accept a genuinely constitutional monarchy as a prelude to dialogue.

The demonstrators in Pearl Square were impatient for change.

“The history books will be rewritten. We will sacrifice for the martyrs,” said a school-girl who addressed the crowd over loudspeakers, referring to the seven people killed in bloody confrontations with the police and army since last Monday.

Hundreds of people have also been wounded in Bahrain’s worst unrest for years as demonstrators emboldened by the fall of entrenched rulers in Egypt and Tunisia voice their grievances.

Lamia, a 26-year-old primary school teacher, said Bahrain would also topple its leaders. “We are much stronger than them and we hope it will happen as soon as possible,” she said.

“We are brave and ready to die. I come to the square every day and I’m pregnant with my child.”

CLINTON DEPLORES VIOLENCE

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton condemned any attempt by Bahraini security forces to crush peaceful protests in the island, which hosts the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet.

“We’ve been very clear from the beginning that we do not want to see any violence. We deplore it. We think it is absolutely unacceptable,” she told ABC News on Sunday.

Neighbouring Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil producer which has a restive Shi’ite minority of its own, has called for a return of peace and stability, saying it stood “with all its power behind the state and the people of Bahrain”.

Although Shi’ite Muslims account for about 70 percent of the population, they are a minority in Bahrain’s 40-seat parliament due to an electoral process that they say shuts them out.

This, coupled with systemic discrimination, blocks them from decision-making and access to state jobs and housing, they say. The government denies that it treats Shi’ites unfairly.

The ruling al-Khalifa family, which has ruled Bahrain for 200 years, dominates a cabinet led by the king’s uncle, who has been prime minister for 40 years, ever since the island gained independence from Britain in 1971.

In Pearl Square, someone had placed a poster of the prime minister, Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, near a food stall, with the message “Interpol will catch you.”

Amal Mohsen, 33, a teacher, complained about her living standards. “I have been married for 10 years, but we still can’t afford a house, so we have to live with my husband’s family.”

The General Federation of Bahraini Trade Unions called for people to go back to work on Monday after the authorities called for dialogue and allowed protests to continue in Pearl Square.

“There is some positive atmosphere today due to the crown prince’s efforts for a dialogue,” said Karim Rabih, an assistant secretary of the labour federation. “We may call another strike across the country if the situation does not improve.”

He said some employers had docked the pay of workers who had gone on strike, but there were no reports of dismissals.

(Additional reporting by Praveen Menon in Dubai, Pedro Nicolaci da Costa in Washington and Yara Bayoumy in Beirut; writing by Alistair Lyon, editing by Myra MacDonald)



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