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Bahrain crisis could unseat long-serving premier

Bahrain crisis could unseat long-serving premier

Inspired by the fall of seemingly impregnable leaders in Egypt and Tunisia, popular protests in Bahrain may finally dislodge the world's longest-serving prime minister.

February 21, 2011 12:30 by


Sheikh Khalifa has stayed curiously silent in the week-long conflict pitting Bahrain’s police and army against protesters, in which six people have been killed and hundreds wounded.

King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, 61, who took over in 1999, has entrusted his son, Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, with opening a dialogue with the opposition to get people off the streets and heal Bahrain’s still-raw wounds.

“All political parties in the country deserve a voice at the table,” the crown prince told CNN on Saturday, extending condolences to the families of the dead and to the wounded.

He said protesters would “absolutely” be allowed to stay in Manama’s Pearl Square, the fulcrum of demonstrations in Bahrain, similar to the Egyptian protest base in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

Shi’ite opposition parties and youthful protest organisers still seem leery of entering talks until the cabinet goes.

That alone may not be enough to calm the ferment. Among other demands, protesters have called for constitutional changes so that the government is elected, not appointed by the king.

“After the government has quit we can start a dialogue,” said Zainab Ahmed, a member of the Feb. 14 youth movement.

The crown prince, seen as a moderniser, chairs Bahrain’s Economic Development Board, which he has turned almost into a parallel administration to foil resistance to economic reform.

In 2008, in a rare public spat, the king told his uncle’s government not to delay reforms sponsored by the crown prince.

The king and his son may have sought to trim the prime minister’s powers, but Sheikh Khalifa could have powerful allies in Saudi Arabia, just across a man-made causeway from Bahrain.

“They’ve known him for a long time and they’ve no interest in seeing a precedent for a senior royal retiring,” Jane Kinninmont, at the Economist Intelligence Unit, said of a Saudi gerontocracy grappling with its own succession problems.

Nor would Riyadh relish the emergence of a Gulf monarchy subject to a democratic constitution, especially in a neighbour with a Shi’ite majority that could vote its way to power.

Saudi Arabia, which lost a key ally against Shi’ite Iran in Egypt’s former President Hosni Mubarak, is concerned about any unrest spilling over to its own restive Shi’ite minority.

Bahrain’s Sunnis, some of whom have staged loyalist demonstrations in the past week, might also fear a loss of power and privilege if Shi’ites gained full political inclusion.

King Hamad introduced a constitution in 1999 that provided for an elected assembly with some powers. But he still names the prime minister directly — and 14 of Sheikh Khalifa’s 24 cabinet ministers share the ruling family’s name.

Bahrain, unlike Egypt, has held elections generally viewed as free and fair. Wefaq, the main Shi’ite bloc, held 17 of 40 assembly seats until all its MPs resigned on Thursday.

Yet restoring stability in Bahrain may be impossible unless the prime minister goes and perhaps others with him.

“It’s a demand of the opposition to change the government,” said Abdallah, the political scientist. “Once the head changes you will have a lot of other heads rolling down with him.”

(By Alistair Lyon, Special Correspondent; Additional reporting by Frederik Richter in Manama; editing by Tim Pearce)

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