MANAMA (Reuters) - Bahraini activists dreaming of a return to the roundabout in Manama at the heart of a popular uprising last year have tried to recreate the electric atmosphere in a makeshift “Freedom Square” ahead of next week’s anniversary of the unrest.
Pearl Roundabout - focal point of a month-long movement that the Gulf Arab state crushed in March 2011 - was reconfigured on a plot of land in an outlying district where the government approved opposition party rallies, while sending police to break up nightly demonstrations by youths in other districts.
Dubbed Freedom Square to evoke the spirit of the now off-limits roundabout, it became the scene of nightly rallies this week, with rousing political speeches, pop songs promising victory, food stalls, flag-waving and children endlessly honking the refrain “Down with (King) Hamad” on toy trumpets.
The rallies were ignored by state media but were licensed by the interior ministry after a request by opposition parties. They were held in an area outside Manama where opposition support is strong.
On the February 14 anniversary of the uprising, activists have vowed to march back to the roundabout - now a sealed-off traffic intersection under tight guard by security forces.
Violence between police and activists has resurged in recent weeks with protesters throwing petrol bombs and blocking some roads with burning tyres. Activists say at least two people died in police custody and others from apparent effects of tear gas. The government disputes the causes of death.
“Our prophet Mohammed, who taught us the true peaceful path, brought us to Pearl Roundabout last year. He leads us now to Freedom Square and brings us together in love and brotherhood,” Ahlam al-Khoza’i boomed on Wednesday, the last of five rally evenings, to a crowd of 10,000 people.
She went on to describe being held up at checkpoints for hours by Pakistani police who spoke to her in English, while foreigners were allowed through. “Have you every heard of someone being a stranger in his own country?” she said.
Assertions, denied by Bahrain, that Sunni Muslim foreigners like Pakistanis have been brought into the Gulf Arab country to offset the demographic strength of Shi’ite Muslims who lead the opposition have been at the centre of demands for political and economic reforms. The government has given parliament more powers to question ministers and scrutinise budgets.
U.S.-backed, Sunni-ruled Gulf states fear that opposition demands for Bahrain’s elected parliament to approve cabinets will create democratic pressure on their authoritarian systems, and that empowering Bahraini Shi’ites will grant Iran, a Shi’ite Islamist giant, a bridgehead in the Gulf.
Bahrain, which hosts the U.S. Fifth Fleet, is seen by Washington and Saudi Arabia as a front-line ally against Iran.
The “Freedom Square” rallies highlighted a divide in the opposition between parties prepared to coordinate with the authorities and street activists, organising anonymously under the name 14 February Youth Coalition, who skirmish regularly with riot police.
In one tent, youth activists debated the worth of going back to Pearl Roundabout — which the government has renamed Farouq Junction — and staging unlicensed marches. Some argued that too much emphasis was being placed on a dangerous gamble to return.
“We long for February 14 and there is inflamed passion for the Roundabout. But the mind should control our passions,” one woman said. Another said the capabilities of security forces were stronger than the protesters’ will to return.
The pearl monument that stood at the centre of the roundabout was torn down after the government imposed a period of martial law and ushered in Saudi troops to help suppress the revolt. It now features in street graffiti and a model is often carried at marches.
“February 14 put out statements but young people get hurt. I’m ready to sacrifice but not for nothing,” Hussein, a chef from Sitra who had bad memories of detention last year, told Reuters. “I have no problem with going back to the roundabout but it should be more organised.”
An accounting student told the seminar that street mobilisation was better than electronic activism.
“We need to increase our actions so that February 14 is not just a normal day,” he said afterwards, adding police should only be informed of marches rather than approached for permission.
He said activist violence of recent weeks was only in response to police actions. “We don’t want a problem with them (police), they are our brothers, if they don’t want to kill us. We only used Molotovs after honour was violated,” he said.
People milled around a display of cartoons by Ali al-Bazzaz, who was sacked from the pro-government al-Ayyam daily last year after he displayed his work at Pearl Roundabout.
One showed an angry sheikh with a mallet smashing the pearl monument but with dozens of other monuments appearing on the horizon in other neighbourhoods. Bazzaz said it was a chance to reach the public directly.
“People told me that when they see the cartoons they feel it tells the whole story of what happened to them over the last year. So I feel it’s important to people, and that becomes a big responsibility,” he said.
Writing by Andrew Hammond