Bahrain Opposition Leader Returns From Exile

Originally posted to the New York Times website, 26 February 2011.


MANAMA, Bahrain – The leader of a banned opposition party returned from exile on Saturday and exhorted a crowd of tens of thousands of antigovernment protesters to continue demonstrating until they achieved a “successful revolution.”

“The dictator fell in Tunisia, the dictator fell in Egypt and the dictator should fall here,” said the party leader, Hassan Mushaima, a dissident who has long demanded fundamental changes in what is effectively an absolute monarchy.

Mr. Mushaima’s return, from London, is another challenge for the government, a United States ally, even as protesters have refused to back down, staging the largest demonstration yet on Friday, just days after a brutal government crackdown.

After soldiers fired at civilians more than a week ago, Bahrain’s ruling family, eager to repair its international reputation, has taken a different tack: trying to mollify the protesters with some concessions. Allowing Mr. Mushaima to return from exile was one, and firing three cabinet ministers on Friday was another.

The government is taking a gamble by letting Mr. Mushaima back. The opposition movement, which first appeared to be a spontaneous reaction to successful protests in Egypt and Tunisia, has so far not had a charismatic leader. On Saturday, Mr. Mushaima appeared to be trying to move into a leadership role.

The strategy could, however, help the government if it causes fractures in the opposition. Mainstream opposition leaders have been working within the system for years, holding seats in Parliament; Mr. Mushaima broke with them about a decade ago, setting up his own political party.

The protest movement is already somewhat split on how to proceed, with some calling for reforming the country’s version of a constitutional monarchy to make it more democratic, and others like Mr. Mushaima pushing for a complete overhaul.

“The government is not hearing our song,” said Mohamad Abdulla, an antigovernment demonstrator who is the head of a small construction company. “We need a republic, the same as Egypt.”

Mr. Abdulla was part of a huge column of demonstrators on Saturday. Men in the front and women dressed in traditional black robes in the back.

The march ended at Pearl Square, a focal point of the demonstrations, where Mr. Mushaima arrived in the late evening to address the crowd.

During his speech, some protesters shouted “Down with Hamad!” referring to King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, the Sunni Muslim monarch whose family has ruled here for more than two centuries.

Unlike those in Tunisia and Egypt, the protests in Bahrain are largely built around the competition for power between the Sunni minority and the Shiite majority, who complain of discrimination and lack of opportunity.

In his speech, Mr. Mushaima, a Shiite, urged peaceful protests and described the social networking sites Twitter and Facebook as the “deadly weapons of today.”

But he also referred several times to martyrdom, an especially powerful notion in Shiite Islam, and praised the protesters killed in clashes with the military.

“You have seen our brave brothers who have opened their chests to the military,” he said. “Those who are willing to die in the name of God will promise them victory.”

And he made clear that, for him, compromise was still not an option. “There is no dialogue,” he said.

Protesters said they were aware of the keen interest of both the United States and neighboring Saudi Arabia, which has close ties to Bahrain’s ruling family.

Mariam Omran, an X-ray technician who marched in the protest Saturday, criticized the United States’ longstanding support for Bahrain’s government and royal family, which controls nearly all of the levers of power here.

“People in America have the right to democracy and we don’t?” she asked.


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