20 Feb 2011

Bahrain set for talks as calm returns

Foreign Affairs Correspondent

Bahrain’s opposition draws up a list of demands, including prisoner releases and a cabinet change, ahead of peace talks with the Crown Prince today.

Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, who is leading a national dialogue today, said: “All political parties in the country deserve a voice at the table.”

The talks come as thousands of anti-government protesters camp at Pearl Square, following a retreat from Bahrain’s armed forces after days of unrest that left six people dead.

The Crown Prince added: “I think there is a lot of anger, a lot of sadness, and on that note I would like to extend my condolences to all of the families who lost loved ones and all of those who have been injured. We are terribly sorry and this is a terrible tragedy for our nation.”

Calm returned ahead of today’s talks following orders from the Crown Prince, troops and armoured vehicles had withdrawn from the square, which they took over on Thursday after riot police staged a night-time attack on a sit-in by protesters, killing four people and wounding 231.

Who Knows Who: Bahrain's sectarian gulf

Julibant protesters swarmed back into Pearl Square yesterday as riot police hurriedly withdrew. Some protesters stayed overnight in tents while others left for the night. People were streaming back towards the square early on Sunday.

Normal life appeared to be returning to the city, with cars moving smoothly along open roads and people walking into shops.

Inspired by popular revolts that toppled leaders in Egypt and Tunisia, many had hoped that Pearl Square would become a symbol of resistance just as Cairo’s Tahrir Square became a focal point of people power.

The Crown Prince said protesters would “absolutely” be allowed to stay in the square. In addition to withdrawal of security forces, the main opposition demands are the release of political prisoners, resignation of the government and talks on a new constitution, an opposition source, who asked not to be named, told Reuters.

Bahrain set for peace talks with the crown peace as calm returns and anti-government protesters occupy Pearl Square (Image: Getty)

Opposition’s demands

Ibrahim Mattar, a former parliamentarian from the Shi’ite party Wefaq, had said earlier that a main opposition demand was government acceptance of the idea of turning Bahrain into a constitutional monarchy.

The demands likely will be put on Sunday to Crown Prince Salman, seen as a reformist, the opposition source said. The government said dialogue had already begun.

“The two main players are Sheikh Ali Salman and Ibrahim Sharif,” the source said. Sheikh Ali is the secretary general of Wefaq, whose members quit parliament over the crisis, and Sharif heads the secular Waad group that has no seats in parliament.
Some called on the government to quit first.

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

On Saturday, the crown prince suggested the unrest was the result of a lack of action on demands by Shi’ites who make up 70 percent of the population of the small Gulf Arab kingdom which is ruled by a Sunni Muslim family.

He told Al Arabiya television there might be a feeling that some basic demands had not been met. “We want to correct this situation and prevent its repetition.”

Bahrain’s Shi’ites have long complained of unfair treatment in access to state jobs and housing in the kingdom, a close ally of Saudi Arabia and the United States, whose Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain.

“The protesters in Pearl Roundabout represent a very significant proportion of our society and our political belief,” the crown prince told CNN.

“But there are other forces at work here. This is not Egypt and this is not Tunisia. And what we don’t want to do, like in Northern Ireland, is to descend into militia warfare or sectarianism,” he said in the interview, aired late on Saturday.

Neighbouring Saudi Arabia, which fears unrest may spread to its Shi’ite minority, said it was following developments in Bahrain with interest and hoped for the return of peace and stability, the official news agency SPA reported.

“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia stands with all its power behind the state and the people of Bahrain,” SPA quoted the official as saying, adding that Saudi Arabia rejects any foreign interference in Bahrain’s affairs.

Protesters in Bahrain have tried to avoid actions that would give them a sectarian image, waving the national red-and-white Bahraini flag and chanting slogans such as: “There are no Sunnis or Shi’ites, just Bahraini unity.”

There was growing speculation that Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa will be replaced by the crown prince on an interim basis, the source added.

Observers in Bahrain say the crown prince has emerged as the strong man who has pushed aside for now the hawks in the royal court and the prime minister.

They say that during the crisis there has been informal communication. “The crown prince called Sheikh Ali Salman last night,” the source said.