Anger seethes in the Arab world

Protests — and crackdowns — follow successful uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, report Martin Chulov in Bahrain, Saeed Kamali Dehghan in Iran, Ian Black in Libya and Tom Finn in Yemen.

It’s hardly Tahrir Square, but the quaintly named Pearl Roundabout in central Manama is where thousands of Bahrainis believe their budding revolution may be won.

On Wednesday night, after three days of angry protests, the mound was covered with a sea of tents, mattresses, black Islamic robes and optimism. But, according to AFP, by dawn on Thursday, acrid clouds of tear gas hung over the square as police were clearing away the tents.

About 95 protesters were wounded and at least four were killed when police stormed without warning at around 3am firing rubber bullets and teargas, sending protesters fleeing in panic, witnesses said.

The roundabout has become the focal point of a movement that is feeding from the success of the Egyptian uprising and fast gathering momentum. People began converging here since the protests in Egypt started to escalate in early February. The demonstrators, almost exclusively Shia Muslims, now feel free to talk about issues of discrimination and poverty that they have long resented silently.

Among them was Atiqa Ahmed, her black hijab covered by a banner that read “Bahrain is my life”. “All we want are our rights,” she said. “We cannot continue to live like this. I am a Bahraini, but the migrant workers who come here have more rights than me and my sons, who work harder here than their employers and get nothing for it.”

In the past few days, the demonstrations have clearly become more organised and motivated. Many of them turned up with blankets and food and were clearly in for a long haul. Some of them came directly from the funeral of a protester who had been shot by police on Tuesday. The dead man, Fadal Salman Matrook, was struck from close range outside a hospital where another slain protester had been taken a day earlier.

I met Hassan Jaffa, an Arabic teacher, in a small room in a nearby mosque that is used to prepare bodies for burial. Not far away was the grave that had been dug for Matrook’s body.

“There has been no chance for dialogue here,” Jaffa said. “People, some of them religious figures, would meet with the government and nothing would happen. If we complained, as Shias, they would say we are Iranian agents, that we are prosecuting sectarian agendas. “For a number of years, we have felt that we lived like animals. Egypt has taught us that we can live properly too.”

Matrook, a 31-year-old father of two, had been washed and wrapped in white cloth according to Islamic tradition, then covered with a green banner adorned with Qur’anic script.

More than 1 000 mourners walked with his body to the grave. The deaths have hardened their tone. “He is the second martyr of this revolution and he won’t be the last,” said one man. “After the martyr was killed we marched on Pearl Roundabout and we didn’t care if all of us were killed. We wanted to fight the police.”

Among a sea of people, women in black to one side, organisations in tents on the fringes and everyone else crammed in between, there were very few Sunnis. Bahrain’s ruling class is largely comprised of Sunnis, who account for 30% of the population according to the last meaningful census conducted here about seven years ago. Since then, the ruling family and government have given citizenship to tens of thousands of Sunnis from other Arab states, a process that has sharply shifted Bahrain’s demographics and incited the Shias.

In a nearby tent, two doctors from a Bahraini hospital were waiting on standby for patients and also lending moral support to the gathering rally. They had taken time off between surgical duties. “We started this protest movement before the Egyptians and Tunisians,” said Dr Sadiq al-Ikri. “But not like them. We were amazed when we saw what they had achieved.

“There has to be a constitutional monarchy here. There has to be an elected and representative Parliament. The king cannot have unfettered powers. We don’t mind if he stays, but not with the powers he has. But the prime minister must go.” As the sun set on Wednesday night, several thousand people settled in for a fourth night on the roundabout. “If we leave now, we will lose momentum,” said one. “This is it, it will only snowball from here.”

No one was prepared for the overnight attack. By mid-morning on Thursday security forces were deployed across Manama, with armed police blocking roads leading to the square and setting up checkpoints in other streets, AFP reported.

The Iranian regime has been accused of hijacking the death of a young pro-democracy protester killed during rallies in Tehran on Monday. A family member of Saane Zhaleh, a 26-year-old theatre student at Tehran University of Arts, said that the Iranian authorities had launched a campaign to depict the pro-opposition protester as a member of the government-sponsored Basij militia who had been killed by what they described as terrorists.

“They [security forces] have killed him and now they want to hijack his dead body and exploit his funeral for their own purposes. His family is totally devastated and inundated in sorrow,” said the family member, who asked not to be identified.

Opposition websites reported that two protesters were killed in clashes between security forces and thousands of protesters, who marched in a banned rally organised by the leaders of the Green Movement on Monday. Iranian state news agencies identified them as Zhaleh, a member of Iran’s Kurd and Sunni minority, and 22-year-old Mohammad Mokhtari.

Iran’s semi-official Fars news agency published a Basij identity card that it said belonged to Zhaleh, but the opposition immediately questioned its authenticity. In response, activists sympathetic to the Green Movement published a photo of Zhaleh on social networking websites that showed him in a meeting with Grand Ayatollah Montazeri, a leading opposition figure who died in 2009.

Authorities staged a funeral at the Tehran University of Arts but did not permit Zhaleh’s family to attend. According to the family member, Zhaleh’s parents and siblings — who live in the western city of Paveh in Kermanshah province — were threatened that Zhaleh’s body would not be handed to them if they spoke to foreign media.

“Zhaleh’s family are under pressure not to deny the way the officials have portrayed him. His father was forced to give a short interview to the state television. The authorities are depicting him completely upside down. They have silenced the family by threatening not to hand over his body,” they said. Monday’s protest, inspired by the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia, marked the Iranian opposition’s first attempt in more than a year to hold anti-government demonstrations.

On Tuesday, the majority of the Iranian Parliament called on the Iranian judiciary to put opposition leaders Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi on trial and sentence them to death. Both leaders of the Green Movement have been placed under house arrest for the past few days.

Libya became the latest Arab country to experience mass protests this week with violent clashes in Benghazi and a crackdown on protesters and media. Reports from the country’s second city said 38 people were injured in rioting after a human rights lawyer was arrested on Tuesday. Water cannon and teargas were used against an estimated 6 000 people. Opposition supporters accused the authorities of provoking trouble to spoil plans for a nationwide “day of rage” called for Thursday.

The semi-independent newspaper Quryna said 10 security personnel were injured in a protest begun by relatives of prisoners killed in a 1996 massacre who were demanding the release of their lawyer, Fathi Tarbel. Libya al-Yawm also reported the arrests of journalists in Derna and al-Beida and the detention of writer Idris al-Mismari.

But there was no confirmation of claims that two people had been killed. Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were all briefly blocked as were al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya. State TV showed crowds of pro-government supporters shouting slogans in Tripoli’s Green Square and in Sirte and Sebha. The European Union urged Libya to allow “free expression” and listen to protesters. Alistair Burt, a foreign office minister, urged Libya “to respect the right of peaceful assembly and freedom of expression, and on all sides to exercise restraint and refrain from violence”.

It was not clear whether Libya’s “day of rage” would take place. Sporadic trouble has been reported from Benghazi in recent weeks, and the latest outbreak was linked to anger over the massacre of more than 1 000 prisoners at Abu Salim in 1996 — a bloody landmark in Muammar Gaddafi’s 42-year rule. But, like previous unrest, it has so far remained local and has not coalesced into opposition at the national level.

Libya’s experience of the “Arab spring” could be different from that of its neighbours for several reasons. Its enormous oil and gas reserves and small population (6,5-million) mean it is relatively wealthy — four times as rich as Egypt — and can buy off dissent. It is also far less free than its neighbours, with a pervasive secret police and little in the way of a free media. Behind the facade of popular committees the security state still looks unassailably powerful.

Anti-government protests flared in Yemen on Thursday for the seventh day, turning violent as protests sprang up across the country, spurred on by the resignation last week of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.

In Yemen’s main southern city of Aden, security forces chased hundreds of people who took to the streets of the al-Mansura neighbourhood demanding the resignation of President Ali Abdallah Saleh. At least one protester was shot dead as demonstrators hurled stones at police, set vehicles on fire and stormed a municipal building. In the capital, a student-led protest calling for an improved curriculum and the removal of the university dean turned into an anti-government rally when hundreds of other students flocked to the scene.

A street battle broke out when a handful of armed Saleh supporters, mainly middle-aged men armed with batons, arrived in buses and began chanting government slogans.

Students threw rocks over the gates of the university at the Saleh supporters outside, who retaliated using wooden sticks and jambiyas — traditional Yemeni daggers. Riot police blocked the students from marching out of the campus and fired shots into the air to disperse the protesters. Four students were injured.

In Taiz, thousands of students who have been camped out in the centre of the city since Friday last week vowed to remain there until Saleh stepped down. The police have arrested more than 100 of the protesters and about 30 have been injured in skirmishes with armed pro-government groups who have periodically attacked them.

Abdullah al-Faqih, professor of political science at Sana’a University, said: “This is what both Saleh’s ruling party and the opposition feared most — loud and violent protests organised by people that have no allegiance to any of the political parties.”

Eyeing the renewed batch of protests breaking out across the Middle East, Saleh has been inviting sheikhs, youth groups, civil society organisations and human rights activists to discuss their grievances with him, Saba news agency reports. On Monday, he cancelled a trip to Washington amid calls for his resignation. — Guardian News & Media 2011

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