|No one in Manama expected that the army – and then the police – would so quickly vacate the Pearl roundabout|
MANAMA, BAHRAIN Young men jubilantly wave national flags and white banners with “peace” written in Arabic and English. Small children bearing roses know nothing of the politics, but they approach Pearl monument with glee, holding hands with proud parents.
Strangers greet each other as if at a party, and vehicles passing nearby honk as if the country has just won a football match against the national rival.
Fear is unexpectedly gone from the air. Five hundred men conduct the last Shia prayer of the day, just down the main boulevard, following a brief tear gas confrontation with police hours earlier.
“I’m ecstatic. This is how Bahraini people are. We fall and then we stand up again,” Fatema Al Shaaban, a 25-year-old lawyer, said. “We are happy to come back here, and we are even more sure of our demands now.”
Saturday was the day when Bahrain’s anti-government protesters retook the main square in the small island nation’s capital city.
But no one in Manama expected that the army – and then the police – would so quickly vacate the Pearl roundabout area that was so violently seized by security forces on February 17 in a pre-dawn raid that killed four people.
Various anti-government groups had been calling for protesters to approach Pearl roundabout from four directions – Sanabis, Na’im, Bahrain Mall, and Ad-Daih. The main opposition party Wafeq told its supporters not to attend, but prominent Shia cleric Seyed Hadi Al-Mudarrisi called for his loyalists to march.
Regardless, Bahrain’s crown prince, Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, announced a national dialogue after decreeing that security forces would be removed from the main square.
Many at the square said they were surprised at the speed with which the forces disappeared.
Joyful, despite mourning
The thousands of protesters were no doubt thrilled to be back in the middle of what is now referred to as Bahrain’s “Tahrir” – and also as “Martyrs’ Square” – in honour of the half-dozen people who have been killed there.
Nabeel Murad, a 38-year-old protester who works at an aluminum plant, explained that Egypt and Bahrain are different.
“We just have one million people. They lost several hundred, but out of a population of more than 80 million. You see why we’ve had enough,” he said.
Though they have resumed camping out in the square, political tension remains acute and the threat of further security crackdowns looms.
Mohamed Ali, an enthusiastic nurse at Salmaniya Hospital, was excited to return to the large public space from which he says his people were wrongly evicted just three nights prior.
“We won’t go home until the prosecution of the minister of the interior and the minister of defence, for the attack on innocent people at Pearl,” he said
“Also, we’re demanding the resignation of the health minister, since he allowed the ambulances to be stopped from accessing gunned-down protesters yesterday.”
The protesters also seem adamant about their desire for the Bahraini prime minister to step down.
Sectarian disagreement is a significant part of Bahrain’s current political deadlock, but Ibrahim Sharif, a major Sunni opposition leader of the secular-liberal Wa’ad party, is joining the protesters once again on Saturday night.
Isa Al-Qubaiti, a middle-aged math instructor, said, “It feels like we won the first round. But there will be rounds 2, 3, and 4 afterward.”
He continued, “We do not trust the government. We want a new constitution, real democracy, and our missing protesters freed”.