Mistrust abounds as Bahrain to lift emergency law

By Ali Khalil (AFP) – May 31, 2011

MANAMA — Tanks have begun withdrawing from Manama’s streets ahead of the planned lifting Wednesday of a state of emergency enacted amid a crackdown on demonstrators but mistrust still abounds in Bahrain.

Bahrain’s King Hamad, meanwhile, called for a national dialogue to begin on July 1, the BNA news agency reported.

Backed by Saudi-led Gulf troops, Bahraini forces in mid-March crushed the Shiite-led pro-democracy demonstrations that had paralyzed central Manama, the capital of Sunni-ruled Bahrain, for a month.

Authorities continued with a crackdown on Shiites, who make up the majority of the kingdom’s population, storming their villages and arresting hundreds of men and women, mostly for the mere accusation of supporting the peaceful protests.

But with the apparent gradual return to normality, stories are told behind closed doors of continued persecution of Shiites and mass dismissals from public-sector jobs for people accused of participating in the protests.

Sunnis, on the other hand, have been radicalized, with many of them welcoming the government’s heavy-handed approach as a measure that saved the tiny kingdom from an Iranian-backed Shiite plot to overthrow the regime.

Many do not trust the Shiites.

Abdullah Hashim, a leading figure in the Sunni National Unity Assembly group spoke of “high tension” and accused the country’s majority community of raising fears among Sunnis, who enjoy protection under the current rulers.

“The call to topple the regime has opened a deep rift in Bahraini society that will take tens of years to heal,” he told AFP, referring to a slogan chanted by Shiite demonstrators during a month of protests.

Nabil Rajab, a Shiite rights and opposition activist, lamented what he described as the government’s success in driving a wedge between the two communities.

“Authorities have been successful in separating Sunnis from Shiites, and they have played the Iran card very well,” he said.

Tension between the Gulf Arab monarchies and Shiite-dominated Iran heightened after Tehran repeatedly criticized the crackdown on its Bahraini co-religionists.

But although Shiites and the Al-Khalifa ruling family have had a history of conflict, especially in the 1990s before some partial reforms, this year’s crackdown on peaceful mass protests is regarded by many as a step too far.

“They have gone too far. People are still in a state of shock,” said Rajab, pointing out that Shiite families that have traditionally been known to be apolitical or pro-regime, have also been targeted.

An opposition figure who requested anonymity described the backlash by the authorities against Shiites as “bedouin revenge”, adding that the collective punishment inflicted on the majority community, including the detention of women, reflects a nomadic mentality.

He added, however, that those who had decided to resort to brutal force had not thought of an exit policy.

“As this was tribal revenge, they did not think of tomorrow,” he said, adding that the government is already “in trouble” over finding a partner for dialogue in the future.

“If no political solution is presented, I think we are heading towards a big crisis,” said Rajab.

In February, in response to the protests, Crown Prince Sheikh Salman had proposed a broad national dialogue, as opposition groups demanded the establishment of a “real” constitutional monarchy.

And on Tuesday, King Hamad called for a national dialogue to begin on July 1.

The BNA news agency quoted the king as calling for “all necessary steps to prepare for a serious dialogue, comprehensive and without preconditions”, adding that it should “start from July 1.”

The opposition had also called earlier for the resignation of Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman, an uncle of King Hamad who has been in office since independence from Britain in 1971 and is widely despised by Shiites.

“Everybody wants reform, but not stupidly,” said Hashim, adding that his Sunni group considers itself an opposition movement although it does not believe Bahrain is ready for a real constitutional monarchy.

“We are for a gradual reform process,” he said.

Meanwhile, the economy is still suffering from the fallout from the crackdown.

Moody’s Investors Service last week downgraded Bahrain’s government bond ratings by one notch to Baa1 from A3, citing a “significant deterioration in Bahrain’s political environment since February.”

Copyright © 2011 AFP. All rights reserved.

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