By Cynthia Johnston and Frederik Richter | Reuters
MANAMA (Reuters) – Bahrain’s opposition is expected to put demands Sunday to the Gulf state’s crown prince who is leading a national dialogue after troops withdrew and protesters retook a square that has come to symbolize their cause.
Anti-government protesters swarmed back into Pearl Square in the capital Manama Saturday, putting riot police to flight and confidently setting up camp for a protracted stay.
On orders from the crown prince, troops and armored vehicles had withdrawn from the square, which they had taken over Thursday after riot police staged a night-time attack on a sit-in by protesters, killing four people and wounding 231.
The crowds in Pearl Square soon swelled into the tens of thousands, celebrating a triumph for the mostly Shi’ite protesters who took to the streets Monday, inspired by popular revolts that toppled leaders in Egypt and Tunisia.
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.
“The two main players are Sheikh Ali Salman and Ibrahim Sharif,” the source said. Sheikh Ali is the secretary general of the main Shi’ite opposition group Wefaq while Sharif heads the secular Waad group that has not won seats in parliament.
Saturday, the crown prince suggested the unrest was the result of a lack of action on demands by Shi’ites who make up the majority of the population of the small Gulf Arab kingdom. which is ruled by a Sunni Muslim family.
“Maybe, in summary, there is a feeling that some basic demands have not been met. We want to correct this situation and prevent its repetition,” he told Al Arabiya television.
Neighboring Saudi Arabia, which fears unrest might spread to its Shi’ite minority, called on Bahrainis “to act with reason … and accept the proposals of the government of Bahrain … which is keen to protect stability and security,” an official statement carried by Saudi state media said.
Bahrain’s 70 percent Shi’ite majority long has felt discriminated against in the Gulf Arab island that is ruled by a Sunni Muslim dynasty and is a close ally of Saudi Arabia and the United States, which bases its 5th Fleet here.
Shi’ites feel cut out of decision-making and complain of unfair treatment in access to state jobs and housing.
There was growing speculation that Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa will be replaced with the crown prince on an interim basis, the source added.
Observers in Bahrain say that 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.