MANAMA, Bahrain—The overpass atop the Sheikh Khalifa Bin Salman Highway, one of the main roads leading into Pearl Square, is the best lookout point in Manama today. As far as the eye can see, throngs of protesters march in a seemingly never-ending line toward the epicenter of demonstrations against the monarchy.
Tens of thousands of men walk in neat lines, stopping to chant, “The people want the downfall of the regime.” The lines stretch almost two miles, from the Bahrain Mall to the square. Women, most in black headscarves and abayas, bring up the rear, completely blocking traffic.
Alongside me on the bridge, Hussein Allawi is leaning against his motorcycle. He is ferrying journalists up and down on his motorbike so they can take pictures of the crowds. “That’s my part in the protests. We’re all trying to do what we can,” the bike-store owner tells me.
Last night, Bahrain’s state TV channel apparently claimed that there were only 500 people in Pearl Square on Monday, so Hussein and pretty much everyone else on the bridge is pissed. They want everyone to know that’s not true—that there are thousands upon thousands of bodies amassed on the road. People keep coming up to journalists and asking: “How many people are here? Three hundred? Five hundred?” They follow the ribbing with some good-natured cackling.
I have no reliable way of estimating the crowd; the people stretch out of my range of vision, but there seem to be more than 100,000. That’s quite a gathering, considering that there are only 500,000 Bahraini citizens; 70 percent of them are Shiite, while the ruling family is Sunni.
Empowered by events in Tunisia and Egypt, this Shiite-led upheaval has been raging since Feb. 14, but today’s gathering is by far the biggest so far. Seven opposition groups, including the main Shiite political party, have called for a day of remembrance for the uprising’s seven martyrs.
People walking to the square carry enlarged photos of the injured and killed as a gruesome reminder of the price demonstrators paid to maintain control of the square in last week’s violent crackdown. Each night, rumors circulate through the tent encampment that tonight will be the night the regime attacks again.
Today’s marchers were sure their numbers would protect them from violence, but a new anxiety has begun to creep into the emboldened masses—that their sacrifices will be forgotten as the international media turns its attention to Libya, the latest country in the Middle East to become embroiled in a bloody battle for political rights.
“We worry about Libya taking the focus. Libya is a bigger country, there is more killing there, and Qaddafi is known as a tyrant. Our government is loyal to the West, unlike Qaddafi,” Sayed Bader, an engineer in the Ministry of Works, told me. “We’re getting worried that journalists are leaving. They are our reflection and voice to the world.”
Others echo Sayed’s concerns. The other night in the square, Nour, a young activist, ran up to me to ask whether I had reported on Egypt’s revolution. He beamed when he found out I’d come from Cairo. On Monday night, wrapped in a scarf and wearing a dark trench coat, Nour approached me again, asking whether I would be leaving Bahrain for Libya. “We need to do something big,” he said, a deep crease lining his face. “Something big and peaceful, so we don’t lose momentum.”
Perhaps Tuesday’s protests were that “something big.” Tonight, the Pearl is still packed with people calling for political reforms. But Bahrain’s protests are not just about political representation—they are rooted in demands for social and economic equality.
“We protest because we have demands: freedom, better wages, and fixing our living conditions,” Abbas Hussein Hassan, a carpenter, tells me in his house in a low-income Shiite village. He lives in a two-floor home with 19 other family members.
“The whole thing has to go: the ministers, the king, everything,” he said. “I’m 48 years old, and this is the only situation I’ve ever known. We need to try to change it.”
Abbas says he goes to the square almost every day after work—he won’t skip a shift, fearing that he will be fired and replaced by a migrant worker. His house is shabby; the beige walls are smudged, and the brown carpet is worn. As we sit on pillows on the floor, a montage of Shiite clerics from around the world gazes down at us from a tattered poster hanging on a door.
His niece, Fatma Younis, graduated from university last year, but the 23-year-old doesn’t have a job. “I don’t have anything to do but sit,” she says.
Maryam Alkhawaja, a Shiite who works at the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, told me about the various kinds of social discrimination against Shiites. For example, religion classes in school are taught using a Sunni curriculum. She says teachers lower their students’ exam scores if they don’t provide the correct Sunni answers. “Ever since they were young, they have had to sit in class and listen to people tell them they’re not real Muslims,” she says.
For its part, the government has called for a national dialogue, but so far the opposition has refused to negotiate, saying that certain conditions, such as the firing of the prime minister, must happen first. Others say they will not negotiate until the king steps down, an echo of the Egyptian revolution.
Although many say their demands are economic, this is the Gulf, and most people are relatively well-off compared with residents of other countries in the region, such as Yemen, where citizens are protesting. The problem seems to be in the distribution of riches between Sunnis and Shiites.
Maryam takes me to visit Shiite villages. We drive past Sunni neighborhoods of fancy multi-story mansions; we take a turn around the prime minister’s quarters, which stretch for blocks and cordoned blocks. The Shiite villages are shabby in comparison, but they are so close to the Sunni properties that you can see why people are angry. (Of course, not all Sunnis live in these megamansions, but I have yet to meet any Sunnis agitating for change in the square.)
People also complain that Bahrain’s security services import Sunnis from other countries to serve in the army and police force, because they don’t trust home-grown Shiites. “I can afford things, but do they listen to my voice?” asks Abdulla Thamer, a young demonstrator who works in the Ministry of Labor. “If a Pakistani is shouting at me in front of my kids, it’s not about money, it’s a matter of humanity.”
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