10:54am

Tue February 15, 2011
Middle East

Protests Boil Over In Bahrain After Violence

Protesters and security forces clashed in the streets of Bahrain and Yemen on Tuesday in the latest anti-government unrest to sweep through parts of the Middle East on the heels of a people's revolt in Egypt.

In Bahrain, a tiny island kingdom in the Persian Gulf, thousands of protesters filed into Pearl Square in the capital city of Manama for a second day. They called the plaza their Tahrir Square — a tribute to the area in downtown Cairo that was center stage for Egypt's protest movement — and vowed to press their demands for greater political freedoms and a relaxing of the monarchy's grip on society.

Security forces appeared to stand aside as the crowds streamed in, but key highways were blocked in an apparent effort to limit access to the area.

Many in the square waved Bahraini flags and chanted, "No Sunnis, no Shiites. We are all Bahrainis."

The rally followed violent clashes earlier in the day. A 31-year-old man died after security forces fired tear gas and birdshot at 10,000 mourners during a funeral procession that snaked through the Shiite villages that surround Manama. The funeral was for Ali Abdulhadi Mushaima, a protester who was killed during marches on Monday.

"As the people came out of the hospital with the body, they were met by more riot police with tear gas. Several people were wounded," NPR's Peter Kenyon reported from the scene. He said protesters spoke out against Bahrain's monarch, King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, with shouts of "Down with Al-Khalifa!"

Kenyon described the call for the king's ouster as "shocking" in Bahrain. Protest organizers said it was a reflection of the raw emotions at the funeral and does not reflect a change in their demands.

Unlike in Egypt, most of the protesters in Bahrain are not calling for an end to the regime. Instead, they want more jobs, more housing, the release of political prisoners, an elected Cabinet and the replacement of the longtime prime minister, Sheik Khalifa bin Salman Al-Khalifa.

Even so, the organizers warn that if more Bahranis die at the hands of security forces it could energize calls for regime change, Kenyon reported.

Anti-riot police who fired on the mourners eventually withdrew and allowed the massive funeral cortege for Mushaima to proceed from the hospital, the main state-run medical facility in Manama. A funeral for the second demonstrator was scheduled for Wednesday.

The country's largest Shiite political bloc denounced the bloodshed and suspended its participation in Parliament. Bahrain's majority Shiites, who make up about 70 percent of the population, have long complained of systemic discrimination by the Sunni rulers. A crackdown on perceived dissent last year touched off weeks of riots and clashes in Shiite villages.

In a rare national TV address, the king offered condolences for the two deaths, pledging an investigation into the killings and promising to push ahead with reforms, which include loosening state controls on the media and Internet.

Earlier this month, the government offered the equivalent of $2,600 to each family in the country of 1.2 million to ease the sting of rising food prices. Protesters have called the cash payout – which followed the onset of unrest in Cairo - an "Egyptian bonus," Kenyon reported.

"They say, 'Now we want our own bonus, but this time it's not money, but political reforms,' " he said.

Middle East Stability In Question

The island nation of Bahrain, home of the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, is a close ally of both the United States and Saudi Arabia. The recent uprising threatens to split the country along sectarian lines despite gradual moves toward greater democracy over the past decade.

Yemen, Algeria, Iran and Jordan have also seen anti-government protests in recent days. The upheaval in the Arabian Peninsula follows last month's revolt in Tunisia that forced out the government and, in turn, helped spark last week's ouster of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

The turmoil has raised concerns about stability throughout the Middle East, but experts say it's anyone's guess as to whether governments will react with crackdowns or concessions or whether the protests will result in regime change.

At a White House news conference Tuesday, President Obama said, "It's important in all the protests we see throughout the region that police and governments need to respond peacefully."

The message to Arab governments, he said, is that "you have to stay ahead of change; you have to be out in front."

Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said Tuesday that the U.S. needs to temper its pro-democracy tone.

In response to a question from reporters about remarks made by Obama and U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton during the Egypt uprising, Lavrov said Russia believed it was wrong for nations to encourage others to "impose democracy, or some specific pattern, and we hear such encouragement."

Yemen Sees Fifth Day Of Protests

Meanwhile, thousands of people in Yemen marched in a fifth day of protests calling for the overthrow of the U.S.-allied president, sparking street battles with police and government supporters. At least three demonstrators were injured in the latest clashes.

Police tried to disperse the demonstrators using tear gas and batons, but about 3,000 protesters defiantly continued their march from Sanaa University toward the city center, chanting slogans against President Ali Abdullah Saleh, including "Down with the president's thugs!"

Yemen is increasingly on Washington's radar as a center of operations for al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula, an offshoot of Osama bin Laden's group. Protests there have mushroomed since Friday's ouster of Mubarak in Egypt, where the grievances of the masses — poverty, unemployment and corruption — are shared by the protesters in Yemen.

Iranian Lawmakers Demand Death For Opposition

In Iran, hard-line lawmakers on Tuesday called for the country's opposition leaders to be tried and executed for organizing mass rallies involving tens of thousands of people. A protest on Monday sparked clashes that left one person dead and dozens wounded.

At an open session of Parliament Tuesday, pro-government legislators demanded that opposition leaders Mir Hossein Mousavi, Mahdi Karroubi and former reformist President Mohammad Khatami be held responsible for the protests.

Pumping their fists in the air, the lawmakers chanted, "Death to Mousavi, Karroubi and Khatami."

"We believe the people have lost their patience and demand capital punishment" for the opposition leaders, 221 lawmakers said in a statement.

Jordan Moves to Appease Demonstrators

In Jordan — which has seen weeks of anti-government rallies demanding greater freedoms — Interior Minister Saed Hayel Srour bowed to public pressure Tuesday and recommended ending restrictions on public gatherings and allowing protests to be organized without government permission.

The move comes days after King Abdullah II swore in a new government that has also promised greater freedoms. About 3,000 tribal leaders and key figures such as lawmakers, retired security personnel and academicians renewed their allegiance to the king in an emotional letter, praising his reform efforts.

The letter assured Abdullah that Jordan will "survive regional turbulence, the way it did in the last 60 years," referring to the Egyptian uprising.

In Algeria, anti-riot police blocked off the city center in the capital, Algiers, to shut down an opposition rally Saturday. Protesters, who said they were inspired by Egypt's revolution, called for the resignation of President Abdelaziz Bouteflika, who has promised more freedoms in the North African nation in an effort to satisfy demonstrators' demands.

NPR's Peter Kenyon reported from Manama, Bahrain, for this story, which contains material from The Associated Press Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.