Bahrain's political future appeared on a knife-edge today as antigovernment protesters reoccupied the capital city's main square and vowed not to enter into talks with the ruling monarchy until a list of demands were met.
Two days after scenes of bloodshed, opposition groups were once again in possession of Manama's central Pearl Square after security forces withdrew.
Their presence represented something of a moral victory after six people were killed on the square on February 17 and 18, when security forces used live fire to quell the protests. The demonstrations have mirrored those taking place in several other Arab states, including Egypt and Tunisia, whose long-serving presidents were toppled.
The government has responded by offering a "national dialogue,” led by Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al-Khalifa. But addressing the crowds at Pearl Square on February 19, Sheikh Ali Salman, the general secretary of the country's main Shi'ite Wefaq bloc, rejected the dialogue offer until certain conditions were met.
These include a demand for the prime minister to resign, the release of political prisoners, and an investigation into the deaths of protesters.
Talking on CNN, Crown Prince Salman said King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifah had appointed him to lead talks and build trust. He added: "I think there is a lot of anger, a lot of sadness, and on that note I would like to extend my condolences to all of the families who lost loved ones and all of those who have been injured. We are terribly sorry and this is a terrible tragedy for our nation."
He said protesters would be allowed to remain in Pearl Square, which has become the focal point for antigovernment sentiment.
Protester: ‘We Won’t Be Scared Off’
However, there was little sign of gratitude for the gesture in the square itself. One female protester, Omm Ali, said the goal was to topple the regime.
"We returned [to Pearl Square] in victory,” she said. “We won't be scared off by those forces. On the contrary, it makes us more determined."
And strong antigovernment feeling was also on display in Manama's Salimaniya hospital, where angry nurses ripped up a portrait of the prime minister, Khalifa bin Salman Al-Khalifa, and chanted "death to the Khalifa family:"
Dr Nihad Al-Shira, head of the hospital intensive care unit, said the staff had treated many protesters who had been admitted in critical condition.
The tiny gulf state has a majority Shi’a population but is ruled by a Sunni royal family.
The Shi’ite population complains it has been discriminated against when it comes to
housing and government jobs.
However, protesters have been at pains to describe their rebellion as nonsectarian. They have chanted slogans like: "There are no Sunnis or Shi’a, just Bahraini unity."
written by Robert Tait with contributions from agency reports