- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Thousands of demonstrators denounced the Bahraini government Tuesday after police shot a man in a funeral procession, while the main opposition bloc boycotted parliament in solidarity with the pro-democracy protesters in the key U.S.-allied Persian Gulf nation.

In a rare television speech, King Hamad promised political reforms and expressed his condolences to the families of a man killed in Monday’s “Day of Rage” protest and of the mourner at his funeral procession Tuesday.

“We extend our condolences to the parents of the dear sons who died yesterday and today. We pray that they are inspired by the Almighty’s patience, solace and tranquillity,” the king said, pledging an investigation into the shooting.

Khalil Al-Marzooq, a leading opposition member of parliament and first deputy speaker, told The Washington Times that “the king’s speech was good, but not good enough.”

“He used the word ‘reform’ but didn’t lay out a clear agenda,” he said. “It doesn’t mean anything. He’s been saying this for ten years.”

The boycott of Wefaq, the primary political voice of the country’s Shiite majority, marked a dangerous turn of events for the country’s Sunni royal family.

Mr. Marzooq said the withdrawal of Wefaq, which won 18 out of 40 seats in last year’s elections, was “a message to the regime that we are standing with the people’s demands” and that the bloc would not return until the regime indicated a willingness to discuss serious reforms.

“Unfortunately, up to this stage, we have no positive signal from the regime,” Mr. Marzooq said. “I don’t know where we are heading.”

President Obama addressed the growing unrest in Bahrain, home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, and the protest movements in other friendly countries such as Yemen and Algeria in a news conference on Tuesday. He called on Arab governments not to crush peaceful demonstrations, though he stopped short of fingering particular nations.

“We have sent a strong message to our allies in the region saying, ‘Let’s look at Egypt’s example, as opposed to Iran’s example,’” Mr. Obama said. He lambasted Iran for “pretending to celebrate what happened in Egypt” while “gunning down and beating people who are trying to express themselves peacefully.”

Mr. Marzooq said protesters were disappointed by Mr. Obama’s refusal to identify the Bahraini government by name.

“They talk about Iran and about Egypt, but I don’t know whether the Obama administration recognizes a country called Bahrain and that the people there are human beings who shouldn’t be shot like animals,” he said.

In the past, Bahraini officials have sought to paint Shiite opposition forces as pawns of Iran, though secret U.S. diplomatic cables released Tuesday by WikiLeaks indicate that the U.S. government has been skeptical.

“To date, we have seen no convincing evidence of Iranian weapons or government money here since at least the mid-1990s,” the U.S. Embassy in Manama wrote in August 2008. “If the [government of Bahrain] had convincing evidence of more recent Iranian subversion, it would quickly share it with us.”

The unrest comes roughly 10 years to the day after Bahrainis overwhelmingly approved the National Action Charter, an agenda of political reform introduced by King Hamad that gave Bahrain a parliament for the first time since the 1970s.

However, Shiite political parties, including Wefaq initially, boycotted the political process a year later when the king imposed a constitution that, among other things, watered down the power of parliament’s elected Council of Representativesby bestowing equal legislative authority on the consultative Shura Council, whose members, like those of the powerful Cabinet, are appointed by the king.

Wefaq’s decision to contest the elections in 2006 and again last Octoberannoyedmore hard-line Shiite elements who favored a full boycott of the political process and, in some cases, street riots. Still, while differing on the means, Bahraini Shiites as well as democracy-minded Sunnis have been united on their goals.

“What they want is a full realization of the democratic promise that was made to them 10 years ago,” said Toby Jones, a Rutgers University professor of Middle East history who lived in Bahrain from 2003 to 2006. “Bahrainis believe that [democracy] was almost given to them and then it was taken away at the last second.”

Abdul-Jalil Khalil, Wefaq’s parliamentary leader, told The Times that “nobody wants to overthrow the king or the government” and that the protests were calling for further reforms and greater freedoms. “This is not Egypt,” he said.

However, many protesters Tuesday chanted for the “fall of the regime.”

Mr. Khalil and Mr. Marzooq met with the king on Saturday as part of a delegation with members from both chambers.

“He said, ‘We started reform prior to anyone in this region, and we have reached a good level of democracy,’” Mr. Marzooq said of the king.

Mr. Marzooq added that the king and other top officials have said they could not institute further reforms without alienating “our neighbors” — a clear reference to Saudi Arabia, he said.

Hundreds of opposition activists were arrested in August and September after an upsurge in street riots from Shiite youths.

Bahrain isn’t a newcomer to all this,” Mr. Jones said. “Bahrainis have been struggling to both find a political voice and to achieve some pretty concrete political objectives. I think the reason it’s significant now is that [the opposition] is trying to capitalize on what they have identified as a regional moment.