MANAMA, Bahrain (AP) — Protesters demanding sweeping political reforms from Bahrain‘s rulers held their ground Wednesday in an Egypt-style occupation of the capital’s landmark square, staging a third day of demonstrations that have brought unprecedented pressure in one of Washington’s most strategic allies in the Gulf.
Security forces have pulled back sharply — apparently on orders to ease tensions — after clashes that left at least two people dead and dozens injured. Police helicopters, however, flew low over a major funeral procession for one of those killed in which mourners called him a “martyr” and pledged more protests in the island nation, home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet.
Thousands of people spent the night in a makeshift tent camp in Manama’s Pearl Square, which has been swarmed by demonstrators. One demonstrator used a bullhorn to urge protesters to remain until their demands are met, as the Arab wave for change takes hold in the Gulf.
The protests began Monday as a cry for the country’s Sunni monarchy to loosen its grip, including handpicking most top government posts, and open more opportunities for the country’s majority Shi’ites, who long have complained of being blocked from decision-making roles.
But the uprising’s demands steadily have reached further. Many protesters are calling for the government to provide more jobs and better housing and free all political detainees. Increasingly, protesters also are chanting slogans to wipe away the entire ruling dynasty that has led Bahrain for more than 200 years.
Social networking websites were abuzz with calls to press ahead with the protests as well as insults from presumed government backers calling the demonstrators traitors and agents of Shi'ite powerhouse Iran.
As night fell Wednesday, the mood suggested protesters were settling in for the long haul. People sipped tea, snacked on donated food and smoked apple- and grape-flavored tobacco from water pipes. The men and women mainly sat separately — the women a sea of black in their traditional dress.
The leadership of the protesters is still unclear and disorganized. A few scuffles have broken out between some of the people in the main area near the speakers’ platform.
Prayers were held in the Shi'ite manner, and an imam made a sermon about the strength of the Bahraini youth.
“This square is a trust in your hands, and so will you whittle away this trust or keep fast?” the imam said. “So be careful and be concerned for your country and remember that the regime will try to rip this country from your hand, but if we must leave it in coffins, then so be it!”
The head of the largest Shi'ite political bloc, Sheik Ali Salman, said there are no demands for an Islamic role in politics.
“We are not looking for a religious government like Iran‘s, but we demand a civil government” that represents Shi’ites and Sunnis, he told a news conference.
The group, Al Wefaq, has 18 seats in the 40-member parliament, but it is boycotting the chamber to protest the violence against demonstrators.
Bahrain‘s state TV gave limited reports on the protests.
The pan-Arab broadcaster Al-Jazeera, founded by the emir in nearby Qatar, also gave sporadic coverage. That compares with nearly round-the-clock attention to Egypt’s turmoil, suggesting worry by Qatar’s Sunni rulers about the unrest coming to their doorstep.