MANAMA (Reuters) - Bahrain’s opposition parties met on Sunday to discuss demands they will present to the Gulf Arab country’s rulers, as protesters gathered in a central Manama square clamoring for immediate political change.
Protesters swept back into Pearl Square late on Saturday after Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa ordered troops and armored vehicles to withdraw and offered to lead a national dialogue after days of unrest that left six dead.
The emboldened opposition is demanding a constitutional monarchy that gives citizens a greater role in a directly elected government. It also wants the release of political prisoners.
Ibrahim Mattar, a lawmaker of the main opposition Wefaq party, said that they wanted the crown prince to show signs of addressing their demands before any formal dialogue could start.
“We are waiting for an initiative from him, with a scope for dialogue,” he said, adding that the prince should “send a small signal he is willing to have a constitutional monarchy.”
U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Washington condemned any attempt by Bahraini security forces to crack down on peaceful protests.
“We’ve been very clear from the beginning that we do not want to see any violence. We deplore it. We think it is absolutely unacceptable,” Clinton told the ABC News program This Week, according to a transcript released by the network.
She stopped short of calling for regime change.
“We very much want to see the human rights of the people protected, including right to assemble, right to express themselves, and we want to see reform,” Clinton said. “And so Bahrain had started on some reform, and we want to see them get back to that as quickly as possible.”
Although Shi’ite Muslims account for about 70 percent of the population, they are a minority in Bahrain’s 40-seat parliament due to an electoral process that they say shuts them out.
This, coupled with systemic discrimination, blocks them from decision-making and access to state jobs and housing, they say.
“All political parties in the country deserve a voice at the table,” Crown Prince Salman told CNN, adding the king had appointed him to lead talks and build trust with all sides.
“Events are moving faster than we anticipated, we are constantly consulting each other to find common ground,” said Ebrahim Sharif, secretary general of the secular leftist Waad party. “We need the young people to have their representatives so they don’t feel the revolution has been hijacked by my generation”
Bahrain is ruled by the Sunni Al-Khalifa family and its members dominate a cabinet led by the king’s uncle, who has been premier for 40 years. Thus far, the seven-year-old parliament has acted as a safety valve and the rulers have used their oil wealth to defuse Shi’ite frustrations.
In central Manama, many are starting to call Pearl Square “Martyrs’ Circle,” in memory of the four people killed in Thursday’s night-time raid by riot police to clear the area.
The square stood empty of protesters for over a day, occupied by riot police until they were chased away after the crown prince ordered the army to withdraw. The crowds then surged back.
Inspired by popular revolts that toppled leaders in Egypt and Tunisia, many hope that Pearl Square will become a symbol of resistance just as Cairo’s Tahrir Square became a focal point of people power.
“We will not sit down with murderers. No to dialogue!” one woman shouted, as people handed out bread, fruit and juice.
Along with a medical center and lost-and-found department, tents were being organised and portable toilets brought in.
“I came here to prove we are united,” said May Hadi, a 27-year-old Sunni Muslim woman who said she was a bank dealer. “Bahrain television is trying to show we are divided. We are not. They are trying to prove it is a Shi’ite revolution. We are asking for freedom in this country.”
The crown prince said protesters would “absolutely” be allowed to stay in the square.
Normal life appeared to be returning to Manama, with cars moving smoothly along open roads and people walking into shops.
But it was unclear whether the season-opening Formula One Grand Prix, scheduled for March. 13, would go ahead, said the sport’s commercial chief Bernie Ecclestone, adding that the crown prince would make a decision on the race.
“He will decide whether it’s safe for us to be there,” Ecclestone told the BBC. “I’ve no idea. I’m not there, so I don’t know.”
On Saturday, the crown prince suggested the unrest was the result of a lack of action in response to Shi’ite demands. “We want to correct this situation and prevent its repetition,” he told Al Arabiya television.
“The protesters in Pearl Roundabout represent a very significant proportion of our society and our political belief,” the crown prince told CNN.
“But there are other forces at work here. This is not Egypt and this is not Tunisia. And what we don’t want to do, like in Northern Ireland, is to descend into militia warfare or sectarianism,” he said in the interview, aired late on Saturday.
Neighboring Saudi Arabia, the world’s top oil producer which fears unrest among its Shi’ite minority, said it was following developments in Bahrain with interest and hoped for the return of peace and stability, the official news agency SPA reported.
“The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia stands with all its power behind the state and the people of Bahrain,” SPA quoted the official as saying.
Saudi Arabia and its ally, the United States, regard Bahrain, home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, as a bulwark against Shi’ite power Iran across the Gulf.
Bahrain’s Interior Ministry said security officers had found weapons and flags of the Lebanese Shi’ite Hezbollah group, which is backed by Iran, after they cleared Pearl Square.
But protesters have tried to avoid actions that would give them a sectarian image, waving the national red-and-white Bahraini flag and chanting slogans such as: “There are no Sunnis or Shi’ites, just Bahraini unity.”
Additional reporting by Michael Georgy; editing by Mark Trevelyan