In a massive show of force yesterday, Al Wefaq held a huge rally in Sitra demanding constitutional reform, despite orders from the Interior Ministry to cancel it. Thankfully though the government didn’t try to shut down the protest with force (as it did a couple weeks back). Instead, the police blocked the Sitra bridge at about 3pm I think (the protest was scheduled to start at 3.30pm), forcing latecomers to walk across. At the site of the protest itself there were no cops in sight anywhere… actually there was no one around except for the protesters and journalists because of the roadblock.
One of protest organizers that I spoke to said that 120,000 was the number they were telling the press, but from my past experience a more accurate number is half or three quarters of the numbers touted by the organizers. Actually the report from Reuters (via AlJazeera) says that the organizers were only claiming 80,000. And some of the journalists I spoke to at the protests were saying it was around 50,000. Pick what you want. In any case though, this was a HUGE one… certainly the largest political protest I have seen in Bahrain I think. Even if we use the conservative estimate of 50,000 it’s still big considering that the total population of Bahraini nationals is only about 400,000, and that the police had blocked off the roads.
I’ve made a couple of panorama images with several photos, to help you get some sense of the scale. Click either of the thumbnails below to see them:
It was interesting to see how everyone in the region is looking to Lebanon for inspiration. For one thing, the protest organizers made sure to use only nationalist icons and symbols instead of sectarian or party ones. So they insisted that the only flag to be waved is the Bahraini one; a “red and white revolution”, similar to the “cedar revolution”. And one of the slogans that was chanted during the rally was “Bil rooh, bil damm, nafdeech ya Bahrain” (“With our souls and our blood, we shall sacrifice ourselves for you Bahrain”). The protest also had an official corporate style branding. In Lebanon the official slogan was “Independence ’05″, and in Bahrain it was “Constitutional Reform … First”… not as snazzy, but nice try. The organizers distributed thousands of small flyers with the official slogan printed on them in both English and Arabic. (For some background, read Ahmad Humeid’s great post Branding the Cedar Revolution).
It was also interesting to see that Salafist group Al Asala (of all people) had a full page announcement printed on page 2 of the GDN urging people not to attend the protest, parroting the governments concerns about the threat it poses to national security and economic interests. They came up with the counter-slogan “Bahrain First”. As you can tell there is this wrangling going on between the opposition and government supporters about who gets to define what is in the “national interest of Bahrain”.
And I’m afraid I have to once again talk about the poor quality of the GDN’s coverage of the event. The front page of yesterday’s GDN carried had a short article headlined “Rally refused to ensure citizens’ safety“. How nice of the GDN to use the government line without even bothering to put quotation marks around “to ensure citizens’ safety”. The article contained a statement from the government, but did not contain any statements from Al Wefaq. Similarly the front page of today’s GDN has a huge headline: “Court Action“. This article also has a statement from the government talking about Al Wefaq being taken to court for yesterday’s protest. No need to talk about the tens of thousands who showed up to protest despite the ban (there were two photos on page 2 though), no need to talk about the police roadblock on the bridge, no need to discuss what they were protesting about, and there isn’t even any need to report Al Wefaq’s side of the story. Sounds like journalism to me. The question is whether this is editorial self-censorship, or if orders have come from the government.
I think the protest yesterday was a good sign because it shows that Al Wefaq is really desperate to participate in the political arena. Unfortunately, the Shia Islamist group seems to be the only opposition group that has the desire to make a difference. Yesterday’s protest was a one party, one sect demonstration. Again I ask, where is everyone else?
And finally: does anyone know if there are any flag-making companies listed on any of the stock exhanges in the Middle East?
To watch Al Jazeera’s coverage of the protest click here (wmv 2.5MB)
Here are some more photos from the protest: