Bahrain opposition may be losing touch with the youth

MANAMA Wed Mar 14, 2012 10:16am EDT

Anti-government protesters are seen during clashes in the village of Diraz, west of Manama, March 13, 2012. REUTERS/Hamad I Mohammed

Anti-government protesters are seen during clashes in the village of Diraz, west of Manama, March 13, 2012.

Credit: Reuters/Hamad I Mohammed

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MANAMA (Reuters) - Bahrain's main opposition movement Wefaq is making overtures to the monarchy on how to pursue democratic reforms but its efforts may be undermined by waning support from youth who seek more revolutionary change.

Three members of Wefaq, which dominates Shi'ite politics and has taken almost half the seats in parliament in past elections, recently met a prominent member of the ruling Sunni Al Khalifa family to discuss a way forward after a year of unrest following the bloody breakup of protests at the Pearl Roundabout.

"The country is paralyzed now," Abduljalil Khalil, one of the Wefaq members involved, said to justify Wefaq's move. "The country is in big trouble if you can't move your security forces from the roundabout."

The traffic intersection has remained under heavy guard and closed. The economy in what was a bustling banking and tourism centre is stagnant, and visa restrictions have been placed on tourists, journalists and international rights groups.

Washington, for whom Bahrain's stability is important given that it bases its Fifth Fleet in Manama across the Gulf from adversary Iran, has often urged the government to engage Wefaq.

But at this stage the point may be moot, as the monarchy now faces an array of hardline political forces - Shi'ite Islamist and secular - some of whom have said openly that they favor ditching the monarchy and replacing it with an republic.

Though most of these groups' leaders are in prison or abroad, youth and rights activists have used new media to organize street opposition, deploying the language of revolution. And some loyalists accuse Wefaq of exploiting angry youth for its own political gain.

"We won't let anyone go and speak in the name of the people," said Hisham Sabbagh of Amal, a legal Islamist party.

STREET RADICALS

An underground group calling themselves the February 14 Youth Coalition - after the date when the uprising began last year - claims to speak in the name of disaffected Shi'ite youth throughout the country, announcing protests and reporting on clashes in Shi'ite districts via Twitter and Facebook.

Recently they have used alarming, sectarian phrases such as "holy petrol bombs", "martyrdom ambushes" and "Haidar attacks", a reference to the first Shi'ite Imam, Ali, though they do not veer into the realm of insults that some government loyalists employ against Shi'ites.

Though youths will go to Wefaq's government-approved rallies, they ignore calls by its leader Sheikh Ali Salman to avoid slipping into violent engagement with riot police.

Activists say the heavy use of tear gas, bird shot and other crowd control tactics has caused more than 25 deaths and hundreds of injuries since last June, numbers that the government disputes.

"We respect the opposition but everyone has to choose their own path. Ali Salman doesn't really know the situation we live in," one teenager said while preparing bottles to throw at police in Jidhafs, an impoverished flashpoint district.

Nabeel Rajab, the founder of the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights, poses another challenge.

Rajab, who has risen to prominence in the past year with one of the highest number of Twitter followers in the Arab world at 121,000, was quick to tweet words of rebuke when the news of the talks with the government emerged, describing the court minister who met Wefaq as part of the problem, not its solution.

For many, Rajab has acquired a revolutionary allure.

"We all love him. He's daring. He knows how to talk and he doesn't just tell people to do something, he actually does it himself," said a smitten receptionist after he turned up at a commercial building last month asking for directions.

Like the February 14 activists, Rajab refers to the security forces as "mercenaries", because of the notable number of Pakistani and other foreign hires - language that Wefaq avoids.

Rajab has become a master at acts of civil disobedience via unlicensed but peaceful protest in the heart of Manama that police confront with tear gas, even if numbers are small. A bete noire for the authorities, prosecutors have questioned him on numerous occasions but never pressed charges.

Last month he was joined by Western activists who were deported for entering on tourist visas, spurring a tightening of visa regulations.

"If there's a deal with Wefaq and he doesn't sanction it, we might have a problem," said Taqi Al Zeera, a founder of Wefaq who left because he felt the party was closed to Sunnis. "He has many followers on the streets and if I was in the government's shoes I would invite him to the table."

'DOWN WITH HAMAD'

One clear divide between Wefaq and activists is the use of the slogan "Down with Hamad" (King Hamad bin Isa), a chant that began after protesters died in the first eruptions last year, following the "Arab Spring" uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.

In line with Wefaq's commitment to the monarchy, its leader refers deferentially to the king as "His Majesty", though "Down with Hamad" is often heard from the crowd at Wefaq rallies.

Activists say the phrase does not necessarily mean opposition to continued rule by the king or any other member of the Al Khalifa family. But it expresses a break in the reverential aura around the ruling family, they say.

"I was really uncomfortable the first time I said it and I had to ask myself why," said one activist who did not wish to be named. "The wall of fear was broken in February 2011 and the government's goal is to build it back up again."

Whatever difficulties Wefaq faces with the radicalized street, it still has on side the leading Shi'ite cleric, Sheikh Isa Qassim, widely viewed as its unofficial spiritual guide. Both say they want reform within the framework of monarchy.

"The relationship with Isa Qassim is important: it helps to lend Wefaq weight," said Jane Kinninmont, a senior research fellow at Chatham House, though she said there was a danger of exaggerating his influence.

"Ultimately, a new political settlement is only going to work if it is credible, fair and inclusive. If not, neither Wefaq nor Isa Qassim will be able to market it."

Wefaq has also maintained relevance by providing money for Bahrainis who lost their jobs or whose scholarships were stopped for taking part in the February-March protest movement.

"The only people who stood up against sacked employees is Wefaq. They are still leading the community," said a supporter who gave his name only as Hassan because of sensitivity of the topic.

Walking in the opposition hotbed of Sitra, Wefaq official Matar Matar said he believed most disaffected Shi'ite youth would still accept a political solution engineered by Wefaq.

He recalled how King Hamad was given a rapturous welcome in Sitra in 2001 -- even trying to lift up his car -- after enacting reforms to restore a parliament suspended in 1975.

"We said openly that we are willing to enter negotiations to end this conflict and we are confident that the majority of people will accept it," said Matar, one of a new generation of young politicians Wefaq has promoted to maintain youth appeal.

"Even in Sitra, people will be reasonable if the government offers something. They wouldn't try to carry his (king's) car again, but we'd be in a better situation."

(Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

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