DUBAI (Reuters) - In a defiant show of unity, Bahrain opposition parties have jointly denounced the Sunni-ruled Gulf Arab island as a police state and demanded a transition to a constitutional monarchy.
Five groups, including the main Shi‘ite party Wefaq and the secular Waad party, vowed to keep up a pro-democracy campaign with peaceful rallies and marches -- despite a Saudi-backed government crackdown that crushed similar protests in March.
In their “Manama Document,” the first such joint statement since the unrest, the opposition groups said Bahrain was a police state akin to those that prevailed in Egypt and Tunisia before popular uprisings swept their leaders from power.
The document, issued on Wednesday, said the ruling Al Khalifa family’s role should be to “govern without powers” in a constitutional monarchy, drawing attacks from pro-government media which described it as a power grab by majority Shi‘ites.
Unrest still roils Bahrain months after the ruling family brought in troops from Sunni allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates to help crush a protest movement they said was fomented by Iran and had Shi‘ite sectarian motives.
The government says nightly clashes between police and Shi‘ite villagers and other forms of civil disobedience are hurting the economy of the banking and tourism hub. Many firms have relocated elsewhere in the Gulf.
A military court has convicted 21 opposition figures, human rights campaigners and online activists who led the protests of trying to overthrow the ruling system. Eight were jailed for life. Waad leader Ibrahim Sharif, a Sunni, received a five-year sentence.
“In pursuit of democracy, opposition forces intend to fully and solely embrace peaceful measures,” the Manama Document said, calling for a direct dialogue between the government and opposition, backed by unspecified international guarantees.
King Hamad bin Isa held a month-long “national dialogue” in July, but Wefaq walked out, saying it was under-represented. The Shi‘ite bloc won 18 of parliament’s 40 seats in a 2010 election.
The dialogue led to a government reform of parliamentary powers to allow deputies more power to question ministers.
But the Manama Document demanded an elected government and the scrapping of an appointed upper house, and criticized the grip on power exercised by some senior royals -- the king’s uncle, Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman, is thought to be the world’s longest serving prime minister, holding the post since 1971.
“In the presence of an unelected government under the statesmanship of a single person for 40 years, some 80 percent of public land ended up being controlled by senior members from the royal family and other influential figures,” it said.
“The reality in Bahrain is no different from any non-democratic state, a copy of Ben Ali’s Tunisia, Mubarak’s Egypt and Saleh’s Yemen,” it said.
Protests in January and February ousted Tunisian President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh is still holding on despite nine months of mass demonstrations demanding his departures.
One analyst said Bahrain’s opposition wanted to remind outside powers that they were struggling for democracy.
“The opposition are changing tack a bit, this seems to be a cry to the outside world. They are saying ‘this is an autocracy, what are you going to do about it?',” said Michael Stephens, a Royal United Services Institute researcher based in Qatar.
“It will make some people wriggle in their seats a bit.”
Apart from the grievance about land ownership, the document also cites problems in education, electoral boundaries, corruption, housing, health, roads, electricity supply and the judiciary.
The United States, whose Fifth Fleet is based in Bahrain, has called on the government to talk directly with Wefaq.
Washington is trying to fend off charges that it has backed Arab pro-democracy uprisings elsewhere, while condoning the Saudi-backed crackdown in Bahrain, a longstanding Gulf ally.
Pro-government media reacted angrily to the Manama Document.
Al-Watan daily denounced Wefaq as “Bahrain’s Hezbollah,” a reference to the Iranian-backed Lebanese Shi‘ite group, and said parliamentarians saw the document as pandering to foreigners.
The government says that democracy in Bahrain must fit the region and need not match systems in place elsewhere.
“Any form of democratic government in Bahrain has to suit the nature and character of Bahraini culture and heritage,” the government’s Information Affairs Authority said this week.
Munira Fakhro, of the Waad party, said the opposition wanted to state its case in the face of hostile state media and to call for dialogue on the basis of reforms discussed with the crown prince before the protests were crushed in March.
“Media criticism and attacks have increased dramatically, in the press, television and radio. We just want to remind the public that this is our aim and what we want,” she said.
(Writing by Andrew Hammond; Editing by Alistair Lyon)
This story was corrected to fix Sharif's prison sentence in paragraph 7