MANAMA (Reuters) - Authorities in Bahrain will seek to restore calm to the streets on Thursday after three days of protests inspired by uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia and exacerbated by the deaths of two demonstrators in 24 hours.
Thousands of Shi’ite protesters have taken to the streets, demanding more say in a country where a family of Sunni Muslims rules over a population that mostly belongs to the Shi’ite sect.
Hundreds have been camped out at Pearl Square, a road junction in the capital, which they hope to turn into the base of a long-running protest like that at Cairo’s Tahrir Square that led to the downfall of President Hosni Mubarak.
The main Shi’ite opposition Wefaq party has walked out of parliament. On Wednesday it demanded a new constitution that would move the country toward democracy.
“We’re not looking for a religious state. We’re looking for a civilian democracy ... in which people are the source of power, and to do that we need a new constitution,” the group’s general secretary Sheikh Ali Salman told a news conference.
The religious divide that separates the ruling family from most of its subjects has led to sporadic unrest since the 1990s, and Bahrain’s stability is being closely watched as protest movements blow through North Africa and the Middle East.
It is considered the state most vulnerable to popular unrest in a Gulf Arab region where, in an unwritten pact, rulers have traded a share of their oil wealth for political submission.
Regional power Saudi Arabia, and the United States — which bases its navy’s Mid-East fleet in Bahrain — both view the ruling Khalifa family as a bulwark against Shi’ite Iran.
King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa introduced a new constitution giving more political rights to his subjects a decade ago, but the opposition says he has not gone far enough to introduce democracy. Most of the cabinet are still members of his family.
Protesters have called for him to fire his uncle, Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, who has been prime minister since the modern state was founded in 1971. Wefaq members say they want elections for prime minister.
Protesters’ wrath has been stirred up by the deaths of two of their number during this week’s demonstrations, the second killed in clashes at the funeral of the first.
“The people demand the fall of the regime!” protesters chanted on Wednesday as men pounded their chests in rhythm, a mourning gesture distinctive to the Shi’ite branch of Islam.
King Hamad has expressed condolences to relatives of the two dead men and said a committee would investigate. His government says it has detained people suspected of blame for the deaths.
Writing by Peter Graff; editing by Ralph Boulton