Tens of thousands marched outside Bahrain’s capital Manama on Friday to protest against the results of a «National Dialogue» they said had failed to bring real democratic reform in the Gulf island kingdom.
Shouting «We want freedom» and waving Bahraini flags and banners that read «No to dialogue», protesters marched along Budaiya highway as helicopters from the security forces buzzed overhead.
King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa on Thursday approved parliamentary reforms submitted by a state-appointed body called the National Dialogue. They grant more powers of scrutiny to an elected lower house but preserved the dominance of an upper house appointed by the royal elite.
Bahrain’s Sunni rulers launched the dialogue in July, aiming to quell international criticism of its crushing of mass pro-democracy protests led by the Shi’ite majority in February and March.
Opposition groups and many in the Shi’ite population argued their voice in the dialogue was overshadowed by a majority of pro-government participants. The government said it had selected representation that accurately reflect society.
Wefaq, the largest Shi’ite opposition group, walked out of the dialogue several weeks ago and members said they felt their actions were justified after the body’s results were announced.
«The government thought the results were great. We thought they were nothing. There’s no fully elected government, no reforms to the voting system — it’s a one-sided deal,» said Wefaq leader Sayed al-Mousawi.
Shi’ite Bahrainis have long complained of discrimination in jobs and services and accuse the government of gerrymandering electoral districts, charges the government denies.
Some began to shout «Down, down (King) Hamad» in the Friday march, which organisers entitled «The people are the source of authority.»
Bahrain, home port to the U.S. Fifth Fleet, lies on a tense faultline between Shi’ite Iran, just across the Gulf, and Sunni-ruled Saudi Arabia, which is connected to the tiny Gulf Arab state by a causeway.
The government has accused protesters of a sectarian, Iranian-backed agenda. The opposition denies this.
«Our demands our nationalistic,» protesters chanted on Wednesday. Others called for the release of relatives. Hundreds were arrested during Bahrain’s crackdown on the large protests in March, and dozens have yet to be released.
Protesters on Friday had hoped to stage a protest outside the U.S. embassy in Manama ahead of their evening march. But riot police set up several checkpoints to block entrance to the area.
(Writing by Erika Solomon)