Alright, for those of you who just want to see the photos from today's protest, click here. I went crazy with the camera and took some 83 shots. Some of them are bad and some of them are not so bad. I couldn't be bothered to filter out the rubbish ones, so don't complain to me if you are unimpressed with my photography skills :)
And now for the full story. It's been quite an interesting day for me, so let me take you through everything. So the first interesting thing was the "loyalty rally" in support of the Prime Minister that took place in Budaiya after Friday prayers. It was basically just a guy with a loudspeaker. I didn't stick around for long (coz I was just there for Friday prayers), so maybe it became huge later on,... but I doubt it. The guy was anxiously looking around for other supporters who would join him. But the funny thing is that the majority of people who pray at that particular mosque are Asian expats who don't really have any interest in domestic politics. So I'm not sure where they were expecting to get "crowds" of supporters from.
So after having lunch at around 2pm I got in my car for my regular Friday afternoon photo-taking session aroung the island. I had the opposition protest in mind, but I didn't have much hope since I didn't know the time or place it was being held, or if it was going to take place at all. I quickly drove by all the regular protest rally spots (Ras Rumman mosque, the UN house, the Public Prosecutor's office) to see if there was any action, but it was as quiet as any regular Friday afternoon. So I decided to go into the Suq to take some snaps of old buildings. It was there that I saw posters on the walls advertising the opposition protest: "Ras Rumman mosque, 4pm in the afternoon".
When I got to Ras Rumman there were only 15 or 20 other people around as I was a bit early. That's why there aren't too many protesters in the first few photos I took, but as you can tell, the crowd quickly grew in size. Reuters has reported (via Aljazeera.net) that there were about 2000 protesters, which agrees with my own estimate. The protesters seemed to come from all walks of life: businessmen, truckdrivers, students, grandparents, grandchildren, everyone. And of course the ladies' contingent was strong in numbers also.
The organizers did a good job of preparing, and they had a plentiful supply of sign boards to hand out to protesters as they arrived. Note that it looks like the person who made today's signs also made the signs a few months back at the Torture protest. The thing that really struck me was how direct some of the messages on the boards were in their attacks on the Prime Minister. Here is a sampling:
- We demand the resignation of the Prime Minister (photo)
- The Prime Minister is not a 'symbol of National unity' but a 'symbol of evil and corruption' (photo)
- Under the Prime Minister 'dictator' we [are] all under poverty, persecution and injustice (photo)
- PM... it's time to leave (photo)
- Al-Khalifa regime?? They are dictators! (photo)
And a real cheeky one:
- Vote Abdul Hadi for PM (photo)
I know this might not sound like a big deal to most of the international readers here. In many parts of the world it is completely normal to criticize government leaders, but in Bahrain and much of the Arab world, this is just unheard of. Last week the vice-president of the BCHR criticized the Prime Minister (who is the King's uncle) and he ended up getting arrested, the BCHR was banned, and the club premises at which he made his statement was suspended for 45 days... which eventually precipitated today's protest. Therefore, I didn't expect the protesters today to be as vocal in their criticisms of the Prime Minister, but that they would rather focus on demanding the release of Alkhawaja and lifting the ban on the BCHR.
What I was even more surprised about was that despite these provocations against the PM there were no cops in sight trying to interfere or intimidate the protesters. I saw a few police vehicles gathered around the corner in front of the British Embassy, but they decided to make no presence at the actual protest. On this count I have to commend the government for making the decision for not getting involved and letting the people freely express their emotions. After today I feel much more confident about saying what I want, and I am hoping that the arrest of Alkhawajah was just a hiccup that will be amended soon. I'm sure the government's decision had something to do with all of the pressure from influential governments and NGOs to sort itself out.
Once everyone had gathered the crowd started their march from Ras Rumman mosque onto the road between the Sheraton and Hilton hotels. This was an ideal route to get the attention of any foreign visitors. They marched up to the junction with King Faisal Highway and then turned back. I heard people talking about marching to the Prime Minister's office which was also very close by. I'm not sure if this was something planned that was denied by the authorities, or if it was just an idea that someone had. But anyways, everyone marched back to the mosque, chanted some more in support of Alkhawaja, and then peacefully dispersed.
As you can see in all of the photos, there were pictures of Alkhawaja all over the place, and people were holding signs saying that he was their "hero" and was the "light of Bahraini darkness". As Mahmood noted earlier, in their arrest of Alkhawaja, the government has turned him in to a superstar and an icon of the Bahraini opposition. But having seen the hands-off approach taken by the authorities today, I get the impression that they have now learned their lesson (for the short term at least) in how to react to the opposition. Alkhawaja could have been dealt with by a verbal rebuke, and a reminder that the government has taken genuine steps to deal with the issue of poverty. But the internal politics within the government was what probably lead to the more rash decisions we have seen over the past few days.
More generally, the elements within the ruling regime that are against reform will have to realize, sooner rather than later, that there is no going back to the ways of the old days. It is therefore in their interests to jump onto the reformist bandwagon soon also so as not to be left behind when the real changes become apparent.
Finally, here is a photo of three kids that I really like:
The kid on the left is bored out of his brains and doesn't know why his dad made him come to this event just to hold a stupid sign. The kid in the middle was absolutely ecstatic that I was taking a picture of him and can't hold back his glee. The kid on the right has put on his "serious activist" face for the camera.