Mohamed Ali went to the Lulu roundabout Wednesday evening with his wife to join fellow Shi'ite Muslim Bahrainis in a peaceful demonstration calling for political reform. But the overnight raid by Bahraini police to disperse the protesters that left at least three dead and hundreds injured left him outraged, and more determined to press on. "We will never give up," he says. "The protesters will never stop."
By the end of the day Thursday, the military was firmly in charge of the streets. The Lulu roundabout was clear, stripped of tents, trash and any other evidence that protesters had camped, chanted and prayed for three days. Tanks now line the roundabout and the roads leading to it. Police have blocked access to Lulu, and protests have been banned.
Ali and his wife are two of the hundreds who have donated blood at Salmaniya Hospital, where about 600 injured people were taken for treatment.
Two days earlier, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa had vowed to investigate the shooting deaths of two protesters in an earlier incident, and to bring to justice any officers who had acted improperly. The King's response at that time left many Bahrainis hopeful that the two sides could have a reasoned debate and work together in the best interests of Bahrain. But the overnight raid by security forces dampened such optimism, and by Thursday many were asking that their names be excised from reporting and were declining to speak by phone, nervous of falling foul of the crackdown. One Twitterer advised fellow Bahrainis to erase all messages, videos and images on their cell phones. "They will be checked at checkpoints."
By Thursday evening, the start of the weekend in most of the Gulf, the streets remained largely empty. But the crisis is far from over in the kingdom of 1.3 million whose population is 70% Shi'ite, but whose monarchy and political elite are Sunni. And the geopolitical stakes are high in a country that plays host to the U.S. Navy's 5th Fleet, and whose Shi'ite population has familial and social ties with Saudi Arabia's restive Shi'ite minority.
Signs of a prolonged political standoff emerged Thursday, when members of the opposition Shi'ite Islamist party al-Wefaq said the party would withdraw from Bahrain's legislature, where it holds 18 of 40 seats. Shi'ite political representation is an important safety valve for releasing the grievances of the majority. Although the call for more democracy is coming not only from Shi'ites, they represent the vast majority of protesters and the riot police and special forces are reportedly dominated by Sunnis, many of them expatriates.
Tensions over the protests have already seen the cancellation of this week's G2 Series race, a feeder event for Bahrain's prestigious Formula One grand prix, while that event, scheduled for March 13, is also in doubt a sharp blow to the kingdom's efforts to style itself as a cosmopolitan center of global business in the Gulf. Unlike its Gulf neighbors, Bahrain has little oil of its own and little cash to spread around to pacify unhappy citizens and it has a Shi'ite majority that feels shut out of the best jobs and opportunities. In an attempt to soothe the dissatisfactions that have ignited into protests since the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, Bahrain last week said it would spend about $417 million on social programs, including subsidized food. But that may not be enough to ameliorate the challenge confronting the regime in the wake of the crackdown on protests.
Ali Al Saeed, who founded a local arts collective in Manama, calls himself a moderate and says he was initially a little worried about the motives of some protesters. He disagreed with their calls to topple the government headed by Prime Minister Sheik Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa a member of the ruling family but went to Lulu to see for himself. He says he found a peaceful, festive gathering and nothing suggested any hostility.
"I thought it was right to voice their opinion," he says. "But seeing my fellow countrymen brutally murdered has angered me. I now want a stop to this aggression."
The government has lost its credibility, he adds.
Throughout the day Thursday, graphic accounts of the previous night's raid on protesters were disseminated through text and images sent via Twitter and other social-networking sites. One image purported to show an older man with the top of his head blown off; others depicted bandaged paramedics who claimed they had been beaten when going to the aid of the injured.
A government statement Wednesday said illegal activities had taken place at the roundabout, and those who failed to heed orders to disperse had been forcibly removed. "We used the bare minimum of force to disperse the protesters," said Brigadier Tariq Hassan al-Hassan, a spokesman for the Bahraini Minister of Interior. He showed photos of what he said were swords and other weapons confiscated from the gathered protesters, and photos of police he said were hurt in the clash, including one of an officer in surgery and another of the top of half of his fingers blown off.
Immigration officials at Bahrain International Airport were turning back journalists trying to enter the kingdom Thursday morning.
The previous day, Ehsan Al-Kooheji, who owns a startup IT company and calls himself a moderate seeking slow, steady change in Bahrain, had said he did not support regime change in the tiny island kingdom.
But on Thursday he expressed fears that the government's crackdown would imperil constructive dialogue. "The core issues are lost and forgotten," he says.
Al Saeed fears the army taking control is not a good omen. "No one really knows what's next for Bahrain," he says. "But many now fear the worst."
Ali and his wife, who had been with protesters at Lulu until about midnight, was caught off guard by the violence of the crackdown. "I'm still in shock," he says. "I never thought a massacre would take place in Bahrain."
But his grief, and that of others, is turning to anger. After we spoke, Ali tweeted: "To all Bahrainis: Never forget, never forgive."