Thousands of Bahrainis are holding a third day of anti-government demonstrations in the capital, Manama, where many of them joined a funeral for a second protester shot dead by police the day before.
At least 2,000 mostly Shi’ite activists occupied Manama’s Pearl Square Wednesday, after setting up a tent camp Tuesday and spending a first night in the open. The protest site mirrors the occupation of a Cairo square by Egyptian activists who ousted their president last week after an 18-day uprising.
The Bahraini protesters joined a funeral procession for a Shi’ite man shot by police Tuesday, when mourners gathered in Manama for the funeral of another Shi’ite protester killed in clashes with police the previous day.
Many of the protesters in Pearl Square are vowing to stay until they achieve their goals. Some are calling for the ouster of the minority Sunni dynasty that rules the Gulf island state, while others demand the immediate resignation of longtime Bahraini Prime Minister Sheik Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa.
The anti-government demonstrators also want Bahrain’s ruling family to free political prisoners, give up its power to appoint senior officials, and open more opportunities for majority Shi’ites, who have long complained of discrimination.
Bahraini King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa made a rare televised address Tuesday, offering condolences for the deaths of the two Shi’ite protesters and promising an investigation into the incidents. He also vowed to push ahead with political reforms that he began with a 2001 referendum that restored a parliament the following year.
Bahrain’s interior ministry also has pledged to prosecute anyone using “unjustified” force against the protesters, who began rallying in Shi’ite villages across the state Monday in a “Day of Rage” called by cyber activists.
The United Nations and the United States say they are concerned by the violence in Bahrain. A U.S. State Department spokesman urged Bahraini authorities to follow through on promises to investigate the killings as soon as possible.
Bahrain’s main Shi’ite opposition bloc – the Islamic National Accord Society, also known as Wefaq – says it boycotting parliament to protest violent tactics used against peaceful demonstrators.
Bahrain’s rulers have tried to ease public grievances by offering $2,600 in cash to all families and promising to loosen state controls on the media. But, many Bahrainis remain angry about poverty, unemployment and alleged attempts by the state to grant citizenship to Sunni foreigners in order to change the demographic balance.
About half of the island kingdom’s 1.3 million people are Bahraini, while the rest are foreign workers. Seventy-percent of Bahraini citizens are Shi’ites.
Bahrain is home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet and a regional offshore banking center. Analysts say large-scale unrest there could embolden marginalized Shi’ites in nearby Saudi Arabia, the world’s biggest oil exporter.