By Phillip Walter Wellman
Bahrain’s main opposition group has rejected a government offer to begin discussions over the political unrest sweeping the Gulf country. The al-Wefaq block says it will not take part in talks until the military is removed from the streets of the capital Manama. Tanks and soldiers have been stationed around the city’s Pearl Roundabout since Thursday, when authorities used tear gas, rubber bullets and birdshot to disperse anti-government protesters who were camping there.
Bahrain’s foreign minister, Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed Khalifa, justified the deadly crackdown saying it was necessary because demonstrators were pushing the country to what he characterized as the “brink of a sectarian abyss.”
Protesters attempted to march back to the Pearl Roundabout on Friday, but were again fired upon.
Shortly afterwards, Bahrain’s Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Khalifa called for a national dialogue to resolve the crisis.
Abdul Jalil, a senior member of al-Wefaq, says the group does not believe the government’s request for cooperation is sincere. “We hear [the calls], but what we see on the ground is the language of bullets, so it’s really the opposite messages we receive from them. I don’t know if the Crown Prince has the political card only or has the military, police card as well,” he said.
Abdul Jalil was one of 18 members of al-Wefaq who quit parliament to protest the recent violence against demonstrators.
They say they will only return when the king agrees to transform the nation into a constitutional democracy with an elected government.
However, Jalil says the group will start talks with the government if certain conditions are met. “The first step: the government has to withdraw its forces from the streets,” he said. “No more killing people. We don’t want to see people being killed or injured number one. Let people go to the Pear Roundabout then start a dialogue.”
Protests inspired by the recent uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt began in Bahrain on February 14. Originally, demonstrators were calling for more equality, more rights and the release of political prisoners. But now, they are demanding a new government.
Early Saturday morning, demonstrators at Manama’s main hospital began chanting: “Go, go Hamad,” in reference to the king.
Many of the protesters had been camped at the hospital since late Friday, when injured people were being rushed in from the Pearl Roundabout.