x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

The community at Pearl Roundabout is at the centre

The site of bloody protests, Lulu roundabout has now become a vibrant community of opposition that still has not coalesced around a single leader, writes Omar al Shehabi.

Renamed by its inhabitants Martyrs' Square, the now-famous roundabout in the heart of Manama is more commonly known as Lulu, or Pearl. Previously a busy traffic junction with no particular historical significance, it has become the focal point of Bahrain's protest movement and the battleground for the country's political future.

It started on February 14, when a "day of wrath" organised by cyber-activists left two demonstrators dead and scores injured after the security apparatus tried to quell the protest by force. A combination of fate, quick thinking and Bahrain's heavy traffic allowed the funeral procession for one of the two killed to reach Lulu, turning it into the protesters' equivalent of Tahrir Square in Cairo. After two nights, government forces raided the roundabout and forcibly scattered the makeshift camps, leaving five killed and hundreds injured. Fast forward another two days, and protesters had returned to Lulu after the crown prince, Sheikh Salman al Khalifa, ordered the military off the streets.

Since then, the Lulu roundabout has taken on a life of its own. Thousands make a point of visiting the area every day, and hundreds of more committed protesters camp overnight in tents.

The situation can best be described as functioning anarchy, not in the sense of chaos, but because of the lack of a central authority.

Various committees have sprung up, including a media centre, a medical services point and even a station for lost children. At various stalls there are Bahrainis making rice, bread, curries and macaroni, a striking scene in a region dependent on expatriates for most manual labour. A neatly designed centre stage decorated with Arabic arches continually broadcasts live speeches, accompanied by a sign-language translator for the hearing impaired. One tent has been set aside for lectures by experts and activists on matters ranging from the constitution to corruption. Another tent is for the lawyers' society, a third for teachers, and others reflect the names of the various villages, towns and islands of Bahrain.

Lulu has become the region's Speakers' Corner, with opinions that previously few dared to utter even behind closed doors now being blasted through loudspeakers in public. "Down with the regime!" shouts one speaker on a podium; a constitutional monarchy along the lines of the United Kingdom is the demand of another. "No dialogue until those responsible are brought to justice!" declares a huge banner. Old national songs blast out of the shared tent of Wa'ad and Al Minbar, two left-leaning political societies whose supporters have quarrelled for more than 50 years - but were finally united in one tent in Lulu.

Members of Islamist-leaning societies have tried in vain to create female and male-only sections, while loosely assembled groups of youths compete with each other to come up with the most catchy and witty chants and slogans. Many people simply express a desire for equality, respect and a decent opportunity in life.

There is no single group or movement in control or speaking on behalf of Lulu. Instead, a range of views ferments and interacts, united only by the desire for change and being fed up with the status quo.

Outside this little town, every side with a stake in the matter has its eyes fixed on Lulu, now the microcosm of the opposition movement in Bahrain. The established opposition figures and societies are paralysed without the blessing of Lulu, and a stream of leaders flock in daily to broadcast their messages and ask for solidarity from the roundabout.

From its side, the government knows that this is the heart of the current protest movement, with the established political societies and figureheads unable to control the actions, demands or messages being broadcast. Protests first called for anonymously on Facebook and Bahrainonline now have a physical rallying point, but still no recognisable leaders.

The government's former effort to end the protests backfired by incurring so much violence, anger and media frenzy. The new strategy is to invite various parties to discuss the matter, release some political detainees and allow protests to continue as gestures of good faith. This has been in parallel with a sizeable pro-government demonstration staged at another national monument, with the aim of taking some of the spotlight away from Lulu and show that a significant percentage of the population backs the government.

Protesters at Lulu countered by staging the largest demonstration in the history of Bahrain. Many who are camped in the roundabout are sceptical about engaging in dialogue with the government because of perceptions that past agreements had been reneged on and no one has been held to account for the recent protesters' deaths.

One option for the government might be to wait and hope that the movement dies out slowly, with the worries of daily life and the fading media spotlight gradually pulling people away. For the protesters, forming a cohesive political movement that transcends class and sectarian tensions presents the greatest challenge. Many Sunnis and wealthier Bahrainis are very sceptical about the aims of the protests, still viewing it as a movement driven by less well-off Shiite young people.

For now, however, the mass turnout at demonstrations and the release of political detainees has given Lulu extra momentum. It is difficult for anyone to predict Bahrain's political future, but the traffic roundabout known as Lulu will certainly be at the heart of it.

Dr Omar al Shehabi is a Bahraini citizen and the director of the Gulf Centre for Policy Studies