x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Tension simmers in Bahrain after arrests

In the past 10 days there have been dozens of arrests of opposition figures, with their supporters responding by burning tyres and rubbish dumps.

MANAMA // Long after the fires have been put out, black marks left by burning tyres scar the roads around the village of Sanabis. Inside the predominantly Shia enclave, the narrow, run-down streets are lined with small shops and houses scrawled with political slogans, some of them recently covered by a fresh coat of white paint. The slogan on one wall - "Free our prisoners" - has survived efforts by authorities to erase allusions to the clashes and unrest that have beset this village on the outskirts of Manama for more than a week. It refers to people recently detained, including Abdel Jaleel al Singace, a prominent opposition figure arrested this month as he arrived back in Bahrain from the UK.

In the past 10 days there have been dozens more arrests of opposition figures, with their mainly young supporters across the island responding by burning tyres and rubbish dumps and vandalising public buildings. Security forces, some heavily armed, have maintained a presence most nights around the most volatile neighbourhoods Just two months before the country's parliamentary elections, the government and its opposition have accused each other of instigating the violence. In the village of Daih, near Sanabis, flags flutter above the narrow streets in preparation for Gargaoon, which marks the middle of Ramadan. But Salman, a village resident in his early 30s, said there is little to celebrate. "People are scared and they don't know what the future holds," he said. Salman said he knows at least six men arrested in recent days, something he said recalls the political unrest of the '90s, when tension between the Sunni-lead government and the island's Shia population was at its highest. "There is work now, but it is still more difficult for the people from the villages because of the sectarianism," said Salman, who is employed with a private company. The government has laid the blame on "instigators" intent on destabilising the country. "The acts of sabotage and the arson attacks have nothing to do with the freedom of opinion. They amount to a crime against the nation and its sons," said a government statement. Among the "acts of sabotage" was an attack on an electricity substation Friday, which left many homes without power. In another incident, hundreds of tyres were set ablaze in a warehouse. Outbreaks of violence in the country are nothing new, said Naser al Fadalah, an MP with the Al Menbar Islamic Society. "The Bahraini government and the people have been waiting for 10 years with patience for people to get wise and stop this violence," he said. "There is no use for this kind of violence and terrorism." Mr al Fadalah believes the unrest has been fomented by people with an "agenda outside of Bahrain" and links to Iran. However, Muneera Fakhro, a Waad party candidate in the upcoming election, believes the root causes are closer to home. "This has to do with Bahrainis. I think it is internal because we had this parliament and it did not work well during the last four years," she said. "It is also to widen the distance between Sunni and Shia." Khalil al Marzooq, the deputy chairman and spokesperson of the opposition Al Wefaq bloc, names a litany of concerns. He blames the pace of political reform, discrimination against the Shia, limited opportunities and services for young people, and the sale of public land. "Housing is the main important thing, as well as finding jobs for young people and services for most of the villages, especially youth facilities," Mr al Marzooq said. Members of the opposition say the granting of citizenship to thousands of recently naturalised Bahrainis has also stoked sectarian tensions. There are also concerns that the unrest may discourage people from participating in the October 23 election. Last week, six parties - including Al Wefaq, Al Menbar and the liberal Waad - issued a joint statement, condemning the violence by both sides. The groups called on the government to release those recently detained and urged both sides to open a dialogue. Standing outside one of the many mosques in the winding streets of Sanabis, a 34-year-old man from the village of Al Dair, where police and opposition supporters have clashed in recent nights, voiced his concern. "People in the village are nervous and scared, especially the children who are too scared to play outside," he said. "This is because some people don't have jobs or anything. They want to get married, have a house, buy a car, but they cannot." zconstantine@thenational.ae