Anti-government protesters flooded a major highway in Bahrain on Friday, responding to calls for a show of solidarity against the Gulf nation’s rulers. Security forces watched the march but made no move to intervene.
Tens of thousands took part in the protest, billed as an attempt to show the resolve of a Shiite-led rebellion against Bahrain’s Sunni monarchy a year after their uprising began. The large protest was also a reply to Bahrain’s Sunni leadership, which has portrayed the uprising as losing steam ahead of next month’s lucrative Formula One Grand Prix car race, which was canceled last year because of violence on the tiny island.
The march stretched for more than a mile (1.6 kilometers). Some opposition leaders estimated the crowd at nearly 100,000, which would make it one of the largest protest gatherings since the street rallies erupted in February 2011 in the Arab Spring-inspired uprising.
Bahrain’s majority Shiites seek to end the Sunni dynasty’s control of all main posts and policies in the strategic Gulf nation, which is home to the US Navy’s 5th Fleet. Shiites make up about 70 percent of Bahrain’s 525,000 citizens, but they complain of widespread discrimination and say they are blocked from high-level political and security positions. Bahrain’s rulers have offered some concessions, including granting more decision-making powers to parliament, but reject demands that include giving up the right to appoint holders of top positions, such as prime minister. At least 45 people have been killed in the unrest, and hundreds have been arrested.
“Down, down Hamad,” protesters chanted in a reference to Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa. Others carried signs in English and French denouncing the monarchy in an appeal to international media and websites. Police helicopters hovered over the march, and riot police units were visible along the route.