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Page last updated at 07:36 GMT, Monday, 30 May 2011 08:36 UK
Will Bahrain's Arab Spring bear fruit?

By James Naughtie
Today programme, Bahrain

Bahrani protester
Protesters took to the streets in March, but change is yet to occur in Bahrain

There is a coin that you can still find circulating in Bahrain, although it is no longer minted.

On one side it bears the image of the monument that once stood on the Pearl Roundabout, focus of the anti-government demonstrations in the spring. So, it is no longer minted.

You know a government is in trouble when it is scared of the coinage. The monument itself was bulldozed when the protestors were dispersed, violently, in March. Therefore, in the mentality of autocracy, the coins should no longer exist.

Bahraini coin
This coin, featuring Bahrain's Pearl Roundabout, had been withdrawn

For those who champion Bahrain as a bastion of tolerance in the Gulf (and they have often had a strong case) such signs of difficulty for the ruling family are embarrassing. But this is no irrational panic: it is real.

Hundreds of thousands of people have taken part at some time in the protests that began in February and produced a violent government response in March, accompanied by a harsh detention regime. You do not have to go far in this small kingdom - the population is only 1.2 million - to smell fear.

Talk of beatings and systematic torture is rife in the streets, especially - though not exclusively - in the Shia Muslim community which forms the majority. The ruling family, and the elite, are Sunni. The divisive argument with will come to a head on 1 June, next Wednesday.

That is the day when the state of emergency is due to be lifted. The government says it wants a serious negotiation about democratic reform (with the Crown Prince its main advocate); so do the leading protesters.

No-one can tell whether it will happen, or whether another spark will produce mass protests and the inevitable unforgiving response. The tanks that are on the streets of the main city, Manama, are meant to withdraw on Wednesday. At the first sign of protest, they would return.

Talking to anti-government activists in the last few days, two things are clear. The personal testimony of brutality - though much of it, by its nature, is second-hand - is powerful and convincing. Doctors, lawyers and teachers have certainly been targeted.

We spoke to one woman whose family has suffered - we can't name her, because she would certainly be arrested - whose story of state violence is utterly convincing.

Torture, detention and disappearance in the night, systematic brutality, are accepted as fact by many in Bahrain.

Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Mubarak al Khalifa
The Arab Spring has not been futile by any means
Abdulaziz bin Mubarak al Khalifa

Secondly, it is clear that most reformers are modest in their demands, by western standards. They don't want the ruling family kicked out or strung up (although the prime minister who has been in power, unchallenged, for 41 years is the focus for special dislike, even hatred) and argue for a constitutional monarchy. They say it would be a natural development of the Gulf tradition. So, why not?

On the government side, the fear in the streets is matched by a deep alarm that the whole system of tribal family rule is threatened. And Saudi Arabia, linked to Bahrain by a causeway running west, has a powerful stake in the status quo.

Bahrain's banks are effectively part of its system; and radical change might bring closer an unthinkable challenge to the rulers in Riyadh. The Bahrain government feels that pressure, and also points nervously to the "hidden hand" of Iran, just across the Gulf, supporting its Shia "brothers".

A Bahraini man walks past a mosque spray painted with pro-government graffiti
Opinions on the regime are still split in Bahrain

Yet the authorities do talk of compromise. Sheikh Abdulaziz bin Mubarak al Khalifa , international counsellor at the Information Authority told us, "Mistakes have been made on both sides".

But he dismissed accusations of brutality, and insisted that the case for reform was accepted: the "Arab spring" had changed everything, and there was no going back. Talks about genuine reform? "Yes."

At al-Wefaq, the main Shia party, you hear the same language, but laced with complaints and bitter accusations of brutality against its people.

And Dr Sheikh Abdullatif Mahmoud Al Mahmoud of the Sunni National Unity Assembly gave the same cautious message: if there were proper talks, with everyone prepared to move a little, an accommodation could be reached. If…

Confidence is hard to find, and you hear many predictions of explosions in the coming days. Will the government, appointed by the ruling family, lay out a plan for political dialogue? Will those who are now so angry be listening?

In the Kingdom that for Britain and the United States has long been a friend and strategic political and defence outpost in the Gulf, no-one knows. They wait, and wonder.


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