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Bahrain protesters took back Pearl Square. What next?

MANAMA, Bahrain — Just days after a brutal crackdown at the hands of Bahrain's security forces, protesters in the tiny Gulf Arab nation are feeling confident that their demonstrations will help oust the Sunni Muslim dynasty that has long ruled their majority Shiite country.

Protesters flooded jubilantly back into Pearl Square in the center of Bahrain's capital, Manama, Saturday after troops pulled out following clashes Thursday night that killed four.

"Today we took [Pearl Square] back, tomorrow we take our country back!” said Ahmed Suwayha yesterday evening as threw up his two fingers to signal the victory anti-regime protesters felt they achieved after the troops pulled out.

Mr. Suwayha was one of thousands of anti-regime protesters, many of whom were waving the country’s red flag and chanting slogans such as “the king and his cronies don’t speak for us.” But as the young protesters in Pearl Square call for regime change and the immediate ouster of Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa, who is an uncle of Crown Prince Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, opposition leaders remain hesitant to press for too much at once.

Shiite opposition wants reforms ...

Inspired by events in Tunisia and Egypt, Bahrain’s Shiite majority – which accounts for 70 percent of the population – is clamoring for reforms that would give it a greater voice in the government. But the ruling Sunnis that account for the other 30 percent have long been reluctant to make changes that would dilute their power.

The protests began when a faceless Facebook campaign urged Bahrainis to descend on Pearl Square on Feb. 14 to press for political reform.

The Shiite opposition parties have long demanded reforms such as transforming the regime into a constitutional monarchy, an end to gerrymandering electoral districts and more jobs in government ministries. Opposition leaders met Sunday to discuss which specific demands they want to press in coming days.

... but the youth want regime change

In the wake of the revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, however, the country’s youth have become emboldened and have pressed for more radical change. They have chanted slogans such as “the people want an end to this regime” and “death to the al-Khalifa family.”

Startled by their passions, the Shiite opposition, led by the al-Wefaq party, has discovered its room to maneuver has been constrained. Trying to keep up with the youths’ demands, it quit Parliament last week.

The regime has asked the opposition to enter into negotiations to find a way out of the impasse. But with tensions running high, al-Wefaq and its allies are reluctant to negotiate, partly out of fear that the few concessions the government may offer will not satisfy the angry youth.

“I don’t think the regime is willing to meet most of our demands. But even if it does, I am not sure it will be enough to get the youth off the street. It is personal now,” said al-Wefaq parliamentarian Jassim Hussein.

The regime sought to placate protesters Saturday when the crown prince called for a national day of mourning for the 6 who died this week. But a similar call by the king earlier in the week was followed by the storming of Pearl Square on Thursday.

“We don’t trust anything the al-Khalifas say anymore," says Mansur, a young web designer. "We want them gone. We want a new regime without them."

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