Clashes were reported in tightly controlled oil producer Libya, sandwiched between Egypt and Tunisia, as people there prepared to take to the streets for a “day of rage” after new protests erupted in Yemen, Iran and Iraq.
The demonstrations against old rulers came after U.S. President Barack Obama commenting on the overthrow of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, said: “The world is changing … If you are governing these countries, you’ve got to get ahead of the change, you can’t be behind the curve.
Authoritarian governments have reason to fear contagion with young people able to watch pro-democracy uprisings on satellite television or the Internet and to communicate on social networks hard for secret police to control.
In Bahrain, police firing tear gas and rubber bullets cleared hundreds of people from the central Pearl Square in the early hours as they tried to end three days of protests.
At least two protesters were killed and armoured vehicles were later seen heading to the area.
“Police are coming, they are shooting teargas at us,” one demonstrator told Reuters by telephone. Another said: “I am wounded, I am bleeding. They are killing us.”
Thousands of overwhelmingly Shi’ite protesters took to the streets in Bahrain this week demanding more say in the Gulf Arab island kingdom where a family of Sunni Muslims rules over a population that mostly belongs to the Shi’ite sect.
Hundreds had camped out at Pearl Square, a road junction in the capital that they sought to turn into the base of a protest like that at Cairo’s Tahrir Square which led to the downfall of Egyptian President Mubarak.
But the square appeared nearly empty of protesters early on Thursday after police moved in and was littered with abandoned tents, blankets and rubbish. The smell of teargas wafted through the air.
“I was there … The men were running away, but the women and kids could not run as easily,” said Ibrahim Mattar, a parliamentarian from the main Shi’ite opposition Wefaq party, which has walked out of parliament.
“It is confirmed two have died,” he said. “More are in critical condition.”
On Wednesday, the party demanded a new constitution that would move the country towards democracy.
Bahrain’s Interior Ministry said on Twitter that security forces had “cleared Pearl roundabout” of demonstrators, and a section of a main road was temporarily blocked.
The religious divide that separates Bahrain’s ruling family from most of its subjects has led to sporadic unrest since the 1990s, and Bahrain’s stability is being closely watched as protests blow through North Africa and the Middle East.
It is considered the state most vulnerable to unrest in a region where, in an unwritten pact, rulers have traded a share of their oil wealth for political submission.
WARNING ON “HEAVY-HANDED REPRESSION”
Regional power Saudi Arabia, and the United States — which bases its Fifth Fleet in Bahrain — both view the ruling Khalifa family as a bulwark against Shi’ite Iran.
In Libya, protesters were planning to take to the streets for a “day of rage” but rights groups warned of a crackdown by security forces.
In a country where public dissent is rare, plans for the protests were being circulated on social networking sites and it was not clear if the demonstrations would materialise.
Libya has been tightly controlled for more than 40 years by Muammar Gaddafi, Africa’s longest-serving leader, but the oil exporter has felt the ripples from the overthrow of veteran leaders in Egypt and Tunisia.
Though some Libyans complain about unemployment, inequality and limits on political freedoms, analysts say an Egypt-style revolt is unlikely because the government can use oil revenues to smooth over most problems.
Witnesses and media reported that several hundred people clashed with police and Gaddafi supporters on Tuesday night in the city of Benghazi, about 1,000 km (600 miles) east of the Libyan capital.
State media reported there were pro-Gaddafi protests too across the country.
Gaddafi says Libya does not need to import Western concepts of democracy because it is run on his system — known as the Third Universal Theory — under which citizens govern themselves through grassroots institutions.
Thursday is the anniversary of clashes in 2006 in Benghazi when security forces killed several protesters who were attacking the city’s Italian consulate. Reuters