MANAMA, Bahrain — Bahraini protesters clashed with riot police in neighborhoods around the capital Wednesday as they called for greater political freedom in the Gulf island nation, but a tight security clampdown stopped large-scale demonstrations.
Anti-government activists, inspired by the mass movement behind the popularly supported military coup in Egypt, said they hoped to gain new momentum through nationwide protests including a march into upscale districts near Manama’s city center. They also called for businesses to close their doors as part of a general strike.
But the protests largely fizzled out as Bahrain put in place a heavy security cordon around Manama. Ahead of Wednesday’s planned marches marking the 42nd anniversary of the British leaving the island, authorities warned they would “forcefully confront” protests.
Demonstrators marching toward the center of Manama met barricades manned by security forces who fired tear gas canisters and stun grenades to disperse them.
“We don’t care if they fire tear gas. We are used to it. We are proud that we have succeeded in shutting down the country,” said Fatma Jaber, one of a group who faced off with police in the capital’s northwest.
Some 20 protesters were arrested in the protests, including a group of five women and a 15 year old, said Sayed Yusuf al-Muhafada, an official with the Bahrain Center for Human Rights. Meanwhile, a worker was wounded by a firebomb while trying to dismantle a protester-built barricade with heavy machinery, the Interior Ministry said.
Hackers also launched attacks against the Interior Ministry’s website and that of the Washington-based public relations firm Qorvis, which represents Bahraini government.
Though most shops appeared closed, the country didn’t entirely shut down. Prime Minister Prince Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa made a surprise appearance at a high-end shopping mall in the capital, reassuring shoppers it was business as usual, the state-run Bahrain News Agency reported.
More than 60 localized protests took place around the country, according to the main Shiite opposition group Al Wefaq. It declared the strike a success.
Hussain Yousif, a spokesman for the Bahrain Tamarod, or “Rebel” group, also praised the turnout despite the opposition they faced.
“Many responded to the calls to come out and protest today,” Yousif said. “The government has converted Bahrain into a military base trying to isolate the villages to prevent people from reaching protest sites.”
Yousif said the group would hold more protests in the coming weeks.
Bahrain has seen over two years of unrest linked to the Shiite majority’s demands for a greater say in the affairs of the Sunni-ruled kingdom. In recent months, security forces have mostly kept protests away from the center of the capital.
The island nation with a native population of more than 550,000 has been gripped by near nonstop turmoil since February 2011, when Shiites inspired by the Arab Spring began the uprising.
At least 60 people have died — activists and Shiite leaders say more than 100 — and prominent opposition and human rights figures have been jailed. The country is home to the U.S. Navy’s 5th Fleet, the Pentagon’s main base to counter Iran’s expanding military presence in the Gulf and protect oil shipping lanes through the Gulf of Hormuz.
Clashes have eased in recent months and Bahrain’s leaders have made noticeable reforms along the way, including giving the elected parliament more oversight powers and pledging deeper investigations into alleged abuses by security forces.
Although tangible concessions, they are dismissed by many Shiites as mere window dressing that still leaves the monarchy in control of all key posts and decisions. Bahrain’s parliament also has passed strict new laws to curb dissent.