LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:
Two years ago today, more than 100,000 people rallied in the Gulf nation of Bahrain; a peacefully protest against the rule of their autocratic king. Despite harsh government repression, the protests continue. Many Bahrainis are critical of U.S. support for the country's monarch despite the growing popular opposition.
Independent producer Reese Erlich reports from Bahrain's capital, Manama.
REESE ERLICH, BYLINE: Young men wearing checkered keffiyahs and black-clad women carrying children march defiantly down the main street of a village, on the outskirts of Manama. Demonstrations are illegal here. But protesters have gathered daily for the past few weeks, in the run up to the second anniversary of Bahrain's Arab Spring uprising.
Led by the February 14th Youth Coalition, this crowd chants: Down with King Hamad, referring to Bahrain's monarch. They are angry because over the past two years, an estimated 1600 political prisoners have been jailed and 80 people killed, according to the Bahrain Center on Human Rights.
A February 14th activist named Ali, who uses only a first name because he fears arrest, says his coalition wants to establish a parliamentary system with no king.
ALI: They are demanding for Hamad to step down, the whole regime to step down.
ERLICH: That's a revolutionary demand here in Bahrain, where King Hamad rules with near absolute power. And the traditional political parties call for reform, not revolution.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Singing in foreign language)
ERLICH: The staff of the Al Wefaq Islamic Society kneels for afternoon prayers at their Manama office.
Al Wefaq is the largest opposition group and able to mobilize tens of thousands for demonstrations. This week, Al Wefaq and other traditional opposition groups agreed to participate in a government sponsored dialogue. Opposition parties don't want to directly challenge the power of the king, according to Abdul Jalil Khalil Ibrahim, an Al Wefaq leader.
ABDUL JALIL KHALIL IBRAHIM: Our political party's looking for an elected government instead of an appointed government.
ERLICH: Sameera Rajab, Minister of Information, says Bahrain will insist on keeping the kind of monarchy that exists in nearby Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries.
SAMEERA RAJAB: Elected government means a change of the regime. So it is not the condition to have elected government to be part of European system or American system. We have our system in the Gulf.
ERLICH: Back at the protest march, activist Ali says many young people oppose the dialogue.
ALI: This regime never ever been honest. They are choosing this to call for a dialogue, maybe to let the street cool down.
ERLICH: The opposition movement sees the U.S. role as critical.
ALI: The United States has so many interests in the oil and the money of Bahrain. And so, that's why they are still on the side of the regime.
ERLICH: Ali says the U.S. could alienate a whole generation of young Bahrainis if it continues to support the monarchy. He urges the U.S. to apply political and economic pressure, as it has done in Syria.
If the new dialogue produces results, the traditional opposition will likely gain strength. But if the government fails to make significant reforms, Ali says young militants will take to the streets in larger numbers.
For NPR News, I'm Reese Erlich.
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WERTHEIMER: Reese Erlich's reporting from Bahrain is part of a partnership between NPR and the Global Post. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.