More turmoil in the Middle East. All the king’s and quasi dictators are having their days of reckoning. Bahrain’s king reshuffled his cabinet on Saturday, under pressure as an exiled opposition leader returned and thousands of protesters marched in Manama to demand the Sunni rulers stand down.
“His Majesty King Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa today formally swore in new ministers covering five cabinet portfolios,” the government said in a statement without elaborating.
The move came on the 13th day of protests calling for reforms in the country, as opposition leader Hassan
Mashaima returned home to Bahrain from self-imposed exile in Britain.
“The time has come for true unity and our priority today is for the opposition to sit down with the protesters at Pearl Square and clearly set our demands,” Mashaima told reporters at his home.
The Shiite leader was among 25 men charged in October with forming an illegal organisation, engaging in and financing terrorism and spreading false and misleading information.
Mashaima was in Britain for medical treatment when the charges were pressed last year. He had remained there until the group was granted royal pardon this week.
Lebanese authorities had arrested Mashaima on Tuesday because of an outstanding Interpol warrant against him. He was freed on Friday after confirmation of his pardon.
King Hamad’s pardon came amid daily protests mainly by Bahrain’s majority Shiite community, which complains of discrimination and is pushing for power to be transferred from the Sunni al-Khalifa dynasty to an elected government.
Pearl Square, which has become the epicentre of anti-regime demonstrations, has been transformed into a makeshift camp where protesters have kept daily vigil in hundreds of tents.
Thousands of protesters massed there on Saturday and then marched out along a major highway chanting “leave Hamad, leave Hamad,” blocking traffic.
They marched up to the the walled compound where the foreign ministry is located, stopping outside the building to chant “Down, down Hamad!”
Then the massive, flag-waving crowd proceeded up the street, which is flanked by towering buildings housing banks, to the cries of “the people want to topple the regime!”
The demonstration eventually wound its way back to Pearl Square, ending where it began.
Official opposition groups have stopped short of demanding outright regime change, instead calling for major reforms, including an elected prime minister and the creation of a “real” constitutional monarchy.
Seven people have been killed by security forces since the beginning of the protests against the al-Khalifa dynasty, which has ruled for some 200 years.
Opposition MPs said on Saturday they were still awaiting details on a proposed dialogue with the government before agreeing to the talks, which the king has charged Crown Prince Salman with opening.
“Until now the government did not give any (specific) initiative for political reform,” said Mattar Mattar, one of 18 Shiite MPs who withdrew from parliament in protest at the killings last week.
“Our target was declared very clearly: we want an elected government, and we want the people to write their constitution themselves through an elected council,” Mattar, a member of the Al-Wefaq opposition bloc, told AFP.
Ali al-Aswad, another Al-Wefaq MP, added that, “One of the most important preconditions… is that the government needs to resign first.”
However, Saturday’s cabinet reshuffle fell far short of that demand, and many of the appointees had held other cabinet posts.
Majid al-Alwi, formerly labour minister, was appointed to the housing portfolio, while Abdul Hussein Mirza, who was oil and gas minister, was appointed minister of energy, the statement said.
Nizar al-Baharna, the former minister of state for foreign affairs, was appointed minister of health, and Jamil Humaidan, who was undersecretary in the ministry of labour, was appointed minister.
And Kamal bin Ahmed Mohammed, who was the chief operations officer of the Bahrain Development board, was named minister of cabinet affairs.