MANAMA (Reuters) - A hardline Shi‘ite dissident flew home to Bahrain from exile on Saturday to join an opposition movement demanding that the island kingdom’s Sunni ruling family grant more rights.
King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa reshuffled the cabinet but this appeared unlikely to pacify protesters inspired by popular uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere.
“We want a real constitution,” Hassan Mushaimaa told reporters at the airport on his return. “They’ve promised us (one) before and then did whatever they wanted to.”
“I‘m here to see what are the demands of the people at the square and sit with them and talk to them,” he said, referring to anti-government protesters camped in Manama’s Pearl Square.
Thousands of demonstrators marched from Pearl Square to a former office of Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman al-Khalifa on Saturday in a new tactic to press demands for the removal of the man who had held his post for 40 years.
Sheikh Khalifa, the king’s uncle, is a symbol of the ruling family’s political power and wealth.
The march was the protesters’ first foray into a government and commercial district of Manama. They halted at a compound which also houses the Foreign Ministry. Many waved Bahraini flags and chanted: “The people want the fall of the regime”.
Mushaimaa, London-based leader of the Shi‘ite Haq movement, had been on trial in his absence over an alleged coup plot.
The other defendants in the case were freed in Bahrain this week and the Gulf Arab state’s foreign minister said Mushaimaa had received a royal pardon and could return home unhindered.
Allowing him to return was the latest in a series of concessions by the ruling al-Khalifa family aimed at placating Bahrain’s majority Shi‘ites who have been at the forefront of nearly two weeks of protests demanding more say in government.
Tens of thousands thronged the streets of Manama on Friday, declared a day of mourning by the government, in one of the biggest demonstrations since a “Day of Rage” on February 14.
Security forces did not interfere. Last week seven people were killed and hundreds wounded in unrest before Bahraini rulers, under pressure from their Western allies, pledged to allow peaceful protests and offered dialogue with opponents.
This week the government released more than 300 people detained since a crackdown on Shi‘ite unrest in August.
In the cabinet reshuffle, the ministers of housing, health and cabinet affairs were replaced, according to the official Bahrain News Agency (BNA).
Majeed al-Alawi, a former opposition activist who served as labor minister, was made housing minister.
Nazar al-Baharna, an outgoing minister of state for foreign affairs and one of the highest-ranking Shi‘ite government officials, took the health portfolio, BNA said.
Replacing the ministers of health and housing could be a concession to Shi‘ites who have complained of discrimination in public services, complaints the government says are unjustified.
Many of the protesters were demanding a constitutional monarchy instead of the existing system where citizens vote for a mostly toothless parliament and policy remains the preserve of an elite centred on the al-Khalifa dynasty which has ruled Bahrain for 200 years.
The main Shi‘ite opposition group Wefaq said in a statement the reshuffle fell far short of people’s demands and called for the entire government to step down.
Mushaimaa’s Haq party is more radical than Wefaq, from which it split in 2006 when Wefaq contested a parliamentary election, effectively legitimising it.
Opposition groups want to see a commitment to an elected government instead of one appointed by the king before they enter any dialogue. Before the reshuffle, about two-thirds of the cabinet were members of the ruling family.
Sheikh Ahmed bin Attiatullah al-Khalifa, minister for cabinet affairs, was replaced by Kamal Ahmed, a former official at the Economic Development Board, a body used by Bahrain’s crown prince to implement economic reforms.
BNA also said that the National Oil and Gas Authority (NOGA) would be transformed into a ministry of energy headed by the head of NOGA Abdul-Hussain bin Ali Mirza. His portfolio would include electricity and water affairs.
Reporting by Frederik Richter; writing by Alistair Lyon; editing by Andrew Dobbie