Bahrain’s king orders political prisoners free

Egypt replaces 11 Mubarak-era ministers; Jordan’s Islamist opposition to resume protests.

Bahrain Protester 311 (photo credit: Associated Press)
Bahrain Protester 311
(photo credit: Associated Press)
Tens of thousands of red-and-white draped flag-waving protesters flooded Bahrain’s capital on Tuesday, in a massive show of force against the beleaguered monarchy as the king made another concession to the marchers – a promise to release an unspecified number of political prisoners.
Political change continued to spread across the Arab world on Tuesday, as thousands rallied for reform in Iraqi Kurdistan, Islamists in Jordan vowed to resume demonstrations, and in Egypt the transitional government swore in 11 new ministers.
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Determined demonstrators took over Bahrain’s capital, Manama, for the day, circling the Bahrain Mall and the city’s financial district, symbols of the country’s recent prosperity, in a march to the heart of the protest at Pearl Square.
“Egypt, Tunisia, are we any different?” marchers chanted, calling for the Sunni rulers they accuse of discriminating against the island’s Shi’ite majority to fall as the presidents of two other Arab countries have in recent weeks.
Helicopters hovered overhead but the security forces offered no resistance after opening fire on protesters last week, and the size of the event rivaled any of the major demonstrations so far in the eightday uprising.
The decree issued earlier on Tuesday by Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa covers several Shi’ite activists accused of plotting against the state. It underlined how much the absolute rulers of Bahrain want to kick-start reform talks with opposition leaders, and the huge march in a nation of half a million citizens showed how much they need to.
Click for full Jpost coverage of turmoil in the Middle East
Click for full Jpost coverage of turmoil in the Middle East
The exact number of prisoners to be freed remains unclear, a government spokeswoman said. But the inmates will include some of the 25 Shi’ite activists on trial for allegedly plotting against the monarchy, a leading member of Bahrain’s Shi’ite opposition, Abdul Jalili Khalil, told The Associated Press.
He called the prisoner release “a good step” and a “positive gesture.”
Two of those in the case are being tried in absentia, including prominent opposition leader Hassan Meshaima, who has been in self-exile in London since last year. Meshaima’s return to Bahrain was imminent, his supporters said.
The activist’s presence could bolster opposition forces seeking a harder line against the Bahrain dynasty, including some who have called for the complete ouster of the king and the family that has ruled for more than 200 years.
Meshaima’s group, known as Haq, is considered more radical than the main Shi’ite political bloc that has taken a central role in the revolt and is seeking the establishment of a constitutional monarchy.
A small group of Bahraini army officers joined the ranks of protesters to demand reforms and the resignation of the government.
They condemned the soldiers who shot at protesters on Friday.
“What we did to the people was not heroic,” said Yeussif Najri, an army officer.
“We ask the people to forgive us, we ask the people for forgiveness.”
The government said the overall death toll was seven from last week’s clashes. Previous reports from opposition groups and hospital officials in the past week set the death toll at eight, but the government tally now appears accurate.
The government also said 25 people were hospitalized, but it’s unclear what degree of injury authorities used to arrive at that figure. Opposition groups place the figure at more than 200. Associated Press journalists at the main state hospital saw many dozens of people being treated.
In Iraq, 5,000 protesters marched in the northern city of Sulaimaniyah demanding political reforms and an investigation of the fatal shootings of two protesters last week. The peaceful rally was a sign of growing frustration with the tight control of two ruling parties over the economy and politics in the self-ruled Kurdish region.
In Egypt, military rulers swore in a cabinet with 11 new ministers, a nod to the protest movement that ousted president Hosni Mubarak. Three former members of the Mubarak regime retained senior posts despite Tuesday’s reshuffle.
The move comes as the military leadership overseeing the country’s transition is trying to assure Egyptians that it is committed to democratic reforms.
However, the decision to keep Prime Minister Ahmed Shafiq, Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit and Justice Minister Mamdouh Marie – three former Mubarak’s loyalists – in their post drew criticism from youth activists who helped launch the uprising on January 25.
Muhammad Abbas, a member of the Egypt Youth Coalition, described the changes as “patchwork.” He called for swift, comprehensive changes.
He said the youth groups hope to draw 1 million to a rally in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, the center of the uprising, on Friday, and will urge them to stay overnight. “We have to keep the pressure until all our demands are met,” he said.
The new cabinet includes independents and members of opposition parties for the first time in decades, pushing out the longtime ministers of oil, social justice and labor.
The new cabinet also included two Coptic Christians, including an ex-lawmaker.
Among the new names were Monier Fakhri Abdel Nour, a Coptic member of the Wafd opposition party as minister of tourism, filling a position that has been vacant since Zuhair Garana was jailed on corruption charges. Top leftist Tagammu party member Gouda Abdel Khaleq was named minister of social justice.
Warning of new mass protests, the young activists who led the movement have pressed the military council to form a broad-based government that excludes Mubarak’s cronies, release political prisoners, abolish laws on political parties and allow free and fair election.
The military council already has dissolved parliament, which was stacked with members of Mubarak’s National Democratic party, and suspended the constitution.
In Jordan, the country’s powerful Muslim Brotherhood vowed to resume protests, saying the government had not kept a promise of speedy reforms. The announcement puts added pressure on King Abdullah II to give up some of his sweeping powers, but is not seen as a threat to his rule. Opposition figures have called on the king to surrender the authority to appoint cabinets and dissolve parliament.
Under pressure from street protests inspired by uprisings roiling the Arab world, Abdullah instructed his government earlier this month to enact “quick and real” political reforms, allowing greater public say in the decision-making.
However, protesters say little has been done so far to meet their demands, such as changing an election law that favors the king’s loyalists. The Brotherhood is Jordan’s largest opposition group.
The movement and its political wing, the Islamic Action Front, had refrained from participating in protests for the past two weeks, saying they wanted to give newly appointed Prime Minister Marouf al-Bakhit a chance to carry out reforms.
However, Brotherhood spokesman Jamil Abu Bakr said on Tuesday that the government installed on February 9 has not carried out the promised reforms.
He condemned attacks on protesters last Friday in Amman, which saw eight wounded in the first violence in weeks of demonstrations.
Abu Bakr claimed that “thugs” were used or hired to carry out “aggression by groups that do not want reforms.” He urged the government to take action against those behind the attack and move quickly toward reform.