“Some try to manipulate our demands, to make them Shi’ite demands. This is not true. To build up our political reforms together, Shi’ite and Sunni, which will benefit all Bahrainis,” said Sheikh Ali Salman, head of the Wefaq opposition group which organized the event. “We will continue peacefully and we will continue our peaceful demonstrations,” he said, as the crowd roared back: “Peaceful, peaceful!”
The rally will likely be seen as a show of strength by Wefaq, Bahrain’s leading opposition group, as it heads to a national dialogue called by the king for next month.
Protesters waving Bahraini flags spilled out into the streets and dozens watched from nearby rooftops. People drove in from around the city, causing traffic jams of more than 2 km long. State helicopters buzzed over crowds raising signs that read “The nation is for everyone.”
Opposition figures more than 10,000 people attended the rally.
Meanwhile, barbed wire and armored vehicles guard Pearl Roundabout in Manama, where protesters camped out for about six weeks, to prevent it from becoming a focal point for protests again. But protesters in Saar described a new sense of optimism. “I think the crowd speaks for itself,” said Fadel, carrying his small son, wrapped in a Bahraini flag. “Hopefully, this will be the next Pearl Roundabout.”
King Hamad bin Isa has called for a new dialogue with opposition groups starting in July. Wefaq said it would organize more rallies until then, and may plan a march for next week. “The dialogue should offer real political solutions; it should not be cosmetic talk. We are serious about this dialogue,” Salman said in his 30-minute speech. “They say the Shi’ites want a special government for themselves. No, we want a civilian state and an elected government for all… This is what we demanded in Pearl Roundabout and it is what we will again call for here.”
The government appointed its parliament speaker on Saturday to lead the national dialogue, the state news agency said, but the opposition said Crown Prince Salman – seen as leader of a moderate wing of the ruling family – should head the talks.
Khalifa al-Dhahrani, speaker of the Council of Representatives, said he hoped to bring “all parties concerned with matters of the state” into the dialogue.
Wefaq’s Khalil al-Marzooq said Dhahrani was opposed to many of the opposition’s core demands. “He has previously objected to discussing reforms over elections, constitutional amendments and the issue of discrimination,” he said. “Genuine dialogue must be with the prince or the king because we need to discuss the central issues which are between the people and the ruling family.”