Revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia that toppled reactionary autocratic regimes are likely to result in governments that become anti-Christian and anti-Jewish. These uprisings against entrenched family interests were motivated by the economic aspirations of the unemployed/underemployed educated youth rather than political ideology. In the wake of change in the ruling status quo, Islamist groups that are organized have the potential to become dominant rather than nascent and inchoate political parties. One of these religious groups, Salafists, could become a force for the implementation of focused Shari law in Egypt. For more about this virulent form of Islam, click here.
Many Fear Revival of Islamist Party in Tunisia
By SCOTT SAYARE
Published: May 14, 2011
TUNIS — Accused as subversives or terrorists, they bore the repressive brunt of the Tunisian dictator’s reign — two decades of torture, prison or exile.
But since the dictator, President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, fled in January, the Islamists of the once-banned Ennahda Party have emerged from obscurity, returned from abroad and established themselves as perhaps the most powerful political force in post-revolution Tunisia.
Despite repeated assurances of their tolerance and moderation, their rise has touched off frenzied rumors of attacks on unveiled women and artists, of bars and brothels sacked by party goons, of plots to turn the country into a caliphate. With crucial elections scheduled for July 24, Ennahda’s popularity and organizational strength are of growing concern to many activists and politicians, who worry that the secular revolution in this moderate state — the revolt that galvanized the Arab Spring — might see the birth of a conservative Islamic government.
And just as the protests in Tunis heralded the revolt in Cairo, analysts are looking to Tunisia as a bellwether for the more broadly influential developments to come in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood enjoys similar advantages and has stirred similar misgivings.
“How do you want us to go up against Ennahda?” asked an exasperated strategist for the Republican Alliance, a secular party. “They’re prepared to do anything.”
With years of organizational experience, a vast membership and decades of credibility as a sworn enemy of Mr. Ben Ali, Ennahda has proved to be better-equipped than any other party — most have existed only for a matter of weeks — to step into the political void. The Republican Alliance strategist called for the elections to be delayed.
“July 24 is a favor to Ennahda,” he said, requesting anonymity for fear of attacks by the party’s supporters. “It’s suicide.”
With Ennahda in power, he said, “It would be Iran.”…
…Polling suggests that Ennahda — the renaissance, in Arabic — enjoys broader support than any of the country’s other 60-odd authorized political parties. The party’s weekly newspaper, The Dawn, resumed publication in April after a 20-year hiatus and now sells about 70,000 copies per week, party officials say.
Sawiris warns of Islamist violence in Egypt
By Heba Saleh in Cairo
Published: May 12 2011 14:05 | Last updated: May 13 2011 02:47
Naguib Sawiris, the Egyptian telecoms magnate, has warned of further violence between Muslims and Christians in the country unless the perpetrators of recent sectarian attacks are punished.
Mr Sawiris, a Coptic Christian who belongs to one of the biggest business families in Egypt, told the Financial Times he was worried about deteriorating sectarian relations and a rise in the political influence of Islamist groups.
Crime Wave in Egypt Has People Afraid, Even the Police
By DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK
Published: May 12, 2011
CAIRO — The neighbors watched helplessly from behind locked gates as an exchange of gunfire rang out at the police station. Then about 80 prisoners burst through the station’s doors — some clad only in underwear, many brandishing guns, machetes, even a fire extinguisher — as the police fled.
“The police are afraid,” said Mohamed Ismail, 30, a witness. “I am afraid to leave my neighborhood.”
Georgie Anne Geyer
MIDEAST REVOLUTIONS MAY EXCHANGE ONE TYRANNY FOR ANOTHER
WASHINGTON — Since the “Arab Awakening” struck the world this winter with the possibility of newly free and democratized states in the ossified Middle East, many in the Western world have lived in hope. Can it be, the former nay-sayers have dared to ask, that Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and others have developed to the point where their citizens can live together in mutual respect?
The answer to that crucial question seemed surely to be “Yes,” as they all “lived together” so exuberantly in Cairo’s Tahrir Square. Yet now, as those joyful days have turned into more serious weeks and sobering months, one problem in particular is beginning to darken those halcyon days: the persecution of Christians.
That Christians should now be the subject of not only rank intolerance, but also active persecution in countries from Iraq to Egypt, having already suffered through epochs of intolerance and violence throughout the Middle East and North Africa, may at first seem counterintuitive.
Christians, after all, have lived mostly peacefully alongside Muslims in Saddam Hussein’s miserably cruel Iraq since the 1970s; and, while there have been problems in Egypt, Christians lived for the most part peaceful lives under now-disgraced former President Hosni Mubarak.
In Iraq, Saddam’s leading spokesman was a Christian, Tarik Aziz, a sophisticated and worldly man respected by foreign journalists for his general honesty. In Egypt, many of the leading intellects of the Mubarak administration, which began with Anwar Sadat’s assassination in 1981, were Christians, including U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali. In Iraq you could find operating with few problems ancient Christian faiths such as one that worshiped John the Baptist and the Chaldean Assyrian Christians; while in Egypt, the ancient Coptic Church, stemming from the time of Christ, still has adherents of between 7 and 14 million among Egypt’s population of 84 million.
But not all is respect and tolerance. A New Year’s Day bomb attack on a Coptic church in Alexandria left 23 worshippers dead, an attack that might be compared for its ferocity to the Baghdad attack on a Chaldean church on Oct. 31. As of this writing, Muslim mobs in Cairo are still attacking Christians, with 12 already dead and 200 wounded, after the burning of two Christian churches in the last few days.
Indeed, the dismal threats are growing so rapidly, and with so few controls, that French President Nicolas Sarkozy recently said in a speech to Coptic Christians in France that Muslim attacks amount to a “form of ethnic cleansing.” Former Lebanon President Amin Gemayel said the attacks are evidence of Muslim terrorists committing genocide against Christians. And the Vatican has predicted that, should the violence continue, there will be a mass flight of Christians from the Middle East.
What few analysts are putting together is the unforeseen fact that Christians, as well as many small religious faiths, had their freedom and their security secured by the worst tyrants, like Saddam Hussein, and the middling autocrats, like Mubarak, and their “secular” regimes. But now, as there are the beginnings of individual freedom in the Middle East, religion against religion violence is erupting — especially radical Islam against Christianity.
In Egypt, the perpetrators of the arson against the Virgin Mary Church in a poor suburb of Cairo were, by the new government’s account, “Salafists,” or followers of a Muslim heresy close to al-Qaida. Salafism preaches a hard-line Islamic sharia law that stemmed originally from the strictest form of Saudi Wahhabism.
Under President Mubarak, the Salafists were quiet and stayed out of politics because the regime gave them freedom to proselytize if they were non-political — but now they have rushed into politics, going far ahead of the more traditional Muslim Brotherhood, which is the group everyone feared coming to the fore after this winter’s revolution.
Egypt is so turned in on itself at this point that it will be difficult to have any real idea of the power of the groups and individuals at play until elections now planned for September; but this Christian-Muslim conflict is the first real key to what is going on underneath the shouts for “Egypt for all Egyptians” on the streets of Cairo. And there are many astute warnings, too.
Jonathan Head of BBC News in Cairo reminded his listeners that “often post-revolutionary environments allow conflicts to flare up, not die down.” Emad Gad of the Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies has publicly accused the interim military government of foolishness in allowing “3,000 Islamic militants, supporters of bin Laden, to come back here without any investigation. Now we are all suffering from this.”
Indeed, the new government ended the blacklist of jihadist Muslims, allowing them to return from the harsh exile imposed by Mubarak.
The fears of many that the secularism of the Egyptian state is now being threatened by Islamic fanatics is not at all without reason. The fanatics are simply not the old Muslim Brotherhood, but newer and more threatening versions of those men, who at one point 60 years ago burned down a third of Cairo.
The entire Middle East is in the throes of tremendous change — and it is not always the change people expect.
Reversals challenge hope of Arab Spring
We’re at least 50 years away from the use of the words Freedom and Democracy in an Arab context. Is not happening in Egypt, is the question of the day in Libya, and for sure it is not happening in countries with Kings and strong men who have the military on their side. But we can pretend can’t we? Otherwise how can we hurriedly bestow on our President the mantle of the person who brought Freedom and Democracy to the Arab world .
5/13/2011 4:54:47 PM EDT
Posted at 05:43 PM ET, 05/17/2011
Bashar al-Assad’s endgame: Can a bloodbath be avoided?
By David Ignatius
Syria’s Bashar al-Assad is becoming increasingly isolated and vulnerable as major nations conclude that his regime cannot survive. The newly urgent question is how to negotiate a transition arrangement that will avert a bloodbath there between Assad’s ruling Alawite sect and the Sunni majority.
The governments of France, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, which at times in the past have been supportive of Assad, are all said to have concluded that the Assad regime cannot survive the repercussions of the violence it loosed on Syrian protesters in recent weeks. Turkey, too, which initially seemed eager to broker a compromise for Assad, also appears less supportive.
France, which a decade ago was Assad’s champion, is now said to have concluded that major powers, including Paris and Washington, should signal publicly that it is time for Assad to leave office. But the White House Tuesday appeared to be weighing whether to make one last attempt at brokering the kind of reforms that Assad has said for years he wanted but has never implemented.
Inquiry and Analysis |688|May 13, 2011
The Resistance Camp Abandons Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad and His Regime
By: B. Chernitsky*
The continuing unrest in Syria that began on March 15, 2011, has undermined Syria’s relations with its traditional allies and intensified tensions between it and its opponents. The international criticism of the Syrian regime’s treatment of the protesters was echoed by elements from the resistance camp, such as Al-Jazeera and other media in Qatar. Even elements in Iran criticized Syria’s suppression of the unrest, despite that fact that the Iranian regime employs similar methods to suppress its own opposition.
The London-based daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi, whose editor, ‘Abd Al-Bari ‘Atwan, has consistently supported the resistance, published numerous articles condemning the regime of Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad. Turkey, which in recent years has tightened its relations with Syria and Iran, was also harsh in its criticism of the Syrian regime, and Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said that the suppression of protesters in Syria was beginning to resemble Saddam Hussein’s brutality against the Kurds in Halabja in 1988 and the violence in Hama, Syria, in 1982.On the other hand, Hamas, which has the backing of the Syrian regime, is continuing to officially support it, though reports in the Arab press indicate that there is some tension between the two sides.
At the same time, the unrest in Syria has widened the rift between Syria and its opponents in the moderate Arab camp, particularly Lebanon’s March 14 Forces, which have been accused of active involvement in organizing protests in Syria. Syria and its supporters have made similar accusations against “the Palestinians” – meaning the PLO – as well as the Jordanians and the Saudis.
Saudi Arabia, which belongs to the moderate Arab camp, and which, in an historic move in January 2009, reconciled with Syria in an attempt to pry it away from the resistance camp, has refrained from officially criticizing the Syrian regime, while the Saudi media have limited their coverage of events there. However, the London-based Saudi dailies, particularly Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, which is owned by Prince Salman bin ‘Abd Al-’Aziz, have taken a clear and unprecedentedly harsh anti-Syria line.
Qatar – From Staunch Ally to Harsh Critic
When the Syrian unrest first began, the Qatari media largely refrained from taking any position on the matter, but as the Syrian regime’s violent suppression of the protests escalated, Qatari editorials began condemning Syria’s actions and calling on the regime there to quickly implement fundamental reforms. Al-Jazeera also expanded its coverage of the events, and some of its analysts, hosts, and correspondents harshly criticized the Syrian regime. Prominent among these was International Union of Muslim Scholars head Sheikh Yousef Al-Qaradhawi, host of the channel’s “Sharia and Life” show, who expressed support for the protesters and called for the removal of the Ba’th regime there. Other senior Al-Jazeera staffers criticizing the Syrian regime were former Israeli MP and senior analyst ‘Azmi Bishara and Israel/Palestinian bureau chief Walid Al-’Omari.
The Syrian media, for its part, reported on Assad’s anger at Qatar’s emir following a meeting between Assad and the emir’s emissary, Qatari Prime Minister Hamad bin Jassem, in which the latter had not expressed support for the Syrian regime. It was also reported that Assad had said no further meetings would be held between the two countries until Qatar apologized for Sheikh Al-Qaradhawi’s statements. Pro-Syrian Lebanese newspapers stated that Qatar, formerly affiliated with the resistance camp, had switched sides and was now working against the Syrian regime.
Qatari Editorials: Syria’s Continued Oppression Will Lead to a Regime Change
In an editorial, the Qatari daily Al-Arab explained that the Syrian people had chosen freedom, and that the Syrian regime must realize that it could not eradicate its own people but could only eradicate the oppressive regime itself: “At first, the Ba’th regime believed that it was disconnected from everything that was happening around it in the Arab world, a mistake made previously by Hosni Mubarak’s regime in Egypt and Al-Qadhafi’s regime in Libya. Furthermore, [it] had pinned its hopes [for survival] on its years of oppression and maltreatment of the Syrian people, and on ongoing media [brainwashing] and ideological terrorism about conspiracies against the [Syrian] resistance regime… But reality has refuted the false claims of the Damascus regime, and the Syrian people has proven that its liberty is more [important] than anything…
“Bashar Al-Assad and his regime had a real opportunity to end the protests that started in Der’a, had they descended from their ivory tower and listened to the people, and had they used a modern approach in handling them, instead of an outmoded one [like the one used by] the regime of Assad senior when it killed some 40,000 residents of Hama and exiled twice that many in 1982. All the people wanted was the fulfillment of the promise of reform that Assad junior made in 2000 and nothing more… The Syrian regime must know that oppressing peoples will not eradicate them or erase their footprint. The one who is eradicated is always the oppressor of the people – and nothing remains of him but curses.”
The Qatari daily Al-Sharq wrote in an editorial that the era of the dictatorial regimes had passed from the world, regardless of whether such regimes belong to the moderate Arab camp or the resistance camp: “The security approach in dealing with protests will only spark popular revolution, and will give [the protesters] yet more reasons to continue in the path that will lead only to regime change.
“Many lessons can be learned from the recent events in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen… [namely,] that the time of rule by security apparatuses, totalitarianism, dictatorship, and the single-party [regime] is over, [and] the only way to deal with the people is to listen to their familiar demands and to comply with them in the best and fastest way possible. These revolutions by the Arab peoples that are sweeping through the region from East to West will not skip over regimes, be they ‘moderate’ or ‘resistance’ [regimes]…”
Sheikh Yousef Al-Qaradhawi: The Ba’th Party Should Not Rule Syria
International Union of Muslim Scholars head Sheikh Yousef Al-Qaradhawi expressed support for the Syrian people’s protests against the Assad regime, as he had previously supported the protests in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya. In his Friday sermon of March 25, 2011, Al-Qaradhawi called the measures declared by Assad insufficient and added that the Ba’th party should no longer rule Syria. He said that Assad himself was a prisoner of the Alawi community, and that this was the reason for his failure to institute changes:
“…Syria cannot be left out of the history of the Arab nation. Some have said that Syria is safe from these revolutions. How can it possibly be safe from these revolutions? Is it not part of the nation? Is it not part of the law of Allah… In fact, it is even more in need of a revolution than other countries…
“Now they are trying to downplay the crime… The Ba’th Party has come to an end throughout the Arab world. All these ancient parties are a thing of the past – the RCD in Tunisia, the NDP in Egypt… These parties are over and done with. The constitutional courts annulled them…
“How come the Higher National Committee of the Ba’th Party still rules Syria? Who the hell is the Committee of the Arab Ba’th Party? Is Syria an estate that you inherited from your father or grandfather, so that you could steer the political activity and control the emergency law? These people are backward – they live in a different age from us. We live in the era of the Arab revolutions…
“The problem of Dr. Bashar Al-Assad is that although he is intellectual, open-minded, and young, and could have done a lot, he is held prisoner by his entourage and by the [Alawi] sect. He cannot get rid of them. He sees with their eyes and hears with their ears…”
Following this sermon, Assad advisor Buthayna Sha’ban called Al-Qaradhawi’s statements tantamount to “calling for civil strife [fitna].”The Syrian daily Al-Watan wrote that while Syrians once enjoyed Fridays, they now feared for their lives and the lives of their children because of Al-Qaradhawi’s inciting sermons, which led to fitna and killing. The Damascus University law faculty even filed a lawsuit against Al-Qaradhawi for his incitement against Syria. In his sermon the following Friday, Al-Qaradhawi mocked the lawsuit and further criticized the Syrian regime: “I will never fear those who sue me, and I will continue to tell the truth. They are judging me for harming the country’s good name, but a country whose name is harmed by a word is… a very weak country…
“This is a time of change, and those who do not change will by trampled by [the people]. These regimes have enslaved the people… and when they asked for freedom, they were shot at… The Muslim countries today are backward due to repression and persecution…”
In another sermon, Al-Qaradhawi referred to Syrian Religious Endowment Minister Muhammad ‘Abd Al-Sattar as “a stupid fool” for claiming that Al-Qaradhawi was interfering with Syria’s internal affairs. He added that the Koran and the Sunna grant the International Union of Muslim Scholars the authority to interfere in Syria’s affairs, as well as in the affairs of any country that oppresses its people.
Al-Jazeera TV Israel/Palestinian Bureau Chief: Assad Is Obsolete
Walid Al-’Omari, the Al-Jazeera Israel/Palestinian bureau chief, wrote in the Jerusalem daily Al-Quds that Assad was acting like an outmoded ruler, and that he seems to have missed the chance to salvage his regime by implementing reforms: “…Apparently, the Syrian president does not yet realize that the era of perpetual [autocracy] is over, and that the [era of the] single [ruling] party and autocrat is inappropriate for the new age and the new Arab – who, before anything else, longs for freedom and dignity.
“The young Assad has preferred to act like an old and obsolete ruler… instead of confidently leading the revolution of young people in the ‘Arab Spring.’ The young Assad does not realize that he cannot base his handling of the protests in Syria [on the claim that they are a foreign] conspiracy, without presenting solutions to the basic demands for freedom and dignity…
“There are many signs that [Assad] has missed the chance to save himself and his land through real reforms that would satisfy the aspirations of the people – who, following his first speech [after the unrest began], called to him, ‘The people want regime reform!’ and who, following his second speech, called, ‘The people want to topple the regime!’ How different these two demands are!”
‘Azmi Bishara: Syria Has Created a ‘Cartel Regime’
Former Israeli Knesset member ‘Azmi Bishara, a leading Al-Jazeera political analyst specializing in the recent Arab revolutions who, in the past, was known to have good relations with the Syrian regime, also criticized its handling of the demonstrations and rejected the claims of an anti-Syria conspiracy:
“The people are demanding reforms. How come the people’s demand for reforms is met with such a cruel attack? Even demands for reform within the establishment or from Syria’s friends are met with a cruel response. How can we believe that you want reform, if you accuse those demanding reforms of being collaborators [with foreign enemies]?
“Let’s assume that there is indeed a foreign conspiracy. All the people who stood by Syria when it really faced foreign conspiracies are now demanding democratic reforms. Let’s assume that there is a foreign conspiracy. Does that mean people are not entitled to their rights?! What does this have to do with foreign conspiracies? Even if I prove that there is a foreign conspiracy – does that mean people are not entitled to their rights?! The Syrian people is struggling for its civil rights…”
On another occasion, Bishara said that Syria had created a “cartel regime” that ensured the continued rule of a party that was politically and ideologically bankrupt. He added that the Syriansecurity apparatuses were now interfering in aspects of the citizens’ lives that had nothing to do with security.
Bishara pointed out that Assad had inherited his position from his father, “which is unacceptable in a republic.” He said that the Syrian people had been willing to give him a chance because he presented new and refreshing slogans never before heard from the Syrian regime; additionally, he had spoken with the Syrian intelligentsia and diaspora about fighting corruption. But, said Bishara, not only had Assad failed to fight corruption, corruption had grown, along with the repression of the intellectuals.
Criticism in Iran of Syria’s Suppression of Protests
Besides Iranian claims that the protests in Syria were a U.S.-Israeli-Saudi plot aimed at driving a wedge between the Syrian people and the regime and sabotaging the resistance axis, there has also been Iranian criticism of the suppression of the unrest in Syria as well as calls by Iranian officials for reform, out of fear that the events in Syria would have a negative impact on the alliance between the two countries and on Iran’s standing in the region. It should also be noted that the U.N. Security Council has reported that Iran is violating a U.S. arms embargo on Syria, shipping weapons to the Assad regime purportedly to be used against the protestors.
The Iranian daily Kayhan, which is affiliated with Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, claimed that the Syrian security forces’ harsh treatment of the protestors was a mistake because it only caused the unrest to intensify and spread. It said: “The Syrian police and security forces’ policy vis-à-vis the protestors was brutal and caused fatalities. This shows that the Syrian security apparatuses do not have the insight required to deal with limited popular demonstrations – and this is what caused the demonstrations that started in Der’a six weeks ago, which had 10,000-15,000 participants, to spread to other places.”
The Iranian foreign ministry expressed support for reforms in Syria that would improve the citizens’ lives, saying that the efforts to implement reforms were a great responsibility requiring tolerance on the part of both the people and the regime, and that, if successful, these reforms would be a great victory for Syria.
Earlier, former Iranian ambassador to Lebanon Mohammad Irani assessed that the Assad regime would be undermined if reforms were not carried out, and warned that the events in Syria could harm its alliance with Iran: “The changes in the Arab world have so far worked in Iran’s favor – but this trend was reversed by the changes in Syria, which has strategic relations with Iran, and which has always been [Iran's] gate to the Arab world…
“With regard to the reforms… it seems that the situation in Syria cannot be restored to what it was before. The people’s demands are not many, and the Assad regime will be forced to comply with them. In this way, the internal threats to his regime will be turned into opportunities to advance a national reconciliation… The main demand of the people is the immediate lifting of the emergency [law] that has been in force in Syria for more than 48 years… Rescinding this law as soon as possible will not create any special problem for Assad… [and] will comply with most [of the demands], enabling him to continue to rule.”
The moderate-conservative website Asr-e Iran termed the events in Syria “a massacre,” and complained that Iran’s censorship of the media coverage of the Syrian regime’s “massacre and repression” was harsher than that of Syria itself.
Al-Quds Al-Arabi: Support for the Resistance Does Not Preclude Reform
The London-based daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi , whose editor, ‘Abd Al-Bari ‘Atwan, is affiliated with the resistance camp in the Arab world, also criticized the Assad regime. At the onset of the unrest in Syria, ‘Atwan wrote that he hoped Syria, as the last bastion of the resistance, would swiftly implement reforms. In a subsequent article, however, he expressed doubt that reform, no matter how swift, would help save the regime, and stressed that if forced to choose between the regime and the people, he would support the latter’s demand for democracy and freedom, explaining that an oppressed people cannot liberate territory:
“The Syrian regime will not leave easily… What is certain is that the Syrian people, like all other Arab peoples, cannot retreat once its journey towards democratic change, with [all] its martyrs, has commenced. Those who are demanding reforms in Syria are not American and Zionist agents, as the regime and its mouthpieces are claiming in a deliberate smear attempt. The martyrs of Der’a… do not even know where the U.S. is. Indeed, most of them never left the city, not even tovisit Damascus.
“[Syria's] support for the Lebanese resistance and its hosting of the secretaries-general of the Palestinian factions in Damascus, after the other Arab capitals slammed the door in their faces, are praiseworthy positions… but I do not see how these positions preclude a response to the Syrian people’s demands for reform. And if there is such a preclusion, I would prefer that the Syrian regime put off its support for the Palestinian people and the Palestinian issue [until] it complies with its own people’s demands for freedoms, for fighting corruption, for establishing elected legislative institutions, and for creating infrastructure for a regime with integrity. The oppressed peoples cannot liberate plundered land, because dictators’ armies have [never] won a war…”
Pro-Syrian Lebanese Media Disappointed by Assad’s Conduct
Along with blaming the Lebanese Al-Mustaqbal faction for fanning the flames of the protests in Syria, pro-Syrian Lebanese newspapers published several articles calling on Assad to immediately enact reforms. In his column in the Al-Safir daily, Talal Salman wrote: “…For Lebanon’s security and unity, in addition to my concern for Syria and for its special status and role in our region, I appeal to Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad to end this downward spiral of events, to immediately make good on his promise for reforms, and to authorize critical measures, before these violent developments are exploited in order to thwart plans for the future by those who believe in a security approach…”
In his column in Al-Akhbar, Ghassan Sa’ud expressed his disappointment in Assad’s March 30, 2011 address, in which he made no concrete promises:“…Most [Syrian] residents expected a speech [promising] change, but did not get one… The weak point of the speech was that it exposed the conflict the regime is facing: It wants to say everything and says nothing, to do everything and does nothing… During Assad’s speech, you could have heard a pin drop in Damascus… but afterwards, Damascus seemed just the same… Many did not understand a thing, and many understood and would have preferred not to…”
Al-Akhbar board chairman Ibrahim Al-Amin, in addition to reiterating accusations of foreign intervention in Syria, stressed that the Syrian regime could not ignore the wave of reforms sweeping the Arab world. Hinting at the suppression of the demonstrations, he said, “The complications that accompanied the wave of protests attested directly to the true danger… the civil war that could tear apart Syria and its people… “
Saudi Clerics Support Syrian Protestors
The Saudi government press barely addressed the events in Syria, and failed to respond to Syrian accusations of Saudi involvement in the Syrian events published in Syrian and pro-Syrian media.
However, 45 Saudi clerics issued a communiqué openly expressing support for the Syrian protests and condemning “the despotic Syrian regime.” Prominent among them were Sheikh Nasser Al-’Omar and Dr. Muhammad Bin ‘Abdallah Al-Habadan, an associate of ‘Abd Al-Rahman Al-Barrak, the extremist sheikh and imam of the Al-’Izz bin ‘Abd Al-Salam Mosque in Riyadh, who opposed the protests in Saudi Arabia and was among those who called on the Saudi king to enact “Islamic reforms” in the kingdom.
The communiqué stated that the Syrian regime was committing “horrific crimes against its defenseless Muslim people, who demanded their legitimate and usurped rights throughout the meager years, when they lived under oppression and deprivation at the hands of this regime, which is still torturing, killing, and arresting its own men, women, and children in the most heinous fashion.” The communiqué called upon all Muslim countries “to prevent this abominable extermination, according to the divine commandment [which requires] every Muslim to help his brethren.” It urged the Syrian military and security apparatuses “to stand with the people and protect them from the aggression of the tyrant [Assad], and not to obey his orders to commit crimes against these helpless people.” As for the Muslim public, the clerics urged them to help their Syrian brethren, “every man according to his abilities.” Finally, the clerics called on the Syrians, whom they called “jihad fighters,” “to find shelter in the shadow of Allah during this crisis.”
Muhammad Al-Habadan also published an article in which he wished the Syrian revolution success and expressed hope for the departure of the Ba’th regime, calling on the Syrian security forces to join ranks with the protestors. Al-Habadan cited 13th century Islamic scholar Ibn Taymiyya, who regarded the Alawis (who were known then as Nusairis) as greater heretics than even the Jews and Christians: “Those who understand the danger of the ruling party in Syria understand the greatness and stature of these martyrs [i.e., the Syrian protesters who have been killed]. This Nusairi party [i.e., the Syrian Ba'th party] is one of the most dangerous regimes in the region…
“This blessed silent revolution against this regime expresses support for the religion of Allah, for the oppressed, the missing who have been [incarcerated] in prisons for years, and the Syrian diaspora worldwide… Therefore, it must be supported and assisted by all legitimate means.”
In a video posted on Youtube, senior Saudi cleric Saleh Al-Luhaidan expressed similar sentiments. He called the Syrian regime “sinful, indecent, dangerous, and heretical,” called for jihad to overthrow “Bashar Al-Assad the Nusairi.”
Saudi London Dailies: The Protests Are Authentic; Syria Has Contributed Nothing to the Resistance
The London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat provided widespread coverage of the events in Syria, and its editor, Tariq Alhomayed, took up a clear anti-Syrian line. It should be noted that the daily provided no coverage of the anti-regime protests staged in Saudi Arabia.
In an editorial, Alhomayed wrote that the Syrian protests were authentic and that they had been triggered by Syrian oppression: “…Everyone knows that the Syrians’ demands are real, [especially] in the country that has imposed oppressive emergency laws and deprived [its citizens of] freedoms the longest. What is more, the Syrian president himself is still promising reforms…” In another article, Alhomayed wrote that “Syria is the most prominent example [among the Arab countries] of an imbalance between the minority and the majority.”
Alhomayed dismissed the Iranian claim that the unrest in Syria was the product of a U.S.-Zionist plot against the country for its support of the resistance, saying that Syria, like its allies in the resistance camp, has taken no real action against Israel: “Iran and its allies are ignoring the fact that the Arab citizen is fed up with false slogans and lies. Nowadays, all the demands in the Arab world are national and internal. What resistance are the Iranians speaking of? Syria has not killed even a single dove in the resistance campaign in the last three decades. In fact, it did not even respond to Israeli aggression on its soil. It always reserves the right to respond without actually responding. As for Hizbullah’s weapons in Lebanon, they were turned on the Lebanese themselves, especially the Sunnis in Beirut, and [were used to] terrorize other ethnic groups. [After all,] it is [Hizbullah Secretary-General Hassan] Nasrallah who is now appointing the Sunni prime minister in Lebanon! Even Hamas oppresses [Palestinians] who protest against it in Gaza. As for Iran, it too… has not fired a single bullet to protect Arab blood. We all remember how [Iranian Supreme Leader] Ali Khamenei forbade Iranians from going to Gaza during the recent war [there].”
‘Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed, director-general of Al-Arabiya TV and former editor of Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, wrote in the daily that the situation in Der’a would only intensify the protests against the regime. He added that Syria was suffering from a leadership crisis and that the regime had missed its opportunity to implement reforms in the country, saying: “The tragic situation in Der’a shows that the Syrian authorities do not want to end the city’s demonstrations; rather, they want to set an example, to make other protestors across the republic learn the hard way. All reports confirm this because the situation in this small city is extremely dangerous; streets are littered with corpses, patients are left without medication, and hundreds of youths are being detained in camps. Der’a is deprived of water and suffers electricity blackouts; food and medicine are denied access into the city, whilst shops, groceries and even pharmacies have all been looted by the regime’s thugs. The Syrian regime is definitely mistaken, for Der’a will indeed be an example, but the Syrian people will ‘learn the hard way’ to fight the regime, rather than fear it…
“Damascus is certainly suffering a crisis within its leadership, as officials disagree on how to confront the [protests]. President Bashar Al-Assad was prepared to announce reformative resolutions following his first address, yet it was rumored that his associates forced him to retreat, giving priority to the security [approach]. These were the reforms which Buthayna Sha’aban, the Syrian President’s media advisor, had leaked to the Syrian news media. Yet, unfortunately, the regime missed its opportunity, and even if it offered the concessions it had promised, it would now be too late. The leadership must present its scapegoats, announce a wide-ranging reform program, and set a date for parliamentary elections under international supervision. Only then [might] the regime be able to repair what it [has] destroyed.”
Al-Hayat Columnist: Syria’s Foreign Policy Has Failed
Hassan Haidar, a columnist for the daily Al-Hayat, wrote that Assad’s theory that Syria’s support of the resistance made it immune to internal revolution had proved to be groundless: “The Syrian regime has been forced to discuss lifting the emergency state in the country, which has been in place for 48 years, as well as enacting other reforms. [This discussion] clearly disproves the notion that foreign policy can provide internal stability, [a notion] that Assad emphasized in his [January 31, 2011] interview with the Wall Street Journal, in which he dismissed [the possibility] that the events in Tunisia and Egypt could take place in Syria, [on the grounds that] the views of the Syrian regime and people are fairly close, especially regarding support of the Lebanese and Palestinian resistance and Syria’s opposition to Israel and cautious attitude toward the U.S…
“Even though this theory long succeeded in hiding the internal contradictions [in Syrua], and was used as an excuse for the lack of reforms and freedoms [there], the Syrian leadership should have considered that foreign relations are a two-way street… and that the success of the revolutions in Egypt, Tunisia, and other countries would open the Syrians’ eyes…”
Haidar went on to point out that Syria’s foreign policy had proven erroneous and even self-detrimental, providing the example of its ties with Hamas, which he said, following the Egyptian revolution, might no longer consider Damascus its primary supporter. He also noted Syria’s tense relations with Turkey, which had in the past worked to break Syria out of international isolation. Regarding Syria’s ties with Iran and Hizbullah, he wrote: “During the rule of the late Hafez Al-Assad, the relations between Syria, Iran, and Hizbullah were based on a delicate balance between Syrian interests and Arab sensibilities. Nowadays, however, Iran is the strong element in this relationship… [while] Syrian influence on Hizbullah has declined…”
Finally, Haidar claimed that “even if Assad succeeds in calming the current protests in various ways, it is clear that the country will never be the same again, and he will have to face [the people's] demands, since [his] foreign [policy] has played itself out.”
*B. Chernitsky is a research fellow at MEMRI.
 The unrest began despite Assad’s prediction in a January 31, 2011 interview with the Wall Street Journal that, thanks to its anti-U. S. and anti-Israel policy, Syria would not witness any protests likes those in Tunisia and Egypt.
 On Qatar’s membership in the resistance camp, see MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 492, “An Escalating Regional Cold War – Part I: The 2009 Gaza War,” February 2, 2011, http://www.memri.org/report/en/0/0/0/0/0/0/3281.htm.
 Aljazeera.net, May 11, 2011. On the rapprochement between Syria, Iran, and Turkey, see MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 490, “Recent Attempts to Form Strategic Regional Bloc: Syria, Turkey and Iran,” January 6, 2009, http://www.memri.org/report/en/0/0/0/0/0/0/3137.htm.
Articles in the Syrian daily Al-Watan, which is close to the regime, responded to Erdogan’s statements with criticism against Turkey. For example, columnist Nizar Saloum called Turkish Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu “the architect of new Ottomanism.” Al-Watan (Syria), May 12, 2011. According to the pro-Syrian Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar, Turkey’s ambassador to Damascus has been summoned by the Syrian foreign ministry, which expressed displeasure at the recent Turkish statements. Al-Akhbar(Lebanon), May 12, 2011.
 Two weeks after the unrest in Syria began, Hamas issued a statement emphasizing Syria’s support of the resistance and especially of Hamas. Palestine-info.info, April 2, 2011. In May, the daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat reported that Hamas had decided to leave Syria and relocate its leadership to Qatar and other countries. According to the report, Hamas Political Bureau head Khaled Mash’al plans to settle in Qatar, while his deputy, Moussa Abu Marzouq, plans to relocate to Egypt. Al-Sharq Al-Awsat editor Tariq Alhomayed and Al-Arabiya TV general-director ‘Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed wrote in Al-Sharq Al-Awsat that one of the reasons for the Palestinian reconciliation was the deterioration of Hamas-Syria relations. The Hamas leaders, on their part, vehemently denied any plans to leave Syria. Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), May 9, 11, 2011; Al-Hayat(London), April 30, 2011.
 For example, Syrian TV aired a statement by three young men who claimed that Lebanese MP Jamal Al-Jarrah, of the Al-Mustaqbal faction, had supplied them with funds and weapons in order to commit terrorist acts in Syria. One of the three said that Al-Jarrah was connected to the Muslim Brotherhood. Syria-news.com, April 13, 2011. The pro-Syrian Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar widely discussed the allegations against the March 14 Forces, and on April 1, 2011, it published an article accusing the Al-Mustaqbal movement and its head, Sa’d Al-Hariri, as well as Samir Geagea’s Lebanese Forces, of inciting against Syria, making veiled threats against them. See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 3037 “Pro-Syrian Lebanese Daily: Syria Considers Al-Hariri Responsible for Riots in Syria,” April 1, 2011, http://www.memri.org/report/en/0/0/0/0/0/0/5165.htm.
 Assad’s advisor Buthayna Sha’ban accused Palestinians from the Al-Raml refugee camp near Latakia of vandalizing shops in the city in the course of protests staged there, while the Syrian daily Al-Watan claimed Palestinians had been involved in the Der’a protests. Al-Watan (Syria), March 27, 21, 2011.
 Al-Watan (Syria), March 24, 2011; Champress.net, May 2, 2011.
 On April 7, 2011, the Syrian website Champress, citing a “Jordanian source,” reported that Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan, secretary-general of Saudi Arabia’s National Security Council, was working from Jordan to exacerbate the protests in Syria. On March 29, the pro-Syrian Lebanese daily Al-Akhbar claimed that the Syrian intelligence services had concluded that “the Wahhabi Party” was one of the main forces working against the Syrian regime. In an April 28 article in Al-Akhbar, columnist Jean ‘Aziz claimed that the Saudis, having understood that they could not confront Iran directly, had decided to attack it indirectly by going after Syria and presenting this country with two options: either to topple the Ba’th regime or to abandon its alliance with Iran. On April 10, Hassan Hanizadeh, a staff member at the Iranian news agency Mehr, claimed that dubious and violent elements from Jordan and Saudi Arabia were involved in the Syrian protests.
 Al-Watan (Syria), April 10, 2011.
 Al-Akhbar board chairman Ibrahim Al-Amin wrote that Qatar had left the resistance camp even though this camp had defended it and given it a role of importance in the region, and that Qatar was using Al-Jazeera to spread lies and incite against the Syrian regime. An article in the Lebanese daily Al-Safir claimed that Qatar was working to overthrow the Syrian regime by financing Arab media in Lebanon and elsewhere and by embracing the Syrian opposition, especially the Muslim Brotherhood, and providing it with political, media, and financial support, in coordination with Turkey. Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), April 29, 2011; Al-Safir(Lebanon), April 27, 2011.
 Al-Arab (Qatar), April 24, 2011.
 Al-Sharq (Qatar), April 23, 2011.
 See MEMRI TV report, http://www.memritv.org/clip/en/2774.htm.
 See MEMRI TV reports, http://www.memritv.org/clip/en/2815.htm,http://www.memritv.org/clip/en/2793.htm.
 See MEMRI TV report, http://www.memritv.org/clip/en/2819.htm
 See MEMRI report, http://www.memri.org/clip/en/0/0/0/0/0/0/2877.htm
 Al-Watan (Syria), March 27, 2011.
 Al-Watan (Syria), April 14, 2011.
 Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), March 30, 2011. ‘Issam Dari, a columnist for the Syrian dailyTeshreen, wrote in response that every Syrian citizen was entitled to sue Al-Qaradhawi for his incitement, which had led to the killing of civilians and security personnel. Teshreen (Syria), April 12, 2011.
 Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), April 2, 2011.
 Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), April 24, 2011.
 Al-Quds (Jerusalem), April 1, 2011.
 See MEMRI TV report, http://www.memritv.org/clip/en/2907.htm
 See http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u6fC8Sjh4ts&feature=relate.
 Mehr (Iran), April 10, May 6, 2011; Fars (Iran), April 3, 2011.
 http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/42995447/ns/world_news-mideastn_africa,http://edition.cnn.com/2011/WORLD/meast/05/12/un.syria.iran.weapons, May 12, 2011.
 Kayhan (Iran), May 5, 2011.
 Mehr (Iran), May 6, 2011.
 Iran Diplomacy, April 7, 2011.
 Asr-e Iran (Iran), March 29, 2011. See MEMRI TV report, http://www.memritv.org/report/en/5189.htm.
 See MEMRI TV report, http://www.memritv.org/report/en/5122.htm.
 Al-Quds Al-Arabi (London), March 27, 2011.
 Al-Safir (Lebanon), April 11, 2011.
 Assad claimed that there was a plot against Syria and promised a schedule for reforms but said it would be subject to change. Al-Watan , SANA (Syria), March 30, 2011.
 Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), March 31, 2011.
 Al-Akhbar (Lebanon), May 9, 2011.
 See MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 674, “In Anticipation of the Saudi Day of Rage on Friday March 11, 2011,” March 12, 2011, http://www.memri.org/report/en/0/0/0/0/0/0/5085.htm.
 Anbacom.com, May 1, 2011.
 Islamlight.net, March 26, 2011.
 Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), April 14, 2011.
 Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 20, 2011.
 Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Ramin Mehmanparast said that the events in Syria were being guided by the U.S. and Zionism. Entekhab (Iran), April 12, 2011.
 Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), April 14, 2011. ‘Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed, director-general of Al-Arabiya TV and former editor of Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, wrote that during the four decades Syria had waited for a war with Israel that never materialized, numerous problems had accumulated, ultimately leading to an explosion. Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), March 29, 2011. Egyptian playwright ‘Ali Salem wrote in the daily that over the years, the Syrian citizen realized that the resistance was not aimed at the Zionist enemy who occupies Syrian land, but against the Syrian people and their desire for freedom and normal lives. Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), May 1, 2011.
 Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), May 1, 2011. The original English translation, as it appeared in the English-language version of the daily, has been lightly edited for clarity.
 Al-Hayat (London), March 29, 2011.
May 11, 2011
Special Dispatch No.3831
Saudi-Born Liberal: The Persecuted Sectors – the Shi’ites, Women, and Alien Residents – are the Fuel of the Coming Saudi Revolution
In a recent article published on the liberal Arabic-language website Aafaq.org, Saudi-born liberal journalist and writer Mansour Al-Hadj wrote that the revolutions sweeping through the Arab world will not pass Saudi Arabia by. He argued that though the recent protests in the kingdom were suppressed by the regime, the revolution will inevitably come; it will be fueled, he said, by the rage and frustration of the disenfranchised sectors in Saudi society: the Shi’ite minority, women, and the alien residents (children of foreign workers who were born in the country yet are denied the right to citizenship), as well as the prisoners who are held without trial and the reformists calling for change. He stressed that the regime’s attempts to appease them by improving their living conditions will not be successful, because the majority of Saudis do not actually receive the benefits, and because people deprived of basic rights cannot be bought off with money and material comforts.
The following are excerpts from the article:
The Saudi Regime Did Everything in Its Power to Suppress the Calls for Change
“The royal family of Saudi Arabia heaved a sigh of relief when the ‘Hunain Revolution’ blew over without causing [it] any harm, after [the regime] did everything in its power to ensure its failure and prevent any future revolution. [It did this] through a massive security presence in the major cities, by enlisting the support of clerics who issued fatwas prohibiting demonstrations and openly calling to kill demonstrators, and by enlisting writers and media personnel who issued a verdict of ‘traitor’ against anyone calling for reform. [The royal family] also issued royal decrees distributing funds to the people, in order to keep them distracted until the clouds of revolution lifted from the region. These royal decrees, praised by the servants and beneficiaries of the regime, do not even touch the basic problems or offer any solution to the difficulties of those who are oppressed and persecuted – be it the Shi’ites, who are regarded with suspicion and distrust; or the women, who suffer discrimination and are denied the human rights of independence and dignity; or the alien residents, who were born and raised in Saudi Arabia and know no other homeland, yet are treated like newly arrived immigrants. To these one should add… the prisoners who are incarcerated for years without charges being brought against them and without a just trial, as well as the true reformists, who call for [the establishment of] a constitutional monarchy based on [proper] institutions and for freedom and justice. All these [people] will be the fuel of the coming revolution in the Saudi kingdom, unless the authorities make amends and offer radical solutions to their ongoing suffering that grows from day to day, and meet their demands, in which they believe more strongly from day to day.
“The king ignored the suffering of the Shi’ites, who are estimated to constitute 12% of the population, and who live in the oil cities that form the foundation of the Saudi economy. He did [not] end the religious discrimination to which they are subjected by the extremist clerics, or the attacks on their places of prayer, which are being closed down, or the arrests of Shi’ite clerics and human rights activists who demand to stop the discrimination. Nor did he apologize for the suppression of peaceful demonstrations, or release the Shi’ite prisoners who have been imprisoned since 1996 for their alleged involvement in the Khobar terrorist attacks.
“As for women, who constitute over 49% of the population, the king has not issued a single resolution giving them the slightest ray of hope. On the contrary, it was [recently] announced that they would be barred from participating in the municipal elections – a decision that angered a number of prominent writers, such as Halima Muzaffar, who expressed her astonishment over it, and Badriyya Al-Bishr, who described the exclusion of Saudi women from participation in public life as a ‘threat to society.’ The matter is not confined to women’s rights to vote, because Saudi law treats the woman as a minor [in other respects as well]. She may not drive a car or engage in sports, nor may she work, study, or [even] visit a government office without the permission of her guardian. The personal status laws deprive women of their rights in matters of marriage, divorce, and alimony. The problems of pleasure marriages, under-age brides, forced divorce on grounds of unequal social status, and women who are denied [the right] to marry – all these are only the tip of the iceberg in terms of what women suffer in this patriarchic society, which associates them with impurity, temptation, and shame. As a matter of fact, the revolution of Saudi women has already begun, [as evident from] the Facebook page titled ‘The Saudi Women’s Revolution,’ which has over 2,000 fans.
“As for the alien residents, the preacher Salman Al-’Odeh has described them as a ‘time bomb’ because they number no less than 2 million. These are young men and women who were born in Saudi Arabia and have deep roots there, yet are denied the right to citizenship, even though many of them have Saudi mothers and Saudi relatives. Treated like newly arrived immigrants, they are deprived of the right to study, work and receive health care. I am well familiar with their sense of oppression and mental anguish, since I myself was one of them…
Then there are the prisoners [held without trial], who suffer humiliation, degradation and oppression because they do not know what they are accused of and why they are in prison, nor do they know when they will be freed… One day after the Hunain Revolution, their families demonstrated in demand for their release, but the authorities suppressed [the protest], as was reported by the daughter of the 76-year-old [imprisoned] lawyer Suleiman Al-Rashoudi in a letter that was posted on many forums. The sister of another prisoner posted a video on YouTube in which she called on the king to release her brother and to investigate those responsible for the suffering of the [prisoners'] families. A Facebook page titled ‘A Prisoner Until When?’, campaigning for the prisoners’ release, has close to 2,000 supporters, including prominent clerics and writers.”
The Sense of Injustice and Persecution are the True Motivations for Revolution that Will Inevitably Come
“[Even] if, for the sake of the argument, we accept the claim made by some that Saudi society does not desire democracy but only material comfort, then it should be recognized that the majority of Saudis do not gain anything from the above mentioned royal decrees… [Moreover,] these royal decrees [certainly] do not satisfy the demands of those three sectors [i.e., the Shi'ites, the women, and the alien residents], or of the prisoners… because these people are deprived of one or more basic rights that affect their lives far more than money. Therefore, they continue to be gripped by a sense of oppression and humiliation…
“The sense of injustice and persecution, along with the desire for a proper livelihood, and [the desire to] secure a better future for the coming generations – these are the true [motivations] of the revolutions that will inevitably come wherever there are people suffering injustice and persecution and demanding reform. Saudi Arabia will not be an exception, because the hidden fear has vanished, and the peoples have realized that they are able to bring about change. Mark my words: the Shi’ites, the women, and the alien residents, as well as other disenfranchised sectors and people who require reform – these will be the fuel of the coming revolution, unless the authorities change their policy against them, and I do not think they will. So a revolution there will be. They [i.e., the authorities] think it is far away, but I see it coming soon.”
 Aafaq.org, April 16, 2011
 This was the name of a Facebook campaign calling for a “day of rage” in Saudi Arabia on March 11, 2011. Eventually, only some small-scale demonstrations took place, which were dispersed by the authorities. For more on the preparations for the day of rage, see MEMRI Inquiry and Analysis No. 674, “In Anticipation of the Saudi Day of Rage on Friday March 11, 2011,” March 12, 2011, http://www.memri.org/report/en/0/0/0/0/0/0/5085.htm.
 On February 23, 2011, the Saudi king issued a series of royal decrees aimed at improving living conditions of Saudi citizens. The decrees were aimed at increasing wages for officials in the government, military, and private sectors; fighting unemployment; advancing science, culture, and sports; encouraging investors in government enterprises, and assisting students of in-demand professions abroad. In addition, pardons were granted to political prisoners. (Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), February 24, 2011).
A Few Brave Women Dare Take Wheel in Defiance of Saudi Law Against Driving
By Donna Abu-Nasr – May 10, 2011 4:00 PM ET
Manal, a 32-year-old woman, is planning something she’s never done openly in her native Saudi Arabia: Get in her car and take to the streets, defying a ban on female drivers in the kingdom.
Manal and 10 other people are organizing a campaign on Facebook and Twitter urging Saudi women with international driver’s licenses to join them starting June 17, risking their jobs and their freedom. The coordinated plan isn’t a protest, she said.
“I’m doing it because I’m frustrated, angry and mad,” Manal, who asked to be identified only by her first name, said in an interview from the eastern city of Dhahran. “It’s 2011 and we’re still discussing this insignificant right for women.”
The risk the women are willing to take underscores both their exasperation with the restrictions and the infectious nature of the changes sweeping the region. Saudi Arabia, which has the world’s biggest oil reserves, so far has avoided the mass demonstrations that have toppled the leaders of Tunisia and Egypt and threaten officials in Libya, Yemen and Syria.
“These events have taught Saudi women to join ranks and act as a team,” said Wajeeha al-Howeider, a Saudi women’s rights activist, in a telephone interview from Dhahran. “This is something they could only have learned from those revolutions.”
Saudi Arabia enforces the ascetic Wahhabi version of Sunni Islam. Women aren’t allowed to have a Saudi driver’s permit, even though some drive when they’re in the desert away from urban areas. They can’t travel or get an education without male approval or mix with unrelated men in public places. They aren’t permitted to vote or run as candidates in municipal elections, the only ones the kingdom allows.
The last time a group of women publicly defied the driving ban was on Nov. 6, 1990, when U.S. troops had massed in Saudi Arabia to prepare for a war that would expel Iraq from Kuwait. The Saudi women were spurred by images of female U.S. soldiers driving in the desert and stories of Kuwaiti women driving their children to safety, and they were counting on the presence of international media to ensure their story would reach the world and lessen the repercussions, according to Noura Abdullah, 55.
Abdullah was one of 47 drivers and passengers who stayed out for about an hour before being arrested. They were banned from travel for a year, lost their jobs for 2 1/2 years and were condemned by the powerful clergy as harlots.
Spread the Word
Now it’s “superb” that a younger generation is following in their footsteps, Abdullah said in an interview from Riyadh, the capital. She doesn’t have an international driver’s license, so she will help by spreading the word about the event with telephone calls, text messages and e-mails, she said.
“Their timing is perfect,” she added. “There’s momentum in Saudi Arabia now and that should help.”
King Abdullah has taken steps this year to ensure regional turmoil remains outside his borders, pledging almost $100 billion of spending on homes, jobs and benefits. He also has promised to improve the status of women. He opened the first co- educational university in 2009; appointed the kingdom’s first female deputy minister, Nora bint Abdullah al-Fayez, the same year; and has said he will provide more access to jobs for women, who make up about 15 percent of the workforce.
A change of policy in 2008 allowed women to stay in hotels without male guardians, and an amendment to the labor law allowed women to work in all fields “suitable to their nature.”
Human Rights Watch said in January that “reforms to date have involved saudi-arabia largely symbolic steps to improve the visibility of women.” While the United Nations ranked the kingdom in the top one-third of nations in its 2010Human Development Report — higher than Brazil and Russia — its score forgender equality was much lower. On that measure, which includes assessments of reproductive health and participation in politics and the labor market, Saudi Arabia was 128th of 138 nations, below Iran and Pakistan.
The campaign Manal is helping to organize, called “I will drive starting June 17,” is the latest effort by Saudi women this year to express their desire for more rights. On April 23, a group of 15 women showed up at a registration center in the western city of Jeddah, asking to participate in the September election, the Arab News reported a day later. While they were denied entry, they were permitted to relay their demands to Abdul Aziz al-Ghamdi, the head of the district office, the Arab News said.
The protest against the driving ban has attracted almost 800 Facebook fans since it began May 6.
“We are not here to break the law or demonstrate or challenge the authorities,” the organizers said on their page. “We are here to claim one of our simplest rights.”
Sheikh Mohammed al-Nujaimi, a Saudi cleric, dismissed the campaign, saying statements he makes about religious issues that are posted on websites have received more than 24,000 page views in a day.
The plan is “against the law, and the women who drive should be punished according to the law,” al-Nujaimi said in a telephone interview. Driving causes “more harm than good” to women, because they risk mixing with men they aren’t related to, such as mechanics and gas-station attendants, he added.
“Women will also get used to leaving their homes at will,” al-Nujaimi said.
Three telephone calls by Bloomberg News to the mobile phone of a press officer at Saudi Arabia’s Traffic Department, which enforces transit rules in the country, weren’t answered.
The campaign has received the support of some Saudi men. Ahmad al-Yacoub, 24, a Dhahran-based businessman, said he’s joined the effort because “these ladies are not fighting with religion or the government.”
“They are asking for a simple right that they want to practice freely without being harassed or questioned,” al- Yacoub said.
Ghada Abdul-Latif, a 31-year-old rights activist, said she will support the effort by filming it and posting it online; she won’t drive for fear of being jailed before her wedding in June.
“It is a courageous campaign,” said Hatoon al-Fassi, a Saudi historian. “It feels so weird to consider such a human right a courageous movement. But it is in a country such as Saudi Arabia, which is trying to live against the current and life and history.”
End of Mideast Wholesale
By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
Published: May 7, 2011
If you look into the different “shop” windows across the Middle East, it is increasingly apparent that the Arab uprisings are bringing to a close the era of “Middle East Wholesale” and ushering in the era of “Middle East Retail.” Everyone is going to have to pay more for their stability.
Let’s start with Israel. For the last 30 years, Israel enjoyed peace with Egypt wholesale — by having peace with just one man, Hosni Mubarak. That sale is over. Today, post-Mubarak, to sustain the peace treaty with Egypt in any kind of stable manner, Israel is going to have to pay retail. It is going to have to make peace with 85 million Egyptians. The days in which one phone call by Israel to Mubarak could shut down any crisis in relations are over.
Amr Moussa, the outgoing head of the Arab League and the front-runner in polls to succeed Mubarak as president when Egypt holds elections in November, just made that clear in an interview with The Wall Street Journal. Regarding Israel, Moussa said: “Mubarak had a certain policy. It was his own policy, and I don’t think we have to follow this. We want to be a friend of Israel, but it has to have two parties. It is not on Egypt to be a friend. Israel has to be a friend, too.”
By THOMAS L. FRIEDMAN
Published: May 10, 2011
So Osama bin Laden was living in a specially built villa in Pakistan. I wonder where he got the money to buy it? Cashed in his Saudi 401(k)? A Pakistani subprime mortgage, perhaps? No. I suspect we will find that it all came from the same place most of Al Qaeda’s funds come from: some combination of private Saudi donations spent under the watchful eye of the Pakistani Army.
Why should we care? Because this is the heart of the matter; that’s why. It was both just and strategically vital that we killed Bin Laden, who inspired 9/11. I just wish it were as easy to eliminate the two bad bargains that really made that attack possible, funded it and provided the key plotters and foot soldiers who carried it out. We are talking about the ruling bargains in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, which are alive and well.