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Middle East backgrounder - March 9

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Saudi Arabia is losing its fear

Eman Al Nafjan, Guardian
In Riyadh the mood is tense; everyone is on edge wondering what will happen on Friday – the date the Saudi people have chosen for their revolution. The days building up to Friday so far have not been as reassuring as one would like.

On 4 March, there were protests in the eastern region and a smaller protest here in Riyadh. The protests in the eastern region were mainly to call for the release of Sheikh Tawfiq al-Amer, who had been detained after giving a sermon calling for a constitutional monarchy.

The protest in Riyadh was started by a young Sunni man, Mohammed al-Wadani, who had uploaded a YouTube video a few days before, explaining why the monarchy has to fall. After the protests, 26 people were detained in the eastern region and al-Wadani was taken in soon after he held up his sign near a major mosque in Riyadh.

It's not just the people who are on edge; apparently the government is also taking this upcoming Friday seriously.

... Saudis are now faced with a ban on any form of demonstration, and the blocking and censorship of petitions.

... It's also estimated that about 60% of the population is under 30. These young, unemployed people live with many constrictions on their freedom. In addition to extreme gender segregation, single men are banned from entering shopping malls, and women cannot process their own papers, get a job or even access transport without male accompaniment and approval.

There's no denying that the country is fertile ground for a revolution. However, I am concerned that the revolution might be hijacked by Islamists.

... On the other hand, the king is popular. All the petitions call for a constitutional monarchy, rather than the fall of the monarchy. Those who signed the petitions are mostly loyal to the king, but want access to decision-making and an end to corruption.

... It's very difficult to predict what will happen on Friday. My guess is that there will be protests. The larger protests will be in the eastern region and mostly by Shia Muslims. I also expect smaller protests in Riyadh and Jeddah. What tactics the security forces use will greatly influence not only the demonstrators but also the people watching from their homes. If undue violence is used against the demonstrators, it could possibly ignite the same fuse that led to full-blown revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya.

Eman Al Nafjan is the author of the Saudiwoman's Weblog, a blog on Saudi society, culture, women and human rights issues. She is based in the Saudi capital, Riyadh
(8 March 2011)



Why Saudi Arabia is ripe for revolution.

Madawi Al-Rasheed, Foreign Policy
In the age of Arab revolutions, will Saudis dare to honor Facebook calls for anti-government demonstrations on March 11? Will they protest at one of Jeddah's main roundabouts? Or will they start in Qatif, the eastern region where a substantial Shiite majority has had more experience in real protest? Will Riyadh remain cocooned in its cloak of pomp and power, hidden from public gaze in its mighty sand castles?

Saudi Arabia is ripe for change. Despite its image as a fabulously wealthy realm with a quiescent, apolitical population, it has similar economic, demographic, social, and political conditions as those prevailing in its neighboring Arab countries. There is no reason to believe Saudis are immune to the protest fever sweeping the region.

Saudi Arabia is indeed wealthy, but most of its young population cannot find jobs in either the public or private sector. The expansion of its $430 billion economy has benefited a substantial section of the entrepreneurial elite -- particularly those well connected with the ruling family -- but has failed to produce jobs for thousands of college graduates every year. This same elite has resisted employing expensive Saudis and contributed to the rise in local unemployment by hiring foreign labor. Rising oil prices since 2003 and the expansion of state investment in education, infrastructure, and welfare, meanwhile, have produced an explosive economy of desires.

Like their neighbors, Saudis want jobs, houses, and education, but they also desire something else. Since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq in 2003, they have expressed their political demands in their own way, through petitions that circulated and were signed by hundreds of activists and professionals, men and women, Sunnis, Shiites, and Ismailis.

... When Saudis were poor and lagged behind the world in education, aspirations, and infrastructure, oil was the balm that healed all social wounds. The wave of coups d'état that swept the Arab world in the 1950s and 1960s did not make much impression on Saudis, despite some agitation here and there. Few Saudis were impressed by the effervescence of Arab revolutionary or liberation movements. At the time, most Saudis lacked the education or inclination to question their government, apart from a handful of activists and agitators, including a couple of princes. By the 1970s, oil wealth was developing their taste for the consumer economy and the pleasures of cars, planes, running water, air-conditioning, and sunglasses. Political participation wasn't part of the package.

Today, oil remains abundant, but Saudis are different. They enjoy more consumption and liquidity than others in the Arab world, but less than those in neighboring Qatar, Kuwait, and the United Arab Emirates. Saudis are today looking for something else. They are young -- youth under 30 account for two-thirds of the Saudi population -- educated, connected, and articulate. Above all, they are familiar with the global discourse of democracy, freedom, entitlement, empowerment, transparency, accountability, and human rights that has exploded in the face of authoritarian regimes in the Arab world since January. They watch satellite channels like Al Jazeera and eagerly consume news from uprisings around the region.

... Yes, Egypt was key to the coming change, but when Saudis rise they will change the face of the Arab world and its relations with the West forever. Now is the time for the United States and its allies to understand that the future does not lie with the old clique that they have tolerated, supported, and indulged in return for oil, security, and investment. At a time of shifting Arabian sands, it is in the interest of America and the rest of the world to side with the future not the past.

Madawi Al-Rasheed is a professor of social anthropology at King's College, University of London, and author of Contesting the Saudi State: Islamic Voices from a New Generation and A History of Saudi Arabia.
(28 February 2011)



The Muslim Brothers In Egypt’s ‘Orderly Transition’

Gilbert Achcar, Le Monde Diplomatique
After the revolution, a newly respectable Muslim Brotherhood, supportive of the army, is emerging. Could it become the best bet for the ‘orderly transition’ that Egypt, and the US, hope for?
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Egypt’s uprising, contrary to most predictions, was initiated and driven by coalitions – including political parties, associations and internet networks – which were dominated by secular and democratic forces. Islamic organisations or their individual members took part on an equal footing with groups of marginal importance before the uprising, and with groups closer to eastern European dissidents of 1989 than to the usual mass parties or revolutionary elites of social revolutions.

The discretion of Tunisia’s Islamist movement can be explained to a large extent by the harshness of its suppression under Ben Ali, impeding the ability of the Islamic Nahda party to act. However, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt was also discreet, but for the opposite reason: because it was a party tolerated by the military regime (although not legalised).

Anwar Sadat, when he came to power after Gamal Abdel Nasser’s death in 1970, favoured the Brotherhood’s return to the public stage and its enhanced position as a counterbalance to the Nasserist or radical left. The Brothers fully subscribed to the economic liberalisation (infitah) of Sadat when he embarked on dismantling Nasser’s legacy. This led to increased influence of members of the new Egyptian bourgeoisie within the Brotherhood. Even so, it continued to assert its piety against rampant corruption; this was a key argument for the petit bourgeois, the Brothers’ favourite constituency.

The Brotherhood built itself as a reactionary religious political movement, whose main concern was – and still is – the Islamisation of Egypt’s political and cultural institutions and the promotion of sharia as the basis for legislation. This programme is summed up by its main slogan: “Islam is the solution”. At the same time, the Brotherhood has served as a political antidote to extreme and violent fundamentalist groups.

... Since the turn of the century, the Brotherhood has been torn between the conservative timidity of its older leaders and pressure from part of its younger members for active demands for political freedoms. It was thus careful not to antagonise the regime, while engaging in democratic and nationalist protest

... Barack Obama’s accession to the US presidency, and his speech in Cairo on 4 June 2009 supporting the democratisation of the region (and his snubbing of Mubarak) galvanised Egyptian opposition. After some hesitation, the Brothers associated themselves with the National Association for Change, the predominantly liberal coalition created in February 2010 with Mohamed ElBaradei as its figurehead. But several months later, ignoring the liberal opposition’s calls to boycott the parliamentary elections, the Brotherhood participated in the first round, hoping to retain a good share of representation in parliament. The result meant that it had to boycott the second round. It was left with a single MP (expelled from the Brotherhood for failing to observe the boycott), against 88 in the outgoing parliament.

These elections exasperated Egypt, where 44% live on less than $2 a day, where a greedy, self-serving bourgeoisie flaunt a luxurious lifestyle only matched locally by the rich from the Gulf’s oil monarchies seeking a “One Thousand and One Nights” experience on the Nile. Egypt was a powder keg. Tunisia was the spark. Networks and coalitions of young opposition called for demonstrations on 25 January. The Brotherhood decided not to associate itself with this for fear of the regime, and it wasn’t until the third day that it joined the movement. Its leaders were careful to praise the army, knowing that this hard kernel of the regime would be called upon to resolve the situation.

When Mubarak appointed as vice-president the chief of the Egyptian General Intelligence Directorate, Omar Suleiman, and he in turn called the opposition to “dialogue”, the Brothers’ leadership agreed to meet. This concession, after their refusal to join the initial phase of the protest, contributed to discrediting them in the eyes of the youth leadership (the shabab). When Mubarak finally stood down, the Brotherhood praised the military junta, while demanding the release of prisoners and lifting of the state of emergency, and announced a plan to establish a legal political party.

... The “orderly transition” is taking shape, as envisaged by the military with US backing: the course is set for transition to an electoral democracy under the army’s control, as took place in Turkey between 1980 and 1983. Another facet of the “Turkish model” looms on the horizon: the possibility of an Islamic-inspired political party eventually coming to power, running Egypt in cooperation with the military. This could prove easier in Egypt, since its army does not uphold secularism as the Turkish army claims to do. But such an arrangement will remain problematic if the Brothers do not carry out the type of makeover the Turkish AKP undertook, and for as long as they arouse the suspicion of the US and Israel’s hostility for their attitude towards Palestine.

If the revolutionary potential of 25 January lasts and becomes radicalised (a wave of social struggles have followed Mubarak’s resignation; see Egypt: first democracy, then a pay rise), Egypt might well see the growth of a leftwing mass opposition. Then the Muslim Brotherhood would seem the lesser of two evils, for the US as much as its Egyptian military clients.
(8 March 2011)

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