Saudi women set to make their mark

Saudi women hold their voter registration forms at a voting center in Jeddah at the end of August. (Photo AFP)

Saudi women hold their voter registration forms at a voting center in Jeddah at the end of August. (Photo AFP)

240,000 Brazilians protest across country for reforms

São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro and 5 Brazilian cities have already announced bus fare cuts

Brazilian protesters on the roof of the National Congress building in Brasilia on June 17, 2013.

Brazilian protesters on the roof of the National Congress building in Brasilia on June 17, 2013.

By Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

Updated on Wednesday, June 19, 2013 at 21:10:

BRASILIA, Brazil – In a movement devoid of any overt political demands, and run mostly by young Brazilians fed up with being ignored for so long, Brazilians across the country spilled out into the streets on Monday night (June 17) to protest rising bus fares, huge federal government expenditures on football stadiums for the 2014 World Cup, and a lack of investment in healthcare and education.

An estimated 240,000 people took to the streets in Brasilia, São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Belo Horizonte, Salvador, Maceió, Vitoria, Porto Alegre, Fortaleza, Curitiba and Belém. The biggest turnouts were in Rio de Janeiro, where an estimated 100,000 people took to the streets, and in São Paulo where an estimated 60,000 people protested. These were the biggest street protests since ones in 1992 which called for the impeachment of the then president Fernando Collor de Mello.

Already these protests are showing results, with five Brazilian cities on Tuesday, June 18, announcing that they were reducing their bus fares by 10 centavos, or 5 US cents. With an eye on the 2014 elections, the governor of Pernambuco, Eduardo Campos, who is planning to run for the presidency next year, denied that he had decided to reduce bus fares in Recife to appease the protesters.

Brazil is currently hosting the Confederations Cup football tournament, with games being held at many of the gleaming new stadiums that were built with public money to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. On Sunday, Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff was booed by the spectators at the National Stadium in Brasilia when she was opening the tournament. That stadium cost a whooping US$600 million to build, delivered over budget and behind schedule just in time to host the opening game of the tournament.

The day before the tournament kicked off, homeless people protesting the high cost of hosting the World Cup next year, burned a line of tires on the main road next to the stadium, blocking traffic for several hours. On Monday, Globo TV revealed that one of the leaders of that protest was an assistant in the presidential office of strategic affairs in Brasilia.

The protest in Rio turned ugly on Monday night when a small group of protesters broke off from the larger group and marched to the local Legislative Assembly building and began throwing stones and Molotov cocktails at the police that were guarding the building. At one point in the night, around 70 policemen and 45 legislative workers were pinned inside the building for several hours, with 20 of them injured and not being medically treated as the emergency workers could not get inside the building. The head of the assembly estimated that the building suffered around R$2 million (US$1 million) in damage. Vandals also turned their rage against shops and banks in the downtown area of Rio, ransacking them and setting two cars on fire. The trapped policemen were finally rescued later in the night after Special Forces arrived to get them out safely.

In Brasilia, the federal capital, around 10,000 protesters marched to the National Congress building at around 6 pm, and around 3,000 of them ran up the ramp of the building at around 7:45 pm, occupying the rooftop of the iconic building with its cup and saucer coverings over the Senate and the House of Representatives, designed by Oscar Niemeyer. Around 600 policemen guarded the Congress, showing amazing restraint, only using pepper spray a few times when some the protesters jumped into the reflecting pools in front of the building, and again when some of them tried to get inside the building itself.

This was in sharp contrast with the violent police reaction in São Paulo to protests there last week. Last Thursday, the police used copious amounts of tear gas and rubber bullets to push back protesters from the main Avenida Paulista. They also targeted journalists covering the protest, shooting rubber bullets directly at several of them, and hitting two of them in the eyes. Sergio Lima, a photographer for Futura Press, was the worst affected, with doctors saying he had less than a 5% chance of regaining vision in his eye that was hit. Giuliana Vallone, a reporter for the Folha de São Paulo, was also hit in her eye, but doctors said she would regain vision in the affected eye. In all 105 protesters were injured in protests over several days, with 12 policemen wounded.

Many blamed the governor of São Paulo, Geraldo Alckmin, for the escalation of police violence after he publicly called for a tougher crackdown on the protesters after their first protest caused huge rush hour traffic jams when they blocked main streets in the central area of the city. After the many injuries suffered during the second protest, police in São Paulo were ordered to stop using rubber bullets, and instead resort to pepper spray.

Born from the Passe Livre (Free Pass) movement, which calls for free public transportation in all Brazilian cities, the protests on Monday were remarkable for lacking any political inclination. Indeed, several protesters who showed up wearing t-shirts of various political parties in protests in Rio and Brasilia were forcibly ejected from the marches. In a survey of protesters in Sao Paulo by Datafolha, 84% of those polled said they had no favorite political party.

Social media sites, especially Facebook, have been instrumental in mobilizing the protesters, who are mostly students in their 20s. A rise in São Paulo bus fares from R$3 (US$1.50) to R$3.20 (US$1.60) is what sparked the first demonstration. The mayor of São Paulo Paulo Haddad and Alckmin were dismissive of the demand to dial back the bus fare to R$3, openly scoffing at the idea of having free buses, the ultimate goal of the Passe Livre movement.

President Rousseff said on Tuesday that she supported peaceful demonstrations as a legitimate and democratic right of the people. But government officials have openly shown their frustration at not knowing whom to talk with in the Passe Livre movement in order to try and stop the marches which are disrupting the country and embarrassing Brazil’s government on the world stage. This has been the advantage of the protesters as the police do not have any clear leaders that they can arrest to try and disrupt the marches.

“This revolt did not happen because of a 20 centavo rise in bus fares,” wrote the Brazilian activist Raphael Tsvakko Garcia on his blog The Angry Brazilian. “It happened because of the rise in fares across the whole country. While the Workers Party is preaching that everything is honky dory here, the people on the streets have shown that this is not true. We are not happy with the World Cup, or with the state of our education and healthcare.”

These protests have gone completely against the narrative of the Brazilian government over the last couple of years that Brazil is whizzing towards its rightful place as a developed nation in the near future. Weaker economic growth this year, and a slight rise in inflation have brought to the surface the anxiety that many Brazilians feel that all is not well in the enchanted kingdom of the Workers Party television ads. The minimum salary is R$678 (US$312) a month, but that is barely enough for one person to survive on, let alone a family of four.

Protesters are fed up with public transportation that is expensive and of bad quality. According to a Folha de São Paulo survey which looked at how many minutes a person has to work to pay a bus fare, the average Brazilian worker has to work 13.89 minutes to pay his bus fare, while a worker in Argentina only has to work 1.44 minutes, and a New Yorker needs to work 6.33 minutes to pay his fare.

On Wednesday, June 19, São Paulo state governor  Alckmin and São Paulo city mayor Haddad announced at a joint press conference that all bus, metro and train fares were being reduced to R$3 from R$3.20, a key demand of the Passe Livre movement. One of the leaders of the movement, Caio Martins, immediately announced after the fare reduction announcement that the protest planned for Thursday, June 20, on the Avenida Paulista was going ahead as planned. “It’s going to be a big party to celebrate our victory, but will also be an act of solidarity for those who live in cities that still haven’t reduced their tariffs,” he told O Globo. “The fare reduction is an important decision because it shows that fares are political choices. If they can raise fares to R$3.20 and then reduce them again to R$3, why can’t they reduce fares to R$2 or even to zero?” he added.

Analysts predict that street protests may continue until the World Cup in June of next year and through to the Brazilian presidential elections due to be held in October 2013.



Saudi women on Shura Council

This is my story from Al-Ahram Weekly, that was published January 16, 2013:

Saudi Shoura Council-Al-Ahram

The appointment of 30 Saudi women to Saudi Arabia’s consultative Shura Council by King Abdullah on 11 January took some Saudis by surprise because of the relatively large number of appointees. Until then, the council had been a purely male bastion of 150 members.

“I was thrilled and proud,” said Abeer Mishkhas, a Saudi journalist, in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly. “When I read the names, I was happy to see that a wide spectrum of women had been chosen. I hope they use their experience to push forward women’s issues, such as the rights of divorcees, driving and the harassment laws.”

The royal decree appointing the women specified that 20 per cent of the seats in the country’s Shura Council should be occupied by women, making Saudi Arabia jump in the ranks of countries that have women in parliament from 184th to 80th place, according to Gulf News, ahead of the US, Ireland, Russia, India and Brazil.

King Abdullah announced that he intended to appoint women to the Shura Council in a speech last September. One year earlier he had announced that women would be allowed to run and vote in the 2015 municipal elections. Since 2006, the council has had 12 women advisers.

“We made this decision because we refuse to marginalise women in Saudi society. We want to see them in roles that comply with Islamic Sharia and this has been done following consultations with many of our scholars who supported it,” the king said.

“Muslim women have always taken up positions that cannot be sidelined, be it through views or advice, since the time of the Prophet Mohamed.”

With a few exceptions, all the appointees have PhDs and are leaders in their fields of work. One of them, Thuraya Obaid, was appointed to a senior position in the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in 2000, while another, Hayat Sindi, is one of the world’s leading biotechnologists.

In 2012, she was named one of Newsweek’s “150 women who shake the world”. “I am very honoured to be one of the first women selected for the Shura Council. We need to be present and to participate equally,” Sindi told the Saudi Gazette.

Some women activists had been pushing for half of the members of the council to be women, but others admitted that the 30 positions that Saudi women had attained through the royal decree might not have been achieved if they had been elected positions given the conservatism of the Saudi population.

Suhaila Zein Al-Abidine, a human rights activist, was one of those pushing for 50 per cent of the Shura seats to be filled by women, but she admitted that the 20 per cent quota was a good beginning.

“It’s a start. But this percentage has to increase for women to be effective in the council,” she told the Saudi Gazette.

“Ideally, elections would be the best way to fill the council,” Mishkhas said, “but realistically speaking women would not have had that much representation if elections had been held because of the influence conservatives have on society these days. But I believe the performance of these women will create a new reality at home and get people more accustomed to the idea.”

Two of the new appointees are princesses. Sarah bint Faisal bin Abdel-Aziz, a daughter of the late king Faisal and the head of a charitable foundation, is one of them, and the other is Moudhi bint Khaled bin Abdel-Aziz, a daughter of the late king Khaled and the secretary-general of his foundation.

Interestingly, there are no Saudi princes among the male members of the council.

Saudi Arabia’s Shura Council was established in 1993, when it had a speaker and 60 members. That number was increased to a speaker and 150 members in the 2005-2009 term.

Each member is appointed for a four-year term, renewable at the discretion of the king. Most of the members of the council are academics, clerics, businessmen or former civil servants.

The new women members will have a separate entrance and offices, an all-female staff, and a separate praying area. They will most likely interact with the male council members via video and audio links.

The council advises the king and the Council of Ministers on policies and legislation. It has no power to overturn legislation or to pass legislation without the approval of the king.

Democracy activists have long called for an elected council, much like the parliament in Kuwait, with full powers to pass legislation and question government ministers, but few Saudis expect this to come about any time soon.

Although women in Saudi Arabia have been celebrating this historic advance in their rights, they still face many restrictions, such as not having the right to drive or to travel abroad without the approval of their male guardians.

“The women have a tough time ahead of them. After all, some of the Shura members are very conservative, and it remains to be seen if the female members will be able to get their concerns taken seriously,” Mishkhas said.

“But the female members have such strong and adamant characters among them that have worked in international institutions, such as Thuraya Obaid, that they can definitely make use of that experience.”

“We need to work with other members of the council as a team,” Sindi told the Saudi Gazette. “We want to encourage women who are determined to work hard and encourage men to collaborate.”

Another newly appointed member, Hamda Khalaf Muqbil Al-Enizi, who is a professor at King Faisal University, told Arab News she would raise issues relating to the rights of women and children in the council.

“The presence of Saudi women in the council may lead in future to positions in the Council of Ministers,” she said.

Currently, no women are full ministers in Saudi Arabia, but Nora Al-Faiz, appointed by King Abdullah in 2009, is the deputy minister of education in charge of women’s education.

Gulf union put off

Gulf leaders gathered in Riyadh with their host Saudi King Abdullah ibn Abdul Aziz on May 14, 2012.

Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

Perhaps it was because of the outcry among citizens of many Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) states, worried that their unique social and political systems would be steamrollered by their giant neighbour Saudi Arabia, that Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal announced Monday night in Riyadh, after a GCC summit meeting, that the planned union of GCC states had been put off until December.

“GCC states will continue discussions on a possible union of the six nations, but any such plan will take time. The aim is for all countries to join, not just two or three,” said Prince Saud. “Iran should keep out of the kingdom’s relations with Bahrain, even if the two states decide to form a union,” he added, responding to Iranian MPs who had earlier condemned the reported plan for a union between Saudi Arabia and its tiny neighbour Bahrain.

Last year Saudi Arabia led a GCC force of 1,500 troops that went into Bahrain at the request of the ruling Al-Khalifa family to help put down a rebellion by the majority Shia population.The GCC, which was formed in 1981 following the Iranian Revolution of 1979 and the onset of the Iran-Iraq war, is composed of the six Gulf states of Bahrain, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Oman.

The GCC has succeeded in implementing a joint import customs tariff that all members follow, as well as measures that allow citizens of these states to live, work and set up businesses in each others’ countries without the need for special visas or permissions.Efforts towards a common currency foundered in 2009 after Oman dropped out of the plan in 2006 and the UAE also pulled out after a squabble with Saudi Arabia over where a GCC central bank would be headquartered. The UAE wanted it in their capital, Abu Dhabi, while the Saudis wanted it in Riyadh.

Expectations were high that some sort of union would be announced in Riyadh this week, especially after Saudi King Abdullah had announced the union plans last December, and after comments by Bahraini King Hamad this week that he welcomed the establishment of the union. But there has also been a steady stream of opposition from Bahrainis on Twitter and even from Saudis in the local media, afraid that the openness of several Gulf states would be squashed in a union with super-conservative Saudi Arabia.

“I will join the opposition against the Gulf union if it forces Kuwait, which is the only GCC country that enjoys free parliamentary elections, to cancel its parliamentary system… just to please Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Oman,” wrote Abdel-Rahman Al-Rashid, Saudi head of the satellite TV news channel Al-Arabiya, in an opinion piece for Arab News daily.

In February, even Kuwait’s speaker of parliament, Ahmed Al-Saadoun expressed his doubts on a Gulf union in comments to Al-Arabiya, saying: “It is very difficult for a country like Kuwait that grants freedom of speech, and where people are represented in parliament, to form a union with countries whose prisons are full of thousands who are guilty [only] of speaking their minds. We will be fooling ourselves if we think that any kind of union can be reached if governments do not offer compromises and start granting their people more rights.”

It was the vagueness of the GCC union plans that led to much speculation and fear of what it would actually entail. Several analysts pointed out the need for clarity on what such a union would entail, underlining the need to keep individual social and political characteristics intact in each member country, in order to make the plan viable.

“The GCC governments haven’t made it clear exactly what they mean by a union. Will it remain a collection of sovereign states like the existing GCC, or is there a genuine desire to create supra-national institutions that would override state sovereignty in some areas, as in the EU or currency unions like the West African franc?” asked Jane Kinninmont, a senior research fellow at Chatham House in London, in interview.

Even the assistant secretary general of the GCC, Abdel-Aziz Al-Uwaisheg, admitted in an opinion article for Arab News that there needed to be clear goals for a union to be successful: “For it to be effective, the union has to have a clear statement of purpose as well as the right institutions to run such a project. Without infringing on member states’ sovereignty, the union has to vest those institutions with enough mandate and authority to fulfil its member states’ goals and meet the challenges, both old and new, that the region faces,” he wrote.

Al-Rashid explained that these fears of sovereignty being squashed were mistaken, and that King Abdullah had in mind an alliance of Gulf states that would not be an all-out federation. “The proposal had clearly stated the new union would not interfere in the sovereignty of member countries. If we take the proposal positively, we can understand that it would not be aimed at imposing any other system or nullifying the character of a member country or side-lining any ethnic group,” he wrote.

But why the sudden push for an even closer alliance of Gulf states? Several analysts believe that the perceived threat of Iran in the region, and fear of the effects of the Arab Spring uprisings reaching its shores, is what pushed Saudi Arabia to start pushing for the plan last December.

“Iran is a major driving factor. It was the Iranian Revolution that helped to encourage the Gulf states to form the GCC in the first place,” said Kinninmont. “The wider changes in the Arab world are also a factor. They have already pushed the GCC countries to try to show more of a united front towards issues in Yemen, Libya and Syria.”

But Madawi Al-Rashid, a professor of social anthropology at Kings College in London, and a frequent critic of Saudi Arabia, said that she believed that the real motivation behind the proposed union is that of dictators rallying together to protect themselves from demands for democracy from their own populations.

“The union is an ad hoc response to deep problems that the ruling families are not willing to resolve: Giving more power to their citizens, increasing political participation, and improving their human rights records,” said Al-Rashid in interview.

“Externally the GCC States remain dependent on the US for security. They are also worried that the US will reach an agreement with Iran at their expense. This is the root of their anxiety. But I think that a union of authoritarian regimes is a temporary pact that will be counterproductive. It will simply increase the complexity of internal politics and mess up the real challenges facing the GCC now, mainly democratisation, unemployment and corruption, especially in Saudi Arabia.”

With so many doubts and fears in the minds of GCC citizens, it remains to be seen how Saudi Arabia can pull off a union that manages to maintain the unique differences of each Gulf state, while at the same time bringing the benefits of unified economic and military policies in a region that is far from calm and friendly.

Al-Ahram Weekly Online : Located at:

The dilemma facing Islamists in the Arab world

Khairat al-Shater announced last week he was running for president under the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party.

This is a translation from the Portuguese of my column that appeared in the April 6, 2012, edition of O Globo:


From amid the chaos of the Arab Spring uprisings for over a year now, the Islamists have been emerging victorious in more than one Arab country. From Morocco to Tunisia, and now Egypt, they have won a majority of parliamentary seats in democratic and free elections. But it is at this moment of glory they are also facing an almost existential dilemma: To be conservative and rigid in their Islam, or must they be pragmatic and build alliances with other non-Islamist parties?

The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is perhaps the Islamist group that feels this challenge the most. Founded in 1928, the group was banned for the first time in 1948, when it had an estimated half a million members. In 1954 it was banned again by the nationalist President Gamal Abdul Nasser, and for decades after its members were brutally suppressed by the state, arrested and tortured. Islamists of the entire Arab world has also seen with alarm the brutal killing of up to 100,000 people in Algeria after the Islamists won a majority of seats in the first round of parliamentary elections in 1991 and the subsequent cancellation of the results by the Algerian military, which could not accept the victory of the Islamists.

The case of the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip since June 2007, also causes doubts in the minds of the Islamists on how much success an Islamist government an achieve in the region due to strong resistance against this type of ideology by Israel and the West. Formed as a branch of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in 1987, Hamas has always been a fundamentalist group of conservative thought and totally against any kind of peace with Israel. This has made life very difficult for Hamas, with economic and political embargoes against the group by the United States and the European Union who have classified the group as a terrorist. In contrast, the West Bank is ruled by Fatah, led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has always been secular and more willing to negotiate with the Israelis and Americans. You can see that despite the many restrictions imposed by Israel in the West Bank, and numerous Jewish settlements, the area is much calmer than the Gaza Strip, and therefore its Palestinian population suffers less than their relatives in Gaza.

The model of Turkey, which has been a secular republic since 1923, but has had an Islamist prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan of the Justice and Development Party, since 2002, is often cited as a good example of how to unite moderate Islam with democracy. But the founder of the republic, Mustafa Kamal Ataturk, acted brutally against the Islamists, banning the veil for women in his attempt to modernize Turkey at any cost, something that never happened in an Arab country.

The professor of international relations at Tufts University in the US, Malik Mufti, recently wrote a paper on how to transform Syria into a democracy in which the nationalist-secular camp is balanced with the Islamists. For this, he says it would take some sort of agreement between the secular and Islamist forces, as happened in Turkey, with all strongly accepting a diverse and pluralistic political system, holding the people as the source of political authority, and the embracement of democratic political parties and regular elections.

I see this limits to this endeavor because the conditions under which democracy grew in Turkey were due to circumstances specific to that country. Turkey is a NATO member since 1952, made a member so as to be a bulwark against the expansion of Soviet influence in the Middle East during the Cold War. This was crucial for modernizing, training and professionalizing the Turkish armed forces, which are the second largest force in NATO after the United States. Despite having participated in at least four coups against governments that the military thought were straying from the democratic and secular path, Mufti thinks that the Turkish military will ultimately not derail democracy in Turkey.

The problem I see in applying this concept in Egypt is that its armed forces, which are currently in power through the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, are unfortunately not as professional as the Turks, and do not have the confidence of a good part of the electorate, who thinks they want to stay on in power behind the scenes after a new president is elected in May.

Some members of the Brotherhood in Egypt have admitted being afraid of the dangers that can come with power. They do not want to provoke an unnecessary war with Israel or the United States, fully aware that a fight with one of these powers could cause a huge setback against the Islamists. The US and Israel, for their part, are not stupid, and seeing the size of the popular support that Islamists have garnered across he Arab world, are trying to befriend them. It remains to be seen how each side will play their cards.

The first time for millions of Egyptians

This is a translation from Portuguese of my column that appeared in the March 23, 2012, edition of O Globo:

Rasheed Abou-Alsamh

For the first time in 56 years, millions of Egyptians voters will be able to elect their president in democratic elections on May 24 and 25. Until now, Egyptians could only elect a president not through a multi-candidate election, but in a referendum in which they voted yes or no for a single candidate. Thus, Gamal Abdel Nasser was elected with 99.9 percent of the vote in 1956, and Hosni Mubarak elected five times in similar referendums until his overthrow in a popular revolution last year.

With a population of 85 million, and an electorate of nearly 52 million, Egypt has always been a power in the Arab world, especially in the areas of military strength, culture, education, and movies. It is not for nothing that people call Egypt in Arabic  “Umm Al Dunia” or “Mother of the World.” But with the overthrow of the dictator Mubarak and his secular party, the National Democratic Party, the political landscape was opened fully to the religious parties, previously banned for decades.

In recent parliamentary elections, the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Party for Freedom and Justice, banned until last year, and the Salafist parties, which are even more conservative, won an overwhelming majority, leaving the secularists and Christians afraid of what may come in the future. But it is foolish to believe the scaremongers who say that Egypt will ban the consumption of alcoholic beverages, will not let women wear swimsuits on the beaches and break off relations with Israel if the Islamists win the presidency. Several officials of the Muslim Brotherhood have said that despite not liking the Jewish state, they will not break the peace treaty signed by President Anwar Sadat in 1978.

And it is this pragmatism that the Islamists have which should calm the fears of the secularists and Christians. After all, tourism is a major source of income in the country, rendering Egypt a record $11 billion in 2008, when 12.8 million tourists visited the country. The Islamists must take into account that denying a frosty beer to that European or American tourist, after a long day of visiting the pyramids, would cause more damage to the economy than would be gained in moral points.

Egyptian voters will have a wide range of choices for the post of president, with at least 300 people trying to become candidates. Independent candidates will have to collect at least 30,000 signatures of voters from all provinces, or the support of 30 parliamentarians, so that their names appear on the ballot. But with the deadline for signatures only on April 8, there is still much speculation of who will run or not, and the Brotherhood announced that it would not reveal their choice for candidate until the deadline for the registration of candidates.

Still, we know the names of some candidates, like Amr Moussa, a career diplomat who was minister of foreign affairs (1991-2001) and head of the Arab League (2001-2011). He is well known both in Egypt and abroad, but may suffer from being associated with the Mubarak regime. He leads the polls with 26% of respondents choosing him as the future president of Egypt in a 2011 poll.

In the Islamist wing, the candidate who draws the most attention is Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh, a former member of the Muslim Brotherhood, who is a doctor by training. He spent, in total, more than six years in prison for opposing the policies of presidents Sadat and Mubarak, and stood out when he led the union of doctors, traditionally a stronghold of the Brotherhood. He is attracting the support of more traditional voters, as well as the support of younger ones, and even feminists and leftists. He has championed the need for complete civilian control of military and upholding civil rights.

And it is the all-powerful Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), which many Egyptians are watching with concern, hoping that they let the people decide who will rule them for the next five years. Many fear that the SCAF wants to have the last word on questions of governance, and that it will help politicians linked to the old Mubarak regime to stay in power.

We cannot emphasize enough how important this election will be not only for Egyptians, but also for the entire Arab world. All Arabs are closely monitoring this election as an important test of the uprisings of the Arab Spring. If the Egyptians manage to elect a president representing the majority of the population, and with full powers to govern, including control over the military, then yes, the Arab world will see that their revolts were worth it. They will also feel that they can see the light at the end of a dark tunnel of more than 50 years of living under dictatorships.

The limits of freedom of expression in Saudi Arabia

 This is a translation of my column that appeared in the Feb. 24, 2012 edition of O Globo:


The young Saudi journalist Hamza Kashgari could not have dreamed that his comments posted on Twitter on the birthday of Prophet Muhammad, on February 4, would have such shrill and dangerous consequences for him.

“I have loved things in you, and hated others,” wrote Hamza, 23, on Twitter, in an imaginary conversation with the Prophet Muhammad, who died over a thousand years ago. “If I saw you, I would not kiss you, but extend my hand to you as any other friend, and would smile at you. But I will not pray for you.”

As the founder of Islam, more than 1,400 years ago in Mecca, all Muslims revere Muhammad as an almost sacred person, that can never be criticized or have his teachings put into doubt. So it’s not so difficult to understand the fury of the reaction that exploded on Twitter and Facebook. More than 30,000 tweets about Hamza’s comments flew through cyberspace, mostly attacking the young former columnist for the daily Al-Bilad, with many calling him an apostate, which can lead to the death penalty in Saudi Arabia.

A group formed on Facebook, with over 8,000 members, asking for his death. Stunned by the backlash of believers across the Islamic world, Hamza removed his comments and then deleted his Twitter account altogether. He fled the country on February 9, but a few days later he was arrested in Malaysia when he tried to board a flight to New Zealand, where he planned to seek political asylum. The king of Saudi Arabia, Abdullah ibn Abdul Aziz, had ordered his arrest and the kingdom had allegedly activated Interpol to detain the young wherever he was in the world. Soon after, he was sent back to the kingdom, where he remains in detention awaiting trial.

Studious, Hamza grew up in a family of great faith, and memorized the entire Holy Qur’an, not an easy achievement. But, with his inquisitive mind, he began to devour books and, according to his mother, habitually locked himself in his room to read books and did not talk much with his family.

Days after he was arrested, she called a local religious TV program and pleaded for her son, crying while insisting that her son was a good boy, and that he had repented having made those comments. But that was not enough for Sheikh Nasser al-Omar, a religious leader and scholar, who cried in a lecture, that was filmed and later posted on YouTube, over the words that Hamza had dared to say about Prophet Muhammad.

“His repentance was said with cold words,” Sheikh Nasser said. “He’s being disingenuous, he should be executed. We must not engage in debates with atheists. But instead, we should warm up our swords to fight them.” He ended by repeating that Hamza should be tried by a Shariah court for apostasy and sentenced to death despite having repented.

But do not think that all of Saudi Arabia is in the Middle Ages. Thousands of Saudis shocked by the outpouring of intolerance against Hamza urged calm, good judgment and tolerance of a young man whose only sin was exposing the doubts of his faith on the Internet. Even Princess Basmah bin Saud al-Saud, a daughter of the late King Saud, wrote an open letter to King Abdullah and Crown Prince Naif, asking them to give a royal pardon to the young Hamza.

It is perhaps ironic that in a country where there is no freedom of expression, we find the largest number of Twitter users per capita in the Middle East, and where the billionaire Prince Alwaleed ibn Talal recently bought $300 million in shares of Twitter, which will give him a 6% stake in the company. But this is the other side of a society that few outside the region see: A predominately young and educated population, with 100,000 Saudis currently studying in the US on scholarships from the Saudi government. Religious, yes, but most moderate and wanting things that all young people want: Jobs, a less corrupt government and a voice in their future endeavors.

It is interesting to see how the Internet is being used by many young Saudis to express themselves and to hold leaders accountable for their actions. Twitter has an anonymous account that regularly denounces various excesses of princes, ranging from those who earn huge commissions on government contracts, or those who have huge palaces. And it is revealing that some of the princes have even responded to the accusations, defending themselves on Twitter, something that would never happen in traditional media that is tightly controlled by the government. On YouTube, several rookie filmmakers are gaining thousands of followers with their mini-series, of 15-minute episodes, which they post regularly, dealing with a wide variety of topics ranging from urban poverty to young love.

I do not think Hamza will be executed. He is being used as a scapegoat by the ultraconservatives in the country who do not like modernity. If the government can have him be tried by the Ministry of Information, he will likely just be fined and banned from writing for a few years. If tried in a Shariah court, he might be condemned to death. But then the king will intervene and forgive the young man. What I do know for sure is that the Internet, despite being heavily censored by the government, has changed forever the relationship between the Saudi people and their leaders, and is a channel of expression and communication that the government can never close.

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