Rants from Beirut

Sorry about the hiatus. I’m back in town after a few days in Beirut, and No, I wasn’t there to enjoy the Eid break. I was invited by the World Association of Newspapers (WAN) to participate at the 3rd Arab Free Press Forum. I was a speaker at last year’s event and I had a good time there. This year, my friend Fouad al-Farhan was invited to speak on a discussion panel on the changing face of Arab blogging. Unfortunately, Fouad was stopped at Jeddah airport and was told that he is banned from leaving the country.

I was in Riyadh airport preparing to take my plane to Beirut when I received the disturbing news which made me upset. What happened to Fouad reminded me with other good people in this country also banned from traveling despite what they have contributed to this nation. People who sacrificed their freedom to promote free speech, human rights and justice. It is truly sad that such people are treated this way, especially in these times that carried the signs of reform and hope for a better future.

However, Saudi Arabia was not alone in this shameful act. Syria and Tunisia followed suit by banning two journalists and a human rights activist from traveling to attend the event. In his opening remarks, Timothy Balding, CEO of WAN, thanked the authorities of Tunisia, Saudi Arabia and Syria for this eloquent and timely demonstration of their contempt for, and fear of, free expression. Of course this is not surprising. According to the latest Annual Worldwide Press Freedom Index released by RSF, the three countries ranked 143, 161 and 159 out of 173.

Now coming to the forum’s sessions, the first one dealt with new tactics used by governments and the judiciary to impede and sanction the independent press. In his introduction, the moderator described these new tactics as oblique or subtle. But Ibrahim Essa, editor-in-chief of Al Dastour daily in Egypt refused such description, saying the Arab governments are not cleaver enough to employ such tactics. “I think Arab governments are stupid and repressive and they don’t need to resort to oblique tactics. Our governments don’t need to resort to oblique tactics because they are blunt,” he added.

The second session, on which Fouad was supposed to speak, focused on the Arab blogging scene. Interestingly, and maybe not surprisingly, the three presenters are all living and writing from outside their countries. Syrian blogger Mohammed al-Abdullah talked about restrictions on the internet in his country and the evolution of the Syrian blogosphere. He said the bloggers have become a source of information for Syrian citizens, despite all the constraints and obstacles for even just being on the internet. Mohammed left Syria after being arrested twice and facing a third arrest (his father and brother are both in jail).

Sami Ben Gharbia, as usual, was awesome. He talked about Tunisia’s sophisticated internet blocking apparatus, and how bloggers and activists have used Web 2.0 technologies to find and use innovative ways around the system.

But I have to say that it was Kizzie Shawkat, the blogger from Sudan, that I felt I could relate to her story the most. Kizzie started blogging because she had no venue to express her opinion, but quickly found herself in a role where she was providing a view of her country from a different perspective from official sources. I agree with her that blogging has become an important forum for social activism, and I think this could lead the way for other kinds of activism in the future. “You have to allow people to express themselves and we’re not used to doing that,” she concluded.

While the third discussion panel of the day that addressed editorial policies, trends and innovations in Arab newsrooms was not particularly interesting to me, the first day of the conference ended with much drama as four Tunisian government officials interrupted the presentation of a new report by the Tunisia Monitoring Group about the lack of freedom in Tunisia. The Tunisian officials broke into a shouting match with the speakers and other attendees who found themselves quite amused by those officials who shamelessly embarrassed themselves.

The second day of the conference had only one panel which discussed the business of newspaper publishing in the Arab World. Later on the day, we witnessed the ceremony of the Gebran Tueni Award. This year’s prize was handed out to Ibrahim Essa, who was recently pardoned by his country’s president, but still facing 32 lawsuits.

Away from the conference, and although Fouad’s travel ban left a dark shadow on the trip, it was as always good to be back to Beirut and meet friends and fellow bloggers. The city was filled with tourists and visitors, many of them Saudis, but I avoided hanging out in their favourite spots. I want to thank my friend Buthaina for taking me to the Comedy Night show, where Mario Bassil and his colleagues entertained us for more than 2 hours and made fun of almost every single Lebanese politician. I want also to thank my friend Alex for the good times, especially at Club Sociale in Gemayzie where we enjoyed a lovely performances by Hiba Mansouri and Zeid Hamdan aka shift Z.

Finally, I want to leave you with this interesting column (Arabic) by Yahia al-Ameer. He argues that what makes Beirut attractive to Saudis is not its touristic spots like Raouche, Solider or Aley but rather the freedom, diversity and individuality they can touch here, which represents a stark contrast to the conformity of their society. You think this is the case? Discuss.

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17 thoughts on “Rants from Beirut

  1. He argues that what makes Beirut attractive to Saudis is not its touristic spots like Raouche, Solider or Aley but rather the freedom, diversity and individuality they can touch here, which represents a stark contrast to the conformity of their society. You think this is the case? Discuss.
    ————————————————-

    Come on Ahmed, we both know that’s not the case. *nudgenudgewinkwink*

  2. This was an interesting post. I find it interesting (in an irritating type of way) that a person can be restricted from leaving the country. It’s pretty disgusting that just because you were born in a specific geographical location, that you have people in those regions who want to tell you how “not” to act, what “not” to say, and what you can “not” do. I

    Of course, I have no room to comment on or discuss what makes Beirut attractive to Saudi’s. I would suspect any place in which a Saudi could go and “let their hair down” would be a welcome break.

    Welcome Back!!

  3. I find it so disturbing that any country thinks it has the right from banning its people from leaving. Unless a person has committed a criminal act causing bodily harm to another human being, their freedom (let alone freedom to travel) should never be taken away from them. It’s truly revolting. And suppressing to a very basic human right.

  4. “It is truly sad that such people are treated this way, especially in these times that carried the signs of reform and hope for a better future.”

    You really shouldn’t expect much out of the saudi government, which like every other authoritarian regime, tries to restrict its people and limmit their freedoms in any way possible. In an absolute monarchy such as Saudi Arabia ppl dont have a voice and they probably never will, until some serious change is implemented at the higher levels of government.

  5. From a legal point of view, the right to travel is not considered a human right per se and therefore not considered in any of the so called “international bill of rights”. However, the right to travel freely is considered a fundamental right practiced and respected in some constitutions and thus could be considered as part of customary international law. This being said, disregard any legal argument when it comes to Saudi Arabia … we have good old ambiguous Shari’ah to rely on and most times excuse ourselves.
    On a second thought …. a ban on travel in Saudi is not ruled by a court of any sort, it is ordered by the Ministry of Interior hence it is an executive decision and not a judiciary one (if such distinction is valid) hence “travel” is not a right but a privilege…. It is actually the only country in the world where it is used as a mean of punishment and proved an affective one too :)
    And boy is it so easy to get a travel ban on someone … if you know which strings to pull. I am reluctant to say that back when I was practicing I managed to secure one … but although it wasn’t through a judicial channel, I truly believe it served justice in that instant case.

  6. guys, do you know what i find hard to understand? it is a bit off topic but still relates to this topic. how could saudi arabia have become a member of the wto (world trade organisation) with such abysmal records of human rights abuses? saudi is also a member state of the united nations and similar organisations. does it mean that basically these entities are simply worthless and stand for nothing but financial gain (to which saudi can unquestionably contribute)? i find it so disturbing.

  7. ‘take the money’ …. FUN FACTS:
    Saudi Arabia is not only an ascending member to the UN Charter, but also an elected member of the UN Commission on Human Rights since 2006 :)
    Keep in mind the the HR Commissioner’s position is the most prestigious in the UN after the Secretary General.
    WTO membership is still undergoing talks due to the lack of codified laws and absence of reciprocity in commercial relations. Human rights issues are secondary in WTO negotiations but nonetheless a pressure tool.
    You would be mistaken to think that Saudi is in a dictating position in negotiations, we want (need) to join WTO by hook or crook.

  8. He argues that what makes Beirut attractive to Saudis is not its touristic spots like Raouche, Solider or Aley but rather the freedom, diversity and individuality they can touch here, which represents a stark contrast to the conformity of their society. You think this is the case? Discuss.

    Saudi Jeans,

    I am an occasional reader of your blog and enjoy it very much. To answer your question, yes, I believe so. I lived in Bahrain in 03-04 and pretty much kept inside during weekend nights to avoid the “Saudi rush” as it is said by some. They change into Western clothing and pick up women and drink, etc. I am certain that many do not do such things but want to come over and just see some movies but they are generally known for the former.

    anthrogeek10

  9. From a legal point of view, the right to travel is not considered a human right per se and therefore not considered in any of the so called “international bill of rights”.

    Correct!! There are distinctions between human rights and civil rights. Here is an excerpt from an essay I wrote for school.

    Dr. Joseph Martos, a retired professor of Philosophy and Theology (who happens to be my uncle) wrote a discourse titled, ‘May God Bless America: George W. Bush and Biblical Morality’. In this book, among other things clearly distinguishes civil rights from human rights. Many lay people use these terms interchangeably and then meanings are not clear. According to Dr. Martos, “Civil rights are those rights that citizens have, and they are granted by law.”(2004:135) A good example would be The Civil Rights Movement in the 1960’s; African-Americans fighting for their civil rights to be treated as equal citizens. In contrast, “human rights, unlike civil rights, are those rights that all human beings have, and they are given (as the Declaration of Independence says) by God. Such rights are unalienable, that is, they cannot be taken away, although they can be violated.” (2004:135) He continues to explain in detail what human rights are. One of those examples is the right to life. (2004:135)

    So, the right to travel is a civil right, although to the one not allowed to leave, it probably feels like a human right.

    anthrogeek10

  10. I simply want to say that I respect you for your intelligent approach to educating the world of Saudi’s ongoing growth and evolution as a nation. I worked there from the time the internet did not exist until very recently, and the changes that are underway are encouraging…

    For ordinary and privileged (ie. wealthy/positioned) people are hungry for the best of what has long been denied them and are seeking balance — that sustenance of culture that makes Saudi so special, that traditionalism steeped in honor COMBINED WITH the choice and freedom of expression then enables all to a dignified life.

    I really commend you. Keep up the important work and go well.

  11. If the SA government has a problem with Fouad, why don’t the kick him out of the country when he leaves instead of disallowing him to leave? Sounds like they don’t like him – so why do they want to keep him there?

    Do you think saudis prefer beirut over dubai and abu dhabi for letting their hair down? Why or why not?

  12. hi there,
    i am hiba al- mansouri, the singer from club sociale… i just want to say that i agree with every thing u said about beirut, now regarding ur friend’s situation,i find it really suck that ur goverment controles ur action, travelling must be concidered as a human right! God created earth for us! we shuld be able to wander in it as we please…
    anyways, we live on hope so let’s hope that this “law” changes soon.
    finally i want to thank you 4 the nice words and i’m glad that you enjoyed the show. i hope you’ll be able to come to beirut and watch our new shows…i promis you it’s better than ever now :)
    best regards
    Hiba

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