Ready to be disappointed?

I had an interesting, albeit infuriating, conversation with a conservative friend of mine last week (yes, I do have conservative friends, can you believe that?). My friend said Saudis should not respond to the calls to protest posted on Facebook because if they do they would be ungrateful to their country. I was gobsmacked. “Huh?! What do you mean?” I asked.

“Our government has given us everything,” he said. “In the past, our nation was a made up of poor tribes fighting each other over food and water. Look at us now. Look at our cities, our universities, our hospitals. Our country is the homeland of Islam. You should thank your lucky stars you where born here. Those who call for change are evil, because they want to waste all these great things that we enjoyed for so long. They want to replace safety and stability with mayhem and chaos, and we must not let them achieve that.”

After he finished that monologue, I ended the conversation. There was no point in debating with him after he labeled all those who might have a different opinion as disloyal, ungrateful brats. Few days later, I wished that I did not end the conversation on that note. I wished I told him this:

Thanks to the vast oil wealth, our country had made some quick developments. But to put it the way you did is wrong and patronizing. We are not subjects; we are citizens. And when the government does what it should be doing (like building schools and hospitals), it is by no means doing us a favor, because this is their job and duty. And it is our right as citizens of a country that enjoys great resources to get a good education, proper health care, and high living standards. More importantly, it is our right to live in dignity, be free to speak our minds, and have a say in how our country is run.

When the so-called Friday of Rage finally came around, very little rage was actually seen on the street. Except for a man named Khaled, the streets remained awfully quiet thanks to the heavy presence of security forces. One picture from Olaya St. showed chains of police cars, bumper to bumper, on both sides of the street. What happened, or rather what did not happen, on Friday has shown that contrary to what some people said, the fear barrier has not been broken yet. But it has also shown how nervous the government was.

The very audible sigh of relief released by the government in the day after reveals that the government did not get the message of Friday. Or maybe that they chose to ignore the message. Who knows?

While we wait for the imminent cabinet reshuffle, the news came out that the next cycle of municipal elections will be held in September. I saw conflicting reports over the participation of women, though. Some reports said women will be allowed to vote but not allowed to run. Other reports said women will not be allowed to take part at all due to “social reasons.” Considering that the old councils have been useless, and that the elections have been delayed several times before, I wonder if the public really cares about this anymore.

Interestingly, the National Society for Human Rights (NSHR) came out with a statement on Tuesday calling for reforms and urging the government to expand public participation. The language of the statement is much, much weaker than what we have read in other reform petitions released in the past weeks. While the previous petitions call for a constitutional monarchy and a fully elected parliament, NSHR merely calls on the government to “look into electing some members of provincial councils and the Shoura Council.” NSHR is said to be close to the government.

Some observers suggested that the statement reflects the thinking of the government and what they are willing to offer at this point. Such offer will probably fall short of what many people want. If the government is serious about reform, the least they can offer now is a fully elected Shoura Council with some teeth. Anything less than that will be a disappointment, and I don’t think that most people are ready for more disappointments. We had quite a few of those in recent months.

About these ads

Now we’re talking

I know I said don’t expect what happened in Tunisia and Egypt to happen in Saudi Arabia anytime soon. But I also added that things are happening. In addition to the buzz in social media, the past week has seen the release of several statements and open letters demanding reform. There was a statement titled “Toward the State of Rights and Institutions,” and it was signed initially by more than 1500 people, including prominent names such as Sheikh Salman al-Auda. The statement was put up online on a website calling people to sign it if they agree with its premise. The website was blocked few days later, which could be an indicator of how the government feels about this.

Another statement came out around the same time by a group that became known as the “Feb. 23 Youth”. The signatories list is mainly made up of journalists and cyber activists. Mahmoud Sabbagh told Reuters that the group’s demands are “national reform, constitutional reform, national dialogue, elections and female participation.”

However, the most interesting statement so far has come out yesterday. It is called “A Declaration of National Reform”, [UPDATE 2/28 14:51ET: the website has been blocked in KSA] and I have translated it below. The statement is impressive in its content and the names of signatories, most of them considered liberals by Saudi standards, which makes it clear who stands where at this moment of Saudi history. Compared to the first two statements, this one has a much longer and more detailed list of demands directed at the government.

Yes, the ideas in these three statements overlap in some ways, but the diversity of signatories shows how, in the absence of organized political action, how the different individuals identify with each other. We are waiting to see the cabinet reshuffle that will be announced in the coming few days, but I remain pretty skeptical about the possibility of major reforms in the near future. The local papers these days are full of hypocrisy and flat-out lies about how the government has addressed people’s needs through the financial aid package, when in fact people want much more than that. These statements, I think, make it very clear what people really want.


A Declaration of National Reform

It is no secret that the revolutions of Tunisia and Egypt, and their aftermath of crises and changing political discourse in many Arab countries, have created circumstances in which we need to reevaluate our situation and do our best to reform before it is too late, and before we are confronted with developments whose consequences we cannot prevent nor predict.

A group of Saudi intellectuals have previously presented the Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques in January 2003 with a set of specific suggestions in a statement titled “A Vision for the Nation’s Present and the Future.” His Majesty has welcomed it then, and promised to consider it. Moreover, a number of senior officials announced later that the government is determined to adopt a wide range of reform policies in the state apparatus, and in its relationship with the Saudi society.

After a decade of those promises, very little of the promised reforms has been achieved. We believe that the delay in political reform has aggravated the problems which were referred to in the “Vision” document and the other statements that followed it.

The status quo is full of risks and causes for concern. We are witnessing with the rest of the Saudi people the decline of our country’s regional role, the stagnation of the government, the deterioration in the efficiency of the management, the prevalence of corruption and nepotism, fanaticism, and the increasingly widening gap between the state and society, especially the new generation of youth. This could lead to disastrous consequences on the country and the people, and it is something we cannot accept for our homeland and our children.

Addressing this situation requires a serious review and an immediate adoption of large-scale reforms by both the state and society, focusing on fixing the fundamental flaws in our political system, and leading the country to a well-grounded constitutional monarchy.

The people’s acceptance is the basis for legitimacy of the authority, and it is the only guarantee for unity, stability, the efficiency of governance, and protecting the country against foreign interference. This requires a reformulation of the relationship between society and the state, in which the people are the source of power, a full partner in deciding public policy through their elected representatives in the Shoura Council, and that the purpose of the state is to serve society, protect its interests, enhance the standard of living, and guarantee the dignity and honor of individuals and the future of their children.

Thus, we look forward to a royal declaration that clearly underlines the commitment of the state to become a “constitutional monarchy,” and to set a timetable that specifies a date for the beginning of desired reforms, the initiation of applying them, and the date of concluding them. The declaration has to confirm adopting the great objectives of reform, namely: the rule of law, full equality for members of the public, legal guarantees for individual and civil freedoms, popular participation in decision making, balanced development, uprooting poverty, and the optimum use of national resources.

In this regard, we see that the reform program should include the following:

First: The development of the Basic Law into a comprehensive constitution that serves as a social contract between the people and the state stating that the people are the source of power. The separation of the three branches of government: the executive, judicial and legislative; defining authorities, and tying them with responsibility and accountability; the equality of all citizens, the legal protection of individual and civil freedoms, ensure justice, equality of opportunity. Reaffirming the responsibility of the state in guaranteeing human rights, protecting the right to peaceful expression of opinion, and reinforce public freedoms, including the right to form political and professional associations.

Second: To emphasize the principle of the rule of law, and that everyone — statesmen and citizens — are under the law equally and without discrimination; and to incriminate improper handling of national resources or using them outside the framework of the law.

Third: the adoption of general election as a way to form municipal, provincial, and the Shoura Council; and the participation of women in nomination and election.

Fourth: The adoption of the principle of administrative decentralization, and granting local administrations in regions and governorates the necessary powers to establish effective, local government that can interact with the demands of citizens in each region.

Fifth: To activate the principle of the independence of the judiciary, by canceling all the bodies that play parallel roles outside the framework of the judicial system, and to have the courts presiding over the investigation with the accused and the conditions of prisoners, and public prosecution; and to cancel all the instructions and regulations that limit the independence of the judiciary and its effectiveness or limit the immunity of judges, or open the door to the interference in judiciary. The codification and standardization of provisions must be accelerated. ‘Tazir’ must be regulated. The international charters on Human Rights that our government has signed must become part of the judicial system. All of this to ensure justice, equality and discipline in the application of the provisions. The system of criminal procedures and legal defense system must be activated, preventing any action or conduct outside their framework or a breach of their limits.

Sixth: Accelerating the issuance of the non-governmental organizations law, which was approved by the Shoura Council, and opening the door to establishing civil society institutions in all forms and for all purposes, as a channel to rationalize and shape public opinion, and increase popular participation in decision-making.

Seventh: Despite widespread debate on women’s rights in Saudi Arabia, the government had failed to take adequate action to fulfill the requirements of this pressing issue. Ignoring or postponing the rights of women contributes to deepening the problems of poverty and violence, and undermines the contribution of the family in improving the quality of education. What is required is to take legal and institutional measures to empowering women to attain their rights to empower women in order to gain their rights in education, ownership, work and participation in public affairs without discrimination.

Eighth: The issuance of legislation banning discrimination between citizens, for any reason and under any justification. The legislation must criminalizes any practice that involves sectarian, tribal, regional, racial, ethnic or any other type of discrimination. The law must also criminalize hate speech for any reasons, religious or otherwise. Implementing a strategy for national integration that explicitly recognizes the social and cultural diversity of the Saudi society, and affirms respect for this diversity and considers it a source of enrichment for national unity and social peace. We need an effective strategy for national integration to that can rectify the situation of groups that suffer from exclusion, marginalization and denial of rights due to any of the above reasons, and to compensate them for what they have undergone.

Ninth: King Abdullah’s decision to set up the Human Rights Commission and the National Society of Human Rights was a promising step. But we find now that both HRC and NSHR have turned into what looks like a bureaucracy with a limited role in the defending the rights of citizens. One of the reasons for this decline is the government’s interference in the appointment of these bodies members, as well as the refusal of many government agencies to deal with them. Guarding the rights of citizens and residents, and protecting them against injustice, must be at the top of the priorities for the government and society. Therefore, we demand the removal of restrictions imposed on HRC and NSHR, and to ensure their independence within the framework of the law. We also call for legalizing the right to form other non-governmental organizations for the defense of human rights.

Tenth: There is no dignity without decent living. Our country has been blessed, but a large segment of our citizens complain of poverty and neediness. We have witnessed the slowness of the government in addressing the problem of unemployment and housing, and improving the quality of life, particularly in rural areas and suburbs, and among the retired and the elderly. There is no justification for the failure to develop solutions to these problems. We believe that not raising these issues for general debate, ignoring the role of the private sector and civil society when thinking about such problems, and to see it from a purely commercial perspective, had turned these problems into dilemmas, and it has become one of the reasons and to humiliate citizens and restricting them.

Eleventh: the past years revealed the aggravation of tampering with public funds, which requires the elected Shoura Council to use its powers to monitor government agencies and keep them accountable. The Council can establish structures and independent bodies capable of carrying out monitoring functions, the declare their findings to the people, especially those related to the administrative corruption, misuse of power, and mismanagement of public funds by government agencies. We reaffirm the need for the adoption of the principle of transparency and accountability, and the establishment of an institutional framework to ensure these principles by a) establishing a national for integrity that enjoys independence and declares the results of its investigations to public opinion; b) enabling the citizens to obtain access to the use of public funds by government agencies, and abolishing restrictions that prevent the press from exposing transactions suspected of being involved in corruption.

Twelfth: Oil revenues have jumped over the past five years to high levels, providing the government with huge funds that should have been used and spent wisely, rather than squander them in expensive, cost-ineffective projects. We call for a review of the foundations used as basis for the five-year development plans, and to adopt a long-term strategy for overall development, focusing on expanding the base of national production, building the base for alternative economic sources, creating jobs, and including the private sector in deciding economic policies.

In conclusion, we reiterate our call for the political leaders to adopt the reform proposals.

In order to show the goodwill and determination to reform, four steps must be taken immediately:

  1. A royal declaration that confirms the government’s intention to introduce political reform, and to set a timetable to initiate it and apply it.
  2. the immediate release of political prisoners, and to present those who committed crimes to trial without delay, while ensuring the necessary judicial guarantees for each of the accused.
  3. Lifting the travel ban orders that have been imposed on a large number of people who expressed their opinions.
  4. Removing the restrictions imposed on the freedom of publishing and expression, and to enable the citizens to express their opinions publicly and peacefully. And to stop prosecuting those who express their opinion in a peaceful manner.

As we make this declaration to our political leaders and the citizens of our country, we reaffirm the solidarity of all, the people and the government, in the face of the dangers facing us, and to avoid any unexpected surprises. We trust that all of us have learned the lessons from what happened in brotherly Arab countries.

Facing challenges can only be achieved through serious, comprehensive and immediate reform that embodies popular participation in decision-making, enhances national cohesion, and meets the people’s aspirations in a glorious homeland

Egypt is Free

One month ago, when I wrote Tunisia is free, I hoped for a domino effect to sweep the Middle East. I didn’t really expect that to happen, but that was my hope anyway. And oh boy, how little did I know. What followed Tunisia was Egypt. If what happened in Tunisia was huge, then what happened in Egypt was is enormous by all standards. I don’t think anybody even imagined any of this few months ago. This country is the most populous Arab country, the cultural heart of the Arab world. And it was the youth of Egypt who did it. We are in for some interesting times in the Middle East, and I can’t wait to live them. Before I leave you with this brief video that I shot of Egyptians and Arabs celebrating in Queens, allow me to say that I’m extremely proud of my Egyptian friends: Alaa, Manal, Mona, Wael, Sandmonkey, Noha, Shahi, Eman, Ahmad, Wael, Gamal, and all the heroes of this revolution. You have given the world a great example for peaceful protest and nonviolent resistance, and you have been inspiration for all of us.

Egypt uprising, Wahabi numbers, Khashoggi, women in municipal elections, and other stuff

  • The uprising continues in Egypt, where protesters in Tahrir Square remain defiant. Sandmonkey, one of the demonstrators, has two good blogposts that you should read. Many people have been asking me if what happened in Egypt could happen in Saudi Arabia. The short answer is no. Saudi Arabia, and the other five GCC countries, are politically and economically more stable. That doesn’t mean things are not happening in the magic Kingdom. With more than 3.5m people on Facebook, and a rise of Twitter usage by more than 400%, young Saudis are becoming more engaged than ever in the effort to reform.
  • Blogger Saeed al-Wahabi has this really interesting post about the generational divide in Saudi Arabia between the leadership and the population. Al-Wahabi did some simple math to calculate the average age for officials in different parts of the government, and these are some of his findings: the average age of ministers is 65; the average age of governors is 61; and the average age of Shoura Council members is 61. Similar numbers are found when we try to see the ages in the Supreme Judicial Council, the Supreme Ulema Council, and even members of King Abdul-Aziz Center of National Dialogue. Now compare the aforementioned numbers with these two numbers: 70% of the population is under 30, and average age of Saudi citizens is 19 years old.
  • Arab News reports that a group of Saudi women has launched a Facebook campaign calling the government to allow women to participate in the upcoming municipal elections. Arab News, being the dead tree paper that they are, failed to link the group. Here is a link. This is not the first time we hear of such calls. Problem is, the elections that were originally scheduled for 2009, have been indefinitely postponed. The paper says the elections will be held this year. I see no signs of that happening.
  • Jamal Khashoggi, the former editor of Al Watan daily, is working with Prince Al Waleed bin Talal, the Saudi billionaire and country’s richest man, to launch a news channel. No word on when the new channel will start, but from what I heard they are still in the very early stages of planning and they have not hired anyone yet. Contrary to rumors that surfaced earlier, there won’t be a partnership with Fox News. That makes sense. A source close to Khashoggi told me that they are seeking to partner with Bloomberg, but no deal has been signed yet.
  • New Scientists: “Almost two thousand potential archaeological sites in Saudi Arabia have been discovered from an office chair in Perth, Australia, thanks to high-resolution satellite images from Google Earth.” I wonder what Sultan bin Salman and his friends at SCTA have to say about this.
    Having your first name as your handle on Twitter, like I do, is cool. But it comes with a cost: you get a lot of random replies that are not necessarily directed to you.

Egypt: Domino Effect in Action?

I have been glued to the TV (and the laptop, the iPad and the iPhone) over the past few days, closely watching the events unfolding in Egypt. Thrilled to see Egyptians uprise against Mubarak, and concerned over the safety of my friends in the streets of Cairo. The regime has been trying to cut off the country from the rest of the world by shutting down the internet and mobile telecommunication. Obama statement was very disappointing, but I guess that doesn’t matter now. What matters is that the Egyptian people are standing up for their rights, and I hope that they won’t stop until they get them. Al Jazeera English is providing a great coverage, and CNN International is also doing a decent job, but I pay most of my attention to what people are saying on Twitter. This is the domino effect in realtime. Below are some pictures that I took during a demonstration held near the UN here in New York earlier today:

The Arab World Demographic Dilemma: Young, Unemployed, and Searching for a Voice

Arab youth confront daunting challenges, including a lack of economic opportunities, constraints on their freedom of expression, and the complex and shifting nature of their own Arab identity. How the Arab world meets these challenges will have significant ramifications for the Middle East and the world. This special panel discussion marks the release of America Abroad’s three-part public radio series on youth in the Arab World.

Moderator Deborah Amos, foreign correspondent of NPR News who has covered the Middle East extensively, started by saying that as a reporter in the region you notice the young population, but most of the people she interviews are usually over 30. “If you overlook this generation, you miss something essential about the Middle East,” she said.

Marc Lynch, aka Abu Aardvark, Director of the Institute for Middle East Studies, George Washington University, believes that one thing is clear: sheer magnitude of the crisis facing youth in the Middle East. Lynch said many in the West focus on a small group of activists and bloggers, but miss the silent struggle of tens of millions of people. Those people are and their issues are also ignored by their own governments, who seem to think that as long as they can keep these young people off the street then they are doing a good job. Lynch said the recent events in Tunisia and Algeria is particularly interesting because it could have a domino effect all over the Arab World. But when it comes to political ramifications of these events, he wonders if it is going to lead to a substantial change in policy, or just to more repression and bloodshed. This kind of spontaneous uprising and dissent has no place to go because there are not political or social movements involved in it. Lynch said the greatest single thread that combines what is happening in the Arab World right now is the failure of the system to deal with systematic problems, as well as the failure of outside intervention plans. “The tools we have might not be appropriate, and the dynamics are don’t look familiar,” he said. “It’s exciting and troubling.”

Christine Capacci-Carneal, is the Education Development Officer of USAID, and she works primarily with USAID-funded programs in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, West Bank/Gaza and Yemen. Based on her experience in youth development programs, Capacci-Carneal said that youth are a sophisticated group with many subgroups, and that’s why a problem-based approach is less effective than a comprehensive approach. “Problem free is not fully prepared,” she said. As an example for working with that approach, Capacci-Carneal talked about Youth:Work Jordan, which tries to engages youth directly, but also tries to solve systematic issues by targeting youth in poor districts and working with local organizations. She commended the efforts of the program, but admitted that one of the problems they faced is that they have had a hard time building political will and institutional capacity to sustain that effort. Other challenges facing such programs include how to address building a stronger youth voice and a stronger sense of identity then let local organizations join in that effort. Also, how do ensure that your using the available funding efficiently? Capacci-Carneal said USAID is working to develop better research tools to know what works best.

Lina Khatib, who runs the Good Governance and Political Reform in the Arab World at the Center on Democracy, Development, and the Rule of Law in Stanford University, wanted to focus on youth and freedom of expression in the Arab World. She said that social media has opened up further space for views on many topics that were considered once taboo such as politics, sex, and religion. “No doubt interactive media pushed the boundaries for what’s permissible,” she said, and that young people are no longer willing to accept the status quo as the norm. Khatib has also given the recent example of Tunisia, where Mohamed Bouazizi set himself on fire in what she described as “a desperate plea for the issues of arab youth.” But she added what gives her hope is that young people have not given up and continues their struggle, and thanks to the fact that we live in a world of globalized media, and no authoritarian regime in the Middle East can fully stop the circulating of information. “Youth need a strategy to reach goals,” she concluded, “not just enough to say what they want, but also a way to find what to do.”

Diane Singerman, the associate professor at the American University School of Public Affairs, decided to focus on a slightly different angle on the issues facing Arab youth today. This issues, she said, was extremely ignored: the question of marriage. In the Arab World, adulthood equals being married. However, it is very expensive to get married, and because of the high unemployment rate it is difficult for young people to work and save for marriage. This leads to what she called “wait-hood,” the stage between childhood and adulthood that can only be reached by getting married. Signerman cited the example of Egypt, which has the latest age of marriage anywhere in the world outside china. According to studies, 50 percent of men in Egypt are unmarried, and when they do get married they get married later and later. That’s why youth unemployment should be seen in the lens of getting married, Singerman said. Young men are political excluded because of repression, economically hurting because of unemployment, and because they can’t make money to get married they become socially excluded.

Apologies for posting much later than expected due to some technical difficulties.

Alexandria… Why?

After I returned from my trip to Egypt last February, I wrote, “Egypt Air seriously needs to consider a rebranding.” One month later, an Egyptian blogger wrote about the same thing. (Is it just me or is the third paragraph of his post is almost identical to the first paragraph of my post?) Anyway, few weeks later, Egypt Air indeed announced a rebranding, updating their logo and colors, and becoming Egyptair.

Why I’m bringing this up now? Because today I will be taking one of their planes to visit the land of the Nile again for a few days. I will be speaking at a conference organized by the International Federation of Library Associations and Institutions (IFLA). The conference will tackle the Role of Libraries in Freedom of Expression, Tolerance, and Access to Information, and it will take place at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina in Alexandria.

I’m looking forward to be there and meet the people. If you would like to do a bloggers meet up or something like that, please drop me a line.