Guest Post: What will happen in April 23? And why?

By Eman al-Guwaifli

What will happen?

The elections process to choose municipal elections will start on April 23 with voters registration, and it will end by casting ballots on September 23. Starting from this moment, the scenario of this upcoming summer seems very clear.

On April 23, the voters registration will begin, and the numbers will be very low (in 2005, the number of voters in Riyadh was 140,000 Saudi men out of 1.9 million Saudi males living there). The polling stations will be dead empty, and despite this, the Saudi press will continue its coverage, singing praise for the “baby steps of democracy,” justifying that by saying “it fits us,” that it is in line with “the lack of awareness” in our society and the domination of its traditional structure, the ignorance of democratic mechanisms, and the lack of making responsible choices, etc.

Also, the same press will focus on the competition between candidates they will call Islamists, and others they will call liberals, and they will say the competition between the two parties is heated, and that they are electoral blocs being formed in secret, and “golden lists, blessed lists, appeals, joy and battles…” The press will cover the events of the different camps, and the mercenaries will have a golden opportunity: preachers, self-improvement trainers, folk poets, journalists and actors. On September 22, the ballot boxes will open, and it will be a culmination of all the comicality and hollowness in the scene.

There will be local and foreign journalists who will watch what is going on, ready to describe the scene of “elections in Saudi Arabia” using that ridiculous word they usually use when they write about our local stories: “Interesting.” And it becomes even more ridiculous when the scene is not ambiguous or confusing, but rather very obvious and clear. And questions will be asked about the significance of what is going on, “Why?”, and the answer will be imposed by those who shout higher than the rest.

Why?

I wrote this post specifically to answer this question. What is going to happen is clear to me from now. The announcement of the return of the municipal elections was not welcomed on the Internet (see #Intekhab). Some bloggers and writers have announced they will boycott the elections for different reasons, and it seems that this circle will expand to include other social forces and diverse elites. In such a situation, facing a “democratic practice” in a very non-democratic society, it does not seem that a silent boycott is enough.

When a non-democratic society silently boycott the only available democratic practice, it would be easy for many parties to impose their own interpretation of the scene. Inevitably, there would be those who will say the low voters turnout reflects “the Saudi people’s rejection of democracy which they view as bad innovation” as Jihad al-Khazen did recently on BBC. This message will come from religious and semi-official institutions, and its echo will be heard in the local press. I can see from now the international media present like they did on March 11 to film the empty streets, filming the empty polling stations and receiving explanations from local dignitaries who will tell them that the Saudi society “still don’t realize the importance of democracy, is not ready to practice it, and the evidence is what you see…” If this happens, it will a hijacking of scene’s meaning allowed by the silent boycott. That’s why I believe that those who boycott the elections should declare their reasons. When deliberately refrain from casting your vote in the ballot box, you should cast that vote in another place.

Why am I boycotting the elections?

It may seem a bit comical for a woman to write this sentence, because women are not allowed to vote anyway, and some men have announced they will boycott the elections for precisely this reason. But I would boycott the elections even if women were given the right to take part. The problem is more than simply excluding women from elections, it is in the elections themselves.

The municipal elections deserve to be boycotted because it will take place in 2011. The logic of this year is different from the logic of 2005. At the time the talk was about “early signs of democracy,” “moving toward popular participation,” “first step,” and “an experiment.” This talk was acceptable then to some extent. But it is 2011, a year in which the revolutions have shaken the traditional thinking of gradual change. The revolutions have also changed that reluctance about the importance of popular participation to become more prominent in the public conscience as a necessity that no country can function without. In such circumstances, this conscience cannot accept the municipal elections because they are another incarnation of the “gradual change” myth. Moreover, the municipal elections in their current form (only half of the councils is elected) have nothing to do with any form of democracy and popular participation!

The municipal elections deserve to be boycotted because democracy is not a ballot box. Democracy is about conceding power to the people. When the ballot box does not lead to conceding power to people and using this power effectively, then the ballot box does not lead to democracy. The municipal councils had no impact on the lives of people, and the comical manner in which their mandate has been extended for two years shows that they have nothing to do with the power of the people or delegating that power from them. How can an elected councilman gets his power from voters, then keeps to exercise it thanks to a government decision? This is, by the way, why democratic countries hold elections on schedule, because an elected official cannot continue to use his power without the consent of those — the voters — who have given him this power in the first place.

Have you noticed that they are using the same excuses that they have used to exclude women in 2004? The lack of separate polling stations for women, the need to learn from the experience with a promise to take part the next time around, etc. During the past seven years, we have built KAUST and sent 80,000 students to study abroad but somehow we still can’t prepare polling stations for women’s participation. Due to all this comicality and lack of seriousness, the municipal elections deserve to be boycotted.

I believe the elections deserve to be boycotted because they are not serious enough, because they are preposterous, and because their results don’t really affect my life. I boycott the only elections in Saudi Arabia because at this moment and more than anytime before, I want democracy, and the way I see it is through a fully elected parliament with a legislative authority and powers of oversight and accountability. I’m boycott the municipal elections because they mock my dreams.

So…

If you are going to boycott the elections then write (in the blog, Twitter, Facebook) why you are doing that. This is a national duty now.

If you are a Saudi journalist or writer who thinks of writing about the “society that don’t understand the importance of elections,” please reconsider.

If you are a foreign journalist, please don’t believe those will tell you that we are boycotting because “we don’t understand, we are not ready…” Consider my opinion. And whatever you are going to write, please, don’t call the municipal elections “interesting,” please!

Eman al-Guwaifli is a Saudi columnist. You can find her on Twitter: @Emanmag. The Arabic version of this post was first published here.

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Saudi Municipal elections, weekend change, walk in the DQ

  • After several postponements, the Saudi government finally decided to move ahead with the long-delayed municipal elections. Surprisingly, they now seem in a rush to get it over with: voter registration opens on April 23rd, and the elections will be held on September 22nd. Women, however, will not be allowed to participate. “We are not ready for the participation of women in these municipal elections,” Election Commissioner Abdul Rahman Al-Dahmash told Arab News. I think we deserve a better explanation. I have some harsh words to the elections commission, but for now let me just quote John Burgess: “Dude. It’s been nearly six years since the last election … What have you been doing in the meantime?”
  • It’s been almost four years since the Shoura Council shot down a proposal to move the weekend in Saudi Arabia from Thursday-Friday to Friday-Saturday. Not much has happened since then, but al-Riyadh daily somehow thinks it is time to talk about this again (English here), especially after government employees and students were given Saturday off upon the King’s return. They asked seven citizens, and they all agreed that changing the weekend would be a good thing. The paper did not think it was necessary to ask anyone in in the government or Shoura Council.
  • Speaking of Shoura, the toothless council has called for more media freedom. I wish I can take this council or anything it says seriously, but I really can’t. All members of the council are appointed. Do we actually expect them to be anything but yes-men?
  • Jehan took a walk at the wadi of Riyadh’s Diplomatic Quarter, aka the DQ, and returned with some nice photos. Although I complained before about how hard it is to enter the DQ, I have to say that I actually miss the place. My memories of the place are bittersweet, but I miss it nevertheless. If you live in the city and have access to the DQ you probably want to take advantage of the nice weather these days and enjoy a walk there.

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.

Women in Municipal Councils

While the municipal elections have been indefinitely postponed, much to the dismay of many reform-minded Saudis, al-Hayat daily published a story today about an interesting development. According to the paper, the municipal councils have been secretly discussing a request by the ministry seeking the councils’ opinion on opening the doors to women to become members of the councils.

Unsurprisingly, councilmen are divided on the matter. While some of them welcome the inclusion of women in their chambers, other councilmen have their reservations. Abdulmuhsen Al al-Shiekh who heads Makka’s municipal council said he is against having women in the council, whether they were elected or appointed. He, however, is not against having women as voters.

This position might seem odd, but it’s actually similar to the position taken by some Islamists in Kuwait when the government there decided to give women their political rights and allow them to vote and run in the parliamentary elections.

Lame

It’s official now. The municipal elections will be put off for two years, but instead of saying we are delaying the elections the government came out today saying they will extend the mandate of municipal councils by two years. Classic. They said they want to give time to “expand the participation of citizens in the management of local affairs” and to draft new regulations for the councils toward this goal.

Let me repeat what I said back in October of last year, that’s a lame excuse. The unannounced reason could be simply that the government does not want to deal with the issue of women’s participation in the election as voters and candidates. Considering how negligible these councils have been since they have been elected four years ago, I don’t think most people here would be alarmed by the delay.

So much for our infant democratic experience…

Municipal Elections Postponed

Saudi Arabia’s upcoming municipal elections are likely to be put off for at least two years, informed sources told Saudi Gazette last week. The elections are scheduled for 2009, but the sources said they might be postponed while the government conducts a study to evaluate the previous cycle. Sounds like a lame excuse, if you ask me. Why is it only now that they are thinking about studying the previous elections and their results? Isn’t this supposed to be an ongoing process since day 1? Why does it sound like an afterthought?

When I voted back in 2005 I thought I was making history. But shortly after the municipal councils were formed, disappointment quickly replaced excitement and pride. News emerged on how religious leaders manipulated elections using so-called “golden lists.” We found the councils to be powerless, handicapped by rigid regulations. Appointing the other half of council members seemed to harm more than help. When public frustration over the performance of the councils made its way to the media, elected members defended themselves saying they could only work within the very limited space given to them.

Earlier this year, five members of Hail municipal council resigned because they felt it was useless to occupy seats with virtually no power. But the resignation which attracted more media attention was that of Abdullah al-Suwailim, member of Riyadh municipal council, who resigned in protest to what he described as violations of Islamic rules during this year’s Eid Al-Fitr festivities in the city, namely: the lack of segregation of single men from families, non-Muslims entertaining audiences and live music that was played in one of the theatrical productions.

It is true that the previous elections were far from perfect and suffered from many notable shortcomings, but putting off the elections is not the answer. Postponing the elections raises serious concerns over the country’s commitment to reform and democratization. I believe that King Abdullah is committed to reform, and this has been obvious in the agenda he has pushed over the past few years. However, many officials show ignorance and indifference to this agenda, as well as a complete disregard to the aspirations of citizens who dare to dream of a better Saudi Arabia.