Islamists Change View of Elections; Reformers Heartened by Results
Byline: Rasheed Abou-Alsamh, THE WASHINGTON TIMES
JIDDA, Saudi Arabia - Saudi reformers are finding cause for optimism in Saudi Arabia's historic elections this month, even though the winners were almost all committed Islamists.
"The elections were a success in that the Islamists decided that democracy and elections were not against Islam," said Khalid Al-Dukhayil, a professor of political sociology at King Saud University in Riyadh.
"Before, they used to say that elections were 'haram' [not Islamic], but not anymore. In that way, the elections in the Riyadh region were a victory for liberals, too," he said.
With the Bush administration's pushing for greater democracy in the Middle East, the Saudi government on Feb. 10 permitted Riyadh residents to vote for the first time in more than 40 years, choosing seven members of the 14-member municipal council out of a daunting choice of 646 candidates.
Losing candidates protested as soon as the winners were announced, charging the seven had illegally formed an alliance among themselves and circulated short text messages (SMS) on mobile phones claiming they had the backing of religious figures.
The Saudi government, anxious about party politics not getting a start in the kingdom, had set rules for the election that strictly barred any form of alliance among candidates.
But human rights campaigners said there was little chance the protests would be successful and, in any case, did not seem concerned that voters had shown an overwhelming preference for candidates with strong religious backing.
"The results gave several positive indications: that the extremist stranglehold on life here isn't so strong; that the trilogy of money, tribal affiliation and government backing failed miserably; and is a sign of a new and mature society that realizes it must move forward," said Basim Alim, a Jidda-based lawyer and human rights activist.
Tariq Al-Kassabi, who carried Jidda's third precinct with 20,416 votes, compared with 3,199 for his closest competitor, said he had won "by the grace of God, good planning and an early start. …