Rare Saudi Arabia Protest Tests Limits of Political Speech

By Murphy, Caryle | The Christian Science Monitor, November 5, 2008 | Go to article overview

Rare Saudi Arabia Protest Tests Limits of Political Speech


Murphy, Caryle, The Christian Science Monitor


As hunger strikes go, the 48-hour fast that Fowzan Mohsin al- Harbi and 39 other Saudis plan to stage this week is not likely to have a dramatic outcome.

Rather, says the mechanical engineer, the rare public protest is meant to make a statement about the prolonged detention of 11 men who had called for political reforms in this country.

"It's just a symbol to [draw] attention to our case," says Mr. Harbi, who works at King Abdul Aziz City for Science and Technology in Riyadh. "Yeah, I'm afraid," he adds. "But what can we do? We have to ask for our rights.... We have to move, like every people in the world."

In a sense, the hunger strike is a "virtual" protest. Organizers are publicizing it on Facebook.com and their own website. Word is also being spread by several Saudi bloggers.

This online communication is key since the participants plan to refrain from all food and drink in their own homes Thursday and Friday, the weekend here, so as to avoid violating a ban on unauthorized assemblies.

"If we get in one place, we might get in trouble," says Mohammad Fahd al-Qahtani, a professor of economics who also hosts a local television program.

"It's the first time that activists are doing something like this," Mr. Qahtani says of the online publicity. "Now we are using new tactics."

The protest, said to be the first of its kind in recent memory, tests the boundaries of what is permissible in Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy that forbids political parties and rallies.

Under King Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz, Saudis have been allowed to openly discuss reforms in such areas as education, women's rights, labor rules, economics, and domestic abuse. But there is little tolerance for political dissent, and harsh criticism of officials is often severely punished.

Interior Ministry spokesman Gen. Mansour Turki declined to comment, saying that he was unaware of the hunger strike and did not have information on the 11 detainees' current status. …

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