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March 14, 2005

Postcards From The Arab Spring

Saudi Arabia
Until three years ago, the Sunni-led government of Saudi Arabia barred its 2 million Shiites from publicly staging rituals like this February's Ashoura march, driving them into illegal meeting halls and mosques under a long-held policy of stifling non-Sunni expression. But after decades of being sidelined by the state and denounced by powerful clerics, Saudi Shiites are savoring a glimmer of tolerance and, this month, a first-ever local election that is likely to be their greatest step yet into the political mainstream.

"Right now, we are looking for our basic rights as human beings," said Shiite prayer leader Sheik Hassan al-Nemer.

What is happening here is part of a much broader change.

The story of how marginalized Saudi Shiites have found the chance to vote for local leaders--and the audacity to criticize the government--reflects a fragile drive for democratic change gathering strength across the Middle East two years after the U.S. toppled the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein.

An Egyptian opposition leader and presidential hopeful whose imprisonment angered Washington and called into question Egypt's pledges of democratic reform led a parade Saturday through downtown Cairo, trailed by thousands after being freed on bail.

Ayman Nour - still in his white prison jump suit and looking frail - stepped out of Cairo's central security headquarters and was whisked to the shoulders of his supporters, blowing kisses over their heads. The 40-year-old lawmaker flashed a V-for-victory sign to the crowd of orange-shirted supporters awaiting his release. Orange is the color used by his "Tomorrow" political party.
Speaking to his supporters later, Nour reiterated his innocence - and his jailhouse announcement that he would run for president this year against 24-year incumbent Hosni Mubarak.

"I announce that I will run in the presidential elections for you," Nour said, standing on a podium in a charitable organization he'd founded down the street from where he was freed.

Hundreds of thousands of opposition demonstrators chanted “Freedom, sovereignty, independence” and unfurled a huge Lebanese flag in Beirut on Monday, the biggest protest yet in the opposition’s duel of street rallies with supporters of the Damascus-backed government.

Crowds of men, women and children flooded Martyrs Square, spilling over into nearby streets, while more from across the country packed the roads into Beirut — responding to an opposition call to demonstrate for the removal of Syrian troops from Lebanon.

“We are coming to liberate our country. We are coming to demand the truth,” said Fatma Trad, a veiled Sunni Muslim woman who traveled from the remote region of Dinniyeh in northern Lebanon to take part.

His Majesty King Abdullah on Sunday said private ownership of various media outlets should be encouraged.

During a visit to Al Ghad daily, King Abdullah stressed that a free and independent press is a key component in democratic societies, highlighting the media's role in political reform.

The King emphasised the need to create and enhance suitable conditions for the media to develop and effectively take part in development and democratisation process locally and regionally, the Jordan News Agency, Petra, reported.

"The press should carry out its monitoring job as the fourth estate in a context of responsible freedom and high professionalism," the Monarch told the newspaper's publisher

'Middle East on the Move, Is Bush to Thank?", a newspaper's banner headline quite fairly asked Europeans last week. What a terrifying premise.

Perhaps not for scores of millions of Arabs. But if George Bush is proven right on Iraq, and more than a bit responsible for the Arab Spring of shaky political advances now shimmering from Egypt to Saudi Arabia, then it's a frightening development and delegitimizing situation for European politicians from Spain to Germany.

They are pols like Gerhard Schröder and José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero who essentially won election by running against Bush and the Iraq war. Leaving the talk of freedom or jihadist terrorism to the yahoos, they have linked their futures to what they supposed would be the eternal vote-cornucopia of resistance to Bush's vision for the Middle East.

Adding France and Belgium, the group widens to include governments that hoped to leverage their stance on Bush and the war into a genesis myth for a Europe redefining itself as America's counterweight.

Posted by Bigwig at March 14, 2005 12:54 PM | TrackBack
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Don't worry, there's still hope for failure in Iran, Syria & N. Korea.

Posted by: Sully at March 14, 2005 01:32 PM
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