Saudi Vote Stirs New Enthusiasm

Saudi Vote Stirs New Enthusiasm
by Steve Coll

Washington Post Foreign Service

Thursday, February 24, 2005

JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia -- Ibrahim H. Quayid turned up just before midnight, a snow-bearded campaign consultant at his arm. A dozen businessmen and scholars waited eagerly in a Jiddah executive's private reception room nestled amid shopping malls and Red Sea breezes.

Quayid had barely tasted a date before the men erupted with questions: How had he built his voter databases? How much money had he raised for his campaign, and how had he spent it? How had he organized his campaign staff, and which consultants had he relied upon? Above all: How did he win?

Quayid said his successful campaign for the Riyadh municipal council this month in the kingdom's first elections since 1963 was no fluke. "I have been working for the last almost 15 years to promote the cause of democracy in Saudi Arabia," he said. "I have lectured and written -- I've been denied lots of things because of my position on democracy."

Now he is a luminary of Saudi Arabia's tentative, ambiguous political opening. Since Quayid and six other candidates bested 639 rivals to win seats on Riyadh's council in the first phase of a three-month-long, constrained experiment with electoral democracy, a measured but palpable wave of enthusiasm has spread across the kingdom.

In regions that have not yet cast ballots, activists and candidates are reacting to the capital's historic vote. Newspaper columnists previously skeptical about the elections have publicly endorsed them. Voter registration remains slow in some areas, but candidates are launching new sign-up campaigns, adapting targeted drives that proved successful in Riyadh.

And in informal meetings such as the one visited by Quayid, energized participants are debating platforms and campaign strategy, renewed in their belief that something important may be at stake in the municipal elections, even though women have been barred from all involvement and the councils will remain subordinate to royal rule, splitting local power with appointed officials.

"These elected people will have powers beyond their mandate," said Basim Alim, a lawyer in Jiddah who has represented jailed advocates of political reform. "They have a wonderful opportunity to be vocal and talk about anything and everything, beyond trash collection and sewage.. It falls upon these people to demonstrate how important it is to have elected officials."

Quayid's phone has not stopped ringing since his victory, and his e-mail in-box is jammed beyond use, he said. The country's senior religious leader invited him for a fatherly chat. He has traded jokes about political power with intimidating senior princes of the royal family.

For some other democracy advocates in the kingdom, however, hope for an early spring of political change has been chilled by the continuing prosecutions in Riyadh of three imprisoned advocates of a written constitution for the kingdom. The men have been charged with holding unauthorized political meetings and distributing unauthorized petitions, according to several people involved in their case.

In the same week that the Saudi government posted and celebrated the results of the Riyadh area's municipal voting, it barred lawyers and supporters from the accused activists' courtroom and threatened to convict them without a formal trial because the men refused to present a defense, according to several lawyers.

Such contradictions have bred cynicism among some Saudis seeking political change. The skeptics call this year's municipal vote a toothless attempt to deflect U.S. pressure for broader political participation in the kingdom. As oil prices settle well above $40 a barrel, igniting a new revenue boom for the Saudi government, these reformers predict a period of retrenchment in which the royal family will dole out cascading new wealth to forestall challenges posed by democracy.

Yet even some of the cynics have been infected by the novel imagery of electoral bustle emanating from the Riyadh vote. Some have also been spurred by a new forum for competition among the kingdom's loose political groupings: Islamic networks, influential tribes, and urbanized or liberal groups.

The Riyadh results have been widely interpreted here as a triumph for the kingdom's large and diverse religious movement, which includes both peaceful democracy activists and strident clerics who advocate holy war in Iraq and elsewhere.

Most of the winners, including Quayid, a former professor of English literature who runs a small translation business, have connections to the religious figures who have pressed the royal family for political change since the 1991 Persian Gulf War, according to activists and independent analysts.

During the Riyadh campaign, Salman Awdah, a dissident cleric who was jailed in the mid-1990s for anti-government preaching and who has sometimes aligned himself with Osama bin Laden's causes, spoke on behalf of Quayid and other eventual winners. Yet the victorious candidates have limited political track records as individuals and now speak of compromise and moderation.

Businessmen, landlords and other urbanized candidates with strong personal ties to the West fared poorly in the Riyadh vote, as did tribal sheiks who failed to settle on leading candidates and suffered from a ban on voting by soldiers, many of whom belong to major tribes. Some losing candidates filed formal complaints, arguing that the winners had banded together in violation of the kingdom's rules against formal political parties or slates. The complaints are still under investigation by the government.

The winners and their supporters, fearing a backlash, have emphasized an inclusive outlook and a willingness to share power with losing factions.
Mohsen Awajy, a lawyer and Islamic activist who was jailed during the 1990s and now mediates between the government and militant Islamic groups, said he feared that the strong showing in Riyadh by candidates with religious credentials would "make the government more cautious" about expanding reforms. "I'm not happy with this result, even though I wanted it," he said.

More varied victors may emerge as the elections expand in coming weeks from conservative Riyadh to the eastern oil-producing areas, where a large Shiite Muslim minority has embraced the elections, and to Jiddah, a bastion of international business and cultural diversity.

Some independent researchers and diplomats tracking the campaign describe the winning candidates and their supporters in Riyadh as center-right, strongly religious in their orientation but devoted to peaceful social and civic activism -- a loyal opposition to the royal family, even if strongly anti-American.

Amid anxiety about a surge for political Islam, the elections have nonetheless pulled disparate reform groups into common support for the process of voting, and for the prospect of more transparent local government, a score of participants from varied political groupings said in interviews in Riyadh and Jiddah.

When Quayid answered questions from the Jiddah activists in his late-night seminar -- a freewheeling discussion he permitted a reporter to hear on condition that the details not be disclosed -- he readily shared tactics with an audience that dissented from some of his political views. Participants in other such informal meetings across the city described a similar mood.
During his Riyadh campaign, Quayid said, voters often asked why he wanted to be on a municipal council that was nothing but "a decoration" put up under "American pressure."

His answer: "When I ran in the first place, I did not look at the authority of the council.. I thought about a constitutional institution that is elected for the first time in Saudi Arabia, in my age. I thought I wanted to be part of this process."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company

Reprinted with permission.

Originally published on February 24, 2005.

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