Thursday 22 March 2012

Saudi evolution from underneath the surface

AP photo of female student protestors in Abha
Fahmi Howeidi is a leading Egyptian political and social scholar and author, Islamist intellectual and one of the Arab world’s most prominent columnists. This think piece on his recent visit to Saudi Arabia appears online in Arabic on Aljazeera news network. I chose to phrase it in English:
I hadn’t been to Saudi Arabia for 10 years.
When I returned there last week, I was bowled over wherever I went. I realized we discern Saudi Arabia’s surface, but know nothing about what is taking place underneath.
My first surprise was on the plane, when I could go through the day’s Saudi newspapers of March 12.
I discovered they all tackled an incident unknown to us, which happened at King Khalid University, in the kingdom’s southern province of ‘Asir.
The dailies carried minutes of a three-hour meeting held by the Governor of ‘Asir Province with 500 male and female students to discuss problems they are facing at the university. At the meeting, the students summed up their demands in 23 points, the first of which was dismissal of Abha city’s university management.
The Governor of ‘Asir Province, Prince Faisal Bin Khalid, told the students, “It’s your legitimate right to solicit. You are only asking to improve and advance the level of university education.” The prince then welcomed formation of a student committee to follow up the resolution of grievances and an academic committee to revise the curriculum. The understanding was that both committees would meet monthly to complete their respective tasks.
This was not my sole surprise.
I read and heard later the female students of the College of Arts and Education instigated the defiant protest. The root cause of their complaint was a slump in student administrative services. Social media apparently played a key role in mobilizing male and female students by urging the lot to spell out their complaints and relay them to the authorities concerned.
Al-Watan daily commented on the incident saying: as soon as word got out of grumbles at the College of Arts and Education, King Khalid University officials hastened to raise the specter of a so-called hidden agenda to sow dissent and undermine security. They ignored the fact students of both sexes were denied their rights.
The subject matter raised and the language used to present the case as well as the authorities’ reaction to it were all new to me.
I had to carefully read and assimilate before recognizing:
-- An overt outrage was reported – instead of suppressed as before – by the press.
-- Female students now have their say in a country where hardliners believe females are vulnerable and should not be exposed.
-- The Governor of ‘Asir met in person with 500 male and female students for three hours.
-- The two sides agreed on electing one student committee and another academic committee that would combine forces to address the grievances raised.
I promptly wondered: Since when does this take place in the Kingdom?
Maram Meccawy
Events involving the male and female students of King Khalid University in Abha became the dominant theme of daily Saudi press comments. And the fact female students were the prime movers of the outcry opened the door to a full-blown debate on women conditions and rights in the Kingdom. Journalist and blogger Ms Maram Meccawy wrote for al-Watan’s March 14 edition: “Women are men’s doubles. They are one half of society and the nation’s co-citizens. They have -- exactly like men -- full rights across the board, including state institutions, resources and plans for the future in this era of openness, reform and digital freedom. They won’t settle for anything less than securing their total, unabridged rights.”
A few days after the ruckus in Abha, another defiance erupted at the College of Education for Girls in Belgarn. The newspapers of Thursday, March 15, said girl students there “tried to emulate those at King Khalid University.” They demonstrated to complain of ill treatment by their supervisors and demand better services and the dismissal of the college principal.
Al-Watan quoted the college’s PR officer as saying the girl students tampered with fire extinguishers in the main college building and the cafeteria’s hallway.
A bust-up must have erupted on campus because the newspaper said 13 girl students were treated in-house, six others were hospitalized and a teacher was hurt. Some newspapers said many of the victims had simply passed out and others spoke of police cars rushing to the scene to restore order.
Three remarks in Wednesday’s March 14 press caught my attention:
1. A statement by the Deputy Minister of Higher Education Dr. Ahmad al-Saif announcing the female college students won’t be searched anymore and would henceforth be allowed to use their mobile phones on campus, except that “deterrent measures” would be taken against abusers of the authorization. Al-Watan carried Saif’s statement on its front-page, saying, “The step comes in the wake of the latest disturbance at King Khalid University.”
2. A recommendation to academic principals at all Saudi universities to let students share in formulating student affairs decisions and to accommodate student aspirations.
3. A statement made by Minister of State Mitib Bin Abdullah Bin Abdul-Aziz Al Saud, King Abdullah’s son and head of the Saudi National Guard. He said redressing mistakes and demanding solutions couldn’t be by way of disrupting peace and stability. He said, “Foreign elements are striving to destabilize our country.” He also referred to what he called “disturbances” destabilizing several Arab countries.
I also took stock of a comment by Issam al-Zamel in Asharq of March 13 saying a student dismissed by the head of Taibah University threatened to challenge the dismissal on Twitter. Other students I met later confirmed this to me. They told me social media is replete with all sorts of comments on similar incidents.
In this context, they recounted the case revealed on Twitter of a brawl two months ago at King Saud University between freshmen students and their dean, who was insulted but subsequently replaced.
I traveled to Saudi Arabia on the invitation of organizers of the Riyadh International Book Fair 2012. I didn’t anticipate surprises at the exhibition, which was intended to be a harbinger of openness. Publishing houses were able to display thousands of books without restriction or censorship. I came across many books I wouldn’t have found in libraries anywhere.
Also, the Book Fair remained open throughout for both men and women. The custom in the past was to alternate opening days between men and women visitors. Three university graduates – two of them Saudi and the third Moroccan -- shared in a panel discussion on the “Rights Culture.”
Such atmosphere did not sit well with Salafists. One evening, five of them broke into the fair’s main conference room to disrupt a panel discussion where men and women participants shared a round table. Organizers and security men evicted them from the conference room. When they later sought to examine books on display, they were hauled to a police station and to put down their complaints in writing. A group of them, however, had succeeded the day before in preventing women from attending a seminar on e-books on grounds they should not be mixing with men.
The impression I got from what I read and heard is that a tug-of-war between hardliners and moderates is underway at every level in the kingdom. I consider this a step forward. It shows the hardliners’ clout eroding and the number of moderates who support openness and public liberties gradually rising. The change is perhaps slow, but it depicts movement in the right direction. Another positive signal is the presence in public spheres of such cultural figures as Dr. Salman al-Odah and Mohammad Said Tayeb, who are still under a travel ban elsewhere.
My lecture at one of the Book Fair evening functions was about the Arab Muslim discourse in a fast changing world.
I dwelt on the communications revolution being the most important factor impacting the Arab world. The communications revolution tore down all borders and surmounted innumerable obstacles to turn the world into a global village and an open book accessible to everyone. The momentous change loosened government grips on citizens and gave peoples a powerful weapon to challenge authoritarian regimes. The regimes lost the power they claimed to have over citizens and citizens realized they were not as weak as they imagined.  
I said the Arab world’s foremost problem is that while the “body” size amplified and aspirations multiplied, the “head” remained static. I gave the example of Syria, where people revolted in 2011 and the regime reacted in the mentality of the 1980s, when Assad Sr. chose to crush the uprising in Hama, destroying the city and killing 15,000 of its people in the process. This was soon forgotten.
Today, the world is alerted to any reprisal as soon as it starts, which is why the (Syria) crime was exposed and the yearlong revolution continues unabated.
In the Arab world, I suggested, “body” and “head” should come together instead of remaining disjoined. Such fence mending can only come though a mutual espousal of public freedoms and democracy rule.
I said what I needed to say in 20 minutes, but discussion of the liaison between “body” and “head” resumed until well past midnight at the hotel. There, I had to answer innocent and hypocritical questions from a defiant younger generation eager to fulfill the dreams of its virtual world.