- The Washington Times - Monday, February 21, 2005

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.”

“I started planning my campaign four months ago, while others started only a few weeks before the election,” he told The Washington Times.

“I sent out 5,000 e-mails to potential voters, more than 55,000 SMS messages, 200,000 brochures and 10,000 faxes. I also met more than 15,000 people, and my wife and daughter campaigned for me and talked to 1,000 women.”

All seven winners are highly educated, five of them with doctoral degrees, and all are professionally accomplished. Mr. al-Kassabi, for example, is a civil engineer and works for the Dallah Barakah Group, one of the largest conglomerates in the kingdom.

The fact that no secular candidates won seats in Riyadh did not surprise most analysts, who point out that all aspects of life in Saudi Arabia are steeped in religion.

“It is natural for the Islamists to win, as Saudis are exposed to only one discourse — the Islamic one,” Mr. Al-Dukhayil said. “One hopes that by starting this democratic experience, Saudis will be exposed to more ideas and that eventually we will have more mixed results.”

Mr. Alim said reformist candidates in Jidda already are seeking to form a loose alliance with Islamist candidates to improve their chances when local elections come to this city in late April.

“I think it’s inevitable that different political trends will appear, as we’ve seen already in the Riyadh election. Whether or not the government likes it, it is already happening and will lead to the formation of political parties,” Mr. Alim said.

But Adel Toraifi, a political commentator in Riyadh, predicted it will take years for a more secular form of politics to emerge in the kingdom.

“Liberals have unfortunately become victims of their own demands for more political openness. We don’t have a role model for young liberals. They have been scared by the religious establishment into using their terminology, so when you hear a liberal using religious terms to bolster his campaign, the electorate is not very impressed,” Mr. Toraifi said.

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