Saudi police opened fire on pro-democracy protesters Thursday—on the eve of a massive planned rally—trying to squash a rebellion that could soon explode. Mike Giglio on the Facebook page driving the action—and the fear that could stop the movement in its tracks.
Plus, full coverage of the Mideast uprisings.
On a recent night in Jeddah, Mahmoud Sabbagh and a handful of fellow youth activists sat down with men from Saudi Arabia’s liberal old guard who have spent decades prodding the country’s totalitarian monarchy for democratic change. The elders had a question for their young counterparts: Who was behind the calls on Facebook for a Saudi day of rage?
In the weeks since Egypt’s revolution, Facebook pages have popped up to push for a protest date—Friday, March 11—in which Saudis would take to the streets after Friday prayers. The most popular site has amassed 30,000 fans. Sabbagh, 28, is a prominent activist and newspaper columnist, as connected as anyone to the country’s fledgling cyberactivism scene. Yet neither he nor the other young activists in the room knew who was behind the protest calls. They hadn’t been asked to help organize the affair. In fact, they weren’t even convinced that the day of rage was a good idea. The Facebook page “is really anonymous. It’s really fishy,” Sabbagh said in a phone interview with Newsweek. “But it seems like it’s somehow serious.”
Any call for civil unrest is a risky action in the kingdom. Protests have been forbidden for decades, along with political parties, and there is little in the way of civil society—or the activist networks that had matured in Egypt in advance of that country’s unrest. State security is stifling—even private political discussions are haunted by warnings that the walls have ears. “They treat us like objects … worse than slaves,” says a 20-year-old student at Jeddah’s King Abdulaziz University. “We of all people need to protest. But I honestly think we’re too afraid.”
Up to this point, most Saudi activists have settled for circulating online petitions for reform (though the regime usually manages to block them) rather than calling for mass demonstrations. The few public protests that have occurred have prompted swift reactions from authorities—a gathering of a few hundred activists in the country’s Eastern Shiite-heavy provinces on Thursday reportedly drew gunfire from state security forces. Even signing a petition has consequences. Activists point to the case of Dr. Ali Aldomani, a prominent liberal who helped lead the recent petition push, and who was jailed in 2004 for a similar effort (he still lives under a travel ban). One activist admitted to toning down her posts on Twitter and Facebook after signing. “Because we signed our names, they’re keeping an eye on us,” she said.
Widespread street protests would represent a drastic new step in Saudi activism, Aldomani says. “People are not used to this kind of gathering,” he adds, referring to the protests planned for March 11. “You know, they are watching everything. Even this talk is being watched. You got me?”
But cracks are beginning to show in the repressive atmosphere of fear. Saudi social media has been abuzz about the so-called Arab spring, and online speech has gets bolder by the day, says Fouad Alfarhan, the country’s most prominent cyberactivist, who has been jailed in the past for his work. “There is really a high-intensity dialogue,” he says. “People are hoping. People are demanding reforms.”
With Internet-fueled protest movements flaring across the Mideast, it may have been inevitable that a Saudi would take a shot at creating a Facebook page like the one that helped inspire Egypt’s revolution. In Egypt, however, online efforts were coordinated with regular street activism—and while the primary page was run anonymously, it was buttressed by support from prominent activists ( and from Facebook executives). The page had also already established itself as a powerful activist brand— Wael Ghonim, who was eventually unmasked as the administrator, is a marketing executive at Google.
The Saudi protest page, on the other hand, remains something of a mystery, and it has confused many fellow activists. Some of its demands—such as preventing the Westernization of Saudi women—are out of sync with the country’s activist elite, which has led some to wonder whether it’s the work of people outside the country, such as the London-based exile Sa’ad al-Faqih, who heads the Movement For Islamic Reform in Arabia and has been supporting the protest idea on his cable show, which is popular in the kingdom. And several amateurish posts—including a claim that an administrator had been killed by Saudi police, without any evidence to bolster the allegation—have prompted online eye-rolling even among the page’s followers. (Emails sent by Newsweek to the page in question were unreturned, and Faqih did not return requests for comment.)
Yet the Facebook calls for protest have gained a new patina of authority, due in large part to the Saudi regime’s fierce reaction to the potential for unrest. The regime recently issued statements reminding citizens that protests are illegal and that security forces are authorized to use force to prevent them. Some activists allegedly have been summoned to meet with members of the government. Planned gathering sites for the protesters have lately been swarmed with security forces. Ominous text messages have allegedly been circulating, warning people to stay at home. “They’re showing signs of real nervousness,” says Gary Sick, a professor at Columbia who served on the National Security Council staff under Presidents Ford, Carter, and Reagan. "They’re sending a very clear signal. Anybody who goes out and protests is in fact breaking the law and is subject to arrest—and maybe a lot more.”
In the eastern province home to the country’s more restive Shiite minority, police reportedly dispersed a small protest with stun grenades, rubber bullets, and live rounds.
Experts say the Saudi regime is clearly showing signs of pressure by the calls for democracy and regional upheaval—responding first with promises of financial aid, and now with threats of violence. “Those are two things that we’ve learned don’t work in this new Arab world that we’re seeing,” says Shadi Hamid, director of research at the Brookings Institution’s Doha Center. “Maybe the Saudi regime missed the memo.”
The Saudi royalty does have reason to worry. Complaints over government corruption reached a fever pitch earlier this year, when Jeddah saw a repeat of the deadly floods that hit in late 2009 and killed what residents claimed were hundreds of people (the government has admitted to far fewer). An air of uncertainty surrounds the monarchy, with the 87-year-old King Abdullah experiencing health problems and the crown prince—Abdullah’s half-brother, and hardly a spring chicken at 83—in poor health as well. In addition to the petitions, activists last month announced the establishment of a political party, a direct affront to Saudi law, and reported the arrests of many of its founders. Dr. Mohamed Qahtani, a prominent lawyer and activist in Riyadh, says his phone has been ringing off the hook lately with calls from relatives of the scores of people who are imprisoned in the country, who have recently begun to mobilize. “These people are looking for the moment to go out,” he says.
Yet the regime has a long history of pacifying its citizens and stifling dissent, and the security build-up that started Wednesday has clearly caught the attention of would-be protesters. Web-savvy young activists—the kind of people that were key to the movement in Egypt—seem to be taking a wait-and-see approach. Even those who plan to go out and protest have little idea what to expect.
“To be honest with you, most of the people that I speak to seem scared,” said a university student who asked to remain anonymous because he plans to take to the streets Friday. “You’re going to have a revolution sooner or later, whether it’s 11 of March, or even 10 years from now,” he said. “In Saudi Arabia it’s about breaking the fear barrier. And getting people out in the streets—for me that would be enough.”
Mike Giglio is a reporter at Newsweek.