Saudi Arabians call for protest

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: I'm Marco Werman. This is the world, a co-production of the BBC World Service, PRI, and WGBH Boston. Saudi Arabia has been nervously monitoring the way the protests have been sweeping the Middle East, and Saudi authorities have warned that they won't tolerate any within their borders. That hasn't stopped protests from happening in the countries east of a minority Shiite population. The latest took place today. There are reports that Saudi security forces fired on the crowd to disperse the protestors. The mark would bring further unrest more than 30,000 Saudis have backed a call on Facebook to hold two protests this month, with the first one planned for tomorrow. The World's Laura Lynch is in the Saudi capital riot. Laura, let me start by asking you about the violence today. I mean, I know in the kingdom, it can be hard to get accurate information about what's even happening in the kingdom, but what have you heard about that violence in eastern Saudi Arabia today?

Laura Lynch: What reports we do have about what's happened today is that there was a demonstration in Qatif tonight, and there was one last night as well, but tonight's apparently resulted in shooting by the police at the protestors. This is unconfirmed; I have to stress that, but there is a suggestion that at least two people with gunshot wounds were taken to the hospital. Now, we've got a long way to go before we actually get clear, confirmed reports of what happened there, but if that's true, that's a real change in the tactics of these demonstrations so far, including the ones that I witnessed last week where the police were pushing people out of the way, but there was never any hint of violence.

Werman: Right, and with these unconfirmed reports as the background, what's the indication as to how many people will be joining tomorrow's protest?

Lynch: Marco, that is the big question here, and no one really knows the answer. They were always expecting that there was probably going to be demonstrations in the eastern part of the country because they have been active for the last few weeks. These have been small demonstrations in the hundreds at the most, but the real question for the government and for activists was whether those demonstrations were going to spread east to Riyadh, to Jeddah, on the other side of the country, on the other coast. No one knows. The activists are suggesting that even though they are at the foundation of this call for demonstrations, that even they don't expect any large numbers to turn out tomorrow.

Werman: And even with a small demonstration or even with a large demonstration, what do the activists hope to achieve?

Lynch: What they're calling for, when you read the blogs and the tweets, is that they want reforms to the monarchy. It's an absolute monarchy here. They want it to be a constitutional monarchy; they want to have elections. Some of them would also like to see some other social strictures relaxed. They'd like to lessen the segregation of the sexes here. They'd like to see women be allowed to drive in the country, but we always have to be careful here, Marco: no one here is calling for a revolution the way they are in the other countries in this region. They are calling for change. They don't want to see the king overthrown. He is genuinely liked here by most people, and that includes the activists.

Werman: But even saying change as supposed in Saudi Arabia is somewhat provocative. What is the Saudi government doing in preparation for tomorrow's planned protest?

Lynch: Well, let's go back a few days, and it started with a call from the government reminding people that protests are illegal in Saudi Arabia and that they are banned. Then came a call from the top clerics in the country saying it's un-Islamic to protest and to demonstrate. The right way is to express your concerns to the king through discussion and through petition. Then, tonight, what we are starting to see on the street in Riyadh: I've seen a higher police presence. I drove by a parking lot today and saw ten busloads of officers who had been deployed there, and this evening there is a higher police presence on the streets: police patrolling the streets, and police at intersections, so they have sent out the warning, and now they are also a physical presence.

Werman: Now tomorrow whether it's a hundred protestors or thousands of them, the protestors must be aware that reprisals may be the consequence of their activism.

Lynch: Absolutely. They're aware of that. They know that the people who have been active in the past, who have voiced opinions in the past, have spent years in prison for that, and that may well be one of the reasons you actually see a reluctance to get out and demonstrate. I have talked to activists who really hope that there will be a demonstration tomorrow, but if you ask them if they'll be a part of it, they say no, they're not going to be there. But don't forget: it's not just about fear of reprisal. This still is a deeply conservative country, and Riyadh is the heart of that conservatism. I met a young group of Saudi men today, sitting at a sidewalk cafÃ? ©, and I asked them about this idea of protest. They shrugged and said that they don't have anything they need to protest about. They feel that their lives are pretty good here, and there's just no reason, and they think that, really, this is not their battle to fight.

Werman: The World's Laura Lynch speaking with us from the Saudi Arabian capital, Riyadh. Laura, thank you so much.

Lynch: You're welcome.