Conflict & Justice

Protest in Saudi Arabia

By Laura Lynch

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What's happening here is rare in Saudi Arabia. Men gathered in the street, carrying banners aloft and shouting their demands. What they wanted was the release of one of their clerics.

Sheikh Tawfiq Al-Amer was arrested several days ago, after reportedly calling for a constitutional monarchy in a land where the King holds absolute power. One man in the crowd made it clear the demonstrators don't want the King to go, and made sure to clarify that this was a peaceful protest.

He and other only wanted the Sheikh freed.

"We are asking for peace," the man said. "Just let Sheikh Tawfiq out. We're no threat to the government; we are at peace with them. We are asking gently for our sheikh only."

The group is small, certainly no more than a hundred men. Hundreds more police officers and security forces stood nearby.

There were no violent clashes, though police eventually forced the demonstrators to leave, using batons to push them down the street.

Remarkable in itself, this has not been the only protest in recent days.

Last night, about 200 men and women gathered further north in the coastal town of Qatif.
They were urging the release of seven men who have been in prison for 16 years, they complained, without trial.

They are called the forgotten ones, said one woman, holding a sign with the faces of the disappeared.

"We have some people forgotten in the prison; they're still in there after 16 years."

Political scientist Tawfiq Alsaif said it's no surprise people are taking to the streets in this part of Saudi Arabia.

"It comes to the point of humiliation." Alsaif said. "People feel humiliated by these measures."

Alsaif is referring to the discrimination many Shiites say they suffer living in a nation ruled by a Sunni monarchy dominated by a rigid form of Islam.

Mix that sense of injustice with the victorious uprisings in the region and it's a potent recipe for homegrown protest. Bahrain's sustained protests have been lead by fellow Shiites – a source of inspiration for some here.

But Alsaif said this is about much more than what one small next door neighbor is up to.

"I see that the impact of Egyptian revolution is much more than what happened in Bahrain," Alsaif said. "Historically, we influenced Bahrain, not the vice versa. But we are influenced by Egypt."

Whatever the cause, Jafar Al-Shayeb, a longtime activist and local Shiite politician in Qatif said what's happening here is a challenge to the government.

"They are becoming more nervous and I think this is a political development more than an ideological one. I think they don't want to share power with anybody else," Al-Shayeb said. "So if any other group they are gaining little power, they think it's from their part. Nobody would like to share power; that's the major issue."