[Social media, which helped drive protests across the Arab world, seems tailor-made for
Region in Revolt
|Saudi activists said they expected at least hundreds of women, |
seen in Riyadh this week, to move to the driver’s seat
on Friday in a collective protest.
But unlike in the past, government censure did not quash debate. Instead, the Internet buzzed to life in Ms. Sharif’s defense, building on the surge of social media here after the uprisings in
and Tunisia . Twitter and Facebook overflowed with comments denouncing both Saudi Arabia’s ruling princes and the clerics who called for her to be flogged as Neanderthals completely detached from the realities of life for women here. Egypt
More than 30,000 comments about Ms. Sharif’s arrest showed up within days on Twitter, the vast majority from supporters, said Abdulaziz al-Shalan, who tracks Saudi-related Twitter messages.
“Are you accusing a woman of being a sinner because she went to jail for driving? What kind of religion would come up with that?” wrote a woman in
, on the Jidda Red Sea coast.
Social media, which helped drive protests across the Arab world, seems tailor-made for
, where public gatherings are illegal, women are strictly forbidden to mix with unrelated men and people seldom mingle outside their family. Saudi Arabia
Virtually any issue that contradicts official Saudi policy now pops up online, including the status of prisoners being held without trial or a call to boycott municipal elections this September.
Louai A. Koufiah, a Twitter enthusiast, quipped: “Saudis cannot go out to demonstrate, so they retweet!”
Essam M. al-Zamel, who helped start the municipal election boycott campaign, boasts that he cannot gather 30 people in a room, but that he can reach more than 22,000 instantly on Twitter.
But wherever the public goes, the government follows.
After Saudis thronged Twitter, activists noted a rash of new users without pictures who described themselves in patriotic terms and attacked government critics. Since the default picture on Twitter is an egg, they earned the nickname #saudieggs.
“My purpose in life is to be a watchdog to protect my religion, my state,” read part of one such user’s information.
Abdulaziz AlGasim, a lawyer and activist in the capital,
, is convinced that such users work for the government because in attacking him they used information unknown to the general public. “Oh, this is a famous egg!” he said laughing as he flipped through his account, pointing out how they try to provoke factional or sectarian fights. Riyadh
|Manal al-Sharif made a Web video |
of herself driving, and was
jailed for nine days.
Previously, government critics were nervous about seeking out allies, never sure whom to approach. But the combination of bold opinions online and monitoring whom the “eggs” attack has expanded contacts between activists nationwide.
Seeking to highlight the plight of prisoners held for years without trial, activists recently put a video on YouTube called “Absent Saudis.” It featured the distraught relatives of some of the 16 men imprisoned in 2007 for what Bassem Alim, a defense attorney, said was taking rudimentary steps toward creating a political party and what the government said were links to terrorism. They were only formally charged last August.
The video response was called “Saudis Are Present,” featuring an interview with the father of a Saudi girl killed in an attack by Al Qaeda and mixed in with pictures of famous Saudi dissidents.
“Keep them locked up!” screams the zipper running across the bottom of the screen. “Side with the country against them and distribute this video.”
Maj. Gen. Mansour al-Turki, the Interior Ministry spokesman, denied any government role in such counterattacks. Its main online effort was seeking out Qaeda ideology, he said. “It is not our way to challenge individuals or social networks on the Internet. That is nonsense,” he said.
While social media was once almost solely the playing field of the liberal elite, Saudi activists say it has become more democratic this year, with more varied voices.
The religious conservatives are catching up. Gone are the days when they issued one fatwa reported by the newspaper Al-Watan that commanded women to avoid writing “LOL,” or laughing out loud, because the very idea of a woman laughing might arouse male strangers.
Two Saudi conservatives started a special YouTube channel, CH905, to highlight the work of the most prominent clerics in the Sahwa or Wahhabi traditionalist movement in the country. (The telephone number for directory assistance is 905.) One cleric called for the Saudi government to tear down the mosque around the Kaaba, the sacred shrine in
toward which Muslims turn when they pray, and put up a new, stacked structure so that men and women circulate on different floors. Others have attacked proposals for co-education in early elementary school. Mecca
Saudis who follow social media closely say that the crosscurrents, particularly on Twitter, have had a moderating affect. The more extremist religious figures and the hard-core social liberals have adopted flexible attitudes on some issues — seen as an attempt to increase followers and an indication that the different camps no longer talk solely among themselves, they said.
The women’s driving campaign shows what online organizing can accomplish — and what it cannot. Ms. Sharif, a 32-year-old information technology specialist working for Aramco, the state oil company, announced her campaign in April, and Saudi activists said they expected women at least in the hundreds to drive on Friday. But her open challenge to the government in posting the videos alienated countless supporters who thought she should have simply waited until the announced date.
Supporters believe the nine-day jail sentence was a deliberate attempt by the monarchy to eradicate any kind of online movement inspired by
and Tunisia . It most likely had the desired effect of scaring off many women. Egypt
But it has not squelched the robust online debate. Some men suggested that Ms. Sharif, a single mother, was simply looking for a husband. Supporters, even Abdel Aziz Khoja, the minister of information and an avid Twitter user, weighed in, saying, “My personal opinion is that a woman has the right to drive as long as she respects public etiquette and Islamic behavior.”
Younger women are particularly defiant, with a group of five 20- to 30-year-olds detained in
last Thursday for taking driving lessons. One brazenly kept posting to Twitter even when thrown into a holding tank by the morals police: “We are waiting in a tiny, dirty, dusty room!” Riyadh
One weakness in online movements is that their organizers often stay hidden to avoid government wrath.
In March, nobody knew exactly who was calling for street demonstrations. The day was suddenly named after Hunain, a famous battle in Islamic history that Shiite Muslims revere more than Sunnis. Numerous activists think the government planted the name online to try to turn the protests into a sectarian issue.
Saudi activists said they recognized that social media alone would not bring changes, although it exposes issues and links organizers.
“If you can reach the public, it will put pressure on royal family to modernize,” said Mr. AlGasim, the
lawyer, who found that even his 72-year-old mother had signed a democracy petition online. “Change will come from demonstrations, not from talking.” Riyadh