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Islamic Activists Sweep Saudi Council Elections

By Steve Coll
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, April 24, 2005; Page A17

JIDDAH, Saudi Arabia, April 23 -- Saudi Arabia's limited 10-week experiment with electoral democracy ended here Saturday in a sweeping victory for slates of Islamic activists marketed as the "Golden List," who used grass-roots organizing, digital technology and endorsements from popular religious leaders to defeat their liberal and tribal rivals, even here in Jiddah, for decades Saudi Arabia's most diverse and business-driven city.

The staggered contests for seats on half of the kingdom's 178 municipal councils, the first governmental elections here in more than three decades, offered a rare measure of public opinion and political strength across Saudi Arabia -- or at least the opinions of men, as women were barred from voting or running as candidates, as were active soldiers and police.


Saudi officials count votes following the elections in Jiddah Thursday. The "Golden List" slates of Islamic activists swept the balloting. (AP)

While candidates from the kingdom's Shiite Muslim minority showed well in some of their eastern strongholds and a handful of independents were elected along the Red Sea, by far the greatest number of winners countrywide came from the legions of Islamic activists.

Even as the last ballots were being counted, voters, candidates and Saudi analysts in relatively open-minded Jiddah debated the meaning of the broad Islamic victory, divided over whether the winners should be viewed as pragmatic moderates or radicals, and whether the result signaled that the kingdom should fear democracy or embrace it sooner.

Public debate about such questions is rare in a country that bans political parties, where three imprisoned intellectuals face trial for advocating a written constitution and where the ruling Saud family and its allies in the official Islamic establishment have dominated civic discourse since the 1930s.

In the Jiddah election, the Golden List of religiously approved candidates surfaced initially as anonymously dispatched text messages on thousands of cell phones, seven names out of the more than 500 candidates competing for the Jiddah council. The spammed messages were sometimes accompanied by a religious homily or endorsement.

The candidates were then backed in speeches and media interviews by religious scholars, including some well-known preachers who speak mainly about personal improvement, as well as dissidents such as Safar Hawali, who was jailed in the mid-1990s for anti-government preaching and who has spoken often about the virtues of armed jihad.

For some of the businessmen, tribal leaders, lawyers, professors and independents who sought to compete with the Golden List slate, the last phase of the campaign became a struggle to defend their city's tradition of trade and tolerance against rivals who were better organized, in touch with ordinary voters and whose piety proved hard to challenge.

Typical was Osama Jamjoom, scion of a well-known local merchant family, who figured that his candidacy might be lifted by the endorsement of his own Islamic scholar. With Saudi analysts touting him as one of the best hopes of the Jiddah business class against the Golden List, Jamjoom invited a young religious teacher, Tawfiq Sayegh, to join him on the stage on his last night of campaigning, held in a billowing tent erected in a dusty parking lot, equipped with plasma TV screens that beamed crisp images of the candidate's biography and platform.

Sayegh's discussion of urban problems was just 10 minutes along when a hand shot up from the audience. "Is it a sin not to vote for the Golden List?"

"If I choose seven out of 500, they might be very religious and good at their prayers," Sayegh answered cautiously, "but is that what we need at the municipal council?"

That same night in a nearby district, businessman Mohammed S. Dardeer sat in a hotel lobby as the campaign ended, dialing for votes and lamenting the strength of his Islamic activist opponents. "I'm fed up [with] listening to the TV -- haram, haram, haram!" he said, using the Arabic word for acts forbidden by Islam. "I am a Muslim. I have it in my heart. Now I want to develop my country."

At a campaign rally, one potential voter had suggested that if Dardeer was not selected for membership on the Golden List by some of the kingdom's best-known religious scholars, it would be haram for him to compete with those who were.

His reply, as he recalled it: "We are all good Muslims. We pray. We fast. So what, I'm going to heaven for voting for this list?"


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