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Islamic Activists Sweep Saudi Council Elections

When the votes were counted, both Dardeer and Jamjoom had been defeated by their Golden List rivals. In the end, all seven Golden List candidates were elected in Jiddah. Their counterparts also did well in nearby Mecca and Medina, sites of two of the Muslim world's most sacred places of worship, as well as in the more conservative northern and southern areas of the kingdom. The winners must share power with an equal number of government-appointed council members, and it is not clear whether they will have much practical authority.

As with many aspects of Saudi Arabia's vast religious networks, the origins and management of the Golden List were a mystery. The candidates chosen by the list's architects were mainly well-credentialed professionals, some educated in the United States, who have long records of religious and social activism, according to their Web sites, rival candidates and Saudi journalists.


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

They ran on platforms that emphasized practical local issues such as roads and public facilities, but they also made clear that on social issues such as gender segregation, education and enforcement of religious rules, they supported the kingdom's austere traditions.

The difference between the Golden List winners and the kingdom's more dangerous Islamic activists, argued Khaled Batarfi, a columnist and editor at the Arabic-language al-Madina newspaper here, is that the winning activists are willing to work with rivals who do not share all their beliefs. "The one dividing attitude is tolerance -- tolerance toward the other, whether inside the country or outside," he said.

On Election Day, at a polling station in central Jiddah, voters emerging from the booth offered a split verdict on that question, with some emphasizing their fear that the Golden List candidates were just the electable face of a more dangerous Islamic movement, and others arguing that they were honest men who would do a better job than self-interested businessmen or tribal bosses.

Some described the election as only a start, saying they expected more elections in the future involving offices with greater powers, and that the kingdom's political equations could change quickly as the country gained experience.

"It's the first time -- everyone is sitting and waiting to see who these seven are and what they will do," said Issan Mulla, 43, an architect.

For some of those left out of the process, such as Fatin Bundagji, an activist for women's issues, the election showed how far those who promote alternatives to Saudi Arabia's deeply conservative Islamic orthodoxy must go before they can compete successfully with religious networks that have been organizing with government resources and approval for decades.

"Our problem as moderates is that we are not organized," she said. "We suddenly woke up to discover that something was very wrong. But the damage had been done. The system has been built up over 30 years."

Bundagji and many other Saudis see the royal family as committed to at least gradual democratic reforms. "The government's political will is there," she said. "Now it's the popular opinion that needs to be addressed."


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