Khalid Agami, a jocular Saudi man with a wispy beard and wire-rimmed spectacles, has variously been professor, prisoner, father and grandfather during his 57 years. Now he has become something entirely new -- a candidate.
Agami is running for office in November as part of a cautious experiment by the Saudi royal family. For the first time in 41 years, it is allowing elections, local ones, that will fill half the seats on 178 municipal councils.
The ruling family's goal, political analysts and diplomats here say, is to determine whether a more open government might help defuse a rising armed threat by Muslim militants in the kingdom or merely inspire reform advocates to push harder against the princes' long hold on power.
A pious Muslim from the low mountains of northern Saudi Arabia, Agami has set his sights on one of a dozen seats on the municipal council of Hail, an agricultural town about 500 miles northwest of the capital, Riyadh. He said he was imprisoned in the 1990s for calling on the government to adopt human rights standards, a demand he intends to make part of his campaign. He will also push for an anti-corruption program and more money from the central government for local water and public health projects.
His slogan -- "The Honest and the Strong Man" -- is taken from the Koran.
"There will be limits placed on what I will be allowed to say, but I think they will be reasonable," said Agami, a professor of Arabic studies at Riyadh's Imam Mohammed bin Saud Islamic University. "I am asking people to be positive about me, and I think so far I have made a good impression."
In a country that takes even its name from the ruling family, few institutions are more foreign than electoral politics. But now nascent campaigns for the municipal seats are injecting a small but spicy dose of democracy into a hermetic political life in which power has long been rooted in tribal alliances and proximity to royalty.
By opening only half the council seats for election -- the other half will remain appointed by the royal family -- the government will be able to judge which candidates fared well and with what message. That analysis, political commentators and Western diplomats here say, will determine whether elections will be held for the rest of the council seats, and then expanded to include regional governments and eventually a national parliament to replace one that is now also filled by royal family appointment.
Women, who have yet to gain the right to drive, business leaders and Muslim dissidents are discussing issues ranging from the need for political reform to the shortage of youth centers in a country where more than half of the 25 million people are younger than 18. Many of the candidates are putting up big money to win, and several public relations firms are signing up clients and viewing democracy as a growth industry.
"We are moving to a new relationship between citizens and government," said Abdulaziz Alsebail, a professor of modern Arabic literature at King Saud University in Riyadh and a member of country's democratic reform movement. "This is our first lesson in elections."
The U.N.-supervised balloting, scheduled to unfold in three phases ending early next year, would be the first on a national scale in Saudi Arabia's 72-year history. The last elections, in 1963, took place only in the western region of Hijaz, home to Islam's two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina.
Although elections have been technically authorized since 1977, the upcoming vote was called only this year by a government that is under pressure from the Bush administration and international human rights organizations to democratize its political system. Many official campaign regulations have yet to be established, leaving open practical questions about what the exact powers of the municipal councils will be, who will have the right to vote and compete in the elections, and how candidates will be allowed to advertise.
A bylaw issued this year allows all Saudis 21 and older to cast ballots, except those serving in the security forces. Women were not specifically excluded, and many of them are proceeding as if they won't be.
For several weeks, Hatoon Fassi has led an all-female group whose goals are revolutionary by the standards of the kingdom: promoting the right of women to participate in every aspect of the elections.
"These bylaws were a green light for women to run and vote," said Fassi, a professor of ancient history at King Saud University who has a doctorate from Lancaster University in England. "This is something brought forward by the government. All we're doing is accepting their generous offer."
Fassi has been organizing evening meetings of Saudi women to plot election strategy. The conversations among business owners, public health experts and fellow PhDs have the freewheeling quality of campaign strategy sessions the world over.
Fassi makes notes in a small datebook, jotting down ideas on how to develop campaign Web sites and the names of potential female candidates. Some of the scribbles will become points in newspaper columns she is writing to counter criticism from conservative commentators, who are now beginning to weigh in on voting rights for women.
"Do you think something like that would come up -- that I'm a woman, that I don't cover my face, that I was born in the U.K.?" Nadia Bakhurji, an interior architect who owns her own firm, asked during one recent meeting.
Fassi is recruiting Bakhurji, an old friend, to run for a council seat. So far Bakhurji, who wears the black abaya cloak but does not veil her face, is amenable to the idea, although she expressed concern about the tone of a possible campaign against her.
She described her platform as "very human" and said she would talk about environmental protection, the need for youth centers and health services, and new regulations to better monitor the sometimes slipshod construction industry.
"These are very general impact issues, not necessarily women's issues," said Bakhurji, 37, the mother of two. "The main problem is breaking down the mental handicap to doing this. So we're going to go as far as we can, until an obstacle arises."
In June, the royal family issued a series of decrees on women's rights following what it called a "national dialogue" on the subject. One made an exception to rules that reserve salesclerk jobs for men, allowing women to sell lingerie. Another allowed women to register businesses in their own names without the signature of a male sponsor. The most salient, Fassi said, was a decree that encouraged women to take a greater role in the kingdom's "public affairs."
But the women are treading carefully, mindful of a disastrous demonstration in 1991 in which Saudi women drove cars down a Riyadh boulevard. The protest embarrassed the government, which had not yet officially outlawed driving by women. This time the activism is proceeding quietly.
"I'm not dreaming this," said Hanan Ahmadi, an associate professor of health administration at the Institute of Public Administration in Riyadh who is working alongside Fassi. If women aren't allowed to vote and run for office, "it will be like we have taken one step forward and two steps back."
An Interior Ministry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the elections are not directly his responsibility, suggested that women would not be allowed to vote. Comparing the issue to the right to drive, the official said Saudi society is not ready to allow women the right to vote.
"The role of women is being changed, but not enough, probably," the official said. "We are basing election rules on what is allowable in real life. And right now, much of real life is left up to the responsibility of men. I can't say that women would be allowed to participate in this area when they can't in many others."
So far, the most prominent candidates to announce have come from Saudi Arabia's booming real estate industry -- developers whose motives are already being questioned by rival campaigns. One media company in Riyadh said it had been given a retainer of about $200,000 by an unnamed developer to draft his advertising campaign.
Sultan A. Bazie, director of the consulting firm Tariq Media & Publishing, is working with a handful of businessmen who are considering a run. He has been seeking advice from political consultants in neighboring Bahrain, which recently held municipal elections of its own, on how to design a successful campaign.
"It could be a very good business," said Bazie, who estimates that candidates will be able to win with campaigns that cost less than $200,000. "This is the start, and we're excited to be a part of it, regardless if it's profitable or not. But I think it will be."
Agami, the candidate for the Hail council, said his campaign may cost only a bit more than $100,000. He has been trying to offset any possible financial disadvantage by appealing directly to Hail's economically important tribal leaders, who have long bestowed political power in the region.
In recent weeks, Agami has appeared at more than 20 diwanyas -- large evening gatherings of men fueled by coffee and tobacco -- to make his case. The meetings were sponsored by Hail's two most influential families.
Agami is also trying to inject populism into his campaign as he reaches beyond the big families to the rest of Hail's 50,000 residents. He said he will emphasize his experience as a political prisoner when he campaigns in neighborhoods, hoping that rising frustrations in the kingdom will help carry him to victory.
"Some rich people will spend more than I will, but people will not trust them because they believe they will use their success to gain more money," Agami said. "People like me have a chance."