Exiled Tunisian leader greeted by backlash from Saudi bloggers
January 15 2011
Abeer Allam in Riyadh
As reports surfaced on Friday night that the toppled Tunisian president and his family had arrived in the Red Sea city of Jeddah, Saudi people’s excitement about his downfall quickly turned to frustration with their government’s decision to grant him sanctuary.
Saudi Arabia confirmed on Saturday that former Tunisian president Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali and his family had arrived in the kingdom.
“Due to the current extraordinary circumstances and in support of any measure that would help our brothers in Tunisia, the kingdom welcomes the arrival of the President Zein al-Abidine Ben Ali and his family,’’ a royal court statement on the official Saudi Press Agency read. “The government, however, completely stands by the Tunisian people, hoping that they would unite to overcome such hard times.’’
Using the instant messaging website Twitter and the hashtag #sidibouzid – the town at the heart of the Tunisian revolution – Saudi bloggers and activists have played a key role in spreading news, pictures and videos of the violent protests in Tunisia through.
Saudis have spent nights glued to their computer and television screens watching in awe, as protests rippled across Tunisia. When the autocratic president and his family were forced to leave, they celebrated, online, the success of the first “Arab street revolution’’ which proved that “Arabs have dignity and can revolt.’’
But just as they were speculating about whether Syria or Egypt would be next, their joy turned to anger as they learnt that Ben Ali would living in the kingdom.
“I am ashamed and dishonoured that my country is hosting and protecting a criminal, a dictator and a human rights violator,’’ Bandar al- Nogaithan, a Riyadh-based lawyer told FT. “Why do we have to be a safe haven for dictators? How would Tunisians feel about us now? Even the West refused to receive him.’’
Mr al-Nogaithan’s frustration was echoed by scores of Saudis in Twitter under the hashtag #BenAliInKsa and a Facebook group called: In solidarity with the Tunisians, Saudis against hosting Ben Ali. Hassan Almustafa, a blogger, criticised the move as damaging to Saudi Arabia’s international reputation. Several people pointed out that former dictators like Uganda’s Idi Amin and Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif have secretly moved in Saudi Arabia after being ousted, though now it is harder for the government to hide such news.
Internet forums and social media websites such as Facebook and Twitter play a key role in gauging Saudi public opinion because protests and public gathering are banned. The internet is about the only outlet where Saudis can debate and express their opinion freely.
Jeddah residents were particularly upset that Ben Ali had landed in the city, noting that it has been plagued by torrential rain, overflowing sewage, insects and now the Tunisian ex-president.
Saad al-Dorasi, 30, an engineer from Jeddah, told FT that there was a general sense of discomfort among people in the port city.
“We are very upset because the uprising in Tunisia had a very symbolic meaning and we should not be associated with saving him,’’ Mr al-Dosari said. ``This is the first time in the Arab world that a dictator was uprooted by his people. Even if the government is trying to help, it just does not feel right. ’’
Meanwhile, Saudi Islamists pointed to Mr Ben Ali’s secular policies which they said marginalised islam, claiming that `Muslims has’ revolted to restore respect for Islam. One said on his Twitter feed that the harshest punishment against Ben Ali, who banned `the call for prayer, Koran, and the veil is to be surrounded by veiled and munaqabat [face-covered] women and the sound of recital of Koran. ‘’
Many Saudis however, disagree, and called on Tunisia to safeguard its secular state, personal freedoms and progressive family laws.
“The revolution was possible in Tunisia because it is secular state,’’ Mr al-Nogaithan said. ``They do not have clerics ready to mesmerise people and preach obedience to the rulers.