The Free Fouad campaign has organized and carried out “Fouad’s Week”, during which bloggers were invited to republish one of Fouad’s posts on their blogs and to embrace “We Are All Fouads” as a slogan. This week-long event marked two months since the dean of the Saudi bloggers, Fouad Alfarhan, was arrested on December 10, 2007 and held in Jeddah’s Dahban prison without any charges brought against him.
The goals of the “Fouad’s Week” event, as outlined on the blog campaign, are to:
1- Let Fouad rest assured that he WILL NOT BE FORGOTTEN, this is the only thing he asked for before his detention.
2- Send a message to those who detained him: “Violating one's right to speak peacefully and freely, will only support his message, and give it a burst of momentum”.
From their side, human rights organisations expressed concern and called for the release of Fouad Alfarhan. And while Reporters Without Borders condemned the government’s silence on the matter, Amnesty International has expressed fears that he is being tortured. “He is still being held, without charges and without access to a lawyer, a doctor or his wife. For someone to be held in secrecy like this, it is likely he is being ill-treated, interrogated or tortured. Why else would he be held in secrecy?” Lamri Chirouf, a researcher at Amnesty International, told ArabianBusiness.com.
In the meantime, Hands Across the Middle East Alliance (HAMSA) , a non-profit organization that works to connect activist efforts in America and the Middle East, organized a vigil on Saturday 9 February in front of the Saudi embassy in Washington, D.C. to draw attention to the Fouad's case. The rally marked the 60th day of the blogger's imprisonment. The HAMSA initiative has also launched an online letter-writing campaign addressed to Saudi Foreign Affairs Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal. So far, 1330 people have sent letters.
Image from the C.R.I.M.E. Report a bi-weekly e-newsletter published by the HAMSA initiative.
I spoke with Nasser Weddady, a Mauritanian activist who directs HAMSA's outreach efforts, about this rally and the effectiveness of mixing offline an online activism:
Sami: Last Saturday Hands Across the Middle East Alliance (HAMSA) organized a vigil in front of the Saudi embassy in Washington, D.C., why did you felt the need to take to the streets and demonstrate?
Nasser: The issue for us is why we didn’t do it sooner. This rally happened two months after Fouad was arrested. Activism is not only online, it is also on the ground. Here in the US, we have the freedom to organize. In fact, the Saudi embassy security minder tried to intimidate us thinking that he could simply make us go away because his government does not like a protest in front of its embassy. There are a lot of people here who are very concerned about Fouad and want to do more than writing a letter. Besides, I was initially scheduled to come Washington to give a talk about Fouad’s case to Congress so we decided that we should have both events.
Sami:Did you get any reaction from the Saudi embassy?
Nasser: The Saudi embassy security tried to intimidate us at first. They insisted on seeing some sort of permission to be on public grounds — no such thing is required. However, we had gone the extra mile by having filed for a permit to run a demonstration. A totally superficial formality. Then they called for the Capitol Police to monitor the situation. The Police officers were visibly annoyed by having to come keep an eye on a protest. Meanwhile, a Saudi individual of some capacity in the embassy was monitoring the scene and calling back and forth on his cell phone. He then asked through one of the guards to have the name of the organizers and that of the person the protest was done for. All in all, the Saudi staff’s behavior just confirmed the world’s impression of them: intolerant and muzzling.
Sami: We've seen dozen of activists rallies in front of Egyptian embassies around the world calling for the release of the detained blogger kareem Amer without any success. How optimistic are you about this kind of actions and why has nothing changed?
Nasser: Grass roots protests typically don’t generate results immediately. It took the US civil rights movement YEARS of grass roots protest to end segregation. The campaign for the Burmese dissident Ang Su Kyi has been going on for a decade. It would be strange to think that US activists in the 50’s and 60’s or the Burmese monks who took to the streets last year are wasting their time. The protests are a key component of a larger campaign. They will not necessarily per se get an activist released, but are rather an element of multi-faceted struggle. Every time a protest happens a report gets sent back by these diplomats to their governments letting them know that these dissidents are not forgotten. It is also a moral statement that we will use the freedom we have here to demonstrate and will exercise it to support dissidents under fire.
Sami: Free Kareem and Free Fouad campaigns are very successful in attracting the attention of the global blogosphere and the mainstream media, though, they didn't achieve their goal of releasing booth detained bloggers, how can you explain that? Do you believe there is a correlation between a successful media campaign and a failed mission when it comes to the Middle East, a region that is very sensitive to foreign pressures?
Nasser: The decision-making process about handling dissidents is very complex and varies from case to case. the question for activists is not to outguess the dictators. The challenge is to stand up for what is right and take action. A media campaign alone will not necessarily get someone out of jail. It is, however, a vital component of a successful campaign. Harry Truman had an expression: “Sunshine is the best disinfectant”. Generally the best and most effective step to solve a problem is to acknowledge it and spot-light it instead of remaining silent. We are optimistic that Kareem and Fouad and the other bloggers we never hear about and who are behind bars will be released-thanks to grass roots protests, media coverage, diplomatic interventions and letters from thousands around the world who care. What HAMSA is strategically aiming to achieve is fusing online and offline activism. We want to create air cover for dissidents. Ultimately what we need is for lots of people to join these campaigns to succeed. Next time a free Fouad rally happens a thousand people should be there.