'We are all Fouads'

The Free Fouad campaign has organized a Fouad's Week on the blogosphere, while activists in the U.S. held a demonstration in front of the Saudi embassy. HAMSA's Nasser Weddady explains why on- and offline activism need to go hand in hand.
Saudi blogger Fouad Al-Farhan has been in jail since December 11. R.R.

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 organizations also expressed concern and called for the release of Fouad Alfarhan. While Reporters Without Borders condemned the government's silence on the matter, Amnesty International has expressed fears that Fouad 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 February 9 in front of the Saudi embassy in Washington, D.C. to draw attention to  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.

Free Fouad Rally at Washingtom D.C.
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:

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 for Fouad?

Nasser Weddady: "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 U.S., 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 write 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."

Did you get any reaction from the Saudi embassy?

N.W.: "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 have a demonstration – a 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."

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?

N.W.: "Grass roots protests typically don't generate results immediately. It took the U.S. 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 U.S. 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 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."

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."

This article was republished with permission from Global Voices Online.