One by one, the Arab world is commemorating and marking the first anniversary since the uprisings toppled autocrats in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya a year ago, last year’s “Arab Spring.” Even in places where there wasn’t regime change, leaders paid attention and in many Gulf countries doled out pumped up benefits programs for their citizens.
But it seems that a spreading of protected free expression is not necessarily a part of the rebellions’ young legacy so far.
For example, I can’t imagine what’s going on in the mind of 23-year-old Hamza Kashgari right now. Let me explain. Kashgari was a 23-year-old Saudi columnist who, like many other writers, was a prolific user of Twitter. And according to many media reports, last month on the occasion when Muslims celebrate the Prophet Mohammed’s birthday, Kashgari tweeted: “On your birthday, I will say that I have loved the rebel in you, that you’ve always been a source of inspiration to me, and that I do not like the halos of divinity around you. I shall not pray for you.”
Another post read: “On your birthday, I shall not bow to you. I shall not kiss your hand. Rather, I shall shake it as equals do, and smile at you as you smile at me. I shall speak to you as a friend, no more.”
Those sentiments set off a firestorm on Twitter, with tens of thousands of posts condemning him of apostasy, a crime punishable by death in Saudi Arabia. Someone even created a Facebook page calling for his immediate death. He apologized for his tweets but the calls for dire punishment continued. He fled Saudi to New Zealand but had to stop in Malaysia along the way. Even though Malaysia does not have an extradition treaty, it refused Kashgari entry into the country and he was put on a private jet back to Saudi Arabia.
The personal, almost casual, way Kashgari addressed his tweets to the Prophet was a red line that, if crossed, must be punished severely, according to his critics. He’s back in Saudi now, presumably awaiting trial in a religious court.
The concept of red lines that cannot be crossed played a part in what became the #UAE5. Emirati authorities last April arrested five bloggers for threatening state security and for comments about U.A.E. leaders deemed unacceptable. After a trial which resulted in 3-year sentences, they were pardoned last November.
Even Oman, which has been relatively peaceful in comparison to North Africa, the Levant and Bahrain, recently decided to detain Muawiyah Al Rawahi for blog posts. The Gulf News in Dubai recently reported that Al Rawahi “had apparently written, in his now erased post, about him being working for the security agencies, being abused in the childhood and his sex escapades,” the newspaper reports. “He had also criticized the ruler as well as written about his lack of faith in religion. In 2009, he had created a storm by asking for alcohol to be made available freely to Omanis also.”
He was released last week after a 10-day detention. According to GN, he hasn’t said anything publicly about the arrest or detention, only apologizing that “I regret that I let down many [people], and I regret that I let down myself.”
I’m not sure if exuberance over the Arab Spring prompted more candid postings from these writers or if governments are feeling more sensitive because of the changes the Arab world has seen in the last year. I wonder what impact this will have on writing going forward.