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Biblical tradition holds that northern Iraq is the land of Cain and Abel. Across post-war Iraq, the ancient parable of fratricide seems to be playing out in a contemporary context: Muslim brothers killing Muslim brothers in spates of violence between the Sunni and Shia sects rippling out in waves across the Middle East.
Though illegal in the kingdom, open dissent is alive and well in Qatif.
register their SIM cards, which means text messaging about demonstrations is no longer anonymous.
Abu Zaki, another activist requesting anonymity, says demonstrators now rely on Facebook and Twitter, along with good old word of mouth. Practically everyone at the recent Qatif protest march carried iPhones. Some broadcast the demo in near real time by uploading to YouTube.
Organizers hope their sheer numbers, along with government incompetence, will keep them from being discovered. “The government cannot follow everybody’s Twitter user name,” says Abu Zaki. “The authorities have to be selective and, hopefully, they don’t select my name.”
When protests began, demonstrators called for reforms. But now, younger militants demand elimination of the monarchy and an end to the US policy of supporting the dictatorial king.
Abu Mohammad, Abu Zaki and several other militant activists, gather in an apartment in Awamiyah, a poor, Shia village neighboring Qatif. In this part of the world a village is really a small town, usually abutting a larger city. Awamiyah is one such town, chock full of auto repair shops, one-room storefronts, and potholed streets. It is noticeably poorer than Sunni towns of comparable size.
Strong, black tea is served along with weak, greenish Saudi coffee. The protest movement in Qatif, they observe, resembles the tea more than the coffee.
Abu Mohammad tells me protests have remained strong because residents are fighting for both political rights as Saudis, and against religious/social discrimination as Shia.
Shia face discrimination in jobs, housing and religious practices. Dammam, the largest city in the area, has no Shia cemetery, for example. Only six Shia sit on the country’s 150-member Shura Council, the appointed legislature that advises the king.
“As Shia, we can’t get jobs in the military,” says Abu Mohammad. “And we face the same political repression as all Saudis. We live under an absolute monarchy that gives us no rights and steals the wealth of the country.”
The government denies those claims of discrimination and repression. In Riyadh, Major General Mansour Al Turki, spokesperson for the Ministry of Interior, is the point man who often meets with foreign journalists. Al Turki is smooth and affable and practiced at the art of being interviewed by Westerners.
He dismisses Shia charges of discrimination as simply untrue.
“These people making demonstrations are very few,” he tells me. “They only represent themselves. The majority [of Shia] are living at a very high level.”
Such assertions, however, don’t account for the frequent and sizable Eastern Province demonstrations supporting Sheik Nemer al Nemer. The charismatic Shia cleric has long been a thorn in the government’s side. His willingness to speak out against discrimination and call for militant action endeared him to the younger generation of activists. For months he avoided arrest by shifting residences and only appearing in public during large rallies.
Then in July 2012 authorities made an arrest while he was briefly visiting his house in Qatif. He was shot and seriously wounded. Police claim it was an armed shootout in which they fired in self defense.
The Sheik was unarmed, according to his brother, Mohammad al Nemer. He says his brother hasn’t been publicly charged, but has been told that he faces a long jail term for instigating unrest against the king and organizing illegal demonstrations.
Four police bullets shattered his brother’s thigh bone, says al Nimer. “If he doesn't receive proper medical care, he will have a lame leg for the rest of his life.”
Al Nemer’s popularity has grown exponentially since his arrest, with graffiti demanding his release sprouting up throughout the area and marchers regularly chanting his name.
Shia leader Sheik Mohammed Hassan al Habib offers understanding of the continuing protests. The cleric lives in a modest home on a side street outside Qatif. Sheik al Habib adds something special to the usual proffering of tea and coffee: Swiss chocolate.
Al Habib tells me that the Eastern Province movement seeks democratic reforms while maintaining the power of the monarchy.
“We need to give real power to the parliament,” he says. “The government should allow establishment of political parties, freedom of speech and assembly.” But the king