Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal speaks at a news conference… (Susan Baaghil, Reuters )
Reporting from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia — The men trickled into the gravel-filled courtyard in twos and threes, walked past the junked whirlpool tub and yellow toddler slide in the corner and entered a wide shed with a red carpet to welcome home one of their own.
The guest of honor was a 40-year-old university professor named Mohammed Abdulkarim, who had just returned from 10 weeks in solitary confinement for a post to his Facebook page about a succession struggle in the Saudi royal family.
The 60 or so lawyers, doctors, academics and clerics feting him are the leading opposition voices in Saudi Arabia. Many have been imprisoned, some several times, often for seemingly mild acts of protest such as letters, petitions and calls to foreign journalists.
Recent petitions to King Abdullah asking for fundamental reforms have drawn thousands of signatures, much to the former prisoners' pride and delight. But the activists also understand that the kind of popular rage churning Egypt or Bahrain doesn't exist in Saudi Arabia.
For a society as conservative and loyal to the royal family as this one, large protests may be a step too far, activists and state officials said. There is a call in the air now for demonstrations Friday, but few people are expected to turn out: Even these men are split about entering the streets after the Interior Ministry pledged to crack down on participants.
"We're a voice for the voiceless majority," said Mohammed Harbi, a 26-year-old political science student sporting a light stubble. But Harbi was reluctant to go beyond petitions. Asked whether he would march Friday, he said quietly, "I haven't decided yet."
For years, the group has met Monday nights in this courtyard on Riyadh's eastern outskirts to discuss Saudi politics. A few come to get advice about the long detention of relatives, without open trial or charges. This time, the proposed demonstration Friday was on everyone's mind.
Badr Mouzan, 39, a former police captain, has been in prison twice, the last time for three years, because of an alleged affiliation with a London-based critic of the Saudi regime. He said he wouldn't attend any demonstrations. But he had hopes for them.
"Who said protests won't change anything? Look at Egypt and Tunisia," he said. In the east of Saudi Arabia, where members of the country's Shiite minority have protested, an imprisoned cleric was recently released, Mouzan said. "Change happened."
Whatever change human rights activists and others would like to see in the kingdom — and even the harshest critics do not want to overthrow the monarchy — they are nearly unanimous in their assessment that popular dissatisfaction would not lead to big protests here.
The Saudi government, however, is jittery. In the last few days, it has marshaled clerics, media, the foreign minister and the Interior Ministry to assert that public protest is banned in the kingdom, against Islam and will lead to chaos, claims that rights activists deny.
Interior Ministry spokesman Maj. Gen. Mansour Turki insisted that the protest movement was not homegrown but orchestrated by a foreign "hidden hand" determined to destroy the Saudi state. His belief is shared by other Saudis critical of the marches, and it echoes pro-regime forces in troubled states throughout the region.
Turki denied that a curfew would be imposed after Friday prayers, but he said protests would be shut down swiftly, regardless of their size.
"If anyone is willing to answer this call, or enter into this trap, we will prevent them," he said. "We will make sure they are isolated and put under control."
Even without demonstrations, the ideas many at the gathering put forth in petitions and letters, such as calling for a constitutional monarchy or respecting the rights of detainees, are often punishable in the absolute monarchy of Saudi Arabia. The owner of the compound, Abdullah Hamid, a former professor of comparative literature, has been imprisoned six times, once for voicing support of a demonstration by families of detainees, according to the United Nations.
"There is a whole spectrum of people here: Islamists, nationalists, even liberals," Hamid said in the diwan, or meeting room, as others around him laughed. They are united, he said, by a request to Abdullah for a constitutional monarchy, an independent judiciary and an end to corruption. "The king can either accept responsibility or be a figurehead."
Not everyone is as outspoken as Hamid. They know intimately the power of the Saudi state. As the smell of wood smoke and roasting meat drifted over them, the men said they realize they are being watched when they gather, and that there are probably informers in their midst.
"Once they arrest you, then you find out what's permissible or not," Mouzan said.