Did Osama Bin Laden win last week's elections in his native Saudi Arabia, the first ever held in the Kingdom? Not quite but the al-Qaeda leader's sympathizers should be more than satisfied with the results of 38 municipal contests held Thursday, the first round in a series of three such elections around the country. Islamic conservatives outpolled nearly 650 other candidates including contenders with powerful tribal links and businessmen who spent hundreds of thousands of dollars for all seven seats up for grabs on the Riyadh city council. They were better organized, emphasizing their technocratic skills while having the word spread via sms cell-phone messages and popular Islamic Internet sites. And they had the key backing of militant Islamic leaders, notably Sheikh Salman al Awdah, jailed for five years in the mid-'90s for opposing the Saudi monarchy. "They will make the country more conservative, while we want it to open up," says Mohammed Al Ammari, one of the defeated liberal candidates. "We have to open our minds and be part of the world."
In contrast, Suleiman Rashodi, a winning fundamentalist candidate backed by Al Awdah, exulted in the outcome. "My friend, this is an Islamic country," he told Time. "Liberals are far from our society. They are like the West." Rashodi calls bin Laden "a good Muslim," though he says he disagrees with his global jihad.
Rashodi has plenty of company. While many Saudis soured on al-Qaeda after the violence struck home with a terror spree starting in May 2003, a poll published last year said 48.7% still had a positive opinion of bin Laden's rhetoric. Al Awdah, the radical sheikh who has joined with bin Laden in political causes in the past, continues to rail against social reform in Saudi Arabia, saying there is "no place for secularism in the Muslim world" and calling attacks on U.S. forces in Iraq "a religious duty."
Rashodi believes that Islam and democracy are compatible, so long as elections don't contravene strict Islamic teaching. But this election in which women could not vote and men were choosing only half the council members, with the rest to be appointed also underscore the contradictions of U.S. policy in the region. In his State of the Union speech this month, U.S. President George W. Bush lectured the Saudi monarchy, calling for "expanding the role of its people in determining their future." But the trouble with elections is that you have to live with their results. And this one suggests that many Saudis like their counterparts in Iran and Algeria when they first got the vote prefer anti-Western militant Islamists over pro-Western reformers.