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Saudi Women 2 Drive come back and the strengths and limits of social media campaigns

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Forced underground by the Saudi authorities, the Women 2 Drive campaign is back and appears to have won concessions from the country's King.

Using Twitter and Facebook, the campaign attracted worldwide attention last year when it called on women who held an international driver's licence to film themselves as they drove to work, or other places.

Facebook page, Honk for Saudi Women, encouraged women around the world to show their support.

Such worldwide support and interest was credited with having prompted the release of Manal al Sharif whose arrest after she posted a video of herself driving on Youtube prompted the day of protest on 17 June last year.

Another woman, Shaima Jastaniah who faced 10 lashes after driving a car, also had her sentence revoked by Saudi King Abdullah after a massive response from people on Twitter and Facebook.

Gradually, perhaps as interest in the campaign waned, the women driving movement was driven underground under pressure from the authorities. Would the Women2Drive campaign would face the same fate as another one in 1990 when four women paid a high price after driving around the capital of Riyadh?

"Prison, lashings and Interior Ministry phone threats, fines and pledges drove the women driving movement underground again," wrote Eman Al Nafjan, author of the Saudi Woman Blog. "This time around though, unlike in 1990, it was only for a few months before Saudi rights activists geared up again to call for this basic right of no gender discriminations in who gets to drive their cars."

With the support of lawyers, royal family members and religious scholars, the women driving movement is now "getting louder and more sophisticated" writes Al Nafjan.

Saudi Arabia does not have a written law banning women driving, but they are forbidden to do so under a fatwa or religious edict issued by senior clerics in the country.
Manal Al Sharif and another prominent activist Samar Badawy have now taken their fight to the courts; they have separately filed law suits against the authorities demanding that they be granted drivers' licences.

"These lawsuits cannot be dismissed in the same way that the women who went out in the streets and actually drove were. The ball is in the government's court now. It's unlikely and unwise that they'll punish women for filing lawsuits," wrote Al Nafjan.

The attention the campaign has attracted worldwide appears to have influenced the King who Al Nafjan says is reported to have ruled that women who drive should not be prosecuted in the general courts.

A lawyer is quoted on her blog saying: "The most important benefit of this decision is to ease the burden on the judges in issues unrelated to the Sharia and that might cause embarrassment to the judiciary and judges of the Kingdom abroad."

The extremely focused Women2Drive campaign shows how social media can be effectively harnessed, even when a determined regime with an arsenal of tactics at its disposal can drive movements underground, if only for a time.

In its annual report the Committee to Protect Journalists said that while social media has created the means by which people in oppressive countries can get their stories out to the rest of the world, "the technology used to report the news has been matched in many ways by the tools used to suppress information".

In a recent interview during her visit to London, the activist Maryam Elkhawaja said that government in her native Bahrain and in Syria had tried to use the internet to their advantage: " They have launched online attacks of defamation, spreading misinformation, and targeting activists," she said. "These attacks happen on many different levels, whether they're direct death threats, spreading false information to discredit protesters, spam hashtags on twitter, and to track down activists."

In his recent book Revolution 2.0, Google executive Wael Ghonim said the authorities at first under-estimated the power of social media. Nonetheless, by the time he had set up his We are all Khaled Said Facebook page he suspected that the National Democratic Party's well-paid team known as the Electronic Committee was leaving comments on the page to discredit the young man whose savage beating became the focus of protests in Egypt.

This reinforces what Tim Eaton argued in a recent report on the Arab Spring for New Diplomacy Platform - that social
 media
 tools are crucial
 "for
 the
 conduct of
 political
 campaigns in
authoritarian
contexts".

But he also points out that regimes are unlikely to be caught off guard by online movements again:

"There
 have
 already
 been
 signs
 that
 Arab
 regimes
 have
 recognised
 the
 threat
 that
 faces
 them,
becoming
adept
at
monitoring and undermining online movements and online activists," he wrote.