Arab Spring haj pilgrims talk politics despite heavy security

Mon Oct 14, 2013 12:06pm EDT
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By Amena Bakr

ARAFAT, Saudi Arabia (Reuters) - The young Syrian ascending Mount Arafat brooded about his war-shattered country on Monday, his concerns a common preoccupation among Arabs in the sea of humanity making the annual Muslim haj pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia.

Wary of regional tensions that could flare into protests at the haj, Saudi Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef asked pilgrims last week to leave their disputes at home, and he assigned 95,000 members of the security forces to keep order.

"This was a very tough year for us," said Syrian Abdel-Jabbar al-Badr, speaking to an Egyptian oil trader, who in turn fretted about his family's safety back at a time of widespread unrest and militant violence. "I had to move my family to Saudi Arabia after all the murders in our village," Badr said.

Despite a ban on political debate during haj, pilgrims from Arab states shaken by popular uprisings found personal security a common theme as they climbed the rocky mountain where the Prophet Mohammad delivered his last sermon some 1,400 years ago.

The ascent by more than two million pilgrims in seamless white robes up the holy mountain chanting prayers for forgiveness, marks the spiritual climax of the haj.

There was an undercurrent of frustration: Disgruntled Arabs from Egypt, Syria, Tunisia and Libya expressed exasperation with the instability brought about by the Arab Spring uprisings, and tried to console each other.

Badr said he was relieved to have been able been to bring his wife and children to Saudi Arabia, but that he remained worried about other family members still in Syria.

"We still don't have enough security of the streets to feel safe," said Mohamed Zaki, the Egyptian oil trader, referring to Egypt, where regular protests and periodic violence has plagued the country since the army overthrew elected President Mohamed Mursi and his Muslim Brotherhood government earlier this year.   Continued...

Muslim pilgrims gather near the Namera mosque on the plains of Arafat, near the holy city of Mecca October 14, 2013. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa