One of the great mysteries of the Mubarak era in Egypt was the disappearance, in August 2003, of journalist Reda
Helal. Helal was not typical of the country's opposition journalists. He was a senior staff member at the
semi-oficial al-Ahram newspaper and held generally pro-American views.
His disappearance was reported in some detail at the time by
al-Ahram Weekly, and later by
Joel Campagna of the Committee to Protect Journalists.
Al-Ahram's account says:
Hilal was last seen by his colleagues leaving the
al-Ahram building at about 2pm. He was driven to his downtown flat in a company car. Upon his arrival, Hilal asked the house attendant to get him some juice from a nearby vendor. He had also apparently ordered a kebab meal from a nearby restaurant. But when the delivery man and the attendant arrived with his orders, a lock had been placed on Hilal's apartment's front door.
The next day, Hilal's brother opened the flat to find everything in place. The one possibly anomalous sign was that the windows had been left wide open.
Although Egyptian police carried out a fairly thorough investigation, the general consensus was that Helal (or
Hilal) had been abducted by the regime because of something he said or knew about Gamal
While many people assumed that he had been killed, there have been
persistent claims that he is actually still alive and being held in jail under a different name. Those reports have still not been confirmed but with the fall of the Mubarak regime there is now some prospect of clearing up the mystery.
Nobody can govern in Yemen without support from the tribes and on Saturday influential figures
from the country's two main tribal groupings the Hashid and the Bakil abandoned
"I announce my resignation from the General People's Congress [the ruling party] in protest at the attacks on peaceful demonstrators in Sanaa, Tai'zz and Aden," Hashid tribal chief Sheikh Hussein bin Abdullah al-Ahmar told a huge gathering in Amran province, north of
The Yemen Post says his announcement was "warmly received by a large crowd of tribesmen", including members of Yemen's second largest tribal group, the
Mohammad Abdel Illah al-Qadi, a prominent leader of the Sanhan (Salih's own branch of the Hashid) also announced he is leaving the party.
Yemen's tribes are not monolithic blocs, as Gregg Carlstrom points out in
an article for al-Jazeera, and Salih still has supporters among them (partly as a result of
bribing them with money and
cars). Even so, the latest desertions are an important sign of which way the wind is blowing.
A statement from the General People's Congress on Sunday played down the problem. It said "the resignation of some members of the GPC at this timing reveals the reality of the opportunists" and described the departures as "like an operation of purification of the GPC from the parasites that were unable to effect any development inside the organisation". It added that "the GPC has in its ranks millions of loyal and sincere members who have firm stands and work sincerely for siding with issues of the homeland and the people".
All this will come to a head with the parliamentary elections scheduled for April 27, which are likely to be conducted in the midst of unprecedented turmoil assuming they do go ahead. They have already been postponed for by two years and to postpone them again would be extremely dangerous for Salih politically, as would rigging them to ensure another GPC victory.
Beyond April 27, the shape of events in Yemen is anyone's guess but Salih's survival prospects are clearly fading.
With Gaddafi on the way out, the mantle of longest-surviving Arab autocrat will shortly pass to Sultan Qaboos, the British-backed ruler of Oman. Or perhaps not, since his regime is now coming under popular pressure too.
Protests have been reported this weekend in two Omani cities at opposite ends of the country Suhar in the north-east and Salalah in the south-west as well as in the capital, Muscat.
The disturbances in Suhar (or Sohar) were met with plastic bullets and at least two people are reported to have been killed. Vehicles were set alight and there seems to have been an attempt to storm a police station.
The video above shows scenes in Suhar on Saturday. More have been posted here on
Qaboos has attempted to buy off the protesters by reshuffling his ministers and announcing a series of measures which his foreign ministry website describes (unsurprisingly) as "highly commendable and far-sighted". These include an increase in allowances for students.
Oman is a sparsely populated country about 300,000 sq km in area with just 2.3 million citizens (plus half a million or more foreigners). It has a high birth rate and a very low death rate, leading to the familiar Arab problem of a "youth bulge". Forty-three per cent of Omanis are aged under 15.
It is difficult to judge how much of a threat the current protests pose to the regime. It appears from their slogans that the protesters are at present seeking "reform" rather than the sultan's overthrow though of course that might change. Their grievances are the usual ones: corruption, rising prices and a lack of freedom.
At the same time, the 70-year-old sultan's attitude appears patronising and complacent suggesting that, like Ben Ali and Mubarak before him, he doesn't really comprehend the magnitude of the problem.
As in Tunisia, the Omani regime has been able to maintain control because people are nervous about stepping out of
line, but it is doubtful whether the security forces would be capable of handling mass civil disobedience if the fear barrier is broken. In that respect, Suhar may be the key place to watch, since it is Oman's main industrial
Assessing the stability of Oman in 2004, Middle East specialist Mark Katz wrote:
"The political challenges it faces are the extreme concentration of authority in the hands of one man (Sultan Qaboos), the sultan's unwillingness to allow meaningful political participation or dialogue, political legitimacy issues concerning both Sultan Qaboos and the succession process he has set up, and sporadic but persistent signs of opposition."
Qaboos, who owns seven palaces, four yachts and a 120-member classical music orchestra, has long-standing ties with Britain.
Educated partly in England, he went to Sandhurst military college and served for a couple of years in the British army. He later paid for sports pavilions which carry his name at both Sandhurst and the RAF college, Cranwell.
Qaboos came to power in 1970 by deposing his paranoid father with British
support. His father, Said bin Tamur, then went into luxurious exile at the Dorchester Hotel in London.
There's no doubt that the British government will be monitoring events in Oman very closely but I doubt that it will make much effort to keep
Qaboos in power. At this late stage he is clearly not capable of introducing reforms on a scale that would satisfy young Omanis and Britain may well decide to ditch him, as it did his father. Rooms at the Dorchester are available from £306 per night.
The committee charged with drafting amendments to the Egyptian constitution issued its proposals yesterday. They are now up for public discussion and will eventually be submitted to a referendum.
The amendments are mainly concerned with preventing the recurrence of another Mubarak-style presidency (a full-scale re-draft of the constitution is promised during the next parliament). Given that they are written mainly with the coming presidential election in mind, the proposals are a big step in the right direction though the long-term need is to shift power significantly away from the presidency and towards a freely-elected parliament.
Presidential qualifications: Most Arab constitutions make various
stipulations regarding who can become president, in the apparent belief that voters would elect someone unsuitable if given half a chance. It's reasonable to expect that any elected president
should be an Egyptian citizen but I'm not sure that even that needs to be spelled out. Is it really conceivable that some passing tourist would decide to stand and then get elected?
The new draft removes the 40-year age qualification but toughens up the nationality requirements: besides being born to two Egyptian parents, presidents must also not be married to a foreign wife. (Someone suggested on Twitter yesterday that this is a deliberate insertion to bar
the Nobel-winning scientist, from the presidency).
The "no foreign wife" rule also also seems to assume that future presidents will always be male unless it's saying that it's OK for a female president to have a foreign husband.
Presidential candidates: The proposed rules make it easier to nominate candidates who have parliamentary
or party backing. An alternative route to nomination is by collecting signatures from 30,000 voters in about half the country's governorates. That's a lot of signatures, but a candidate who was incapable of collecting them would probably have no hope of winning a presidential election anyway. Difficulties could arise, though, if someone decided to challenge the validity of the signatures: checking all 30,000 of them could easily take weeks by which time the election would presumably be over.
Term limits: The presidential term is reduced from six years to four, with a limit of two consecutive terms. The drafting should be tightened up, since it appears to allow an unlimited number of non-consecutive terms. I'm thinking here of the Putin/Medvedev double act in Russia, where Putin continued to run the country as prime minister after he had to step down from the presidency. Perhaps there should be a provision barring any Egyptian ex-president from holding further elected offices.
Vice-president: Under the draft rules, a new president must appoint a deputy within 60 days. Mubarak's refusal to appoint a deputy (until a few days before he was forced out of office) was a major bone of contention, but the current proposal could lead to an unelected person running the country. A better solution
might be for presidential candidates to announce a vice-presidential running-mate before the
election (as in the United States), so that voters know where they stand.
Supervision of elections: The new draft restores full judicial supervision a good move, though of course it does also require a fully independent judiciary.
Eligibility for parliament: The supreme constitutional court will have the power to disqualify members of parliament. Previously, the NDP used its parliamentary majority to ignore court rulings on eligibility.
Emergency laws: The draft rules make it more difficult for a president to impose a long-term state of emergency (as happened under Mubarak).
International treaties: In future, these will need parliamentary approval. The sub-text here is Sadat's unpopular treaty with Israel.
Reuters provides a variety of reactions to the proposals from Egyptian opposition activists and analysts. Meanwhile, Mohamed El-Baradei is pursuing a somewhat different track as the way forward. He set out his thoughts in
an article for the Financial Times last week. To read it, you'll have to register with the FT's website but the Egyptian Chronicles blog summarises its key points here.
Just in case anyone is wondering ... after a period of very intensive blogging here since the events of Sidi Bouzid in December, I have to take a short break in order to catch up on a few other things.
I'm also working on a new edition of my book, Unspeakable
Love, which is due out in the summer. It's now almost five years since the book was first published and there is quite a lot of new material to add.
Lest we forget that Yemen also has a place called Tahrir Square, here's
an account from Human Rights Watch about the events there yesterday:
Hundreds of men armed with knives, sticks, and assault rifles attacked anti-government protesters in Yemen's capital, Sanaa, as Yemeni security forces stood by ... Within an hour, the 1,000-plus protesters had been pushed from the square and at least 10 had been detained by security forces ...
Human Rights Watch witnessed at least 10 army trucks carrying men in civilian clothing to Sanaa's Tahrir Square, where a crowd of around 1,000 Yemenis had been demonstrating in support of the historic changes in Egypt and against the Yemeni government. Hundreds of men, their arrival coordinated by uniformed security agents, attacked the anti-government protesters with knives and sticks, prompting the majority to flee ...
A few dozen anti-government demonstrators remained in the square, sitting on the street, but they too fled after being charged by hundreds of armed government supporters.
It isn't the first time this has happened and it won't be the last.
The Tunisian and Egyptian regimes both deployed hired rabbles during the uprisings there though it didn't save either of them.
President Salih, who already faces a lightly-armed rebellion in the south and a dormant but more heavily-armed one in the far north, not to mention the al-Qaeda insurgency, is well aware of the "Tunisia effect" and the dangers it might pose for him. Last night, shortly after President Mubarak resigned in Egypt, Yemen's National Defence Council held "an expanded meeting" where
it discussed, among other things, "improving the wages of government staff and personnel of the armed and security forces".
Buying loyalty is a tactic favoured by the oil-rich Gulf monarchies but there's only so far that Salih, heavily dependent on foreign aid, can go in that direction.
There was also a protest in the central city of Taizz, where 15,000 demonstrators gathered outside the governor's office, according to
a post on
Twitter. A video
(of rather poor quality) shows a crowd in Taizz reacting to Mubarak's
Secessionists held further protests in the south, where government forces reportedly used tanks and treargas and fired warning shots.
This is a fairly normal state of affairs for Yemen and it doesn't pose an immediate threat to Salih. As I have said before, the Yemeni opposition is very disunited. But, with parliamentary elections scheduled for April, the next couple of months are likely to bring a period of intensified activity on the streets.
National politics or tribal politics? In Yemen it's often difficult to tell the difference, as illustrated by a violent spat on Saturday involving Hamid al-Ahmar, one of the most outspoken opposition MPs, and Nu'man Duwaid, the governor of Sana'a province.
Al-Ahmar is a prominent figure in the Hashid tribe his father, besides being speaker of parliament and head of the Islah party, was paramount chief of the Hashid and, in his day, the most important tribal figure in Yemen.
Governor Duwaid, meanwhile, is a sheikh of the Khawlan tribe and a member of President Salih's party.
At a political rally last week, Duwaid accused al-Ahmar of having gained his wealth from looting public property. This was deemed as an insult to the honour of the Hashid tribe and Duwaid's Khawlan tribe duly apologised "according to the tribal norms".
On Saturday, though, armed supporters of al-Ahmar arrived at Duwaid's house in four vehicles and opened fire, killing one bystander and injuring three others. The Yemen Observer
reports: "The governors security were able to get two of the four cars and confirmed to the interior ministry that they belong to Hamid al-Ahmar."
A statement from the ruling General People's Congress
condemned the attack as "a terrorist act violating the conduct of difference in opinion, the values, laws and norms and traditions of the Yemeni people" and called for those involved to be brought to justice.
Later that evening, as al-Ahmar returned from a meeting of the Preparatory Committee for National Dialogue (which he chairs), his guard spotted a pickup
truck bearing an official licence plate, according to Arab News:
"When his guards went away from the house, more than 30 gunmen opened fire at them. No one was hurt in the attack and the Ministry of Interior was notified about the incident."
Al-Ahmar (profiled here in the Yemen Times) has been prominent among those calling for President Salih to step down. In a TV interview last month, he
described the ruling party's efforts to change the constitution and abolish presidential term limits as "political dementia".
The Hashid are a force to be reckoned with in
Yemen. The Yemen Times article notes:
"The heinous murder of [Hamid al-Ahmar's] ambitious uncle and grandfather led his father to mobilise the Hashid tribes, normally supporters of the Imam, to the side of the revolution when it broke out in north Yemen in 1962. The efforts of his father, family, and tribesmen eventually led to the permanent demise of the Imamate's 11 centuries rule."
Among his many business interests, al-Ahmar owns Sabafon, a mobile phone company which has been
providing a messaging service for anti-Salih protesters.
The situation in Egypt, as a friend from Alexandria described it to me
in an email this morning, is "quite fluid and extremely scary". It's
also very difficult to work out what is really going on behind the scenes.
Vice-President Suleiman increasingly behaves as if he were president, while the president himself,
fading from view but not resigning, continues to haunt the scene as a ghost behind the curtains.
In some areas the Mubarak regime appears (repeat: appears) to be
retreating step by step as seen from the resignations yesterday of the president's son,
Gamal, and other senior figures in the ruling party.
While the street protests are being tolerated, probably in the hope that the demonstrators will eventually wear themselves out, the old repressive tactics arrests and so on continue in the background. In the words of my friend's email, "The witch hunt has already started."
None of this suggests the emerging "transitional" leaders are committed to
rapid and meaningful change, that they will do anything other than drag their feet all the way to the scheduled presidential election in September, or that they will not attempt to retrench if given half a chance.
Then there is the United States, which still seems to be
dithering over whether Mubarak should stay or
go and, if so, how soon he should go. The danger is that the Obama administration will get too deeply involved and end up hindering rather than helping. In the words of an Egyptian woman
quoted by the Guardian yesterday:
"If Obama gets rid of Mubarak, you will see that many people in Egypt will love America. If Obama leaves it to the Egyptian people, we will love him. But if Obama tries to force us to have a government we don't want, it will be different. We will win and then we will judge Obama by what he does and take decisions according to how he behaves."
Meanwhile, there are various legal/constitutional obstacles blocking the way
forward politically. This is not surprising because the legal framework was constructed to keep the regime in power and prevent it from being easily dismantled.
Hossam Bahgat and Soha Abdelaty of the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights explain the problems in detail in
an article for the Washington Post.
The big question is how to ensure that the coming presidential election is conducted freely and fairly, and without the customary repression in the run-up to it. Whatever moves are made between now and September should be directed towards that goal. But at present I can't see
it happening without continued pressure from the streets.
Egyptian protesters have dubbed today the "Day of Departure" for President Mubarak and they may be proved right. There are reports this morning that the US has now shifted from vague talk of "transition" to working on a plan for him to
The American plan is said to involve Omar Suleiman, the newly-appointed vice-president, taking charge over a transitional government.
Whether or not this would be acceptable to the protesters, it presents a constitutional problem. The
84) says that in the event of the president resigning, the chair of the People's Assembly (rather than the vice-president) would assume presidential duties, with new presidential elections to be held within 60 days.
However, there are a couple of ways the American scenario could
still be implemented legally and leave Suleiman in charge. One would be for Mubarak to leave the country "temporarily" without formally resigning (which is what Ben Ali attempted initially in Tunisia). The other extremely unlikely would be a parliamentary vote to impeach him. Nathan Brown
explores the question further on the Foreign Policy website.
Mubarak's behaviour over the last couple of days has effectively sealed his fate: first by setting his thugs on demonstrators and journalists, and then by
his interview with Christiane Amanpour where he said the only thing holding him back from resigning was the chaos that he
believed would ensue. This invited the obvious riposte that the country is already in chaos as a result of his refusal to go.
There has been some irritation expressed on Twitter about the amount of prominence given to attacks on foreign journalists compared with those
on ordinary Egyptians. It's a fair point, but the reporting of attacks on journalists especially American ones has clearly helped to shift the discourse among western governments towards calling for Mubarak's immediate departure rather than waiting until the next presidential election.
American efforts to manipulate Egypt's transfer of power behind the scenes are not something I particularly welcome, either. But, again, considering that the US has helped to prop up Mubarak's regime over so many years it seems necessary, in a way, that the US should also signal now that it is finally letting him go. And for once, on the immediate issue of Mubarak's departure (if nothing else), the new American position does seem to be in line with the wishes of the Egyptian people.
Tens of thousands took part in Yemen's "day of
rage" yesterday, and it looks like becoming a regular Thursday occurrence. The turnout was probably less than the organisers had been hoping and I doubt that it did much to frighten President Salih. Although he is increasingly unpopular, the opposition in Yemen is also very fragmented. This raises the question of what it would take to actually remove him, but I'll save that discussion for later. He isn't going this week. Or next.
A placard from yesterday's demonstration
in Yemen likening President Salih to the deposed imams. It says: "The rule of Imam Yahya: 13 years. The rule of Imam Ahmad: 14 years. The rule of Imam Ali [Salih]: 33 years."
Today has been declared a "day of
rage" in Yemen and a demonstration is about to start in Sanaa as I write. This follows a series of protests in the capital last month (here and
here) in which several thousands took part. The organisers are hoping for a much bigger turnout today but that remains to be seen.
Jane Novak, who blogs about Yemen, says the protest has been switched at the last minute from Tahrir Square (like Cairo, Sanaa has one too) to the new university roundabout due to "regime thugs camped out in Tahrir Square with car loads of guns".
The interior ministry announced yesterday that it has set up roadblocks around Sanaa and stepped up its security forces supposedly to stop people smuggling weapons into the city.
Meanwhile some (but not all) of the government websites have gone
down, including the websites of the president and parliament. It is possible they have been attacked by the Anonymous hacking group.
Coinciding with today's protests, WikiLeaks has released a new
US embassy memo from June 2005, headed: "Priorities for Washington visit: Saleh needs to be part of the solution".
Among other things, the document says: "Saleh touts Yemen as a leader in regional reform and has committed to democratisation. Domestically, however, he has run out of reforms he can implement at no political cost to himself."
It also says:
"Rampant official corruption impedes foreign investment, economic growth, and comprehensive development ... MCC [the Millennium Challenge Corporation] provides the opportunity to commit the [government of Yemen] to a serious plan to combat endemic corruption. Saleh's feet must be held to the fire on what has thus far been mere lip service. MCC membership serves as both a carrot and stick in this regard."
The MCC is a US government agency that works with developing countries for the promotion of good governance, economic freedom and investment.
In November 2005 five months after the leaked memo was written Yemen
was suspended from eligibility for the MCC's Threshold Programme "due to a deterioration in performance on the eligibility indicators". It was reinstated in 2007, "due to a demonstrated commitment to reform, particularly to reforms that address policy slippage".
In September 2007, the MCC granted Yemen $20.6 million to help it "fight corruption and improve the rule of law, political rights, fiscal policy and government effectiveness".
It hasn't taken long for Egypt's "official" opposition parties the Wafd, the Tagammu and the Nasserists to cave in and agree to talks with the Mubarak regime. Fortunately, they are not enough on their own to make any dialogue meaningful.
Events of the last 24 hours Mubarak's TV speech followed by government-sponsored thugs going on the rampage have shown the regime has no intention of pursuing genuine and rapid change. It will simply procrastinate and prevaricate, and the more outsiders press it to do otherwise the more it will resist "foreign interference".
Mubarak's speech to the nation on Tuesday night was widely misinterpreted. The president was, by turns, angry, defiant and unrepentant. He offered no apologies, proposed no new initiatives, gave no promise that his son Gamal would not succeed him, and instead lectured Egyptians on the importance of order and stability (which he alone could assure).
He appeared not to have learned anything from the past week. And his one "concession" that he would not seek re-election was no concession at all. After all, he had never said he would.
There is no real prospect of change while the regime remains intact. If it is serious about transition (which I doubt) it should, at the very least, give a serious signal of its intent. That means Mubarak stepping aside now and inviting figures from other parties (and none) into a national unity government.
Another point to bear in mind is that the longer this drags on, the better it will be for the Muslim Brotherhood. A lot of the Brotherhood's electoral support is a protest vote against Mubarak and his way of governing. Once he is gone, the protest-vote element will start to wane.
There has also been some media excitement today at President Salih's announcement in Yemen that he will retire in 2013. Like Mubarak, he is not to be trusted. In fact, he has talked of stepping down several times before and on each occasion he has changed his mind later. Here is
a report I wrote about it on the last occasion, in 2005.
Faced with an event of Berlin Wall magnitude on its home turf, the Arab media is torn over the uprising in Egypt and how to report it, if at all.
In the old days, the media's role was not so much to report the news as to "guide" the public, shielding them from "harmful" information or anything that might inflame their passions.
That ceased to be a viable option more than 20 years ago with the arrival of satellite television, especially al-Jazeera, and since then the internet has made it less viable still. And yet, large sections of the Arab media still persist in their hidebound ways.
photograph from the semi-official al-Ahram newspaper, showing
Mubarak leading the way during his visit to the White House last
With Egyptian protesters beginning a "million-person march" today probably heading for the presidential palace Mubarak's latest ploy is to shut down the country's entire rail network in the hope of keeping people away. But as with the night-time curfew, the banning of al-Jazeera and the internet shutdown, it's unlikely to have much
effect on the protesters' determination.
With the last local internet connection now severed, Google has announced a new service allowing Egyptians to tweet via
voicemail. "We hope that this will go some way to helping people in Egypt stay connected at this very difficult time," it said.
Demonstrators had already begun gathering in Cairo's Tahrir Square yesterday evening to spend the night there amid what was described as a carnival atmosphere. The army has said it will stand by today but not intervene. However, there are fears that the regime may organise a counter-demonstration which could result in trouble.
Yesterday, President Mubarak swore-in his new cabinet which includes plenty of old faces, though it does
exclude several business chums of his son, Gamal. Farouk Hosni, the veteran culture minister, is also out. Al-Masry al-Youm newspaper has more
This certainly does not look like the kind of cabinet to implement the rapid reforms that the US has been calling for. Nevertheless, President Obama has despatched a special envoy to facilitate political change. He is 73-year-old Frank Wisner who served as ambassador to Cairo more than 20 years ago.
Meanwhile, former British prime minister Tony Blair said change in Egypt is "inevitable" but must be managed, adding that it must not be allowed to harm the Israeli-Palestinian peace process (which in any case is more or less dead). Former US president Jimmy Carter was more forthright, saying that "the people have decided" and Mubarak "will have to leave".
Egypt's new vice-president, Omar Suleiman, appeared on television last night to say Mubarak has ordered him to start talks with the opposition though nobody seems to have taken any notice of that, or of his promised to issue a government policy statement "within days".
We are now one week into the Egyptian uprising and the only real solution is for Mubarak to go.
Instead, he seems intent on taking the country into oblivion with him. But, as almost everyone recognises, this is not just about Egypt; it's about the whole Middle East. Mubarak's fate will also, so some extent, determine that of the other ageing autocrats.
Mubarak is so stubborn that it's hard to be sure what's needed to finally tip him over the edge. Will it be a group of generals confronting him and telling him the game is up? Will he suddenly decide that he needs urgent medical treatment abroad? Will an impending
economic collapse force him out? Whatever it is that does the trick, I doubt that we shall have long to wait.