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Syria: the rewards of loyalty

The "new" Syrian government was announced on Thursday. Exiled dissident Ammar Abdulhamid comments:

"All those who keep betting on Assad the Reformer keep losing, as Assad holds on to his favourite title of Disappointment Maker. The new government is actually the old government with some old lower ranking officials now promoted to ministers as reward for loyalty and corruption. None of them has ever spoken of reform, none of them ever practised it. They are true Assad loyalists indeed."

Abdulhamid also notes that the regime released a number of detainees on Thursday, apparently to undercut the protests planned for Friday.

"The fact that such developments keep happening on a Thursday prompted some young activists to refer to the Assad regime as the Thursday Regime," he says.

Unimpressed, Human Rights Watch has issued a statement condemning the arbitrary detention of hundred of protesters and "rampant torture".

"Throwing peaceful protesters in dungeons, beating them, denying them access to the outside world, will only increase the chasm between Syria's rulers and its people," it says. "The terrible torture methods of the mukhabarat need to become a relic of the past."

Meanwhile, the Syria Comment blog has posted an article by Nikolaos van Dam (former Dutch ambassador to Iraq, Egypt, Turkey, Germany and Indonesia who is also the author of a book on Syria) warning about the "dangerous trap of sectarianism". It concludes:

"Perhaps there might be a way out through a kind of national dialogue with the aim of reconciliation. But such a reconciliation is only possible if enough trust can be created among the various parties. Why would key figures in the Syrian regime voluntarily give up their positions if they can hardly expect anything other than being court-martialled and imprisoned afterwards?

"A good beginning could be made by the Syrian regime through essential reform measures by way of an adequate response to the reasonable demands of the democratically and peacefully oriented opposition. Having a totalitarian regime, president Bashar al-Asad should at least be able to control all his security institutions, as well as armed irregular Alawi gangs like the Shabbihah, to guide Syria out of this crisis in a peaceful manner. Falling in the dangerous trap of sectarianism is in nobody’s interest, least of all of the Alawi community, which wishes a better future for Syria, like anyone else in the country."

This is pie-in-the-sky stuff but it will be music to the ears of president Assad if he happens to read it. It seems to be urging him to step up his authoritarianism on the one hand, while on the other hand simultaneously engaging with protesters who will somehow be persuaded to trust him. 

The whole idea of a dialogue at this stage sounds too much like an attempt to help out the regime in its hour of trouble. President Assad has had 11 years to establish his "reform" credentials and, apart from some tinkering around the edges, has failed to deliver.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 15 April 2011. Comment.

Dress like an Egyptian

Fashion for the less active kind of man? Photograph: Egyptian Picture Gallery. Copyright: Historylink101.com 

I thought it must be a joke when I first saw it on Twitter, but apparently not. It's the Zahi Hawass fashion collection – named after the comical Antiquities Minister who is Egypt's answer to Indiana Jones.

The Hawass menswear line "seeks to capture the spirit of a man with a very rich personal history", according to Art Zulu, the New York design and branding company that developed it. 

Its blurb continues: 

"Exploration and adventure are the undercurrents of this collection, and each piece is designed with a utilitarian approach. The ZAHI HAWASS line is carefully crafted to convey a sense of time and place...

"ZAHI HAWASS is a novel fashion line not just for the traveling man, but the man who values self-discovery, historicism and adventure. Rich khakis, deep blues and soft, weathered leathers give off a look that hearkens back to Egypt’s golden age of discovery in the early 20th century."

The collection was photographed last year in suitable surroundings when the King Tut exhibition (and Zahi Hawass) visited New York.

In a blog posting, photographer James Weber describes his experience shooting in the museum at the dead of night with no visitors present. "It’s hard to try and train your body to stay up and focused for such a long time after you’re normally in bed," he says.

"One thing that no one counted on was the music. It was the kinda creepy instrumental music that the museum plays all day … well it played ALLLLL night as well. We couldn’t turn it off. At about 5am we all started getting a little loopy ..." 

Loopy, indeed.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 15 April 2011. Comment.

Syrian protests spread


Two noteworthy developments were reported from Syria on Wednesday. One was a demonstration in Aleppo – the first in the city since the wave of protests began. The other was march by women from Banias/Baniyas (see video above).

According to a witness quoted by the New York Times, the demonstration in Aleppo started when a single student began chanting slogans outside the literature faculty at Aleppo University. It took about 10 minutes for the security to arrive and in the meantime he was joined by others (200 according to the NYT, as many as 500 in some reports). The paper adds:

The student said that members of the University of Aleppo’s student union, which is run by Syria’s ruling Baath Party, quickly confronted the protesting students, "shouting at them and labelling them agents and spies for America and Israel".

The protest was then broken up, with several people arrested. Other protests were reported at the science and law faculties of Damascus University.

The Banias women's march was interesting because until now the protests have mostly been a male affair. The women were apparently demanding the release of their arrested menfolk. Robert Mackey of the New York Times has pieced together the story.

There is still very little reliable information coming out of Syria. In a tense situation such as this, rumours fly around and many of them end up on the internet. I am wary of giving them more credence than they deserve but even so I think it's worth mentioning what some of them are about.

I have seen persistent stories in what might be called the "politicisation of food" category. On Wednesday, for example, the Now Lebanon website said:

There have been reports that the security forces are barring the distribution of wheat at all bakeries in Daraa and in Houran province’s main storages.

and ...

Syrian security forces bar entry of bread and basic foodstuff to the city of Banias. The people of the city are confirming a shortage of bread and gas.

The implication of such tales is that the regime is trying to force protesters into submission by depriving them of food and other essentials. This does sound like the sort of tactic that the regime might try, though as yet I have seen no firm evidence that it is happening.

Last week, Global Voices also published a story about 
pro-regime leaflets being packaged in bread (see picture).

(While we are on the subject of food, it's worth reading the text of 
a talk given by Rami Zurayk at the American University of Beirut last week, entitled "Food and the Arab Uprising".)

Other persistent stories tell of Syrian soldiers being shot by their colleagues for refusing to open fire on protesters. If true, they would imply dissent within the security forces – a potentially serious problem for the regime – but, again, they are difficult to confirm. 

The Guardian had a report about this on Tuesday from its correspondent in Damascus, and linked to a YouTube video showing an injured soldier being questioned by protesters. On the Syria Comment blog, Joshua Landis hotly disputes the Guardian's version, saying that the soldier's words have been misconstrued.

Another persistent story – and a favourite of the regime – concerns "armed gangs" supposedly linked to the protesters. The obvious motive is to discredit the protesters whose actions so far, apart from some stone-throwing and damage to property, have been overwhelmingly peaceful. However, it does seem possible that some armed elements may be taking advantage of the situation. The protesters' best course is to stay well clear of them, since nonviolence is their most powerful weapon.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 14 April 2011. Comment.

Tunisia: Echoes of Ben Ali

Following the revolution in Tunisia, I have begun updating the Tunisia section here on al-bab. Links to several historically interesting documents had stopped working because of the deletion of websites belonging to the old regime. I have retrieved some of them through the Wayback archive and posted them directly on to the site. They include Ben Ali's speech in 1987 when he deposed President Bourguiba, and his ludicrous victory speech in 1999 when he was re-elected with an incredible 99.44% of the vote.

Readers are welcome to suggest other items that should be included. 

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 14 April 2011. Comment.

Syria: the slow-motion revolution

The question "Where, exactly, is Syria heading?" continues to be the subject of much discussion. Writing for Time magazine, Beirut-based journalist Nicholas Blanford asks: "Can the Syrian regime divide and conquer its opposition?" He doesn't quite give an answer, but suggests the regime's current strategy isn't working:

The regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has been pursuing a divide-and-conquer strategy against dissent, using specific carrots-and-sticks to appease and repress the country's complicated collection of tribal, ethnic and religious interests. 

But that does not appear to have diminished, on various local levels, the virulence of the rancor against the long rule of the Ba'ath Party and the perceived concentration of wealth and privilege in the hands of a small elite class. Indeed, while the various uprisings have not quite coalesced into the kind of mass movements that brought down the autocracies of Tunisia and Egypt, they have continued despite the violent response of the government; and the anger has spread over large swathes of Syrian territory.

In Foreign Policy, Peter Harling (of the International Crisis Group) 
talks of "a slow-motion revolution" where the protests have so far failed "to reach a critical mass and prod authorities to successfully respond to far-reaching demands". He continues:

This leaves Syrians the choice between two perilous journeys: either radical reform or outright revolution. Neither offers easy answers to the deep-seated issues at stake, including preserving Syria's fragile secular model, addressing its severe economic predicament and maintaining its regional standing.

That broadly accords with my own view that the regime is incapable of reform on the scale needed and that the struggle ahead will be prolonged and bloody. I haven't seen any articles arguing that Bashar al-Assad can successful reassert control, though a Syria expert suggested to me privately last week that he might do so by calling a presidential election and offering to take on all comers in a free contest.

Other interesting stuff on Syria:

  • In the Guardian, Patrick Seale looks at the  international ramifications if Assad were to fall.

  • In Pulse, Robin Yassin-Kassab discusses Syria's internal divisions (based on a couple of video presentations by Joshua Landis).

  • In Asharq Alawsat, Diana Mukkaled reports on the regime's harassment of the media. (This might seem a bit rich, coming from a Saudi publication, but never mind.)

  • in the Syrian Revolution Digest blog, Ammar Abdulhamid writes about the unsavoury activities of the Shabbiha gangs, who he describes as "Assad's mercenaries".

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 12 April 2011. Comment.

Déjà vu in Egypt

Maikel Nabil, the Egyptian pacifist whose case I wrote about on April 5, has been sentenced to three years in jail for "publishing false information" and "insulting the armed forces".

His trial – of a kind that became common under the Mubarak regime – was the first since the revolution and featured some of the familiar old practices. Al-Masry al-Youm reports:

The court misled Nabil's defence team and gave the sentence after the team had left the courtroom ... Activists say the court said it was postponing the ruling, but then Nabil was taken to prison.

Joe Stork of Human Rights Watch commented: "Maikel Nabil's three-year sentence may be the worst strike against free expression in Egypt since the Mubarak government jailed the first blogger for four years in 2007. The sentence is not only severe, but it was imposed by a military tribunal after an unfair trial."

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 12 April 2011. Comment.

Bahrain 'sting' against newspaper

More details have emerged in another "publishing false information" case – this time in Bahrain, where Mansoor al-Jamri, founder/editor of al-Wasat – the kingdom's only independent newspaper – was forced to resign earlier this month. Since then, al-Wasat's content has become barely distinguishable from that of the government-linked publications and Jamri is expected to face prosecution.

It appears that al-Wasat was the victim of a "sting" operation, probably orchestrated by the authorities, to provide it with false information by email – thus creating a pretext for a legal assualt against the paper.

A report by Human Rights Watch says:

Al-Jamri and his colleagues told Human Rights Watch they examined the alleged false news and photos, and that the six items had been sent as emails from different addresses, but from a single external internet protocol (IP) source, based in a neighbouring country. 

All of the false news items and photos dealt with alleged incidents, such as raids on homes by riot police, that have been frequent and routine in Bahrain since March 15. The emails appeared to have been sent also to other Bahraini newspapers, making them appear more authentic, but with small mistakes in the addresses so that in fact al-Wasat was the only recipient. 

HRW adds:

On April 4, the Information Affairs Authority had separately summoned two Iraqi journalists who had worked for Al Wasat since 2005, Ali al-Sharefi and Rahim al-Ka'bi. Employees at Al Wasat told Human Rights Watch that the officials pressured them to claim that al-Jamri had knowingly fabricated the stories and photos in question. When they insisted otherwise, Bahraini authorities summarily deported them and their families.

Al-Wasat accepts that it did not check the information properly but points out that it was already operating under duress at the time:
Unknown assailants attacked al-Wasat's printing press at about 1 am on March 15, reducing printing capacity. The unstable security situation had also affected operations at al-Wasat's main office, forcing employees to shut down evening operations to prepare the next day's paper, and instead work from their homes. 

"Under normal circumstances, al-Wasat would have some 30 desk editors, reporters, photographers, page-makers, proof-readers, and other supporting staff available to check and process incoming news," al-Jamri told Human Rights Watch. "However, under the emergency situation, staff had to stay away and process the work from their homes."

Normally, HRW says, the Bahraini authorities would seek a correction or retraction when inaccurate information is published. Instead, al-Wasat's alleged transgressions were sensationally exposed in a TV programme. In HRW's view, the authorities' behaviour in this case is "clearly aimed at silencing all critics, not at correcting misinformation". 

It continues: "Since mid-March, the government has methodically targeted and attempted to silence critics of every stripe inside the country. Now they have managed to eliminate Bahrain's only independent mass media outlet."

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 12 April 2011. Comment.

Syria's emergency law

As part of his promised "reforms", President Assad recently set up a committee to look into the question of ending Syria's 48-year state of emergency.

The committee is not due to complete its work until April 25 but on Saturday the state-run television broadcast a panel discussion of the issue, involving three Syrian legal experts. One of those taking part – Abboud Sarraj, professor of criminal law at Damascus University – is also chairing the president's committee, so his remarks may provide some early clues to the likely outcome.

On Sunday, the official Syrian news agency, Sana, issued a lengthy report of the TV discussion (in Arabic) with a shorter 
summary in English.

The first point of note is that there seems to be no intention to abolish the emergency law itself, but to keep it in reserve. Sarraj argued that it is normal for countries to have such laws for use in times of war, "public disaster and chaos", etc. Emergency laws are "not like other laws", he said, because they only take effect when an emergency is declared.

The question, therefore – according to Sarraj – is how to end the state of emergency and thus put the emergency law into abeyance. So long as disturbances continue on the streets there is clearly no likelihood of President Assad declaring the emergency to be at an end, so it looks as if this will simply be dangled as a carrot to tempt the protesters into abandoning their struggle.

In the meantime, the committee is looking at "gaps" in the law that would arise if the state of emergency were lifted and what legislation might be needed to "ensure the maintenance of homeland security and dignity of the citizen". The problem with that is that it could easily end up replacing one set of restrictions with another – this time permanent ones as opposed to the emergency law's restrictions which, at least in theory, are supposed to be temporary.

One thing that is still unclear is the committee's view of the right to demonstrate. Dr Sarraj said that the "right to protest and to demand reforms cannot be denied by a state", but also spoke about a need to obtain permission so that the police can "protect the security of the demonstrators" and to have banners, flags, etc, approved by "the competent authorities".

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 11 April 2011. Comment.

Foul play in Saudi Arabia

The Saudi religious police are angry about the behaviour of Mirel Radoi, a Romanian footballer who plays for al-Hilal club and won the kingdom's Player of the Year award last June.

Radoi recently had a large cross tattooed on his right forearm and was seen kissing it during a match. 

The Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice has now sent a letter to the General Presidency for Youth Welfare saying this was a "violation of the regulations" and "such things have a negative impact on young people's ideas".

Last month, Radoi was suspended for two games and fined SR20,000 ($5,300) for making what the Saudi media described as a "racist" remark about a Saudi player from the Nasr team. (He had actually suggested the player was gay.)

Meanwhile, it is reported that the religious police have arrested nine well-known footballers during the last two years for "illegitimate relationships" with women. The most recent case was last week, when a player was caught with a woman at a hotel in Jeddah.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 10 April 2011. Comment.

Syria: the bloody road ahead

The Syrian uprising entered its fourth week on Friday. Information about events on the ground remains sketchy, largely due to government restrictions on the media and the fact that protests are scattered across the country. But let's look at the broader picture and what it might mean for the Assad regime.

Early in February, Syrian dissidents-in-exile called for two "days of rage". The days came and went, and the only mass presence seen on the streets was that of the security forces. Ammar Abdulhamid – himself a dissident-in-exile – wrote an article arguing that the country wasn't ready. Among other things, he pointed out that the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt were "a culmination of years of on-the-ground preparations and exposure to external realities", whereas there had been no similar process in Syria.

Two months later, Abdulhamid is running a daily blog called Syrian Revolution Digest, though his earlier cautionary article is still worth reading: it explains why overthrowing the Assad regime is not going to be an easy ride.

The uprising proper started on March 18 in Deraa, where some kids – emulating Egyptian protesters – had painted graffiti saying "The people want the fall of the regime" and the over-zealous police responded by throwing them into jail.

In magnitude and character, this was very similar to the incident in Tunisia involving Mohamed Bouazizi that triggered the revolution there. If only both incidents had been handled more sensibly, you might think. But if neither of these incidents had provided the actual spark, something else would have done eventually. The whole point of authoritarian regimes is that they need to be constantly asserting their authority.

Fast-forward three weeks and Friday's protests (on the basis of amateur videos and various news reports) were the biggest yet. The centre of the rebellion is still Deraa (where some horrible things appear to be happening) but it has also spread to other cities, including several suburbs of Damascus.

This, of course, was after President Bashar had delivered his set-piece speech to parliament aimed at calming the situation down and after the announcement of various "reforms", some of which are in fact regressive (allowing female teachers to wear the niqab again) or less generous than they might appear (granting Syrian nationality to some of the Kurds). The strategy here is to appeal to sectional interests in the hope of gaining their support but so far there has been no serious attempt to address more widespread popular grievances. 

Meanwhile, the regime is in no position to throw money at the problem, as some of the Arab Gulf states have done, and in the slightly longer term the government's economic development plans could be thrown awry – especially in terms of private and foreign investment.

Largely unremarked so far, elections to the rubber-stamp parliament are due very soon (April 22, by my reckoning). These could provide a new flashpoint if the regime attempts to go ahead with them.

So, where is Syria heading from here? At present, I don't see any major cracks in the regime or signs of dissent within the security forces. One ominous sign is that the protests in a few places seem to be becoming more violent (19 police officers are 
reported dead in Deraa, along with a larger number of civilians). Predictions of a civil war, I think, are exaggerated but it could turn much more bloody.

It's hard to envisage the situation ever returning to what it was before March 18. At the same time, though, it's unlikely the regime will fall within the next few weeks. The most probable scenario is that it will battle on, at least for some months, while suffering a gradual loss of control and a decline in its authority. In the meantime, if Ali Abdullah Salih in Yemen and/or Gaddafi in Libya were finally toppled, that would add to pressure on the Assad regime.

In his speech on March 30, President Assad almost certainly blew his last chance for leading Syria along the road to reform. Unless calm can be restored through consent rather than repression, his prospects now for introducing radical changes – such as lifting the state of emergency and opening up the political system – look increasingly bleak.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 9 April 2011. Comment.

Reform, of sorts, in Syria

The "reforms" promised by Syria's president, Bashar al-Assad, got under way on Wednesday with two measures obviously designed to placate religious elements.

One was the rescinding of a rule introduced only last July which had banned female teachers from wearing the niqab, or face veil.

The other was the closure of Syria's only casino. The Ocean Club near Damacus airport had opened for business last December – apparently on a nod and a wink from the authorities – but soon began causing controversy. The announcement of its closure on Wednesday appears to be non-news, since the ministry of local administration had already called a halt to gambling there in mid-February – long before the current wave of demonstrations began.

Considering the nature and scale of the reforms that are needed, this is a feeble start. But it is clearly part of a strategy to win over key sections of Syrian society. Joshua Landis writes:

"President Assad has swung into action meeting with important leaders from different sectors of the Syrian population in an effort to hear their concerns and shore up support for the Baath Party and his presidency.

"Most important have been his meetings with the Imams of Syria’s leading cities. These will be the key figures who can help repair his relations with the observant Muslim inhabitants of the cities. Most of the protests have been scheduled for Fridays because that is the day Syrians are allowed to assemble in large numbers. The sermons that are given and the level of criticism that is heard from the minbar can influence the mood of the public. Thus, it is little wonder that President Assad has been fulfilling the principal demands of Syria’s clerics."

In addition to that, Bashar has reportedly promised to allow a religious TV channel and to set up an institute for training future Imams "who won’t deviate right or left". Ammar Abdulhamid 
comments that "by encouraging the most obscurantist elements to plan a more visible role in society, [the Assads] hope to bolster their claim that their presence is needed to keep society in check" but he points out that protesters on the streets hate these elements as much as they hate the Assads.

Landis also notes that the president has been making overtures towards Syria's Kurdish minority who have caused trouble in the past:

"A number of Kurdish leaders have refused to meet with President Bashar al-Assad because he has refused to address their political concerns, although, he has sent out orders to treat the Kurds who have been refused Syrian nationality as if they were Syrians."

According to the Italian news agency, AKI, the president is also about to announce the lifting of Syria's 48-year state of emergency "without waiting for a counter-terrorism law to be legislated as its replacement". It quotes "a source close to the Syrian president" as saying he will also issue decrees allowing the free establishment of political parties and media outlets and the lifting of censorship.

Unlike tinkering with rules on gambling and the niqab, this will be a major step forward – if it happens. There may well be some kind of announcement but the actual implementation is a different matter. The behaviour of the security forces over the last couple of weeks is scarcely indicative of a regime that intends to let civil liberties blossom at any moment.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 7 April 2011. Comment.

Journalists threatened in Jordan

Reporters in Jordan have been receiving phone calls and emails threatening physical harm unless they stop covering the reform movement in the kingdom, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists. 

"The situation is no longer about censorship or repressive legislation – the danger has become personal," a local journalist told the New York-based organisation.

The head of al-Jazeera's Amman bureau, Yasser Abu Hilala, is among those who have received death threats which he says began two weeks ago after the TV channel covered pro-reform demonstrations in the capital. "Our coverage is the only reason behind the threats," he said.

On March 25, various journalists and bloggers were attacked while attempting to report a demonstration in Amman. CPJ says:

"Al-Jazeera cameraman Ahmad Najeeb was hit while filming the demonstration and an ensuing crackdown by security forces. His camera was briefly seized and the footage deleted, Najeeb told CPJ. Al-Arabiya correspondent Saad al-Silawi was pushed while he and his crew were filming a live segment and were forced to stop their recording midway, al-Silawi told CPJ. 

"Blogger Mohamad Omar was beaten by security forces, resulting in a broken arm, Omar told CPJ. It was not clear to him whether he had been beaten simply because he was a participant in the demonstration or if he was targeted in reprisal for his critical online writings. 

"Aziza Ali, a reporter with the daily Al-Ghad, was beaten by security forces as she was reporting and taking pictures of the demonstration and the government's response, she told CPJ. She suffered from a broken pelvic bone and was taken to a hospital. Mutaz Naawash and Mohamad Abu Eid, both reporters for Hayat Radio, were also assaulted during the demonstration, Ali told CPJ. She said that both had been hurt but could not be certain of the extent of their injuries."

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 6 April 2011. Comment.

Yemen: The GCC steps in

President Salih has accepted an offer from the Gulf Cooperation Council to hold talks between himself and the Yemeni opposition in Saudi Arabia.

Opposition parties seem less enthusiastic about the idea – not surprisingly since three of the six GCC members (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Oman) have been actively trying to suppress opposition movements on their own territories.

Although Saudi Arabia – like the United States – now appears to have concluded that Salih's regime cannot be salvaged, it is probably hoping to manipulate the transition in ways that are favourable to GCC and American interests, as well as minimising any knock-on effects for the kingdom.

Writing in the Lebanese Daily Star, Mai Yamani says:

"The reality is that the United States has known for weeks that it cannot save Saleh’s regime. Its concern for Saleh’s political survival is closely linked to its guardianship of the Saudi regime, which fears that ferment in Yemen could give Saudi Arabia’s own Shiite, Zaidi, and Ismaili populations dangerous ideas about democratic reform – if not threaten the very existence of the Saudi state. After all, Saudi Arabia’s southern tribes and Yemen’s northern tribes are historically the same people, while the Shiites in the kingdom’s oil-rich Eastern Province are protesting in political harmony with the Shiites of Bahrain.

"Not surprisingly, Saleh has tried to reach for the familiar Saudi lifeline, sending his foreign minister to Riyadh to plead for the sort of help the Saudi king provided to Bahrain. But the Saudis, having backed Saleh financially, and having sent troops to Yemen in 2009 to help him wage a war against the Houthis, now consider him beyond saving. Instead, they are betting on potential new alliances within Yemen to deal with events in the unpredictable neighboring country."

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 6 April 2011. Comment.

Egyptian accused of insulting the army

The first freedom-of-expression trial since the fall of President Mubarak is expected to resume at a military court in Egypt on Wednesday.

Maikel Nabil Sanad (pictured above), a 25-year-old pacifist is accused of insulting the military, spreading false information, and disturbing public security. The charges relate to an article he published on his blog on March 8, criticising the army's behaviour during and after the revolution. He was arrested on March 28.

Although his trial is very reminiscent of the authorities' behaviour under the old regime, Nabil has so far received little support from his fellow activists. Al-Ahram explains:

"Nabil has failed to win the support of many activists because of his supportive attitude towards Israel; he has called for Egypt and Israel to co-exist peacefully and to put an end to the conflict between them. Nabil’s views on Israel stem from his beliefs on individualism and individual liberties. 'I refused the continued harassment which the Egyptian regime does against Israel, as getting involved without a justification in the 1948 war,' Nabil wrote on his blog."

There is a Facebook page called "Free Maikel Nabil Sanad".

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 5 April 2011. Comment.

UPDATE, 6 April: AFP is reporting that a verdict in the case will be announced on Sunday, 10 April.

US ready to abandon Salih

The United States has quietly shifted its position regarding the embattled Yemeni president, Ali Abdullah Salih, and has concluded that he must be eased out out office, according to a report in the New York Times which is attributed to unnamed American and Yemeni officials.

The paper says that while American officials have not publicly pressed Salih to go, "they have told allies that they now view his hold on office as untenable".

Until now (as I wrote here last month), the US has been fearful of what might follow if Salih is forced out of office. However, it now seems to accept that the conflict between president and protesters "has had a direct adverse impact on the security situation". 

The situation worsened last week when it appeared that Saleh was actually encouraging chaos in a transparent attempt to show that the country still needed him.

Meanwhile, the opposition parties have come up with a five-point plan for a transition of power.

There was more violence on Sunday in Ta'izz, where as many as 10 people are reported dead. Trouble was also reported in Hodeida early on Monday.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 4 April 2011. Comment.

When Islamists fight to lose

There is a widespread assumption that Islamist opposition parties in the Middle East are seeking to govern at the earliest opportunity. But that idea is challenged by Shadi Hamid of Brookings in an interesting – and, I think, important – article headed "Arab Islamist parties: losing on purpose?"

Looking in some detail at past elections in Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, and Yemen, Hamid argues that Islamist parties "go out of their way to avoid increasing their share of parliamentary seats, even when doing so would appear both possible and in their self-interest".

The assumption that they are out to grab political power seems to be a result of perceiving them in similar terms to Marxist parties (along with the tendency, especially in the US, to treat the "Islamist threat" as a straightforward replacement for the "Communist threat"). This, however, is based on a misunderstanding of their main goal, which is to Islamise society.
Hamid points out that whereas socialist parties needed political power in order to make society "socialist", Islamist parties can still make society "Islamic" even if they lose elections.

Merely by contesting elections, they can shape the public discourse and often push governments into adopting more "Islamic" policies than would otherwise have been the case. (In this way, it might be argued, they also keep their moral virtue intact by not getting involved in the messy business of actually governing.)

Islamist parties, Hamid notes, usually form part of a broader social/religious movement which acts as a state-within-a-state by providing services that the government fails to provide. Decisions about when and where to contest elections my thus be influenced by non-electoral considerations.

Although Islamist parties have become increasingly willing to engage in electoral politics, the way they do so, Hamid argues, is not conducive to the development of democracy:

"If the international community is in fact interested in supporting Arab democracy (including alternation of power), it would do well to persuade Islamist groups that they can and should try to win a larger share of parliamentary seats. 

"As long as Islamist parties deliberately lose elections, democratic transitions in the Arab world will remain out of reach ...

"Islamist groups are hesitant to mobilise against regimes out of fear of repression. The international community can address this fear in two ways: by encouraging cross-ideological coalitions and by clearly showing that it supports the right of these groups to participate in the political process."

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 4 April 2011. Comment.

Bahrain newspaper under attack

The authorities in Bahrain have ousted the editor of the kingdom's only independent newspaper, along with two of his senior colleagues.

Al-Wasat newspaper was not allowed to publish on Sunday and access to its website has been blocked inside the country. The paper has also been suffering production difficulties and has had to reduce pagination after its printing works was attacked by armed civilians last month.

On Saturday, the authorities announced the suspension of the paper on the grounds of "unprofessional and unethical practices" which include "lies, defamation and plagiarism" and the publication of "old" news.

According to the Associated Press, they have now agreed to let it resume publishing following the resignation of its editor, Mansoor al-Jamri, and two colleagues. Jamri said he was stepping down because he did not want to jeopardise the newspaper’s future and the livelihoods of its employees. "I did not want others to suffer because there's a witch hunt against me," he told AP.

Jamri, who founded al-Wasat 10 years ago, is the son of Sheikh Abdul-Amir al-Jamri, a spiritual leader during the Shia uprising in the 1990s. The paper has been critical of the government in its coverage of recent protests.

Apart from al-Wasat, all the other local newspapers in Bahrain – Akhbar al-Khalij, Al-Bilad, Al-Watan and the Gulf Daily News – have close connections with the government.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 4 April 2011. Comment.

Oman update

Oman continues to be largely off the international radar. Protests there are still on a small scale compared with some of the other Arab countries. Nevertheless, as Simeon Kerr notes in the Financial Times, Sultan Qaboos is facing "the most sustained period of unrest since he took power in a palace coup in 1970".

The Sultan has responded with a predictable mixture of concessions and repression but, as the Associated Press 
puts it, this has so far "failed to halt the wave of rallies, sit-ins and strikes to pressure for changes that include more media freedoms and weakening the ruling system's grip on power" – suggesting that "high-level shake-ups and other concessions by Oman's rulers have fallen short of the demonstrators' demands for greater political freedoms".

On Saturday, about 150 people demonstrated outside the parliament building in Muscat, demanding jobs, political reforms and an end to corruption as well as an investigation into recent deaths. The National newspaper says security was light in the capital outside the parliament, but hundreds of police and military forces supported by armoured vehicles were deployed in the industrial city of Sohar.

On Friday, a protester was killed in Sohar – apparently after being hit on the head by a plastic bullet. It was the second reported death in the city since the disturbances began more than a month ago.

This morning, in what seems to be a move to ease tensions, the authorities have announced the release of 57 protesters, though it is unclear how many are still being detained.

Overnight on Monday/Tuesday, the army cleared the Earth Roundabout in Sohar which had become a gathering place for protesters. The authorities in Bahrain took similar action against protesters at the Pearl Roundabout in Manama last month.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 3 April 2011. Comment.

Morocco and Algeria: why no revolt?

With the presidents of Tunisia and Egypt gone, and continuing turmoil in Libya, the two North African regimes still largely undamaged by protests are those of Morocco and Algeria.

Early in January, at the height of the Tunisian uprising, it looked as if Algeria might be heading in the same direction. Riots broke out and several protesters set fire to themselves. Since then, demonstrations have continued on a fairly small scale but a generalised uprising has failed to materialise. 

Given that Algeria has similar socio-economic problems to Tunisia and Egypt and a similar style of government to the toppled regimes there, it is interesting to consider how the Algerian authorities have managed – so far, at least – to avoid serious trouble. In an article for Foreign Policy, Lahcen Achy suggests a number of factors. 

One was that Algeria's oil and natural gas resources gave the regime more latitude to make economic concessions. The decision to lift the 19-year-old state of emergency probably helped too, as have bitter memories among the public of the armed conflict in the 1990s that cost 100,000 or more lives.

Another factor, Achy says, is that the opposition, while heavily constrained by the authorities, is also divided by internal disagreements. The Algerian public, meanwhile, does not have a common set of grievances, and many of them seem more concerned with defending their own sectional interests:

"Calls for national protests [against the regime] mobilised only about 2,000 demonstrators," Achy writes. However, "protests by graduate students opposing university reform since mid-February, and an open-ended strike by physicians in public hospitals, were able to mobilise more people compared to anti-regime protests."

On the other side, Algeria's security forces appear to be strong. The military is more integrated into the political system than in Tuinisia or Egypt, Achy says, and the police force has been expanded from 50,000 in the mid-1990s to around 170,000 today:

"Officers [in the police] are both well-paid – they earn 65 percent more than average public civil servant (US $470 compared to US $280 per month) – and enjoy good career prospects, making it unlikely they would turn against the government. 

"Their tactic of dividing protesters into small groups also prevents any sense of power that would come from mass mobilisation. The police in Algeria relied on anti-riot trucks and have not so far, unlike in most other countries in the region, fired on crowds."

Writing in Foreign Affairs, Azzedine Layachi considers both Algeria and Morocco. The Moroccan king seems to have calculated that he can keep serious trouble at bay by offering reforms (he also has the advantage that direct criticism of the monarchy is still largely taboo).

"In Morocco, the demonstrations of February 20 attracted a few thousand people but lacked the energy and zest of the revolts of Tunisia and Libya and even the much smaller protests in Algeria. The Moroccan demonstrators demanded a new government, a constitutional reform that would limit the powers of the king, an end to corruption, the improvement of living conditions, and social justice. They did not target Mohammed VI himself ...

"To thwart the possibility of social upheaval in Morocco, Mohammed VI announced a plan to reform the constitution, giving more power to parliament and the prime minister and his cabinet. He also promised more political freedom and more jobs. But the protest did not end – more people than ever took the streets to demand immediate economic reforms and a say in the process of reforming the constitution, rather than leaving this process solely to a commission entrusted by the king."

In the longer term, though, calls for major structural change in the political system are likely to grow. Layachi writes:

"In both countries, substantial power is held by important, and virtually unaccountable, behind-the-scenes players. In Algeria, they are known as Le Pouvoir and in Morocco as the Makhzen. Even if formal political structures are reformed, there will be no serious change unless both Le Pouvoir and the Makhzen are discarded.

"This is one of the reasons why protesters in Algeria are not likely to accept cosmetic changes. In Morocco, constitutional reforms may make for a good start, but such steps are not likely to be enough without taking on the elusive powers of the Makhzen."

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 3 April 2011. Comment.

Zahi Hawass and the Temple of Doom

Zahi Hawass Indiana Jones

Here is Egypt's own Indiana Jones – antiquities chief Zahi Hawass – describing his role in the revolution:

We entered the Egyptian Museum – along with a group of commandos – through the museum's back door; the door through which the tourists exit past the newly-established gift shop. In a previous article I explained how this gift shop was one of the reasons why the Egyptian Museum remained intact; because when the thieves entered the gift shop they saw all of this "gold" right in front of them, and so they stole these replica artifacts in the belief that they were real, and that the gift shop was the Egyptian Museum.

Once I found myself inside the museum, I rushed ahead, with journalists and correspondents behind me, checking the halls and display cases to reassure myself that Egypt's priceless artifacts and treasures were all present. 

It was at this moment that Egyptian Museum Director Tarek al-Awadi appeared to inform me that the office of the [then] President [Hosni Mubarak] was on the phone. I answered the phone and was told that I must immediately report to the presidential headquarters in order to take the constitutional oath of office as Egypt's first ever Minister of Antiquities ...

Although I was convinced that it would be a mistake to accept this post during such a difficult time in Egyptian history, I had no other choice but to accept, because this represented a national duty ...

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 2 April 2011. Comment.

Syria: the neglected rebellion

The Syrian uprising appears to be growing but, as with Tunisia last December, it is getting relatively little coverage – especially in comparison with Libya. Libya has no great strategic importance, though of course foreign forces are involved and the events there are the sort that TV companies like to cover.

What happens in Syria will have much more significance for the rest of the Middle East but, as Ammar Abdulhamid points out, "Due to government controls, foreign correspondents in Syria are often out of the loop, while Arab and regional satellite stations seem plagued by all sorts of political and individual calculations."

Paradoxically, Syria's strategic importance also helps to explain the lack of attention it is getting. Interested parties – the US, Israel, other Arab regimes, etc – would much prefer that the problem went away. Some of them recognise that Syria will have to change eventually but they are fearful of the possible outcome and don't really want any more uncertainties just at the moment. While they probably won't do much to prolong Bashar's stay in power, they won't try to tip him over the edge either – at least, not at this stage.

In the meantime, the Syrian protesters will have to rely on their own resources – which (as I argued repeatedly in the case of Tunisia) may be no bad thing. It's also worth highlighting that whatever President Bashar may say about foreign conspiracies supposedly behind the protesters, they are unlikely to delight Israelis or American neocons with their agenda. Haytham Manna writes:

"The youth who marched in Deraa are the same young people who welcomed the Lebanese refugees during the Israeli bombardment in 2006, and who raised funds for the Palestinian people in Gaza."

In terms of what is happening on the ground hour by hour, the NOW Lebanon website is still the most useful source of information, together with the video links posted by Ammar Adbulhamid.

In terms of analysis, Syria Comment and the Jadaliyya blog have jointly posted a roundtable discussion involving Steven Heydemann, Fred Lawson, David Lesch, and Patrick Seale. Seale says:

"The pivotal factor in determining the future will be the cohesion of the regime versus the cohesion of the opposition: two rival groups, each made up of different strands, are engaged in a struggle for power. For the moment at least, the regime looks stronger than the opposition."

Syria Comment also has the full text of Bashar's speech to parliament, translated into English. Despite the cheers of Bashar's own supporters, the speech has had a generally negative reception. My own take on it is here. Peter Harling, of the International Crisis Group, has a good analysis of it, explaining point by point where Bashar is miscalculating. Writing in The Australian, on the other hand, Jonathan Cheng argues that internal and external factors strongly favour President Bashar staying at the helm.

Following his speech, Bashar's first gesture in the direction of reform has been to set up a legal committee to look into scrapping the 48-year-old emergency law and replacing it with an anti-terrorist law.

Personally, I don't hold out much hope in that area. It's the same route that the Mubarak regime pursued for several years in Egypt, promising that the state of emergency would be lifted just as soon as an anti-terrorism law was in place. Its attempts to draft such a law were criticised as "highly problematic" by a UN special rapporteur and in May last year, in the absence of new legislation, the state of emergency was extended yet again. It was still in place when Mubarak was driven out of office. I doubt very much that the Syrian attempt will be any more successful.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 2 April 2011. Comment.

UPDATE, 3 April: Part Three of the roundtable discussion on Syria has just been posted. It can be read here.

Readers' favourites

It's the start of a new month, so here are the top 10 readers' favourites from March (based on Twitter clicks):

1. Gaddafi's exit strategy? March 27 
2. The price of traditional values March 16 
3. Assad: waving goodbye? March 26 
4. Gulf dinosaurs battle on March 19
5. Stirrings in Syria March 18 
6. Saudi Arabia's turn March 11 
7. Revolutionary updates March 21 
8. Organised chaos in Yemen March 29 
9. Assad's moment of truth March 29 
10. Libya and its tribes March 2

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 1 April 2011. Comment.

Previous blog posts




April 2011

Saudi Arabia's crazy new media rules

Yemen: a transition to what?

Arab regimes and the Black Swan

Restoring tranquillity, the Syrian way

Syria: Tanks enter Deraa

Yemen's president edges towards the door

Syria: Assad has sealed his fate

New law to restrict protests in Syria

Syria: survival of the police state

Bahrain: dialogue of the deaf

Regulating freedom in Syria

Syria: the battle of Homs

Egypt's Indiana Jones in trouble

Syria: all the president's promises

Bahrain newspaper chief dies in custody

Obama on Qatar

Syria: the rewards of loyalty

Dress like an Egyptian

Syrian protests spread

Tunisia: Echoes of Ben Ali

Syria's slow-motion revolution

Déjà vu in Egypt

Bahrain 'sting' against newspaper

Syria's emergency law

Foul play in Saudi Arabia

Syria: the bloody road ahead

Reform, of sorts, in Syria

Journalists threatened in Jordan

Yemen: The GCC steps in

Egyptian accused of insulting the army

US ready to abandon Salih

When Islamists fight to lose

Bahrain newspaper under attack

Oman update

Morocco and Algeria: why no revolt?

Zahi Hawass and the Temple of Doom

Syria: the neglected rebellion

Readers' favourites


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Saudi Arabia 


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What's Really Wrong with the Middle East  
Brian Whitaker, 2009



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Last revised on 15 April, 2011