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Saudi Arabia's crazy new media rules

Undeterred by protesters calling for freedom in other parts of the Middle East, Saudi Arabia has announced some incredibly silly amendments to make its media law even more restrictive than it was before..

The amendments make it a crime to publish material that harms "the good reputation and honour" of the grand mufti, members of the Council of Senior Religious Scholars and government officials. Arab News adds:

"The amendments also specify that it is a crime to publishing anything that goes against the shariah, damages state interests, serves foreign interests, promotes criminal activity, threatens public order or harms national security.

"The media are also not allowed to publish details of ongoing investigations or trials without the prior permission of competent authorities.

"Individuals found guilty can face a fine of up to SR500,000 [$133,000] or SR1,000,000 for repeat offenders and/or a ban on their works being published or appearing in the media.

"Organisations found guilty of violating the kingdom's media law risk being shut down temporarily or permanently."

These rules – which are broad enough to include almost anything the authorities deem objectionable – also apply to online publications, which were brought under the aegis of the media law 
last January.

The Saudi Gazette has more details of the amendments in English and al-Watan has the full text in Arabic.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 30 April 2011. Comment.

Yemen: a transition to what?

The Yemeni "transition" agreement brokered by Gulf Cooperation Council states is due to be formally signed on Monday by the ruling party and opposition parties, but there is a lot that could go wrong.

It is reported that President Saleh will not attend the signing ceremony in Riyadh (presumably because he does not want to risk leaving the country), so he will sign it separately beforehand – and only in his capacity as head of his party, the General People's Congress, and not in his presidential capacity. Abdel-Karim al-Iryani, the party's vice-president, will then go to Riyadh for the signing.

Saleh has also threatened to call off the deal if Qatar – one of the six GCC members – attends the ceremony. He accused Qatar of conspiring against Yemen and "inciting and financing chaos" in the country.

None of this augurs well for the success of the agreement. Levels of distrust are high on all sides and it could easily fall apart. 

This is very reminiscent of the antics in 1994 that surrounded the signing of the ill-fated Document of Pledge and Accord and led, just a few months later, to a war between north and south.

The terms of the transition agreement are very unsatisfactory. They seem to have been shaped by the fears of GCC states (and the US in the background) over what might happen once Saleh goes, rather than the actual needs of Yemen at the moment. It is more about preserving continuity and stability than making a clean break with the past. For that reason it's questionable whether what is happening in Yemen can accurately be described at this stage as a revolution, even if the agreement holds long enough to see Saleh to step down.

The first step after the signing is supposed to be a parliamentary vote granting immunity from prosecution to Saleh, his family and associates. This is proving extremely unpopular inside Yemen, though opposition parties seem to have been persuaded to accept it. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have both criticised the immunity deal, with the latter warning that Saleh "cannot use his promised immunity from prosecution as a carte blanche to tolerate attacks on peaceful protesters".

Saleh is then supposed to tender his resignation to parliament and leave office within 30 days. There are suggestions that parliament (where Saleh's party has an overwhelming majority) may reject his resignation. If that happens, under the constitution, the president may re-submit his resignation within three months and parliament is obliged to accept it. (it is not clear if the transition agreement requires him to re-submit it in the event that it is rejected the first time.)

The strung-out 30-day resignation period in the agreement is another potential stumbling block. It appears that during this period the street protests are supposed to cease – though they are unlikely to do so. The protesters, with good reason, don't trust Saleh and Saleh might well use continuing protests to claim that the country still needs him to save it from "chaos".

However, the US seems to have fallen for the idea that quiet on the streets will induce Saleh to go. Its embassy in Sana'a issued a statement hailing the "historic agreement" and urging Yemeni citizens "to demonstrate their commitment to this peaceful transition by avoiding all provocative demonstrations, marches, and speeches in the coming days and to welcome this opportunity to lay the foundation of a strong, peaceful, prosperous Yemen for the future."

Politically, the deal is that Vice-President Hadi would take over as acting president and a new government would be formed, 50% from the ruling party and 50% from opposition parties. Saleh would choose a new prime minister from among the opposition.

Arguments about the composition of this new government could cause further problems and, even if the agreement survives, the timetable for holding a new presidential election, re-drafting the constitution and the fresh parliamentary elections seems hopelessly unrealistic. But the over-riding question is whether the new regime that eventually emerges will be significantly different in character from the old one.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 30 April 2011. Comment.

UPDATE, 30 April, evening: The BBC is reporting that today Saleh did not sign the agreement as had been expected. He apparently has "reservations" about it.

Arab regimes and the Black Swan

What is the connection between the global financial crisis that began in 2007 and the current wave of Arab uprisings? Directly, there's not much connection but both can be considered as examples of the Black Swan Theory in action.

A black swan is big and out of the ordinary, and the theory named after it concerns the disproportionately big impact of rare and largely unforeseen events.

The originator of the theory – Lebanese-born Nassim Nicholas Taleb – created a stir in the United States with his warnings about the financial crisis. Now, he has written an article for Foreign Affairs (together with Mark Blyth of Brown University) applying his theory to the Middle East. Most of the article is behind a paywall, but here is a quote from it:

"What the world is witnessing in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya is simply what happens when highly constrained systems explode.

"Complex systems that have artificially suppressed volatility tend to become extremely fragile, while at the same time exhibiting no visible risks. In fact, they tend to be too calm and exhibit minimal variability as silent risks accumulate beneath the surface. 

"Although the stated intention of political leaders and economic policymakers is to stabilise the system by inhibiting fluctuations, the result tends to be the opposite. These artificially constrained systems become prone to 'Black Swans' – that is, they become extremely vulnerable to large-scale events that lie far from the statistical norm and were largely unpredictable to a given set of observers.

"Such environments eventually experience massive blowups, catching everyone off-guard and undoing years of stability or, in some cases, ending up far worse than they were in their initial volatile state. Indeed, the longer it takes for the blowup to occur, the worse the resulting harm in both economic and political systems."

This is exactly what is happening in the Middle East today. To borrow a phrase from the banking crisis, Arab regimes have been too big to fail. In the interests of stability, social order, etc, they have been operating "artificially constrained systems" where problems are ignored or swept aside rather than being confronted openly. The appearance on the surface is one of calm while grievances accumulate beneath the surface until – much to their surprise – everything suddenly explodes. 

Over many decades, American policy in the region has functioned in much the same way, fearful of relatively minor changes that might upset the status quo but now paying the price in a massive upheaval.

Taleb's point is that suppressing volatility in the hope of preventing chaos may seem like a good idea at the time but in the long run it only makes things worse. Instead of a series of small and relatively harmless tremors as the system adjusts, you end up with a cataclysmic earthquake.

Taleb's list of 10 principles for avoiding "black swan" events was devised mainly with financial systems in mind, but it would be interesting to see it adapted to Middle East politics. The first one says: "What is fragile should break early while it is still small."

What are the chances that remaining Arab regimes can learn from the Black Swan Theory and adjust their behaviour accordingly? On the whole, I think they are slim. "Reform" is not really the issue here. What they need in order to survive is a totally new approach to government and a shift away from their control-hungry mentality. In other words, they have to stop being authoritarian and autocratic – and I seriously doubt that any of them are capable of that.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 28 April 2011. Comment.

Restoring tranquillity, the Syrian way

So now we know. The citizens of Daraa appealed for help, and the army obliged. For what it's worth, that's the government's line from Damascus.

"In response to the calls for help from the citizens of Daraa," the official Syrian news agency says, army units entered the city "to restore tranquillity, security and normal life to the citizens" and put an end to "the operations of killings, vandalism, and horrifying by extremist terrorist groups".

It adds that "the army units were able to arrest several members from the groups and confiscated huge quantities of weapons and ammunition".

The agency also says the Syrian Bar Association has "asked a legal committee to study the situation of crimes perpetrated by a number of Arab and international TV stations and individuals who have contributed to the media forgery and acts of instigation to destabilise Syria".

The committee has begun collecting evidence and documents to support lawsuits "in front of the international and national competent courts against those who had made the unfair acts".

Meanwhile, the interior ministry has issued the names of 38 policemen who it says were injured by "armed groups" on Saturday. Four of them are photographed in hospital. The ministry says 286 members of the security forces have now been injured "since the beginning of the events in Syria".

The official news agency acknowledges the gravity of "the events" (as it calls them) and quotes Rafiq Nasrallah of the Beirut-based International Center for Media and Studies (sympathetic to Syria) as saying that "what Syria faces today might be the most dangerous battle imposed on it". The report continues:

"Nasrallah asserted that what is taking place today is not related to reforms and that the conspiracy against Syria started in 2003 when US Army occupied Iraq as Syria rejected to be part of that occupation.

"Nasrallah spoke of the ongoing disinformation and fabrications campaign against Syria and of huge amounts of money paid by US bodies and by others to some Syrian figures and sections under the pretext of supporting democracy as to destabilise Syria."

There's also a generous helping of foreign conspiracy theory from the Tehran Times in Iran. Quoting a Syrian writer, Colette Khoury, it says Syria is paying the price "for saying no to Israel and America for a long time". "We are proud of belonging to Syria, the only independent state that refused to give up resistance," Khoury says. "It isn’t a matter of reform, not any more. It is about Syria and the Syrian people."

The Tehran Times adds that Syrian authorities blame armed groups and foreign elements for the violence:

"Damascus has repeatedly denied allegations that security forces are responsible for the death of protesters, saying they have been given clear instructions not to hurt civilians."

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 26 April 2011. Comment.

Syria: Tanks enter Deraa

Syrian forces unleashed a large-scale military offensive in the southern city of Deraa early on Monday. About 3,000 troops – some in standard army uniforms, others in black – entered the city around 4.30 am, accompanied by tanks and began "shooting randomly", according to a report (in Arabic) by CNN. The video above, posted on YouTube purports to show the troops arriving. There is another video of a sniper in action here.

Media coverage in Syria is heavily restricted by the authorities but AFP quotes an activist speaking by phone from Deraa:

"Hundreds of security service men entered the town, accompanied by tanks and armoured vehicles.

"The men are firing in all directions and advancing behind the armour which is protecting them ... Electricity is cut off and telephone communications are virtually impossible."

Deraa is the city where the uprising began last month.

On Sunday, Human Rights Watch called for an international inquiry under UN auspices into the killing of Syrian protesters. It 

"The US and European Union should also impose sanctions on Syrian officials who bear responsibility for the use of lethal force against peaceful protesters and the arbitrary detention and torture of hundreds of protesters, as well as request an urgent briefing of the UN Security Council on the spiraling situation in the country, including shootings on April 22."

A spokesman for the organisation said: "After Friday's carnage, it is no longer enough to condemn the violence. Faced with the Syrian authorities' 'shoot to kill' strategy, the international community needs to impose sanctions on those ordering the shooting of protesters."

The Syrian regime continues to maintain that it is dealing with "armed groups" and that its killing of peaceful demonstrators is a fabrication by agitators and the foreign media.

The official news agency, Sana, quotes the uncle of a man killed on Saturday, refuting "lies spread by satellite channels" that he was shot by security forces. According to the uncle, he was shot from behind "by a sniper" rather than the security forces who were in front of him.

"I just wanted to clarify the issue to everyone … we offer our martyr for the sake of the country," the uncle is quoted as saying.

Sana is devoting much attention to the comparatively small number of security forces who have been killed, including seven who died near Deraa on Saturday. In all these cases "armed criminal groups" are blamed, without any indication of who they are or what their motives might be.

About 300 supporters of the regime resumed their sit-in outside the offices of al-Jazeera on Sunday. They had suspended their activities for a few days in order to obtain a government licence as required under the new demonstrations law. Sana's report continues:

"Participants in the sit-in, whose ages ranged from 3 to 70, carried signs denouncing the media misdirection and distortion of facts carried out by al-Jazeera. They demanded that the channel issue an apology to the Syrian people or close its office in Damascus.

"Media student Kinda Kajo said that they organised the sit-in in objection to the biased coverage of al-Jazeera that the Syrian people will not allow unknown to besmirch their image, adding that Syrian media proved to be more honest and transparent and that the sit-in will continue until 'they apologise or leave'.

"Student Firas Haidar said that he and his colleagues are participating in the sit-in to confront al-Jazeera's lies ..."

The unfolding events in Deraa, together with the regime's brutal response to protests elsewhere, inevitably raise fears about a repeat of the 1982 Hama massacre, when thousands were killed. But a lot has changed since then, as Ranai Abouzeid points out in an article for Time:

"Syria 2011 is not Syria 1982. The regime is still ruthless, but this time the rebellion is not restricted to one city or one sect. The constant stream of amateur video spilling over social media is also documenting events - despite the regime's best efforts to smother information by banning journalists - and suggesting that, if there is not a future reckoning, there will at least be a future record.

"There are other differences. While the father had time on his side (the Hama massacre was preceded by four years of on-off clashes), the son doesn't. The volume of international condemnation is rising, and domestically he may not be able to continue his ferocious crackdown without cracks in his regime or the military."

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 25 April 2011. Comment.

Yemen's president edges towards the door

Yemen is slowly edging towards a negotiated departure for President Ali Abdullah Salih. The latest proposal put forward by negotiators from the Gulf Cooperation Council appears to have been accepted in principle by Salih and to a large extent by opposition parties – though they still have reservations about it.

Under the plan, the first step would be for parliament to grant immunity from prosecution for Salih, his family and his associates.

Salih would resign within 30 days and hand over to his vice-president, Abd al-Rab Mansur Hadi.

A transitional government would be formed, including representatives from the opposition.

A presidential election would be held within 60 days and the new president would supervise the drafting of a new constitution.

Not surprisingly, opposition parties are unhappy about granting immunity and many of the protesters on the streets simply refuse to contemplate the idea. This seems to be the main stumbling block at present.

There are also fears that Salih could try to find a way of staying on: postponing his resignation by 30 days seems unnecessary and it might give him some opportunity to wriggle out of the deal. Once immunity had been formally granted there would be no real excuse for him to remain in power any longer.

One possible snag is that his resignation would have to be submitted to parliament, where his party has an overwhelming majority, and there is no guarantee that the members would accept it.

Another problem is that under the current plan the new government would be formed within seven days of a deal being signed – in other words, while Salih is still president. This would give him considerable influence over the transition.

There is no mention in the plan of a dissolution of parliament and so, amid the talk about drafting a new constitution, it seems that parliamentary elections will have to wait. While there is some sense in holding the next elections under a new constitution (with a new electoral law too), the effect in the meantime is that Salih's party, the General People's Congress, will continue to control parliament where it won 238 seats out of 301 in the 2003 election. This could make it much more difficult to dismantle the remains of Salih's regime if/when the president goes.

The parliamentary term is six years. In 2009 the next elections were postponed for a further two years and were actually due to be held this week, on April 27, but in March they were postponed again, supposedly because the electoral registers were not ready.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 24 April 2011. Comment.

Syria: Assad has sealed his fate

The first person to file an application under Syria's new law "permitting" demonstrations – Fadel al-Faisal from Hassakeh in the north-east of the country – ended up being detained for several hours by the authorities, the Guardian reports.

That, basically, tells us everything we need to know about President Assad's so-called reforms. The regime hasn't changed its attitude, and it isn't going to change. Though the law – at least in theory – now allows Syrians to protest, complying with the requirements is extremely difficult and its overall effect is to criminalise any demonstrations that the authorities disapprove of.

Friday's protests (which did not comply with the law and were therefore deemed to be "riots") were the bloodiest since the uprising began, with scores reportedly killed by security forces.

"This outrageous use of violence to quell protests must come to an end now," President Obama said – though he gave no indication of what the US might or might not do about it. However, he did seem to warn against Syria's ally – Iran – getting involved: "President Assad is blaming outsiders while seeking Iranian assistance in repressing Syria's citizens ..."

Meanwhile, the official news agency, Sana, continues to report the protests as unexplained attacks by "armed groups":

There are also hints of foreign conspiracies – phones discovered with "non-Syrian SIM cards and positioning software" – and claims that videos depicting acts of violence by the security forces are fabricated. One group is said to have possessed "bottles full of real blood" for use in filming.

Friday's events do look like some kind of watershed. The much-heralded lifting of the state of emergency on Thursday has made no difference on the ground and any lingering hopes that Assad might save his regime through a process of steady reform are now, for all practical purposes, in shreds. The regime's response to the Friday demonstrations has set the course for the next phase and can only fuel the flames: deaths bring funerals, funerals bring protests, and protests bring more deaths.

For the regime, the only tool left now is repression, and in the long run that will seal its fate. The question is how long.

After boasting in January that he had seen the lessons of Tunisia and Egypt and was not going to repeat their mistakes, President Assad now finds himself adrift on the same raft as Ben Ali, Mubarak, Gaddafi and Salih.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 23 April 2011. Comment.

New law to restrict protests in Syria

President Assad issued a decree on Thursday ending Syria's 48-year state of emergency, though without abolishing the Emergency Law which will remain in place for possible use in future emergencies.

At the same time, he issued another decree (full text here) which ostensibly permits demonstrations by "duly licensed citizens" while giving the interior ministry sweeping powers to control them. In effect, it allows the authorities to prevent any demonstration they disapprove of.

Though the restrictions imposed by the emergency law were in theory temporary, the decree now creates a permanent law restricting demonstrations.

To obtain a licence, organisers must apply to the interior ministry at least five days in advance. 

"The request should include the demonstration date, starting time, the gathering place, its course, ending time, goals, causes and slogans." 

Applicants must also provide a legal document accepting responsibility "for all damages that may affect public and private properties". (This is a huge deterrent, since organisers may have no control over damage or injury caused by third parties during the demonstration.)

The ministry must give a written reply within one week of receiving the request (which in effect means the notice period is a week rather than the five days specified).

In the case of a refusal, the ministry must give its reasons. There is a right of appeal to the Administrative Court, which has to give a decision within one week. (This would add a further delay, so in practice organisers could be looking at a total preparation time of more than two weeks.)

Assuming that a licence is granted, the interior ministry has the power to "change the demonstration date, starting and ending time, the gathering place or its course" up to 24 hours before the demonstration is due to start. 

Although such changes are not supposed to be made unless they "affect the state's interests or threaten the citizens' safety and properties", the wording is sufficiently broad for the authorities to make a habit of last-minute changes which could reduce the number of demonstrators by causing confusion about the location, timing, etc, of the protest.

The authorities are responsible for "protecting the demonstration" but it is the responsibility of the organisers to "maintain order during the demonstration". They can "call upon the police for help if needed".

Article 8 of the presidential decree gives the interior ministry "the right to end the demonstration if it exceeds what is permitted in the licence or if riots or crimes are committed that may affect the general order or impede the authorities' work". Infringement of the terms of a licence on a technicality – as I mentioned the other day in connection Addomari newspaper – is a device used by the Syrian authorities to suppress activities that they disapprove of while denying that they are trying to suppress them.

Article 9 forbids the carrying of weapons or sharp objects during demonstrations. This is unobjectionable in principle but the question is why it had to be included in the demonstrations law. Isn't there a general law against carrying offensive weapons at any time? It's difficult to see why this has been included here, unless it is to give the authorities an excuse to stop and search demonstrators.

The final provision is that "gathering[s] or rallies organised contrary to the articles of this legislative decree" are deemed to be riots. This is an extraordinary extension of the term "riot", since it appears to cover any kind of nonviolent protest that has not been approved in advance by the authorities.

Considering that this is what passes for "reform" in Syria, it is not difficult to understand why so many protesters see no hope of real change while the Assad regime stays in power.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 22 April 2011. Comment.

UPDATE, 1800 BST 22 April: "The first application to protest under the new law ended in the temporary detention of the applicant. Fadel al-Faisal from Hassakeh was held for several hours after filing a request to hold a demonstration."

Syria: survival of the police state

An article on al-Jazeera's website explains why optimism about the proposed lifting of Syria's state of emergency is misplaced: it will make little or no difference:

"Many of the draconian charges on which opponents of the regime are routinely imprisoned exist either within the Penal Code itself or as special laws or articles in the constitution, and courtesy [of] them, Syria would continue to be run as a virtual police state."

The article quotes a report in al-Watan newspaper (owned by the president's corrupt cousin, Rami Makhlouf) saying there are no moves to replace the emergency with an anti-terrorism law because "the special articles contained in the Syrian penal code related to terrorism are sufficient".

The article continues:

"Also unaffected will be Law 49, making membership of the Muslim Brotherhood a crime punishable by death, and certain articles of Syria's Constitution - written in 1973, a decade after the declaration of emergency law - such as Article 8 which gives the Baath Party the right to be 'the leading party of state and society'.

"A law protecting the Baath Party revolution, passed in 1965, will also be unchanged by the lifting of emergency laws, meaning citizens can still be imprisoned on charges of 'working against the goals of the revolution'.

"The legal right of the Baath Party Regional Command to nominate candidates for president also remains unchanged."

According to a former judge, all 15 branches of the security services will retain their immunity from prosecution, even after the emergency is lifted. Their immunity derives from a decree issued by President Assad in 2008.

As an example of how the police state will be unaffected by lifting the emergency, the article points out that dissidents who signed the Damascus Declaration were jailed in 2005 on charges of "weakening national sentiment", "belonging to a secret society" and "spreading false news" – all of which will continue to be crimes under the penal code, regardless of the state of emergency.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 21 April 2011. Comment.

Bahrain: dialogue of the deaf

Two versions of the same meeting. First, from the UN News Centre:

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon today voiced his concern to Bahrain’s Foreign Minister about the violence in the country in which demonstrators have been killed or injured, and called for maximum restraint and caution.

During their meeting in Doha, Qatar, on the margins of the Libya Contact Group meeting, Mr Ban was briefed by Shaikh Khalid Bin Ahmed Al-Khalifa on recent developments in Bahrain ...

The Secretary-General said he hoped the situation would calm down and that serious, inclusive dialogue with all stakeholders could start as soon as possible, according to his spokesperson.

In this context, he urged all the parties to respond constructively to the call for a dialogue, stating that it was important to accommodate the aspirations of the people.

And now the second one, from Bahrain's foreign ministry:

Minister of Foreign Affairs, Shaikh Khalid bin Ahmed bin Mohammed Al Khalifa this afternoon met with UN Secretary, Mr Ban Ki-moon, on the sidelines of the first meeting of the International Contact Group on Libya ...

The Minister of Foreign Affairs briefed the UN Secretary General on the latest developments in the Kingdom of Bahrain and efforts made to maintain security and stability. 

UN Secretary General, for his part, emphasised the world organisation’s support for measures taken by the Kingdom of Bahrain to maintain security and stability. He also praised the political reforms led by His Majesty the King and Bahrain's progress and prosperity at all levels. 

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 20 April 2011. Comment.

Regulating freedom in Syria

As protests continued in Syria on Tuesday, the newly-appointed cabinet held its first full-scale meeting and took a series of steps towards "reform". These included approving a draft decree to end the 48-year state of emergency and replace it with a law "regulating the right to peaceful demonstration", "expediting" planned laws for political parties and the media, and a programme to create 10,000 new government jobs every year for young people.

All this needs to be viewed with caution. It's not so much about freedom as "reforming" the regime's means of control. Amid all the talk there is still no move to abolish Article 8 of the Syrian constitution which enshrines the Baath party at the centre of national life: 

"The leading party in the society and the state is the Socialist Arab Baath Party. It leads a patriotic and progressive front seeking to unify the resources of the people's masses and place them at the service of the Arab nation's goals."

The much-heralded announcement about ending the state of emergency (and the parallel abolition of the Supreme State Security Court) caused a flurry of media excitement, though the "emergency" has not officially ended yet and, contrary to what some reports suggest, the idea is not to abolish the emergency law itself but to put it into abeyance, for use in any future "emergency".

How much difference this will make in practice remains to be seen. The provisions under the state of emergency relating to public gatherings will be replaced by a law governing (and probably restricting) demonstrations. The information minister said yesterday that this will cover "licensing procedures and prior approval and mechanisms capable of protecting the demonstrators and public property" – and it seems very likely that the regime's concept of legitimate demonstrations will turn out to be somewhat different from that of the protesters on the streets.

The state of emergency will not be formally lifted until the demonstrations law is in place – which could take some time. In 
his speech on Saturday, President Assad, hinted that it may have to wait while the police are re-organised:

"This process is a challenge to the police because they are not prepared for such things. That’s why the police should be adequately prepared and supported by personnel and equipment. There might be a need for restructuring the police in order to cope with the new reforms."

As with the demonstrations law, there is no clear indication yet as to what the proposed laws for political parties and the media will contain but it's a safe bet they will provide for the licensing of opposition parties and non-government publications, subject to various restrictions.

Though this might be considered a step in the right direction, it can also be viewed as a process of catching up with other authoritarian Arab regimes – such as Yemen under Salih and Egypt under Mubarak. There is a big difference between permitting opposition parties to function (while occasionally closing them down for breaches of the regulations) and having a system where they might actually win power through fair elections.

In all these countries, the law itself is less of a problem than the mentality of the regime that operates it, and until the regimes abandon their obsession with control-freakery there is not much hope for real change. The laws in Arab countries that "permit" political parties, independent media, NGOs, etc, basically provide the authorities with a variety of tools for exercising control in ways that appear less crude than formal bans and direct censorship – though the effect is much the same. It means newspapers can be disciplined on technical grounds for breaking the law or infringing the terms of their licence, even if the real reason is that they have offended the government.

In that context, the rise and fall of Addomari (the Lamplighter) – Syria's first (and, so far, last) satirical weekly – is an instructive example. 

Launched in 2001 shortly after Bashar al-Assad became president, it was the country’s first independent newspaper in thirty-eight years and for a while each issue sold more copies than all the official dailies put together. 

By 2003 the regime had taken a dislike to it and the information minister demanded to see the content of each issue before publication. Its owner, Ali Farzat refused and temporarily suspended publication. Later, when he tried to publish another issue without submitting it for approval, the authorities prevented its distribution. 

A government decree then rescinded its licence on the grounds that Addomari had "violated laws and regulations in force by failing to appear for more than three months" as required by the conditions of its licence. 

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 20 April 2011. Comment.

Syria: the battle of Homs

Shooting in Homs early on Tuesday. YouTube video posted by alhamoui

In an interview at the end of January, President Assad talked confidently about the lessons of Tunisia and Egypt: in Syria, he was handling things differently.

"If you did not see the need for reform before what happened in Egypt and in Tunisia, it is too late to do any reform," he told the Wall Street Journal. "If you do it just because of what happened in Tunisia and Egypt, then it is going to be a reaction, not an action; and as long as what you are doing is a reaction you are going to fail."

Less than three months later, Assad faces the same situation as Ben Ali and Mubarak. His promises of reform have been greeted with stony-faced disbelief. Having lost the initiative, he is now reacting helplessly to events and, based on his own prediction, he is going to fail.

On Monday, a massive crowd gathered in the Clock Square of Homs, Syria's third largest city – or Tharir Square as the protesters are now calling it.

Around midnight, state television broadcast an interior ministry statement describing the unrest as an "armed insurrection" and, 
according to Reuters, pointing specifically to Homs as one of two cities where "armed groups belonging to Salafist organisations" were trying to terrorise the population.

Clock Square, Homs, on Monday night. Twitpic posted by Shantal7afana

Around 2am, a member of the security forces addressed the protesters in Clock Square through a loudspeaker ordering them to leave by 2.30. Al-Jazeera's live blog continues the story:

Syrian forces fired shots at hundreds of protesters who had gathered overnight ...

A protester at the Clock Square in Homs says many people are dead after security forces open fire at protesters. Al Jazeera cannot verify these reports. 

Al Jazeera's Cal Perry, in Damascus, says witnesses in Homs tell him that several people are wounded and rushed to hospital in cars, but medics are unable to reach the square because of gunfire. He's also told people are afraid to go to the hospital, thinking that if they go, security forces will be waiting for them there and they will end up in detention.

Reports on Twitter say tanks are rolling into the centre of Homs. Heavy gunfire is also reported and security forces allegedly broke into Khaled bin al-Waleed mosque. Al Jazeera cannot independently verify these reports.

At least two people were injured in the shooting at Clock Square in Homs. Unconfirmed reports say that a number of people were killed when security forces opened fire at protesters, however, Al Jazeera cannot independently verify this. 

In the video above, apparently filmed from the edge of the square, periods of continuous firing can be heard.

At the time of writing, casualty figures are unknown. The Syrian Revolution Digest says:

"Early reports spoke of heavy gunfire but mentioned only one fatality and a number of injured. Videos that were posted later seem to confirm these reports. Assad security officers might have been shooting in the air to scare off the remaining protesters, rather than at them, for once. 

"However, later reports indicate that the main theater of events are the side-streets where security officers tried to trap and arrest protesters as they pulled out from the Square, occasionally firing straight at them, as some eyewitnesses asserted."

Just two days earlier, President Assad had been telling his new ministers about his plans to allow demonstrations (while drawing a distinction between those that demand reform and those that are considered "sabotage").

From tentative beginnings one month ago, the Syrian uprising now looks firmly established. Neither attacks by security forces nor promises of reform from the president have succeeded in quelling the protests. As Ammar Abdulhamid wrote on Sunday ...

"It’s now an open showdown between people that want to be free and will no longer compromise on freedom, seeing that previous experiences taught them that such compromises, no matter how reasonable they might appear at the time, always lead back to slavery and serfdom, and a gang of thugs willing and desperate to hold on to power at any cost. The so-called silent majority as well as the international community will have to choose their side soon."

On the protesters' side there is a growing sense that, having gone so far, they now have to see it through to the end – even if it turns out to be a very bitter end. There may not be another opportunity for years.

In an article written under a pseudonym for the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, a "media professional based in Syria" says:

"Of course, Assad will try to implement some of the same reforms seen in Egypt to prevent mass outrage, and now he is furiously trying to win the loyalty of the Kurds and religious groups by making concessions to them.

"But, in my view, you cannot fix a fundamentally dysfunctional regime. We need to build democracy step by step, even if it means risking more instability and violence in the near future. We are never going to mature politically unless we go through this. What I and other activists are doing is of course very dangerous, but we all have to risk ourselves for Syria. The moment is here now, and who knows when we might get it again."

Continuing demonstrations are an essential part of this process, though on their own they probably won't succeed in toppling the regime: Assad may simply try to sit it out, as Ali Abdullah Salih is doing in Yemen. The regime is only going to fall when it starts crumbling from within – and as yet there is no sign of that. The battle for Syria could prove to be a protracted affair.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 19 April 2011. Comment.

Egypt's Indiana Jones in trouble

Zahi Hawass Indiana Jones

Zahi Hawass, Egypt's controversial antiquities minister, was sentenced to a year in jail on Sunday for failing to comply with a court order. According to some reports the case relates to 
a land dispute while others, including Hawass's own blog, say it involves a quarrel with a bookshop at the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

Although Hawass remains at liberty pending an appeal, the case is causing some delight in Egypt. He has made plenty of enemies over the years with his domineering behaviour and his publicity-seeking "Indiana Jones" approach to Egyptology.

He had been head of the Supreme Council of Antiquities since 2002 and, in the last days of Mubarak's rule, became Egypt's 
first antiquities minister – an appointment that was renewed after Mubarak's fall.

Last week, many were disgusted to learn that the travelling King Tut exhibition had been used to promote his "Zahi Hawass" brand of menswear (for "the man who values self-discovery, historicism and adventure").  He has also been soliciting donations to establish the predictably-named "Zahi Hawass Chair of Egyptology" at the American University in Cairo.

News of the Hawass case came as Egypt's public prosecutor 
announced that Ahmed Nazif, the former prime minister, and Youssef Boutrous Ghali, the former finance minister, are to face trial on charges of corruption and squandering public money.
The former interior minister, Habib el-Adli, is already facing charges. Ex-president Mubarak is in custody in a hospital in Sharm el-Sheikh, while his two sons, Alaa and Gamal, are being held at Tora prison in Cairo.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 18 April 2011. Comment.

UPDATE, 19 April: The Talking Pyramids blog has a lot more detail about the background to the court care.

Syria: all the president's promises

President Bashar al-Assad's speech to his new ministers on Saturday was certainly an improvement on the speech he gave to the Syrian parliament at the end of last month. He acknowledged the protesters' grievances, touched on most of the key areas where reform is needed and urged a more open, consultational style of government.

Had he made the same speech at any other time during the last 11 years, without being pushed, it would surely have been hailed as a great step forward. But everyone knows that he made it on Saturday because he had to – just a day after Syria witnessed its biggest demonstrations so far.

Even if we take the speech (and its promises) at face value, the message is clear: change only happens in Syria when people protest in large numbers, and in order to prevent any backsliding they will have to keep up the pressure.

So far, though, all we really have is a declaration of intent. The first test of the intentions will come later this week when new security laws are rushed through, allowing the 48-year-old state of emergency to be lifted. 

How much of an improvement this will be remains to be seen. It depends on what the new laws say and how they will be implemented, but in the meantime I'll remain sceptical. Drafting anti-terrorism laws that strike a reasonable balance between security and liberty is a very complex business, and not something that can be done properly in the space of a few days. 
Similarly with the proposed new law on demonstrations which, as the president recognised in his speech, will present "a challenge to the police because they are not prepared for such things".

He also spoke of drawing a line "between reform and sabotage" while avoiding the crucial question of where such a line might be drawn. "There are clear differences between the demands for reform and the intentions of creating chaos and sabotage," he said – though in its treatment of protesters up to now, the regime has made little distinction between the two.

In some ways, Assad's political strategy is smarter than that of other Arab leaders. He is not throwing money at the problem in the hope that it will go away, as some of the Gulf states have done. Nor is he making wild promises as Ben Ali did in Tunisia (300,000 new jobs within two years). Instead, he has set out a series of goals that (with the exception of lifting the emergency law) cannot be achieved instantly and is asking Syrians to trust him to deliver.

The problem here, though, is that he is hoping people will give him the benefit of the doubt when his record on delivery in the past has been less than brilliant. On Saturday, he spoke (yet again) about fighting corruption and made some sensible proposals – including one that officials should be required to declare their assets. But then he deflated it somewhat by saying: "We started this [declaration of assets] process about three years ago, but it wasn’t at ministers’ level and it was a pilot and the data wasn’t really used." These efforts to clean up officialdom will also look half-hearted unless and until action is taken to tackle corruption within the president's own family – an problem that Syrians are very much aware of.

It may take a few days to judge what impact the president's speech has made on the streets but I doubt that it will induce many protesters to give up their struggle. Once again, it looks like a case of too little and too late.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 17 April 2011. Comment.

Bahrain newspaper chief dies in custody

Following the regime's harassment of al-Watan newspaper in Bahrain, the Committee to Protect Journalists reports that one of the paper's founding board members has died in state custody.

Karim Fakhrawi, who died last Tuesday, was apparently arrested after going to a police station on April 5 to complain that the authorities were about to bulldoze his house.

CPJ says in a statement:

Bahrain's official news agency said on its Twitter feed that Fakhrawi died of kidney failure. Photographs published online, however, show a body identified as that of Fakhrawi with extensive cuts and bruises.

"The crackdown on dissent in Bahrain has taken a deadly turn with two deaths in custody in unexplained circumstances in less than a week," said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, CPJ's Middle East and North Africa programme coordinator. "The Bahraini authorities must clarify how they reached the conclusion that Karim Fakhrawi died of kidney failure when photographs show his body covered in cuts and bruises." 

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 17 April 2011. Comment.

Obama on Qatar

Interesting comments about the emir of Qatar from President Obama. The remarks were picked up by a microphone which Obama thought was switched off.

Describing Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani as a "pretty influential guy", the president said:

"He is a big booster, big promoter of democracy all throughout the Middle East. Reform, reform, reform.

"Now he himself is not reforming significantly. There's no big move toward democracy in Qatar. But you know part of the reason is that the per capita income of Qatar is $145,000 a year. That will dampen a lot of conflict."

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 17 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

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



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Last revised on 30 April, 2011