Family rift over Saleh's resignation
Three weeks have elapsed since President Saleh left Yemen for treatment in Saudi Arabia after
being badly injured by a bomb explosion in his palace compound. Since then, the situation has been very confused though it's beginning to clear a little.
Despite what Yemeni official may say about his "good" health and his imminent return, there is no real sign that this will happen now or in the future. Saleh is under considerable pressure to resign, even from some influential figures in his own camp.
One problem is that his family appear to be divided on the question of his resignation. Relatives who travelled with him to Saudi Arabia are urging that he should take the money and run. Back in Yemen, though, his military sons Ahmed and Khaled want him to cling on. Ahmed, who controls the Republican Guard, also seems to have a fall-back plan: to take over the presidency himself.
Meanwhile, predictions that all-out civil war would ensue if Saleh left have not come to pass. Indeed, the risk of civil war would be far greater now if Saleh were to return.
The result, for the moment, is a kind of uneasy standoff. Vice-President Hadi has been unable to fully take over the reins, even temporarily apparently prevented from doing so by Saleh's sons. At the same time neither the official opposition nor the protesting youth movement seems capable of stepping into the vacuum.
However, there is a lot of to-ing and fro-ing behind the scenes and it does look as if Yemen is gradually moving towards some kind of transitional arrangement. The shape of that remains to be seen but American preoccupations with al-Qaeda may lead to the inclusion of more elements from the old regime than would be good for Yemen as a whole.
jailbreak" last week underscored Saleh's claim that militants could overrun the country if he steps down and there are many who believe it was instigated deliberately by Saleh's supporters specifically to scare the United States. Significantly, perhaps, it happened while US envoy Jeffrey Feltman holding meetings in Yemen.
Jane Novak, on the Armies of Liberation blog, has been arguing that the jailbreak
was a setup and has posted some evidence pointing in that direction. Among other things, it is said that 12 prisoners
considered to be dangerous had been transferred to another prison shortly before the break-out.
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 26 June 2011.
charity fights homosexuality in Qatar
Sheikha Moza bint Nasser in Paris. Picture: Ammar Abd Rabbo
Sheikha Moza bint Nasser, wife of the emir of Qatar, is famous for her
good works. In the eyes of many, she's the model of a modern, enlightened
Sheikha Moza is the driving force behind Qatar's remarkable
Education City project, she is founder and chair of the
Foundation, she has served as a special envoy for Unesco, and she sits on the Board of Overseers for Weill Cornell Medical College in the United States. She is also an Honorary Dame of the British Empire, a member of the Acadιmie des Beaux-Arts in France and holder of the Grand Cross of the Order of Merit of the Italian Republic.
But I began to have doubts about Sheikha Moza's enlightenment a few years ago, when she
hosted a conference in Qatar which brought together some of the world's most reactionary religious elements Mormons and Catholics
as well as Muslims to "defend the family". The family is in peril, she warned in her opening speech, because of attempts to "redefine the concept of family in a manner contrary to religious precepts".
Now, another of the Sheikha's more dubious charitable enterprises has come to light. It's
she established as Qatar's first centre to combat "deviation from acceptable social behaviour" and "provide specialised treatment for all kinds of behavioural deviation that require thorough intervention and treatment by specialists".
Alongside violence, bullying and drug abuse, al-Aween also
applies its specialised "intervention and treatment" to "internet addiction" and homosexuality.
According to its website, al-Aween ...
"... seeks to raise awareness and carry out rehabilitation within the community to reform people. It endeavours to preserve order and establish a cohesive society based on values that reflect the desired image of the community, protect future generations from deviation and corruption, defend against intrusive ideologies, and place an emphasis on identity and authenticity of Qatari society."
Al-Aween, the website continues, "is a significant milestone strengthening family ties and working to promote family security. It identifies and emphasises gender roles in society, in order for the stability of all families."
Maintaining traditional gender roles and treating "sexual identity
perturbation" seems to be a particular concern of Dr Dalia al-Moumen, a
psychiatric consultant whose lectures for al-Aween have dealt with the "problem" of men with long hair and girls wearing trousers and the "negative impacts" of that on mental health, society, religion and the family.
Meanwhile, also on al-Aween's website, Dr Abdul Alim Ibrahim, a senior consultant in psychiatry,
asks "How much do Homosexuals impact on society?"
and answers the question with a gay-conspiracy theory.
Zimbabwe's president, Robert Mugabe, "went too far" in describing homosexuals as lower than pigs and dogs, the doctor says, but the development of gay rights in some countries was "not based on scientific studies". Rather, it was the result of "tension made by powerful homosexuals which affected many civil organisations, human rights organisations, decisions and law makers".
Dr Ibrahim is also worried about the effect of this on future generations. "What will be the sexual direction
for the next generation," he wonders, "when they will have the right to choose" and "where inconvenient circumstances will lead them to be homosexual"?
The Aween centre claims its work is "unique in comparison with others heading in the same direction" and for that, at least, we should perhaps be thankful.
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 24 June 2011.
King maps out a new constitution
The clear message from the Arab Spring is that the region's leaders must initiate swift and far-reaching reforms or risk being overthrown. So far, though, the only country that seems to be heeding that message with anything close to the level of determination that the situation requires is Morocco.
On Friday evening, King Mohammed VI gave a lengthy speech (full text
here) setting out plans for a new constitution. His basic outline was of a modern, European-style monarchy with limited powers, a strengthened, democratically-elected parliament, the institutionalisation of human rights and official recognition of Amazigh (the Berber language) alongside Arabic.
Some key points:
The government will be "accountable only to parliament"
Parliament will "have the final say" in ratifying legislation
The prime minister "will be appointed from the party which wins the general elections"
Parliamentary immunity will be limited "to the expression of opinion only, to the exclusion of ordinary criminal cases" and party-switching by elected MPs (which has been a problem in the past) will be forbidden
These plans are the result of a constitutional commission set up by the king last March and, on paper at least, they contain a lot that is commendable. Often, though, the problem in Arab countries is not so much the letter of the constitution as they way that it is applied. In the case of Morocco, the real question is whether these changes will put an end to the pervasive influence of the palace pulling strings behind the scenes, the monopolistic royal business interests and the cosy political elite who surround the king.
The king will also retain control of the armed forces and security, and as
Amir al-Mu'mineen ("Commander of the faithful") he will still be the highest religious authority in Morocco:
"The person of the King shall be inviolable, and ... respect and reverence shall be due to him as King, Commander of the Faithful and Head of State."
That might not be a problem if the king were truly nothing more than a national figurehead, but it
will be a problem if he continues to meddle behind the scenes (as seems very likely, even with a new constitution). If he wants to be treated with "reverence", he has to stay out of politics and in the past he has tried to have it both ways.
In comparison with other Arab countries, Morocco's plans do look like a significant step forward. Had they been announced a year or two ago, before the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere, they might even have seemed far-sighted. Today, though, they look more like a defensive reaction to events than a bold initiative and many will be wondering if they go far enough.
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 18 June 2011.
Arabia: reclaiming the roads
Today is the official start of the Women2Drive campaign in Saudi Arabia. It's still early but there are already a few reports of women taking to the roads.
In what seems to have been a night-time excursion
before the official start, FouzAbd tweeted:
"Only mom is driving and I don't see any other women driving. But ppl r not harassing us at all"
"Drove all the way from our Uni where we celebrated my sister's graduation till our house. And then went out again and driving in AlSahafa"
"On our way back home and no one harassed us at all. Even thu some men stared at us"
Meanwhile, Ana3rabeya tweeted:
"Some Saudi Men are considering going out for a drive while wearing women's Abayas to confuse the police!"
It may be difficult to judge the success or otherwise of today's action, since it's not intended as a mass demonstration in a single place more a case individuals asserting their rights here and there.
The authorities will probably claim there has been little response. My guess is that they will arrest a few women, but not so many as to imply that there has been large-scale defiance of the rules.
The important thing to keep in mind, though, is that this has never been intended as a one-off one-day protest. The idea is that from today women who have international licences will drive whenever they wish to do so.
The real measure of success will be how long it takes the authorities to cave in and start issuing Saudi driving licences to women.
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 17 June 2011.
from corruption to charity
Rami Makhlouf the cousin of President Assad and Syria's most important businessman has announced that he is giving up some of his business interests in a move apparently calculated to appease anti-government protesters.
Makhlouf, who is generally regarded as a symbol of corruption and privilege within the regime, was
designated by the US Treasury in 2008 as a person who "improperly benefits from and aids the public corruption of Syrian regime officials".
According to the New York Times, he will be offering
a portion of shares in his SyriaTel company to the poor, and donating profits though this will still leave him with plenty of other interests. The Syria Comment blog
discusses the significance of this move.
Though it does look like a concession to protesters, as with the various "reform" initiatives
announced by the president it is probably too much of a half-measure to have much impact. At this stage, the demonstrators are unlikely to be satisfied with anything short of Makhlouf's arrest and the confiscation of his property.
Separately, it is reported that Hussein Salam, an unpopular Egyptian businessman and a crony of the former Mubarak regime, has been
arrested in Spain on an international warrant. He is wanted in Egypt on charges of bribery and squandering public funds.
While it is good to see the problem of crony capitalism being acknowledged and (in some places) addressed, there is a popular but mistaken assumption that stamping it out will bring an economic transformation. Though crony capitalism is bad for any economy, it's not the only factor. This observation from "Ehsani" on Syria Comment puts it in perspective:
"The problems of Syria are not just Rami [makhlouf]. People think that he stole all their wealth and their incomes. Suppose Rami stole $10 billion. If he returned ALL that back tomorrow, each person in Syria will be entitled to $434. A family of five will make $2,170.
"I guess that is a substantial sum for some people. But, remember that this is a one shot cheque. What then? The real issue in Syria is the lack of economic growth. Only real growth will lift living standards year in and year out. People think that if Rami goes, their fortunes will suddenly look up. Wrong."
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 17 June 2011.
the Muslim Sisterhood?
A couple of years ago before the Arab Spring was even a twinkle in anyone's eye I spent an evening chatting with
Malik, one of the Guardian's Middle East contributors. Somehow, our conversation got round to the question of why modern Arabic literature, not to mention TV drama, is so preoccupied with the past. Why not the future? And why, for example, is there such a shortage of
We both had ideas about possible reasons, but then we started fantasising about what some futuristic Arab novel could be like, and came up with the idea of a Middle East in which the Saudi regime had been overthrown and the country was ruled by women a militantly feminist bunch who might, for the sake of irony, be known as the Muslim Sisterhood.
Two years on, though, I'm beginning to wonder if the idea was quite as fanciful as it seemed.
Is it really so crazy to suggest that women might one day bring down the House of
So far, the Saudi regime has escaped the kind of protests seen in a number of other Arab countries. It has declared street demonstrations to be un-Islamic and well as illegal, and is well-equipped to deal with them ... assuming the protesters are men. The one thing it is not prepared for, and would probably have difficulty coping with, is a mass revolt by women.
And why bother preparing for that? Women, after all, are expected to obey their menfolk and not
trouble their heads with things like politics.
Saudi women, of course, have plenty to revolt about. They are oppressed, discriminated against and kept apart excluded from many of the activities that for men would be normal.
Paradoxically, though, the patriarchal system that keeps them apart from men also gives them a unique kind of freedom to organise
and agitate beyond the gaze of male eyes (which inveitably includes most of the state's surveillance system).
During the long years of political stagnation in the Middle East, mosques provided cover for
grassroots organisation and agitation because they were one of the few areas where the authorities' writ was limited. It came to haunt them after 9/11 of course, but that's another story.
In Saudi Arabia there's a similar situation with women. The patriarchs, through their own choice, have created a vast no-go area by confining half the population the female half to a largely separate and private world, a world which up to now has been treated as being of no political consequence and where
any stirrings have generally been disregarded or fobbed off with vague promises.
Tomorrow, June 17, marks the official start of the
campaign, with the organisers hoping that large numbers of women will assert their rights by taking to the road in cars. A few brave souls have already done so and have
arrested. Other women have been queuing outside government offices, demanding to
register as voters in the pathetic municipal elections scheduled for later this year.
Whether this will achieve anything in the short term remains to be seen but with so many other avenues for peaceful dissent closed off by the authorities, women could
by default become the kingdom's most important force for change. If the authorities fail to heed it, they do so at their own peril.
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 16 June 2011.
unmasked as a hoax
The "Gay Girl in Damascus" mystery was solved, up to a point, on Sunday when
MacMaster, a 40-year-old postgraduate student at Edinburgh university,
announced that he was the person behind the blog, and apologised.
The confession came after investigations established a link between him and the imaginary author, "Amina Arraf".
Clearly, I was mistaken in thinking that a real
Arab woman lay behind the fake identity created for the blogger.
The remaining mystery is why MacMaster did it. As he says in his statement, the blog was not misleading as to the situation on the ground in Syria, but he has undermined the credibility of that picture by fictionalising it and not making clear from the beginning that it was fiction.
His claim that he was only trying to "illuminate" these things for a western audience just doesn't add up. There are a fair number of genuine lesbian and gay Arabs writing on the internet about their lives and thoughts, often in English, and their writing is easy enough to find with a little help from
MacMaster claims in the apology that his fake
blogging has also confirmed his feelings regarding "the often superficial coverage of the Middle East
and the pervasiveness of new forms of liberal Orientalism." His
efforts have certainly diverted some attention from very serious
and real events in Syria but to blame that on "liberal
Orientalism" or the media's superficiality is somewhat wide of
What primarily interested the media was not the
supposed novelty of a gay woman living in Syria but the apparent
courage of "Amina" and her father when the uprising broke
out. The media can hardly be criticised for admiring that and it
touched many others too, as can be seen from the expressions of public
support after her imaginary arrest.
Further, if the intention had been to test the
media's gullibility (which I doubt), MacMaster went about it the wrong
way by making the blog's content too plausible. For a proper test,
there have to be some fairly obvious clues that a conscientious
journalist could reasonably be expected to detect. In this case, there
appear to have been none, especially when the difficulties of
reporting on Syria are taken into account.
Meanwhile, I hope people will not forget that there are still
real Aminas out there. MacMaster, whatever his excuses, has done them
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 13 June 2011.
Syria and the Gay
The speculation about Amina Araf, aka Gay Girl in Damascus, reminds me of a similar episode in 2003 when many in the west were captivated by the writings of an Iraqi blogger
who called himself Salam Pax.
His posts from Baghdad during and shortly before the US-led invasion became a must-read for journalists but it wasn't long before people started asking questions. Was his blog a hoax? Was it a CIA propaganda ploy? Or
perhaps a Baathist ploy?
"Im pretty sure hes not the 'ordinary Baghdadi' he claims to be,"
American blogger wrote. "He criticised Saddam just enough to establish some credibility, and then forcefully condemned the war.
"Since his main concern is for his home furnishings, he comes across like a clumsy parody of a gay man. So whatever his situation and motivation, hes not what he appears to be, at least not as far as I can tell."
And the Little Green Footballs blog said:
"He is (or was) very probably a member of or working directly for the Mukhabarat (Iraqi intelligence). It strains credibility to the breaking point to believe that someone could be blogging from Baghdad without Iraqi intelligence being aware of every word he wrote."
You can find more discussion along these lines, posted on the internet at the time, by Googling "salam pax hoax".
In due course, Saddam Hussein fell, the author of the Salam Pax blog
was found and, far from being "a clumsy parody of a gay man", he turned out to be the real thing.
Personally, I never had doubts about Salam Pax. The posts on his blog (and I followed them closely) had a ring of authenticity and I had also exchanged emails with him.
Fast-forward to 2011 and Gay Girl in Damascus. The first thing to note (which few have remarked on) is that she did not set out to document a Syrian revolution.
She started her blog and let's assume for the moment that the writer is indeed a "she" on February 19, almost a month before there was any hint of serious trouble in Syria. Equally, if the blog was set up deliberately to serve the purposes of Israel or even the Syrian regime during the uprising, as some people are now suggesting, the decision to start it was so far-sighted as to be almost clairvoyant.
The blog's subtitle is "An out Syrian lesbian's thoughts on life, the universe and so on" and in the beginning it was fairly typical of gay Arab blogs (of which there are now quite a lot). The
first few posts talked about LGBT issues in the Middle East: coming out, Islamic
views of same-sex marriage, and Israeli
The writer was clearly familiar with these issues and the current debates about them within the region. One of
her posts was
later re-published on the Lebanese lesbian website, Bekhsoos
indicating that there were like-minded people in the region who regarded her views on
LGBT matters as credible.
Although the writer describes herself as "out" (partly, if not totally), it's not
very surprising that she created a false identity on the internet. In Syria, once someone is known to be gay it brings "shame" on the whole family, so there would be other people to consider besides herself.
The point to note here is that she did not
disguise her identity in order to write about the uprising: she was
already disguised before that, probably because of her sexuality.
Without the Syrian uprising, Gay Girl's blog would probably have continued as it began, reflecting on
lesbian life in the Middle East and attracting negligible interest from the world's media.
What can be said with a fair degree of certainty is that the writer is a westernised gay Arab, probably female, and familiar with
Syria I really don't buy the idea, suggested by a
friend the other day, that the writer could turn out to be "Fat Man in Kansas". Whether the writer has been blogging all the time from Damascus, I'm less sure about. It's possible, but I can see nothing in the blog to prove or disprove
Now we come to the
announcement of Gay Girl's arrest. Obviously the false identity she created makes it difficult to get at the truth, and establishing who she really is/was could make things worse for her if she has indeed been arrested.
But let's consider another possibility: that the writer, who had originally only intended to give her thoughts on life as an Arab lesbian, decided that with all the media attention and worsening events in Syria, it was getting out of hand and the time had come to stop, and perhaps even go into hiding.
One option would be simply to cease blogging, but by that stage she was too much of a celebrity people would have noticed and started asking questions.
Option two: announce that she was giving up blogging or leaving the country "personal reasons", etc, etc. That, too would have generated speculation and in the midst of the uprising might have
Option three: go out with a final dig at the regime by pretending to have been arrested. Again, she
must have been aware that there would be consequences, though not perhaps on the scale that has actually happened.
I don't like suggesting that this might be the truth but, as others have said, in the light of all the circumstances
a pretend arrest is a possibility that has to be considered.
One thing that struck me about the two final posts from her "cousin" is that there is no appeal for anyone to
help, no call for campaigns or petitions: her own family are handling it and making inquiries. The tone of the messages is relatively calm, and the last one tries to
sound reassuring: "If they wanted to kill her, they would have done so" (presumably meaning they would have killed her on the spot rather than arresting her) and: "From other family members who have been imprisoned there, we believe that she is likely to be released fairly soon."
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 11 June 2011.
On Friday, after hearing of the attack inside Yemen's presidential compound, I
posted a tweet which said:
"Send Saleh abroad to be treated for his injuries. Problem solved."
That has now come to pass, but I doubt that it's a result of my suggestion on Twitter. It struck me at the time, though, that medicine has a history of intervening in the Middle East when politics
falls short. It acts as a sort of force majeure.
Perhaps the most famous example was the "medical coup" in Tunisia in 1987 when doctors certified
President Bourguiba unfit for office and brought the unlamented Ben Ali to power.
In 1994, during the north-south war in Yemen, various politicians who didn't want to be allied too closely to either side rushed off abroad for medical treatment, most of them recovering as soon as the war ended.
The effectiveness of medical intervention in politics often hinges on the belief that treatment needs to be carried out abroad. There's a kind of orientalist suspicion that local hospitals may not be up to the job (which isn't necessarily true) but it's probably also a status thing.
For heads of state, who obviously want the best no matter where it may be found, there's the additional fear that local doctors might be politically unreliable and tempted to stick a scalpel in the wrong place while they are on the operating table hence the need for foreigners.
It's hard to guess how long Saleh might need to be in hospital. Apart from a six-centimetre fragment lodged near his heart, which was being removed on Sunday, he is said to have second-degree burns to his face and chest. According to Wikipedia, second-degree burns should heal in two to three weeks unless there are complications, but presumably he could be discharged earlier than that.
Yemeni officials insist that Saleh is only temporarily indisposed and will be returning shortly to
lead the country again. This may remain as their official line for a while, though their behaviour suggests a transition is already under way with the blessing and assistance of the US and Saudi Arabia.
I wrote an article for the Guardian earlier today about the probable way forward and won't repeat that here. However, an interesting question is how Saleh will be prevented from returning to Yemen if he does recover quickly. One factor which should not be underestimated is the dire state of the country's economy. It is going to need a massive injection of aid very shortly, and that gives the international community a lot of leverage over the future shape of Yemeni politics.
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 5 June 2011.
Anti-corruption journalist jailed
A journalist in Jordan was sentenced to 14 days' imprisonment on Wednesday after reporting that a
billionaire businessman jailed for corruption had been allowed to leave the country.
Alaa Fazzaa, editor of a news website, khabarjo.net, was accused of "undermining the monarchy and the constitution".
The Jordan Times says that under Jordan's press law, journalism cases are supposed to be referred to the Amman Court of First Instance but but Azzaa's "offence" was deemed to involve national security and he was therefore sent to the State Security Court.
Azaa's arrest is the latest repercussion from a multi-million-dollar
bribery scandal involving expansion plans for Jordan's only oil refinery.
Last July, a former finance minister, a former director of the refinery company, the prime minister's economic adviser and Khaled Shaheen (or Shahin), head of the Shaheen Business and Investment Group (SBIG) were all sentenced to
three years in jail on corruption charges.
The sentences appeared relatively light considering the seriousness of the case, and the men were released on bail pending an appeal.
The Jordanian authorities also made efforts to minimise media coverage of the case and at one point decreed that local media must not report or comment on the refinery affair without prior approval.
In February, Shahin was quietly allowed to leave the country, supposedly for medical treatment which could not be obtained in Jordan. This only came to light when he was spotted dining out at a restaurant in London.
Last Thursday, Jordan's health minister and justice minister both resigned after accepting "moral responsibility" for allowing Shahin to flee.
Yesterday, following protests from Jordanian journalists over Fazzaa's imprisonment, the royal palace announced that King Abdullah had
ordered his release though it is not clear whether the case has been dropped.
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 2 June 2011.
Legality of troops on the ground
The revelation that "retired" soldiers are operating in Libya with the blessing of Nato countries, under the guise of working for private security companies, has sparked new debate about the use of ground forces there.
This raises two separate issues one legal, the other political. Politically, ground forces are unacceptable but the military
have been seeking some assistance from the ground and private companies are one way of providing it.
There is also a popular belief that Security Council
1973, which provides legal cover for the Nato operation, excludes the use of ground forces too. From a cursory reading, you might easily get that impression. But what it actually rules out is "a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory".
Exactly what this means hinges on the legal definition of an "occupation force" and the Hague Conventions of 1907 are pretty clear about that.
Article 42 says: "Territory is considered occupied when it is actually placed under the authority of the hostile army."
So, legally speaking, the resolution would probably allow Nato to send in an entire army
if it wished, so long as it did not assume authority over any Libyan territory.
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 2 June 2011.
It's the start of a new month, so here are the top 10 readers' favourites from
May (based on Twitter clicks):
1. Yemen's military turn against Saleh
2. Gaddafi, Assad or
Salih: who will go first? May 13
3. Syria: a defining moment
4. Hassan Nasrallah on Syria
5. Saudi woman arrested for driving May 22
6. Jordan: the failure to reform May 15
7. Reflections on the Arab protests May 17
8. A road to change in Saudi Arabia?
9. Yemen on the brink of catastrophe May 25
10. Yemen: A fresh start or more of the same? May 22
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 1 June 2011.