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Yemen: a new parliament too?

The political situation in Yemen remains as confused as ever – which is why I have avoided writing about it for some time. However, there are now a few signs of movement.

In a speech to mark the end of Ramadan, President Saleh (who is still in Saudi Arabia after being injured in a bomb attack last June) talked of preparing for "free, direct, and general presidential elections". Some reports suggest they could be held by the end of this year.

Whether this will amount to anything more than the usual prevarication and bluster remains to be seen. Saleh's current presidential term does not officially end until September 2013.

An early presidential election, on its own, though, is not going to make much difference since Saleh's party, the General People's Congress, holds an overwhelming majority in parliament.

Parliament's term had been due to expire in April 2009 but was then extended for a further two years. The postponed elections failed to materialise again in April this year – ostensibly for technical reasons, though the turmoil in the country also made holding them impractical.

If there is to be any hope of progress and real change, parliamentary elections at the earliest opportunity, as well as presidential elections, are going to be essential.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 31 August 2011. Comment.

Assad 'reforms' the Syrian media

Just three days after Syria's best-known political cartoonist, Ali Ferzat, was beaten up by the regime's thugs, President Assad issued a decree on Sunday to "reform" the country's media law.

This is the latest in a series of apparently futile "reforms" announced by the president in the midst of the continuing carnage which have included a law permitting (but restricting) demonstrations and another permitting (but restricting) political parties.

The new law for media (Arabic text here, English summary here) follows a similar pattern. It establishes a nine-member National Media Council which, among other things, will be responsible for issuing licences (for an unspecified fee) to independent media. 

Similar licensing systems in other Arab countries create a bureaucratic framework which can then be used to restrict "undesirable" publications on technical rather than political grounds and the new Syrian law seems designed to serve the same purpose. Its rules look particularly complicated and, as with the licensing of political parties, applications for media licences are not allowed from anyone "convicted of a felony or misdemeanour" – which could rule out former political prisoners.

While the new law does appear to indicate that journalists cannot be imprisoned in connection with their work, it provides for hefty fines ranging up to a million Syrian pounds (more than $20,000). It also says that "any attack on [a] journalist in the line of duty is considered an attack on [a] public employee" – though that will be of little comfort to Ali Ferzat as he recovers from his injuries.

Predictably, the new media law has been hailed (at least, according to the official Syrian news agency) as a great step forward, opening up "prospects for diversity, creativity and competition" but Ferzat's own history as a cartoonist and publisher provides a cautionary tale.

In the 1990s, before he became president, Bashar al-Assad visited one of Ferzat's exhibitions which included some of his banned cartoons, and expressed the view that they should all have been published. Ferzat remembered the conversation and, shortly after Bashar inherited the presidency from his father, applied for a licence to publish a satirical newspaper. Amazingly, permission was granted.

Launched in 2001, the new weekly – Addomari ("The Lamplighter") – was Syria’s first independent newspaper in 38 years and for a while each issue sold more copies than all the official dailies put together. 

By 2003, though, the regime had taken a dislike to it and the information minister demanded to see the content of each issue before publication. Ferzat 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. 

There's nothing in the new law to suggest that independent publishers will be treated any differently in future.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 29 August 2011. Comment.

Available on Kindle

The new editions of my books, What's Really Wrong with the Middle East and Unspeakable Love, are now available in electronic form, for Kindle.

Libya: no longer an 'Arab state'

This week the Libyan National Transitional Council issued its "Draft Constitutional Charter" – a sort of provisional constitution for the country in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Gaddafi.

The Project on Middle East Democracy lists some of its specific provisions here, but a more revealing exercise is to compare and contrast the NTC's document with the Libyan constitution issued in 1969, shortly after Gaddafi's revolution.

Article 1 of the 1969 constitution says:

"Libya is an Arab, democratic, and free republic in which sovereignty is vested in the people. The Libyan people are part of the Arab nation. Their goal is total Arab unity. The Libyan territory is a part of Africa. The name of the country is the Libyan Arab Republic."

Article 1 of the NTC's draft begins:

"Libya is an independent democratic state wherein the people are the source of authorities ..."

There is no assertion anywhere in the document that Libya is an "Arab state", and this omission cannot be anything but deliberate. The nationalism and pan-Arabism of the Gaddafi era have gone.

This is also a recognition of the country's diversity – in particular its marginalised Amazigh (Berber) communities. Unlike Morocco however (which has now recognised Amazigh as an official language), Arabic will remain the only official language in Libya "while preserving the linguistic and cultural rights of all components of the Libyan society". 

A much-debated question is to what extent the NTC has an Islamist character. Article 1 of the NTC document says "Islam is the religion of the state" – though it should be noted that Gaddafi's 1969 constitution says the same (as do the constitutions of most Arab states). 

Personally, I don't think states should have a religion but, since this is such an established idea within the constitutional frameworks of the Muslim world, its inclusion is not surprising.

Somewhat more troubling is the statement that Islamic jurisprudence (sharia) will be "the principal source of legislation". The exact role of sharia in legislation – and how to express it in the constitution – has long been a bone of contention in Arab countries. The form of words adopted by the NTC ("the principal source of legislation") is a moderately strong one, borrowed from Egypt, though not as strong as it might be.

For comparison, sharia is "the source of all legislation" in Yemen. In Oman it is "the basis of legislation" while in Bahrain, Kuwait, Syria and Qatar it is "a main source of legislation" (note the indefinite article).

The Iraqi constitution, approved by a referendum in 2005, specifies Islam as "a fundamental source of legislation" and says that "no law that contradicts the established provisions of Islam may be established." It also, rather confusingly, says that no law must contradict "the principles of democracy" or "the rights and basic freedoms stipulated in this constitution".

The Sudanese constitution (issued before the south seceded) establishes no official religion as such. It merely says that "Islam is the religion of the majority of the population". Article 65, however, specifies "the Islamic Sharia" as the source of law, along with "national consent through voting, the constitution and custom", though it also goes on to say that "no law shall be enacted contrary to these sources".

The NTC document adds that non-Muslims in Libya will be allowed to practise their religion and, as in Egypt and several other Arab countries, it talks of different personal status laws for different religions. This might sound fair in theory, but experience in Egypt and elsewhere has shown that attempting to operate different personal status laws for members of different religions is a minefield.

Other parts of the NTC document talk about democracy, a multi-party system, equal rights, freedom of expression, independence of the judiciary, etc. Women will have the right to participate "entirely and actively in political, economic and social spheres".

Taken as a whole (and with the reservations noted above), the document has quite a lot to commend it – but so too did Gaddafi's 1969 constitution. The proof of the pudding will be in the eating.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 20 August 2011. Comment.

Goodbye, Liliane Khalil

Liliane Khalil, the Middle East's mystery journalist, has disappeared from Twitter – presumably having closed her account.

Meanwhile, the interviews she promised to give to "some newspapers and other news orgs" giving her side of the story haven't materialised, so perhaps that's the last we shall hear from her ...

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 11 August 2011. Comment.

Who is Suzan Hadad?

Liliane Khalil, the "veteran" Middle East journalist whose real identity is being questioned, appears to have had an earlier incarnation as Suzan Hadad, "a journalist located in Atlanta, Georgia".

Marc Owen Jones, the PHD student investigating the mystery, has discovered a tweet by Liliane earlier this year in which she says:

"In a piece I wrote for CNN in 2009 'Day Nine in #Tehran,' I interviewed a #Basiji who called me an agent of the West."

Although this might suggest that Liliane Khalil was employed or commissioned by CNN, in fact the article was only posted in iReport, a user-generated section of CNN's website. A note there explains: "The stories in this section are not edited, fact-checked or screened before they are posted." The same article also appears in a few other places on the internet, including this one.

The strangest thing, though, is that despite Liliane Khalil's claim on Twitter that she wrote it, the author's name is given in the article as Suzan Hadad, not Liliane Khalil. A biographical note says Suzan Hadad has "provided foreign correspondence from Jerusalem, Cairo and Baghdad". However, a Google search reveals no other published articles by "Suzan Hadad" – so she is as much of a mystery as Liliane Khalil.

The Tehran article is dated 22 June 2009 – during the protests after Iran's disputed presidential election – and at first glance appears to be a dispatch from the Iranian capital. But on a closer look, there is nothing in its content to indicate that the writer was on the ground in Iran. All its information could have been gleaned from sources readily available in the west, and Khalil/Hadad's interview with the basiji (revolutionary guard) was conducted via Yahoo.

So, just when it was beginning to appear that Liliane Khalil might be a one-off fantasist, we now have Suzan Hadad too. Both have written dodgy stuff about the Middle East, both have strong connections with Atlanta, Georgia, and both have CVs that are almost entirely blank.

NOTE: Joseph Mayton of the Biyka Masr website (where Liliane Khalil held the unpaid title of "contributing editor") has asked me to draw attention to the statement he issued. "Once the controversy over this Liliane Khalil situation became known to us, we detailed [the] information we had and severed all ties with her," he said. It is understood that Liliane Khalil corresponded with Bikya Masr by email and never met anyone from the website face-to-face.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 10 August 2011. Comment.

An update on Liliane Khalil

Mystery continues to surround Liliane Khalil, the "veteran investigative journalist" who last month became "North America bureau chief" for the Bahrain Independent and formerly held the title of contributing editor for the Bikya Masr website.

Earlier this week, questions were raised as to whether she is really the person she claims to be, but hopefully Ms Khalil will cast some light on that next week since she has promised via Twitter to give interviews "to some newspapers and other news orgs". 

In other posts on Twitter, she says: "I've never been paid by gov't of Bahrain, never worked for MOI [Ministry of Information] of Bahrain, never advised any Bahraini ministry.." and: "Also never gone by name Gisele Cohen, Mizrahi, Arazi or variation thereof. All of those accusations are false."

In response to an apparent shortage of people coming forward to say that they have met Liliane Khalil face-to-face, she also tweeted: "For someone who knows me personally and has met me in person - follow Mr @ahmedbahgat1962 - a friend and former client in Cairo."

In the meantime, she is re-directing further questions to her publicist: "Due to so many media enquiries for interviews, futures requests should go through my publicist Reem Zain via @Reem_Tweets". Reem Zain appears to run Bahrain Views, a pro-regime website, and in June he was said to be "covering Bahrain security for Bahrain Independent".

Marc Owen Jones, the Durham University PhD student who originally published a dossier about Liliane Khalil on his blog, later tweeted that he had spoken to her for over an hour on the phone and described the conversation as "very interesting". 

He added: "I don't really know where to begin. I think have even more questions now. Writing up notes." Rather tantalisingly, he also said: "The Liliane Khalil I spoke to didn't have the same voice as the person who recorded the Radio Hurriya clip." The clip he was referring to was a promotional message recorded by someone (with appalling Arabic pronunciation) who claimed to be Liliane Khalil.

I haven't the foggiest idea where this is going to lead, but it's fascinating. And baffling.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 6 August 2011. Comment.

UPDATE, 17.30 BST, 6 August: Marc Owen Jones has just posted a lengthy account (here or here)  of his phone conversation with the woman claiming to be Liliane Khalil. It's difficult to know what to make of it, or how much to believe of what she says.

She doesn't seem to have provided any information that would allow her background to be independently checked (regarding her university studies, for example), despite being given an opportunity to do so.

In a way I feel sorry for her, because it may be – as she indicated in the interview – that she really does have some serious personal problems. Possibly I'm being too charitable there ... but who knows? What does strike me, though, is that some people connected with the Bahrain regime appear to have used her pretty unscrupulously.

Man shot near Saudi prince's palace

A man carrying a gun was shot dead around 1am on Saturday in Jeddah, at a checkpoint near the palace of Prince Nayef, the Saudi interior minister, according to the official Saudi news agency.

Details are still scarce, but – rightly or wrongly – some are suggesting it was an attempt to assassinate the prince. A photo showing the blood-covered body of the alleged gunman has been posted here.

BBC Arabic quotes a somewhat different account from Agence France-Presse saying that two young men opened fire on the prince's beach palace; guards shot one of them dead and the other was arrested. An unnamed government source is reported as saying the pair were "under the influence of drugs".

Two years ago, a suicide bomber linked to al-Qaeda tried to kill the minister's son, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, who is in charge of the kingdom's anti-terrorism programme.

Whatever the facts behind the latest incident, it's probable that the Saudi authorities will use it as an excuse for pressing ahead with implementation of their much-criticised new anti-terrorism law.

Last month a copy of the draft law was leaked to Amnesty International which described the proposal as "seriously flawed", saying it "could be used to penalise people who express peaceful views or opinions or engage in other legitimate activities".

Human Rights Watch also called for it to be withdrawn. "The draft counterterrorism law is trying to enshrine as legal the Saudi Interior Ministry’s unlawful practices," a spokesman said. "It lumps peaceful political opposition together with violent acts and ensures that the accused won’t get a fair trial."

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 6 August 2011. Comment.

7% of Middle East bloggers arrested 

Seven per cent of Middle East bloggers surveyed for a Harvard University study say they have been arrested or detained during the last 12 months. Thirty per cent say they have been personally threatened, while 18% say their website or online account was hacked or attacked.

The study, by Harvard's Berkman Center, in collaboration with 
Global Voices Online and the Institute for War and Peace Reporting, looks at bloggers' perceptions of online risk and the steps they take to protect their security.

Out of 580 invited, 98 completed the survey. They were overwhelmingly well-educated, with more than a third having a postgraduate degree. They were also predominantly young – almost half of them aged between 20 and 30.

About half of them described their writing as critical of their government and only one blogger claimed to be supportive of the government. Many appear to be politically active, so the reported arrests and threats may not be entirely due to their blogging activities.

Although the study was mainly concerned with gaps in bloggers' expertise relating to online security, it also uncovered some interesting attitudes.

Almost half of the sample blog under their real name and more than 40% include other information – such as a photo of their face – which makes them clearly identifiable.

Some of them indicated "that they openly and willingly faced the risks associated with their actions as they felt that oppositional views should be openly voiced with real names behind those 
views," the report says. 

However, despite all the talk of unlimited freedom on the internet, many of them do feel constrained in what they write because of the possible "negative consequences". The report continues:

"Half of respondents reported self-censoring themselves, and many cited the fear of repercussions from their government as the reason for limiting their online writing. 

"Several respondents indicated in free text answers that they are careful to avoid identifying the people included in their coverage by changing names and locations and obscuring photographs that include faces. A subset of the respondents reported writing in ambiguous or vague terms that effectively communicate their points while avoiding more overt challenges to the government. 

"Many of the respondents indicated that they believed that by writing in English they were less susceptible to government reactions to their online writing as their words are more likely to reach international than domestic audiences."

At the other end of the spectrum, 16% of those surveyed avoid giving information that would make them identifiable:

"Blogging anonymously or under a persistent pseudonym has become common in some countries, particularly those where the perceived threats associated with online speech are high."

While this provides a degree of protection, it can also undermine the credibility of their work as far as the outside world is concerned. "This practice can prove confusing for international audiences," the report says, "particularly when exploited as a way of creating deceptive 'sockpuppet' identities, as American researcher Tom MacMaster evidently did with his construction of putatively Syrian blogger 'Amina'." 

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 5 August 2011. Comment.

Lebanon: The Syrian spill-over

The turmoil in Syria is threatening to spill over into neighbouring Lebanon. On Tuesday night, a small group of protesters holding a vigil outside the Syrian embassy in Beirut were attacked by pro-Assad thugs (see video above).

"It was all planned. They came, started chanting for Bashar and then started getting closer to us," one of the demonstrators told the Los Angeles Times. "We didn't provoke them. As they chanted 'We sacrifice ourselves for you, Bashar,' we chanted over them, 'We sacrifice for you, Syria,' and then they attacked us ... There were some men who were guiding Syrian labourers towards us, telling them what to do."

The attackers are said to have used belts, stick and knives. Seven people were reportedly injured, several of them seriously.

The Daily Star and Ya Libnan also have reports about the attack.

There are claims that police guarding the embassy disappeared as the trouble began. Other police arrived later but were apparently reluctant to get involved.

Lebanon currently has a pro-Syrian government and is also at present the only Arab member of the UN Security Council. On Wednesday, it dissociated itself from the council's presidential statement condemning human rights abuses and attacks on civilians in Syria.

A Lebanese representative at the UN said afterwards:

"While we expect our deep regret for the loss of innocent victims and we offer our condolences to their families, we hope that Syrian reform will lead to progress and prosperity. 

"But since Lebanon considers that the statement being discussed in our meeting today does not help in addressing the current situation in Syria therefore, Lebanon dissociates itself from this presidential statement."

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 4 August 2011. Comment.

UPDATE, 5 August: A more detailed account appeared on the Jadaliyya blog.

Libya, Bahrain and a mystery journalist

Back in April, an article carrying the by-line Liliane Khalil appeared on various websites. It described the activities of a group of Libyan rebels who were purportedly tweeting from the conflict zone under the collective name "OperationLibyia" [sic] and related a touching story that one of them – a young father – had been injured and then died for lack of medical attention.

Besides appearing on blogs, the story was also published by the Palestinian Ma'an News Agency and quoted at length in The Lede for the New York Times.

Shortly afterwards, questions were raised about OperationLibyia and it appeared that Khalil's story might be untrue.

Also in April, another article appeared under Liliane Khalil's name – this time in the Bahrain Independent (a pro-government publication). It was a lengthy attack on the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights and its alleged connections with Iran. The article reads like a straightforward piece of propaganda for the Bahraini regime.

Liliane Khalil also volunteered her services (unpaid) for the Cairo-based news website, Bikya Masr, where she was given the title of contributing editor. Apparently she never met anyone from Bikya Masr face-to-face and, despite promising interviews with various important people, she seems to have done little more than compile news reports from published sources.

All this might suggest that Liliane Khalil is simply a hapless young freelance – inexperienced and somewhat gullible – trying to make her way in journalism. Even so, she seems to have impressed the Bahrain Independent which in July announced that it was making her its North American bureau chief, based in Atlanta. Describing her as a "veteran investigative journalist", it said: "She comes with over a decade of experience in reporting on the Middle East and North Africa and was previously based in Cairo."

On Tuesday, though, further questions were raised. Marc Owen Jones, a Durham University PhD student whose research includes "how the regime in Bahrain is using social media as a tool of surveillance and social control", published a very detailed dossier asking (among other things) whether Liliane Khalil really exists. Considering that she is supposed to have been reporting for more than 10 years, there is very little information about her on the internet (even less now, because some of it has been deleted recently), and examples of her published work are very scarce.

This is where the story starts to have echoes of the "Gay Girl in Damascus" hoax, because the picture Liliane Khalil uses for her Twitter profile bears a striking resemblance to that of a person on LinkedIn. The LinkedIn person is Gisele Cohen, described as an "HIV/AIDS case manager and patient advocate at Union Healthcare of Atlanta". Rather oddly, Gisele Cohen has no "connections" with others on LinkedIn. (There are other similarities between Liliane Khalil and Gisele Cohen which have been documented in Marc Owen Jones's blog.)

After several days' silence on Twitter, Liliane Khalil resurfaced on Tuesday, describing the allegations against her as "nonsense". She is apparently in hospital recovering from a back operation, which may explain her reluctance to answer questions. Her final post on Tuesday was:

"I'm through. And, please, no other journos ask me for an interview. This is not that serious. This is not a news story. At all."

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 3 August 2011. Comment.

Previous blog posts




August 2011

Yemen: a new parliament too?

Assad 'reforms' the Syrian media

Libya: no longer an 'Arab state'

Goodbye, Liliane Khalil

Who is Suzan Hadad?

An update on Liliane Khalil

Man shot near Saudi prince's palace

7% of Middle East bloggers arrested 

Lebanon: The Syrian spill-over

Libya, Bahrain and a mystery journalist


Blog archive

All blog posts

General topics

Saudi Arabia 


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Brian Whitaker, 2009



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Last revised on 31 August, 2011