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Hailing the next Saudi king

The Saudi press has been awash with praise for the "visionary" (but stupid) Prince Nayef who has just been named as crown prince - i.e. next in line to the throne. Indeed, if the Saudi reports are to be believed, world leaders are also overwhelmed with joy at the news of his appointment.

As John Burgess notes in his Crossroads Arabia blog, "It never hurts to be on the good side of a future ruler. I’m sure that businesses, particularly those with government contracts, will be taking out full page ads commending the prince ..."

During his 36 years as interior minister Nayef has overseen the extraction of confessions through torture, as well as the execution of numerous adulterers, suspected witches, drug offenders, etc. 

For a long time he denied that the kingdom had an al-Qaeda presence in its midst and in 2001 he initially claimed that Saudi militants were not involved in the September 11 attacks on the United States, blaming the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood and/or Zionists instead.

The terrorism problem which he eventually had to confront was partly one of his own making, since his efforts to enforce Wahhabi values helped to perpetuate a climate in which Islamic militancy could flourish, while suppressing liberal voices that could have played a vital role in challenging extremism.

My one and only encounter with the prince in the flesh came in 2003, at a news conference following a series of bomb attacks on housing compounds in Riyadh.

Prince Nayef announced triumphantly that "some people" had been arrested in connection with the attacks, but then seemed astonished when asked how many had been caught.

He was asked three times during the press conference and gave slightly different answers each time. After some prompting from an official sitting nearby he said the number was four, adding that these people were not among the 19 being sought but were "from the same group" and had "the same ideology".

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 30 October 2011. Comment.

Bahrain $6m bribery claim

The Bahrain-based Gulf Daily News has finally got around to reporting the arrest of a businessman in Britain, in connection with a $6m bribery case involving Bahrain's government-controlled aluminium company, Alba.

The Gulf Daily News says the alleged recipient of the bribes "cannot be named for legal reasons". This may indeed be the legal position in Bahrain, but it only takes a few seconds of searching on the internet to find out who he is.

The man in question is Sheikh Isa bin Ali al-Khalifa, an adviser to Bahrain's prime minister (as well as being his cousin). At the time of his alleged crime he was chairman of Alba and the kingdom's oil minister.

The Financial Times has a detailed account of the case so far.

The man alleged to have paid the bribes is Jordanian-born Victor Dahdaleh, a wealthy London-based aluminium trader who has links with the British Labour party (here and here) and is also a governor of the London School of Economics.

An announcement posted on Dahdaleh's website last Monday said:

"Victor Dahdaleh today interrupted his busy scheduled business commitments to voluntarily attend an appointment at Bishopsgate police station. In accordance with agreed arrangements, he attended to face charges of bribery and offences under the Proceeds of Crime Act 2002. 

"A spokesman for Allen & Overy, Mr Dahdaleh's lawyers said: 'Mr Dahdaleh believes the investigation into his affairs was flawed and that he has done absolutely nothing wrong. He will be vigorously contesting these charges at every stage, confident in clearing his good name.'

"Mr Dahdaleh was released on police bail."

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 30 October 2011. Comment.

Anti-gay persecution in Iraq

The following is a statement issued on Tuesday by the London-based Iraqi LGBT organisation:

In Iraq, concern is growing of a renewed purge against the country’s gay community by government forces and hardline religious militia groups after the arrest of 25 men in Kalar, a small town north Baghdad. 

The men were attending a party at a private house on 15 September when the police raided the address. After fierce protests against the raid by human rights organisations, including Amnesty International, all but three men have since been released from the city’s Garmyan prison. 

Several of those detained claim to have been subject to violent beatings while being held in solitary confinement. The authorities in Kalar refuse to disclose the whereabouts of those still in detention, the conditions in which they are held or the charges they face. 

Although there is no law proscribing homosexuality in Iraq, LGBT people in the country live under the threat of violence from Shia religious militia groups, who have been responsible for the brutal murder of more than 700 gay and transgender citizens. The police use anti-obscenity and prostitution laws to harass and round up gay people and other sexual minorities, who are often forced to go into hiding. 

In many cities in southern and central Iraq, political parties and local tribal leaders have established Islamic courts, to enforce extremist interpretations of Sharia law on to whole communities. to punish LGBT people. These courts function outside the formal judicial system, but are often linked to police and local government through the political parties. Islamic courts flourished after the 2003 war, and are now common in the Shia areas of Iraq. 

Ali Hili, head of Iraqi LGBT, a human rights group that supports LGBT people in the country by providing safe accommodation and public advocacy, comments: 

"As this latest incident shows, the danger faced by sexual minorities has not gone away. With no legal recognition in a deeply homophobic society, gay people run the risk of destitution, social exclusion and extreme violence.

"The only way for us to end this suffering, is through strengthening our LGBT community work with financial aid and volunteers.

"Iraqi LGBT helps these people with funds for housing and living expenses. This is only possible with the support of donations, so we appeal to the general public to support our life-saving projects.”

In 2012, Iraqi LGBT aims to open a new house to provide a safe haven for up to ten people, and continue its lobbying efforts to raise awareness of the situation for gay and transgender people in Iraq. The group welcomes volunteers experienced in areas such as marketing, design and copywriting to join the campaign team.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 25 October 2011. Comment.

Bahrain: more rubbish from Huffington

What on earth is going on at Huffington Post? Hot on the heels of Tom Squitieri's articles presenting a sympathetic view of Bahrain's repressive regime (September 21, October 2 and 
October 5), we now have Rob Sobhani scaremongering about Iranian designs on Bahrain.

"The end result of hesitation in extending our [America's] unequivocal support to and friendship towards Bahrain at this hour may very well be an Islamic Republic of Bahrain allied with Tehran's ayatollahs," he writes. 

Sobhani goes on to inform HuffPo readers: "I have met King Hamad on a number of occasions. He is a thoughtful and progressive leader who understands the challenges facing his country" – adding that the US "should ensure that Bahrain remains stable, prosperous and free of Iranian domination".

Sobhani is a former Georgetown University professor who has made two failed attempts to run for the US Senate. He is the author of two books, one of them a "detailed tribute" to the king of Saudi Arabia, the other about Iranian-Israeli relations. 

He is a member of the US hawks' advocacy group, the Committee on the Present Danger, and has also been involved with the neoconservative Coalition for Democracy in Iran.

He is currently chief executive of a company called Caspian Group Holdings which specialises in "negotiating projects for government and multinational clients with business interests in the Middle East and former Soviet Union". As part of this work, according to its website, it engages in country risk analysis, public relations and lobbying the US government.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 23 October 2011. Comment.

Egyptian jailed for 'insulting Islam' 

A man has been jailed in Egypt for "insulting Islam" on Facebook. 

Ayman Youssef Mansur, who had been arrested in August, was sentenced to three years with hard labour by a civilian court on Saturday on charges of "exploitation of religion to promote extremist ideas with the intention of inciting sectarian strife, damaging national unity and insulting the Islamic religion".

Details of the case are scanty and it is unclear exactly what he said. Al-Ahram's website, quoting the court's verdict, says that his "outrageous and scurrilous" remarks on Facebook "deliberately offended the dignity of Islam and subjected it to ridicule and mockery, in addition to insult, scorn and contempt ... focused on the Quran and the religion of Islam and the Prophet of Islam and Muslims and members of his household."

In 2007, Kareen Amer was sentenced to four years for "incitement to hate Islam" and "defaming the president of the republic" – and became the first Egyptian to be jailed purely for blogging activities. He was eventually released last November.

In April, 26-year-old Maikel Nabil was given three years by a military court for criticising the army in a blog article. He later went on hunger strike and last week a court ordered him to be 
transferred to a psychiatric hospital.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 23 October 2011. Comment.

Yemen and the UN security council

On Friday the UN security council unanimously approved a resolution on the situation in Yemen – its first such resolution since the uprising began.

As expected, the resolution (full text here) calls on President Saleh to accept the Gulf Cooperation Council's wretched "transition plan" and begin a handover of power. The GCC plan includes a proposal to grant Saleh immunity from prosecution, though the UN resolution says that "all those responsible for violence, human rights violations and abuses should be held accountable".

There is no mention in the resolution of sanctions or other penalties if Saleh fails to comply, though it does call on the UN secretary-general "to report on implementation of this resolution" within 30 days and every 60 days thereafter.

Apart from that, there's not much to say about it. It's a small step, and at this stage of the game it will take more than a toothless UN resolution to shift Saleh.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 22 October 2011. Comment.

Two arrested in Saudi over poverty video

Two Saudi men have been arrested in connection with a video about poverty in Riyadh (above) which was posted on YouTube. Feras Bughnah and Hosam al-Deraiwish were summoned for questioning on Sunday and were reported to be still in detention on Tuesday.

The Saudi Jeans blog, which has details of the story, says:

While the detention appears related to the video, it is still unclear what was the exact reason for the detention, said one source who is following the case but asked not to be named for fear of retribution from authorities.

"One theory is that they have been detained because their YouTube video was shown on a TV channel owned by the opposition abroad," he said. "Another theory is that authorities did not like the strong tone of the video and wanted to make an example out of these guys."

The video, lasting slightly less than nine minutes, has been viewed more than 735,000 times on YouTube and the arrests have prompted about 17,000 tweets. One Twitter user commented: "We arrest people who are trying to change the country for the better."

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 19 October 2011. Comment.

Persistent lying from Bahrain's government

The government of Bahrain is desperately seeking international support for its repressive policies – so desperately, in fact, that if the support doesn't exist it's happy to invent it.

In April, it claimed that Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary-General, had expressed support for Bahrain's "security measures" (i.e. its violent suppression of protesters) and had "praised the political reforms led by His Majesty the King and Bahrain's progress and prosperity at all levels". This was more or less the opposite of what he actually said. 

In June, it put words into the mouth of Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, prompting a complaint from the UN that her highly critical views had been "grossly misrepresented".

In September, it made up statements from Amnesty International about the death of a 14-year-old protester.

To add to the list, we now have this report from the official Bahrain News Agency:

"UK Foreign Secretary William Hague asserted that the political march in Bahrain is progressing, adding that the kingdom seems resolved to enhance that march for the sake of achieving consensus between all segments of the Bahraini society.

"He also said that the International Community has welcomed the landmark initiatives launched by the kingdom recently, such as the establishment of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) and the National Consensus Dialogue that engaged all parties in the country.

"In a statement he delivered at the House of Commons last Thursday, William Hague stressed the importance of the report due to be issued by BICI by the end of this month ...

"William Hague also welcomed the announcement of the Bahraini Attorney General that the medical staff will be retried in a civil court on October 23. He also said doctors and nurses were tried over violations they had committed, asserting that their trial in a civil court will be transparent and fair."

What Hague actually said was this:

"Members of all sides of the House will have concerns about events in Bahrain, including the use of military-led courts to try civilian defendants including doctors and nurses. We welcome the announcement by the Bahraini Attorney General that the cases of the medical staff will now be retried in a civil court on 23 October, and the expected report of the Independent Commission of Inquiry on 30 October. We attach great importance to the publication of this report. It is a major opportunity for Bahrain to demonstrate that it will adhere to international standards, meet its human rights commitments and take action when abuses are identified."

Hague also elaborated on this in a question-and-answer session (reported here).

As the Chan'ad Bahraini blog points out, nothing that he said justified the news agency's headline, "Bahrain Is Resolved to Reach National Consensus, Says William Hague", nor did he say that "the political march in Bahrain is progressing" – rather, that he was waiting to see what would happen.

Nor did he say doctors and nurses were tried over violations they had committed or assert that their trial in a civil court would be transparent and fair. His actual words were:

"It is absolutely not my brief to defend the Bahraini Government in their handling of the situation. There are allegations about those doctors and nurses, and some in Bahrain argue that they were not going about their jobs but doing other things. It is not for me, however, to state those allegations or to agree with them. 

"Those people should have been tried, if they needed to be tried at all, in a transparent way, in a civil court and with, of course, a fair judgment at the end. Therefore, we welcome the decision that they should be retried, and we will all watch very closely how that retrial takes place and what the verdicts are."

These is a pattern here in these stories from Bahrain's government news media. It is not simply a case of accidental misquoting or careless reporting but of deliberate and persistent lying, and I hope the British Foreign Office will be making a formal complaint.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 17 October 2011. Comment.

Tunisia on the road to gridlock?

Next Sunday, October 23, will deliver the first tangible fruits of the uprising that toppled President Ben Ali in Tunisia when voters elect a 218-member National Constituent Assembly.

The assembly will not be a parliament as such: its main task is to draft a new constitution and prepare for parliamentary and presidential elections which will come later. 

The election itself, therefore, is unlikely to be definitive. Barring a surprise result in which one party gains overall control, we can expect several months of haggling to ensue over such matters as the role of religion in public life and the eventual system of government, including the level of decentralisation. Obviously, though, the parties with the largest numbers of seats will be in the best position to determine the character of the new system – so the election is still important.

The assembly is supposed to last for one year. Beyond the task of preparing a constitution its role is not entirely clear, though it is expected to appoint a new government and act temporarily as the country's sovereign body.

The Project on Middle East Democracy has produced a useful guide to the election which describes the contesting parties and highlights some potential problems. The strongest contender appears to be the moderately Islamist (and previously banned) al-Nahda party. Opinion polls have put its support somewhere between 20% and 30%, though it's difficult to judge how reliable these polls are.

Ranged against al-Nahda are a fragmented collection of mainly left and centre-left parties which are probably less well organised in terms of getting their supporters to the polling stations.

The run-up to polling day has brought some disturbances attributed to salafists which began after Nessma TV showed the film, Persepolis, on October 7 – the objection being that it included a depiction of God.

Much has been made of Tunisia's religion-versus-secularism debate (Associated Press, Financial Times, Washington Post, etc, etc). This is a real issue but fears of Tunisia swiftly turning into a theocracy are much exaggerated.

Al-Nahda may well profit from voters' indecision. Writing for the Qantara website, Sarah Mersch quotes a 24-year-old mathematics student as saying:

"If I can't decide, I guess I'll vote for al-Nahdha ... at least they're all honest: they were all in prison until the revolution. The other parties are full of former members of the RCD [ex-president Ben Ali's party]."

So it could turn out to be a case of people voting for al-Nahda to show their rejection of what has gone before, rather than out of enthusiasm for its religious outlook. That would be not unlike what happened in Gaza when Hamas won the election in 2005.

Al-Nahda has been at great pains not to frighten wavering voters. The party's head, Rached Ghannouchi, has condemned the violence over the showing of Persepolis while also asserting "the right of the Tunisian people to denounce this attack on their religion." So far, he is able to sit on the fence but if and when his party becomes a player in government fence-sitting won't be enough: they will have to decide whether or not to ban films like Persepolis.

This is the dilemma that all Islamist parties face once they engage in democratic politics. They can no longer snipe from the sidelines and instead have to make practical decisions about policies. To retain electoral popularity they may need to compromise on their religious principles.

Religion aside, the other big issue for Tunisia is how to tackle the economic problems that were a major factor in Ben Ali's downfall. As The Moor Next Door points out, very little is known at present about what any of the parties would actually do to solve them. Decisive action on the economy is urgently needed but unlikely to be forthcoming in the immediate future as Tunisia goes through its process of political restructuring. The Project on Middle East Democracy's report sounds this warning note:

"Despite confusion over the electoral process and dissatisfaction with political parties, Tunisians have considerable expectations for the period following the elections. Since Ben Ali’s ouster, people have been frustrated with the slow pace of reform, but in recent weeks they have tempered their demands with the understanding that elections must take place before their grievances can be genuinely addressed. 

"Yet the legitimacy that comes with being an elected body also means that people will demand more from the National Constituent Assembly. Unfortunately, as the political landscape becomes increasingly polarized, there is a risk that the coming period will be marked by gridlock. The electoral system is designed to ensure that the makeup of the assembly reflect as accurately as possible Tunisia’s varying interests. 

"While it is certainly positive that the body tasked with shaping the future identity of the country has broad representation, the vast number of parties with disparate priorities could make it difficult to reach agreement on key issues. 

"Yet with a reeling economy and a tenuous security situation, it is crucial that political parties work together to tackle Tunisia’s daunting challenges. Failure to do so could derail the country’s democratic transition. These elections, therefore, are about more than selecting a constituent assembly, they will determine the prospects for genuine democracy taking hold in Tunisia."

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 16 October 2011. Comment.

Violence in Egypt leaves 24 dead

The violence in Cairo that left 24 people dead and more than 200 injured on Sunday night is the most alarming development so far in post-Mubarak Egypt.

Many are blaming the security forces for the bloody turn of events, arguing that the military council (temporarily) ruling Egypt is using social instability to stifle freedom. 

Writing in the Guardian, Jack Shenker says it is "doing everything in its power" to frustrate meaningful change:

"Bloodshed will capture the headlines, but the quieter moves by Egypt's military rulers and the plainclothes thugs whose motives increasingly appear inseparable from the army elite are also worth mentioning: the rapid shutting down of a television station that had been broadcasting live footage of the mayhem; the earlier announcement that military tribunals for civilians would remain operational in certain circumstances (despite a public outcry against them); a violent assault on a university strike in Alexandria; and the ongoing tussle over electoral law, which some political forces believe is designed to kill off genuine moves towards democracy."

That is certainly an important aspect of it, and a very troubling one, but equally worrying is the sectarian dimension. Sunday night's violence began with a demonstration by Coptic Christians protesting at an attack on a church in Upper Egypt last week.

Sectarian strife in Egypt is nothing new. Less than a month before the January 25 uprising began, more than 20 people died when a church holding New Year service was bombed in Alexandria, and other disturbances of a religious nature have occurred at frequent intervals over many years.

Last year the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights issued a report analysing sectarian violence in the country during 2008 and 2009, which is still very relevant. (I discussed it here at the time.) One of its key points was that the Mubarak regime had no long-term strategy for dealing with inter-faith relations, viewing sectarian incidents purely as a security issue and seeking only "to impose order and calm on the affected area".

What Egypt actually needs is a new approach which seeks to address sectarian grievances openly rather than trying to bury them. But judging by Sunday night's events, the military council seems to be carrying on in the old Mubarak tradition.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 10 October 2011. Comment.

Bahrain's PR offensive continues

In an article for Huffington Post on September 21, Tom Squitieri began:

"The rubber stamp storyline out of Bahrain is that it is the latest chapter of the people rising against the evil rulers in the 2011 drama of the Arab Spring. Spend a few days and nights away from the hotels and international clusters and with candidates under the campaign tents and in the small conversations and it is quickly apparent that it's not the same old story."

Squitieri continued his "Bahrain isn't as bad as you think" line in another article for HuffPo on October 2, headed "A lighter shade of gray", 

"The government has promised reform," he told readers. "Parliament is to introduce laws to tackle concerns about ministerial accountability and corruption. King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa has also asked an independent commission to investigate abuses and has formed a compensation fund."

Squitieri noted that the investigating commission is expected to "highlight abuses" by protesters in Bahrain, as well as the security forces.

On October 5, Squitieri was back again on HuffPo – this time putting a positive spin on the recent by-elections for the Bahraini parliament. Of the 18 newly-elected members, he wrote:

"Many have already begun their work, striking independent positions, calling on the government to enact reform and disdaining the mean streets approach to problem solving and democracy."

All three articles ended with this footnote about the author: "Tom Squitieri is a journalist and is also working with the Bahrain government on media awareness." The obvious conclusion to be drawn from that is that the articles were inspired by the regime's new offensive in "reputation management".

Squitieri's background is that he spent 34 years in journalism, reporting for several American newspapers and winning a number of awards. In 2005, however, he resigned from his job as Pentagon correspondent for USA Today after being accused of lifting quotes from other papers without attribution, and moved into public relations.

According to his website, he "turned his talents into capturing client ideas and crafting them into prose that is smart, creative, unique, seductive and compelling, to say what the clients want to say and connect them to those the clients seek".

One of his earlier clients was the Kurdistan Regional Government which in 2009 was reported to be paying him $8,000 a month, and he now seems to have added the government of Bahrain to his portfolio.

Squitieri's company, TS Navigations, promises clients a "cunning strategy" that "can be adapted quickly, is believable and becomes the path to other goals". It continues:

"In a crisis communication situation, we work to immediately end the negative while building toward a pro-active platform ...

"The world may see bruised tomatoes. We are the chefs who make them into marinara that is irresistible."

So what are we to make of Squitieri's Huffington Post articles? Credible journalism, or just an example of his ability to turn bruised tomatoes into an "irresistible" marinara?

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 9 October 2011. Comment.

Rioting in Saudi Arabia

A fresh outbreak of trouble is reported in Qatif (eastern Saudi Arabia), which has a large Shia population. The interior ministry says 14 people were injured, 11 of them security personnel, in rioting on Monday and claims the disturbances were instigated by "a foreign power" – an apparent reference to Iran.

According to an official quoted in the Jeddah-based Arab News, "A group of troublemakers assembled ... some on motorbikes and carrying petrol bombs, as they began their actions to disrupt security at the behest of a foreign country which tried to undermine the nation's security in a blatant act of interference."

The Financial Times quotes the Saudi Press Agency as saying that rioters in the town of al-Awwamiya fired machine guns and hurled Molotov cocktails at members of the security forces.

The paper adds that in an email Mohamed al-Saeed, a Qatif resident, accused the Saudi state of ruthlessly suppressing the protest: "For the third day our families in Awwamiya town and Qatif live under brutal crackdown by Saudi forces, just because they went out and [asked] for our human rights and freedom."

The disturbances appear to have been triggered by the arrests of two men – a move viewed by the protesters as part of a continuing pattern of harassment. An Iranian website, ABNA, says:

"On the evening of Sunday, the Saudi authorities arrested a writer and social activist from the town of Awammiya against the backdrop of the peaceful demonstrations witnessed by the Qatif province in recent months. 

"Sources indicated that the authorities arrested the writer Ali al-Dubaisi at a checkpoint between the city of Safwa and Awammiya in Qatif. The sources acknowledged that Mr. al-Dubaisi was taken straightaway to the Department of Criminal Investigation in Qatif where authorities prevented his family from visiting or talking to him. This incident is a sequel to his earlier arrest in May when he was stopped at the same checkpoint and detained by the police station in Safwa for 24 hours and released without charging him.

"In a related development, sources indicated that police of Awammiya called the citizen Hussein Daif al-Yasseen (in his sixties) for interrogation and then deported him to Qatif penitentiary. According to family sources, al-Yasseen underwent debriefing last Friday on charges of coincidently driving his car near a peaceful demonstration."

Writing in The Independent, Patrick Cockburn suggests that one man (possibly Yasseen) was arrested in an attempt to force his son – an activist – to give himself up.

As usual with incidents of this kind in Saudi Arabia, it is difficult to be sure exactly what happened or how serious the disturbances really were. There have been sporadic protests in Shia areas for some time, though according to a Saudi activist quoted in The Independent, on this occasion police fired into the crowds rather than into the air as previously. The paper also says some of the local population are armed.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 5 October 2011. Comment.

Battle to expose corruption in Jordan

The Jordanian government appears to have backed down following an outcry over a proposed law that would discourage journalists from exposing corruption.

On Thursday, the lower house of parliament approved the draft law which is meant to combat corruption but also imposes fines of 30,000-60,000 dinars ($42,000-$85,000) on "every person or party that publicly or explicitly attaches charges of corruption to others without solid facts with the purpose of extortion, slander or defamation and character assassination".

The heavy penalties, coupled without doubts about the precise meaning of "solid facts" and "character assassination", have been widely interpreted as an attempt to shield government officials from public scrutiny. 

Last Wednesday, the board of the Jordanian Press Association (JPA) threatened mass resignation if the bill became law and on Friday about 4,000 people demonstrated in Amman, some of them chanting: "A government that is protecting corruption cannot be trusted, and a parliament of corruption does not represent the people."

Tareq Momani, president of the JPA, told the Jordan Times the government had "practised extreme pressure" on members of parliament to approve the bill (which they did by 56 votes to 40).

"This act comes in absolute contradiction with the reform efforts called for by the king," he said. "The media is an important player in exposing fraud, embezzlement and other corruption cases. Now, under the threat of this huge fine the media will not be able to tackle such issues."

The Jordanian Bar Association also condemned the proposal, saying that "it violates international agreements on human rights as well as the constitution, which is clear about safeguarding freedom of expression".

To become law, the measure would have to be approved by the upper house of parliament – and that now seems unlikely to happen.

On Friday, King Abdullah intervened and suggested that defamation was a matter to be dealt with under Jordan's penal code rather than an anti-corruption law. "Protecting the reputation [of individuals] through more general laws like the Penal Code is more effective than addressing this issue under laws like Anti-Corruption Commission Law," he reportedly told members of parliament.

Last year, four prominent Jordanians were jailed in a $17m bribery case involving the kingdom's only oil refinery. Attempts were made at the time to suppress reporting of the case, and in July this year a journalist was sentenced to 14 days' imprisonment for reporting that one of the convicted men – Khaled Shaheen – had been allowed to flee the country.

Despite Jordan's efforts to present itself to the world as a modern constitutional monarchy, journalists in the kingdom have a difficult time. The US-based Committee to Protect Journalists says it has documented several assaults on the press in Jordan since March, including attacks against news bureaus, threats against media staff, assaults on journalists covering demonstrations, and the hacking of news websites. 

In April, it said the government's failure to take decisive action against those who physically assault journalists amounts to tacit endorsement of such attacks.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 2 October 2011. Comment.

Awlaki's death weakens Saleh

The killing of Anwar al-Awlaki in Yemen raises questions about its likely impact on the country's politics – in particular, whether it will hasten or delay President Saleh's departure.

Internationally, Saleh has tried to present himself as a lone bulwark resisting al-Qaeda and uses it as an argument for his remaining in power.

He was at it again on Thursday, in an interview with Time Magazine and the Washington Post. Reminded that the US has urged him to step down, he responded by questioning America's commitment to "fighting the Taliban and al-Qaeda". 

"We are pressurised by America and the international community to speed up the process of handing over power," he said. "And we know to where the power is going to go. It is going to al-Qaeda, which is directly and completely linked to the Muslim Brotherhood."

Remove Saleh and the militants will take over Yemen – that, at least, is what he would like people to believe. The reality, as I have pointed out several times before, is somewhat different. Saleh needs al-Qaeda in order to stay in power. Al-Qaeda must remain sufficiently active in Yemen for the world to be scared by it, so that Saleh can continue to be seen fighting it – and reaping the political benefits of doing so.

One view of Awlaki's killing is that it will strengthen Saleh's hand by making him appear relevant again to the world outside.
"The revolutionaries in Yemen are worried that al-Awlaki's death will ... provide a respite to Saleh in the face of mass protests against his rule," Anis Mansour, a Yemeni journalist, told the German press agency on Friday.

Jeb Boone, an American journalist who was based in Yemen until recently, also wrote: 

"Having duped the west three times into believing he was about to step down, he has now handed America's most sought-after head (in the shape of Awlaki) to Washington. With a counter-terrorism trophy like that on display for American audiences, US diplomats may find it difficult to maintain the pressure on Saleh to resign."

The alternative view (which I lean more towards) is that without Awlaki lurking in the background Saleh's position is significantly weaker. The American media had become obsessed with Awlaki, inflating his importance out of all proportion – and that also had its effect on US policy. Unless some new threat emerges in Yemen which directly affects Americans, the general perception will be that there is far less to worry about now than before and the US will be better placed to push ahead towards a transition of power.

A further point is that in Awlaki's killing Saleh appears to have been more of a bystander than an active partner with the United States in the "war on terror". Details are scarce, but as yet there are no indications that Saleh (or the Yemeni military) played a major role. So far, the Americans are taking all the credit and/or blame. That also suggests Saleh is less indispensible than he would like to imagine.

From a US policy perspective, the main need now is to de-link American security concerns from questions about Saleh's fate. Saleh has always been a tricky person to deal with, as the 
WikiLeaks documents showed. The attitude of a future Yemeni government on that score is unlikely to be worse, and might even be slightly better.

Behind the scenes, there are signs that the US does not really buy Saleh's arguments for staying in power. On Friday evening, 
according to the German press agency, the Yemeni government and the opposition coalition were close to signing an agreement on the basic principles for dialogue – under US supervision.

The agency added:

"This comes as a result of three-day roundtable talks led by the United States, with a European participation, in a bid to come up with a peaceful end to the Yemeni crisis ..."

The goal of these and other diplomatic efforts is to implement the "transition plan" cooked up by the Gulf Cooperation Council. As I have said before, I don't much like the plan. If, by some miracle, it can be made to work it is more likely to preserve the status quo (minus Saleh) than to deliver the sort of changes that Yemeni protesters have been demanding. But, at this stage, getting rid of Saleh may be better than nothing.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 1 October 2011. Comment.

Previous blog posts




October 2011

Hailing the next Saudi king

Bahrain $6m bribery claim

Anti-gay persecution in Iraq

Bahrain: more rubbish from Huffington

Egyptian jailed for 'insulting Islam' 

Yemen and the UN security council

Two arrested in Saudi over poverty video

Persistent lying from Bahrain's government

Tunisia on the road to gridlock?

Violence in Egypt leaves 24 dead

Bahrain's PR offensive continues

Rioting in Saudi Arabia

Battle to expose corruption in Jordan

Awlaki's death weakens Saleh


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



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Last revised on 30 October, 2011