question of immunity
It has been widely reported that the Yemen "transition" agreement signed last week includes immunity for President Saleh and members of his entourage. This led to
protests in Yemen at the weekend calling instead for Saleh's prosecution.
If guarantees of immunity have indeed been given, who gave them? What do they say? What is their legal effect? The short answer is that nobody seems to know or, rather, that those who do know are not saying.
The original plan, in early drafts of the GCC-brokered transition deal was that as soon as Saleh had signed it the Yemeni parliament would pass a vote granting immunity to him, his family and his associates. That hasn't happened at least, not yet.
Adding to the mystery, the text of the signed agreement, as published in Arabic on the ruling party's website, makes no mention of immunity. This has led to suggestions that some parts of the agreement are
not being made public.
Saleh has been so insistent on the immunity issue that it's unlikely he would have signed without some kind of guarantee. One possibility is that the six GCC states Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have agreed not to prosecute him if he enters their territory, but that would have no effect elsewhere in the world.
There are rumours that Saleh wants to go to the United States for medical treatment but,
according to the Aden Online website (in Arabic), the US is refusing him a visa. Germany and Russia are also said to have refused.
Saleh officially retains the title of "president" for the time being though he has formally ceded his presidential powers to Vice-President Hadi. Hadi's first acts under his new powers have been to set a date for the presidential election (February 21) and to name 78-year-old Mohammed Basindwa
minister. Basindwa is a former foreign minister who switched to the opposition.
Saleh, meanwhile, seems to be forgetting that he has signed away his powers. On Sunday, he
issued a "decree" granting a general amnesty for those who "committed errors during the crisis" (ie the opposition).
The Wall Street Journal, citing a senior interior ministry official,
adds that Saleh "contacted the interior minister twice over the past 36 hours to give orders on how to run certain matters".
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 28 November 2011.
Arabia may avoid Olympic ban
It looks as if Saudi Arabia will avoid exclusion from the
2012 Olympics by entering a token female presence in equestrian events.
Women's sporting activity in the kingdom is widely discouraged on religious grounds and the kingdom has previously sent all-male teams to the Olympics.
But last year the International Olympic Committee warned Saudi Arabia along with Qatar and Brunei that they could be barred from the 2012 games if female athletes were not included.
Qatar has since agreed to do so and now it seems that the Saudis will send a horse-riding team where the women can be clothed in a way that does not offend religious principles.
Bikya Masr website says Dalma Rushdi Malhas, an 18-year-old Saudi woman, is a likely competitor, having won a bronze medal at the 2010 Singapore Youth Olympics.
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 22 November 2011.
Ennahda and Bahrain
The Ennahda (al-Nahda) party, which won the largest number of seats in the recent Tunisian election, has declared its support for the counter-revolutionary forces in Bahrain, according to the official Bahrain News Agency.
A report from the agency says the party's political bureau "reiterated that the unfortunate incidents that took place in the Kingdom of Bahrain during February and March 2011 were riotous acts of sabotage by sectarian elements who had nothing to do with the Arab Spring and even defamed Arab revolts".
This would be startling news if true, but I'm sceptical. The report doesn't contain any direct quotes from Ennahda officials and, on past form, it's quite likely that alleged statement was made up by the Bahraini authorities.
As I pointed out last month, the government of Bahrain is so desperate to find international support for its repressive policies that if the support doesn't exist it's happy to invent it.
Previous blatantly false declarations of support have been attributed to Ban Ki-moon, the UN Secretary-General, Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Amnesty International, and William Hague, the British foreign secretary.
Meanwhile, there are growing suspicions that people who tweet critically about Bahraini are being deliberately targeted and harassed by trolls connected to the regime.
Brian Dooley of Human Rights First writes that the trolls have "one mission in mind, to drown out dissent with large numbers of harassing messages".
One example he cites is that of Lamees Dhaif, who was recently voted Bahraini Woman of the Year in an Arab fashion magazines online poll:
"Women get targeted in a specific way on Twitter," she told me. "There are lies spread about us that I was sighted in a motel with someone at 11.30 at night, or that I was seen wearing a bikini, or drinking alcohol, or in an orgy. These are all total lies, but they keep repeating these things over and over to distract peoples attention from what we report or say."
Lamees has 37,000 Twitter followers (LameesDhaif). Much of the "sexual stuff" is aimed at readers in the Gulf, she says. Lamees adds that male human rights defenders are routinely accused of homosexuality and trolls often give them female nicknames.
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 21 November 2011.
UPDATE, 22 November: Ennahda has issued a statement saying the Bahrain News Agency's claims
Foreign Policy Blogs boasts that it is "the largest network of global affairs blogs online", staffed "by scores of professional contributors from the worlds of journalism, academia, business, non-profits and think tanks".
Plus the occasional public relations man working for a repressive
Having penned a series of "positive" articles about Bahrain for Huffington Post (which stopped
when I wrote about them
here), Tom Squitieri of TS Navigations, a reputation management company, has now
written another article
this time for Foreign Policy Blogs.
Before reading Squitieri's upbeat account of developments in Bahrain you may wish to take a look at
his company's website which promises
its clients (who include the government of Bahrain) a "cunning strategy" to "immediately end the negative while building toward a pro-active platform".
"The world may see bruised tomatoes," it says. "We are the chefs who make them into marinara that is irresistible."
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 20 November 2011.
PS: You may not be surprised to learn that Matt
Lauer of Qorvis Communications (which has a $40,000-a-month
PR contract with the government of Bahrain) has been promoting
Squitieri's article on
PPS: Tom Squitieri is also on Twitter where he has been complaining about
harassment of US journalists in connection with Occupy Wall Street and about
regressive new media laws in Hungary. He seems less concerned about Bahrain, where
announces: "Bahrain plans new freedom of press law to expand protections and to eliminate some existing penal codes and restrictions on expression."
versus monarchy in Kuwait
Sixty-two people are now reported to have been arrested in Kuwait following a demonstration on Wednesday in which protesters invaded the parliament building.
The emir has called for "stricter measures to confront this chaotic behaviour" and the interior ministry says it will take "all necessary measures to combat any actions that might beset the country's security."
Some kind of crackdown appears to be under way, though it's unlikely
to turn as vicious as in Syria or Bahrain.
Although the Kuwaiti protesters have probably drawn inspiration from the uprisings in other parts of the Middle East, and although accountable government is their main goal, it we should be careful not to link these developments too closely to the Arab Spring.
This week's events in Kuwait are just one twist in a prolonged tussle over the respective powers of parliament and the monarchy. In terms of the issues involved, it is remarkably similar to the constitutional battle in Britain that started in the 17th century and, over several hundred years, gradually whittled away the powers of the crown to almost nothing.
Among the Gulf Arab states, Kuwait at present looks to have the best prospects for transforming peacefully into a modern European-style democracy. It has an elected parliament which, by Arab standards, is unusually lively and assertive though not always in a progressive way (it was parliament, rather than the emir, that held out against granting votes to women). Political parties are still not formally allowed, but they exist after a fashion.
The most remarkable example of parliamentary assertiveness came in 2006 when the emir died and parliament (supported by sections of the ruling family and the Kuwaiti press) refused to accept the ailing crown prince, 76-year-old Sheikh Sa'ad, who had been proclaimed as his successor.
Sheikh Sa'ad's medical condition (he was said to have been suffering from Alzheimer's disease) meant that he
could not recite the oath of office as required by the constitution and, after a good deal of behind-the scenes wrangling, a unanimous vote in parliament declared him
In terms of Arab politics this was an unprecedented move: for the first time, an elected parliament had peacefully ousted a monarch. It marked a significant step on the road towards parliamentary supremacy, though the royal family also managed to save some face. A few minutes after MPs voted, a letter arrived at the parliament building announcing Shaikh Saads abdication thus blurring the question of whether he had jumped or been pushed.
There are also frequent skirmishes between parliament and monarchy over control of the government, with MPs constantly seeking to question ministers and hold them accountable particularly over allegations of corruption.
It only takes a quick glance at the list of government ministers to see the root of the problem. Eleven of the 27 ministers are called Sabah the name of the ruling family. In fact, members of the ruling family hold all the most important positions (prime minister, economy, defence, interior and foreign affairs) and it would be stretching credibility to suggest that they have been appointed on merit rather than family connections.
Parliament has no real control over the actions of ministers and, consequently, is restricted in what it can do to influence government policy (an article in Foreign Policy by Kristin Smith Diwan discusses these problems in detail). The main weapon that MPs can use is to summon ministers for questioning if parliament as a whole agrees to that.
Most recently, opposition MPs have been seeking to question the prime minister, Sheikh Nasser al-Mohammad al-Sabah, in connection with alleged corruption but so far their efforts have been blocked hence the demonstration on Wednesday.
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 19 November 2011.
'Obscene party' raided in Saudi Arabia
Details are scarce, but the story sounds familiar. Sabq website
reports (in Arabic) that Saudi Arabia's religious police raided an "obscene" party in Riyadh early on Thursday. Shots are said to have been fired, though no one was injured.
About 60 youths were attending the party. Some were arrested and "handed over to the competent authorities" while others escaped.
The report says the partygoers were in possession of cosmetics and their own women's clothing implying that this was a gay party.
In a similar incident in 2009, when more than 70 men were arrested at a party in Riyadh, "disgraceful" women's clothes and cosmetics were also found.
Two other raids on all-male parties were reported in 2008 again involving make-up and women's clothing.
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 18 November 2011.
Yemen and Reuters
Journalists have a hard time in Yemen. Most are badly paid and many take on other jobs to supplement their income.
The Yemeni press (with one or two exceptions) is also highly partisan. That is far from ideal but it is less of a problem than outsiders often imagine. There's a diversity of voices; readers know where the papers and their reporters
stand politically and they take that into account.
The position of international news agencies operating in Yemen is different, however. Readers expect them to be a trustworthy source of information and to make independent judgments about what is or isn't news.
That is the root of the problem with Mohamed Sudam. While working as a local correspondent for Reuters he also had two government jobs: as the president's interpreter and, since 2009, as the president's secretary.
Reuters had known about his presidential interpreting work for years (because he had been honest enough to tell them) but for some unfathomable reason they accepted it. This would still have been continuing except that in October Sudam was briefly kidnapped by elements opposed to President Saleh. Conflicting reports of his kidnapping described
him as a government official and/or a Reuters reporter.
Shocked to discover that both descriptions were correct, a number of Yemenis (most notably
Dory Eryani) began protesting on Twitter and the
#ShameOnReuters hashtag was born.
Reuters at this point reacted as many large organisations do in response to
twittering ... with a mixture of complacency and disdain.
After several days' silence it issued a self-congratulatory statement saying: "For more than 160 years the coverage of Reuters in the Middle East has been a trustworthy source of news"
and adding: "We consider that the work of Mohammed Sudam as a part-time reporter rises to the international standards that we adhere to around the world."
Dismissing the complaints in this way was foolish, to say the least. A non-committal statement
that they were looking into the matter would have been far better.
Some of the twitterers claimed to detect evidence of pro-government bias in Sudam's reporting. But whether that is true or not, it is somewhat beside the point. The main point is that his dual role as reporter and presidential interpreter/secretary jeopardised Reuters' credibility and its relationship of trust with the public.
There must also have been times when Sudam felt he was in an invidious position hearing things as he interpreted in private meetings but facing dilemmas as to what, if anything, he could report. (Sudam hasn't commented on the affair so far, but it would be interesting to know how he dealt with these issues.)
By Thursday, when the story had reached the ears of the
New York Times and the
Reuters made a sharp U-turn:
"Sudam's work as a Reuters stringer [non-staff correspondent] over the course of many years has been fair and accurate. When he became a translator for the president, he disclosed his role to Reuters. On reviewing the matter, however, we believe it's not appropriate to use a stringer who is also working for the government. He is no longer reporting for us from Yemen."
Reuters, I feel, comes out of this very badly. It should have been obvious right from the start that Sudam's dual role was "not appropriate" and yet Reuters knew about it and allowed it to continue for years. I have slightly more sympathy for Sudam, though he ought to have realised what he was getting into.
Contrary to some of the recent tweets, it appears that Sudam has not actually been fired (and rightly so, because it's mainly Reuters' fault). The statement says he is no longer working
for Reuters from Yemen. According to the New York Times, this means he will be offered work elsewhere in the Middle East where, hopefully, his journalism will not be compromised as it was in Yemen.
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 18 November 2011.
trafficking in Egypt
It's almost a year since I wrote a series of blog posts about the scandal of human trafficking in the Sinai desert of Egypt, and the Mubarak regime's ludicrous denials than anything untoward was happening (here,
Well, the trafficking is still going on though there are a few small signs of progress. In an email yesterday, Matteo Pegoraro of the Italian-based
Every One Group one of the organisations campaigning on this issue described the latest developments:
"The UNHCR has confirmed that 611 Eritrean refugees were released without ransom by the traffickers in Northern Sinai, and are currently in Israel.
"EveryOne Group has also learned of the violent death of the notorious trafficker in migrants and human organs, Soliman Abdalah Necklawi, known as 'The Sultan'. The smuggler was killed, according to the information we received, in a shoot-out with some Bedouins of another tribe, who were attempting to free a group of Eritrean refugees. The prisoners were freed and subsequently, according to reliable sources, headed for Israel.
"However, we know of at least 450 Eritrean migrants who have not yet been released by these gangs. Fifty-eight of these hostages are located in Serah and are in the hands of the thief known as Samih, whose family is deeply involved in the trafficking of human beings and organs.
"Another group of prisoners [migrants] is in an unidentified location in Northern Sinai. We have sent the mobile phone number of one of the young prisoners to the High Commissioner for Refugees and the Special Rapporteur on Trafficking in Human Beings.
"Currently there is a strong component of the Bedouin tribes who are keen to work with the authorities and NGOs to end the odious trafficking in human beings and refugees in Northern Sinai."
Pegoraro says the International Criminal Court is continuing its investigation into the traffickers but he adds: "We must point out that the top traffickers that we reported to the international authorities are still active in their criminal affairs: their names are Samih, Abu Khaled, Abu Ahmed, Abu Abdallah, Abu Moussa, Kemal, and Abu Mohammed."
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 18 November 2011.
Yemen and Reuters
Reuters news agency has finally issued a statement about Mohamed
Sudam, its Yemen-based reporter who also works as President Saleh's official interpreter and
The Felix Arabia blog provides this translation of the statement which was originally issued in Arabic:
"For more than 160 years the coverage of Reuters in the Middle East has been a trustworthy source of news. We consider that the work of Mohammed Sudam as a part-time reporter rises to the international standards that we adhere to around the world."
That is simply not good enough, because it entirely misses the point. The point is that Sudam's double employment, by both Reuters and the president of Yemen creates the appearance of a conflict of interest
(if not an actual conflict of interest too). No respectable news organisation would allow that so why does Reuters?
There is a very simple test that news organisations
can apply in this sort of situation. Imagine that every report by Sudam carried a note at the end saying: "Mohamed Sudam is President Saleh's interpreter and secretary."
Would Reuters be embarrassed by that? Would readers regard the reports as less trustworthy? If the answer to either question is yes, they should put a stop to it immediately.
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 17 November 2011.
UPDATE, 21.00 GMT 17 November: Sudam has
gone. Reuters has now issued another statement. It says:
"Sudam"s work as a Reuters stringer over the course of many years has been fair and accurate. When he became a translator for the president, he disclosed his role to Reuters. On reviewing the matter, however, we believe its not appropriate to use a stringer who is also working for the government. He is no longer reporting for us from Yemen."
A gay day for Egypt?
A group on Facebook has declared January 1 next year to be
National Gay Day in Egypt and already the
move is generating controversy not just from the usual suspects but also among gay Egyptians.
In many countries the struggle for LGBT rights began with a few brave souls making a stand, but is Egypt really ready for a National Gay Day?
A blogger called Nilesby ("a sapphist living on the Nile") raises some
"I do not want to be naive, thinking that we will be recognised as equals, accepted and given rights without a fight. There will be a fight, and this will start by us coming out, demanding our recognition as humans. The fight for our rights will be bloody, and lives will be lost. It does not require any extrasensory perception to arrive at this conclusion. I hope that as we enter this battle, we are prepared.
"And I voice my concern, is this national day of gays in Egypt a good idea? Is shocking people this way going to support our cause, or harm it? Is the time ever 'right'? I think that there is never a good time for anything, so do not respond to me saying it is not the time for it. But I do think there are times that are more appropriate than others. There are also ways more appropriate than others. How to measure this 'appropriateness'? I have no idea.
"One of my dearest tweeps drew a very suitable comparison. Remember the march in Tahrir square for International Womens Day last March? Women, who are mothers, sisters, daughters, breadwinners and much much more, were
harassed mercilessly during this march. If women received that kind of harassment, I do not want to imagine what a National Day for Homosexuals will be like. But I do know that, just because the women and women rights supporters were harassed, does not mean one should stop protesting or fighting for their rights."
A more robust view comes from Leil-Zahra Mortada. In a
blog post written last May,
he argued that gay rights should be seen as part of the broader movement for change, though gay people are constantly urged to hold back on the grounds that the time isn't right:
"Over and over we have waited, and put the 'greater' cause ahead, only to find ourselves pushed back once things are settled. We have learned to fight and watch our own backs. We have learned that yes the time is not right simply because the time for us to speak out was yesterday.
"Our demands do not break the 'movement', it is the 'movement' that breaks itself by not including us. Our demands are only ours because the 'greater' cause only rarely embraces them ...
"The inspiring uprisings and revolutions taking place in many Arab-speaking states are taking the world to a whole new level. Many of us, queers and women, are part of the struggle for this 'greater' cause, we are at the front-line, behind the barricade ... We are there fighting as we face patriarchal and heteronormative rules like everywhere else in the world. We are there despite the 'greater movement' failing us sometimes, and we continue to be there."
Leil-Zahra's impatience is understandable and his arguments are quite persuasive. On the other hand, though it's not yet clear what the National Gay Day will entail, there is a serious risk that without careful planning it could do more harm than good.
It's worth noting that before Helem (the Lebanese LGBT organisation) came fully into the open it made a point of building alliances with other civil society groups in the country. Without non-LGBT support there's a danger of being isolated and crushed and it's doubtful whether such support exists in Egypt.
Also, it isn't necessarily a choice between holding a Gay Day and doing nothing. There are other, less risky, ways of campaigning. For instance, organising events around IDAHO, the
International Day Against
Homophobia, can be an effective way of raising gay rights issues in countries where more in-your-face activities (such as pride parades) are likely to be seen as too provocative.
A few years ago, when working on Unspeakable
Love, my book about gay and lesbian life in the Middle East, I asked an Egyptian activist: "If the was one thing you could do that would make the biggest difference for gay people in Egypt, what would it be?"
His answer surprised me: "I would sort out the psychiatrists."
He went on to explain that there is no psychiatrist in Egypt who is willing to stand up and say in public that homosexuality is not an illness. Many of them also treat it as such and even claim to "cure" it.
It does seem to me that tackling practical issues
such as this this could be one of the keys. If a few respected medical professionals in Egypt can be persuaded to refute the "illness" idea, then attitudes among the public will begin to change and we shall start to see some progress.
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 17 November 2011.
After some delay, the definitive results in Tunisia's hung election were announced earlier this week. There are some minor changes (the Ennahda party has 89 seats out of 217 one less than originally reported).
The Tunisia Live website has produced useful a graphic showing a breakdown of the parties in the assembly and by region. There is also a
tabulated list of parties, with the number of seats and votes cast in their
With Egyptian elections due to start on November 28, the Arabist blog has
a chart of the competing parties which places them on left/right and religious/secular axes. There are 42 parties, 31 of them new.
The full chart (here) also provides a brief description of each party and the name of its leader, plus links to party websites and Facebook pages.
Meanwhile, the Jadaliyya blog is promising "the most comprehensive coverage of the critical Egyptian elections". In what appears to be
the first of numerous
articles, it says:
"For many observers, these elections signify a historic moment for Egyptians and a monumental step in their so-called transition to democracy ... For others, this event reflects the persistence of a political practice that Mubarak instituted long before his demise, namely the convening of elections with a view to impose a fa็ade of democratic openness on a reality devoid of any democratic openness."
Attracting rather less attention than either Tunisia or Egypt, Morocco is due to go to the polls on November 25. These will be the first parliamentary elections under the new constitution that was approved by a referendum in July.
Adria Lawrence discusses the background in an article for Foreign Policy. Al-Arabiya
reports that some activists are threatening a boycott amid predictions of a low turnout. Many Moroccans appear to see little point in voting because the king still holds so much power.
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 17 November 2011.
Arab League woken up?
The Arab League's sudden involvement with the Syrian uprising has prompted two starkly contrasting articles about its significance. One argues that the league is emerging as a new voice for Arabism, the other that it
is simply a tool of western imperialism.
According to Joseph Massad of Columbia University, in
an article for al-Jazeera's website, the league's intervention means the Syrian revolution is already doomed. "In light of the new move by the Arab League, the US, and Europe," he says, "the struggle to overthrow Asad may very well succeed, but the struggle to bring about a democratic regime in Syria has been thoroughly defeated."
Considering that the Assad regime hasn't even gone yet and that there is almost
universal uncertainty about what might follow, the defeat of democracy
in Syria may seem a startlingly premature assumption but it fits Massad's general view of the world a world in which the United States pulls all the strings and just about everyone else is a powerless victim of American machinations. (Russia and China are completely ignored in Massad's
It follows from this, at least according to Massad, that in taking a stand against the Syrian regime (and earlier against the Gaddafi regime in Libya) the Arab League has done nothing more than act at American's bidding:
"In the cases of Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain, and Yemen ... the Arab League,
under US instructions, made no move to intervene at all, while in the cases of Syria and Libya,
following US instructions, the league moved swiftly."
Massad's problem which he shares with others who detect the hand of western imperialism behind almost everything they disapprove of is that he fails to see how the world is changing.
Certainly no one should underestimate the continuing power of the United States, but we shouldn't overestimate it either. All countries pursue their own interests to the extent that they are able and some including the US are better placed than others to do so.
If there's one lesson to be drawn from the Arab Spring, though, it's that the old policies no longer work (even Henry Kissinger has said as much) and Washington's ability to influence events is steadily declining.
Today, too, the idea that the US will always favour a pliant dictator over more democratic but
perhaps less pliant alternatives is increasingly being challenged though Massad doesn't seem to have noticed.
"If you live in an Arab country whose dictator is a client of the Americans," he writes, "the US will do everything in its power to suppress your revolt." Well, that wasn't true in Tunisia where the Americans showed little hesitation in dumping Ben Ali once it became clear he was in serious trouble, or in Egypt where they abandoned Mubarak despite having invested billions of dollars over the years in keeping his regime afloat.
Pointing out that the CIA backed a coup in Syria 62 years ago (as Massad does) is really no guide to America's current
Meanwhile in the Lebanese Daily Star, Rami Khouri interprets the Arab League's latest moves not as an American-inspired plot but as a case of reclaiming what had previously been surrendered to foreign powers a "rebirth and reassertion of Arab sovereignty, will and influence within the Arab world".
The league, Khouri says, is trying to "pull back from the brink of irrelevance and play a meaningful political role that responds to the sentiments and values of the Arab people, whose sovereign will should and can shape state policies".
The key change, as he points out, is that the long-standing taboo on intervening (or meddling) in the internal affairs of other Arab states appears to have been broken at least "when there is a clear moral or political reason to do so that reflects the sentiments of a majority of Arab public opinion".
He suggests that Arab regimes may now be "starting to pay attention to the sentiments and values of their people".
I would like to think that he is right, but it's probably still too early to be sure. After boldly calling for a no-fly zone over Libya, the league seemed to lose its nerve and started back-pedalling. It's also unclear whether the league's stand over Syria is attributable mainly to popular opinion or to Arab rulers' perceptions of their own interests.
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 16 November 2011.
Yemen and Reuters
If you follow the news from Yemen you have almost certainly come across reports from Reuters' long-serving correspondent in Sana'a, Mohamed Sudam.
You may not have been aware, though, that over many years he has also combined his work for one of the world's leading news agencies with another
job as President Saleh's English-speaking interpreter.
Inside Yemen, Sudam's dual role has never been
much of a secret and has rarely aroused more than a passing comment, but recently it has been attracting wider attention through a Facebook page (Shame on
Reuters) and a Twitter hashtag of the same name.
Last month Sudam was briefly kidnapped by forces affiliated to the defected general, Ali Mohsen al-Ahmar, and later released in an exchange of prisoners. Al Mohsen later said
he didn't know that Sudam was a journalist only that he was president Saleh's interpreter. Meanwhile, a report of the incident on the government's
26 September website did not mention
Sudam's job as presidential interpreter only that he was a Reuters reporter.
Sudam has been photographed at the president's side in numerous high-level meetings and it might of course be argued that this gives the Reuters correspondent special (even privileged) insight into what is going on.
At the same time, though, it surely creates difficulties for Sudam in deciding what he can or cannot report. Ultimately, it raises the question of whether he can effectively serve two masters.
For instance, might he be at risk of losing his interpreting job if something he wrote for Reuters offended the
Reuters appears to have devised a kind of semi-solution to this problem by making it difficult to tell which parts of its reports from Yemen even those carrying Sudam's byline have actually been written by Sudam himself.
For example, one recent story about the conflict in Yemen carries a note at the end saying: "Reporting by Mohamed Sudam; Writing by Angus McDowall and Isabel Coles; Editing by Andrew Roche." In other words, Sudam is not solely responsible for the article's content. There's an implication that others have checked it for any pro-government leanings, while Sudam can presumably blame the work of colleagues if any of its content upsets the president.
Some of those complaining accuse Reuters of bias in favour of the government. But even if they are wrong about that, it still leaves Sudam in an invidious position. Most self-respecting news organisations would judge that his dual role as independent journalist and presidential interpreter gives rise, at the very least, to potential conflicts of interest.
Sudam really ought to decide which of his two jobs he values more and ditch the other one.
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 15 November 2011.
the burning of the boats
For the second time this year, the Arab League usually regarded as one of the world's most ineffectual and divided organisations has shown a surprising sense of
unity and purpose with regard to one of its own members' behaviour.
In March it called for a no-fly zone over Libya and now it has decided to
The suspension vote on Saturday was opposed only by
Lebanon, Yemen and Syria itself, with Iraq abstaining giving a solid majority of 18 votes in favour.
This was the first time such action had been taken since 1979, when Egypt was suspended for making peace with Israel.
Syria undoubtedly has a point when it says the
decision is in breach of the Arab League's
charter. The charter, promulgated in 1945, is obsessed with protecting members' national sovereignty and article 8 spells it out very clearly:
"Each member-state shall respect the systems of government established in the other member-states and regard them as exclusive concerns of those states. Each shall pledge to abstain from any action calculated to change
established systems of government."
On that basis, it's difficult to see how the league can justify its action legally, except by force of circumstance: that it's better for Arab states, collectively, to try to put their house in order than to stand by and leave it to outsiders.
Having reached this stage, however, Assad's protests about sovereignty ring somewhat hollow. He undermined them himself earlier by engaging with the league over its "peace plan" and agreeing to its provisions (which he has since made no serious effort to implement) so he can scarcely object now if they punish him for breaking his word.
There is also a certain irony in seeing the league, which is still at root a dictators' club, attacking one of its own kind. Many have pointed out on Twitter that the league still seems unwilling to tackle other murderous regimes in its midst, such as those of Yemen, Bahrain and Sudan. That is not an argument for inaction over Syria but it does reflect a double standard. If we ask "Why Syria?", a large part of the answer is that Sunni rulers, especially in the Gulf, are fearful of Iran and Syria is Iran's principal Arab ally.
The big question, of course, is what impact the league's decision will have on the situation.
First, it makes a mockery of Assad's claims that the uprising is some kind of American/Zionist plot against his regime. He may well try to make out that the Arab League has been nobbled by Americans and Zionists too but, even for the Assad loyalists, that would surely be stretching credulity too far.
Secondly, in the light of such a clear Arab consensus, Russia and China may find it more difficult to continue resisting tougher sanctions against Syria in the UN security council.
Finally, in the wake of Syria's suspension, the Arab League is talking of developing its incipient ties with the opposition and trying to help unify it. If it does go down that road (and we can't
be certain at present that it will), the anti-Assad forces inside the country would receive a huge boost
psychologically at least and perhaps in practical ways too.
Beyond that, though, and perhaps most important of all, the league's decision implies that Arab states no longer expect Assad to survive. Theoretically, he could be rehabilitated in the unlikely event that he complies with the "peace plan" but, for all practical purposes, 18 of the league's 22 members have now burnt their boats and are beginning to prepare for the post-Assad era.
That doesn't mean the regime's fall is imminent but, if we couple all this with the growing economic pressures (here and
here), its position is looking more precarious than at any time since the uprising began.
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 13 November 2011.
Egyptian NGOs boycott constitution talks
Several prominent human rights groups in Egypt have turned down an invitation from the authorities to take part in discussions about the constituent assembly which will draft a new constitution. They say the government and the ruling military council must first "prove their respect for the dignity and rights of the Egyptian people".
Here is the text of their
"The undersigned human rights organizations refuse to participate in the meeting called today by Dr. Ali Salmi, Deputy Prime Minister for Political Development and Democratic Transition, in order to discuss criteria for selecting a Constituent Assembly to draft the constitution. We refuse to attend any other meetings of this kind until the government of Dr. Essam Sharaf and the military council prove their respect for the dignity and rights of the Egyptian people. Under this government and military council, thousands have been subjected to unjust military trials, and torture has increased whilst perpetrators go unpunished. Smear campaigns have targeted the very civil society organizations which helped uncover and address the crimes of the former dictator Hosni Mubarak apparently in revenge for their concern for the dignity and rights of the Egyptian people.
"From the moment Mubarak was overthrown, these groups have welcomed opportunities to cooperate and dialogue with the Egyptian government, which promised to defend the gains of the Revolution and to build a new democratic Egyptian state based on justice and the rule of law. Yet the Egyptian government, and the military council which is de facto running the country, have turned their backs on the Egyptian people's demands for a just state. They have launched a systematic campaign against those who defend democracy. Thousands of Egyptians face more crude violations by the military police, whether it be torture or military trials which lack even the basic elements of justice and fairness. The military establishment has committed even worse violations than those which took place under Mubarak the so-called 'virginity tests' inflicted upon women and girls.
In spite of all the military council's promises to investigate these practices which run counter to the values of the Revolution and to human rights, we have not yet seen any announcement of the results of these investigations, if they were even conducted in the first place. Several months ago, the Egyptian government began defaming and discrediting civil society organizations. Those ministers most actively involved are those closest to the Mubarak regime, most of them not above reproach themselves.
"All this is in the light of ongoing formal discussions whose results have never been announced; whatever happens in them is apparently forgotten or disregarded before people leave the meeting room. They can only be considered attempts to fool the Egyptian people into thinking that the government and the military council is engaging with and listening to the views of writers, political representatives, and figures in civil society. These are used to give a veneer of legitimacy to their practices, most of which are contrary to what has been reached in these meetings.
"The undersigned human rights organizations say: 'We established our credibility with the Egyptian people through years of hard work resisting the dictatorship and addressing practices which violated human rights. Regardless of the military council and government's position towards us, we will not participate in discussions which, ten months after the fall of Mubarak, begin to look less and less serious. It is out of question to discuss a constituent assembly to draft the constitution with the government and military council. Their prisons are packed with hundreds, if not thousands, of citizens. Their people have paid the price for a society which respects the rights and dignity of humans with the blood of their children. And members of this government and council continue to evade punishment for their crimes, falsehoods, and incitement against the Egyptian people'."
Arab Network for Human Rights Information.
Nadim Center for the Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence.
Hisham Mubarak Law Center.
Egyptian Center for Economic and Social Rights.
Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights.
Association for Freedom of Thought and Expression.
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 11 November 2011.
East headlines, 11 November
US seeks to cool down Iran war talk (BBC)
Tunisia unemployment tops 18% (Magharebia)
Israeli court upholds sex charges against ex-president Katsav
Egyptian NGOs refuse to meet authorities for talks on constitution
Article: Jadaliyya blog catalogues abuses by Egypt's military council
The future of tyranny (2)
Following my blog post yesterday, I received this comment from an Arab journalist (who asked not to be identified because of relatives living in Saudi Arabia):
I certainly agree with your cautious and calculated approach to the Arab Spring, especially your description that "it is a gradual awakening which began long before the events of Sid Bouzid".
I am writing to contextualise Fandy's argument within the Saudi campaign against Arab Revolutions (except Syria's, for now). At every possible event and platform, the Saudis have someone to articulate every demoralising cultural argument out there.
Fandy's scepticism relates more to the Saudi stance; he has been a long-time defender of Saudi politics in Washington. He led the
scathing Saudi attack on Heikal, "accused him of arrogance and going beyond the limits of political politesse for attacking the 'Arab peace initiative' launched under Saudi sponsorship in March 2007 and describing Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak a close Saudi ally of 'living in a world of fantasy'."
Most recently, Fandy defended the Saudi royal family against American criticism, even went
so far as to say that the "pledge of allegiance" [to king and crown
prince] is "a clear popular referendum".
It is not only Fandy. This is a trend in the Saudi-owned and run media outlets. Of course, there is a long way ahead, we have to face our structural problems and mini-Mubaraks, as you mentioned; but the forces of change's biggest challenge stems from the intentionally pessimistic and demoralising dictators in the Arab media, especially in the dominating pan-Arab (either Saudi or Qatari owned/sponsored).
From supporting Salafis (who waved Saudi flags in Cairo) in Tunisia and Egypt, to financing sectarian propaganda in Syria, to offering Saleh a lifeline through time-buying initiatives and subsidies in Yemen, Saudi Arabia is proving to be the leading enemy of change in the Arab world.
Some further explanation seems to be in order here, especially
since one or two readers have got the idea that I was agreeing with
Fandy. I wasn't at least not entirely. I thought he had made some valid observations about the Arab Spring but I disagreed with the conclusions he drew from them and tried, at the end of the post, to explain why I thought he was wrong.
It's clear that Saudi Arabia is rapidly emerging as the main counter-revolutionary force in the region and it's also easy to see how Fandy's article might serve the kingdom's political agenda. But I think it would be unwise to dismiss his arguments simply
because of their provenance.
Almost every day I come across remarks, somewhere on the internet, suggesting that the Arab Spring will turn out to be little more than a reshuffling of tyrants. There are also plenty of other articles taking a gloomy view of the situation for example Hussein Agha and Robert Malley on
The Arab Counterrevolution in the New York Review of Books.
The fears they raise are not without foundation. Look, for instance, at the behaviour of Egypt's military council since the fall of Mubarak, or the way Yemen's protesters have been sidelined by tribal/military conflict.
It's no good ignoring these setbacks. They have to be acknowledged and confronted. But the fact the Arab Spring is not moving forward steadily and smoothly on all fronts is no reason to pronounce it a failure. We have to take a long view and, as I've said before, in the long run change is inevitable.
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 11 November 2011.
The future of
Under the headline "The future of tyranny", Mamoun Fandy asks some searching questions about the Arab Spring
in an article for Asharq
"The talk about the future of tyranny, its manifestations, branches, and the extent of its longevity in various forms has not started yet in earnest," he says. "This is because our region is still submerged in the euphoria of the revolution ..."
Fandy, who is a senior fellow International Institute for Strategic Studies in London, argues that the Arab Spring will not represent a break from tyranny heralding democratic change, but a mutation of tyranny. He writes:
"The concept of dictatorship in our countries has not been limited to the acts of an individual as we thought, or the result of concentrating power within the centralised government. Rather, the concept dictatorship in the Middle East is more widespread ...
"The dictatorship in Egypt was a complete system built upon sturdy pillars, from the father at home all the way to the head of the village, the chairman of the district, the governor, up to the head of state. Society became saturated with dictatorship, and entire currents were immersed in it, whether they were Islamic or secular.
"Former President Hosni Mubarak, the Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood, and the chairman of the Egyptian Communist Party were all cut from the same cloth."
Fandy is certainly right about the nature of tyranny in the Arab countries. A point I made repeatedly in my book,
What's Really Wrong with the Middle
East, is that dictators are a symptom of the problem rather than the problem itself.
Toppling them is an important step but Arab society is riddled at all levels with
Fandy also notes that the Arab Spring has so far left "tribal and family loyalties and the priority of blood relations" largely intact:
"What has happened is that the families and tribes have dressed themselves up in the cloak of revolutions in Yemen and in Libya, and in Egypt the opposition consists of tribes rather than concepts ...
"If you dismantle the projects of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Islamist groups to their bare bones, you would find specific tribes and families against other tribes and families using Islam as a cover, and this has nothing to do with Islam other than a veneer that covers the ugly face of tribal interests."
Fandy does say "This does not mean that tyranny is our fate," but his idea that what we are seeing is nothing more than a mutation of tyrannies seems unduly pessimistic: "Whoever came out of the mosque will return to the mosque, and whoever emerged from the tribe will certainly go back to the tribe."
This may be true in the short term but it misunderstands the nature of the Arab Spring which has been characterised in the media as a series of struggles against unpopular leaders. To some extent, that is what it is or at least what it has been for most of this year.
But I prefer to regard it as a gradual awakening which began long before the events of Sid Bouzid and will continue long after the departures of Ben Ali, Mubarak, Gaddafi, Assad, Saleh,
et al. It's about a fundamental change in the way Arabs especially the younger ones perceive themselves and their capabilities, and about establishing a new kind of relationship with those who have
hitherto controlled their lives, whether in the home, the school, the workplace or the palace.
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 10 November 2011.
East headlines, 10 November
US diplomat says Arab leaders are offering asylum to Syrias Assad
Syrian opposition group pelted with eggs in Cairo
Palestinians braced for fresh setback in UN statehood bid
Russia rejects further sanctions of Iran over nuclear programme
Egypt: Nour (Salafist) party coordinates election strategy with Brotherhood; replaces photos
of female candidates with a rose (Al-Masry
East headlines, 9 November
Document: IAEA report on Iran's nuclear programme
Juan Cole: The road to further sanctions against Iran appears to be blocked
Yemen: EU to discuss freezing President Saleh's assets
Money "streaming out" of Syria (Financial
Tunisian court approves extradition of former Libyan prime minister
endless road to reform
How stable is Jordan? That is the question addressed in
a new report from the Brookings Doha Centre. In common with many of its regional neighbours, Jordan has witnessed street protests since the Arab Spring began, but nothing on a dramatic scale, and King Abdullah has been trying to fend of serious trouble with the usual promises of gradual reform.
Last month, the king replaced his prime minister for the
ninth time during his 12-year reign once again building up hopes of change. But in
an article for The Atlantic, Shadi Hamid (co-author of the Brookings report) points out that the prime minister, whatever his abilities, "can't be Jordan's solution because the prime minister isn't really the problem".
"The prime minister is appointed by the king usually with minimal consultation and serves at his pleasure. He has limited powers and operates within a claustrophobic political structure in which the monarchy, the royal court (with a staff of more than a thousand), and the intelligence services dominate."
But the revolving door to the prime minister's
office also serves a deeper purpose:
"The Jordanian monarchy appears to use its government to provide a buffer between the king and the public. The government provides useful scapegoats when things go awry.
"In a way, this benefits both the rulers and ruled alike. The public can let out steam and call for the downfall of the government (hukuma) rather than the regime (nizam). The regime listens and replaces the government. The regime stays intact, offering the illusion of change with little of the substance."
The Brookings report itself looks in more detail at the king's "half-hearted" attempts at reform as well as examining Jordan's political dynamics.
There does seem to be a substantial body of opinion, especially among senior
officials in Jordan, that if turmoil is to be avoided change must be gradual. At the same time,
though, the report detects growing signs of impatience from the public, "particularly as economic conditions continue deteriorating for the Jordanian underclass".
Despite the demographic and economic challenges, plus Islamist agitation and the effects of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on its doorstep, Jordan has so far confounded fears that it could explode at any moment. But that is no guarantee for the future: this time last year the regimes of Tunisia and Libya were regarded as much more secure and now both of them are gone.
As a "friendly" and "moderate" Arab state, Jordan often gets a better press in the west than it deserves, and the report ends by suggesting the US should stop promoting it as a "model" for economic and political reform:
"This may have been acceptable before the Arab Spring, but it no longer is. Jordans stability is no longer guaranteed, particularly as economic conditions worsen. After the events in Tunisia and Egypt, Jordanians are looking for actions, not just words having heard the words too many times before.
"While they have not yet reached a critical mass, opposition forces, including Islamists, leftists, and youth movements, have slowly grown more emboldened. For the first time in decades, they are challenging the monarchys grip on power. Their deference toward the king persists, but it will not last for ever."
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 8 November 2011.
East headlines, 8 November
Tunisia: Al-Nahda to limit role of religion in new constitution
Clinton says US ready to work with Islamist groups
Fierce battle in Homs; Syria accuses US; opposition call for international protection
Israel denies that Anonymous hacked attacked its websites
US releases $200m aid to Palestinians (al-Arabiya)
Arabia: imitation versus innovation
In an outspoken column for Arab News, Saudi journalist Samar Fatany calls for a revival of
ijtihad the practice of independent interpretation of Islamic scripture. This may sound like ordinary common sense but in the Saudi context it's highly controversial and goes to the heart of the kingdom's religious problems.
Centuries ago, the "doors of ijtihad" were gradually closed by scholars who didn't like the way scripture was being interpreted. Thereafter, new interpretations were regarded as "innovation" and frowned upon.
In its place, taqlid ("imitation") came to the fore which basically means accepting the decisions of earlier religious scholars without questioning the scriptural evidence on which they were based.
The result, in its most extreme form, can be seen in Saudi Arabia today where scholars are instinctively suspicious of anything new and invoke
taqlid as a justification for opposing change. Inevitably, this insistence on
taqlid leaves them ill-equipped to give intelligent opinions on a wide range of contemporary ethical questions.
In her article, Fatany contrasts this with the more flexible approach of some other scholars outside Saudi Arabia:
"The economic and social reality of contemporary life has created many complicated problems for Muslims living in the United States. They had financial and social difficulties and needed direction from a Muslim religious authority.
"Ultimately the Councils of Muslim Scholars in Europe and the United States decreed that it was permissible for Muslims residing in the West to buy houses with mortgages and to pay interest on these loans. Although this was contrary to Shariah law that forbids charging and paying interest, the Muslim scholars gave their consent declaring that it was a necessary rule for Muslims to meet their financial and social needs in the West."
"Conservative scholars need to be reminded that Shariah law is based on two basic principles, mainly that what is basically beneficial is permitted and what is basically harmful is prohibited. Shariah law is based on the principle that always adopts the easier alternative after comparing a few of the available relevant cases; therefore, the general rule for interpretation includes the removal of the rigid or the doubtful and applying a balance between the two.
"It is time to eliminate the weak Hadith and derive rulings only from the authentic ones. We cannot continue to allow only one legal authority on the interpretation of Shariah laws or recognize only one absolute judgment on judicial issues. Moderate scholars maintain that there could be more than one answer resulting from
'ijtihad' on a particular issue each ruling depending on the circumstances surrounding the situation."
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 7 November 2011.
East headlines, 7 November
IAEA may have uncovered evidence of nuclear weapons research by Iran
Arab League emergency meeting as Syria ignores peace plan
Israeli government websites hit by suspected cyber-attack
Syrian exile, Burhan Ghalioun, seeks to unify opposition in Eid speech
'progress' on human rights
Largely unnoticed in the midst of other events, it was the turn of Syria to
come up for scrutiny by the UN Human Rights Council last month, under the periodic review system.
As part of the review process each country has to submit a
self-assessment report describing its efforts in the human rights field, and the Assad regime's
26-page submission makes interesing reading.
It begins with a rant:
"In recent months, the Syrian Arab Republic has been subjected to a series of criminal attacks against the nation and the people by armed terrorist groups ... The groups involved have committed offences against the Syrian people, and acts of theft, murder and vandalism. They have also exploited peaceful demonstrations in order to create anarchy, strike a blow at national unity and destroy the social fabric of the nation ...
"These terrorist acts have been accompanied by a concerted misinformation campaign that has been waged by Arab and international media. The campaign began with the fabrication of stories about events in the Syrian Arab Republic with advanced visual and communications technology being used to show fake footage, allegedly of events unfolding in the Syrian Arab Republic."
There's plenty more along these lines but I'm sure you've got the general idea.
Despite these developments "and the grief that the nation feels for the victims of terrorism",
the submission continues, "the Syrian Government decided to meet its responsibility for preparing its report ..."
"With this report, the Syrian Arab Republic hopes to provide a comprehensive
overview of the human rights situation in the country and a clear picture of tangible gains
scored, of difficulties encountered and of future goals and aspirations."
Plunging into the report proper, it informs the UN:
"The Syrian Arab Republic is on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean and is
bounded by Turkey in the north, Iraq in the east, Palestine and Jordan in the south and
Lebanon and the Mediterranean Sea in the west. The surface area of the Syrian Arab Republic is 185,180 sq km ..."
The report does in fact talk at some length about "grave violations" of human rights,
including "the worst forms of physical and psychological torture", along with violations of economic, cultural and educational rights but in this regard it is referring to the Golan Syrian territory occupied by Israel since 1967.
In the rest of Syria, controlled by the benevolent Assad regime, the picture is much better at least, according to the government's
"Liberty is a sacred right that is safeguarded by the Constitution and the
law" (paragraph 27).
"A human rights syllabus is taught in relevant educational establishments for
example, at law faculties for first-year university students" (paragraph 42).
"Freedom of expression in the Syrian Arab Republic is protected under the Constitution and the law. The law grants all citizens the right to express their views freely and openly in the spoken or written word or by any other means. Citizens may participate in making constructive criticisms. The exercise of this freedom is subject only to such restrictions as are provided for by law and are necessary for respect for the rights and liberties of others or for the protection of national security, public order, public health or public morals" (paragraph 45).
"Legislative Decree No. 50 of 2001 ... grants citizens the right to publish privately-owned newspapers. A total of 175 print media firms have been licensed in the Syrian Arab Republic, together with upwards of 625 publishing houses; they all operate in complete freedom. In addition, media correspondents are issued with work permits and all the Arab and foreign media have opened up offices in the country" (paragraph 46).
"The right to peaceful assembly is afforded under the Syrian Constitution ... in
accordance with recognised international standards and the practice followed in most
countries. The decree states that the right to peaceful protest is afforded to citizens as a
fundamental human right ..." (paragraph 51).
It also points out that "the courts are required to engage defence counsel to represent defendants who have
committed a serious crime but cannot afford counsel or enlist the services of a lawyer" (paragraph 34). Maybe that's just a Freudian slip, or perhaps the regime really is so generous that it provides suspects with lawyers even when it has already decided they are
Exactly what the Human Rights Council made of all this remains to be
seen, since its conclusions have yet to be posted on the UN website, though apparently it made 179 recommendations, of which 98 were accepted by Syria.
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 5 November 2011.
death from natural causes?
It's not every day that the President's Office of the Bahrain Information Affairs Authority of goes to the trouble of sending me an email informing me that one of the kingdom's more elderly citizens has died of a heart attack but it happened yesterday.
Ali Hassan Al-Daihi, aged 78, "had reportedly fainted at home and injured his lower lip," the email said.
Mr Daihi was taken to hospital, "fully conscious and said to be in a stable condition". He medical file
showed he had been suffering from heart problems and he underwent an echocardiography test "but was later admitted to the Intensive Care Unit after suffering a heart attack just before midnight on Wednesday. He died of a heart attack and hypertension early yesterday morning."
There is, however, a reason why people might be interested in the cause of Mr Daihi's death hence the email. He was the father of Hussein al-Daihi, secretary-general of the opposition al-Wefaq party, and the party says he died of wounds inflicted by the riot police.
His funeral was held yesterday and according to Reuters teargas was used when demonstrators clashed with the security forces. The authorities also reportedly blocked roads in an effort to prevent people from attending the funeral.
On Friday, the US State Department called for "full transparency" in investigating what happened to Mr Daihi and urged everyone to "exercise restraint". "We understand that in connection with the circumstances of the father's death, the family has now filed a criminal complaint with the Bahraini police," a spokeswoman said.
Posted by Brian Whitaker, 5 November 2011.