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US visa for Saleh?

There were numerous reports in the US media on Monday about President Saleh's proposed trip to the United States. This has put the Obama administration on the spot, since it risks being accused of condoning Saleh's crimes by allowing him in.

The official White House line at the moment is that if Saleh is granted a visa it will be for "legitimate medical treatment" and nothing else. Saleh, however, has already denied that he wants to go for medical reasons. Last weekend he told reporters:

"I will go to the United States. Not for treatment, because I’m fine, but to get away from attention, cameras, and allow the unity government to prepare properly for elections.

"I’ll be there for several days, but I’ll return because I won’t leave my people and comrades who have been steadfast for 11 months."

So, if Saleh says he has no need for medical treatment and the US says medical treatment is the only possible reason for granting him a visa, it ought to be a no-brainer: he can't travel to the United States.

That's unlikely to be the end of the story, though. According to the New York Times, there has been "vigorous internal debate" within the Obama administration about Saleh's visa. This suggests that at least some officials believe another period without Saleh in Yemen would facilitate implementation of the GCC's "transition" plan. Possibly they also think that having him in the US rather than, say, Saudi Arabia (where he went for treatment following the assassination attempt in June) would give them more control over the situation. For example, they might be able to restrict (or monitor) his communications with Yemen.

The counter-argument is that accepting him in the US would send the wrong kind of signal at a critical juncture, especially in the light of the Yemeni parliament's moves to grant him immunity from prosecution. Saleh would almost certainly try to exploit a US visit as evidence of American support.

Even if the Yemeni parliament grants him immunity, it would have no legal force outside Yemen – which raises some interesting possibilities for lawsuits against him in the US. In that context, it's worth noting that Ernesto Zedillo, the former president of Mexico, is currently being sued in the US by the relatives of villagers who were massacred in Mexico in 1997.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 27 December 2011. Comment.

Yemen: a new era of illegitimacy

After an interlude caused by months on political turmoil, Yemen's illegitimate parliament resumed business on Saturday when the new power-sharing government presented its programme. Judging by the account in the Yemen Times, its re-opening session was a shambolic affair, interrupted by power cuts and with many members chatting amongst themselves as the new prime minister spoke.

Shots were exchanged outside between supporters of President Saleh and the opposition, while forces commanded by Saleh's son and nephew guarded the building. Armed tribal militias also stood around the building carrying Kalashnikovs and bazookas, according to the Yemen Times. 

The parliament – which no longer has a legal mandate – was elected for a six-year term in 2003, with Saleh's General People's Congress party winning an overwhelming majority of 238 out of 301 seats. In 2009 parliament voted to extend its term for a further two years but no new elections were held, as required, in April this year.

One of the first decisions taken by the reconvened parliament at the weekend was an unconstitutional one. It voted "by consensus" to 
close nominations for February's presidential election. This means that vice-president Hadi will be the only candidate – contrary to the constitution which stipulates that there must be at least two candidates. Bizarrely, the Yemen Observer reports that provincial committees have now started work planning the security and voting arrangements for this non-election.

It is expected that one of parliament's next moves will be to grant immunity from prosecution to President Saleh and other (as yet unnamed) members of his entourage.

Preventing this immunity deal was the main goal of the five-day "Life March" from Ta'izz to Sana'a which ended in the capital on Saturday with at least 13 of the protesters being killed. Tear gas and sewage, as well as live bullets, were also used to disperse the march.

As a result, some of the protesters' wrath is now directed against Vice-President Hadi who is seen as merely "a tool in the hands" of Saleh. Gerald Feierstein, the US ambassador in Sana'a (who some protesters describe as a "viceroy") has also been heavily criticised for reportedly saying that the Life March was "not to carry out a peaceful march, but to get access to Sana'a in order to generate chaos and provoke a violent response by the security forces".

Meanwhile Saleh has said he plans to travel to the United States, not for medical treatment as some reports have suggested, but "to get away from attention, cameras, and allow the unity government to prepare properly for elections".

It is unclear when he intends to go, or how long he will stay, but this does raise questions as to whether the US should receive him. If he is allowed into the US without threat of prosecution the Americans will, in effect, be conniving with the immunity deal.

No one can dispute the depth of the political crisis in Yemen but over-riding the constitution and the law is not the way out of it, and citing force majeure is a feeble excuse. If the goal is a new era of peace and democracy, those in charge have to begin as they intend to carry on – by observing the law and the constitution. Otherwise, expedients that start off as temporary are liable to become permanent, as happened many times under President Saleh.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 26 December 2011. Comment.

Muddying the waters in Syria

It is possible but – on the basis of what is known so far – not particularly probable that the explosions in Damascus on Friday were the work of al-Qaeda or elements of the Syrian opposition. What cannot be disputed, though, is that the "attacks" provide support for the regime's official line about the nature of the uprising.

As Martin Chulov puts it in an article for the Guardian:

"Any sorrow for the victims must surely be mitigated by the fact that the incidents fit straight into the official narrative: anti-regime activists weren't peaceful protesters wanting reform after all, and talk of peaceful change was always a veneer for the stalking horse of al-Qaeda. Regime officials have made this their mantra since violence started to escalate in late summer."

It is also beyond dispute that the timing is remarkably apposite: just as Arab League monitors have begun arriving in Syria.

Does this mean that the regime staged the "attacks" itself? There are certainly grounds for suspicion, though as yet there is no firm evidence to support that conclusion.

Either way, the truth may never be definitively established. All that matters for the regime, though, is that it should not be conclusively proved guilty, even if it cannot be fully exonerated.

Writing for this blog on Tuesday, I quoted a prediction from the Syrian dissident, Ammar Abdulhamid, saying that the regime's need at the moment is to muddy the waters for the Arab League's observer mission. That is what Friday's explosions have done, very effectively, and we can expect more of that before their mission is over.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 22 December 2011. Comment.

Just too much

I have written before about Matt Lauer of Qorvis, the American PR firm with a $40,000-a-month contract to spruce up the Bahraini government's tarnished image.

Mr Lauer was on Twitter yesterday, complaining about excessive use of exclamation marks by bloggers. What a pity he doesn't feel the same way about the regime's excesses in Bahrain!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 22 December 2011. Comment.

Syria: the clock is ticking

The collapse of the Assad regime was never going to be swift. Since the early days of the uprising last March, my feeling all along was that it wouldn't happen this year. And even if it were to happen tomorrow, the opposition is sill far from ready to take over. 

Next year, though, is a different matter. Twelve months from now, it's hard to imagine that Assad will still be clinging on. Barring a Libya-style military intervention, which at present seems very unlikely as well as unwise, there are three main factors that will determine how long it takes.

The first is the strength – or weakness – of the regime's support base. Broadly, these are the Alawites who represent 12%-15% of Syria's population. But in an article for Foreign Policy, Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith (authors of The Dictator's Handbook) argue that Assad's "key backers" number no more than 3,600. These are the people whose loyalty is essential to keep him in power, and who will stay loyal only so long as he looks after their interests:

"If he betrays the interests of his closest Alawite allies, for instance by implementing reforms that will dilute their share of the spoils, they will probably murder him before any protesters can topple his regime ... Should the loyalty of his 3,600 supporters falter and they stop working to neutralise protest, Assad will be gone immediately."

This means that reforms, on a scale that would satisfy the protesters (including renouncing the supremacy of the Baath party), are not a practical option for Assad. At the same time, he has to continue delivering economically for his support base – which is proving increasingly difficult.

The second factor, noted by Joshua Landis on the Syria Comment blog, is "the steady erosion of state authority and national institutions, as the opposition, which remains largely organised on a local basis undermines central authority at many points". 

Landis continues:

"Neighbourhood committees and armed groups are forming in ever greater number. Most use the word 'coordinating' in their title, but few relinquish local authority. They prefer to keep decision-making local and in their own hands. 

"Some of this is for practical reasons. Spies are everywhere. I am told by good sources that one of the leading reasons why Aleppo has been so quite is that the local coordinating committees recently discovered that their efforts to put together surprise demonstrations were being foiled by informants. One recent opposition statement admitted that their ranks have been riddled with informers."

The third – and perhaps most crucial – factor is the decline of Syria's economy which simultaneously threatens to weaken Assad's support base while spurring on the opposition.

Landis writes:

"The international community has isolated Syria and continues to tighten sanctions and force western companies to withdraw from the country, which is causing the economy to contract rapidly. Syria’s GDP has shrunk by almost 30% in dollar terms since the start of the year – from $55 billion to $37 billion dollars, as the Syrian pound has collapsed from 47 to 62 to a dollar. Heating oil has all but disappeared from the market place; people are cold. Cooking oil is scarce and electricity in many cities is cut for hours on end during peak usage periods."

To counter the effect of sanctions, the regime is getting some external support. Bueno de Mesquita and Smith point out that in July Iran offered $5bn in aid, with $1.5bn paid immediately: 

"The $5 billion is equal to about 40 percent of Syrian government revenue. Since the announcement of Arab League sanctions, Iran, Iraq, and Venezuela have signed agreements to expand trade and investment in Syria to the tune of more than $7bn in 2012, including building an oil refinery. 

"That is just what Assad's political-survival doctor ordered. This injection of cash in the short term is likely to keep the military and security forces on his side. The military core of his coalition is likely to do whatever it takes to keep the president in power as long as that money keeps on flowing."

So one question is how long this external support will continue. The Venezuelan president, Hugo Chavez, has been seriously ill and if he were to die that source could easily dry up. Iranian support cannot be taken for granted either. With or without Assad, Iran has to coexist with its Syrian neighbours. Once the Tehran regime decides that Assad is definitely on the way out, it will probably abandon him and start building bridges with his likely successors.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 21 December 2011. Comment.

NOTE: Because of a typing mistake, this article initially said that Iraq had offered $5bn aid to Syria. The country offering it was Iran, and this has now been corrected.

Assad buys more time

Syria finally agreed to the Arab League's "reconciliation" initiative on Monday. The fact that President Assad delegated the task of signing it to his deputy foreign minister, and that this happened on a day that brought the largest number of deaths since the uprising began – 114 according to latest reports – speaks volumes about the regime's attitude.

Key points of the plan are that Syria will (1) allow Arab monitors into the country, (2) withdraw the army from towns, (3) release political prisoners and (4) start a dialogue with the opposition. 

It is unlikely that much of this will actually happen. In the meantime, by accepting the deal, the regime has got the Arab League off its back, removing (temporarily at the very least) any threat of tougher action – and all at very little cost to itself. As Ammar Abdulhamid notes on his blog, "The signing will give Assad [a] few more weeks during which he can continue to kill with impunity."

The immediate issue now is the monitors. The current plan is to send them to Syria for a month (previously it was to be two months) though the period can be extended for a further month if both sides agree (which is improbable).

There is ample scope here for the Assad regime to argue and prevaricate – just as Saddam Hussein did earlier with the UN weapons inspectors.

According to the Syrian foreign minister, the observers will be "free" in their movements but "under the protection of the Syrian government" – which on past experience of the regime's idea of "protection" doesn't bode well at all.

Abdulhamid also foresees a Syrian attempt to sabotage the observers' mission by muddying the waters of their eventual report:

"Should the Assads succeed in seeding the group with monitors from Algeria, Sudan, Iraq and Lebanon, as some expect them to, then we can all expect a highly conflicted report to emerge in a month time that will reflect the ideological divides within the Arab League. The AL can then be relied upon, as always, to find new ways to stall, dither and waste time. Meanwhile, the killing will continue, and the situation on the ground will worsen."

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 20 December 2011. Comment.

Yemen: the frustrated revolution

With a new government sworn in and relative calm returning to the streets in Yemen, this seems an appropriate moment to take stock.

On Sunday, the Yemen Observer reported that sandbags and soil barriers were being removed as armed tribesmen, troops and armored vehicles withdrawn from parts of the capital, Sanaa. This, the paper said, is in line with a plan to make the military and security situation "as normal as it was before January 2011" when large-scale protests against President Saleh's rule first erupted.

Restoring the pre-January status quo (without Saleh as president, of course) is what the GCC's "transition" proposal is really about, and the rest of the international community seems happy to play along with it. Yemenis have gone through almost a year of mayhem – for what, exactly?

So far, all they have got is Saleh's signature formally handing his powers to Vice-President Hadi, while members of Saleh's family continue to hold key positions in the security apparatus. Meanwhile, Saleh – who officially retains his title for the time being – is doing his best to act presidentially. On Friday, it was Saleh rather than Hadi who sent the customary annual cable to King Hamad, congratulating him in Bahrain's national day. A day later, Hadi sent his own cable to Bahrain – not to the king but to the crown prince.

Even if Saleh is finally eased out of the presidency in February, when his successor is due to be elected, he and his family will still be around to haunt the political scene. There also appears to be a private understanding that Saleh and his cronies will not be prosecuted – at least while they remain in Yemen.

This makes Yemen's starting point a lot messier than in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya, where Ben Ali, Mubarak and Gaddafi were all removed from the scene before a transition got under way. In Tunisia and Egypt, the presidential parties were also dismantled; in Yemen, Saleh's General People's Congress party remains in government, temporarily sharing power on a 50-50 basis with a collection of opposition parties. 

Secondly, there are doubts about Hadi's ability to hold the country together. "Will he be able to direct military and security institutions in a coordinated, constructive way?" the Yemen Times asks. It's an important question, especially since other contenders for power (and their armed supporters) are likely to continue jostling for position.

Nor is Hadi's authority and legitimacy going to be enhanced if the presidential election in February turns out to be a shoe-in. Currently there is talk of Hadi being the only candidate – though that is forbidden by the constitution.

The power-sharing government replicates an earlier experiment in 1990 following the unification of north and south Yemen. It didn't work then – war broke out four years later after a long series of quarrels – and there's no reason to suppose it will work better this time.

Yemen at present faces so many basic problems – jobs, security, water and electricity supplies, etc – that the real need is for ministers to bury their political differences for the time being and get on with solving them. It's very difficult to see that happening, especially without a concerted effort to tackle the underlying systemic problems of privilege and corruption.

In the unlikely event that ministers do manage to work as a team, that still means the next phase, as the Yemen Times puts it, "will be one of ministers and not parliamentarians". 

As in other Arab countries, a shift towards parliamentary government, and away from autocratic government by presidents, kings and ministers, is the key to political development. One of the major flaws in the GCC plan is that it doesn't provide for parliamentary elections in February along with those for the presidency.

The current parliament (dominated by Saleh's GPC) was elected in 2003. It is illegitimate and also probably unrepresentative of public opinion in Yemen today. The elections due in 2009 were postponed for two years, and then postponed again earlier this year.

"This is dangerous," the Yemen Times continues, "as it means there is no mechanism given to the people by which they can participate in the shaping of their future – outside of political parties, that is. This also means that the independent youth and any other groups in society have no one to truly represent them and respond to their needs."

Nevertheless, that is probably how the monarchs of the GCC, who now hold Yemen's fate in their hands, would like it to be. They don't allow their own people more of a voice than is absolutely necessary, so why should they behave any differently in Yemen?

So it's change, but no change. The usual suspects are in charge, even if some of them now come from opposition parties that have no more credibility than Saleh's own party. The only notable concession to change is the inclusion of three women in minor ministerial posts. It's a tokenistic gesture of course, but three is the largest number of female ministers in Yemen's recent history.

With heavy external backing, it's conceivable that this will result in what – by Yemeni standards – passes for a semblance of order. But even if it does, how long can it last? It really doesn't address the pent-up frustrations that brought protesters out on to the streets in the first place.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 19 December 2011. Comment.

Gay rights and human rights

It wasn't until 2003 that the UN's human rights body finally got around to discussing homosexuality for the first time – much to the horror of five predominantly Muslim countries (Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, Egypt, Libya and Malaysia). They staged a filibuster in order to block a resolution expressing "deep concern at the occurrence of violations of human rights in the world against persons on the grounds of their sexual orientation".

Eight years on, the UN has now gone a step further and produced its first-ever report on LGBT rights. The report explores the types of violence and discrimination that people experience around the world because of their sexual orientation or gender identity. It also discusses the legal obligations of states to address these violations – basically arguing that LGBT rights are an integral part of human rights.

The UN report comes little more than a week after a passionate speech by Hillary Clinton tackling the same issue, and the Obama administration's announcement of "the first US government strategy dedicated to combating human rights abuses against LGBT persons abroad".

This, of course, raises some intriguing questions about what the strategy will actually entail and what impact it might have on US foreign policy, especially taking into account that some of America's allies are among the worst abusers. 

While it's good that LGBT rights are getting more attention internationally, the strategies need to be thought out carefully – otherwise they may simply reinforce claims that homosexuality is a western invention and that promoting gay rights is a form of cultural imperialism. That isn't helped either by the way Israel cynically exploits gay rights in an effort to polish up its image – a tactic known as "pinkwashing".

For good or ill, LGBT rights are moving more and more into international politics, and it's vital to have some sensible debate about that because the issues are complicated. Unfortunately, most of what is written brings obscurity rather than clarity.

Take, for example, this article on the Jadaliyya blog. Having tried to read it several times, I'm still not at all sure what it is saying. This is fairly typical of the genre and the effect is to prevent real debate rather than opening it up. If you attempt to disagree with anything, the writer can always fall back on the excuse that you have misunderstood – which of course is your fault for being stupid, not the writer's for failing to express his or her ideas properly.

The Jadaliyya article also follows what seems to be an obligatory practice in queer studies of italicising words at random or putting parts of them in brackets for no (ap)parent reason. Furthermore, it cites Jasbir Puar's writing on "homonationalism" – another bad sign because her work is often regarded as unintelligible.

A blogger who attended one of Puar's lectures a few years ago wrote:

"What to say about a talk which is only comprehensible to people who have read Deleuze and Guattari, who know when you say 'biopolitics' that you must mean it in the Foucaultian sense?

"... 'Theorists' who use words or phrases most people don't understand simply for the sake of it, who prefer obfuscation, or who have adopted it as their own little dialect, are almost always blowing smoke to cover for the paucity of their ideas. That this can become a habit in academic institutions, that this forms part of the culture of rarefied theory production, really doesn't earn anyone a free pass. Least of all someone speaking about a question of great political importance.

"There was a lot of smoke being blown last night, and hardly a phrase got spoken without pimping it up with the fanciest shmanciest of fifty-dollar-words. So much so that while I think I know what was being said, I certainly don't know I know what was being said. And that, quite obviously, is a problem."

According to Rictor Norton, the gay historian, a lot of the writing in this field is not just bad but intentionally opaque and in that respect it differs from other "difficult" subjects such as philosophy.

Philosophers, he says, often use jargon but they use it precisely and take pains to define their terms: "Strictly speaking, philosophical discourse tends to be difficult rather than unintelligible." Norton continues:

"What many apologists for queer theorising fail to appreciate is that the obscurity of queer theory is not the result of a lack of writing skill, but a deliberate strategy to (A) overcome the opponent by befuddling him or her, (B) to signify one's in-group status and solidarity, and (C) to undermine a faith in linguistic 'meaning' that is said to be a feature of traditional patriarchy. The term 'obscurantist' seems apt: queer theories are not only obscure, but deliberately obscure."

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 18 December 2011. Comment.

Hunting the Gaddafi family's assets

Tracking down the ill-gotten gains of fallen dictators is rarely an easy task but there are hopes that a luxurious property in London, thought to be worth around $16 million, may provide a breakthrough in the case of the Gaddafi family.

Libya's new government is seeking legal ownership of the house (shown here, inside and out, in a set of photographs on the Telegraph's website), but first it will have to satisfy the British courts.

The house, currently squatted by a group known as Topple the Tyrants, was bought in 2009 and registered in the name of Capitana Seas Limited, a company based in the financially-secretive British Virgin Islands. Normally, that would be enough to conceal the identity of its real owner but, as a result of UN sanctions imposed on Libya, the British authorities have been able to discover that its beneficial owner is Saadi Gaddafi – the colonel's footballing son. Saadi is at present under house arrest in Niger after fleeing Libya.

Having established who the owner is, the next step is to prove that it was bought with misappropriated funds. That should not be too difficult, according to Mohamed Shaban, a lawyer working on the case for the Libyan embassy in London: there is simply no way that Saadi could have paid for it with his own money.

His official salary as a commander at the Libyan defence ministry was not enough to cover the purchase, nor was the income from his brief career as a professional footballer in Italy, Shaban told the BBC. Also, Shaban says, any large gift to Saadi (from his father, for example) should have been registered as required by Libyan law – but none was.

The embassy's lawyer views this as something of a test case which will help to establish the level of evidence required by the courts. If it succeeds, other claims relating to suspected Gaddafi assets in Britain are likely to follow.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 17 December 2011. Comment.

The power of mice

First days of the Arab Spring: video of rioting in Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia, posted on YouTube, December 19, 2010

The great dam at Marib (in present-day Yemen) was one of the marvels of ancient Arabia, the centrepiece of a vast irrigation system that watered crops for a desert-dwelling kingdom. Its eventual collapse around the time the Prophet Mohammed was born scattered the population, forcing tens of thousands back into a nomadic existence.

This momentous event is recorded in the Qur’an and legend has it that the dam burst when a mouse dislodged a single stone. Modern historians have a different view: the dam had gradually fallen into disrepair as the community around it suffered economic decline. It would have collapsed anyway sooner or later, with or without the mouse.

I am often reminded of this story when thinking about the Arab Spring. It was on December 17 last year that Mohamed Bouazizi, an unemployed fruit-seller, set himself on fire after an altercation with the Tunisian police and – as in the legend of the mouse – triggered a chain of events which has so far brought down three Arab dictators, with two more on the brink.

The exact course of events over the last 12 months has taken everyone by surprise, though it was not unforeseen that something of the kind would happen: it was mainly a question of where the initial spark would come from.

Before last December there were already signs that the edifice which Arab regimes had maintained successfully over decades was beginning to crumble. In the face of challenges from a new generation – a generation who were not only more aware of the world beyond their own borders but also armed with new means to communicate and express themselves – the ageing leaders were finding it less easy to maintain their grip.

Meanwhile the mice – thousands of them – were chipping away at the cement. Tunisia itself, despite having one of the most effective police states, had previously witnessed disturbances in some of its more marginalised areas, while in Egypt factory strikes and street demonstrations had become a regular occurrence. Until last year, though, none of them posed a serious threat to the regimes; the authorities – often brutally – still managed to keep the upper hand.

On the night of December 16 – just a few hours before Bouazizi set fire to himself in Tunisia – rioting had broken out in Saudi Arabia. Some 800 men went on the rampage in the holy city of Madinah, hurling stones and smashing windows of cars. The authorities wouldn’t say what the trouble was about but it appeared to be a sectarian attack by Sunni Muslims on members of the Shia community who were taking part in Ashoura commemorations, and I noted it on my blog.

It’s interesting to speculate now different the course of events might have been if the rioting in Saudi Arabia, rather than Tunisia, had turned into something more serious. As expected, though, the Madinah police quickly restored order and 38 people were reportedly arrested.

Meanwhile, reading the first reports of disturbances in Sidi Bouzid, I was unsure what to make of them. Though uncommon in Tunisia, eruptions of public discontent were not unprecedented. I decided to wait a few days before writing anything, and see if they fizzled out. 

A week later, however, far from dying down, the protests were gaining momentum and – even more significantly – the authorities were having difficulty trying to control them. On my blog, I summarised the events so far, together with a predictably dismissive statement from the Tunisian government about “groundless rumours spread by certain sides”.

By December 25, demonstrations had spread to the capital, Tunis, The focus of the protests (mainly economic grievances in the beginning) had also begun to shift, turning into a generalised attack on the regime, including members of the president’s family (some of whom were extremely unpopular). 

As in other Arab countries, direct criticism of the president was a red line, and anyone who dared to cross it could expect to go to jail. The fact that protesters were now breaking that long-established taboo showed that the fear factor which had kept Tunisian citizens in check for so many years was evaporating.

Without wishing to overplay the role of WikiLeaks in this, I do think the release of several documents about Tunisia early in December helped to undermine the taboos surrounding public discussion of the regime and Ben Ali's family. 

In one document, the American ambassador described the regime as "sclerotic" and described growing corruption in the president's inner circle:

"Even average Tunisians are now keenly aware of it, and the chorus of complaints is rising. Tunisians intensely dislike, even hate, First Lady Leila Trabelsi and her family. In private, regime opponents mock her; even those close to the government express dismay at her reported behaviour. Meanwhile, anger is growing at Tunisia's high unemployment and regional inequities. As a consequence, the risks to the regime's long-term stability are increasing."

In another leaked document, the ambassador described the extraordinarily lavish lifestyle of the president's son-in-law, Mohamed Sakhr El-Matri – including his pet tiger which consumed four whole chickens every day.

There was probably little in the documents that Tunisians hadn't heard already, but until that point they were things people only talked about in whispers. Having them spelt out so plainly by the American ambassador – and posted on the internet for all to see – brought them out firmly into the public domain. The contrast between Matri's tiger greedily gnawing on chickens and the likes of Bouazizi struggling to eke out a living also highlighted the gulf between the regime and its people.

By the last day of December the situation in Tunisia was very reminiscent of Romania in 1989 and I wrote an article for the Guardian’s website suggesting that Ben Ali was about to suffer the same fate as Ceausescu. 

As far as I'm aware, that was the first time anyone in the western media had pointed to such a drastic outcome. The Tunisian protests were not being reported in much detail at that stage, partly because of restrictions imposed by the regime but also because they were not seen as especially significant. It was a different story a month later when, with Ben Ali having fled to Saudi Arabia, Tahrir Square erupted in Cairo.

Some readers were sceptical of my Guardian article and I must admit that for a few days afterwards I did wonder if I had been a little reckless in my prediction. The more I looked at the evidence, though, the more it seemed that Ben Ali’s overthrow was a real possibility, if not yet a certainty. A fundamental change was under way in Tunisia but how, exactly, did it come about?

Three years earlier, I had been travelling around the Middle East, interviewing Arabs for a book. One thing that struck me then was the high levels of discontent and frustration that I found almost everywhere – especially about corruption and privilege, and a high-handed style of government that had no need to be accountable. Alongside that was a strong sense of despair – that nothing much was going to change and there was little that ordinary folk could do about it.

What happened in Tunisia, in Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Syria was that these frustrations finally reached bursting point. Sufficient numbers of people were deciding they could do something about it after all. All it needed was something to trigger off the revolt – and once that happened they began to lose their fear. Each new development emboldened them further.

In comparison with what has happened since, the Tunisian revolution now seems relatively quick, simple and bloodless – though it didn’t look like that at the time. The number killed is unclear but it probably ran into hundreds.

There is far more to the Arab Spring than simply getting rid of dictators. December 17, 2010, heralded the ending of what had become known as “the Arab malaise” – the atmosphere of despair and powerlessness, the wallowing in victimhood, that descended over Arabs after their military defeat by Israel in 1967.

Tunisia has been inspirational. It has given rise to a new sense of Arab identity unlike the old-style nationalism. It has brought to the fore a new generation who feel more empowered, more confident of their own self-worth and more in command of their own destiny.

Of course, it’s not going as smoothly as many would like – far from it. In Yemen, Syria and Bahrain, the dictators are fighting back. Since Tunisia, the uprisings have become progressively more difficult, prolonged and bloody. In Libya, Gaddafi would still be in power had it not been for Nato’s help. This has led to some gloomy assessments of where the Arab Spring is heading: new dictators replacing old ones, Islamist parties imposing shariah law, and so on.

The problems ahead should not be underestimated but it’s a mistake to imagine that Arab politics will shortly "revert to type". A seismic shift has occurred which Sadek al-Azm, the Syrian professor, highlighted recently by pointing to the famous slogan first heard in Tunisia and quickly adopted by protesters in other Arab countries: "The people want the fall of the regime". 

Since when, al-Azm asked, have such words as “the people want” meant anything at all in the Arab world? Well, they do now. From now on, Arab governments must pay heed to what the people want or ignore it at their peril.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 16 December 2011. Comment.

Tunisia's discriminatory new constitution

The approval of a "mini-constitution" by Tunisia's newly-elected constituent assembly has been largely overlooked by western media, along with the controversy inside Tunisia about its discriminatory content.

The 26-clause document, intended to pave the way for appointing a president and government, was approved on Saturday with 141 votes in favour, 37 against and 39 abstentions. There have been predictable arguments about the respective powers of the presidency and parliament but the most alarming part is a section spelling out the qualifications for presidential candidates.

It says they must be "exclusively Tunisian, of the Muslim religion", the child of Tunisian parents and at least 35 years old. Women are not specifically excluded, but nor are they specifically included.

Of course, many Arab constitutions impose similar restrictions and Tunisia's new "mini-constitution" is less restrictive in this respect than the old Ben Ali constitution. Even so, it's a regrettable step – especially at a time when the Islamist Ennahda party, which won the largest block of seats in the assembly, is trying to convince the world of its commitment to freedom and tolerance.

In a real democracy, running for the presidency should be open to any adult citizen. Using the constitution to impose other requirements is wrong in principle. It limits voters' choice (sometimes with specific "undesirable" candidates in mind) and implies that the electorate is not to be trusted – that if given half a chance voters would choose someone who is unsuitable for the job. 

It is also wrong in principle to stipulate that presidential candidates must belong to any particular religion. 

Nejib Gharbi, a member of Ennahda, attempts to justify this on the grounds that Tunisia is overwhelmingly Muslim in character: "Islam is the religion of the majority of Tunisians, and the official religion of Tunisia is Islam. It is normal for the president of the country to be Muslim."

This is true – about 98% of Tunisians are thought to be (at least nominally) Muslim – but there is a big difference between saying that on the balance of probabilities any Tunisian president is likely to be a Muslim and saying that the president must be a Muslim. The latter is discriminatory, plain and simple.

The Financial Times (one of the few western newspapers to report on this issue) quotes an earlier statement from Ennahda saying that members of Tunisia's (tiny) Jewish community "are citizens enjoying all their rights and duties." In the light of the new constitutional document, that is clearly not the case.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 12 December 2011. Comment.

Qorvis and Bahrain

I have written here before about the American public relations firm, Qorvis, and its shameful $40,000-a-month contract with the government of Bahrain to spruce up the kingdom's tarnished image. Now, though, a document filed by Qorvis under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (as required by US law) provides a lot more detail about the company's activites on behalf of this repressive regime.

Between April and September, the document shows, Qorvis received a total of $239,877 from Bahrain. It is also, incidentally, in the pay of two other unsavoury regimes in the Middle East: $825,000 from Saudi Arabia between January and September (including $75,000 for "website support") and $31,351 in August via the British PR firm Bell Pottinger for "representing Yemen in the United States").

In connection with its work for Bahrain, Qorvis issued 106 press releases between June and November through PRNewswire (at a cost of $116 a time). 

Qorvis also spent $2,981 placing 50 Facebook ads on Bahrain's behalf.

Between April and June, Qorvis organised five meetings in the United States about Bahrain for what, in PR parlance, are usually described as "opinion formers" – journalists, representatives of think tanks, politicians, etc. A total of 75 people attended these, some of them more than once.

The document also reveals that former USA Today journalist Tom Squitieri was hired by Qorvis on September 1 as an "associate business analyst". Squitieri, who left USA Today amid accusations of plagiarism, later moved into public relations. 

His website promises clients 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."

Squitieri's marinara-making talents were on display in September and October when he wrote three "positive" articles about Bahrain for Huffington Post, plus another one for Foreign Policy Blogs in November.

The articles carried a footnote describing Squitieri as a journalist who was working "with the Bahrain government" on "media awareness". 

There was no mention that he was working for Qorvis, though Qorvis's submission under the Foreign Agents Registration Act lists his Huffington Post articles as part of the company's lobbying work. (It's perhaps worth a mention in passing that Arianna Huffington, president and editor-in-chief of Huffington Post is listed by Qorvis as having attended one of its Bahrain-related meetings.)

Other lobbying activity disclosed by Qorvis includes two letters defending Bahrain which were published in the New York Times (September 21) and the Washington Post (September 17).

The disclosure document includes details of those who attended Qorvis's Bahrain-related meetings. I have reproduced the full list below, sorted alphabetically by surname. This is not to imply that any of them did anything wrong by attending or that they necessarily support the Bahrain regime. However, the list does illustrate the types of people that Qorvis is seeking to influence in its campaign to whitewash the regime. Those marked with a double asterisk are listed as having attended more than one meeting:


Elliott Abrams, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies 
Zainab Al-Suwaij, Executive Director of the American Islamic Congress 
Jon B. Alterman, Director and Senior Fellow, Middle East Program 
Lisa Anderson, University President 
Christopher Bannon, Program Director at New York Public Radio 
Henri J. Barkey Visiting Scholar Middle East Program 
Dr. Roby Barrett, Scholar 
**Jack Bartling: Counsel for international markets, House Financial Services Committee 
Guy Ben-Ari, Deputy Director, Defense-Industrial Initiatives Group and Fellow, International Security Program 
**Peter Bergen: Leading journalist, author, and expert on international terrorism at CNN and New America Foundation
C. Fred Bergsten, Director 
Ben Birnbaum; Washington Times 
Arthur C. Brooks, President, American Enterprise Institute
Rep. Ann Marie Buerkle 
Dan Byman, Director of Research, Saban Center for Middle East Policy 
Sean Carberry, Senior Correspondent at America Abroad Media 
Sen. Ben Cardin 
Congressman Steve Chabot 
Steve Clemmons, Director, American Strategy Program 
Anthony Cordesman, Strategic Chair 
Lynn Davis, Washington Office Director, RAND Corporation
Sam Dealey, Qorvis Communications (foreign correspondent in MENA and former editor of The Washington Times) 
Jackson Diehl, Deputy Editorial Page Editor 
Rep. Donna Edwards 
Khaled EIGuindy, Visiting Fellow, Saban Center for Middle East Policy 
John Esposito, Professor of Religion and International Affairs and of Islamic Studies 
**Sam Feist, CNN (director of US programming) 
Nathaniel Fick, CEO, Center for a New American Security
Dr. Herman Franssen, Scholar 
F. Gregory Gause III, Professor of Political Science 
David Gerson, Executive Vice-President, American Enterprise Institute
Shadi Hamid, Director of Research at Brookings Doha Center 
Kareem Hammadi, News Director at Iraqi Media Network 
Toby Harnden: US Editor at the UK Daily Telegraph 
Steven Heydemann, Special Adviser; Muslim World Initiative 
Rep. Brian Higgins 
Arianna Huffington, President & Editor in Chief, Huffington Post 
Robert Hunter, Senior Advisor, RAND Corporation
David Ignatius, Associate Editorial Page Editor 
Mohsin S. Khan, Senior Fellow 
Flynt Leverett, Senior Fellow 
**Aaron Lobei, President of American Abroad Media 
Marc Lynch, Associate Professor of Political Science and International Affairs and Director of Institute for Middle East Studies and Middle East Studies Program 
Haim Maika, Deputy Director and Senior Fellow, Middle East Program 
Suzanne Maloney, Senior Fellow, Saban Center for Middle East Policy 
Rep. Tom Marino 
**Sean McCormack, Boeing Corp (former NSC spokesman)
Congressman Jim McGovern 
Stephen Mclnerny, Executive Director of Project on Middle East Democracy 
John Nagl, President, Center for a New American Security 
**The Honorable Stuart Nash: Federal Judge, Superior Court, District of Columbia, Former director for US Department of Justice Organized Crime Drug Enforcement Task Forces
Marina Ottaway, Director Middle East Program 
Dr. Andrew Parasiliti, Executive Director, IISS -US; Corresponding Director, IISS Middle East 
Rep. Mike Pence 
William B. Quandt, Edward R. Stettinius Professor of Politics 
Mark Quarterman, Senior Adviser and Director, Program on Crisis, Conflict, and Cooperation 
**Professor Jeremy Rabkin: Leading expert and commentator on international law, professor at George Mason University 
Sen. James Risch 
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher 
James Rosen: Fox News Correspondent, Former White House Correspondent 
Retno Shanti Ruwyastuti, Assistant to the President of Metro TV Indonesia 
Rabbi Levi Shemtov, Executive Vice President of American Friends of Lubavitch 
Jay Solomon, Foreign Affairs and Washington Reporter 
Ray Takeyh, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Sen. Tom Udall
**Ian Vasquez, Cato Institute (director of international development) 
Margaret Warner, Senior Foreign Affairs Correspondent 
Joby Warrick, Correspondent 
Shaun Waterman, The Washington Times (national security and geopolitics reporter) 
Steven R. Weisman, Editorial Director and Public Policy Fellow 
Rep. Joe Wilson 
**Byron York: Syndicated columnist and leading conservative commentator at FOX News and The Examiner 
**Adam Zagorin: Foreign correspondent and national security reporter at Time Magazine 
Dov Zakheim, Former Deputy Undersecretary of Defense for Planning and Resources . 
James Zogby, Founder American Arab Institute 

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 10 December 2011. Comment.

UPDATE: More or less simultaneously, Scott Lucas has alsoposted an article about this on the Enduring America blog.

Yemen seeks election aid

The official Yemeni news agency reports a meeting between foreign minister Qirbi and Criag Jenness, director of the UN's Electoral Assistance Division.

It appears that Yemen is seeking "UN technical and logistical assistance" in the presidential election scheduled for February 21.

This is rather odd, considering all the recent talk about Vice-President Hadi being the only candidate, or at least the only serious contender.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 6 December 2011. Comment.

Arabs and the gender gap

Arab states continue to perform badly in the World Economic Forum's latest survey of the Global Gender Gap, released last month. The Middle East and North Africa is the worst-performing of six global regions examined in the study. 

As in previous years, four Nordic countries – Iceland, Norway, Finland and Sweden – top the list.

The best-performing Arab country – the UAE – is ranked at number 103 (out of 136), while Yemen is at the very bottom with Saudi Arabia not far above. Qatar has shown the biggest improvement, moving up from 117 last year to 111.

The survey, first established five years ago, measures national gender disparities based on a range of criteria: economic, political, educational and health-related. It looks only at the gap between male and female, so the results should not be affected by a country's general level of resources or economic development.

The rankings of the 15 Arab countries included in the survey are as follows:

United Arab Emirates 103
Kuwait 105 
Tunisia 108 
Bahrain 110 
Qatar 111 
Mauritania 114 
Jordan 117 
Lebanon 118 
Algeria 121 
Egypt 123 
Syria 124 
Oman 127
Morocco 129 
Saudi Arabia 131
Yemen 136

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 5 December 2011. Comment.

Syrian blogger arrested

Razan Ghazzawi, a prominent Syrian blogger and rights activist, was arrested on Sunday while travelling to Jordan for a conference on freedom of expression.

One of her friends told Reuters: "She was arrested as she presented her passport to immigration at the Syrian border post of Nassib to cross to Jordan."

Ghazzawi is one of the few Syrians to blog under her real name. She had recently been campaigning for the release of fellow-blogger Hussein Ghrer who was eventually freed on December 1 after 37 days in prison.

She is also on Twitter as @RedRazan where her account is now being managed by friends. Aware of the possibility of arrest, she is said to have worked out a contingency plan and on Sunday her friends moved quickly to secure her internet passwords.

There is now also a #FreeRazan hashtag on Twitter and a Free Razan Facebook page has been set up.

On her blog, Ghazzawi says she was born in the US but never lived there. Her parents went to Saudi Arabia where the family lived for 10 years in Jeddah. Then they went back to Syria and live in Damascus. She continues:

"After I graduated from English literature department in Damascus University, I wanted to pursue my studies so I went to Lebanon and spent five years of my life there.

"I enjoy photography, drawing cartoons, and writing Arabic articles which I do not do most of the time.

"I am vegetarian, genderqueer and kind of pissed of[f] at everything. But a person who cries genuinely while watching Daddy Long Legs cartoon."

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 5 December 2011. Comment.

Qatar, al-Jazeera and HIV

A human rights organisation in South Africa is planning legal actionafter a journalist was sacked by al-Jazeera and expelled from Qatar following a positive HIV test.

The journalist – a South African who has not been identified – had recently taken up a post as a senior editor with al-Jazeera's English-language channel and had moved to Qatar where the station is based. He had agreed to undergo medical tests at the company's request, and a report in the South African Daily Maverick describes what happened next:

"A month later he had not received the results of his blood tests and then underwent blood tests at his own expense at a private clinic in Doha. When he returned for his results later that evening, he was chased off the clinic premises by clinic staff and security guards.

"The following day he was called to a meeting at Al Jazeera’s offices where he was ordered to get into a car. He was taken to Doha Prison, where he is said to have been detained in a crowded cell and was forced to undergo a full medical examination, including a full body search, in view of other prisoners.

"After his release from the Doha Prison, he was ordered to leave Qatar within 48 hours, failing which he would be arrested. He was also informed that his employment contract had been terminated."

Qatar is among a fairly large number of countries that impose some kind of entry restrictions for people with HIV (lists here) – though that doesn't excuse the appalling way the man was apparently treated. There are various other health restrictions for residency visas in Qatar, including hepatitis and TB (discussion here). 

Such rules are usually intended to prevent foreign workers – in the food industry, for example – from transmitting diseases such as hepatitis in the course of their work. However, it's difficult to make the same argument about a journalist with HIV working in television. As for sex ... that's illegal anyway in Qatar unless a couple are married.

Al-Jazeera has more or less washed its hands of the matter, saying it has to comply with the law in Qatar and it can't employ a journalist there without a visa. That may be true but, considering the man was one of its employees, it might have been a lot more supportive. The TV network employs several thousand people worldwide, so it doesn't seem unreasonable to suggest the company might have explored finding alternative work for him somewhere else.

Like most Arab countries, Qatar prides itself on having extremely low HIV rates (only six new cases have been diagnosed this year), though because of the stigma attached it is likely that many more cases go undiagnosed.

News of the journalist's expulsion came just a few days after Qatar marked World Aids Day by announcing a new – and apparently more enlightened – strategy for fighting HIV. Dr Mohamed bin Hamad al-Thani, director of the public health department, said: "If we try to explore the reason behind HIV-related stigma and discrimination, we will find that it is largely due to fear and this fear arises out of misunderstanding about the modes of transmission of the infection, its relation to socially unacceptable behaviours and the belief that HIV is a fatal disease."

He added that the infection cannot be transmitted by casual contact and that HIV is now being regarded as a chronic disease that needs continuous treatment.

Unfortunately, that message doesn't appear to have got through to the department issuing visas for Qatar.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 4 December 2011. Comment.

Saleh fights back in Yemen

Having signed the GCC's ludicrous "transition agreement" under international pressure, President Saleh shows no sign of relinquishing power in Yemen and the situation continues to deteriorate.

Fighting has been going on for several days now in the city of Ta'izz, south of Sana'a, with Saleh's forces ranged against tribal fighters and anti-government militias. The video above shows shelling of the opposition Islah party's building in the city on Friday.

Saleh's behaviour is entirely in character. It was only to be expected that after placating the international community by signing the agreement he would set about unravelling it – and the battle of Ta'izz is one result of that.

Meanwhile, in the north of the country, clashes broke out again between the Houthi rebels (who are Shia Muslims) and Sunni Salafis. The Houthis, who have fought several major rebellions against the Saleh regime over the last few years, are now seeking their own state, according to a report in the Yemen Times.

In the south, on the other hand, the separatists seem fairly quiet at the moment – though that may simply be because Saleh's forces are preoccupied elsewhere. Whichever way we look at it, though, the country is in serious danger of falling apart and the longer Saleh continues to play his power games the more likely that is to happen.

Even if Saleh is formally relinquishes the presidency in February (as required by the GCC agreement) he will still be in a position to pull the strings unless members of his family are also removed from key positions in the security forces.

Although Saleh has officially transferred his powers to Vice-President Hadi, Hadi is in a weak position, with no support base of his own. If Saleh does have to step down in February and can't get his son into the top position, installing Hadi as a puppet president is his next best option.

There appears to be a plan, or at least some kind of arrangement, that in the coming presidential election Hadi will be the only candidate. This would be illegal, since the constitution says very clearly that there must be at least two candidates.

One way around the constitutional problem would be to let an obscure no-hoper challenge Hadi for the presidency, as happened in 1999 when Saleh won 96.3% of the vote against a member of his own party in Yemen's first "competitive" presidential election.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 4 December 2011. Comment.

Previous blog posts




December 2011

US visa for Saleh?

Yemen: a new era of illegitimacy

Muddying the waters in Syria

Just too much

Syria: the clock is ticking

Assad buys more time

Yemen: the frustrated revolution

Gay rights and human rights

Hunting the Gaddafi family's assets

The power of mice

Tunisia's discriminatory new constitution

Qorvis and Bahrain

Yemen seeks election aid

Arabs and the gender gap

Syrian blogger arrested

Qatar, al-Jazeera and HIV

Saleh fights back in Yemen


Blog archive

All blog posts

General topics

Saudi Arabia 


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



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Last revised on 27 December, 2011