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Yemen: Election? What election?

There's a woefully misleading report about Yemen from AFP this morning. It begins:

"Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh will stay in the United States beyond the election next month that will choose his successor ..."

Let's get this straight once and for all. The so-called election, scheduled for February 21, will not "choose" Saleh's successor. The successor has already been chosen. He is Vice-President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. Hadi's name will be the only one on the ballot papers, because no other candidates have been allowed.

The "election" itself is illegal and invalid because the Yemeni constitution states very clearly that there must be more than one candidate. Even Saleh accepted that principle in two previous presidential elections (while of course ensuring that opposition candidates never stood a chance of winning).

Thanks to the diplomatic efforts of the Americans and the Saudis, this is turning into one of the more shameful episodes of the Arab Spring. Both countries are manipulating events in Yemen for the sake of their own short-term interests, with flagrant disregard for the long-term aspirations of the Yemeni people.

Saleh, who has been granted immunity from prosecution by the Yemeni parliament, headed for the United States on Wednesday after spending a few days in Oman. He is said to be on a private medical visit.

By granting him a visa and allowing him into the country without threat of arrest the US is now – in effect – playing along with the Yemeni parliament's disgraceful immunity deal. Last month, the White House said he would only be allowed into the country for "legitimate medical treatment" but that charade has now been more or less abandoned. It appears that Saleh will be "seeing consultants" in New York in connection with the bomb injuries he received last June but will not be staying in hospital. It's not even clear that he will receive any actual treatment.

The real purpose of Saleh's American sojourn was explained by Gerald Feierstein, the unpopular US ambassador in Sana'a, when he said: "We think that him not being here [in Yemen] will help the transition, we think it will improve the atmosphere."

There are suggestions that Saleh will return to Yemen after the non-election, for the swearing-in of President Hadi. Presumably the idea is that Saleh's attendance will give a public signal that Saleh accepts the transfer of presidential power from himself to Hadi. However, it is difficult to see how that will enhance Hadi's legitimacy. In the eyes of many Yemenis it will simply be a sign that the old system is changing its face while remaining largely intact.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 26 January 2012. Comment.

Reforming the Saudi religious police

There have been interesting developments in the Saudi religious police (the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice) following the appointment of Sheikh Abdullatif al-Sheikh as its chief earlier this month.

Al-Sheikh is a religious scholar who specialises in women's issues. According to Asharq Alawsat, he is "well-known for his moderate approach on the issue of gender mixing; and is also known as a strong proponent of the concept of Saudi women working in stores that cater to a female clientele". He is not totally opposed to gender-mixing but distinguishes between the "respectable" and "unrespectable" kind.

He is quoted as saying:

"Gender mixing is imposed by necessity and requirement, and is not something new today or in this era, for this was present in ancient times, and is something that exists in the heart of Islam. Anybody who does not acknowledge this must read the history of our religion, and books of Islamic jurisprudence and interpretation.

"Islamic sharia law did not completely ban gender mixing, but rather it placed this within the limits of vouchsafing freedom for men and women. This is the disciplined freedom that conforms with the regulations of Islamic Sharia law to protect dignity and prevent wrongdoing that destroys family, society, and human dignity."

Al-Sheikh has also taken steps to stop the religious police being used as a vehicle for citizen vigilantism. Anonymous tip-offs will no longer be acted upon: the complainants will have to identify themselves. Hoaxes and false reports have been the main cause of criticism of the religious police in the past, al-Sheikh says.

Similarly, "volunteers" (ie vigilante types) – another cause of grievances among the public – will no longer be allowed to serve in the force.

These are all positive moves, as Hussein Shabokshi notes in an article for Asharq Alawsat. In the long run, though, reform of the religious police is no substitute for abolition.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 24 January 2012. Comment.

Syria and the 'Assad poll'

Another insidious myth is doing the rounds: that 55% of Syrians support president Assad. The figure was cited by Aisling Byrne in an article which I critiqued recently. Now, it has surfaced again in an article by Jonathan Steele for the Guardian.

While it is undoubtedly true that the Assad regime still has a measure of support within Syria, no one can sensibly put a figure on it or claim that Assad's supporters form a majority.

The 55% figure comes from an internet survey by YouGov Siraj for al-Jazeera's Doha Debates. Just over 1,000 people across the Arab countries were asked their opinion of Assad and an overwhelming majority – 81% – thought he should step down.

However, al-Jazeera says the picture inside Syria is different: "Syrians are more supportive of their president with 55% not wanting him to resign."

What is the basis for this statement? A look at the methodology of the survey shows that 211 of the respondents were in Levantine countries and that 46% of those were in Syria. In other words, the finding is based on a sample of just 97 internet users in Syria among a population of more than 20 million. It's not a meaningful result and certainly not adequate grounds for such sweeping conclusions about national opinion in Syria.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 18 January 2012. Comment.

Britain and Bahrain: just good friends

Alarmed by negative media coverage of its bloody repression, the government of Bahrain embarked on an Israeli-style hasbara campaign earlier this year, hiring – at great expense – an assortment of western public relations firms, "reputation management" consultants, etc, to whitewash its image.

I have documented their efforts, mainly in the United States, on previous occasions:

The government of Bahrain, for its part, has developed a habit of inventing supportive quotes from prominent people and organisations – much to their annoyance:

This week, another PR company working for the Bahrain government emerged in Britain: Big Tent Communications, run by David Cracknell, former political editor of the Sunday Times.

Following the news that the Countess of Wessex had accepted lavish gifts of jewellery from Bahrain's royal family, the Guardian published an article on its website looking at the long and cosy relationship between Britain and the despotic regime in Bahrain.
Cracknell then contacted the Guardian, describing himself as "an adviser" to the government of Bahrain and saying that it had asked him to request a right of reply.

Cracknell offered an article presenting "the counterview" of Bahrain. But the "counterview" he proposed would not come from some Bahraini spokesperson; it would come from Sir Harold "Hooky" Walker, a former British ambassador. This unwittingly reaffirmed the point made in the original article – that relations between Britain and the Bahrain regime are too close for comfort.

"Hooky" Walker's article hasn't appeared on the Guardian's website, but it would not have been the first time that he has spoken up for the Bahrain regime in his role as a former British ambassador.

Last September he wrote an article for the Independent newspaper saying that "ethical considerations should pervade the purpose and conduct of Britain’s foreign policy" and citing Bahrain as an example of the dilemmas this can cause:

"Representing democratic values, we of course want to see the observance of human rights and progress towards democratic institutions. At the same time, it is almost invariably counter-productive for us to hector, cajole or publicly lecture friendly governments about their internal arrangements."

He continued that "one-sided reporting" of fatalities had increased the "sense of insecurity" among the Sunni minority that rules Bahrain. Because of the religious divide, democracy based on one-person-one-vote would be "highly problematic" in Bahrain, leading to "the tyranny of the majority".

Walker concluded by saying Bahrain should respect the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, "but the Declaration does not require them to adopt a particular form of government. Nor does one need a megaphone to convey advice to a long-standing friend."

And finally, he reminded readers of what appears to be the over-riding "ethical" principle as far as Britain is concerned:

"Our relations with the Gulf states are of the greatest importance strategically and economically. With economic power shifting to the East, we should be careful not to overlook that even old friends have choices in an evolving world order. Successful diplomacy means looking beyond the news cycle to take a long-term view both of the past – recognising Britain’s valuable legacy in Bahrain – and of our strategic interests in the future."

Last month, Walker was quoted by the official Bahrain News Agency as praising the regime's investigation into its own human rights abuses. Last February, during the protests on Pearl Roundabout in Bahrain, he told Sky News that the regime had been judged harshly: "The King introduced a whole raft of reforms 10 years ago, there was a national charter put to a referendum and it passed. He's done a lot."

Walker did suggest there was scope for reform in Bahrain – but on the terms favoured by the regime:

"One avenue is to progress along the lines that (the king) has already started on. The Bahrain authorities have offered talks so I very much hope that the reasonable people amongst the opposition will take up that offer."

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 14 January 2012. Comment.

Syria and the 'Zio-American plot'

Denying the authenticity of the Syrian uprising is a central plank of the Assad regime's propaganda message – that the whole thing, as the official news agency put it recently, is a "Zio-American" plot

To anyone who has been following events in Syria closely since last March, the regime's conspiracy claims are not only ridiculous but terribly insulting to the thousands of protesters who have risked (and often lost) their lives in the struggle against dictatorship. Even so, there's a small chorus of westerners who seem to be echoing the Assad line.

"Arguably, the most important component in this struggle," Aisling Byrne wrote in an article last week, "has been the deliberate construction of a largely false narrative that pits unarmed democracy demonstrators being killed in their hundreds and thousands as they protest peacefully against an oppressive, violent regime, a 'killing machine' led by the 'monster' Assad."

Arguably, my foot. Information about the protests has sometimes been wrong – as always happens in conflicts, especially when media access is so severely restricted – but to suggest that this has led to a "largely false narrative" is utter nonsense.

Byrne's article has been doing the rounds on the internet – 
Counterpunch, the Asia Times and Countercurrents – as well as being touted enthusiastically inside Syria by the Assad regime. Running to more than 4,700 words, it's probably the fullest exposition yet of the grand international conspiracy theory.

Of course, it's true lots of countries have been reacting to the uprising in Syria and some are certainly trying to influence the outcome. Given Syria's strategic importance, that is to be expected. Reacting to events, though, is not the same as orchestrating things according to some pre-conceived plan – which is what the Assad regime claims is happening, and what Byrne also seems to imply:

"What we are seeing in Syria is a deliberate and calculated campaign to bring down the Assad government so as to replace it with a regime 'more compatible' with US interests in the region.

"The blueprint for this project is essentially a report produced by the neo-conservative Brookings Institute for regime change in Iran in 2009."

There's no harm in discussing or criticising what foreign powers may be up to with regard to Syria, even if Byrne draws some rather fanciful conclusions. Any attempts to prevent the Syrian people from making their own choices ought to be resisted, too. The overall effect of such articles, though, is to delegitimise the popular struggle – which is unfair to the protesters and also plays into the hands of the regime.

But what of the article's author, Aisling Byrne? She is projects co-ordinator for the Conflicts Forum, based in Beirut. Its director is Alastair Crooke, a former British intelligence officer who until a few years ago was heavily involved in British and European diplomacy relating to Israel/Palestine. Among many other things, he took part in clandestine meetings with Hamas.

Crooke left his government job and founded the Conflicts Forum in 2004 "to open a new relationship between the west and the Muslim world", mainly through promoting dialogue with Islamist movements – something that western governments have often been reluctant to do. Members of the forum's advisory board include Moazzam Begg, a former Guantanamo detainee, and Azzam Tamimi, regarded as an unofficial voice for Hamas in Britain.

"While facing increasingly intractable problems in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Pakistan and elsewhere," Conflicts Forum says on its website, "we [ie western governments] immobilise ourselves by turning away from the homegrown political forces that have the power to resolve these crises."

Judging by Byrne's article and another by Crooke himself in the Guardian last November, though, Conflicts Forum seems oddly reluctant to engage with the "homegrown political forces" in Syria.

There's an inconsistency and selectivity here that is also apparent among sections of the more traditionalist left. Pro-western dictators like Ben Ali and Mubarak are considered fair game, but when it comes to toppling contrarian dictators like Gaddafi and Assad there's lingering sympathy for them.

In Syria's case this is further complicated by viewing the uprising through the prism of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. For instance, a briefing paper on Conflicts Forum's website examining Hizbullah's continuing support for the Assad regime says:

"Just as Hizbullah viewed the 2009 protests in Iran as a 'bid to destabilise the country's Islamic regime' by means of a US-orchestrated 'velvet revolution', the protests in Syria are branded a form of 'collusion' with outside powers who seek to replace Asad's rule with 'another regime similar to the moderate Arab regimes that are ready to sign any capitulation agreement with Israel'...

"Echoing Hizbullah's stance on the Iran protests is Nasrallah's characterisation of the US role in the Syrian uprising as an extension of the July War and the Gaza War. Since the resistance in Lebanon and Palestine had foiled the 'New Middle East' scheme in both these military aggressions, Washington was 'trying to reintroduce [it] through other gates,' such as Syria.

"With this in mind, attempts to overthrow the Assad regime are considered a 'service' to American and Israeli interests."

Such views are not confined to Hizbullah, however. But how realistic are they? Many neocons hoped the invasion of Iraq would deliver a pro-Israel government there. It didn't, and instead it strengthened Iran. 

Tunisia is no more favourably disposed towards Israel than it was under Ben Ali. Nor is Libya. Nor is Egypt – if anything, less so. And a democratic Syria would still have the same territorial issues with Israel – the occupied Golan Heights, etc – that it has now. In any case Israel seems an odd reason for denying Syrians a chance to determine their own future.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 8 January 2012. Comment.

A change of underwear in Saudi Arabia

On Thursday Saudi Arabia began gradual implementation of a law that says shops selling women's underwear must be staffed by women. The move – widely portrayed as a reform – has divided feminists, with some supporting it and others opposing it.

Reem Asaad (interviewed here on NPR) campaigned for the change. One powerful argument, apart from the possible embarrassment of women having to discuss their underwear requirements with male shop assistants, is that it will create new jobs for women – possibly as many as 20,000.

That, in itself, is a shocking development as far as some traditionalists are concerned. The Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, Sheikh Abdulaziz al-Sheikh, has reportedly condemned it as "a crime and disrespectful".

Regardless of what the mufti thinks, creating more job opportunities for Saudi women is a good idea. It gives them independence, challenges traditional assumptions about the role of women and benefits the kingdom economically.

At the same time, though, it can be argued that this type of employment further entrenches the principle of gender segregation, creating ghettoised "women's work" rather than equal opportunities. A similar objection can be made about the all-women factories, even though they do help some families to escape financial hardship.

Even if we accept that the lingerie law is a reform of sorts, it doesn't say much for the kingdom's ability to modernise at a time when Arab protesters in other parts of the region are demanding much more far-reaching change. The "new" law was originally issued six years ago and has only now reached the implementation stage. It will take a further two years to fully implement it – assuming the authorities keep up their pressure on shopkeepers (which is by no means certain).

Considering how far the Saudi Arabia lags behind on the issue of women's rights, Khadija Magardie is probably correct when 
she says the underwear campaign was "nothing but a useful distraction", giving the impression that the kingdom is making progress when in fact it's making very little.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 5 January 2012. Comment.

Syria: the money question

Syria began 2011 with its economy in relatively good health. A year later, it looks very different: everything is getting worse and will continue to do so until the uprising ends. As I have said before, the state of the economy will be a major factor in determining how long the Assad regime survives.

The regime's finances, like much else in Syria, are far from transparent but a couple of articles cited on the Syria Comment blog show a grim picture.

In the budget for 2012, approved last month, revenue is dramatically down and spending is up, leaving a gap of SYP 529 billion ($9.6 billion) on a budget of SYP 1,326 billion ($24 billion). In other words, only 60% of what the government spends will be covered by revenue. This deficit is likely to be at least 18% of GDP – an alarmingly high level.

The situation has been mitigated to some extent by a drop in imports (partly a result of declining investment) which in turn has helped to save the currency from falling precipitously. The Syrian pound is down by a relatively modest amount (from 46 to the US dollar a year ago, to 53 now). The authorities have also called for a 25% cut in non-salary spending by state institutions.

For normal countries, borrowing to cover the deficit would be an obvious course but Syria's options in that regard are extremely limited. It may be getting some help from Iran, Iraq and Venezuela but how deeply any of them will be prepared to dig into their pockets, and for how long, is an open question.

Another solution, proposed by Dr Elias Najmeh at Damascus university, is to draw on compulsory loans from Syrian businesses. There is some logic in this, since the successful ones have profited from the regime's protection (and its corruption) in better times. However, it does smack of desperation and politically it could be very dangerous indeed, since it would hit many of the regime's core supporters. Who, in their right mind, would lend money to Assad now on a promise of getting it back in three to five years?

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 2 January 2012. Comment.

Yemen's 'Parallel Revolution'

With less than two months to go before President Saleh is due to formally leave office, other members of his family are seeking to consolidate their influence in Yemen. Saleh's son, Ahmed, has been purging the Republican Guard of members suspected of having opposition sympathies, while his nephew, Yahia, has done likewise with the Central Security forces.

But not everything is going their way. At the grass roots, something very interesting has been happening over the last two to three weeks. Yemenis have dubbed it the "Parallel Revolution" and it could become an example for protesters in other countries.

The goal of the Parallel Revolution is simple: the removal of corrupt officials (invariably Saleh appointees). It's also proving very popular since most Yemenis have some kind of grievance against them.

So far, at least 18 state institutions have been hit by protests demanding the dismissal of their bosses. It started with Yemenia, the national airline, where the director – who happened to be Saleh's son-in-law – has now been sacked. A report from the Associated Press explains:

"The strikes are following a pattern. Workers lock the gates to an institution and then storm the offices of their supervisors, demanding new bosses who are not seen as tainted by connections to the old government."

Institutions affected so far include state TV, Sanaa police headquarters, the Military Economic Institution, the Armed Forces Moral Guidance Department (which publishes the "26 September" newspaper), the Thawrah hospital in Ta'izz, the Agriculture and Irrigation office, the coast guard, the naval academy and the traffic police.

At present, the Parallel Revolution seems to be enjoying a remarkable degree of success. Some officials have gone and other complaints are being investigated under the auspices of the new power-sharing government.

Even if Yemen's political transition leaves a lot to be desired, a general clean-up at the administrative level – which is what the Parallel Revolution is seeking – could make a huge difference to the way the country is run.

The anti-corruption protests are also a further sign that the Arab Spring is not just about getting rid of unpopular leaders but about developing a new relationship between governments and the people they govern. As the Yemen Observer puts it:

"These days, people feel they could express their anger against anything that goes against their welfare. They are now marching and protesting against anybody and anything and have learned to ask questions and hold people in charge accountable. They have come to realise that they have the right to know what is being done to them and for them."

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 1 January 2012. Comment.

Previous blog posts




January 2012

Yemen: Election? What election?

Reforming the Saudi religious police

Syria and the 'Assad poll'

Britain and Bahrain: just good friends

Syria and the 'Zio-American plot'

A change of underwear in Saudi Arabia

Syria: the money question

Yemen's 'Parallel Revolution'


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Last revised on 26 January, 2012