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Syria rebels confront Assad's air power

A no-fly zone may yet be established in Syria – not imposed by foreign powers but through the efforts of rebel fighters on the ground. Air power is almost the only area of the conflict where the Assad regime still has a clear advantage, and the rebels are now beginning to challenge that.

The rebels have previously shot down helicopters (probably with guns) but now there is growing evidence of surface-to-air missiles being used to attack fighter jets. In the video above, a rebel is shown holding a Russian SA-16 MANPAD.

At the same time, rebels have stepped up their attacks on military bases – capturing more of the regime's anti-aircraft defences for use against its own aircraft.

The EAWorldView blog sees this as part of a strategy:

"The FSA is targeting relatively small anti-aircraft bases, capturing equipment that can be used against the Assad regime, but also looking for ways to confront the Assad airforce. 

"Furthermore, there is a suspicion that they may have received encouragement to specifically target anti-aircraft bases, as this removes a threat to any foreign aircraft that could potentially engage in a no-fly zone."

Meanwhile, the New York Times says the Obama administration hopes the conflict in Syria has "reached a turning point" and is "considering deeper intervention to help push President Bashar al-Assad from power".

Judging by the NYT article, the US doesn't have any new ideas as to what it might actually do but seems worried that it will have little influence over the shape of a post-Assad Syria. Recent diplomatic efforts have gone mainly into trying to restructure the anti-Assad opposition, but now it looks as if that is being overtaken by events on the ground in Syria.

The NYT report continues:

“The administration has figured out that if they don’t start doing something, the war will be over and they won’t have any influence over the combat forces on the ground,” said Jeffrey White, a former Defense Intelligence Agency intelligence officer and specialist on the Syria military. 

“They may have some influence with various political groups and factions, but they won’t have influence with the fighters, and the fighters will control the territory.”

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 29 November 2012. Comment.

Libya: release of 'gay partygoers' delayed

A Libyan militia is continuing to hold 12 allegedly gay men, despite saying it intends to hand them over to the Ministry of Justice.

The 12 were seized at a party last Thursday by vigilantes from the Private Deterrent Force – part of the Nawasi Brigade which is Tripoli's largest Islamist militia.

A statement posted on the vigilantes' Facebook page said the men were "of the third sex" and had been "arrested" for "practising the customs of sodomites".

The Facebook page was deleted after the story started attracting attention in the international media and the Nawasi Brigade later denied the men had been abducted because of their sexuality. It said the "main reason" was noise from the party, together with "large amounts of alcohol and hashish" found on the premises.

Today, a report from the Libya Herald suggests the militia has delayed releasing the men because they are still recovering from being beaten.

“There are lots of marks on their faces ... They cannot release them until they heal or people will see,” a source is quoted as saying.

The Libya Herald also has new details about the attack on the party:

It has now emerged that the militia was monitoring the house in which the festivities were taking place and moved to break up the party after they spotted one of the guests dressed as a woman.

“They were on a routine patrol when they heard the music” said Ahmed, a friend of the group who was himself invited to the party that evening. “They were sitting outside for nearly half an hour. Then they saw one of the guys wearing a wig and a dress so thought it was girls having a party with boys.

“When they came inside the farm, everyone panicked and the man pulled off his dress and wig. They wanted to know where the girls were, so they beat them until one of them admitted he was gay and that’s when they were taken away.”

According to Ahmed, not his real name, another friend witnessed the militia storming the farm from his car. “He was about to go inside himself when he saw the Nawasi and he ran away.”

Another friend of the abducted men insists the issue is their sexuality: 

"The alcohol and cannabis belonged to the band ... and they were released the same day," he told the Libya Herald. "Our friends are being held because they are gay."

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 29 November 2012. Comment.

UPDATE, 30 November: The Libya Herald reported that the men were released but gave no further details.

EU ambassadors unhappy over policy on Jordan

European diplomats in Jordan think the EU is being too uncritical of King Abdullah, according to a new policy memo from the European Council on Foreign Relations (ECFR).

"There is growing consensus among European diplomats in Amman that the reform process lacks meaningful substance," it says. "Indeed, European heads of missions have, on occasion, wanted to engage in a more critical dialogue, and there has been some discontent about the entirely supportive position taken by Brussels."

It explains that the ambassadors in Amman "had been considering pushing for the introduction of a greater degree of conditionality" on aid to Jordan until José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission, turned up in Jordan last month and announced a further €40 million in financial assistance. (For good measure, Barroso also heaped praise on the king's half-hearted reform efforts.)

The ECFR paper adds: 

"The EU mission in Amman has also failed to deliver strong messages agreed upon by European heads of mission, in part because it has been hamstrung by the line set in Brussels."

The paper's author, Julien Barnes-Dacey, who is a senior policy fellow at the ECFR, continues:

"Europe – so keen to make Jordan a success story for reform in the MENA region – risks repeating the mistakes that marked its relationship with North African states prior to the 2011 uprisings. Its unquestioning support for Abdullah and unwillingness to engage in a critical dialogue is positioning it on the wrong side of history ...

"Europe should recalibrate elements of its relationship with the kingdom. Public support for Amman remains understandable, given regional uncertainties and the kingdom’s role as a strategic ally; however, a more critical dialogue, even if only in private, is growing ever more essential. At present, European praise is reported to be as vocal in private as it is in public. 

"While the kingdom does face threats associated with regional volatility and terrorism – which the king will adeptly use to leverage international support – deferring action on domestic challenges invites growing political risk."

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 28 November 2012. Comment.

Libya 'gay partygoers not to be killed'

Photograph of the abducted men posted on Facebook

The Libyan militia that abducted 12 allegedly gay men at a party in Tripoli last week is planning to hand them over to the Ministry of Justice, the Libya Herald reports, allaying earlier fears that the men would be killed.

A vigilante group calling itself the Private Deterrent Force – part of the influential Nawasi Brigade – had posted a photograph of the abducted men on its Facebook page (since deleted) together with a note in Arabic which said:

"The Private Deterrent Force arrested 12 young men 'of the third sex' from various parts of Libya last night [Thursday]. They were in a gathering in a resthouse in the Ain Zara district [of Tripoli] practising the customs of sodomites ..."

The militia, which also goes around Tripoli seizing alcohol and drugs, now says it intervened after neighbours complained about the noise the men were making. The Libya Herald continues the story:

“Execution will never happen”, said a senior member of the Nawasi brigade today, who requested to remain anonymous. “We are handing them over to the Ministry of Justice” ...

“These guys are not straight, but that’s not the main reason we arrested them”, he continued. “The main thing was the big noise they were making to the neighbours, as well as the large amounts of alcohol and hashish we found”.

Asked why threats had been made on Facebook, the Nawasi leader put it down to poor command and control. “Unfortunately, we don’t have a [communications] office; we have about three guys mainly working from home and we can’t always control what’s posted. We are trying to upgrade but we haven’t received a proposal of how to do it”.

The original announcement by the Private Deterrent Force said nothing about noise and the men's sexual behaviour was the only reason given for their "arrest". 

The militia, which links with the interior ministry, may have been surprised by the outcry its action caused (on Twitter, Facebook and in some of the foreign media), or possibly the interior ministry told it to back off.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 28 November 2012. Comment.

Britain's policy in Bahrain isn't working

Dining companions: The king of Bahrain visits Sandhurst

Britain's top military academy, Sandhurst, held a banquet last week to honour its graduates from the Middle East. Prominent among the guests was King Hamad of Bahrain who once trained at Sandhurst (as did nine other members of Bahrain's ruling family).

On the sidelines of the banquet, King Hamad met Prince Charles, heir to the British throne, and – in the inimitable words of the Bahrain News Agency – "discussed deep-historic relations bonding both countries in all fields".

British taxpayers provide subsidised training at Sandhurst for Bahrain's military personnel (£29,600 for each trainee) but the king makes up for that in other ways. In January, he donated £3 million ($4.7 million) to build a sports hall at Sandhurst which will reportedly be "named in Bahrain's honour".

Britain has long-standing ties with Bahrain, dating back to the time when it was a British protectorate. Those ties have generally been warm but, increasingly, the Bahraini regime's repression of its own citizens is becoming an embarrassment.

The king, like most Middle Eastern autocrats, says he is pressing ahead with reform – yet there is little sign of that happening. Instead, things seem to be getting worse.

The British government's attitude, meanwhile, is to take the king at his word and "urge" him (a favourite Foreign Office term) to try harder while offering various bits of "assistance" with the supposed reform process.

Last March, for example, six Bahraini officials were sent for human rights training at Nottingham University – paid for jointly by the British and Bahraini governments.

A report from the university said afterwards:

"The seminars were facilitated by academics, practitioners, and all experts in their field ... The course provided the participants with the requisite knowledge and understanding of international human rights law, to be applied and further disseminated to colleagues upon return to Bahrain."

Exercises like this allow both governments to pat themselves on the back but, in the view of the Bahrain Center for Human Rights, such training is pointless since the judicial system in Bahrain is institutionally corrupt. "This kind of institutional support does nothing to assist the reform process and the UK should consider withdrawing it in future," the BCHR says.

Last week in the House of Lords, Lord Avebury accused the British Foreign Secretary of "cosying up to one of the hereditary oligarchs of a regime that regularly kills, tortures and arbitrarily imprisons any of its opponents, and has now taken to depriving them of their citizenship".

For the government, Baroness Warsi replied:

"I would take exception to the description given to my right honourable friend the Foreign Secretary. Indeed, earlier this week I myself met with Shaikh Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa, who is the Foreign Minister ... 

"It was a robust and frank exchange, and a conversation in which human rights were openly and frankly discussed."

Undoubtedly the British government does have "robust and frank" conversations in private. In public, the government is far more circumspect – though it is by no means uncritical. But unfortunately, while urging Bahrain's rulers to behave better, it also sends out a lot of conflicting signals. Banqueting the king at Sandhurst is one of them. Another is the recent "defence cooperation agreement" about which very little has been disclosed by either side.

In principle, there's a lot to be said for maintaining a diplomatic engagement with Bahrain but in its present form it clearly isn't working. Last month, the House of Commons Foreign Affairs Committee announced an inquiry into British policy towards Saudi Arabia and Bahrain – and invited submissions from "interested groups or individuals".

The Bahrain Center for Human Rights has now submitted some thoughts which it also published yesterday on its website. Here are a few extracts:

"The UK’s engagement in trying to resolve the Bahrain crisis in the last year has had no positive impact whatsoever. The UK Embassy in Bahrain has been silent, and its new Ambassador since September 2011 has been invisible."

(Ambassador Iain Lindsay, who was posted from Hong Kong, has no Middle East experience apart from a brief spell in Qatar 30 years ago as a temporary visa officer, and his initial remarks about being "thrilled at the prospect of living in Bahrain at such an exciting time" do not bode well.)

"The [Foreign Office's] human rights report 2011 continued to peddle the idea that reforms were taking place, long after this was seen to be wishful thinking. It said 'we are starting to see positive reforms in Jordan, and in Bahrain with its steps to implement the conclusions of its commission of inquiry into the violence we saw earlier in the year' ...

"The tone of the case study on Bahrain overall was incredibly naive and seemed to take it for granted that if Bahrain said it would set up a National Human Rights Commission tasked with promoting and enhancing human rights, then that would happen and could already be counted in a list of reforms. This is despite the fact that Bahrain is notorious for setting up human rights quangos whose sole purpose seems to be to harass legitimate human rights activists at talks and UN events.

"The UK government has quietly sought to arrange for mediation between the Bahrain regime and opposition, hoping to kickstart dialogue. These efforts have all failed ...

"Minister Alistair Burt MP has said that he encourages all sides to engage in an inclusive and constructive dialogue without preconditions, ignoring the fact that most of the principal opposition stakeholders are behind bars. There can't be dialogue unless you have someone to have a dialogue with and it means that what is going on in Bahrain now is a monologue."

As for what should be done about this, the BCHR wants to see Bahrain designated by Britain as a "country of concern".

"BCHR recommends that Bahrain be designated a country of concern. The UK should be able to criticise its allies’ performance in terms of its human rights commitments, especially when such criticism might help bring about reform and stability. 

"There are other things that designating Bahrain to be a country of concern would also improve. At the moment, UK security and PR companies, do business with Bahrain without considering the human rights implications because it is a UK ally ...

"It does not help calm the situation in Bahrain, and it is arguably violating accepted standards of corporate social responsibility for UK and European companies to be assisting repressive governments to spy on and infringe the rights of legitimate human rights advocates. Designating Bahrain a country of concern would go some way to persuading companies not to do that kind of business with the Bahraini regime.

"The UK should avoid sending security and police advisers to Bahrain, or encouraging ex-officers to go there as advisers. This continues a long tradition of the UK providing institutional support to a regime to maintain the status quo, rather than doing anything to encourage reform ... 

"The UK has supported the rights of citizens of Bahrain in the past, when Bahrain held a referendum to decide on their status as an independent nation, free from the competing claims of the British Empire, and the Persian Empire which claimed the territory as its own. Bahrain was intended to be a state based on a constitution limiting the monarchy’s power, just as in the UK. 

"But no sooner had Bahrain become independent than its constitution was abrogated and authoritarian, direct rule began. Bahrainis are still fighting for the same thing they wanted at independence, a state where the individual is protected by law from the unfettered power of its hereditary rulers."

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 27 November 2012. Comment.

Vigilante group rounds up gay men in Libya

A vigilante group calling itself the Private Deterrent Force claims to have seized 12 gay men in Libya and is reportedly threatening to kill them.

A photograph (above) posted on the group's Facebook page shows the men with their heads covered and their hands up, facing a wall.

A note with the photograph says:

"The Private Deterrent Force arrested 12 young men 'of the third sex' from various parts of Libya last night [Thursday]. They were in a gathering in a resthouse in the Ain Zara district [of Tripoli] practising the customs of sodomites ..."

The group reports various other vigilante actions on its Facebook page, including seizures of drugs and alcohol.

The Libya Herald says the Private Deterrent Force is believed to be part of the extremist Nawasi militia which has previously been linked to the desecration of Sufi shrines in Tripoli and claims to be under the authority of the Interior Ministry.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 26 November 2012. Comment.

More tricks from the Bahrain News Agency

There was a time when government media in the Arab countries could publish dishonest or misleading reports and expect to get away with it. Readers inside the country, having little access to information from outside, would be none the wiser.

That changed years ago with the arrival of satellite TV and the internet but the official Arab media have generally failed to move with the times. They still imagine they can pull the wool over people's eyes, even though each time they do so their credibility is damaged further.

The government of Bahrain is a regular offender in this respect. I have previously documented cases of "official" news reports misrepresented or even made up statements from Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, William Hague, the British foreign secretary, and Amnesty International. The point of these misrepresentations is always the same: to make them appear uncritically supportive of the Bahraini government.

The latest example involves Alistair Burt, Britain's Foreign Office minister with responsibility for the Middle East. On Friday, Burt issued a statement to mark the one-year anniversary of the report from the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI). This was the inquiry that looked into the unrest in Bahrain early last year – and whose findings (along with proposals for reform) were initially accepted by the king.

Last week's anniversary prompted a series of reports from NGOs, all complaining about a lack of effort on the part of the Bahraini government to implement the BICI's recommendations. 

The Bahrain News Agency, presumably scraping around to find something to counter these criticisms, latched on to Burt's statement.

"UK minister hails BICI formation" is the headline, followed by several paragraphs depicting Burt's remarks as totally supportive of the Bahraini government: "He also paid tribute to His Majesty King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa for adopting the BICI recommendations as a launchpad to forge ahead with reforms," etc, etc.

As invariably happens with official news reports of this kind, there are no direct quotes from Burt. By avoiding quotation marks the writers seem to think they can edit and embellish statements as they see fit.

In fact, Burt said nothing about "a launchpad to forge ahead with reforms" – merely that Britain "acknowledged" the king's "commitment" to "deliver reforms". In the cautious diplomatic language used by Burt, acknowledging the king's commitment to reform does not necessarily imply the king is keeping to it.

Similarly, Burt is reported as having "condemned the acts of terror and mounting street riots and sabotage, describing these tactics as totally unacceptable". His actual words were: "There have also been increasingly violent protests on the streets, which are unacceptable."

Unhelpfully (but perhaps wisely from the Bahrain News Agency's point of view) the BNA report does not include a link to Burt's original statement on the Foreign Office website. If it did, readers would see a very different story.

Far from heaping unalloyed praise on Bahrain's government, Burt echoed many of the cirticisms made by the NGOs and others – though none of that was mentioned in the BNA's version. Here is the relevant part:

"We are concerned by some of the recent decisions taken by the Bahraini government, particularly on human rights, and we’re clear that there are areas where progress on implementation has been too slow and others where it is lacking. 

"Much more needs to be done on relaxing censorship and allowing the opposition greater access to media, on integrating personnel from all communities in Bahrain into the security forces, and question marks remain on senior level accountability for the deaths and the allegations of torture following the unrest of 2011. The Bahraini government has itself acknowledged that more work still needs to be done and the UK stands ready and willing to assist in whatever way we can.

"The Commission’s report revealed deep-rooted issues that pose significant challenges for the Bahraini government and will take time to fully address, as will a change in behaviour and culture. There have also been increasingly violent protests on the streets, which are unacceptable. 

"As Bahrainis today mark the first anniversary of the landmark BICI report, we urge the Bahraini government to show a renewed sense of energy and commitment to implementing all the recommendations, and we call on all community leaders to play a constructive role in this process for the long-term stability of the kingdom."

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 26 November 2012. Comment.

Condoleezza's chaos theories

"The civil war in Syria may well be the last act in the story of the disintegration of the Middle East as we know it," Condoleezza Rice, who was US secretary of state under George W Bush, writes in an article for the Washington Post.

Considering that when Rice was in charge of the State Department she advocated "creative chaos" as the way forward for the region and famously hailed Israel's pointless bombing of Lebanon in 2006 as "the birth pangs of a new Middle East", she might be expected to welcome the end of "the Middle East as we know it". But apparently not.

Judging by the article, though, it's not so much the chaos that bothers Rice as the fact that the US is not more heavily involved in shaping it. The US, she says, is "leaving this to regional powers, whose interests are not identical to ours" and – horror of horrors – there's a risk that "Iran will win". Iran, she says (evoking memories of the Cold War), is the new Karl Marx calling on the workers of the world – or, in this case, the Shia of the world – to unite across national boundaries. 

Rice's article is a rather confused mish-mash but, if I've understood her argument correctly, she claims that almost all the Arab states are fragile and that Iran is bent on reshaping them – "destroying the integrity of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Lebanon" – using Syria as "the bridge".

She points out, correctly, that most of the Arab states are modern constructs, "created by the British and the French ... often without regard for ethnic and sectarian differences". They have been "held together for decades by monarchs and dictators", she says, and the danger now is that these "artificial states could fly apart".

There are certainly internal challenges of religion and ethnicity but Arab states are not unique in that respect. States, by definition, are human creations and in a sense they are all "artificial". There are also very few states, anywhere in the world (including the US), that can be considered ethnically and religiously homogenous – and most of them get by without the need for monarchs and dictators to hold them together.

Rice notes that the region's Kurds are "tempted by the hope of independent nationhood" and that these national aspirations could affect the territorial integrity of Turkey and Syria. She omits to mention that Iran also has a significant Kurdish population, and fails to explain why Iran – if the Kurds achieved statehood – would not be affected in a similar way. But maybe that would spoil her argument.

Rice's scaremongering about Iran is of course deeply ironic. In recent years, nobody did more to enhance Iran's influence in the region than the Bush administration (accidentally) through its invasion of Iraq in 2003. Ditto ethnic and sectarian tensions. But she brushes all that off by saying:

"In Iraq, after overthrowing Saddam Hussein, the United States hoped that a fledging multi-ethnic, multi-confessional democracy could do what authoritarians could not: give all of these groups a stake in a common future. To an extent it has, with elections repeatedly producing inclusive governments."

Never mind the years of sectarian bloodshed unleashed by the United States upon Iraq; according to Rice we should now be worried about the effect Syria is having on it. Iraq's "young and fragile" institutions are "groaning under the weight of the region’s broader sectarian explosion". 

"The conflict in Syria is pushing Iraq and others to the breaking point," she says.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 25 November 2012. Comment.

Yemen wages war on 'terror' bikes

In an effort to "instil discipline in the streets", Yemen's interior ministry has embarked on a controversial – and probably ill-fated – battle against unlicensed motorcycles, threatening to confiscate any that are used illegally. In the first week after the ban was introduced at the beginning of this month 507 unlicensed bikes were seized in the capital, Sana'a.

An previous attempt to impose the ban in September was postponed because of protests and a lack of facilities for registration.

Motorcycles are an increasingly popular mode of transport in Yemen and the number of bikes has more than doubled from 100,000 in 2010 to 250,000 today, according to police estimates. 

Countless poor Yemenis eke out a living by using their bikes to carry goods or pillion passengers and others need them to get to work. Bikes are also thought to be less vulnerable to drone strikes than cars.

Many of the have been smuggled into the country without paying customs duty, which is why they are unregistered. According to one rider, registration including the unpaid customs duty costs 40,000-50,000 riyals ($185-$230) – money that most can ill-afford – and losing their bikes will deprive them of their income.

The government's case is partly one of road safety: 200 Yemenis are said to have been killed in motorcycle accidents so far this year. But there is also another aspect to it.

Vehicles without licence plates are difficult to track, making unlicensed bikes a favoured means of transport for those who want to elude the authorities. Over the last few years, about 20 government officials have been assassinated in drive-by shootings involving motorbikes which are usually blamed on al-Qaeda.

According to al-Arabiya, the Yemeni branch of al-Qaeda recently advised its supporters – especially those travelling in Hadramout, Abyan and Shabwa – to use motorcycles rather than cars, since it is easier to avoid being monitored or arrested. It also recommended travelling "under hazy weather conditions" to reduce the risk of being targeted by drones.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 24 November 2012. Comment.

Bahrain, one year after BICI

It is exactly one year today since the report of the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) was published. The anniversary has brought a deluge of criticism from NGOs – all basically saying the government has done far too little during the last 12 months to implement the BICI's recommendations. Here is a round-up:

Bahrain Center for Human Rights

The BICI Reforms: Promises of Progress, a Worsening Reality

The BICI report was a scathing critique of the authority’s behaviour in the months following the start of the pro-democracy demonstrations in February 2011. It found that torture, extrajudicial killings, and warrantless arrests were common practice in Bahrain ... 

The King’s promise that he would implement sweeping reforms to address these violations was initially met with a cautious degree of optimism by the authors of this report and many governments and NGOs around the world. Swift and earnest reforms could have represented a strong step forwards towards national reconciliation. 

One year later, the government has had ample time to act, but has, in general, only made superficial progress. Today, we look at Bahrain and see a government that puts its efforts into presenting the image of reforms, while continuing to commit the same human rights violations; in certain respects, the situation has grown worse.

Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) 

One Year Later: Assessing Bahrain’s Implementation of the BICI Report

The Government of Bahrain has fully implemented three of the BICI report’s 26 recommendations. Two other recommendations were impossible for us to properly evaluate due to a lack of available information, and 15 recommendations have only been partially implemented. 

Finally, the government has made no meaningful progress toward six of the recommendations, which are precisely the most important steps that need to be taken – accountability for officials responsible for torture and severe human rights violations, the release of political prisoners, prevention of sectarian incitement, and the relaxation of censorship and controls on free expression.

Nearly as troubling as the failure to address key areas has been the unrealistic assessment by the Government of Bahrain of its own progress. Bahraini government officials, including the Ambassador to the United States, have claimed in public statements to have fully implemented 18 of the 26 recommendations. It is difficult to expect the government to make significant progress on the many unfulfilled recommendations while it maintains that most of those steps have already been completed.

Amnesty International

Bahrain: reform shelved, repression unleashed

A year after the groundbreaking report of the BICI, in light of the developments and steps taken in Bahrain, such as verdicts upholding prison sentences for opposition leaders, the jailing of activists, the ban of all protests, one is forced to wonder where Bahrain stands, and whether the reform process which initiated with the establishment of the BICI is now moribund, and Bahrain in full-scale repression. 

The legacy of the BICI report is fading fast, increasingly overshadowed by ongoing impunity for torture, the jailing of activists, and the ban on all protests. In the face of what increasingly appears to be a defunct reform process, those who have championed Bahrain’s record on reform must be increasingly forced to challenge the charade. 

Human Rights Watch

Bahrain: Promises unkept, rights still violated

“Bahrain deservedly got a lot of credit for appointing an independent body to assess the government’s violations, but a year later, authorities have still not carried out the key recommendations,” said Joe Stork, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch. “In fact, in many ways Bahrain’s human rights situation has only deteriorated since the king accepted the commission’s findings and recommendations.”

... The head of the independent commission, the Egyptian-American jurist M. Cherif Bassiouni, told Human Rights Watch that the government’s implementation of the BICI recommendations has been inadequate.

“A number of recommendations on accountability were either not implemented or implemented only half-heartedly,” Bassiouni said. “The public prosecution has yet to investigate over 300 cases of alleged torture, some involving deaths in custody, and there has been no investigation, let alone prosecution, for command responsibility, even at the immediate supervisory level, of people killed in custody as a result of torture.”

Human Rights First

One year later, Bahrain reform remains shallow promise

The situation in Bahrain is sliding in a frightening direction. The United States government must urgently reassess its position. The US presence in Bahrain is based on its strategic interests in the region. But if it continues to publicly support the King and give only muted support to human rights defenders and peaceful protesters, those strategic interests could land the US with a violent conflict. 

US interests explained why the administration gave the Bahraini regime a chance to reform, but now those same interests must guide the US government to acknowledge that the Kingdom failed, and it needs a new strategy. 

Now it’s time for the United States to get more public and more specific. It should immediately and publicly call for the release of political prisoners and introduce visa bans on those it believes responsible for violations until Bahrain demonstrates a real commitment to reform and an end to abuses. It should also appoint a senior representative to advocate for US interests in Bahrain, and to engage with the regional players who also have an interest in Bahrain’s stability.

The Bahrain crisis won’t just sort itself, and the longer it takes for any political negotiation to begin the more difficult it will be. Things have to turn around fast. If they don’t, it’s hard to imagine what things might look like this time next year.

Bahrain Justice and Development Movement

365 Days of Broken Promises – Violations after the BICI

On 23 November 2011, the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry published its report ... The King of Bahrain stood in front of the world and accepted the report's findings and promised full implementation ...

And yet one year on international rights groups, opposition groups, observers, governments and more all deny that full implementation has taken place ... 

One major complaint of those in Bahrain is that, despite official claims of implementation, nothing on the ground has changed in any shape or form. The violations highlighted in the report are continuing to this day on a regular basis and in recent weeks have escalated further.

Americans for Democracy and Human Rights in Bahrain (ADHRB)

Failing Grade: A Report Card on the Status of BICI Implementation

Noting that the king of Bahrain publicly accepted the BICI’s findings and agreed to fully implement its 26 core recommendations, the ADHRB has now issued a report card, together with a more detailed analysis, arguing that Bahrain has failed on implementation of all but one of the 26 recommendations.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 23 November 2012. Comment.

Teacher sacked over sexual harassment film

Calls are growing for the reinstatement of Dr Rula Qawas who was dismissed from her post as dean of the languages faculty at the University of Jordan over a film complaining about sexual harassment on the campus.

Last year, students from Qawas's feminist theory class made a two-and-a-half-minute video (above). Filmed mainly on the campus, it shows a series of female students holding up handwritten signs that reflect the language of sexual harassment: "Where did you get that pair?", "Give me a ride", "Strawberry lips", "Juicy bottom", etc.

The project was supervised by Qawas and her name appears in the credits at the end of the video. 

In June this year – more than six months after the film was made – someone posted it on YouTube and a fuss broke out in the Jordanian media. Critics accused the filmmakers of "promoting vice and stripping the society of its values" according to al-Arabiya, and the university's vice-president, concerned about damage to the institution's reputation, demanded an explanation from Qawas.

In September, according to the Committee on Academic Freedom of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA), Qawas learned from the newspapers that she had been removed from her post as dean, halfway through her appointed term.

The president of the university, Khleif al-Tarawneh, has claimed that her dismissal was "a purely administrative decision" but apart from the video there appear to have been no complaints about Qawas's abilities or performance. 

In a letter to Tarawneh, MESA says:

"In the absence of any documentation of poor performance of her administrative duties, and given the timing of Prof Qawas’s unseemly dismissal, we can only conclude that she was terminated as dean as a result of her work with the women in her class on the video on sexual harassment. 

"The University of Jordan has recently touted its intention to enter the ranks of the top 500 universities in the world. We respectfully submit that in order to do so, arbitrary dismissals such as that of Dean Qawas, as well as the systematic and unpunished sexual harassment of female students on the university campus, must come to an end. 

"We, therefore, call upon you to ensure that not only the norms of academic freedom, but also the basic human dignity of all students and faculty on the University of Jordan campus, will henceforth be respected and protected.

The Egyptian-based Arabic Network for Human Rights Information has also taken up her case, calling on the university to "return her to her job and stop any arbitrary practices against her". In addition, it urges the university "to seriously address the growing phenomenon of harassment in the campus, through open confrontation of the problem instead of burying their heads in the sand".

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 22 November 2012. Comment.

Weaning Yemen off qat

Anti-qat protest outside Yemen's parliament last weekend

In Yemen, old habits die hard and weaning the country off its predilection for chewing qat might appear to be the most hopeless of hopeless causes. For millions of Yemenis, the afternoon qat sessions are a national institution – and they do serve an important social and cultural function.

Critics, though, point out that qat chewing is a hugely expensive habit for an impoverished country, that growing the plants squanders inceasingly scarce water resources, and it damages the economy along with people's health.

On Sunday, several dozen Yemenis demonstrated outside the parliament building (see picture above) calling for a law to ban qat from government buildings. 

Their call seems to have found favour in one government department. Human rights minister Horriah Mashhour has now banned qat from the ministry during working hours. Employees are being urged to consume raisins, almonds and tea instead.

But the move has not gone unchallenged. One Yemeni on Twitter suggests that banning qat is a violation of human rights.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 22 November 2012. Comment.

Gulf states rally round Jordan's king

Last week's riots could turn out to be a blessing in disguise for King Abdullah of Jordan. Gulf monarchs, nervous about any challenges to hereditary rule in the Arab region, are now looking at ways to prop up his throne. In the Financial Times [subscription] Simeon Kerr reports:

"Days after demonstrations erupted against a cut in fuel subsidies – during which for the first time slogans targeted King Abdullah himself rather than his government – the foreign ministers of the oil-rich Gulf states are studying ways to reduce the kingdom's budget deficit, which is predicted by the IMF to reach 6.5% of gross domestic product in 2012.

"Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, who conceded that talks could take some time, said the Gulf Co-operation Council would look for ways to 'close or minimise the deficit', according to the UAE's official news agency.

"Sheikh Abdullah was addressing a news conference on Tuesday with Nasser Judeh, Jordanian foreign minister, after a meeting in Abu Dhabi."

Gulf newspapers have also been urging more support for the Jordanian king. In a column for the Saudi-owned Asharq Alawsat, Tariq Alhomayed, the paper's editor-in-chief, writes:

"Do we realise the all-encompassing danger present in the Kingdom of Jordan, and the size of the conspiracy that has been hatched against it, from numerous sides, whether by the Muslim Brotherhood, Israel, Iran or the extremists, or even some Arab gamblers, whose stories exceed all others?"

This is the sort of language more usually heard from Syrian Ba'athists blaming worldwide conspiracies for the uprising against the Assad regime. Alhomayed continues:

"The forces of evil in the region do not hesitate to take action – utilising money, material and men – to destabilise our region, as well as compromise the security and stability of Jordan. This, in itself, represents a danger that is in no way less than the danger that is on the verge of engulfing Bahrain and Kuwait, particularly as the King of Jordan has undertaken serious reforms ..."

The upshot is that "the security of Jordan is the security of the Arab Gulf, and the regional as a whole":

"Jordan must not remain alone in confronting these evils. So when will the Arab Gulf intellectuals, particularly in Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Kuwait take action in this regard and stand with Jordan before it is too late? ... It is also dangerous to wait for America’s position on this, especially following everything that we have seen from the US administration with regards to the Arab Spring."

In Kuwait, an article in the Arab Times headed "Stop Jordan from sinking" trundles out the well-worn argument that the Hashemite ruling family, with its "sagacity and wisdom", is a vital bulwark against Islamist extremism – and even raises the spectre of Jordan turning into another Somalia.

In Bahrain, Adel al-Mouawda, a prominent Salafi member of parliament, also called on the Gulf Cooperation Council to support the Jordanian government financially.

"The GCC countries should mobilise their forces and provide prompt assistance to contain the critical and ominous consequences. The GCC countries do have the financial capability to cover the subsidies and will not be affected by the move," he said. The report in Gulf News continues:

According to al-Mouawda, Jordan is an extension of the Gulf countries and its national security was "an essential part of the Gulf national security".

"The Gulf cannot accept the deterioration of the situation in Jordan, and it is our duty to help our brothers there. It is the right thing to do instead of wasting and squandering money on luxuries," he said.

In the past, Gulf rulers have dipped into their pockets to keep Jordan's economy afloat but a Reuters report last week said they were no longer "providing the cash that could calm the trouble".

"The kingdom has long relied on western support and intermittent dollops of Gulf financial aid to survive.

"But Saudi Arabia, Amman's main donor, is not known to have provided money since a $1.4 billion infusion in late 2011 to stave off a previous dire economic crisis in the kingdom ..."

(Interestingly, there was no mention of dwindling Gulf aid in the 
recent statement from the Jordanian embassy in Washington about the causes of the economic crisis – though it specifically blamed Egypt in connection with the interruption of natural gas supplies.)

So far, the regimes toppled by the Arab Spring uprisings have all been republics. The monarchies have held their ground and, increasingly, they are resorting to collective action in order to keep it that way – since the fall of one monarchy could weaken the others.

Last year, the GCC sent troops (mainly Saudis) to Bahrain to prop up the beleaguered monarchy there. There has also been talk of Jordan and Morocco joining the GCC – in effect turning what has hitherto been a club for the rich Arab states into a club for hereditary autocrats.

However, this closing of the royal ranks does not bode well for those seeking reform in Jordan. Increased dependence on Gulf aid will not encourage King Abdullah to grant his citizens more freedom and democracy – probably the opposite.

Across the Atlantic, there's more support for King Abdullah from right-wing elements suggesting that President Obama is "selling out" the king to the Muslim Brotherhood (Front Page magazine) or has "decided to get rid" of him (Gatestone Institute).

These bizarre claims are based on a press briefing given by Mark Toner, the State Department's deputy spokesman, on 15 November. Toner made very clear that "Jordan is an important strategic partner and ally of the United States, and we're very supportive of King Abdullah’s reform package" but he also said:

"There are concerns, economic and political concerns, aspirations by the Jordanian people. We believe that King Abdullah’s roadmap for reform addresses these, but certainly, as we’ve seen elsewhere, there’s a thirst for change."

Mention of "aspirations" and "thirst for change" rang alarm bells on the right. The Front Page article says:

"The last time people in Tunisia and Egypt had aspirations, we got Iran x 2. Jordan, where the Muslim Brotherhood’s base mainly consists of disenfranchised Palestinians, will be even worse."

The Gatestone Institute article adds:

"Unless the US clarifies its position regarding King Abdullah and reiterates its full backing for his regime, the Muslim fundamentalists are likely to step up their efforts to create anarchy and lawlessness in the kingdom. Washington needs to reassure King Abdullah and his followers that it would not allow the creation of an Islamic terror republic in Jordan."

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 21 November 2012. Comment.

Female politician resigns in Libya

There was a flurry of media interest earlier this year over women's participation in the Libyan elections. In May, Najat Kikhia, who teaches statistics at Benghazi University, became the only female member of the city's council and the first woman elected to public office. She secured more votes than any male candidate and, in the process, also won a seat on the National Transitional Council.

Six months later, though, Ms Kikhia has resigned in disillusion, complaining about "obvious and unfair hindrance practised by some local officials".

The exact reasons for her resignation are not very clear, though the Libya.TV website talks of a dispute about plans for developing Benghazi airport.

The Libya Herald notes that Ms Kikhia (pictured here brandishing an assault rifle) is the third person to resign from the local council. The council's first two presidents, Shahat Awami and Juma Sahli, left earlier. The Libya Herald continues:

"As with Awami and Sahli, Kikhia also aimed her fire at the central government in Tripoli and its apparent failure to provide the council with the necessary resources to carry out its work effectively.

"She accused the government of 'negligence and a lack of cooperation', repeating a grievance frequently heard from the Benghazi council that Tripoli had failed to transfer the full amount of pledged budgets."

The Libya Herald has since added a "correction" to its report which says:

"Najat al-Kikhia has subsequently contacted the Libya Herald to clarify that by 'officials' she was not referring to her elected colleagues on the local council, and that by 'unfair hindrance practised by some local officials, perhaps in defence of their interests and positions' she was not alleging corruption."

Separately, there are reports this morning that Faraj al-Deirsy, head of the Benghazi police, was shot dead outside his home last night.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 21 November 2012. Comment.

Syrian rebels' unnoticed gains

With events in Gaza dominating the news from the Middle East, the long-running conflict in Syria has slid down in the headlines. To the extent that Syria is being reported at all, the main story for several days has been of political wrangling over leadership of the opposition.

This is unfortunate, because important things are happening on the ground – largely unnoticed. Rebel fighters have made significant gains while the regime, despite its continuing ability to flatten whole streets with bombs and shellfire, appears to be making an unsteady retreat. 

At the weekend, after a siege of more than a month, rebels overran the 46th Division's base at Atarib, west of Aleppo city. The base, spread over 12 sq km and said to be the largest in northern Syria, had played a key role in the Assad regime's defence of Aleppo.

Here is a report from Andrew Simmons of al-Jazeera English:

For the rebels, disabling the Atarib base is a big step forward in itself but, with an eye on battles ahead, they also captured large amounts of weaponry (see Brown Moses blog). Here's a video of a captured tank being driven away:

Yesterday, two Islamist rebel groups – Ansar al-Islam and the Jund Allah Brigades – said they had overrun the Air Defence Battalion base near Hajar al-Aswad on the southern fringes of Damascus after four days of fighting.

Noting that this the nearest military base to the capital reported to have fallen to opposition fighters since the uprising began, Reuters reports:

Video footage showed rebels walking through the site, past destroyed anti-aircraft guns, and one commander saying on a walkie-talkie: "We have completely seized the compound."

Louay al-Dimashki, an opposition activist who said he had documented the fall of the base on video, said the rebels had targeted the compound with mortars then attacked in small groups, killing 14 loyalist troops and taking 35 prisoner.

"The fighters are taking whatever ammunition and weapons they can. They cannot hold on to the base because the regime will hit them from the air," Dimashki said by phone.

Amidst all the turmoil, and with fighting in so many different places, it's easy to lose sight of the broader picture. Casualties still mount relentlessly but the trend now is clearly in the rebels' direction.

Writing for EAWorldView, James Miller says:

"Eventually, without a complete reversal of fate, the FSA will have a united front from Lattakia to Aleppo city. The regime has not won a noteworthy military victory in this territory in over two months, and without fresh supplies and reinforcements for the Assad military, and in light of significant surges in troops and equipment in the ranks of the insurgents, this trend is unlikely to reverse."

Meanwhile, the regime seems to be hunkering down in Damascus – parts of which it was also bombing heavily yesterday. Miller writes:

"The Assad regime is retreating, pulling many units towards the capital and leaving its garrisons to fend for themselves - and they are fending poorly. Meanwhile, the FSA continues to ratchet up pressure on the capital, and despite the fact that Damascus is now the highest priority of the Assad military, those advances are accelerating."

Here is a scene posted on YouTube yesterday of residents in Harasta (north-eastern suburbs of Damascus) trudging along a ruined street with their belongings:

This doesn't mean that the fall of the regime is imminent. But it does mean the regime is now well beyond any point from which it can seriously hope to recover. And, as the rebels capture more and more of its own weapons, its decline is likely to quicken. 

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 20 November 2012. Comment.

Jordan: the royal fightback

King Abdullah of Jordan paid tribute to his security forces yesterday while visiting injured officers in hospital: "They are our brothers and our sons, who displayed the highest level of professionalism, responsibility and wisdom in dealing with the recent events," he said.

Fifty-eight police officers were reportedly injured during last week's riots which also led to the death of one activist.

In what appears to be a government fightback on the public relations front, Petra – the official news agency – says "tribal chiefs and community leaders" (who are not named) also visited injured security personnel in hospital. 

"A Public Security Department (PSD) statement said on Sunday that the visitors had expressed their regret to see those protecting lives and property in hospital and falling victim 'at the hands of treachery of a stray group targeting Jordan's security and the lives of its people'."

Petra also says it has been sent statements from more than a dozen tribes across the kingdom "in which they denounced the riots and the targeting of security forces".

Another of Petra's news items says that in Naour, 30km southwest of Amman, representatives of the local community " 
shared lunch with the district’s police station personnel and 15 other stations and gendarmerie personnel at various posts".

"The organisers said that the initiative is 'a small fraction of our debt to public security personnel', who are undergoing 'so much to protect us and our properties'."

The Jordan Times also reports complaints from shopkeepers in Amman's upmarket district of Jabal Hussein, blaming demonstrators for lost business.

"Store owners and employees were forced to ask customers to leave their stores immediately as they rushed to close their shops, fearing that they would be damaged during last week’s demonstrations over the lifting of fuel subsidies.

"Noting that their sales have been on the decline over the past few weeks and they hardly make profits, owners of shops in Jabal Hussein said the demonstrations in the area only worsened the situation."

Meanwhile the Associated Press reports that 89 people 
have been charged with "inciting violent revolt" and could face up to 15 years in jail. A further 39 are still being questioned.

Reuters has a slightly different version. Citing judicial officials, it says 130 demonstrators, many of them in their teens, are being detained for 15 days and could be charged with "threatening to undermine the regime, illegal gathering, and creating civil strife" – charges that Reuters says could result in up to five years' jail.

Reuters says convictions in such cases are rare, adding that "dozens of protesters arrested for insulting [King] Abdullah during smaller Arab Spring-inspired demonstrations were pardoned".

Musa Abdallat, a human rights lawyer quoted by Reuters, says: "They have been arrested to put pressure on them to retreat from their stances. Putting them in prison for their political views only leads to more frustration."

More protests

The Jordanian Teachers' Association (JTA), which initially called a one-day strike for Sunday, has now extended it for a second day. Apparently, this is so that the JTA can take part in the demonstration called for today by the Jordanian Professional Associations. 

The JTA claims that 70% of government schools for males, and 65% of female schools took part in the strike on Sunday, with the highest participation in Ma'an governorate and the lowest in Mafraq and Zarqa.

However, the Jordan Times quotes education ministry spokesperson Ayman Barakat as saying that classes in 90% of schools went as "usual" on Sunday, "denying the accusations made by the syndicate that the ministry has forced striking teachers to give classes".

The JTA says it is also planning to bring a lawsuit against the Public Security Department (PSD) for arresting six teachers who took part in the protests last week.

Yesterday, the National Front for Reform (NFR), a coalition of pro-reform movements headed by former prime minister Ahmad Obeidat, called for a major demonstration to be held in Amman on 30 November under the banner of "popular revolt for reform".

The Islamic Action Front, the political arm of the Brotherhood, sent a letter to prime minister Abdullah Ensour yesterday, urging him to either freeze or rescind the fuel price rises that triggered last week's riots, and to release detainees.

Reuters quotes the letter as saying:

"The country's stability should be a bigger concern than enforcing the price rise. It's clear your decision was based on fiscal considerations and did not take into consideration its political and social impact."

Such criticisms from the Brotherhood are not unexpected but, more alarmingly for the king, Reuters notes that the government's austerity package has also alienated some of the monarch's core supporters:

"The chants against Abdullah [heard during demonstrations last week] were an escalation in demands by Jordan's tribes, the kingdom's original inhabitants that form the backbone of support for the ruling Hashemite dynasty. 

"The tribes depend on state perks and have been angered by the austerity moves that would cost them privileges and state jobs."

Fuel crisis

Explaining the government's reasons for lifting fuel subsidies, the Jordanian embassy in Washington placed disruption of natural gas supplies from Egypt at the top of its list.

"Disruption in Jordan’s long-standing gas supply from Egypt has doubled Jordan’s energy bill and drastically increased its deficit,"
it said. The lack of gas from Egypt has apparently forced Jordan to buy diesel to make up its energy shortfall.

Egypt now says it aims to restore Jordan's gas supplies in full by the middle of next month. The Egypt Independent reports:

"On Sunday, [Egypt's] petroleum minister Osama Kamal said now that demand for gas from Egypt’s electricity sector has declined, the government will be able to resume pumping to Jordan in full ...

"Egypt currently pumps only 70 million cubic feet of gas per day to Jordan, less than a third of the 240 million cubic feet per day specified in a 2004 agreement. Kamal explained that Egypt had to reduce its flow to Jordan as it prioritises gas distribution to its local market.

"The supply between Egypt and Jordan has been interrupted 15 times since 5 February 2011, as Sinai militants have repeatedly attacked the pipeline."

Meanwhile, the Jordan Times has an article urging householders to go "off-grid" and produce their own solar electricity.

What next?

Alistair Burt, the British foreign office minister with responsibility for the Middle East, was in Jordan on Sunday and "hailed His Majesty King Abdullah II's efforts to establish parliamentary democracy in Jordan," according to the official news agency, Petra.

Burt's actual words are not quoted on the foreign office website, so at present we have only Petra's version:

"The British minister said during a meeting with a number of journalists in Amman on Sunday, that the hardships the kingdom is going through cannot be isolated from the economic conditions and austerity policies pursued by many countries of the region and the world.

"He pointed out that his country supports efforts aimed at political dialogue and peaceful demonstration and renounces any kind of violence."

Assuming these remarks are accurately reported, they closely echo earlier comments from the US State Department. Britain, like the US, seems to be taking a very charitable view of King Abdullah's lacklustre "efforts to establish parliamentary democracy" over the last 13 years.

Also, while it's true that gobal economic conditions are a factor in Jordan's plight, American and British officials seem very reluctant to acknowledge that the king and his succession of ineffective governments have played any part in it.

It's all very well to argue that belt-tightening is a necessity but that is not going to be accepted by the public when so many Jordanians believe their country is run – often incompetently – by people on the make.

An article in the Australian Financial Review says:

"A main cause of anger is the formation of governments in Jordan, appointed by the king in a process shrouded in secrecy, which observers say has led to extensive patronage networks and an atmosphere of unaccountability ...

"Despite a series of initiatives, national dialogue gatherings, and constitutional amendments, protesters have said that citizens’ core demands have yet to be met: corruption has gone unaddressed, lawmakers have failed to alter an electoral system that allegedly panders to the regime’s loyalists and the power to appoint governments remains with the monarch."

The article includes quotes from several Jordanians which reflect this mood:

  • Mohammed Abu Rumman, political analyst at the University of Jordan Centre for Strategic Studies: "These riots are proof that the public has lost all trust or faith in the state and officials have to address this gap immediately."

  • Maher Abu Tayer, political analyst at al-Dustour newspaper: "This crisis is no longer a security issue or an economic issue – it is about the very political future of Jordan itself ... People are fed up with the way the country has been run in the past few years. This decision [on fuel subsidies] was the final straw."

  • Batir Wardim, political observer: "For years, governments have been unresponsive to the needs or demands of the people. After the Arab Spring, the people simply will no longer allow themselves to be governed the same way."

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 19 November 2012. Comment.

Deleted items

Several items from this month's blog have accidentally been deleted. If any reader happens to have copies of any of them, please email me

The deleted items are:

  • Buying time in Jordan

  • Jordan's protesters turn against king

  • Saudis disown 'torture' girl's father

  • Bahrain: 'No meaningful progress'

  • Jordan: anatomy of a political mess

  • Gunfire as Jordan protests continue

  • Arab Idol: a TV dilemma for Muslims

  • Jordan's protesters deride the king

UAE goes to war against the internet

As soon as Arabs started using the internet their rulers started hankering after ways to control it – almost invariably making themselves look silly and out-of-touch in the process. 

Saudi Arabia, as might be expected, was one of the front-runners in internet paranoia and the kingdom's first rules for internet users in 2001 were a classic of the genre. Among many other things, the public were forbidden from even looking at web pages containing "subversive ideas".

Now, more than a decade later – and undeterred by all the previous failed attempts – Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan, president of the UAE, has issued Federal Legal Decree No 5, described as "the most detailed piece of legislation" ever promulgated in the Gulf on the subject of "cyber crimes".

Ali al-Jarman, a partner in the Dubai law firm Prestige Advocates, enthuses about it in The National. "This new law has managed to encompass everything needed to safeguard against the possible violations that can take place in this rapidly evolving technology," he is quoted as saying.

Gulf News describes the new law point by point (Arabic version here) but it can be summarised very simply by saying that use of the internet for anything the authorities happen to dislike can land you in jail. 

For example, it is an imprisonable offence to "call for the engagement in or the promotion of sins" or to "call for demonstrations, marches and similar activities without a licence being obtained in advance". 

Offenders can also be detained for unlimited periods in "a rehabilitation centre or a treatment facility".

One effect of the decree is to ban online political dissent. It forbids the use of "information technology" to "deride or to damage the reputation or the stature of the state or any of its institutions, its President, the Vice President, any of the Rulers of the emirates, their Crown Princes, the Deputy Rulers, the national flag, the national anthem, the emblem of the state or any of its symbols," along with anything that might damage "social peace".

This includes cartoons that pose "threats" to the "highest interests" of the state.

It is also a crime to provide, via information technology, "inaccurate or incorrect information" that might harm the "reputation and stature" of the state.

Of course, laws such as this reflect a more generalised problem with legislation in authoritarian states. Decrees are issued from on high without much public scrutiny or prior debate – and the result is unrealistic provisions that are impossible to enforce, along with sloppy drafting that leaves judges free to interpret the rules more or less as they like.

There is often an implicit assumption, too, that the internet is somehow special and distinct from everyday life. This can be seen in the new UAE law which also legislates against using the internet for unauthorised trade in firearms, human trafficking, terrorism, invasion of privacy, etc, etc. 

There is no need for that. Existing laws ought to cover trade in firearms, human trafficking, terrorism and the like, regardless of whether the internet is involved or not.

Ultimately, laws are useless unless there is compliance by the public – and this one is likely to be widely flouted, bringing ridicule upon its Canute-like authors. As one comment on Twitter put it:

"UAEs new internet law basically bans the internet. It would be scary, if the UAE was actually ruled by law."

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 13 November 2012. Comment.

Saudi 'torture' girl's father detained

Yesterday I wrote about the case of a five-year-old girl who was allegedly tortured to death by her father, a religious scholar who is described as a "well-known" TV preacher. I also wondered whether the authorities would investigate properly and take action against the father if the allegation proved to be true.

It appears that they are indeed investigating. A Saudi newspaper now reports that the father has been detained and "transferred to the general prosecution for questioning". 

The directorate of health affairs in Riyadh also says a medical report on the girl's death will be provided to "concerned parties".

That, at least, is a start. How far it will go is another matter.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 13 November 2012. Comment.

Former intelligence chief jailed in Jordan

Mohammed al-Dahabi, a former head of Jordanian intelligence, has been sentenced to 13 years in jail for "embezzling public funds, money laundering and abuse of public office". 

He has also been fined $30 million and ordered to return the $34 million he is said to have laundered and embezzled while in office from 2005 to 2008.

The BBC says he was arrested after the Central Bank of Jordan became suspicious [not surprisingly!] of the large transactions going through his account.

The severity of the sentence seems to have surprised Dahabi's lawyers who, according to the Jordan Times, were expecting him to get two years in jail.

Dahabi was reportedly accused of taking money from wealthy Iraqi businessmen to engage in money laundering activities and also helping them to obtain Jordanian nationality in return for bribes.

It is unlikely that Dahabi could have carried out these activities without others being involved, or at least knowing what was happening and keeping quiet.

Also, corruption is so widespread in Jordan that Dahabi is unlikely to have been prosecuted simply because his criminality was uncovered: there were probably other factors at work too.

One theory, discussed by Nisreen el-Shamayleh, al-Jazeera's correspondent in Jordan, is that the government needed a scapegoat:

"The government has been trying hard to show it is serious about fighting corruption. Jordanian protesters believe sweeping economic and political reforms cannot be achieved without a brutal war on corruption.

"By punishing Dahabi and others, the government feels it will calm the nerves of protesters and stop accusing the authorities of overlooking and even condoning corruption by its officials ...

"Critics argue that Dahabi has been singled out and set up as a political scapegoat. The verdict settles scores between Dahabi and the leadership on the one hand, and placates an angry public calling for an end to corruption on the other. The result: two birds hit by one stone.

"Nonetheless, both the trial and the verdict are indeed significant. Dahabi is only the second former intelligence chief to be tried and convicted of corruption after Sameeh Battikhi, who received a five year prison sentence, which he spent under house arrest in his Aqaba home."

Another possibility, according to the Impatient Bedouin blog, is that Dahabi was exposed because of what he knew about others:

"As intelligence chief, he may also have been in a position to know about the actions of other corrupt officials, and might have at some point disclosed information about them. In a political environment that is changing rapidly, such a worry would likely have crossed the minds of those who arranged his downfall."

Whatever the reasons for Dahabi's prosecution, while Jordanians are said to have welcomed the tough sentence there is still a belief that it leaves a web of high-level corruption largely intact. The underlying problem here is a lack of effective mechanisms for holding officials to account.

The Impatient Bedouin notes that a new Jordanian law to tackle "illicit fortunes" is being prepared for submission to the next parliament. But whether that will change much remains to be seen:

"With much of the opposition boycotting the January 23 election the next parliament is likely to be dominated (like the previous one) by supporters and allies of the king ...

"The justice minister tasked with overseeing the anti-corruption department will owe his position to a prime minister allied with the king, chosen by a parliament that much of the public considers illegitimate. 

"Until the fundamentally undemocratic elements of the way Jordan is governed are changed such steps will represent nothing more than cosmetic measures ..."

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 12 November 2012. Comment.

Saudi preacher said to have tortured five-year-old daughter to death

There's a horrific story on al-Arabiya's website which claims that a Saudi religious scholar who is also a "well-known" TV preacher tortured his five-year-old daughter to death.

The girl died a few days ago in a Riyadh hospital "after weeks of suffering from broken arms, a skull fracture and head bruises", al-Arabiya says, quoting her mother.

"The medical report indicated that Lamaa was tortured with whips and electric shocks. She was even burned with an iron, the mother said.

"The hospital matron said the man admitted to beating his daughter, but did not explain why."

According to the report, the parents are divorced and had an agreement about sharing the care of their daughter.

In al-Arabiya's story, the dead girl is identified only by her first name – Lamaa – and neither parent is named. The story, as it stands, is rather thin on verified facts and should probably be treated with some caution at this stage.

However, the story does indicate that a public prosecutor in Hotat Bani Tamim, 160km south of Riyadh, is aware of the case – which raises the question of what (if anything) the Saudi authorities are doing about it. 

What steps are they taking to ascertain if the mother's account is correct? And if it is, what action will they take against the girl's father?

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 12 November 2012. Comment.

Saudis face 'seeds of discord' trial

Saudi Arabia's new interior minister, Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, is "perceived as progressive, efficient and result-orientated" according to columnist Hussein Shobokshi. One test of that will be whether his ministry continues to pursue several Saudi rights activists who are currently facing ridiculous charges.

Two of the activists – Mohammed al-Qahtani and Abdullah al-Hamid – appeared in court again on Saturday, only to have their case adjourned for a further two weeks.

Both are charged with a similar set of "crimes" for which they could be sentenced to five years in jail, along with a travel ban and a hefty fine.

Here is a list of the actual charges (translation from the official 
Arabic text provided by Ahmed al-Omran):

1. Attempting to plant the seeds of discord and strife, breaking allegiance to the ruler and his successor, questioning the integrity of and insulting state officials.

2. Questioning the integrity and piety of the members of the Senior Ulema Council by – falsely – accusing it to be a tool that approves government policies in return for financial and moral support as in the case of forbidding street protests.

3. Accusing Saudi judiciary in its regulations and applications of being unable to deliver justice for breaching the standards set by Islamic Sharia.

4. Accusing Saudi judiciary of being unjust by allowing torture and accepting confessions extracted under duress.

5. Accusing the Saudi regime – unfairly – of being a police state built on injustice and oppression veiled in religion, and using the judiciary to legitimize injustice to continue its systematic approach to violate human rights.

6. Inciting public opinion by accusing security bodies and their senior officials of oppression, torture, assassination, enforced disappearances, and violating human rights.

7. Antagonizing international organizations against the Kingdom, and instigating them to focus on criticizing the Kingdom’s civic, political, economical, social and cultural fundamentals.

8. Co-founding an unlicensed organization and making it appear as a reality by which he attempts to oppose state policy, spread divisiveness and disunity, spread accusations against the state’s judiciary and executive institutions and senior officials of injustice and transgressions; engaging in specialities that affect others’ rights and freedoms and the encroachment upon the specialties of governmental and non-governmental organizations (Human Rights Commission, National Society for Human Rights) and participating in writing statements released by them and publishing it on the internet.

9. Preparing, storing and sending what could affect general order which is punishable by Section 1 in Article 6 of the E-Crimes law.

10. Describing the General Intelligence body [mabaheth] as illegal militias.

11. Providing false information as true facts and delivering them to official international bodies (UN Human Rights Council) which includes statements he delivered to these international organizations about proceedings regarding suing individuals that he gave which contradicts the truth and reality documented in official papers.

Amnesty International has been urging the Saudi government to 
drop the case against them since "it appears to be based solely on their legitimate work to defend human rights in Saudi Arabia and their criticism of the authorities".

Hamid, 65, and Qahtani, 46, are co-founders of the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA), a human rights NGO which appears to be the "unlicensed organisation" mentioned in the charge sheet.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 11 November 2012. Comment.

Bahrain: discrimination and citizenship

Bahrain's decision to revoke the citizenship of 31 men – all of them reported to be Shia Muslims – is just one side of a discriminatory policy operated by the kingdom's Sunni rulers. The other side is that they readily grant citizenship to Sunni Muslims from a variety of countries.

This practice is known in Bahrain as al-tajnis al-siyasi – "political naturalisation". In an article for the Carnegie Endowment, Marina Ottaway explained:

"The population of Bahrain is predominantly Shia. Estimates range from as high as 75% in the past to about 65% at present – but these figures are imprecise. The decrease is the result of an extraordinary attempt to change the composition of the population in order to dilute the Shia presence. 

"While the government has never admitted the existence of such a programme, there is no doubt that the regime has granted Bahraini citizenship to thousands of Sunni immigrants – estimates vary widely, from about 60,000 people (according to Bahraini human rights sources), to as much as double that figure."

Considering that it is very difficult if not impossible to obtain citizenship in most Arab Gulf countries – the bidoun of Kuwait are one example – Bahrain's policy is certainly unusual. Even when the tiny population (thought to be around one million Bahraini nationals) is taken into account, it is unlikely to change the demographic balance overnight but its blatantly discriminatory character causes resentment.

In theory, there are strict requirements for obtaining Bahraini citizenship: Arabs should have lived there for 15 years, and non-Arabs for 25 years. But according to the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights (BCHR), the reality is different:

"The authorities in Bahrain followed discriminatory policy, by secretly and exceptionally granting citizenship ... to thousands of individuals and families of Sunni tribal origins, though they already hold citizenships of other countries and residential conditions do not apply to them. 

"On the other hand, thousands of eligible people were denied citizenship although most of them had no other citizenship and did not live in any other country besides Bahrain. This denial created difficulties for 'stateless' people especially in owning properties, having jobs, and travelling or mobility."

This has been going on for almost 20 years. The BCHR cites one example where members of the Saudi al-Dawaser tribe were brought to Bahrain, and naturalised, for the specific purpose of taking part in elections to the Council of Representatives. The people involved had never lived in Bahrain, though the king later justified their naturalisation on the grounds that their ancestors had lived there in the 1920s.

More controversially still, many of Bahrain's new citizens – especially Pakistanis – work in the security forces and have thus become identified with repression.

Meanwhile some details have emerged about the 31 named yesterday as having been stripped of their citizenship – supposedly for posing a threat to state security. According to reports from the BBC, the New York Times and the Guardian, they include:

  • Jawad Fairuz, former MP and member of al-Wefaq, the largest opposition group. He is currently in London and faces a jail sentence on charges that include "illegal gathering" in Bahrain.

  • Jalal Fairuz, brother of Jawas, who is also a former MP and, according to the NYT, has never been charged with any crime.

  • Saeed al-Shehabi, a journalist and head of the Bahrain Freedom Movement, who has lived in London since the 1970s.

  • Ali Mushaima, son of the jailed al-Haqq leader, Hassan Mushaima. In April, Ali Mushaima staged a protest on the roof of Bahrain's embassy in London.

  • Three Shia clerics: Hussein Mirza, Khaled Mansour Sanad and Alawi Sharaf.

  • A university professor based in Sweden.

Noting that the Fairuz brothers are both in London, the Guardian says they "may now be forced to make high-profile asylum applications that will be awkward for the relationship between the British and Bahraini governments". 

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 8 November 2012. Comment.

Bahrain strips 31 of their citizenship

The authorities in Bahrain have issued a list of 31 people who are to be stripped of their citizenship in an apparent punishment for opposing the regime.

The announcement, posted on the interior ministry's website earlier today, gave no specific reasons but the ministry said it was taking action under "clause (c) of Article (10) of the Citizenship Law which permits the revocation of nationality when a holder of the Bahraini citizenship causes damage to state security".

"This move is reminiscent of past government crackdowns in the 1980s when the past emir, Salman bin Isa al-Khalifa, revoked the citizenship of a number of citizens," the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights (BYSHR) and the Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) said in a joint statement.

"The BYSHR and the BCHR express grave concern over the systematic targeting of prominent political activists, former members of parliament, clerics and others. The Bahraini authorities did not provide substantial evidence as to why these individuals' citizenships have been revoked, nor has the government issued a formal notification that their citizenship has been revoked prior to the press release ...

"It is apparent that the actions taken by the Bahraini authorities to revoke the citizenships of 31 individuals is intended to punish them for expressing peaceful dissent and thereby intimidate others from exercising their right to freedom of expression. This comes at a time when the crackdown in Bahrain by the authorities is intensifying, and in light of continued international inaction, will continue to deteriorate ...

"In depriving these Bahrainis of their nationality for exercising their right to peaceful expression, the Bahrain authorities have disproportionately enacted punitive measures against its citizens leaving them stateless and thereby issuing arbitrary dispossessions of nationality."

The interior ministry says it will now "take the necessary measures" to implement its decision "in conformity with the kingdom's commitments under international law".

Article 15 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights says: "No one shall be arbitrarily deprived of [their] nationality." 

This disgraceful practice is nothing new as far as the Bahraini authorities are concerned. Here is a quote from an old Amnesty International press release dated 1993:

"Amnesty International opposes forcible exile when it is imposed as a formal measure by governments against nationals of their own country.

"Amnesty International has received countless reports of the forcible exile of Bahraini nationals from Bahrain since the early 1980s. At that time, in the wake of an alleged coup attempt, members of the majority Shi'a community suspected of having links with Iran were forcibly expelled to Iran. 

"Former political detainees and even entire families have testified that they were rounded up, stripped of their Bahraini passports or identity papers and forced to board small boats bound for Iran, even though they had no knowledge of that country or its language. Sometimes, those expelled were even supplied by the Bahraini authorities with false documents stating that they were born in Iran and were Iranian citizens.

"In one harrowing case, the wife of a political prisoner described to Amnesty International how she had resisted forcible exile with other members of her family, including her 22-month-old child. Although she was eight months pregnant, she was forced to board a fishing craft together with more than 20 other families and former political prisoners, their hands still handcuffed. All were told to surrender Bahraini passports and birth certificates and were given new documents stating that they were born in Iran. She gave birth shortly after the four-day crossing to Iran."

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 7 November 2012. Comment.

Halloween 'devil worship' in Jordan

The Islamic Action Front – the political wing of the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan – has called on the government to prosecute "worshippers of demons". 

The IAF's call for a crackdown came after protesters attacked a café in Amman which was holding a Halloween party last Thursday night.

About 200 men gathered outside the cafe in the affluent Abdoun district and began throwing stones, the Jordan Times says, quoting a police spokesman. The group were dispersed by police with no arrests or injuries, the paper adds:

The men gathered near the café late Thursday night, following reports published in several local news websites earlier in the day saying that “devil worshippers and gays” were going to attend a party in the premises.

The following day, the awning at the entrance of the café was set on fire by unknown individuals, but “no one filed a complaint and no one was arrested either,” the police official added, noting that it was just a party.

“The men attempted to storm into the premises but were stopped by Gendarmerie Forces,” an eyewitness told The Jordan Times.

The incident caused a traffic jam for about half an hour in the area, the eyewitness noted.

Yesterday, in a letter to the Jordanian prime minister, the secretary-general of the Islamic Action front, Hamza Mansour, claims that "these practices" (Halloween parties, Devil worship, etc) and not only "contrary to the teachings of our religion" and "authentic" Jordanian values but also "a violation of our constitution which stipulates that the religion of the state is Islam".

Jordan also has a small but ancient Christian community (dating back to the time of Jesus) and Article 14 of the constitution allows religious freedom – though with some important qualifications:

"The State shall safeguard the free exercise of all forms of worship and religious rites in accordance with the customs observed in the Kingdom, unless such is inconsistent with public order or morality."

The attack on the café hosting the Halloween party thus looks like an attempt to bring the "public order" argument into play and thus justify a ban.

But can Halloween parties really be considered a "form of worship" or a "religious rite"? Most people, these days, just regard them as a bit of ghoulish fun.

Aren't there bigger issues for Jordanians to get steamed up about?

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 6 November 2012. Comment.

Kuwaiti protesters face teargas

Despite a government ban on public gatherings of more than 20 people, thousands of Kuwaiti protesters succeeded in blocking the capital's outer ring road briefly before riot police confronted them with stun grenades and teargas yesterday.

AFP reports:

After elite special forces and police completely sealed off the original protest site in Kuwait City, organisers told supporters via Twitter to gather instead at Mishref, 20 kilometres (12 miles) from the capital.

Although most roads leading to the new location were quickly closed off by police, thousands of people still managed to get through and immediately started marching.

They briefly cut off the sixth ring road, the main motorway in the south of Kuwait before calling off the demonstration barely an hour after it began.

Organisers later announced the end of the protest, declaring it a success but without announcing plans for further demonstrations.

"After we have expressed our message of rejecting any play in the constitution, we announce the end of the procession," said the organisers on their Twitter account named "The Dignity of a Nation".

The organisers appear to have been concerned that the situation was about to turn ugly. Gulf News says: "Many stressed that they were opposed to the government and not their 'brothers' in the security forces." (One much re-tweeted picture shows a demonstrator helping a policeman who was apparently suffering from the effects of teargas.) 

For local media reports of yesterday's events see the Kuwait Times and Arab Times.

This was the third major protest since 21 October and, with almost a month to go before the parliamentary elections scheduled for 1 December, it is unlikely to be the last – unless a deal can be worked out in the meantime.

Kuwait's latest political crisis was triggered by what Marc Lynch 
describes as "a series of unusually provocative steps by both the royal family and the opposition, in the context of a long-running battle over the powers of parliament and accountability for the royal family".

Reuters (via the Guardian) explains:

Next month's elections will be the second in Kuwait this year after an opposition bloc made up of Islamists, liberals and tribal leaders won a majority in polls in February.

That parliament was effectively dissolved by a court ruling in June that reinstated a more pro-government assembly, but the old legislature was unable to meet due to a boycott by lawmakers leading to another dissolution and a call by the emir for snap elections to end the deadlock.

The emir then announced changes to the electoral law last month which some opposition politicians say are an attempt to give pro-government candidates an advantage in the polls.

Opposition leaders have said they will boycott the elections and have called for demonstrations. 

Late yesterday, in an attempt to defuse the situation, the emir met four opposition figures – the first such meeting since the dispute began several weeks ago. The meeting seems to have been amicable but it's unclear whether the emir is planning to offer significant concessions or merely hoping to fob the protesters off. 

According to AFP, the emir hinted at a possible solution through the constitutional court:

Former MP Mohammad Hayef said on Twitter that the emir told them he would accept that the constitutional court rule on the disputed amendment to the electoral constituency law which triggered the current stand-off.

However, there is no mention of that in the official account of the meeting from the Kuwaiti government news agency, Kuna. It merely says the emir is "ready" to approve a demonstration if he receives a formal request:

A number of Kuwaiti figures praised on Sunday after meeting with His Highness the Amir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Jaber al-Sabah, held at al-Seif Palace, with various comments of cordial and amicable sentiments towards His Highness, especially his ongoing meetings and candid conversations with his guests.

Iehyaa al-Turath (Reviving Heritage Society) member Dr Tareq Sami al-Issa said that the meeting was friendly and issues of the discussions highlighted developments in the country, stressing that the society adheres to his command and appreciates his leadership to end the standoff in the country.

Dr al-Issa added that His Highness the Amir has expressed readiness to cooperate and give approval of staging a demonstration, if the authorities receive a formal request to hold such a march, and to end the current standoff.

Meanwhile, Dr Wael Mohammad al-Hasawi said the meeting was like a gathering between a father and his sons, adding HH the Amir was keen on listening to them. His Highness also expressed keenness on preserving security of the country.

Al-Hasawi expressed wishes as well to keep Kuwait and its people safe during this ordeal.

For his part, Bader Shaikhan al-Farsi said the current crisis is temporary and "Kuwait will be restored as a country of security and safety under the leadership of His Highness the Amir".

Elsewhere in the Gulf, though, this is not viewed as a purely Kuwaiti affair. Common sense suggests the emir ought to make a deal before things get out of hand but other traditional monarchs in the region are watching nervously and may be urging him to hold firm.

A tweet yesterday from Dubai's police chief, Dhahi Khalfan, expressed what is probably a widespread view among the neighbouring regimes. The "whole" of the Arab Gulf, he said, is "standing behind Sabah and his government, and the loyal men Kuwait, for its security and stability".

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 5 November 2012. Comment.

Yemen: a marriage made in hell

In a report from Yemen, Leila al-Fuhaidi of AFP highlights an unusual practice that can lead to happily married couples being forced to divorce.

The practice – found mainly in rural areas – involves an "exchange" marriage known as sheghar, where two men from different families each marry the other's sister.

It's especially attractive to poor families, since no dowry is required (and in Yemen the size of dowries can often make marriage prohibitive).

Problems with sheghar arise if one of the marriages breaks down. The "exchange" agreement becomes void and the other couple also have to separate – whether or not they want to.

Fuhaidi writes:

One of the reasons leading to the spread of swap marriages in rural areas is the lack of education for women who remain too weak to reject the will of their male-dominated families.

Most women in Yemen do not have the option of disobeying the family because that would amount to challenging the whole clan, which is far more concerned about preserving its honour than it is about the life of a woman on the verge of losing her family.

Ali and Nasser married each other's sisters. After several years, Ali divorced his wife. But when his sister refused to leave Nasser, her family and cousins stormed her house and forced Nasser to divorce her.

The dispute led to armed clashes between the two families which resulted in the death of Nasser's brother-in law.

"The revenge is yet to be settled between the two families," said Saeed al-Waeli, a relative of the victim.

Fuhaidi notes that religious authorities disapprove of sheghar marriages, saying they conflict with the rules of sharia.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 3 November 2012. Comment.

Parliament or president?

In the first of the "Arab Spring" countries – Tunisia and Egypt – political debate now centres on the drafting of a new constitution. In both cases there is much discussion about the role of Islam in relation to the state and the rights of women (here and here, for example). But there is far less discussion about another issue which is at least as important: their future system of government.

The question here concerns the relative powers of the legislative and executive branches. Interestingly, Egypt seems to be leaning in one direction – with a strong president and executive – while Tunisia is leaning in the other, towards a strong parliament.

In a critical look at Egypt's draft constitution, Ellis Goldberg, a professor of political science at the University of Washington writes:

"On balance it looks as if ... the drafters of the Egyptian constitution envisage a civil state based on a very powerful executive authority rooted in but not directly managed by an elected president. 

"Educated professionals will play a dominant role in administration and legislation. The new state will have obligations to the sixty percent of Egyptians who are poor or illiterate but they will have no role in its institutions and relatively little in its politics. The political elite will engage in competitive elections over power and the military and the judiciary will function with significant levels of autonomy."

In an article for Foreign Policy, Steven Fish and Katherine Michel of the University of California warn that "Egypt is currently in danger of replicating the strong-executive, weak-legislature model the prevailed during the Mubarak era", and say there is a risk it could follow the example of Russia which "squandered its chance for durable democracy by adopting a constitution that permitted presidential arrogance".

Tunisians, on the other hand, "are uprooting dictatorship, not merely expelling the dictator," Fish and Michel say. 

"They are not only changing the rulers but also fixing the rules. Rather than replacing the old autocrat with a legitimately elected but still dominant president, Tunisians are tackling the problem of overweening executive power head-on. They are betting on good institutions rather than on a strong, wise ruler. Their farsighted choice will yield benefits for decades to come."

Fish and Michel are the authors of a recent study which investigated the effect of the power of the legislature vis-à-vis the executive on the fate of democratisation around the world. 

They conclude that the outcome "depends vitally on constitutional provisions that define the powers of national legislatures":

"Where the legislature is free from executive appointees and enjoys sole custody of the right to make laws, the probability of escaping autocracy is markedly higher than were the legislature contains executive appointees and shares lawmaking authority with the executive."

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 3 November 2012. Comment.

Kuwait: the battle for accountability

Mussallam al-Barrak, a prominent opposition figure in Kuwait, has been released on bail of 10,000 dinars ($35,500) after thousands of protesters marched on the prison where he was being held and police responded with teargas and smoke bombs.

Barrack was arrested last Monday on charges of "undermining the status of the emir". In a speech on 15 October he had reportedly challenged the emir, saying:

"We will not allow you, your highness, to take Kuwait into the abyss of autocracy … We no longer fear your prisons and your riot batons."

Barrack could face up to five years in jail if convicted. Three other former MPs are on bail, awaiting trial on similar charges.

His release yesterday may cool the political temperature a bit, but it doesn’t address the underlying issue – growing demands across the Arab region for accountable government. 

Kuwait’s emir, like other Arab autocrats, wields executive power (along with other members of his family) while claiming protection from criticism. Article 54 of the Kuwaiti constitution states that “his person is immune and inviolable”.

Unlike other Arab states in the Gulf, though, Kuwait also has a feisty parliament which causes endless trouble for government ministers (many of whom are relatives of the emir). The character of these battles is often reminiscent of the long struggle by the English parliament, from the 17th century onwards, to curb royal power.

Last month the emir dissolved parliament and most opposition groups are boycotting the elections scheduled for 1 December. They are objecting to a change in the electoral law which they see as gerrymandering – an attempt to prevent opposition candidates winning a majority of seats.

So, where is Kuwait heading? The latest unrest has brought a plethora of articles discussing its prospects (see list below). There is widespread acknowledgement that Kuwait – unlike the earlier “Arab Spring” countries – does have the possibility of transforming gradually into a democratic constitutional monarchy, but only if the ruling family recognise before it’s too late that the old order is changing.

Rami Khouri writes:

The critical new element … is the willingness of more than a handful of citizens to publicly challenge the regime and even the ruler by name. 

Also problematic for the Kuwaiti Sabah family is the convergence of several different opposition groups that did not formerly share a common agenda, including youth activists, Islamists, nationalists, anti-corruption groups, progressive forces seeking higher human rights standards, and ordinary citizens who want their voices to be more equitably reflected in the parliament.

Such demands for greater accountability of the ruling elite to their fellow citizens are partly enhanced by the current uprisings across the Arab world, and partly rooted in local grievances that have festered for years in some GCC countries.

When demonstrators first demanded limited constitutional reforms in Bahrain last year, Saudi Arabia and other GCC countries sent in a small military force to make it clear that there would be no adjustment to the power structure in that island state. 

We will soon discover if Kuwait follows suit. Or, the emir of Kuwait may realise that meeting his own citizens’ limited and reasonable calls for political reform is a better route to stability and national consensus than the autocratic manipulation and recurring dismissal of parliament that Kuwaiti rulers have used for decades.

Mary Ann Tétreault adds:

Although some observers might hope for a “real” revolution as a result of the Arab uprisings, Kuwaitis might be better advised to continue their less dramatic, nonviolent pressure to push their reluctant rulers toward constitutional monarchy. 

Yet this strategy is more difficult to pull off today than in the past, thanks to the frequent resort to abuse by security forces and the mobilisation of thousands of angry young men who are no more Legos to be snapped in place by their “betters” than their elders proved to be. If their dignity continues to be assailed on the streets and in police stations, they might well retaliate in kind.

A continuation of showdowns where the legitimate concerns of the opposition are ignored or belittled has already been shown to be risky. As Kuwaiti activists have noted, allowing a bad situation to deteriorate has its own perils. Should the regime hang back, it could be pushed into reacting rather than leading, ratcheting the conflict to more dangerous levels as each side responds to the last provocation from the other. This scenario would not be good for Kuwait.

Essential reading on Kuwait

Kuwait’s moment of truth (PDF) 
A collection of articles from the Project on Middle East Political Science (POMEPS)

Kuwait: testing the limits 
Jane Kinninmont, Chatham House (plus briefing paper from last August)

Looking for revolution in Kuwait 
Mary Ann Tétreault, MERIP

Kuwait's historic citizen agitation is worth watching 
Rami Khouri, Agence Global

Kuwait’s protests and the Arab Spring: old roots, new shoots 
Talal al-Rashoud, Egypt Independent

A boiling kettle: Kuwait's escalating political crisis 
Fahed al-Sumait, Jadaliyya 

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 2 November 2012. Comment.

'Gay party' raided in Egypt

Seven men have been arrested in Cairo on charges of belonging to a “debauchery” network.

The men, aged between 20 and 31, are said to have been in possession of “underwear, cosmetics, wigs and a number of bottles of liquor”, and a judge has ordered them to be sent to Heliopolis Hospital to be checked for sexually transmitted infections, Elwatannews website reports (in Arabic). 

According to Maj Gen Said Shafiq, director of the General Directorate of Investigations, the accused held “queer parties” charging 160 Egyptian pounds ($26) per night.

The men say the accusations are fabricated and they were merely sitting in an apartment at the time of their arrest, Elwatannews adds. 

A security man at the apartment building is quoted as saying the apartment was rented four months ago by one of the defendants with his wife (who has since disappeared). After a short time many residents began complaining about his “unacceptable behaviour”, his demeanour and his “way of speaking”.

A security member said the tenant was frequently visited by people with luxury cars who were wearing rings and gold chains.

Same-sex acts are not in themselves illegal in Egypt but charges are often brought under an old law against "debauchery" which was originally intended to combat prostitution.

A report by Human Rights Watch in 2004 documented several cases of raids on allegedly gay parties that appeared to be "sting" operations – where the guests had been invited by a police informer.

Judging by the account from Elwatannews, the latest case is different: neighbours seem to have taken a disliking to the man who rented the flat, at least partly because he appeared to be gay.

News of the "gay party" arrests comes just a few days after vigilantes surrounded four young men in a car on a busy street in the Mohandiseen district of Cairo. 

The January 25 Portal website (in Arabic) says the four "queers" were "practising depravity" in the car. It says they tried to drive off but another car blocked their way and they were taken to the police. (Gay Star News has an account in English.)

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 1 November 2012. Comment.

US 'concerned' at Bahrain demo ban

The United States has now joined in the criticism of Bahrain's decision to ban all public gatherings. State Department spokesman Mark Toner began yesterday's daily media briefing with the following statement (which broadly echoes the British statement quoted here in a blog post yesterday): 

"The United States is deeply concerned by the Bahraini Government’s decision to ban all public gatherings. Freedoms of assembly, association, and expression are universal human rights. 

"We urge the Government of Bahrain to uphold its international commitments and ensure that its citizens are able to exercise – are able to assemble peacefully and to express their views without fear of arrest or detention. We urge the Government of Bahrain to work with responsible protest leaders to find a way for peaceful and orderly demonstrations to take place. 

"The decision to curb these rights is contrary to Bahrain’s professed commitment to reform, and it will not help advance the national reconciliation nor build trust among all parties.

"We also urge the opposition to refrain from provocations and violence. Violence undermines efforts to reduce tensions, rebuild trust, and pursue meaningful reconciliation in Bahrain. Recent violent attacks, including fatal attacks, on security force personnel are a deeply troubling development. So we urge the Government of Bahrain to take steps to build confidence across Bahraini society and to begin a meaningful national dialogue with the political opposition."

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 1 November 2012. Comment.

Previous blog posts




November 2012

Syria rebels confront Assad's air power

Libya: release of 'gay partygoers' delayed

EU ambassadors unhappy over policy on Jordan

Libya 'gay partygoers not to be killed'

Britain's policy in Bahrain isn't working

Vigilante group rounds up gay men in Libya

More tricks from the Bahrain News Agency

Condoleezza's chaos theories

Yemen wages war on 'terror' bikes

Bahrain, one year after BICI

Teacher sacked over sexual harassment film

Weaning Yemen off qat

Gulf states rally round Jordan's king

Female politician resigns in Libya

Syrian rebels' unnoticed gains

Jordan: the royal fightback

Buying time in Jordan

Jordan's protesters turn against king

Saudis disown 'torture' girl's father

Bahrain: 'No meaningful progress'

Jordan: anatomy of a political mess

Gunfire as Jordan protests continue

Arab Idol: a TV dilemma for Muslims

Jordan's protesters deride the king

UAE goes to war against the internet

Saudi 'torture' girl's father detained

Former intelligence chief jailed in Jordan

Saudi preacher said to have tortured five-year-old daughter to death

Saudis face 'seeds of discord' trial

Bahrain: discrimination and citizenship

Bahrain strips 31 of their citizenship

Halloween 'devil worship' in Jordan

Kuwaiti protesters face teargas

Yemen: a marriage made in hell

Parliament or president?

Kuwait: the battle for accountability

'Gay party' raided in Egypt

US 'concerned' at Bahrain demo ban


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Last revised on 30 November, 2012