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Unholy matrimony battle continues in Lebanon

Whenever I write about the Lebanese rumpus over civil marriage, I have to keep reminding myself that it really is about civil marriage and not gay marriage. The opponents of civil marriage in Lebanon are exactly the types you would expect to find in other countries opposing gay marriage – it's just that what shocks them in Lebanon is the prospect of two people (one male, one female, of course) getting married, if they so choose, in a non-religious ceremony.

On Monday, the Grand Mufti of Lebanon issued a fatwa threatening to excommunicate any member of parliament or government minister who supports the legalisation of civil marriage, "even if it is optional".

Yesterday, Lebanese MP Samir Gemayel hit back at the mufti, 
according to the Daily Star:

Speaking to reporters in Parliament, Gemayel said: “The mufti’s comments are a violation of the civil state and every Lebanese person’s right which is stipulated in the Constitution.”

“It is a violation of a person’s right to practise their beliefs, convictions and freedom of expression. It is the right of any Lebanese to abide by religion or not and we believe that any violation to that right is a violation of the constitution.”

Meanwhile, President Sleiman and Prime Minister Mikati are at odds over the issue. Sleiman says the issue "should be thoroughly addressed in a manner that does not offend any side". He told a cabinet meeting that failure to tackle it was a violation of the Taif Accord (the 1989 agreement that ended the civil war and called for the abolition of sectarianism).

Mikati, on the other hand, says civil marriage is too sensitive an issue and will not be addressed while he is prime minister.

Sleiman has also called on the interior minister to "verify the legality" of the controversial civil marriage contract signed last November by Khouloud Sukkariyeh and Nidal Darwish. So far, government officials have refused to recognise the contract as valid.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 30 January 2013. Comment.

Saleh, the victim

Saudi journalist Faheem al-Hamid seems to be having an interesting time in Yemen. Following his hilarious interview the other day with ex-president Salih, Hamid has now had a close encounter with the ex-president's ex-trousers.

The remains of the trousers – which Saleh was wearing at the time of the explosion in 2011 that almost killed him – are now in a showcase at a museum in Sana'a. The watch he was wearing is also there, along with six pieces of shrapnel that doctors removed from Saleh's body.

The museum is run by a board of directors "headed by Saleh’s son Ahmed and managed by cousin Tareq," Hamid reports.

"Saleh decided to shift the trousers and pieces of shrapnel to the museum so that they can be telling examples of the gravity of the attack perpetrated against him."

After his interview informing the world that he loves gardening and dislikes power, Saleh the dictator has now become Saleh the victim.

In 2011, at the height of Yemen's political crisis, Saleh was 
badly injured by an explosion while praying in the mosque of his presidential compound. The blast, which killed a number of other people, was initially blamed on a mortar or rocket attack from outside the compound, though it later became clear that explosives had been placed in the mosque – suggesting that the attack was an inside job.

The full truth about what happened may never emerge but Hamid's report gives what appears to be the latest version:

"It was revealed in investigations that seven explosives were hidden in cartons of soap and detergents, one of them put near the pulpit in the mosque while the remaining six were placed in front of the mosque and all these were tied with light wires that connected to a remote control on a mobile chip. 

"There were reports that senior officials of his Private Guard were involved in the attack. According to sources, only one of these devices, which was placed inside the mosque, exploded. 

"Secret defence policemen deployed inside the presidential compound hurled grenades at the mosque believing that forces opposing Saleh had entered the mosque."

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 30 January 2013. Comment.

Mufti's threats over civil marriage in Lebanon

In an extraordinary fatwa yesterday, the Grand Mufti of Lebanon 
threatened to excommunicate any member of parliament or government minister who supports the legalisation of civil marriage.

"Every Muslim official, whether a deputy or a minister, who supports the legalisation of civil marriage, even if it is optional, is an apostate and outside the Islamic religion ...

"[Such officials] would not be washed, would not be wrapped in a [burial] shroud, would not have prayers for their soul in line with Islamic rules, and would not be buried in a Muslim cemetery."

The mufti, Sheikh Mohammad Rashid Qabbani, also issued 
an apparent threat to undermine democratic processes in order to prevent civil marriage being legalised:

"There are predators lurking among us, trying to sow the bacteria of civil marriage in Lebanon, but they should know that the religious scholars will not hesitate to do their duty ..." 

At present, Lebanon has no legal provision for civil marriages, though does recognise civil marriages made abroad – with the result that Lebanese couples usually get married in Cyprus if they want a civil ceremony.

The issue has been debated, on and off, for years but was reopened this month by the case of Khouloud Sukkariyeh and Nidal Darwish (see yesterday's blog post). 

Allowing the option of civil marriage for those who want it might seem a sensible and uncontentious idea but over time it could weaken Lebanon's sectarian social/political system, which in turn would weaken the influence of clerics like Sheikh Qabbani.

That helps to explain his over-the-top reaction. Currently, there is no draft law for the legalisation of civil marriage before parliament but Qabbani seems determined to stifle it before it happens, even at the risk of making himself look ridiculous.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 29 January 2013. Comment.

Citizen Saleh

Gaddafi is dead, Mubarak is in jail, Ben Ali is in exile but Yemen's former dictator, Ali Abdullah Saleh, is living comfortably at home – thanks to a vote in parliament which gave him immunity from prosecution – and he has been talking about his new life as "a normal Yemeni citizen".

In an interview with Saudi journalist Faheem al-Hamid, Saleh describes a typical day:

"My program starts at 11am when in my courtyard I hold several meetings with political leaders, partisans, social personalities, tribal chiefs and citizens to offer advice on the situation in Yemen. After these meetings, I go to work in horticulture. I inspect the vegetation I have planted in my house garden. I also water them. 

"At 3pm I enter the health club inside my house where I exercise for three continuous hours. I also do physiotherapy on my hands and fingers [injured in the bomb attack on his palace in 2011] under the supervision of a doctor. After that I watch the news on TV. As a matter of fact various kinds of sport is the backbone of my daily programme. I am also receiving regular medical treatment, meeting citizens and living my life normally."

Allegedly, growing things has been his favourite hobby "since olden times":

"I have cultivated olive trees, tamarind, coffee, palm trees, decorative plants and others. I love horticulture and greenery. Some of the trees have started to bear fruits ... The latest of these trees is the tumb tree which has heavy leaves. I am using it to protect the coffee trees ... the best kinds of doors are made from the wood of the tumb tree."

He also claims to be writing his memoirs, though it's hard to see how he finds the time. Apparently two volumes are already completed and he's working on the third – though he says nothing will be published until after his death.

Naturally (since this was an interview with a Saudi news organisation), Saleh gushes with praise for King Abdullah – "a man of clean heart, an eloquent statesman and a farsighted leader with long-range strategic vision" – and says he will never forget the king's favours.

Predictably too, he complains about the arduous time he had as Yemen's president. "Power is a loss not a gain," he says. Which begs the question of why he clung to it so tenaciously for almost 34 years. Now, though, he is a free man and can "go out to the market" any time he likes. (Does he really do his own shopping, I wonder.)

Anyway, he is out of politics now. Well, not quite. Reluctant as he is, he may be required to help with Yemen's forthcoming National Dialogue. "Some members" of his party have asked him to stick around "to witness the start of the National Dialogue Conference and offer them advice whenever they may need it".

Unfortunately this may lead some readers to conclude that Saleh is an irrepressible bullshitter. And they would probably be right.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 28 January 2013. Comment.

Sects and marriage in Lebanon

It wasn't a high-society occasion and the bride and groom were not celebrities but it has become Lebanon's most talked-about wedding in years. Even the president and government ministers have expressed opinions on it.

Khouloud Sukkariyeh and Nidal Darwish tied the knot last November in what is claimed to be Lebanon's first civil marriage ceremony – though it has not been recognised by the government. In so doing, they have stirred up renewed debate about the country's marriage laws and, indirectly, the wider issue of Lebanon's political and social confessional system.

Marriage in Lebanon is regulated according to the customs of the 18 officially-recognised faiths. Some types of mixed-faith marriage are not allowed (the rules are very complicated) and there is no provision for marriages involving people of unrecognised faiths (Hindus and Baha'is, for example), people who have no religion or simply those who want a non-religious ceremony.

Lebanon does, however, recognise marriages made abroad and this has resulted in an endless succession of couples trekking across the sea to get married in Cyprus.

Rather than taking the Cyprus option, Sukkariyeh and Darwish, who come from different sects (Sunni and Shia), decided to challenge the system.

They did so by invoking Decree No 60, issued in 1936 under the French Mandate. That decree, which had been almost forgotten until recently, originally helped to institutionalise the sectarian system by saying that individuals are bound by the personal status laws of their sects. But it also added that people who do not belong to a particular sect are subject to civil law.

Sukkariyeh and Darwish began the process of becoming "subject to civil law" by having their sectarian affiliations removed from their identity documents – a move that has been permitted since 2009. An article by Arwa al-Husseini describes the other steps they went through to establish their claim to a legally-valid civil marriage contract.

Their wedding led to President Michel Sleiman declaring his support for civil marriage, though the prime minister, Nijab Mikati, is opposing it.

Meanwhile, it appears that the marriage of Sukkariyeh and Darwish will not be officially recognised without a change in the law. Even if the marriage contract is regarded as valid, it places the couple in a legal void because Lebanon has no secular version of its sectarian personal status laws – there are no existing rules for other aspects of civil marriage, such as inheritance and divorce.

Prime minister Mikati seems to regard the issue as too divisive to be addressed "in these circumstances" and has also referred to it dismissively as a "useless debate".

There are, of course, plenty of sectarian interest groups that would rather preserve the status quo than address the problem and it's difficult to see them ever accepting that "circumstances" are right for a change. The 1989 Taif agreement that ended Lebanon's civil war described abolishing political sectarianism as "a fundamental national objective" but next to nothing has been done about that. The Taif agreement also said "mention of sect and denomination on the identity card" would be abolished – and that hasn't happened either.

The civil marriage debate is therefore not "useless" or purely about civil marriage: it opens up the whole can or worms about confessionalism in Lebanon – a debate that cannot be postponed indefinitely.

Also, the dispensation allowing people to have religious affiliation struck off their identity records has implications that go beyond marriage and probably make some sort of legislative changes inevitable in the longer term. Elias Muhanna writes:

"Lebanon’s politics are based, in a fundamental way, on the parsing of the country’s population into discrete confessional communities. What happens when we begin to see people transgress the boundaries of these communities in greater numbers? What happens if, five years from today, there are 150,000 people who do not belong–administratively speaking–to an official sect? How would such people run for political office under the current system?"

One solution, Muhanna argues, might be to treat people with no sectarian affiliation as Lebanon's "19th sect". Alternatively, he suggests, "would it not make more sense to start taking seriously the long deferred problems of the confessional system altogether?"

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 28 January 2013. Comment.

Egypt's national dilemma

What are we to make of Egypt today, on the second anniversary of the people's uprising? Mubarak may be gone but the old, paternalistically authoritarian attitudes linger on under the country's new leaders.

The problem was neatly encapsulated yesterday in reports of a contretemps between Ahmed Fahmy, the Islamist speaker of the Shura Council, and the crew of an EgyptAir plane.

Returning from a trip to Khartoum, Fahmy objected to the in-flight movie's "indecent" content (or, in the words of EgyptAir's official statement, "expressed reservations about one of the scenes"). As a result, EgyptAir says it will be reviewing all the films shown on its flights and will withdraw any that "depart from Egyptian values and customs".

The film in question has been identified by Egyptian media as Arees Mama ("Mum's Suitor"), starring an actress known as Nelly. It was made decades ago – before Egypt started borrowing its "customs and traditions" from the Gulf states – and was approved by government censors at the time. None of the other passengers appear to have complained.

According to EgyptAir, the issue was resolved during the flight by turning off the film in Business Class (henceforth to be known as Brotherhood Class?) while allowing Economy passengers in the rear to continue watching.

The dilemma posed by Fahmy is more than just a dilemma for EgyptAir. It is Egypt's national dilemma. Egyptians are all, so to speak, on the same plane but some of them want one thing and some want another. A few, like Fahmy, also think they know what's best for everyone else.

Translated into everyday politics, the question is how to deal with these fundamental – often irreconcilable – differences. The usual Arab way is that whoever holds power will make the decision and then seek to impose it, but in post-Mubarak Egypt that isn't going to work. There are simply too many conflicting voices and interests.

The only way forward in this situation is to let people make their own choices as far as possible, without interfering in the choices of others. If Mr Fahmy doesn't want to watch the film, fine, but others shouldn't be prevented from watching it if they want to.

That, of course, is a principle Islamists find difficult to accept: for them, it's not a really matter of personal choice but a matter of protecting others from "moral harm". 

This raises another crucial question for Egypt, about the role and priorities of government. A lot of political noise is generated, in Egypt and other Arab countries, about protecting people's morals and far too little about protecting their lives.

On Wednesday, the Egypt Independent took a much-needed look at the dire (and deadly) state of the country's railways. Nineteen people were killed by a derailment earlier this month and, according to the Egypt Independent, the overall death rate is "at least six times above international best practices".

It's obvious that massive investment is needed to improve safety. The report describes one station where drivers have to collect a handwritten note from the controller allowing them to proceed, because the signals have been broken since October.

There's a need, too, to educate people about the dangers. The report talks of "a never-ending stream of people crossing the railway tracks at Bulaq al-Dakrur station:

"Train driver Gamal al-Sayed ran an obstacle course through ambulant dangers: people and animals crossing the tracks, and vehicles lingering at level crossings as the train bore down on them.

"As he drove, Sayed pointed out railway land that has been appropriated by local residents, disused train tracks still vaguely visible underneath parked cars, horses and makeshift buildings."

Meanwhile, railway staff "expressed frustration at the official response to accidents which, more often than not, ends at criminal prosecution of a junior employee ... and grand promises of investment and reform by a senior official that rarely see the light of day".

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 25 January 2013. Comment.

Saudi Arabia: subversion by stealth

What would happen if a Saudi newspaper published an article advocating democracy, freedom of speech, the rule of law and the resignation of incompetent officials? You might expect that the writer would be arrested, as has happened to several online activists in the kingdom recently. But not necessarily, if it's written in a clever way. 

Earlier this week, a subtly subversive article appeared in the Saudi Gazette, reprinted from the Arabic-language newspaper, al-Madina. Written by Salem Ahmed Sahab, it discusses the Legatum Foundation's latest worldwide Prosperity Index – and provides an interesting example of what Saudi writers can get away with.

The Legatum Prosperity Index claims to be "the only global measurement of prosperity based on both income and wellbeing". It tries to take into account "the joy of everyday life and the prospect of being able to build an even better life in the future" as well as the usual macroeconomic indicators.

Saudi Arabia, as everyone knows, is one of the world's wealthiest countries and yet, in the latest Prosperity Index, it ranks 52nd out of 142 countries – one place behind Trinidad & Tobago and one place ahead of Vietnam. The main reason for its comparatively low ranking is that "the joy of everyday life" in Saudi Arabia is – shall we say – somewhat lacking. In the "personal freedom" category of the survey, for example, it is 13th from the bottom.

None of that, however, is discussed in Sahab's article which doesn't even mention Saudi Arabia's low ranking. In fact, the article doesn't mention Saudi Arabia at all or criticise it – except by implication.

Instead, Sahab focuses on three Scandinavian countries – Norway, Denmark and Sweden – and asks why they are at the very top of the list. "Why are they happy?" says the headline, tempting Saudi readers to make them-and-us comparisons.

The answer, Sahab says, is definitely not the weather. During a Scandinavian winter "you don’t see the sun for several weeks" (unlike certain other countries he could name, but doesn't). Then comes the subversive part:

"In my opinion a nation’s happiness is, to a large extent, determined by other factors. Look for instance at the international indicator of government transparency — all of the countries that rank high in transparency are Scandinavian countries. 

"A person becomes happy when he has a sincere feeling that no authority or influential person will rob his country’s wealth through devious means which may look legal at the surface but are replete with exploitation, theft and lies.

"A person also becomes happy when he feels that he is a real participant in the process of decision-making, free to choose his representatives, hold his leaders accountable and monitor the performance of government departments. He will feel happy when he is certain that he can openly criticize any shortcoming without being questioned for his actions.

"The officials in the happiest countries either apologize or quit their positions in case of any mistakes.

"These people are happy because they feel that they are real partners in nation-building."

Those five paragraphs can (and will) be read as a wholesale critique of the Saudi system. But it's also a deniable critique. If asked, the writer can say he was merely explaining the success of Scandinavian countries in keeping their people happy. Anything else is in the mind of the reader. Isn't it?

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 24 January 2013. Comment.

Saudi apostasy case dropped

A Saudi court has dismissed an apostasy case against Raif Badawi, an online activist whose views have upset the kingdom's religious conservatives.

The court's decision appears to have removed the threat of execution – since apostasy is a capital offence in Saudi Arabia – but Badawi, who was arrested last June, remains in jail facing other charges which include "setting up a website that undermines general security" and ridiculing Islamic religious figures (see earlier blogpost).

Badawi's website, "Saudi Arabian Liberals", published an article about Valentine's Day (celebration of which is banned in the kingdom). Another article, which mocked the kingdom's religious police, ended sarcastically with the words: "Congratulations to us for the Commission on the Promotion of Virtue for teaching us virtue and for its eagerness to ensure that all members of the Saudi public are among the people of paradise."

The BBC, citing "sources close to Mr Badawi" says he may now "be shuttled between various courts to keep him in prison without attracting the further international criticism that a guilty verdict might bring".

Badawi's case is one of several freedom-of-expression cases in the kingdom – and they seem to be becoming more frequent. Last month, prominent Saudi writer Turki al-Hamad was arrested in connection with a series of tweets. Last February, Hamza Kashgari, a poet and former newspaper columnist, was arrested in Malaysia and deported back to Saudi Arabia after being accused of insulting the Prophet Muhammad on Twitter. He later "repented" but is still in jail.

Two Saudi rights activists, Mohammed al-Qahtani and Abdullah al-Hamid, are also facing a series of bizarre charges in connection with maligning religious and state officials.

In Saudi Arabia such cases are especially problematic because of the heavy penalties, the arcane court system and the legal uncertainties caused by a lack of written laws. However, elsewhere in the region growing numbers of people are being accused of "insulting" heads of state on the internet.

On Monday, Ahram Online reported that 24 "insulting-the-president" cases have been filed in Egypt during the six months since President Morsi's election – three of them filed by the prosecutor-general. Ahram points out that only four such cases came to court during Mubarak's 30-year rule.

The underlying problem here is that growing numbers of Arabs (emboldened partly as a result of the Arab Spring) are expressing their views in public and the internet has provided them with the means to do so. In many countries this would simply be a normal part of the public discourse but Arab regimes are still unaccustomed to it and some sections of society regard it as an unacceptable way to behave.

In the long run, the only solution is to accept dissent as a fact of life, but getting to that point is going to require a major adjustment – and nowhere more than in Saudi Arabia.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 23 January 2013. Comment.

Britain and Israel: tax benefits for settlers?

Two British MPs have raised concerns in parliament about taxpayer subsidies for charities that support settlement activity in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Charities registered in Britain are entitled to various tax benefits regardless of where they operate, provided their activities are entirely charitable.

But can fund-raising for settlers truly be considered charitable when most of the world – Britain included – regards the settlements as illegal? Assisting this activity through tax subsidies also conflicts with the British government's declared policy on settlements as well as its international obligations.

UN Security Council Resolution 465, for instance, calls upon all states "not to provide Israel with any assistance to be used specifically in connection with settlements in the occupied territories".

In 2005, the European Council also called for "the abolition of financial and tax incentives and direct and indirect subsidies, and the withdrawal of exemptions benefiting the settlements and their inhabitants".

In Norway last year, following calls for the government to comply fully with Resolution 465, the finance ministry withdrew tax benefits from a charity called Karmel-instituttet in order to "ensure that the system of tax deductions does not benefit organisations that actively support or contribute to acts that are in contravention of international law". 

The Norwegian ministry said the decision was based on information from Karmel-instituttet about its funding of settlements and its stated intention to continue providing such support. Funds collected by Karmel-instituttet are said to have provided 23 caravan homes and three "study centres" for the settler outpost of Alonei Shilo in the occupied territories. 

So far, though, the British government has been less than forthcoming on this issue. In the House of Commons over the last few weeks, Labour MP Richard Burden (who is a member of the all-party parliamentary group on Palestine) has asked a series of questions and received a series of stonewalling replies:

Question: Has the government had discussions with Norway about its decision to exclude Karmel-instituttet from eligibility for tax relief?

Answer: "No discussions have taken place with the Norwegian Government on this matter."

Question: What assessment he has been made of the extent of compliance by UK charities with the European Council decision on the abolition of financial and tax subsidies to organisations benefiting from developing Israeli settlements?

Answer: "Evidence of misuse of charity funds, or any illegal activities by charities in England and Wales ... should be passed to the Charity Commission to consider."

Question: What assessment has the government made of the extent of UK compliance with paragraph seven of UN Security Council Resolution 465?

Answer: "The UK complies with this resolution ... The UK, together with the general international community, is clear on the status of settlements: they constitute a clear violation of international law, are an obstacle to peace, and a threat to the viability of the two-state solution."

Question: Has the government informed the Charity Commission of the European Council decision of 16 June 2005?

Answer: "The Charity Commission is aware of the European Council declaration."

Question: How much tax relief applied for via Gift Aid was received by organisations funding projects in Israeli settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories in each of the last five years?

Answer: "The information requested ... could not be obtained without disproportionate cost."

Question: How much Gift Aid has been claimed on donations made to the British Friends of Ariel in each of the last five years?

Answer: "I am unable to answer the question because HM Revenue and Customs is subject to a strict duty of confidentiality in relation to customer information."

British Friends of Ariel, the charity named by Burden, states that its objectives are:

1. To further education, learning and research, including education in the Jewish religion.

2. To establish and maintain or contribute to the establishment or maintenance of such charitable institution or institutions for the religious education and training of Jews whether in the United Kingdom, Israel or elsewhere as the trustees may think fit.

3. To provide financial assistance for the relief of poverty. 

It also states: "In furtherance of the said objects but not otherwise the trustees shall have powers to assist the Ariel Institutions in Israel." 

"Ariel" is one of the names given to Jerusalem in the Hebrew Bible but it is also the name of one of the largest West Bank settlements

A similarly-named organisation in the United States, American Friends of Ariel (also tax-subsidised), states very clearly that its purpose is to support the settlement, though it doesn't actually use that word. It describes Ariel as "the capital of Samaria", as "an integral part of the State of Israel" and "one of the primary keys to Israel's future".

Last month, Jeremy Corbyn, another Labour MP, asked what steps the Chancellor of the Exchequer is taking to end tax relief for charities that fund Israeli settlements.

Treasury minister Sajid Javid gave an unhelpful reply. "For tax relief to remain intact,", he said, "HM Revenue and Customs must be satisfied that the charity has taken reasonable steps to ensure that payment will be applied for charitable purposes only."

The minister added that "charitable purposes" are defined by the Charities Act 2011

A key principle of the 2011 Act is that charitable work must be "for the public benefit". So how does the British government reconcile the "public benefit" requirement with support for settlements which it officially describes as "illegal" and "an obstacle to peace"? Burden and Corbyn are still waiting for answers to that.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 21 January 2013. Comment.

Gay marriage, Lebanese style

Mouna is a lesbian from a Lebanese family and she has a problem:

"I love my mum, but I can never tell her I'm gay. She'd kill me. Or she would make herself sick and die – and then I'd have killed her. I don't want to break her heart but I'm 35. The only way out of the house is in a wedding dress or a coffin."

Sam is a gay man and he has a problem too:

"What about me? I'm a man and my parents are still telling me what time I have to be home by ... and they are constantly pushing chicks in my face to get married to. There is no way my parents could accept me being gay."

This is the starting point for "I Luv U But" – a gay marriage story with a twist. Lesbian Mouna and gay Sam decide the only way to satisfy their parents' demands is to marry each other. From then on, though, keeping up the pretence while pursuing their separate sexual interests gets more and more complicated.

Just as they are moving into their new "marital" home, with Mouna's butch girlfriend unloading the van, Mouna's mother turns up and the newly-weds hastily try to stash away things she is not meant to see.

Mum, though, is not easily kept at bay. She seems determined to supervise the marriage and ensure that all goes well, both domestically and, er ... sexually. She insists that her daughter must produce for her a grandchild and obtains a special potion that will supposedly do the trick.

In one scene, Sam and a guy he met on Grindr – clad only in underpants – hide under the kitchen table as Mouna's mum appears at the window, checking if anyone is at home.

"I Luv U But" could easily have turned into something dull and worthy. Countless gay and lesbian Arabs face the same agonising dilemma as Mouna and Sam in real life. Many of them contemplate gay-but-not-same-sex marriage as a possible way out, and some actually go through with it.

Fortunately, writer/director Fadia Abboud decided to play it for laughs – which is what makes it so watchable and entertaining. At root, "I Luv U But" is an old-fashioned farce that also mocks old-fashioned attitudes: a farce with a punch.

There have been other Arab film dramas with gay characters and gay storylines but I don't think Arab film-makers have ever produced anything quite like this before: gay-themed throughout and told from a gay perspective. 

There's no doubt that this marks some kind of milestone, and it's causing a stir among gay and lesbian Arabs. "I haven’t been this excited about something gay-related in a long time.," Beirut Boy writes on his blog. "I loved the writing. It’s really funny and real."

Strictly speaking, "I Luv U But" isn't 100% Lebanese. It was filmed in Australia among the Lebanese community there but, in a way, this adds rather than subtracts. It shows that even in the midst of a different culture thousands of miles from Beirut, the habits of the homeland still die hard.

Strictly speaking, "I Luv U But" isn't exactly a film, either. In its current form – still uncompleted – it consists of nine short "episodes" (three or four minutes each) posted on the internet.

Odd as it may sound, this format works brilliantly. Abboud and her team make every second count – and the result is crisp story-telling with some pointed and witty dialogue.

Based in New South Wales, Abboud combines film-making with community work. One of her earlier films was “I Remember 1948” – a collection of personal stories from Palestinians who lost their homes in 1948. She is also one of the founders of Club Arak and co-director of the Sydney Arab Film Festival.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 20 January 2013. Comment.

Jordan: a transition to what?

Yesterday, one week ahead of Jordan's controversial parliamentary election, King Abdullah issued the second of his "discussion papers" intended "to share his vision on the kingdom's comprehensive reform process" (full text here).

In his first paper, at the end of December, the king lectured Jordanians about citizenship and the need to participate actively in national debates. Yesterday's paper talks about parliamentary government.

King Abdullah is notorious for chopping and changing prime ministers – he has had 12 prime ministers during his 13 years on the throne – but that may be about to change.

"After the upcoming elections, we will start piloting a parliamentary government system, including how our prime ministers and cabinets are selected," he writes.

The king goes on to explain how this will supposedly work:

• The new prime minister, while not necessarily an MP, will be designated based on consultation with the majority coalition of parliamentary blocs.

• If no clear majority emerges initially, then the designation will be based upon consultation with all parliamentary blocs.

• The prime minister-designate will then consult with the parliamentary blocs to form the new parliamentary government and agree on its programme, which will still have to obtain and maintain the Lower House’s vote of confidence.

There are several points to note about this. First, the phrase "based on consultation" allows plenty of scope for manipulation of appointments by the king and masks the fact that he still has the last word. Article 35 of the Jordanian constitution says: 

"The King appoints the Prime Minister and may dismiss him [sic] or accept his resignation."

The prime minister does of course need a vote of confidence from parliament but that shouldn't be too difficult to obtain. The forthcoming elections are being conducted under new rules that seem designed to produce a parliament of government loyalists.

Finally, not requiring the prime minister to be a member of parliament is scarcely conducive to effective parliamentary government. The constitution (Article 52) says that "ministers who are not members of either House may speak in both Houses" but does not oblige them to speak and answer questions in parliament.

It's worth contrasting this with the constitutional reforms introduced in Morocco in 2001 which, while leaving a lot to be desired, went a good deal further in limiting the king's power and enhancing the power of parliament.

The Moroccan reforms made the government "accountable only to parliament" and gave parliament the final say in ratifying legislation. 
The king also gave up his right to choose his own prime minister. In Morocco, heads of government must now come from the largest party in parliament. (That is potentially problematic since in the event of a hung parliament the largest party does not necessarily form the government but, nevertheless, it established an important principle.)

If Jordan's transition to "full parliamentary government" is to succeed, three conditions will have to be met, King Abdullah says.

One is the development of real political parties "that aggregate specific and local interests into a national platform for action". Another is a change in the way parties operate in parliament:

"This will require a shared understanding of how [parliamentary blocs] can agree on common policy platforms as a basis for cooperation and stable government. 

"Opposition parties will similarly need to agree on conventions for how they cooperate in holding the government to account and offer an alternative vision – their role is just as crucial for successful government."

In addition to that, he says, the civil service "will need to further develop its professional, impartial non-political abilities to support and advise the ministers of parliamentary governments".

If the king is right in saying these are the conditions for success, it's difficult to avoid the conclusion that his "reform" initiative will fail.

The idea that Jordanians might vote for parties on the basis of "a national platform for action" is pretty laughable, as a number of the WikiLeaks documents made clear. Discussing the 1997 elections in Jordan, one US embassy cable said:

"The estimated price of a vote varies. The general consensus ... is that 100 JD ($70) is the going rate for a vote, but some candidates have placed it as high as 200 JD ($140) and as low as 50 JD ($35). One candidate said that voters were being offered 100 JD plus a mobile phone."

The cable continued:

"Every candidate we talk to expresses disgust towards anyone who would sell their vote ... Despite their alleged unwillingness to buy votes, every candidate with whom we've spoken acknowledges that they are deluged with calls from vote sellers ... 

"A candidate for the Christian seat in Madaba received such a call during a visit by Embassy officers. Theatrically chastising the seller, the candidate said in Arabic, 'No, I don't buy votes. Don't you know that people from foreign embassies are watching?' "

For candidates who don't stoop to direct vote-buying, an alternative is to provide their supporters with "services", which the embassy cable described as "a difficult grey area". 

"One Madaba candidate became known to voters through his tribal connections, which allowed him to find jobs and solve problems for his constituents. For many voters, this kind of service provision through 'connections' is a prime qualification for any candidate. 

"Most Jordanians we have talked to see their representatives as a personal entree into the bureaucracy – a 'fixer' who can cut through red tape and make things happen. Yet in the context of a campaign, this can be seen as a form of corruption."

Similarly, the king's idea of a professional, independent civil service providing ministers with sound advice is largely an illusion. The civil service is a mainstay of Jordan's patronage system and is riddled with corruption – especially wasta, where favours are given and received because of people's "connections".

Though a few prominent Jordanians have been given stiff jail sentences for corruption, efforts to tackle the problem have been patchy and half-hearted. In 2011, a proposed law which was ostensibly meant to combat corruption actually included a clause to discourage journalists from exposing it. 

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 17 January 2013. Comment.

Saudi Shoura Council: no hanky-panky, please

The Shoura Council chamber: women members will be segregated by a partition. Picture: Riyadh Bureau 

Having spent the last few days writing about the London conference on Yemen (there's now a single-page compilation of my blog posts here), I missed some of the excitement surrounding King Abdullah's appointment of 30 women to the Shoura Council, Saudi Arabia's pretend-parliament.

With this magnanimous gesture, the king has struck another blow for equality of the sexes. The women on the council will have exactly the same decision-making power as the men – i.e. none whatsoever, since all the council can do is proffer advice to the king.

But perhaps I'm being too cynical. This is, after all, Saudi Arabia where any kind of reform is an uphill struggle, even for someone as powerful as the king.

You might imagine that if King Abdullah decided to appoint a few women to the council he could just click his fingers and it would be done – but you would be wrong.

First, a committee had to be set up to consider "the administrative procedures and logistical support needed" for women to perform their Shoura duties "comfortably".

This was a coded way of saying they were trying to work out how to include women in the council while maintaining the kingdom's cherished rules of gender segregation – thus ensuring that no sexual hanky-panky could take place while discussing matters of state.

The reality became clear in November, when it was announced that the council chamber would be altered to create a special female area:

"This area would be separated from male members of the Council by a partition 'to preserve the privacy of women'."

Even that, though, was not enough to allay the fury of some conservatives and yesterday about 50 clerics staged a protest outside the Royal Court. 

John Burgess, on his Crossroads Arabia blog, points out that such demonstrations are supposed to be illegal in Saudi Arabia – but it seems the usual rules don't necessarily apply to clerics. They weren't arrested but apparently got short shrift from the Royal Court. Reuters reports:

A Saudi activist in touch with the clerics confirmed the accuracy of photographs showing them standing in a group as they demanded a meeting with King Abdullah and his top aide Khaled al-Tuwaijri, seeking to offer them "advice".

Tuwaijri, the Royal Court chief of staff, is believed to be King Abdullah's right-hand man and is seen by many Saudis as a driving force behind the country's cautious reforms.

"The clerics were in front of the Royal Court to address the king and Tuwaijri with regard to women in the Shura Council ... they waited for two hours but were denied access," Waleed Abu al-Khair told Reuters by phone.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 16 January 2013. Comment.

Previous blog posts




January 2013

Unholy matrimony battle continues in Lebanon

Saleh, the victim

Mufti's threats over civil marriage in Lebanon

Citizen Saleh

Sects and marriage in Lebanon

Egypt's national dilemma

Saudi Arabia: subversion by stealth

Saudi apostasy case dropped

Britain and Israel: tax benefits for settlers?

Gay marriage, Lebanese style

Jordan: a transition to what?

Saudi Shoura Council: no hanky-panky, please

Yemen: colonial echoes in the south

Yemen and the Houthi conflict

Yemen's ambivalent transition

Yemen, water and qat

Yemen: a challenging year ahead

Resisting colonialism at Oxford

Bahrain king is 'Humanitarian of the Year'

Bahrain's failed charm offensive

The futility of talking to Assad

Shutting out the world from Bahrain

Testing Egypt's constitution

Yemen's motorcycle murders

Critic of Israel/Palestine NGOs loses case

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



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Last revised on 30 January, 2013