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Introducing al-bab’s blog

Welcome to al-bab’s new blog. As some of you may know, I’ve been blogging fairly regularly at Comment is free and that will continue, I hope. But there are also things – random observations, speculation, bits and pieces that I find interesting and worth mentioning – that don’t fit the Cif format, so the plan is to post them here.

If you want to bookmark the blog section its address is: http://www.al-bab.com/blog


Security, but not as we know it

The fifth Arab Human Development Report (AHDR) sponsored by the UN has just been published and, once again, it looks set to stir up controversy. This time the report is about security in the Arab countries: not the war-on-terror kind of security as defined by Bush and the neocons but human security.

“Human security”, as Wikipedia explains, “is an emerging paradigm for understanding global vulnerabilities”. It challenges traditional ideas of security by focusing on individuals rather than the state. “Human security holds that a people-centered view of security is necessary for national, regional and global stability.”

The “human security” approach first came to prominence in 1994 when it was adopted in an UNDP report, and it has also attracted the interest of the World Bank, among others. Needless to say, security traditionalists don’t like it and claim it provides a vehicle for all sorts of activists to promote their own particular agenda.

By adopting this framework, the AHDR’s authors have plainly set themselves on a collision course with the neocon/Zionist axis, but the same framework also allows them to take a strong swipe at Arab regimes and their security apparatus. For example, Chapter Three begins:

The state, in its normative role, wins the acceptance of its citizens and upholds their rights to life and freedom. It protects them from aggression and lays down rules that guarantee them the exercise of their essential freedoms. The state that fulfils this role is a “legitimate state”. It adheres to the rule of law, which serves the public interest, not that of a particular group …

While most Arab states have embraced international treaties and adorned their constitutions with clauses that enjoin respect for life, human rights, justice, equality before the law, and the right to a fair trial, their performance shows a wide gap between theory and practice. Factors such as weak institutional curbs on state power; a fragile and fragmented civil society; dysfunctional elected assemblies, both national and local; and disproportionately powerful security apparatuses often combine to turn the state into a menace to human security, rather than its chief supporter. 

Another likely cause of controversy is that the AHDR has strayed somewhat from the UN’s original 1994 definition of “human security” which covered seven key areas: economic security, food security, health security, environmental security, personal security, community security and political security. A whole chapter in the new report is devoted to “Occupation, military intervention and human insecurity”. While it seems reasonable, in a Middle Eastern context, to widen the concept of “political security” to include this, it is obviously not going to please the American/Israeli right.

Interestingly, though, the AHDR is already facing Arab accusations of soft-pedalling on the question of occupation and military intervention. Arab traditionalists, and the regimes in particular, love to blame foreign meddling and use it as an excuse for not tackling all their other problems. Of course it’s a major issue but not by any means the only one.

Mostapha Kamel El Sayed, a political science professor at Cairo university and the report’s lead author, has disowned it in advance. Part of his grouse is that the chapter on occupation and military intervention has been placed and the end or the report, not the beginning as he preferred. This, he said, “undermines the impact of Israeli occupation in Palestine and American occupation in Iraq to human security".

He also revealed that Capmas (the Central Agency for Public Mobilisation and Statistics) had refused to cooperate with a survey for the report. Capmas is the military-controlled body in Egypt which stifles freedom of research. I’ll write more about Capmas some other time but as far as I’m concerned its non-involvement can only be a good thing.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 22 July 2009


Yet more insults

Hot on the heels of the Egyptian poet who was jailed – and then released – for unpublished verses that “insulted” President Mubarak, the latest head of state to be attacked is Mohammed VI, king of Morocco, lover of water sports and Commander of the Faithful.

The Arabist reports that two unflattering images of the king have been banned in Morocco. One – captioned “The richest king of the poor” – shows him jet-skiing on money (Forbes magazine recently placed him among the world’s 12 wealthiest monarchs).

Let’s all have a good look at them now …

  

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 22 July 2009


Yemen: the nightmare scenario

I’ve been talking rather a lot about Yemen since this blog started – partly because the situation there is worrying and partly because it’s getting so little attention from outside. Put simply, the fear is that Yemen could turn into another Somalia or Afghanistan.

An article in the Yemen Times headed “The nighmare of state failure in Yemen” starts by highlighting all the upheavals the country has experienced during the last 50 years, and survived. Yemenis, as a people, are extraordinarily resilient – which is why I have always been reluctant, at least until now, to buy into prophecies of doom.

But, as the author of the article (Khaled Fattah of St Andrews University) points out, survival in the past is no guarantee of survival in the future and it may also lull Yemenis into a false sense of assurance.

Since 1990, Fattah writes, the regime has survived through the “purchasing of political allies and in the development of a vast network of patronage connecting the political, tribal and military elites from highland Yemen with the commercial elite from lower Yemen.”

At the same time, though, this has encouraged others – the excluded – “to create an alternative system to the central authority and to replace formal and legitimate channels of state-society communication with their own system … the expansion of ‘dark spaces’ that are far beyond the reach of the state’s eyes and hands, the growth of hidden economies, and the tendency to ignore the juridical processes of the state.”

Fattah continues:

Warnings about the possibilities of Yemen’s political disintegration and its collapse into an atomised society managed by autonomous tribal leaders, warlords, ambitious advocates of sectarianism and militant religious extremists should be taken very seriously. 

Although united Yemen has been holding together as a fragile Middle Eastern state, the wide array of anti-central authority actors who are engaged in varying degrees of violence and subversion are operating within a new poisonous environment that can push Yemen towards joining the list of failed states. 

As for the solution, he concludes:”Preventing the Somalisation or Afghanisation of Yemen depends on the trade-offs between ensuring security and order and fulfilling the representation and welfare functions of the Yemeni state.”

This is the point where I find it difficult to see a way forward for Yemen. There are no signs of such a trade-off at present. The state is focused almost entirely on “ensuring security and order” (while actually failing to ensure it). Meanwhile, “representation and welfare” are functions that the state seems unwilling or unable to perform.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 21 July 2009


The Arafat ‘murder’ mystery

I was taken to task by a friend the other day for mentioning the “murder” of Yasser Arafat in the same breath as conspiracy theories about the death of Princess Diana and the Kennedy assassination. The idea that Arafat was murdered is far more plausible, my friend said.

The murder question re-surfaced last week when Farouq Qaddoumi, secretary-general of Fatah's central committee, claimed to have minutes of a meeting in which two senior Palestinians – Mahmoud Abbas (who replaced Arafat as president) and security chief Mohammed Dahlan – supposedly sat down with the Israelis and Americans and discussed Arafat's impending murder.

Foolishly, the Palestinian Authority then punished al-Jazeera television for broadcasting the remarks, by banning it from the West Bank (a decision it has now rescinded).

As for the murder allegation, the text of Qaddoumi’s document is 
here in Arabic and here in an English translation by Toufic Haddad. I have no idea if it’s genuine, though if a forgery it reads like a fairly skilful one. For discussion of its content see The Arabist and Egyptian Chronicles.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 21 July 2009


No rhyme, no reason

The amateur Egyptian poet who was sentenced to three years in jail and fined $18,000 for “insulting” President Mubarak in unpublished verses has had his sentence quashed by an appeal court.

That is good news. But why do these ludicrous cases keep cropping up in Egypt and other Arab countries? My own theory it’s a result of the autocratic systems and the lack of delegation. The more junior officials are disempowered and nervous of stepping out of line. The are too scared to say “This is silly, let’s call a halt”. And so it continues until eventually the most senior officials (who really shouldn’t be spending their time on such trivial matters) hear about it and give instructions.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 21 July 2009


Cut! The film festival is stopped

Contrary to popular belief, women are not banned from driving in Saudi Arabia. There’s no law that says they can’t drive. It’s just that, er … they have a lot of trouble getting a licence.

The same can be said of the Jeddah Film Festival: not banned exactly, but stopped. The five-day event was due to open at 9am last Saturday. At 11pm on Friday, festival director Mamdouh Salem got a phone call from the Jeddah municipality informing him it was cancelled. A municipality official told Arab News the festival “lacked preparations”, but did not elaborate.

Lack of preparation is obviously not the real reason for its cancellation – except, perhaps, in the sense that key elements of Saudi society are psychologically ill-prepared for such a traumatic experience as a film festival.

The organisers had brought in more than 50 directors and 71 films from the Gulf countries, plus other films from Europe and Japan. A detailed programme was published in the Saudi Gazette. The organisers had apparently gone through hoops to reassure the authorities that nothing “untoward” would be shown and had deliberately included “a number of films produced by conservative directors or whose purpose was to portray Islam in a positive light”.

So what went wrong? The Jeddah film festival has actually been running since 2006, though in previous years it called itself a “visual exhibition” to minimise the risk of causing moral panic. This year, perhaps getting over-confident, it “came out” as a full-blown film festival. This year, it also included non-Saudi films for the first time. 

It seems, therefore, that – as often happens in the Middle East – the organisers overstepped some invisible mark and the authorities (probably in the shape of Prince Nayef, the reactionary interior minister) decided enough was enough.

For no logical reason, the word “film” causes tremors among the kingdom’s religious conservatives who associate it with immorality and licentiousness. (They used to feel the same way about television but eventually they got over it.)

Another factor in the cancellation, as the Sand Gets In My Eyes blog points out, may be the campaign that conservatives are waging against Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, led by his brother, Khaled. Alwaleed’s company, Rotana, was the festival’s main sponsor and had put up the SR200,000 prize money.

Alwaleed is liberal-minded and, as a multi-billionaire, has the financial clout to push at Saudi Arabia’s red lines. He is noted for symbolically progressive gestures, such as employing a female pilot to fly one of his planes and re-establishing cinema in the kingdom is one of his current passions.

The feud with his brother came into the open last month (here and here) when Prince Khaled accused him of “spreading depravity and lust” with his “corrupting projects” and called for his assets to be fozen.

Meanwhile, the rest of the Jeddah summer festival (of which the film festival was to have been a part) is going ahead as planned with fireworks, folklore displays, roller skating, shopping bazaars – in fact, almost any activity that isn’t going to exercise the brain cells too much.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 20 July 2009


Mauritania’s Ahmadinejad?

Mauritania is one of those out-of-the-way off-the-radar Arab countries that rarely get much attention. I must admit I have never been there myself, though I have flown over it a couple of times – which in the circumstances probably makes me something of an expert.

Anyway, Mauritanians were voting in a presidential election yesterday, with nine candidates to choose from. The Moor Next Door blog gives a warts-and-all description of the main contenders, while a Telegraph correspondent in Nouakchott enthuses about anti-slavery candidate Messaoud Ould Boulkheir (yes, Mauritania has an estimated 600,000 slaves). 

Ould Boulkheir’s other electoral assets in the eyes of the Telegraph are that he looks like film actor Freeman Morgan and has been described as “the Obama of Mauritania”.

But Ould Boulkheir (and the Telegraph) may be disappointed. First reports since the polls closed suggest ex-general Ould Abdel Aziz will be declared the winner. Ould Abdel Aziz seized power last year in a military coup then abandoned his uniform in order to stand for election.

"Now he's trying to take over again dressed as a civilian, but it's a disguise," Mauritanian car salesman Yacoub Brahim tells the Associated Press. "He's only interested in power."

How is it, I wonder, that coup leaders almost always win elections, when they eventually get round to holding them? What makes them so popular? The Moor Next Door (which seems to be the only English-language blog covering the election in detail) suggests a simple explanation: fraud. 

But, as the Associated Press notes:

While Washington never recognised Aziz's junta, it is keen to maintain Mauritania as a bulwark against the terror group [“al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb”] and prevent the moderate Muslim nation from sliding toward extremism.

So that’s all right, then. Mauritania is a bulwark.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 19 July 2009


Questions about the Yemenia crash

Recriminations continue over the Yemenia Airbus that crashed off the Comoros islands at the end of June, and it’s becoming reminiscent of the row between Egypt and Boeing after Egyptair flight 990 plunged into the Atlantic in 1999. In that case, investigators claimed the co-pilot deliberately crashed the plane after uttering an “Islamic prayer”, while Egyptair blamed the manufacturers for a technical fault. The issue was never resolved to everyone’s satisfaction.

Similarly, the investigation into the Yemenia crash has become embroiled in cultural differences and conflicting interests.

As viewed from Yemen and the Comoros, the French investigators are behaving in a high-handed, colonialist sort of way and seem in no great hurry to complete the search for clues – giving rise to suspicions that don’t really want the truth to emerge. The French, on the other hand, no doubt view their approach as painstaking and methodical (qualities that are not necessarily appreciated in Yemen or the Comoros) and don’t want half-trained amateurs (as they probably regard the locals) messing it up.

Besides that, there are the vested interests. The Europe/France/Airbus axis will obviously do their best to safeguard the reputation of their plane. Yemen, equally, is concerned about the reputation of its national airline and especially its ability to continue using European airspace. And the isolated Comoros islands are desperate for airlines to continue using their hazardous and under-equipped Moroni airport – otherwise they will be even more cut off from the rest of the world than they are at present.

As for the crash itself, very little hard information has seeped out so far. This would be unusual if it had occurred in the US or Europe but it’s probably explained by the remote location, together with the lack of well-resourced media and inquisitive journalists in the area, rather than a deliberate concealment of the facts.

To find out more from independent and (presumably) knowledgeable sources, I have been searching the internet for pilots’ discussions about what could have happened. With no evidence (at least yet) of mechanical failure the most probable explanation they can offer is that the pilot accidentally flew the Airbus into the sea.

According to one professional opinion, “Moroni is a notoriously difficult airfield to fly into, especially at night [see maps]. The airport is at sea-level on the west side of a skinny island, with a 7,700-ft mountain just to the southeast of it and a 3,600-ft one to the northeast.” In the opinion of another, “We have a tough airport, tough weather... stuff happens.”

Landing at Moroni by night (which some airlines refuse to do) is rather like flying into a black hole. With very few ground lights for guidance, pilots can become disorientated – a condition known in the trade as CFIT.

One question this raises – and one that Yemenia should answer – is why it was running night flights to Comoros at all. According to the timetable, flights from Sana’a usually take off at 8.0pm or 8.30pm, arriving (if they are non-stop) four hours later.

Night flights may have something to do with the fact that Sana’a airport is at an altitude of more than 7,000ft, which can complicate take-off because of the thinner air, especially during the heat of the day. I was once told by a Yemenia pilot that their aircraft engines have been adjusted for this but they nevertheless have to be careful about takeoff weight. This can result in planes leaving fully-booked but with empty seats to save weight, something that tends to annoy passengers. The question here is: did Yemenia opt for night flights to Moroni so they could be more heavily laden?

Another question concerns Bahia, the teenaged girl who 
survived the crash and was eventually plucked from the sea by fishermen. Was this really the “miracle” that newspapers have made it out to be? Did others survive the crash, only to drown before search-and-rescue teams got to them? In about 30% of cases when planes ditch in the sea, some people survive. 

Clearly, darkness hampered the initial search in this case but the Comoros isn’t geared-up for such an operation anyway. Considering that it’s still struggling to provide an electricity supply for all its citizens, that’s not very surprising. Even so, one air industry professional thinks there ought to be a legal obligation for coastal airports to have at least one search-and-rescue plane and some speedy lifeboats. 

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 18 July 2009


Lebanese balancing act

You may remember a flurry of media excitement a month or so ago over whether Hizbullah would win the Lebanese elections. It didn’t, and so Lebanon dropped off the world news map again.

Almost three weeks on, incoming prime minister Saad Hariri (or Mini-Hariri as the Angry Arab likes to call him) is still trying to put together a cabinet. This is nothing unusual in Lebanon, and Qifa Nabki explains the complexities. The goal, he says, is to form the broadest possible coalition but “without completely crippling the executive branch through perpetual veto-enforced gridlock.”

Moving on from that, there are the “distributional conventions” of Lebanese governments:

"For example, the cabinet is typically supposed to be split equally between Christians and Muslims. Furthermore, Maronites, Sunnis, and Shiites are usually given the same share each. In a thirty-member cabinet, this would mean that there would have to be 15 Christians (eg, 6 Maronites and 9 non-Maronites) and 15 Muslims (eg, 6 Sunnis, 6 Shiites, and 3 Druzes)."

Beyond that, you have to please the foreigners who like to think they run the country – most notably the Syrians and Saudis.

Opinion seems to favour a 30-member cabinet with 15 places for the US/Saudi-back March 14 group, 10 for the Syrian-backed March 8 group and five for the president’s nominees.

Qifa Nabki says: “One way or the other, we should know in, oh… maybe another six months.”

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 17 July 2009


Road to Damascus

The Obama administration seems to be dusting off old Clinton-era plans for peace between Israel and Syria, looking at the stumbling blocks last time around and checking for new ways to overcome them. Fred Hoff, an adviser to George Mitchell’s Middle East team, has been in Israel this week exploring the situation.

Clinton tried unsuccessfully to broker a deal in 2000, and there were indirect contacts between Syria and Israel last year, with Turkey acting as intermediary. Although the two sides have still not met face to face, the points of serious disagreement seem to be relatively few – which is encouraging.

I may write about this in more detail later but in the meantime there’s some commentary (mainly from Israeli sources) on Joshua Landis’s blog and on the Israel Policy Forum website (here and here.)

A fuller exploration of the issues - and possible solutions - can be found in a report produced by the International Crisis Group. When published in 2002, the ICG described it as a “best assessment of what fair and comprehensive deals on the Syrian and Lebanese tracks should look like”. Even today, it’s probably still the most accurate picture of the shape a settlement would take. 

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 17 July 2009


Quote/unquote

There are three types of people in Afghanistan today: al-Qaida (the fighters), al-faida (the enriched) and al-gaida (the fucked). Most Afghans belong to the third category.

Nushin Arbabzadah: The Afghanistan industry

In the past decade, the Saudi government has been consistent in its approach ... Conflict avoidance and postponement has been the answer to each and every request for more women['s] rights. The Islamic perspective plays no role in these decisions ... in an Islamic state that prides itself on being the only country that truly rules according to Islamic shariah, the lives of half of its citizens are exclusively run according to cultural and tribal traditions ... and little else. 

Eman al-Nafjan: Driving Saudi


Shock of the new media

I'm not posting here today.Instead, I have written for Comment Is Free about the Palestinian ban on al-Jazeera and the wider pattern of government-media relations in Arab countries.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 15 July 2009

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Shining all over Egypt

Shine, shine, you who shine on all of us 
Shine, shine, you who shine wherever you go 
No one can shine like you shine 
You made people feel confused and lost 
You made people feel happy and lost

Are you shocked by these lines of verse? Aghast at their temerity? Their author has just been given the maximum sentence allowed under Egyptian law – three years in jail and a fine of $18,000 – on charges of insulting President Hosni Mubarak (who is referred to throughout the country as The Laughing Cow).

The offending lines were written by Mounir Said Hanna Marzouk, an obscure civil servant from Maghagha in southern Egypt. According to the BBC, he “began writing poetry only recently and was encouraged when his colleagues at the office enjoyed reading it. But things took a turn for the worse when he began to write about problems at work and everyday life.”

One colleague made a formal complaint and he was hauled in by the authorities for interrogation. He was tried and sentenced without help from a lawyer, and might easily have remained forgotten in jail for the next three years. It was only when his family appealed to President Mubarak for pardon that the case started to attract public attention.

Why on earth do Arab regimes still pursue these ridiculous “crimes” of “insulting” the head of state or “defaming” the country? As the Egyptian blogger Zeinobia (whose translation from the offending poem is quoted above) puts it: “So what if he mocks Mubarak? Mubarak is not a God, he is just a president.”

The case, she says, is reminiscent of King Farouk’s last days in power, when writers and poets like Bayram el-Tunsi were punished or exiled for “defaming” the monarch.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 15 July 2009

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The boys are in town

The blogger known as “The Egypt Guy” reports that a ground-breaking new book has gone on sale in Cairo – apparently with the approval of “state security”.

Written by journalist Mostafa Fathi, Fi Balad el-Walaad (In the Country of the Boys) “tells the story of one young Egyptian gay man's everyday life with all its ups and its many downs … This is the first ever book that tells of the misery of being gay in Egypt and that speaks for respecting and accepting the oppressed Egyptian gay community on a human level.”

There’s more about it here, on the Lebanese website, Menassat.

Still on the theme of sexuality, I’ve been meaning to mention 
The Crisis of Arab Masculinities – a fascinating article on the Long Slumber blog. It identifies three types of Arab masculinity: the “fighting masculinity”, the “politicised masculinity” and the “honorable masculinity”. The discussion thread below the article is well worth reading too.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 15 July 2009


Yemen update

  • Two men have been arrested in connection with the triple killing in Lahj province last Friday. They are said to be a son and brother of the main suspect, Ali Saif Mohammed. It is not clear if they are actually suspected of involvement in the killing: the Yemeni authorities often arrest innocent relatives of wanted men in order to encourage the wanted person to surrender.

  • Security has been tightened around foreign embassies and related buildings in Yemen. This could be the result of a tip-off but is more likely to be a precaution against any reprisals following the death sentences imposed on six Islamist militants.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 15 July 2009


Yemeni call to expel al-Jazeera

A Yemeni politician has demanded the closure of al-Jazeera’s office in Sana’a, accusing the TV channel of damaging the country’s security and stability, the Yemen Post reports.

Ali Jusaed al-Lahbi, a member of parliament for the ruling General People Congress, said: “It runs stories which Yemen's enemies completely exploit, especially the secessionists who aim to deform Yemen's image abroad.''

The paper adds that two al-Jazeera correspondents, Murad Hashim and Ahmad al-Shalafi, have received threats warning them to stop covering events in southern Yemen.

Meanwhile, the Yemen Times reports on the opening of the new court set up specially to try journalists. About 150 press-related cases are pending and the first to be heard is that of Sami Ghalib, editor-in-chief of al-Nida newspaper. He has been under investigation for a couple of years after publishing a story about corruption in the ministry of endowments.

The court has been condemned by journalists, lawyers and human right activists as an illegal attempt by the government to control the independent press. However, Mr Ghalib – its first defendant – told the Yemen Times that in different circumstances it might be regarded as a step forward, allowing journalists to be tried as journalists and not “like criminals” in the normal courts.

On the other hand, Tawakkol Karman, head of Women Journalists Without Chains, said the new press court resembles the government's special court for terrorism – in effect dealing with journalism like terrorism. "The charges are even the same: 'threatening the country's security and stability’," she said.

Other developments in Yemen:

1. Six militants were sentenced to death and 10 others jailed after being convicted for 13 armed attacks over the past two years. (This has been widely reported elsewhere so I won’t expand on it here.)

2. Demonstrators continue to block the Aden-Sana’a road at al-Dhali’. This has been going on for four weeks now, the 
Yemen Times says. A picture shows the old southern flag brandished during a protest in the south last week. “Many Yemenis from the north have been aggressed while driving along the main road between Sana’a and Aden,” the paper says. For supporters of the Southern Movement, “a northern accent has become enough to justify aggression”.

3. Twenty Chinese “health clubs” (suspected brothels) in the Hadda district of Sana’a have been shut down by the local authorities. Chinese restaurants serving alcohol but not food (some reportedly have no kitchens) are next on the list for closure. “We approve this step by the local council particularly when the Chinese authorities closed down mosques in China of Uighur Muslims,” Ahmad Aqlan, a Yemeni citizen, is quoted as saying.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 14 July 2009


Resign, if you want a job

It’s a bit like like those pre-nuptial agreements where celebrities sort out the divorce terms with their lawyers in advance of getting married – except that the people involved here are not celebrities but poor Egyptian factory workers.

Reporting on exploitation in the sweat-shops of the Qualified Industrial Zone (an Egyptian-Israeli “friendship” venture), Hossam el-Hamalawy tells of 24-year-old Alaa Gameel who, in order to get his $2-a-day job, had to sign an undated resignation letter allowing his boss to fire him at any time. Besides that, he has no employment contract, no health insurance, no retirement funds … and hasn’t been paid his wages for the last three months.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 14 July 2009


Protest at newspaper ban

Yemeni forces yesterday dispersed a rally of 200 people in Aden who were demonstrating against the suspension of al-Ayyam newspaper, Reuters reports. About 15 of the paper’s employees were arrested during the rally.

Established in the 1950s, al-Ayyam is Yemen’s oldest independent daily newspaper. It was one of seven papers banned by the information minister last May for allegedly promoting “separatism” (the others were al-Nada, al-Shari’, al-Masdar, al-Mustaqila, al-Diyar and al-Watani). More details from Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Meanwhile, in the southern province of Lahj yesterday, “thousands” marched on the governor’s office demanding the arrest of those responsible for Friday’s apparent separatist attack which killed three people. Since the authorities also want them arrested, this demo seems to have been unmolested by security forces. Four people are being sought for the killings, including a retired army colonel, according to the official news agency.

In a curious remark on Saturday, President Salih said: “We cannot call only people in southern provinces as separatists but we have separatists across the country … here as well in Sana’a.” It’s beginning to sound as if Salih defines a “separatist” (infisaali) as anyone who disagrees with him.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 13 July 2009


Undercover investigation

Don’t pretend you’ve never wanted to know. The American Bedu blog has the answers to two vital questions: what Saudi men wear under their thobe and what women wear under the abaya.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 13 July 2009


“Friends” of Israel

An article by Fred Dardick for Canada Free Press (reproduced 
here by the Campus Watch website, but presumably not for its academic merit) announces: “Obama is no friend of Israel”.

Among numerous other offences, the Obama administration is accused of suggesting – horror of horrors – that Israel should sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty (which every other country has already done, apart from India, Pakistan and North Korea). 

The trouble with articles of this kind is that they always equate “Israel’s interests” with policies advocated by the most extreme Zionist elements. In the long run (as we have already begun to see during the last few years) those policies will prove far more damaging to Israel than anything Hamas or Hizbullah can do.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 13 July 2009


Double 'honour' killing in Saudi

Action by the Saudi religious police is being blamed for a double “honour” killing in the kingdom. Two sisters, identified as Reem, 21, and Nouf, 19, were arrested by the mutawwa on July 2 after being caught “in suspicious circumstances with two unrelated men”.

They were detained in a “social protection” home but released on July 5. According to Arab News, their brother “waited until the women came out. He reportedly shot one sister in the head and discharged three bullets into the other. He then tossed the gun near the bodies.”

The son has been arrested for murder and, under normal circumstances, would face the death penalty. However, Saudi law allows this to be commuted to a prison sentence if a victim’s family forgives the killer.

In this case the victims’ family is also that of the killer, and Saudi newspapers say the father has already forgiven his son on the grounds that he was defending the family’s honour.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 12 July 2009


Swine flu and the hajj

Last April, Egypt became a worldwide laughing-stock when the Mubarak regime ordered a mass slaughter of pigs in the mistaken belief that this would keep swine flu at bay.

Swine flu duly arrived – one victim being a young man who returned from Saudi Arabia with the disease after performing the lesser pilgrimage (umrah).

Having got over the idea that the H1N1 virus is spread by pigs rather than humans, most Arab countries are now addressing the issue in a more sensible fashion. One particular concern is the annual hajj, coming up in November. There are signs that the numbers attending – typically around two million – may fall this year because of health fears.

The Saudis, while unwilling to cancel the hajj, recognise that it could hasten the spread of the disease in Muslim countries and have warned that pregnant women, the elderly and people with asthma should not attend. However, this seems to be their standard advice, issued every year.

The kingdom has also ordered large supplies of vaccine but these appear to be intended for its own population. Countries that send pilgrims on the hajj are being encouraged to make their own arrangements. Kuwait is planning to vaccinate its entire (but relatively small) population by November.

For the benefit of anyone who is interested in following developments, I have set up an automated swine flu news page which compiles the latest reports from around the region. Reports involving both swine flu and the hajj are appearing on the 
hajj news page. The Arabian Business website also has a useful compilation of articles about swine flu here.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 12 July 2009


One country, or two?

Four members of the same family in a pick-up truck – a father, two sons and a son-in-law – were ambushed by gunmen in Radfan, southern Yemen, in the early hours of Friday while apparently on the way to open up their sweet shop. Three died immediately, the fourth was seriously wounded and raised the alarm. According to the official Saba news agency police are looking for a “wanted separatist” known as Ali Saif.

As readers may have noticed, I’m recording incidents in Yemen here, as they are reported, in the hope that over time this will build up into a clearer picture. It’s obvious that something is going on (beyond the “normal” levels of background violence found in a country where so many of the citizens are armed) but so far the international media have paid it scant attention.

Back in January, Prof Fred Halliday – a long-standing expert on Yemen – identified the country as one of the six main problems facing President Obama in the greater Middle East. He was right to highlight it, though I doubt there’s much that Obama can do: it’s basically a matter for the Yemenis to sort out among themselves. Earlier this month, Halliday gave a bleak but more detailed picture of the situation, saying that President Salih, the architect of Yemeni unity, “has also been the person who has done more than anyone else to destroy it”.

As always in Yemen, it’s advisable to keep an open mind about news reports – especially those from official sources. Friday’s killings do sound like a random separatist attack; they may be, but they might not.

The fact that southern separatists oppose Salih’s regime is no reason for anyone to sympathise with their separatism. Millions of Yemenis in other parts of the country feel the same way about Salih too. Tariq al-Fadli, who has nominated himself for leadership of the separatists, may be a smooth talker but he has a dodgy past. Check him out here and you’ll see what I mean.

The old southern state, which merged with northern Yemen in 1990, was a relic of British imperialism and there is no logical, ethnic or religious reason why it should re-emerge now. Anyone who doubts that should take a look at this article by Yemeni journalist Hassan al-Haifi. He concludes by saying that the struggle against oppression is “not a monopoly of our southern brothers” and suggests that if will be more effective “if all the victims of this injustice, north and south, work together to achieve the liberation of all Yemenis from the oppression that all of Yemen is facing currently. This is not just a southern issue; it is an issue that involves all of Yemen.”

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 11 July 2009


A female pearl diver

English is a wonderfully flexible language. We make up new words all the time, often combining bits borrowed from Latin and Greek: photography (light+drawing), submarine (under+sea) etc.

In Arabic this is much more difficult because the whole language is based on a system of three-consonant word roots. Where there’s nothing suitable in Arabic, foreign words get picked up and Arabised but as far as I’m concerned adaptations like “dimukratiyya” and “talavizyoon” never sound quite right. Many Arabs use “talafoon” for telephone but my teacher always favoured “haatif” (from a genuine Arabic root meaning to call out or, in the case of pigeons, to coo).

It’s always nice to come across modern Arabic words that show some creativity in their derivation, and so this week I was delighted to find “ghawwaasa” – meaning a submarine – which also serves as a reminder of ancient Arab traditions. A ghawwaas is a diver or, more specifically in the waters of the Gulf, a pearl diver. Add a feminine ending (as happens in Arabic with other modes of transport like cars and planes) and you have a submarine. Or, conceivably, a female pearl diver. 

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 11 July 2009


Subversives’ at work

A report from Saba, the official Yemeni news agency, on the 15th anniversary of the north’s victory in the 1994 war:

Subversives attacked Tuesday security forces and people in Yemen's eastern province of Hadramout killing a citizen and injuring two soldiers, the state-run 26sep.net has reported.

The attack occurred when police in the eastern parts of the province intervened and prevented rioters from committing further sabotage acts which even affected the public properties. Another citizen was injured as well. Sources in the province were cited as saying that subversives burned a commercial store and attacked vendors.

Away from Hadramout, rioters in Mukalla poured on to the streets on Tuesday, burning tiers [tyres] and chanting anti-unity slogans. Several arrests took place and police were investigating. 

In Dhale, eyewitnesses said subversives blocked the Dhale-Aden road for the second time in almost a week and fired at security forces. No injuries were reported. Shootings at random forced tens of cars passing in the area to stop and avoid being hurt. 

If this is the officially-approved version of events, I dread to think what an unofficial version might be like.

Meanwhile the World Food Program has appealed for urgent food aid to address “critical levels of hunger and malnutrition in Yemen,” according to the Yemen Times.

“Volatile food and fuel prices combined with conflict and natural disasters over the past years have severely affected the country, leaving more than one in three Yemenis suffering from chronic hunger,” said WFP representative Gian Carlo Cirri. 

The Yemen Times also gives a simple breakdown of the national budget:

Subsidising oil prices: 30%
Government salaries: 60%
Health, education (and everything else): 10%

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 10 July 2009


Sex news

1. A 24-year-old Jordanian man killed his unmarried sister after she became pregnant. He "stabbed her 10 times in different parts of her body with a dagger in front of a group of people before handing himself over to police and confessing to the crime," a police spokesman said. Seventeen “honour” killings were reported in Jordan last year.

2. Two Saudi families have agreed to annul the marriage of an 11-year-old girl to a 40-year-old man, following intervention by the kingdom’s National Human Rights Society. Maktoob website adds: “The Saudi government is working on new regulations to impose a minimum age to marry, probably of 18, to prevent further child brides … Saudi authorities recently came under fire after a father allowed his daughter, eight, to be married to a man in his fifties. The marriage was eventually annulled in April after international pressure.” 

3. “Is ethnicity and religion an aetiological factor in men with rapid ejaculation?” You can buy this scientific paper for 16 quid (and thanks to the Angry Arab for pointing it out). It sounds like a variant on that old tale that black men have big cocks. “Eighty-nine percent of patients who reported rapid ejaculation [an “intravaginal ejaculatory latency time" of less than three minutes] reported their religion as Muslim; 72% of men were from Bangladesh.” So what has Islam – or, indeed, Bangladesh – got to do with this? Probably nothing. “The reasons are unclear. We contend that possible aetiological features include psychosocial and environmental influences.”

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 10 July 2009


Google in Aleppo

No idea why I like this picture, but I do. Definitely, I do.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 10 July 2009


Yemenia – and a French 'cover-up'

Here we go again. While Egyptian protesters chant that “Germans are the enemies of God”, Yemenis are venting their wrath against France over the Yemenia plane crash.

A headline in the Yemen Observer claims the Airbus was “possibly” hit by a French missile (scroll down the page if it doesn’t display properly). Unnamed sources at Yemenia and in the Comoros are reported as saying that this is not being ruled out. 

Certainly a lot of things can’t be ruled out, but in the absence of further evidence a technical failure or pilot error are far more probable explanations at this stage.

The missile claim seems to have arisen because a Comorian official said French naval ships had been performing manoeuvres in the area the day before the crash. The French, who are working with teams from the US, Yemen and Comoros to retrieve bodies and wreckage, are now accused of trying to cover up the evidence. 

The president of Comoros, Ahmad Abdullah Sambi, has reportedly said the French know exactly where the wreckage is located, but are directing divers to other areas.

With Europe now demanding a global blacklist of unsafe airlines, we can see where this is heading. Investigators will blame the pilot or poor maintenance and Yemen will take comfort in conspiracy theories.

Yesterday, hundreds of Yemenia employees demonstrated outside the French embassy in Sana’a. In a letter to the ambassador they said: "The French search team appears not to have any real intention to search (for bodies) and produces only – sadly – false information that enforces ambiguity and doubt." 

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 9 July 2009


Egyptian floozies

I’ve received an email from Corporal Timothy Reece, a linguist in the British Army. He has been looking at my list of English words derived from Arabic and says I’ve missed one – “the word ‘floozy’ meaning a loose woman, or a lady of the night if you will”.

He explains: “This stems from the British Army involvement in Egypt, where soldiers on leave would venture out in search of women. They would hold their money up in the air and say "fuloosi" [‘fuloos’ being the Arabic word for money] with the obvious implication. This of course was changed over time and women who would be paid for sex were known as floozies thereafter.”

I compiled the list of Arabic-to-English words a few years ago because I felt – and still do – that the contribution made by Arabic to our language is often overlooked, especially by dictionary compilers. A lot of the Arabic words came to us via Spanish or French and those languages tend to be credited as the source when derivations are given.

This seems to be the case with “floozy” too. My Oxford dictionary agrees that the word emerged in the 20th century but suggests it’s a variant of “flossy” or “fluffy”. I’m inclined to believe Corporal Reece on this one.

The Oxford dictionary does recognise "bint" as an Arabic word ("colloquial, usually derogatory"). It doesn't crop up much in English nowadays but I've heard ex-Army types use it when referring to women.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 9 July 2009

Feedback


The Arabic blogosphere

Back to the subject of blogging. The recent report from the Internet and Democracy Project at Harvard is well worth a look. As far as I know it’s the first detailed study of the Arab blogosphere.

The researchers found about 35,000 blogs in Arabic, which sounds a lot but when you consider the total population of the Arab countries it mean that roughly one person in every 10,000 is a blogger. The figure for non-Arab Iran, though, is much higher: about one in a thousand. This is a huge difference. I don’t know the explanation but I’d be interested to hear any theories.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 8 July 2009


Is Yemen going to blow?

I’ve been reading some very gloomy reports from Yemen recently. With unrest in both the far north (the long-running Houthi rebellion) and the south (revival of separatism), and complaints about the economy almost everywhere, it sounds very bad.

But … People have been making dire predictions about Yemen for years and they have usually turned out to be wrong. And if the south failed to break away in 1994 when it had its own army, how is it going to succeed now – without one?

That said, problems do seem to be piling up for the Salih regime and I wouldn’t like to hazard a guess as to what may happen. If you’re in Yemen (or have been there recently) and have views on this, send me an email.

For more about the political background leading up to this, see the last chapter of my e-book. It's titled "Muddling Through".

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 8 July 2009

     

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July 2009

Another death threat in Yemen

A question of citizenship

Ambush in Algeria

The voice of China – in Arabic

Wiping Iraq off the map

Refugee crisis adds to Yemen's woes

They're coming to get you

Fun time in Riyadh

Ten years of Mohammed VI

With friends like these

The Red-Dead Project

Arabs and the hymen

Violence worsens in southern Yemen

Rebels attack again in northern Yemen

Crackdown on bloggers

The flesh-pots of Jeddah

Back-slapping in Damascus

'Sixteen dead' in south Yemen clashes

Ten die in Yemen mosque battle

Lies, damn lies and national security

Security, but not as we know it

Yet more insults

Yemen: the nightmare scenario

The Arafat ‘murder’ mystery

No rhyme, no reason

Cut! The film festival is stopped

Mauritania’s Ahmadinejad?

Questions about the Yemenia crash

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Shining all over Egypt

The boys are in town

Yemen update

Yemeni call to expel al-Jazeera

Resign, if you want a job

Protest at newspaper ban

Undercover investigation

“Friends” of Israel

Double 'honour' killing in Saudi

Swine flu and the hajj

One country, or two?

A female pearl diver

‘Subversives’ at work

Sex news 

Google in Aleppo 

Yemenia – and a French 'cover-up'

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Last revised on 30 November, 2009