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Iraq's draft media law under fire

The Vienna-based International Press Institute has issued a statement criticising the Iraqi government’s draft media law.

I haven’t seen the full text (anyone who has a copy please sent it to me) but from what has been reported it contains the usual statements about protecting journalist, freedom of expression, etc – and the usual get-out clauses. In other words, it’s typical of the media laws promulgated by authoritarian regimes and mirrors the repressive approach already seen in Iraq’s proposed internet law.

For example, the new law would prohibit journalists from “compromising the security and stability of the country” – a vaguely-worded phrase which, as the IPI notes, can be used “to snuff out and punish virtually any form of criticism of government and state interests”. In fact, the same phrase is currently being used in Yemen to put journalists on trial in the special press court.

The draft also forbids aggressive or provocative statements and says that what is published must not "serve enemies of the state" – leaving it to the authorities to decide what is meant by "enemies of the state" or “aggressive” or “provocative”.

AFP quotes Hadi Jalow Marai of the Baghdad-based Journalism Freedom Observatory: "We are rejecting the draft law ... because it is not going to be used to protect journalists, but as a means for the government to use it against journalists and to limit their freedoms."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 13 August 2009

State of emergency 

The Yemeni authorities have declared a state of emergency throughout Saada province and imposed an evening curfew on Saada city and surrounding towns, the German Press Agency (dpa) reports.

Casualties in the government’s new “iron fist” offensive are unclear but dpa and Associated Press both cite the Houthi rebels as saying that 15 civilians were killed when a fighter jet struck a marketplace in Haidan town. A number of rebel fighters are reported dead in other areas.

Killing aside, the conflict is plainly having a severe effect on civilian life in the area. The dpa report continues:

The UN refugee agency official in northern Yemen, Claire Bourgeois, said the organisation is looking to assist at least 1,500 families displaced in the area of Malahidh, where some of the worst fighting took place Wednesday.

"We fear the numbers could be much higher, many people fled their homes in an emergency, so we are assuming they didn't take necessities with them," she said.

Another UN official, Lina al-Mujahed, said more than 230 families have arrived in the provincial capital after traveling hundreds of kilometers from different parts of Saada. Al-Mujahed said food and tents were already distributed to half of them.

The ruling party’s website, Almotamar, says the Houthi rebels currently control about 63 schools in Haidan area and other schools in other areas of Katif, al-Baqa, Safin and al-Safraa, and have kidnapped a number of teachers and plundered the schools’ contents. It quotes Mohammed al-Shamiri, director-general of education in Saada province:

They expelled students and changed them into camps for destruction and aggression on army and security men as well as the citizens. They used them for destroying thoughts [of] the youth through holding gatherings instigating against the state and the republican system. 

The sabotage elements have tried to force some teachers to teach certain subjects and force the students to attend those lectures. The students who refused that the elements would threaten their families and relatives and expelling them from their houses and areas to other areas under pretext of being unwanted citizens.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 13 August 2009

Yemen: here comes the 'iron fist'

“Broad offensive”, “iron fist”, “all-out onslaught” … the news agencies are reporting a large-scale government attack on the Houthi rebels (Reuters and dpa) in northern Yemen. 

The army launched “aerial, artillery and missile strikes on the strategic heights of Matra and Dhahian, the two main strongholds of the rebels on the border with Saudi Arabia,” dpa says.

The Supreme Security Committee is quoted as saying the assault was “the last option after the rebels rejected to respond to the call of peace made by the government”.

Well, they’ve tried this before and the rebellion came back again. 

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 12 August 2009

Arab science fiction

A few weeks ago I was chatting with my friend Nesrine Malik about the dearth of science fiction in Arabic literature. There are certainly elements of fantasy in Arabic literature, going right back to the Thousand and One Nights, but that is not quite the same as the futuristic stuff you find in science fiction.

I wondered it might have some connection with the tendency of Arab culture to focus heavily on the past. Nesrine later wrote an article for Comment Is Free, pointing out that Isaac Asimov once said "true science fiction could not really exist until people understood the rationalism of science and began to use it with respect in their stories". 

Does science fiction perhaps tread too heavily on the region’s religious sensibilities? As Nesrine noted, “the genre could be viewed as an extension of a ‘foreign’ heritage with its roots in Darwinism – one at odds with a monotheist world view”. 

If so, it’s a pity because imaginative writing about the future offers a lot of scope for subversive allegories and is potentially one way of circumventing the red lines that come into play when writing about the present.

I’d welcome emails from any readers who have thoughts about this. In the meantime, I was pleased to discover this website discussing Islam, Muslims and science fiction.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 12 August 2009


Tax collectors’ revolt

Egypt’s real estate tax collectors are due to start an open-ended national strike today. Strikes are commonplace in Egypt but this one is especially significant.

The tax collectors won a major victory in 2007 after a series of protests that 

… culminated with a 12-day sit-in in front of the ministerial cabinet headquarters in downtown Cairo. They roughly raised their salaries by 325 percent, thanks to the strike, and went on a year later to found Egypt’s first independent trade union in half a century. 

The issue, basically, is about recognition of independent unions. In most Arab countries (or at least, those that allow unions at all) they are controlled by the government. The tax collectors’ dispute centres on a social welfare fund where the Egyptian finance ministry insists on dealing with the government-backed union rather than the independent union which has widespread popular support.

For developments on this, and other industrial unrest in Egypt, watch Hossam el-Hamalawy’s 3arabawy blog.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 11 August 2009

Yemen ‘on the brink of an explosion

Despite mediation efforts, the Houthi rebellion in northern Yemen shows no sign of abating. President Salih, speaking at a meeting of Yemen’s Supreme Security Committee, warned the rebels “that the continuation of their assaults and attempts to disturb public security and tranquillity would only lead to further conflict”.

True enough, but Salih’s policies so far have only led to further conflict too. The president has run out of ideas for dealing with the crisis, and more of the same isn’t going to work.

Over the weekend, rebels set up a series of roadblocks aimed a preventing military reinforcements from reaching Saada province, the seat of the rebellion. Supplying and reinforcing the government troops seems to be a problem: Asharq Alawsat notes that the commander, officers, and soldiers of a military post in Saqin of a military post in Saqin district have surrendered to the Houthis after a siege lasting almost two weeks. The report also says:

Informed sources told Asharq Al-Awsat that violent clashes took place yesterday [Sunday] between the Houthis and government troops on several fronts, in particular in the border areas with the kingdom of Saudi Arabia which the Houthis seized control of during the past two weeks and which the government troops are trying to take back. But there [was] no precise information about the human casualties and material losses in these clashes.

Besides fighting government forces, the Houthis (who are Zaidi Shia) also clashed with hardline Sunni/Salafi tribesmen in the Baqim area on Friday/Saturday. AFP says two Zaidis and six Salafis were killed.

Writing in the pan-Arab newspaper, al-Hayat, Jameel Theyabi gives a gloomy assessment of Yemen’s prospects: “Conditions are deteriorating and moving toward fragmentation. The situation is on the brink of a huge explosion.” 

The economic magazine, MEED (subscription only) points out that Yemen’s foreign currency reserves are at a record low, and only enough to cover eight-and-a-half months’ imports. Meanwhile the official news agency, Saba, reports a dramatic fall in Yemen’s oil revenues: $665 million in the first half of this year compared with $2.6 billion in the same period last year. It's looking bleaker and bleaker.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 11 August 2009

Another crazy court case

Mohammad Abdul Fatah, a 73-year-old Egyptian Muslim, has been awarded custody of his seven-year-old grandson because the boy’s parents changed their religion.

Following the parents’ conversion to the Baha’i faith, the grandfather sought advice from Egypt’s Grand Mufti, Gulf News says.

"He advised me to consider my daughter dead, and to file a lawsuit to demand the guardianship of my grandchild," Abdul Fatah is quoted as saying.

The boy and his parents are thought to be living abroad, possibly in Australia, but Abdul Fatah wants Interpol to find the child and bring him back to Egypt. Although that is unlikely to happen, the court’s ruling is a blow against religious freedom at a time when there had been signs of some improvement.

Last March, Egyptian Baha’is won a five-year legal battle when the supreme administrative court ruled that the "religion" section on national identity cards could be left blank.

Up to that point the authorities had been refusing to issue the new computerised cards unless applicants declared themselves as belonging to one of the three "heavenly" religions: Islam, Christianity or Judaism. The result was to turn Baha’is into non-citizens. Without ID cards they were unable to work legally, study beyond secondary school, vote, operate a bank account, obtain a driver's licence, buy and sell property, collect a pension, or travel.

The Baha'i faith originated in Iran during the 19th century and by the early 20th century also had a flourishing community in Egypt (it has since dwindled to around 2,000). In the 1960s, President Nasser issued a decree which, in effect, withdrew state recognition from the Baha'i community and confiscated their property.

Nasser's decree was reaffirmed by the supreme court in 1975 in a ruling which said that only the three "revealed" religions were protected by the constitution: the Baha'is were entitled to their beliefs but practice of the Baha'i faith was a "threat to public order" and therefore fell outside the constitutional protection for freedom of religion.

The issue of religious minorities in Egypt is discussed more fully in 
Prohibited Identities: State Interference with Religious Freedom (Human Rights Watch, 2007).

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 10 August 2009

How to be good at Arabic

No two ways about it: learning Arabic is hard work, but the Arabic Media Shack has some useful tips.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 10 August 2009

Mauritania's first suicide bomb

A young man blew himself up in Nouakchott, the Mauritanian capital, on Saturday evening. Nobody else was killed.

It was the country’s first suicide bombing. Some reports suggest the intended target may have been the French embassy and point a finger at Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM). Though the French embassy seems a plausible target, the Moor Next Door blog is not convinced of an al-Qaeda connection. 

The attack came just three days after ex-coup leader Mohammed Ould Abdel Aziz was sworn in as “democratically-elected” president following an Iranian-style election.

France, which seems happy to get its hands filthy in Mauritania, was indecently hasty in welcoming Ould Abdel Aziz’s supposed electoral victory. So the attack could possibly have been a comment on that.

Whoever was responsible, though, it’s basically good news for the Mauritanian president who can now look forward to even more French support on account of his heroic stand against terrorism.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 10 August 2009

Falconry: an ignoble sport

The United Arab Emirates is seeking to have falconry recognised by Unesco as part of the world’s “intangible heritage”. The application will be submitted to Unesco this month for consideration under the auspices of the international Convention for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage. It should be strongly opposed.

The idea behind “intangible heritage” is that it is not limited to ancient monuments and the like but, as the Unesco website explains, “encompasses living expressions and the traditions that countless groups and communities worldwide have inherited from their ancestors and transmit to their descendants, in most cases orally”.

Examples of intangible heritage currently recognised by Unesco include:

Falconry is certainly an ancient tradition in the Middle East – but then, so is “honour” killing and female circumcision. The fact that it’s a tradition does not, in itself, make it acceptable or worth preserving. Although falconry continues to be trumpeted by Gulf princes as a “noble sport”, this article by Charles Ferndale puts it in a different perspective:

Arabian falconry has over the last 36 years (at least) been catastrophically damaging both to wild falcons and to the quarry favoured by Gulf Arab falconers (the houbara bustard and, to a lesser extent, curlew). 
As early as 1974, the high prices paid by newly-rich Gulf Arabs and their Asian and European sycophants (including huge British companies), led to many hundreds of people, in many countries, seeking to lift the eggs and chicks of wild falcons and to trap mature birds. 

… whatever wisdom and virtue the desert Arab falconry traditions ever had have long since been forgotten … 

True desert bedouin in the Egyptian desert, who for centuries used falcons to feed their families, no longer see any. In the 1970s they saw eight-foot-high piles of dead birds rotting in the sun – the results of various Gulf Arab hunting parties competing to see who could kill the most bustards. The hunters used four-wheeled drives, scores of falcons, radio communications, shotguns and automatic weapons to kill the poor, slow, clumsy, helpless bustard. Even those who kill wild animals for pleasure could not have called it sport: it was slaughter.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 9 August 2009

A step forward for workers' rights

At long last, the system of employers’ sponsorship for foreign workers – a major cause of exploitation in the Arab Gulf states – seems to be coming to an end.

Sponsorship, in effect, ties foreign workers (and their continued residence in the country) to a single employer, often with dire consequences for the workers. It also leads to trafficking in residence and work permits, and has also been heavily criticised by human rights organisations worldwide.

On August 1, Bahrain became the first Gulf state to reform its rules. Expatriate workers will no longer be sponsored by a specific employer but directly by the government-backed Labour Market Regulatory Authority. This means they will be able to change jobs without the need for a “no objection” certificate from their current employer. 

Explaining the move, Bahrain’s labour minister, Majeed al-Alawi, 
told Construction Week: “It will end the black market for illegal visas and will raise salaries, because workers will have an option to go to employers who will treat and pay them better.”

He added: “All ministers of labour in the Gulf believe in what I am saying … In the next five years, most of them will do exactly what we are doing now. Kuwait, Qatar and the UAE will be the first to jump.”

In fact, it took Kuwait only a few days to announce plans of its own which go further than the changes in Bahrain: foreigners who have a “record of good behaviour” will be allowed to sponsor themselves after two or three years in the country.

"I am serious about finding a solution to the issue, particularly [as] it affects the reputation of Kuwait and has highly significant humanitarian dimensions,” Kuwait’s labour minister, Mohammad al-Affassi was reported as saying.

These changes will bring Gulf states more into line with international labour standards – an area where they have been seriously lagging behind – but not without fierce resistance from some employers.

The objections of Abdul Hadi al-Shahwani, a prominent businessman and industrialist, are typical of the entrenched attitudes. He told The Peninsula newspaper in Qatar: “It’s a ploy to placate the international community. They are playing to the gallery by implementing an impractical and populist policy.”

A businessman hires a worker from overseas, houses and trains him and suddenly he leaves, Shahwani complained.

“I come to my office one fine morning and find my manager missing. I then hear he has joined another company. That’s what is going to happen in a sponsorship-free job market.”

Of course, that’s the whole point. Sponsorship is protectionism. It shields employers from competition by providing them with a captive workforce. Remove it, and the workers can shop around for better pay and conditions.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 8 August 2009

Sex and Dubai Studio City 

“Imagine a place where you can shoot a film from start to finish in one location. From scripting to casting to pre-production to filming in exotic locations to editing to sound recording to visual animation to processing to distribution and finally to the premiere night. Imagine a place like Dubai Studio City.”

That’s what the blurb says. But when Dubai Studio City was approached by the makers of Sex and the City’s sequel film, it turned out to be not so simple.

Dubai Studio City explained: “In accordance with its standard procedures, LAS [Location Approval Services] referred the script to the relevant government authority to review the same by taking into consideration the multicultural fabric of the society and its perceptions ... Further to the recommendation of the government authority, the request for filming was declined.”

The National points out that the first Sex and the City film was not shown in UAE cinemas last year, though the TV series on which it was based can be viewed in the Emirates on the Showtime network.

This is not the first refusal. The 2008 spy thriller, Body of Lies, was also turned away from Dubai, apparently because of political sensitivities. Scenes supposedly set in Jordan were eventually filmed in Morocco.

It is becoming a familiar problem in the Emirates. On one hand they are trying to develop into a hub for the world’s media and culture but on the other hand they can’t quite bring themselves to accept the implications of that.

The issue came up in 2007 when Abu Dhabi announced hugely expensive plans to open a branch of the Louvre but was rather iffy about what kind of paintings might safely be put on display. As one report observed at the time:

Yesterday’s agreement sets the stage for the establishment of a universal museum dominated by classical western art covering “all civilisations and all eras, including the contemporary era”, while respecting the two sides’ “cultural values”.

This last clause has led to questions about which works can be exhibited in a country in which all nude representations or crucifixion scenes would be deemed offensive. “Thank goodness Monet painted waterlilies,” quipped the left-leaning daily Liberation.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 7 August 2009

Writing on the wall for Salih?

A five-sentence news item on the Islah party’s website, under the rather inconsequential headline “MP urges Yemeni president to step down”, says that the opposition member of parliament Hamid al-Ahmar has called on President Salih to hand over power to Vice-President Abdu Rabo Mansour Hadi.

This might not be very noteworthy – except that al-Ahmar is no ordinary MP. He’s the son of the late Abdullah bin Hussein al-Ahmar who for years was paramount chief of the Hashid (Yemen's most important tribal grouping, of which Salih’s clan is a junior member) as well as speaker of parliament, leader of the Islah party and a major power broker behind the scenes.

I can’t imagine Hamid al-Ahmar (glowingly profiled here in the Yemen Times) making these remarks on al-Jazeera television simply for the sake of sounding off. 

Talk of national reconciliation in Yemen is not going to lead anywhere unless something happens to break the ice – and Salih’s resignation would be an obvious first step. Salih, in true Arab tradition, is not going to jump and will have to be pushed. Ahmar’s “urging” may be the start of a move to do just that.

Meanwhile, the Associated Press says rebels have captured a strategic army post in Saghein (Saada province) after a 12-hour battle.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 7 August 2009


King Abdullah of Lebanon

King Abdullah is still having difficulty with his cabinet appointments in Lebanon. He is discussing the problem with his prime minister designate, Saad Hariri. The Daily Star has more details.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 7 August 2009

Gaza’s own Hollywood?

The release of Hamas’s first feature film, produced in Gaza on a budget of only $200,000, is noted by the Guardian and the Jerusalem Post. As might be expected in view of the filming location, it’s descibed as action-packed. 

The film's producer, Fathi Hamad, is also the Gaza interior minister, so I can’t see it making much of an impact at Cannes. Hamad is quoted as saying: "We are trying to make quality art that is Islamic and about the resistance, without provocative (sexual) scenes."

My gut feeling is that this is a complete waste of time. Will the film actually influence anybody? And aren’t there better things to do with $200,000 in Gaza?

Along with Hamas TV’s version of Mickey Mouse a couple of years ago, it will probably turn out to be totally ineffective propaganda. The Mickey Mouse series provoked an enormous fuss from MEMRI and others – with the unspoken assumption was it corrupting a generation of Palestinian children.

However, a research paper published earlier this year by Arab Media and Society shows that its effect on children was virtually nil. Based on extensive fieldwork, Yael Warshel concludes that Palestinian children much prefer global television to local television:

Their favourite channels, to which the overwhelming majority have access … include, in order of preference, Spacetoons, the Saudi-owned Arab Radio and TV Network Channel 3 (ARTeenz) and Middle East Broadcasting Corporation (MBC) Channel 3.

Their favourite programmes are also global, not local. They consume American, Japanese and pan-Arab television far more than any other programmes, including local Palestinian shows …

When asked, the children never cited programmes flagged by MEMRI as being part of the martyrdom, or for that matter, anti-Jewish genre, as programmes they watched … The number one television programme Palestinian children consume is the American-produced Tom and Jerry.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 6 August 2009

Arabic web addresses are coming

ICANN, the body responsible for coordinating internet addresses (domain names) worldwide, has announced that website addresses in Arabic will be available from next year. At present, Arabic-language websites still have to use addresses in the Roman alphabet. The move will also benefit websites in other languages using non-Roman alphabets, such as Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Russian and Hindi. 

Gulf News suggests the change will help to improve internet penetration in the Middle East. The technical problems of using Arabic on computers, with its different alphabet and its right-to-left script, were largely overcome in the 1990s – though they posed a major barrier to the internet’s growth in the Middle East at the time.

How much effect this new development will have remains to be seen. Possibly it will make a bigger difference in China, where 95% of websites are in Chinese. The option of Arabic web addresses may have some appeal for Islamic sites but I suspect most businesses will keep their addresses in the Roman alphabet for the benefit of international users but possibly register an Arabic-alphabet address as an alternative route to accessing their sites.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 6 August 2009

Saudis get heavy with metal fans

Hwida Price, a reader of this blog, writes with more details about the heavy metal concert/party that was broken up by the Saudi authorities last Friday:

A number of youngsters have been in police custody since early hours of Friday 31 July 2009, at the Oliyyha police station in Riyadh in Saudi Arabia. No charges have been brought against any of them yet and the officers in charge at the station seem to have no information as to the reason for their detention by the police. All that is known so far is that it was on orders from the prince of Riyadh’s office. Despite the police denial, the local press states that the detainees are ‘a group of Satan worshippers’.

In what seemed to be a softer ‘Go, let off some steam’ attitude, the Saudi authorities had been turning a blind eye to such events in the past. Whenever the religious authorities raised a concern, the police would make some arrests, get some undertakings signed before they release the suspects. They would call it 'holding parties without prior authorisation’. The punishment has never been more than a slap on the back of the hands. 

The arrests took place at one of the residential compounds in Ryadh after a concert performed by a metal rock group. The majority of the over-500 audience were Saudi. It is said that the main organisers are of western nationalities and a number of the detainees are of European, Syrian and Saudi nationals. Equipment related to the party was confiscated including cameras and computers. It was written on the party ticket that it was going to be held in secrecy and that two other parties were organised to be at the same time in the cities of Jeddah and Dammam.

This incident follows a last-minute cancellation of the Jeddah Film Festival on 19 July 2009. The optimism and promises of freedom once King Abdullah came to power in 2005, seem to be a mere mirage.

Posted 6 August 2009

Two bombs in southern Yemen

Official sources in Yemen said yesterday that “outlaws” planted two bombs outside government buildings in Abyan province. One exploded near a police building, blowing a hole in a fence. A larger device consisting of a mine and a timer was defused near the Central Organisation for Control and Auditing in Zinjibar. There were no injuries. Reports: Yemen Post and al-Sahwa.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 6 August 2009

War on the home front

Whatever is the world coming to when you can’t get decent servants any more. Under the heading “Mission impossible”, the Saudi Gazette reports on the trials and tribulations of finding a housemaid for Ramadan. They expect so much money these days, and they don’t like staying up all night cooking food.

In Abha province, one uppity maid has even gone to court, claiming that her female sponsor and four other women – all sisters – physically attacked her and locked her up for being too exhausted to help move heavy equipment. The sisters, in turn, accuse the maid of “frequently leaving the house and engaging in relations with males”.

Writing in Asharq Alawsat, Muhammad Diyab comments on the shocking news that 30 Saudi women from “deprived areas” of the kingdom have taken up jobs as housemaids at 1,500 riyals ($400) a month. (This type of work is generally considered OK for Asians but shameful for Saudis.)

Although Diyab insists that “an honest job is a source of pride” and “working in the field of housekeeping is not demeaning to a woman in any way, shape or form”, the thrust of his article is to ask why Saudi women are not getting better types of job:

Perhaps many of those who put obstacles in the way of women’s employment now feel that by opposing that trend they have actually narrowed the range of job opportunities available to women to the extent that they will accept being housemaids. May God help them and us all.

Meanwhile in Lebanon, as The Angry Arab notes here, here, and 
here, foreign housemaids continue to “fall” from balconies in alarming numbers.

For more about life as a domestic servant in the Middle East, see two reports by Human Rights Watch: As If I Am Not Human (2008) and Exported and Exposed (2007).

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 5 August 2009

Yemen clashes ‘leave 16 dead’

NewsYemen says three soldiers died when Houthi rebels attacked a hospital in Sakain area on Monday and 13 rebels were killed in al-Hesama district close to the Saudi border yesterday.

NewsYemen adds that farmers are suffering from the conflict. Roadblocks set up by the army and the rebels prevent them from transporting their poduce.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 5 August 2009

Casanova and the prince

The campaign by Saudi conservatives against Prince Alwaleed bin Talal, the liberal-minded multi-billionaire, has moved up a notch with calls to shut down LBC television’s operations in Saudi Arabia.

The Lebanese-based channel, which is 49% owned by Prince Alwaleed’s business empire, got into trouble last month when Mazen Abdul Jawad, a 32-year-old Saudi (now known throughout the Middle East as “the Casanova of Jeddah”) boasted on air about his sexual exploits.

A YouTube clip of the Casanova interview has now been blocked by the Saudi authorities after being watched by several hundred thousand people, and it looks as if Casanova himself may be put on trial once the authorities have made up their minds about what crime he committed.

Prince Alwaleed was already being targeted for his involvement in the Jeddah Film Festival which was summarily shut down for unspecified reasons just as it was about to start.

The Lebanese Daily Star and The National in the Emirates are both following the story.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 5 August 2009

Back to normal in Iraq

It’s probably reassuring for Iraq’s neighbours that the “democratic” Maliki government is gradually acquiring the characteristics of a bog-standard authoritarian regime.

Its latest move, reported in the New York Times, is to ban websites “deemed harmful to the public, to require internet cafes to register with the authorities and to press publishers to censor books”.

Familiar stuff, and just what you’d expect in Egypt, say, or Saudi Arabia, or Syria or Tunisia or …

Of course, as deputy culture minister Taher Naser al-Hmood points out: “Our constitution respects freedom of thought and freedom of expression, but that should come with respect for society as a whole, and for moral behaviour.” 

The NYT continues: 

In July, a government committee recommended that the drafting of a law allowing for official Internet monitoring and the prosecution of violators be expedited.

Among the prohibited sites, according to the committee’s report, would be those with subject matter including “drugs, terrorism, gambling, negative remarks about Islam and pornography.”

This spring, the government contacted the handful of Iraqi book publishers still in business and asked them to compile lists of their books, along with a description of the subject matter.

The material is to be kept at the Ministry of Culture, which is also preparing a document to be signed by publishers in which they will pledge not to distribute books the government deems offensive.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 4 August 2009

100,000 displaced in Yemen conflict

Mediation by a tribal leader from the Socialist Party has secured a truce between Houthi rebels and armed supporters of the Islah Party in al-Jawf province (north-eastern Yemen), according to the Yemen Observer.

The Shi’a and Sunni rivals had been fighting for a couple of week s with light and medium weapons in a dispute over the control of mosques.

A wider conflict between the Houthis and the government has been raging for five years in the north of the country with little information seeping out to the rest of the world - mainly because the authorities have severely restricted humanitarian access (as noted by Human Rights Watch last November).

Some idea of the conflict’s scale can be gleaned from 
a new report by the Norwegian Refugee Council which says the number of internally-displaced people currently stands at about 100,000.

In June 2009, the World Food Programme and the UNHCR registered 5,000 newly-displaced people, and the process of registering a further 5,000 was continuing.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 4 August 2009

Women face ‘imminent execution’ in Iraq

The London-based Women Solidarity for Unified and Independent Iraq has appealed to Arab governments to help save the lives of nine women believed to be facing imminent execution in Iraq.

Amnesty International says Iraq's presidential council has ratified the death sentences and a number the women prisoners have been transferred to the fifth section (al-shu'ba al-khamisa) of al-Kadhimiya prison in Baghdad, where condemned prisoners are usually held immediately before execution. At least three other women have already been executed since early June.

Under Saddam Hussein’s rule 114 offences carried a possible death sentence. The Americans suspended capital punishment after the invasion but in 2004 the Iraqi government reintroduced it for a range of violent crimes, as well as drug trafficking.

Since then, “use of the death penalty has been increasing at an alarming rate”, according to Amnesty. About 1,000 people have been sentenced to death since 2004 and last year alone at least 34 were actually executed.

Objections to the death penalty on principle are reinforced in Iraq’s case by the creaky state of its justice system where (in Amnesty’s words) “proceedings consistently fall short of international standards for fair trial”.

One of the women facing execution says she was tortured into making a confession, and the authorities have made no attempt to investigate whether her torture allegations are true.

Another woman, who was convicted of murdering her uncle, his wife and one of their children, maintains that her fiancé carried out the killings in order to rob her uncle. 

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 3 August 2009

Searching for sex in Ramadan

With the holy month fast approaching, it’s time for a look at this Google graph. It shows internet searches for “sex” in Egypt during the last 12 months (or, if you want to Arabise it, searches for سكس).
Notice the sudden dip at the beginning of September. That was the start of Ramadan last year. But as the month went on, frustrations were clearly building up and at its end searches for “sex” reached their annual peak.

Change the country and you’ll find the same pattern repeated for Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 3 August 2009

Yemen, a banker’s paradise

You will be pleased to hear that even if Yemen is on the brink of 
turning into a failed state, its banking sector is in fine fettle and unaffected by the global financial crisis.

The central bank’s governor, Ahmad al-Samawi, delivered the good news on Saturday and also “reviewed developments witnessed by the Yemeni banking sector which reflect vitality of the Yemeni economy”. At least, that’s what Saba, the official government news agency says.

Other developments in Yemen:

  • The first case in Yemen’s new court specially set up to try journalists has resulted in a victory for al-Nida newspaper which had been accused of defaming the Ministry of Endowments in a report about corruption.

  • The row about the French-led investigaton into the Yemenia Airbus crash (here and here) seems to be calming down. To allay suspicions, the two black boxes from the aircraft will be picked up by a Cypriot ship and examined in France with Yemenis and Comorians in attendance.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 3 August 2009

Palestine: the erosion of liberties

Several recent reports from Gaza suggest a steady erosion of personal liberties as Palestinian society retreats into supposedly “traditional” values.

Al-Mezan Centre for Human Rights says there has been a noticeable increase in “honour” killings – the most recent case being that of a 27-year-old divorcee from Gaza whose father overheard her talking on the phone to an unrelated man and beat her to death.

Fares Akram, writing for Xinhua news agency, describes a campaign by Hamas aimed “bringing the people back to their good morals and true religion". Officials tour Gaza city urging shopkeepers to remove posters showing celebrities and models, and replace them with posters supplied by Hamas. 

One such poster recommends seven satellite channels, including Hamas's own al-Aqsa television. Another shows Satan looking at a girl wearing a headscarf but with a tight shirt and pants:

"This is a 100 percent devilish dress," the man [from the religious affairs ministry] said about the clothes most of the Gazan girls wear. "Satan promoted to her that this is legal Islamic clothing."

Clothing shops are also urged to remove dummies used for displaying clothes "because they look like a human body that only lacks soul," according to one of the campaign's field team.

Hamas insists its campaign is "amicable, based on advice and peaceful guidance" but in Gaza its “advice” can be difficult to resist, and the owner of one clothes shop told Akram officials had come to his shop earlier and forcibly removed the dummies.

There are also stories of Hamas police harassing people on the beach for “un-Islamic” behaviour.

Last week, Gaza’s most senior judge, Abdul-Raouf Halabi, issued an order that female lawyers must in future cover their hair when appearing in court. Seven Palestinian human rights organisations, together with the Palestinian Bar Association, have condemned the move as unconstitutional

Courtroom dress codes apply in many countries but Halabi’s new code was clearly based on his own religious views. He told the Associated Press: "Showing a woman's hair is forbidden [in Islam]. We will not allow people to corrupt morals. This (dress code) will improve work in the courts."

Most of the 150 registered female lawyers already cover their hair but about 10 do not. AP quotes Subhiya Juma, a lawyer who does not wear a headscarf, as saying that the point isn't the number of women affected, but the freedoms that are being eroded: "This is dangerous – it's a clear violation of the law, it is taking away our personal freedoms – and by whom? The very person who is meant to defend our freedoms."

Enforcement of hijab is spreading in other areas too. One girls' secondary school in Gaza has made headscarves and loose-fitting robes compulsory uniform for the coming school year.

While it’s easy to accuse Hamas of trying to impose its views, this also seems to reflect a more general trend in Palestinian society. 
CNN notes:

Maha Abu Dayyeh Shamas, the director for the Jerusalem-based Women's Center for Legal Aid and Counseling, says the deterioration of rights for Palestinian women is not just a Hamas-inspired phenomenon.

She says rights for women and children in both Gaza and the West Bank are eroding. In societies suffering from long-term military conflict, Shamas said "religion and traditions become more important" and are frequently "used to oppress" and "women are generally the first victims."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 2 August 2009

Monarchy is 'not to be debated'

The authorities in Morocco have seized the latest edition of two of the country's leading independent magazines – TelQuel (circulation 35,000) and Nichane (50,000).

The reason? Both published an opinion poll showing that 91% of Moroccans have a "positive or very positive" opinion of the king's performance during his first 10 years.

The concern, apparently, is not about the nine per cent who have a less-than-positive view of the king, but the principle of expressing opinions about him. Communications minister Khalid Naciri told AFP: "The monarchy in Morocco ... cannot be the object of debate even through a poll."

The poll was conducted jointly with the French daily, Le Monde, which is due to publish the results itself on Tuesday. The minister says any copies of Le Monde containing the poll will be banned from the country too.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 2 August 2009

The devil’s work in Riyadh

Shortly before dawn on Friday, Saudi security forces raided a “satanist ceremony” (i.e. a rock concert) at a private residential compound in Riyadh.

A number of Saudis, Syrians and others were arrested (it is not known how many) and all the equipment was seized, including cameras and computer equipment, according to the Lojainiat website. The website’s report has a series of pictures taken before the raid.

It seems the authorities got wind of the event from this flyer:

Although Wahhabis reject all forms of music, heavy metal music is often associated with devil-worship in Arab countries. There have been previous high-profile cases in Morocco, Egypt and Lebanon.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 1 August 2009

Pilgrims’ progress

A small step for mankind, one giant leap for the mutawwa. Saudi Arabia’s religious police have long sought to impose their absurd rules of Islamic “morality” on everyone else, but now a small crack has opened up in the Wahhabi edifice.

Asharq Alawsat reports that several hundred of their members are to be given diversity awareness training in preparation for this year’s hajj season.

… the course aims to improve the way the religious police deal with pilgrims performing either the Hajj or Umrah pilgrimages.

“The idea came about as a result of the different groups that come to the country who have different customs and traditions, and perhaps come from different schools of jurisprudential thought,” explained [Ahmed] al-Farih [head of the mutawwa’s “academic development” section]. He stressed that the situation of a visitor is different to that of a Saudi resident in the sense that a resident must respect the customs, traditions and doctrines of the country in which he resides.

Al-Farih added, “Hajj and Umrah pilgrims must be dealt with in a different way,” pointing out that this course focuses on how to deal with a pilgrim who commits a violation. “At this point, one must stop and think and understand that the situation of the Hajj or Umrah pilgrim is different and that they are visitors and perhaps unaware of the nature of this country, its customs and traditions and banned practices.” 

This could be the start of a slippery slope for the mutawwa. Once you accept the principle that Muslims can have different ways of expressing their faith, who knows where it will end?

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 1 August 2009

The Q factor

Not to be sidelined amid Yemen’s growing mayhem (the Houthi rebellion alone has cost 338 civilian lives during the last 12 months according to government figures), al-Qaeda elements attacked a military vehicle in the eastern province of Marib on Thursday.

AFP says three soldiers died in the ambush and subsequent clashes, along with A'ed Saleh al-Shabwani, a wanted al-Qaeda figure. The Yemen Observer, however, quotes the governor of Marib as saying there were some injuries but no soldiers died. He also refused to confirm the killing of Shabwani. (This shows how difficult it can be in Yemen to get an accurate picture of what is going on.)

Yesterday the Christian Science Monitor had an article by Laura Kasinof explaining the country’s tribulations. It’s a good article but I don’t like the headline: “Why Yemen could become al-Qaeda haven”. Firstly, Yemen already is an al-Qaeda haven, and has been for years. Secondly, al-Qaeda is only one element. As the article rightly points out, the main problem is the state’s weakness in the face of multiple challenges to its authority. Unfortunately, American newspaper editors still seem fixated on al-Qaeda and unable to focus much beyond it.

An odd little report issued by the government news agency today claims that “the three destructive partners [the Houthi rebels, the southern secessionists and al-Qaeda] interconnect through direct links to destabilise Yemen”. This is based on an alleged statement by Tariq al-Fadhli, the self-appointed southern leader.
Fadhli was once an active jihadist, so it would not be surprising if he still maintained contacts with al-Qaeda. But the idea of collaboration between the Houthi rebels and al-Qaeda sounds totally implausible. The Houthi movement is shi’a and virulently opposed to Wahhabis and Salafis.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 1 August 2009

Previous blog posts




August 2009

Tribesmen die in Yemen battle

Another religious clash in Egypt

TV channel sabotaged

Ben Ali prepares for victory

Saudi hegemony in Yemen?

Iraq's flawed media law

Yemen military to 'change tactics'

Kuwaiti TV show has the last laugh

Yemen ceasefire on the cards?

What Thomas Friedman reads

Villagers reject Baha’i neighbours

Saudi war on low-slung jeans

Water riots in southern Yemen

Religion and the search for security

Lebanon: the waiting game

Rebels 'not dead' at roadside

'100 rebels' dead at roadside

US calls for Yemen ceasefire

Banking on the abaya

Arabic slang goes online

Wildest place in the Middle East?

Syria and the C-word

Searching the internet in Arabic

Life in Yemen's war zone

Ben Ali's mini-coup

A dismal choice for Egypt

Bloggers and journalists

Senator McCain 'backs Yemen'

Male superiority in Iraq

Lebanese nepotism

Iraq: Are you man enough?

Religion and development

Yemeni rebels: the international dimension

Two views of Gaza

What's really wrong

Keep off the grass

Fifteen aid workers 'kidnapped by rebels'

Call for Yemen rebels to surrender

Lebanese apartheid

Censorsing the internet

Iraq's draft media law under fire

State of emergency

Yemen: here comes the 'iron fist'

Arab science fiction

Tax collectors’ revolt

Yemen ‘on the brink of an explosion’

Another crazy court case

How to be good at Arabic

Mauritania's first suicide bomb

Falconry: an ignoble sport

A step forward for workers' rights

Sex and Dubai Studio City 

King Abdullah of Lebanon

Writing on the wall for Salih?

Gaza’s own Hollywood?

Arabic web addresses are coming

Saudis get heavy with metal fans

Two bombs in southern Yemen

War on the home front

Yemen clashes ‘leave 16 dead’

Casanova and the prince

Back to normal in Iraq

100,000 displaced in Yemen conflict

Women face 'imminent execution' in Iraq

Searching for sex in Ramadan

Yemen, a banker's paradise

Palestine: the erosion of liberties

Monarchy is 'not to be debated'

The devil's work in Riyadh

Pilgrims' progress

The Q factor


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Last revised on 21 August, 2009