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Tribesmen die in Yemen battle

Nine tribesmen who were "fighting alongside the Yemeni army" have been killed in a mortar attack by the Houthi rebels in northern Yemen, tribal sources told AFP on Sunday. Sixteen other fighters from the Hashed tribe (the largest tribe in Yemen) were wounded on Saturday.

These are the first reported casualties among tribal militiamen operating in collaboration with government forces.

I noted a couple of weeks ago that the conflict is becoming increasingly tribalised and quoted a report from Saba, the official news agency, which said:

Masses from many tribes of all the country's governorates are heading willingly for Saada governorate to take part in the fight against the Houthi rebels ... Well-informed sources said that businessmen and merchantmen have begun donating money ... Hundreds of thousands of youths have announced their readiness from different governorates to battle to the insurgents in the governorate of Saada.

The government no doubt thinks this is a good idea, because it assists in the immediate problem of dealing with the Houthis. In the longer term it's an extremely bad idea because it pushes Yemen further down the road from a fragile state towards a failed state. To save the country from becoming another Somalia, the government should be disbanding tribal militias, not encouraging them.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 31 August 2009. Comment  

Another religious clash in Egypt

The Bikya Masr news website reports yet another religious clash in Egypt – this time between Muslims and Christians. A number of Christians had camped at Mitt Damsis in the northern delta, for celebrations to mark the birth of St George.

Several dozen Muslims attacked the camp in the early hours of Saturday, setting fire to tents and wrecking vehicles. The Christians fought back. Riot police were deployed and 16 people were arrested.

The Muslims' attack may have been a retaliation after a villager was harassed by Christian youths on Thursday.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 31 August 2009. Comment  

TV channel sabotaged

The Yemeni government appears to have succeeded in blocking – at least temporarily – the launch of a new satellite TV channel linked to the opposition.

Suhail TV had been due to start broadcasts aimed at Yemenis from the beginning of Ramadan, but has not done so. According to the Yemen Observer the authorities in Kuwait have banned it and NewsYemen quoted an unnamed government official as saying: "We welcome this positive decision by the Kuwaiti authorities as Suhail TV's programmes incite sedition in the country."

A Yemeni official had earlier warned that allowing the channel to operate from Kuwait would adversely affect relations between the two countries.

Kuwait denies banning it and says the station has not applied for a licence or been granted one. Suhail has done test transmissions from Kuwait, but is now said to be relocating to “a western country”.

Yemen has no non-governmental TV channels, though satellite channels from abroad are widely watched. The government regards Suhail as a mouthpiece for the opposition Islah party.

On its website, Suhail talks about “establishing the values of freedom, justice, democracy and a culture of tolerance, dialogue and moderation”, though it clearly has a religious emphasis. The website says the channel is owned by Sheba Media Limited (registered in the UK), which is in turn owned by “a group of Yemeni investors” with Hamdan al-Ahmar prominent among them.

Hamdan is a son of the late Sheikh Abdullah al-Ahmar who was leader of the Islah party, speaker of the parliament and the most senior tribal figure in Yemen.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 31 August 2009. Comment  

Ben Ali prepares for victory

To the surprise of nobody, President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali has 
formally declared his candidacy in Tunisia’s presidential election on October 25. This will give him another five-year term, taking him up to the age of 77.

In 2004, he secured more than 94% of the vote against three other candidates in contest that one Tunisian dissident described as resembling “a race between a sports car and a wheelchair”.

Ben Ali filed his nomination papers a day after Nejib Chebbi of the Progressive Democratic Party announced that he was 
pulling out because of “the absence of minimal conditions of freedom, of honesty and transparency” in the campaign.

In any case, Chebbi’s candidacy – if he had pressed ahead – would have been ruled illegal, since the revised election law says presidential contenders must be the secretary-general of a recognised party. The PDP is recognised but Chebbi is no longer its secretary-general.

The other likely candidates are Mohammed Bouchiha of the People's Unity Party (PUP), Ahmed Brahim of the Ettajdid Movement, and Ahmed Innoubli of the Unionist Democratic Union.

Last month Brahim accused the authorities of impeding distribution of his party’s newspaper and obstructing some of its other activities. He said the party had to cancel three meetings in a single week after the authorities pressurised hotels in Tunis to prevent them from renting space.

Meanwhile, President Ben Ali has set up a National Observatory for Elections which will supposedly ensure “good conduct” in the electoral process. The 20 men and seven women appointed to the Observatory are said to be either members of the ruling party or close to it.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 30 August 2009. Comment  

Saudi hegemony in Yemen?

Saudi involvement in Yemen’s affairs seems likely to grow following last week’s suicide attack that slightly injured Prince Mohammed bin Nayef, the kingdom’s assistant interior minister.

On Saturday, Yemen’s foreign minister revealed that the attacker – a known al-Qaeda militant – had travelled from Marib in eastern Yemen. Al-Qaeda merged its Saudi and Yemeni operations in January and is now thought to be using Yemen as its base because of the security crackdown in Saudi Arabia.

This can only increase Saudi concerns about the situation in Yemen. Riyadh is already fearful about the effects of the Houthi rebellion on its southern border and the rebels have repeatedly claimed that Saudi warplanes are assisting Yemeni forces (which the Yemeni government denies).

The history of Yemeni-Saudi relations is a complex and turbulent one (see chapter in my e-book). Currently, President Salih seems to have Saudi Arabia’s full support but that is probably conditional on crushing the Houthi rebellion and dealing effectively with al-Qaeda.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 30 August 2009. Comment  

Iraq's flawed media law

Sometime soon the Iraqi parliament will be asked to approve a new protection law for journalists (the draft was approved by the cabinet at the end of July).

I have pointed out before that "liberated" Iraq, far from becoming a model for the region, is rapidly acquiring the negative characteristics of other Arab regimes – and the proposed media law is no exception. It is typical of the laws found in most Arab countries, and it is also typical of what is bad about them.

Article XIX, the global campaign for free expression, has just produced a damning critique of the draft and the organisation's director, Agnes Callamard, has written about it here. Although Article XIX examines the proposals in detail, clause by clause, several key points stand out.

Iraq has produced the draft without reference to its obligations under international law – in this case the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). This is a very common problem. Arab countries seem only too keen to sign up to international treaties of this kind but then usually fail to incorporate their provisions into local legislation. (The issue is discussed here and more fully in my book, What's Really Wrong with the Middle East.)

The proposed Iraqi law is conceptually flawed. It has been put forward to deal with a specific problem (attacks on journalists in Iraq) but without much heed to broader legal principles or the long-term implications. Again, this is a very common problem with legislation in Arab countries. 

The main flaw in the Iraqi draft – and it's a fundamental one – is the idea that the rights of some citizens (i.e. journalists) deserve a higher level of protection than the rights of others. Article XIX comments: 

There is no justification within international human rights law for such a provision ... All human beings have the same human rights, such as the rights to life and to be free from torture, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, which should be protected by the state.

Secondly, the draft law discriminates among journalists by offering protection to some but not others. Apart from adopting an outdated definition of journalists, it only applies to those who are members of the Iraqi Journalists' Syndicate. This membership requirement, as Article XIX points out, conflicts with internationally-established principles on freedom of expression.

Finally, the proposed law contains various examples of bad or loose drafting – another problem that plagues much of the legislation in Arab countries. Sometimes the loose drafting is deliberate but often it's sheer carelessness.

For example, the Iraqi draft talks about punishing "any violation against a journalist while he is performing his journalistic role". The meaning of "violation" is unclear, and the phrase could be interpreted as applying only when a journalist is at work. What happens if a journalist is attacked outside working hours for something he/she has written?

Once clause says: "Journalists are permitted to carry out their work without interference on the part of the security forces unless there is legitimate justification." The phrase "legitimate justification", Article XIX says, falls far short of international standards and "is likely to be given a broad interpretation by the security forces"; it ought to make clear that "any restrictions on this right must be provided for by law, pursue a legitimate aim, and be necessary and proportionate". 

The draft also imposes a duty on "the security agencies" (again, undefined) to investigate threats or attacks "and to make every effort to punish the perpetrators". As Article XIX notes, punishment is a matter for the courts, not the security agencies.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 29 August 2009. Comment  

Yemen military to 'change tactics'

Efforts to negotiate a ceasefire between the Yemeni government and Houthi rebels in the north of the country have collapsed, with each side blaming the other.

President Salih has vowed to "cleanse" Saada province of rebels but in a speech on Wednesday he acknowledged that Operation Scorched Earth, which began on August 11, has not been a success so far.

"Had they been an organised force, we would have crushed them in the first weeks of the battle,” he told staff of the Badr brigade who are shortly to be deployed in the area. “We are, however, facing a guerrilla war. We will change our tactics … We are confident that we will able to cleanse all these areas in the coming weeks.”

A rebel statement claimed that Saudi warplanes carried out two air raids on al-Malahid district early yesterday, in coordination with the Yemeni army. This is not the first claim of its kind and, once again, it was emphatically denied by the Yemeni defence ministry.

Conceivably the rebels are inventing these stories to counter the rival claims that they are being armed by Iran. However, it is well known that Saudi Arabia is extremely worried about the situation in Yemen, especially since the rebellion is so close to its border. UPI noted yesterday: "Riyadh is becoming increasingly alarmed that Iran is arming the insurgents and that its unruly southern neighbour is in danger of sliding out of control."

The claims of Saudi military involvement are therefore not implausible and the Yemeni government has strong motives for denying them, since this would be interpreted domestically as a sign of weakness.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 28 August 2009. Comment  

Kuwaiti TV show has the last laugh

A satirical TV series which makes fun of Kuwaiti politicians seems to have found a simple way to get round a government ban – by changing its name for every episode.

The privately-owned satellite channel, Scope TV, was ordered to suspend the 30-part series – specially produced for Ramadan – after only three episodes following objections from members of parliament.

The show, which uses actors made up to resemble real-life Kuwaiti politicians, was originally called "Your voice has been heard" (Sotik wisal). It disappeared from the air on Tuesday when the entire 20-minute slot was used to display a letter from the information ministry.

On Wednesday, though, it returned with a new name: "They don’t listen to anything" (Amak Asmakh).

Fajer al Saeed, who created the show, told The National she will change its name every day until the series is completed. Without knowing the name in advance, the Kuwaiti authorities will find it difficult to issue suspension notices.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 28 August 2009. Comment  

Yemen ceasefire on the cards?

A ceasefire may be on the way in the war between government forces and Houthi rebels in northern Yemen. NewsYemen says a ceasefire was agreed verbally on Wednesday and that air strikes have halted though warplanes are still flying over Saada province.

A local official is quoted as saying there are efforts to halt the fighting but no order has yet been given to stop the military operations. The European Union yesterday added its voice to the earlier American call for a ceasefire.

It is very doubtful whether the fortnight-old government offensive known as Operation Scorched Earth has achieved much militarily. In a statement to Reuters yesterday the rebels claimed to have repulsed attacks in Haraf Sufyan (Amran province) and al-Minzala (Saada province). The government said the army had “taken a valley after losses on both sides in fierce fighting”.

More importantly, a government source told Reuters: "The main road connecting Saada to the capital (Sanaa) is still closed to supplies and military reinforcements because of mines and the gang warfare of the Houthis." This suggests the military have failed to achieve what ought to have been one of their primary objectives.

There have been further warnings from various UN agencies of the dire humanitarian situation in the conflict areas. The UNHCR said it was especially worried about Saada city which has been without water and electricity since 10 August.

Accusations of foreign meddling, which the Yemeni government has directed mainly against Iran, seem to be widening. A Salafist (Sunni) MP in Bahrain has accused the country’s Shia opposition bloc of having links with the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Although that claim may be politically motivated, the American Chronicle reports contacts between the Yemeni and Bahraini authorities about the issue.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 27 August 2009. Comment  

What Thomas Friedman reads

Where does the New York Times’s celebrated Middle East commentator Thomas Friedman go to get “different perspectives on the news”? The Google Reader Blog poses this question – then provides an answer.

Among Friedman’s 17 most-favoured publications and blogs, there isn’t a single Arab source, not even one published in English.

Google’s compilation, which includes reading lists from other prominent US media figures, is throughly depressing. Considering how the internet has opened up vast new possibilities, American journalists still seem overwhelmingly preoccupied with reading each other’s work.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 27 August 2009. Comment  

Villagers reject Baha’i neighbours

Villagers in Awalad Yehia (Upper Egypt) are refusing to accept members of the Baha’i faith as their neighbours, Gulf News reports.

The Baha’is in question were made homeless by torrential rain and the government is seeking to rehouse them. "Resettling the Bahais in our village will be on our bodies," one angry Muslim is quoted as saying.

Sectarian conflicts in Egypt are increasing, in both frequency and geographical scope, according to a recent report (in Arabic) by the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights. As in most Arab countries, the Egyptian government responds to sectarian conflicts when they happen, rather than trying to anticipate and prevent them.

An article in Al-Masry Al-Youm newspaper said:

The [EIPR] report lays partial responsibility at the feet of Egypt’s security agencies. Police often respond to sectarian clashes with short-sighted and often brutal tactics that don’t address the sources of the conflict. 

According to the EIPR, the government arbitrarily arrests people on both sides, not necessarily related to the incident, and literally holds them hostage until both parties involved in the conflict agree to sign reconciliation. 

“The failure of the state to stand for the rights of the victims is to us an integral element of the recurrence of sectarian incidents," [Hossam Bahgat, director of EIPR] said. “All the solutions the state comes up with are aiming at quieting the violence momentarily."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 27 August 2009. Comment  

Saudi war on low-slung jeans

More news from the world's most sinful city. Following the arrests of the cross-dressing Filipinos, the scandal of the dancing bankers and the "devil-worship" at a heavy metal concert, Riyadh police announce that 807 people have been arrested during the past month for "disgusting" clothing and hairstyles.

The Saudi Jeans blog explains: "The main target of those arrests are young men who wear low-waist jeans and afro hairstyle aka kadash."

A Saudi professor of sociology, quoted in al-Hayat (Arabic), says these "negative social phenomena" are a consequence of the French Revolution (1789).

Meanwhile, in a effort to counter the “ignorant and vexatious demands” of liberals, a group of conservative Saudi women have launched a campaign entitled “My Guardian Knows The Best For Me”. They have called on the king not to abandon the wali system where women are only allowed to travel with approval from a male guardian.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 26 August 2009. Comment  

Water riots in southern Yemen

Violent confrontations over water shortages continued for a fourth day in southern Yemen on Tuesday. Police reportedly 
used tear gas and live bullets to disperse the crowds and one demonstrator was injured. On Sunday, a protester was shot dead, according to Reuters.

Water has always been scarce in Yemen but the country now faces unprecedented rationing. Three months ago, 75% of Aden’s water supply was redirected to the cities of Zinjibar and Ja’ar because of shortages there – which has left three districts of Aden without running water.

Demonstrators are blaming corrupt officials but unregulated drilling of private wells, which has been going on for many years and has depleted groundwater resources, is a large part of the problem.

In the capital, Sana’a, one resident told the UN news agency IRIN: “Our household has received no water for 21 days, so I turned to buying water from trucks… In the past month, I bought water four times, costing me YR10,000 [$50] – nearly one-third of my monthly salary.” 

During the last month, the price for delivering a truck-load of water (3,600 litres) in Sana’a has gone up from $7.5 to $12.5.

In al-Baidha province yesterday, torrential rain killed five people as well as livestock, washed away cars and forced 40 families out of their homes.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 26 August 2009. Comment  

Religion and the search for security

I came across some research the other day which seems very relevant to the Middle East. It seeks to explain why religion is so influential in some countries but not in others:

Although it's commonly assumed (at least by atheists) that increasing wealth and all that goes with it (science, education, communication) is gradually eroding religion, there are some glaring anomalies. The most spectacular is the USA, which is both one of the wealthiest large nations and also one of the most religious.

While it's broadly true that "the more you modernise the country, the more people abandon religion", how can we account for exceptions like the United States?

The author of the research, Tom Rees, suggests that the key ingredient is "societal health", and particularly disparities in wealth:

Nations have choices over how to look after the people at the bottom of the social pile. Those nations that choose to make this a priority, which inevitably involves shifting money and resource from the rich to the poor, lower the overall levels of stress. And when you remove the stress caused by their social situation, people tend to lose interest in religion.

Curiously, in countries that score low on "societal health" it's not just the poor who turn to religion for security. The rich do too. I'm guessing here, but maybe they're worried that God won't keep them wealthy for ever.

The full paper, "Is Personal Insecurity a Cause of Cross-National Differences in the Intensity of Religious Belief?" is published in the Journal of Religion and Society. 

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 25 August 2009. Comment  

Lebanon: the waiting game

It's looking as if Lebanon will not have a new government until late next month – after the end of Ramadan. Ms Tee, blogging at B-side Beirut, outlines three current theories about the reasons for the delay:

1. Michel Aoun is making impossible demands

2. Saudi Arabia and Syria (the two key power brokers) are having trouble in their negotiations – a process the is possibly complicated by the US rapprochement with Syria.

3. Saudi Arabia and Syria have agreed on how to carve up the government posts (15 for the Saudi-backed March 14 group, 10 for the Syrian-backed opposition and five for the president) but Lebanese politicians are squabbling over who gets which jobs.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 25 August 2009. Comment  

Rebels 'not dead' at roadside

This morning I noted, with a hint of scepticism, the Yemeni government's claim that the bodies of 100 Houth rebels had been found on roadsides around Harf Sufyan. The official government news agency has now issued a statement saying the claim was untrue.

A previous government statement earlier this month, about the kidnapping of 15 Red Crescent workers, appears to have been 
grossly exaggerated.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 24 August 2009, 18.20 BST. Comment  

'100 rebels' dead at roadside

This has been widely reported elsewhere, so I’ll just note it for the record. 

The Yemeni government says the bodies of 100 Houthi rebels have been found on roadsides around Harf Sufyan. "It seems these are members who had attempted to escape from the fierce fighting in Sufyan city and were chased down," a statement said. Two rebel leaders, Mohsen Hadi al-Qaoud and Saleh Jarman, are said to have been killed. 

So far there is no comment on this from the rebels. It may well be true, but 100 seems a remarkably round number and I wonder how the government is so sure that all the dead were rebels and not fleeing civilians.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 24 August 2009. Comment  

US calls for Yemen ceasefire

Not before time, the US embassy in Sana’a issued a statement yesterday expressing “deep concern” at the continuing conflict between the Yemeni millitary and the Houthi rebels. The statement continued:

We call on both parties to return to the ceasefire that was established last year. In the meantime, both parties should avoid any action that would endanger the civilian population in the affected area. We also call on both parties to ensure the security of local and international relief workers in the region, and the safe passage of emergency relief supplies to camps housing internally displaced persons.

This will be a blow for President Salih who has been seeking to portray his “Operation Scorched Earth” against the Houthis in the same light as his US-backed campaign against al-Qaeda. The US, thankfully, has not been fooled by that.

Meanwhile, Yemeni warplanes continue their bombardment of Saada province. "Heavy air strikes were directed on Saturday against Houthi strongholds, inflicting great losses as well as destroying a number of houses in which these elements were hiding," a military source told Reuters.

A military source quoted on the ruling party’s website said that “armed forces and security were at the same time maintaining their advance towards rebels’ hideouts and tightening the grip on them in a number of areas to which they have escaped and chasing them, forcing them to surrender after sustain[ing] painful strikes by armed forces and security troops.”

These non-specific claims of inflicting “pain” on the rebels in “a number of areas” do not suggest the government forces are making real headway. The rebels, in turn, claim to have captured 80 soldiers.

The government has also been trying to make out that the rebels are being helped by Iran, though there is very little firm evidence of this. Weapons captured from the rebels are said to include “some” that were made in Iran, including machine guns, short-range rockets and ammunition. Unless the government comes up with more details about the numbers involved we can probably assume that the find was not very significant.

Despite the American ceasefire call, it is difficult to see how the conflict can be ended now without mediation from outside (Qatar, perhaps?). In a broadcast last week to mark the start of Ramadan, President Salih merely reiterated his six demands, adding:

If our proposal is accepted, the government would be responsible for reconstructing all the war-damaged areas as well as paving the way for comprehensive development throughout Saada as soon as possible.

It’s doubtful whether anyone will take that seriously. A similar promise of reconstruction accompanied last year’s ceasefire but went largely unfulfilled. In any case, the government can’t afford it and external donors and investors won’t step in unless they can be confident that fighting will not resume.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 23 August 2009. Comment  

Banking on the abaya

An interesting hijab debate has broken out in the Emirates after Dubai Bank, apparently without consulting staff, ordered all female employees – Muslim and non-Muslim alike – to wear a headscarf and abaya.

"Our bank is Islamic and must follow sharia in all respects, which will satisfy our clients," a bank official told Gulf News. The intention, allegedly, is to “gain customers' confidence and help market the bank's products”.

Of course, many image-conscious companies insist on a dress code for their staff but if this is just a marketing strategy why did it originate with the bank’s Fatwa and Sharia Supervisory Board rather than its marketing department? Why does it apply to all female employees and not just those who deal face-to-face with customers?

The Islamic requirement is for women (and, indeed, men) is to dress modestly but the bank has adopted a rather extreme interpretation of this. Not only must the abaya be black but there must be no embroidery or decoration on it.

Most of the readers’ comments attached to the Gulf News article welcome this move. Some want it extended to other businesses and government offices, though others question why it should apply to non-Muslims.

A couple of readers suggest efficient service is more important than the way bank employees dress. “How many customers select [a] bank based on staff's appearance?” one asks.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 23 August 2009. Comment  

Arabic slang goes online

Arabic has many expressions that you won’t find explained in a standard dictionary. This is not just a problem for foreigners: Moroccans talking to Saudis, or vice versa, can find themselves equally baffled.

Abdullah Arif, a 23-year-old Saudi living in Dubai, has come up with a smart solution. It’s an online dictionary of slang and colloquial Arabic embracing Maghrebi, Egyptian, Sudanese, Levantine, Iraqi, Yemeni, Saudi and Gulf dialects.

Mo3jam (as it’s called) works on the Wikipedia principle where users create their own entries by posting colloquial expressions and explaining what they mean. After three weeks of operation there are already several hundred.

To avoid causing offence with some of the more colourful expressions, registration is required to look up any that may be 
unsuitable for children.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 23 August 2009. Comment  

Wildest place in the Middle East?

I can’t imagine why the Yemeni government’s news agency decided to publish this article, unless to show the disaffected citizens of Sana’a and Aden how fortunate they are. It’s an extraordinary description of life in Jawf province, just over 100 miles from the capital, which borders Saudi Arabia as well as Saada province (the seat of the Houthi rebellion).

Around half a million people live there among the remains of 4,000 years of history. Despite this evidence of ancient civilisation, Jawf today – as local officials readily admit – is a "basket for concerns, and a tragic image of negligence". 

In Jawf there’s equality of sorts: women – like the men – are armed, with ammunition belts slung around their waists. "Jawf's girl carries gun when she reaches the ninth grade, at 15, and carries [a] gun [at this age] fearing of revenge," a female teacher said. 

The provincial capital, al-Hazm “city”, has one paved street, without lighting. There are two restaurants and four barbershops. “If you come to these restaurants after 12pm, you will not find anything to eat so that you are forced to return to al-Harazi shop and cafeteria to buy biscuit and juice as lunch.”

Only four per cent of population has access to electricity. “Hazm citizens say that [the] generator is expiring and always has faults leading to repeated electric blackouts.”

Forty-nine per cent of school-age children do not attend school and the 51% who do attend face shortages of books, teachers and buildings. Hundreds of teachers are either absent from work or trying to leave.

Since the 2006 elections, Khab Sha'af district has had no local council “due to tribal differences”. The council’s last secretary-general was assassinated and his post remains vacant. Three parties are contesting for Jawf – "the National Front, neighbours and Imamate", according to the deputy governor, Mansour bin Abdan. “Every party has its special agenda on the governorate."

In the absence of effective government, tribesmen look to their sheikhs to solve problems – or take matters into their own hands. Blocking roads is a familiar tactic. “Last May, 10 armed men who carried light and heavy arms pitched a tent near the road and put a barrel in the middle. They did not leave the road [until the] ministry of interior responded to their demands.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 22 August 2009. Comment  

Syria and the C-word

Endemic corruption is a problem that Arabs grumble about endlessly, though it rarely gets analysed in much detail. All credit, then, to the Syria Comment blog for tackling this touchy subject head-on.

"Though Syria is no exception," it says, "one cannot but be struck by how widespread bribery is at every facet of life in the country". 

Bribery is used to get ahead in securing basic government services. It is used to gain a preferential treatment in the armed services. It is used to get government loans. It is used to lower import duties at customs. It is used to wave traffic violations. It is used at passport issuing offices. Indeed, one is hard pressed to think of a single place where it cannot be used.

At one level there are the big players who rake off millions, but then there is the "petty" corruption where countless minor officials take bribes to supplement their often meagre incomes:

Most public sector employees and civil servants make between SYP 7,000 and SYP 16,000 a month ($150-$345 range). The majority of these workers also happen to be less well educated and have large families. Having at least four children or more is common. A median salary of $250 per month therefore needs to support a total of six family members on average. Due to religious reasons and lack of both education and skills, most wives cannot support the family income. The majority of these people rent their homes for an average of $130 a month. 

This leaves $120 for six people to live on for a month. Even with the generous subsidies programme in place, this is nearly impossible to do. Even if this family decides to live on falafel sandwiches for breakfast, lunch and dinner, it will be broke before the month ends. The head of the household must look for other means to augment his miserly income. Most work second jobs. Most also accept bribes from private citizens.

The article has also provoked some interesting comments from readers. One discusses the knock-on effects of introducing speed cameras on the streets of Damascus. This has dramatically reduced the numbers of speeding drivers and also reduced the opportunities for traffic policemen to take money on the side. As a result, the police are said to be exploring other ways of supplementing their lost income.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 22 August 2009. Comment

Searching the internet in Arabic

Searching Arabic websites can be tricky if you don't have an Arabic keyboard. But now a new search engine called Linguos claims to have overcome that problem. You just type the words phonetically in the Roman alphabet.

When Linguos is unsure what you mean it displays various similar-sounding words in the Arabic script and you click to indicate the correct one.

I tried it with "al ra'is salih" ("President Salih") and a second time spelling "saalih" with a double "a". The two searches gave slightly different results but both listed the Yemeni president's official website as the first item.

Based on just a few experiments it seemed a bit clunky but with increasing familiarity it may well become easier to use. I can certainly imagine situations where it would be useful. Readers' opinions are welcome. 

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 22 August 2009. Comment

Life in Yemen's war zone

The latest issue of the Yemen Times gives a rare glimpse of daily life in the Saada war zone:

In the countryside of Saada, there is no electricity or phone service and generators can be deadly.

According to one resident of rural Dhahyan, her neighbours communicate by hand-written letters, and when violence is nearby, the entire village retreats to the fields to wait out the battle with the sheep and the goats … 

She said even families with generators don’t turn on the lights because they also fear being mistaken for enemies by either side. 

“They strike randomly, and the villages are in the middle,” she said.

Journalists are excluded from the area and the paper quotes an email from a nurse at the Sallam Hospital in Saada city saying the city is surrounded by army forces and hospital employees are now confined to hospital grounds: “We always have this thought of the rebels firing back and hitting the compound … We have no idea of how to defend ourselves or escape.”

The Saada coordinator for Medecins du Monde, Dr Akram Abdullah Adam, tells the paper that travel restrictions and security concerns are keeping his staff confined to the city.

Fighting usually takes place along roads, at checkpoints and near schools. In the villages, schools are often the centre of political life and are the first buildings to be occupied by whichever military force is in control. “He who captures the school captures the whole village,” Dr Adam says. 

Some 10,000 people fled their homes during two days of fighting in Saada province earlier this week, according to Sheikh Saleh Habra, a tribal leader who has often represented the Houthi rebels at peace negotiations. The latest UN estimates put the total number of war-displaced at 125,000-150,000.

The UN news service continues:

The “sixth war” between the army and Houthi-led rebels broke out on 12 August, and so far hundreds of civilians, mostly women and children, have been killed in army air strikes, according to Habra. Local sources said, on condition of anonymity, that hundreds of soldiers had also been killed or injured in the recent clashes.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 21 August 2009. Comment

Ben Ali's mini-coup

With a presidential “election” coming up in Tunisia in October, you might think Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali’s position looks secure. The 72-year-old dictator has been in power since 1987 and the last time he sought a popular mandate, in 2004, he secured an incredible 94.48% of the votes.

But Ben Ali is not one for taking any chances and so, ahead of the election, he’s making sure the media will stay in line.

Last weekend pro-government elements staged a coup in the journalists’ union, replacing the president and the entire executive committee at a specially-convened congress.

The campaign to grab control of the union began on World Press Freedom Day (May 3) when the National Syndicate of Tunisian Journalists criticised the state of press freedom in the country.

Three pro-government members of the union’s board resigned in protest at this criticism and organised a "no-confidence” petition seeking to oust the remainder of the union’s leadership. Union members were then pressurised into supporting the petition, according to a report from the Committee to Protect Journalists at the time:

"Either you sign the petition or take the risk of losing your job," Bghouri [the now-ousted union president] told CPJ. "Privately owned media are pressuring their journalists to sign the petition for fear of being deprived of public support and advertising revenue." In Tunisia, advertising is selectively granted by the Tunisian Agency for External Communication to newspapers aligned with the government.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 21 August 2009. Comment

A dismal choice for Egypt

For what, hopefully, will be Hosni Mubarak’s last presidential visit to the United States, the ageing autocrat is allegedly paying US-based Egyptians to demonstrate their support for him. The going rate is said to be $100. Oh dear, the US is so expensive. Back in Egypt, I’m told, the usual reward for this sort of thing is a quarter chicken and a fizzy drink.

Amid growing talk about Mubarak’s successor, most eyes are focused on the president’s son, Gamal, but in an article for Foreign Policy Issandr Amrani looks at the most frequently mentioned alternative candidate for the job: intelligence chief Omar Suleiman.

Although Suleiman’s chances may be slim (barring a coup), he does seem to have support across the political spectrum:

A leftist leader of the Kefaya movement, Abdel Halim Qandil, has urged the military to save the country from a Mubarak dynasty. The liberal intellectual Osama Ghazali Harb – a former Gamal acolyte who turned to the opposition and founded the National Democratic Front party – has openly advocated a military takeover followed by a period of "democratic transition." 

Hisham Kassem, head of the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights, also has stated that a Suleiman presidency would be vastly preferable to another Mubarak one. On Facebook, Twitter, and blogs, partisans of a Suleiman presidency make the same argument …

For Amrani, though, the choice is a dismal one:

Neither Gamal Mubarak nor Omar Suleiman presents a clear departure from the present state of affairs. Neither offers the new social contract that so many of Egypt's 80 million citizens are demanding in strikes and protests. The prevalence of the Gamal vs. Omar debate, more than anything, highlights the low expectations ordinary Egyptians have for a democratic succession to Hosni Mubarak's 28-year reign. 

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 19 August 2009. Comment

Bloggers and journalists

The Columbia Journalism Review has triggered a fascinating debate about the ever-blurring lines between journalism and blogging.

In an article, "Blogging in the Middle East: Not Necessarily Journalistic", Lawrence Pintak (American University in Cairo) and Yosri Fouda (al-Jazeera) start by pointing out that few bloggers in the Middle East are journalists in the usual sense: they are very often activists who regard blogging as part of their activism.

Does this matter? Pintak and Fouda think it does. In the Middle East, they say, the distinction between journalism and blogging “can be a matter of life and death”:

Lately, well-meaning western journalism rights groups have been invoking “freedom of the press” to defend Arab and Iranian online activists who have been jailed or harassed by the authorities. By doing so, they are undermining journalism.

Pintak and Fouda acknowledge that journalists and bloggers are all in the business of freedom of expression, but argue that protecting bloggers is “a job for Amnesty International or Human Rights Watch”, not the Committee to Protect Journalists or Reporters Sans Frontieres. They add that “other western free-press groups also conflate the persecution of online activists and political Twitterati with the persecution of journalists”.

Then they drop their bombshell:

To lump [bloggers] in with brave journalists who are being jailed, harassed, and even murdered for reporting facts – not rumour or innuendo – about government corruption, official malfeasance, and corporate misdeeds undermines efforts to bolster a free and professional media in the Arab world and Iran. And it’s an insult to those who are sacrificing themselves for that goal. 

This strikes me as a very elitist argument. Robert Mahoney of the Committee to Protect Journalists replies in the same issue of the CJR:

If, in the context of an authoritarian regime, you take the view that a blog is nothing but a vehicle for those who deal in opinion, rumour, innuendo and invective, then you are standing at the top of a very slippery slope … The attempt to distinguish between “real” journalists who report facts and bloggers who peddle opinion is misleading. Print journalism and broadcasting have always been replete with political and social commentary. 

The main problem with Pintak and Fouda’s article, I think, is that they assume a very rose-tinted picture of print and broadcasting in the Arab world and of the supposedly objective “professional” Arab journalist.

For a start, large swathes of the non-governmental press are either owned by political parties or represent the interests of a particular faction. Is that really so different from the “activism” of bloggers?

Secondly, it can be very difficult to define a journalist. In the poorer Arab countries, where independent newspapers are hopelessly under-resourced, “journalists” often have other jobs and minimal training. Just because their words appear in print, does that make them any more or less worth protecting than bloggers?

Finally, portraying the dividing line between old and new media as the boundary between rumour and innuendo on the one hand, and hard facts, exposure of corruption, etc, on the other, just does not make sense. Print, broadcasting and blogging all have their own highs and lows.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 19 August 2009. Comment

Senator McCain 'backs Yemen'

An American congressional delegation led by former Republican presidential candidate John McCain arrived in Yemen yesterday on a summer junket touring “post-war zones and forward operating bases” which also includes Libya, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan, and … er … Iceland (!).

Presumably arch-neocon John Bolton will not be criticising this in the Washington Post (as he did with Bill Clinton’s “unwise” trip to North Korea), but the visit has certainly been spun in Sana’a as a sign of US support for President Salih’s policies. The Yemen Observer says:

McCain confirmed the US desire to support Yemen to enhance its security and stability, which he said is essential for the stability of the entire region. McCain expressed satisfaction at the level of relations and cooperation between the US and Yemen, particularly in the fight against terror.

The Senators also stressed their encouragement and support for American businessmen and other companies investing in Yemen.

For his part, President Saleh appreciated US support for Yemen particularly in the fields of fighting terror, saying that terror is an international epidemic that threatens security and peace worldwide.

Meanwhile, Yemeni government sources are claiming success in their military onslaught against the Houthi rebels. One of the rebel leaders, Hussein Kamza, was reportedly killed on Sunday and a local official in Saada said al-Safra district “has been cleared of all rebels”.

The defence ministry has gone so far as to claim the end of the Houthi rebellion is “drawing near”, according to the Yemen Observer. In a speech on Sunday defence minister Mohammad Nasser Ahmed Ali said: "The elements of rebellion and terrorism in Saada ... have been hit hard today by the army ... They have incurred heavy losses and have been paralysed." Government forces "have captured some of the rebels who will be brought to justice," he said without saying how many.

The government account of the “kidnapping” of 15 Red Crescent workers (reported last week) now appears to have been exaggerated. "They were only held for a few hours, the main thing that happened was that an ambulance was taken from them," a spokesman for the International Committee of the Red Cross said in Geneva yesterday.

Perhaps the most alarming development is that the nature of the Saada conflict seems to be changing (with the government’s blessing) from a war that was primarily between the rebels and the military into a tribal/religious civil war between militias. As Nicole Stracke noted in the Khaleej Times on Sunday …

Both the Yemeni army and Houthis have used tribal forces in the conflict. But of late, a larger number of tribes, who initially had taken a neutral stance in the conflict, have become involved. In provinces such Al Jawf, it was the [Sunni] Islah Party that called on the tribes last month to establish armed militias to fight the [Shia] Houthi forces in order to counter their advance in the area.

Yesterday, the official Saba news agency reported that “masses from many tribes of all the country's governorates are heading willingly for Saada governorate to take part in the fight against the Houthi rebels”. It continued:

Well-informed sources said that businessmen and merchantmen have begun donating money to the security and armed forces fighting against rebels.

Hundreds of thousands of youths have announced their readiness from different governorates to battle to the insurgents in the governorate of Saada.

This is seriously bad news and will surely drive Yemen further down the road to becoming a failed state.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 18 August 2009. Comment

Male superiority in Iraq

Major news organisations (CNN, Washington Post, BBC) missed a key point yesterday in their coverage of the Human Rights Watch report on sexual orientation and gender in Iraq, reducing the issue to one of attacks on “gay” men. 

As I explained here yesterday, and as HRW goes to some lengths to make clear, there are two strands to this. One is the religious strand – homosexual acts are “sinful” – and the other is a social strand – enforcing gender stereotypes to ensure that Iraqi men (not necessarily gay men) appear sufficiently “manly”. The latter is part of a much wider issue about patriarchy, male superiority, etc.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 18 August 2009. Comment

Lebanese nepotism

More than two months after the Lebanese election, the saga of trying to form a government continues. In the latest twist, ex-general Michel Aoun is insisting on the re-appointment of his son-in-law, Jibran Bassil, as minister of telecommunications.

Bassil failed to win a seat in the June election and, according to The National newspaper, the March 14 alliance, led by prime minister designate, Saad (son of Rafik) Hariri, have “refused to accept Mr Bassil for any cabinet position because they want their own candidates to run the most lucrative ministry in Lebanon”. 

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 18 August 2009. Comment

Iraq: Are you man enough?

Iraq is a dangerous place for many if not most of its citizens but a report issued today by Human Rights Watch looks at a spreading campaign of violence against one group in particular: men who are suspected of homosexual conduct or considered not “manly” enough.

Murders are committed with impunity, admonitory in intent, with corpses dumped in garbage or hung as warnings on the street. The killers invade the privacy of homes, abducting sons or brothers, leaving their mutilated bodies in the neighbourhood the next day. They interrogate and brutalise men to extract names of other people suspected of homosexual conduct. They specialise in grotesque and appalling tortures: several doctors told Human Rights Watch about men executed by injecting glue up their anuses. Their bodies have appeared by the dozens in hospitals and morgues.

How many have been killed is impossible to say, but the report suggests the total is in the hundreds. The campaign is thought to have begun in Sadr City, the Mahdi Army's stronghold in Baghdad, but has also spread to Kirkuk, Najaf and Basra. The most trivial details of appearance, such as the length of a man's hair or the fit of his clothes, can determine whether he lives or dies.

Although this is partly about “sinful” sexual behaviour, enforcement of gender stereotypes seems to be at least as important a factor. The militia killings tap into social anxieties about "traditional" values and cultural change, the report says. “These fears, springing up in the daily press as well as in Friday sermons, centre around gender – particularly the idea that men are becoming less ‘manly’, failing tests of customary masculinity.”

The notion of a "third sex" threatening the other two is rife, Human Rights Watch says – and it is not confined to the militias. One man is quoted as saying: "The police at checkpoints always give us grief about our clothes, our jewellery. They call us kiki – it means someone who's effeminate or soft."

The report continues:

Stanley Cohen, a British sociologist, wrote almost forty years ago that "societies appear to be subject, every now and then, to periods of moral panic" … when "a condition, episode, person or group of persons emerges to become defined as a threat to societal values and interests". In such moments, deep uncertainties about rapid change gather to a head … People look for scapegoats: not just to explain, but to incarnate the unsettling transmutations around them, shifts that they cannot fully articulate but are determined to stop.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 17 August 2009. Comment

Religion and development

Over the last seven years the Arab Human Development Reports have explored most of the problems that hold back Arab societies and, on the whole, they have not minced their words. But there is one issue they have consistently shied away from discussing – the role of religion.

This is not very surprising, considering that religion is such a sensitive issue. But when religious attitudes and practices have such a huge effect on the daily lives of people in the region it’s also a major omission, and one that unbalances the totality of the AHDR’s research.

Wrtiting in today’s Daily Star, Ghassan Rubeiz takes up this point:

Among the many causes freezing social and political reform in the Arab world is the dominance of religious authorities … The UNDP reports should tackle the religious factor with more courage. Reducing the hold of organised religion on politics and social change – and I do not mean inhibiting faith or spirituality – will have a multiplier effect on reform. 

Arab societies that give strong leadership roles to religious authorities face more difficulties in state-building than those societies that limit clerical power to spiritual matters … Might the next annual report focus on ways to effectively approach regime-change and liberation of political systems from religious authority?

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 17 August 2009. Comment

Yemeni rebels: the international dimension

The international dimension of Yemen’s Houthi rebellion came to the fore yesterday when Iranian media reported claims of Saudi military involvement.

Yahya al-Houthi (a brother of the rebels’ dead leader) told Iran’s semi-official Fars News Agency that Saudi Arabia “has gone so far as to deploy warplanes in Yemen to bomb opposition strongholds”. He said Saudi warplanes had also been used against the rebels in 2004.

This brought an angry response from the Yemeni defence ministry which said: “This news is totally incorrect and baseless as a whole … Yemeni military forces are independent and competent to perform their [responsibility] and tasks and confront any attempt targeting security and stability of the country.”

The ministry “expressed dissatisfaction” with the Iranian media for publishing “such false news” and hinted at ulterior motives.

The Houthi rebels are Zaidi Shia, and there has long been speculation about links with Iran. However, the Zaidi sect differs in significant ways from the type of Shia Islam practised in Iran.

The Sunni-Wahhabi regime in Saudi Arabia is obviously concerned about having a Shia rebellion on its southern doorstep. It became especially worried when the rebels extended their influence close to the border, and the Khaleej Times says this “led to increasing Saudi pressure on the Yemeni government to deal with situation”. This may be one factor behind the military onslaught launched by the Yemeni forces last week.

The Khaleej Times article, by Nicole Stracke of the Gulf Research Centre in Dubai, continues:

Both the [Yemeni] army and the government feel embarrassed and humiliated by the growing confidence and success of the Houthis and the apparent inability to find a political solution to the problem.

The government feels it has to react if it wants to survive. It cannot appear to be weak in the face of the growing challenges being posed by the Houthi rebels, the threats from al-Qaeda, and the challenge of the separatist movement in the south. If it wants to stay in power, it has to prove that it is able to control the situation in the north, if not through a diplomatic solution then by military means.

Stracke points out the risks of this strategy:

In the past, the Yemeni army’s ability to counter the rebellion has been limited. The army has difficulties in sustaining attacks in the long term, and the Houthis have used the tactical advantage provided by the mountainous terrain to their benefit, using ambush tactics and snipers to inflict huge losses on the Yemeni army.

These difficulties probably lie behind the reported authorisation for the mediating committee to resume negotiations with the rebels. Quoted in The National newspaper, Faris Mana’a, head of the committee, said: “There are promising signs of an agreement between the two sides to [bring an] end to hostilities. We hope there will be a breakthrough soon.”

A key sticking point appears to be the government’s demand that the rebels “disclose the fate” of six kidnapped foreigners, because the rebels say they were not responsible for that.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 16 August 2009. Comment

Two views of Gaza

Two new (and differing) reports on the December/January 
conflict in Gaza.

The Operation in Gaza – Factual and Legal Aspects, from the Israeli foreign ministry:

Israel deeply regrets the civilian losses that occurred during the Gaza operation. But Israel has both the responsibility and the right under international law, as does every state, to defend its civilians from intentional rocket attacks. It believes that it discharged that responsibility in a manner consistent with the rules of international law. Israel is committed to a thorough investigation of all allegations to the contrary and to making the results of these investigations and subsequent reviews public when they are completed.

'Operation Cast Lead': A Statistical Analysis, from al-Haq, the Palestinian human rights organisation:

While the law does acknowledge that civilians may sometimes be the victims of a legitimate attack against a military target, parties to a conflict are bound to at all times distinguish between combatants and civilians, to refrain from targeting civilians, and to take all necessary precautions to ensure that the risk of harm to civilians is minimised.

The fact that over 83% of those killed by the Israeli forces during Operation Cast Lead were civilians suggests that such distinction or precautions were not taken into account in the planning and conduct of hostilities.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 16 August 2009. Comment

What's really wrong

I’ll be presenting my new book, What’s Really Wrong with the Middle East at the Edinburgh Book Festival next Thursday (10:30am in the Scottish Power Studio Theatre).

I have been asked several times whether the title alludes to Bernard Lewis’s book, What Went Wrong. Well, yes and no. It's not a direct response and Lewis isn't mentioned or cited, but my feelings about the American neocons and their flawed analysis of the Middle East were certainly one of my primary reasons for writing What’s Really Wrong. The book is basically about liberty and equality (or lack of it) in the Arab countries.

I have written a couple of appetisers for Comment Is Free discussing Islamic secularism (a contradiction in terms for some people, but they should get used to it) and the patrimonial style of government that is especially prevalent in the Gulf. A list of the chapter headings gives a more complete picture of the issues covered:

1. Thinking inside the box: education and restrictions on freedom of thought;

2. The gilded cage: family and tribe – and their impact on liberty;

3. States without citizens: autocratic regimes and how they cling to power;

4. The politics of God: Islam and secularism;

5. Vitamin W: wasta and corruption;

6. The urge to control: the stifling of civil society activity;

7. A sea of victims: discrimination and the problems of combating it;

8. Alien tomatoes: globalisation and its political consequences;

9. Escape from history: re-shaping the Arabs’ destiny.

The Edinburgh event is a joint session with historian David Cesarani, author of Major Farran’s Hat. I have been reading his book in preparation for the event. Its framework is the story of Major Roy Farran, a British war hero dispatched to Palestine in 1947 to sort out the Jewish terrorists. Farran abducts a youthful suspect and kills him in the course of interrogation.

Although this happened a long time ago, Cesarani’s book has an extraordinarily contemporary feel, highlighting how efforts to combat terrorism, whether of a Zionist or Islamist variety, have a habit of backfiring.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 15 August 2009. Comment

Keep off the grass

Students of Arabic are usually amused to learn that the Arabic word for "grass" – the sort that grows in cracks between the paving stones – is hashish. The English word “cannabis”, meanwhile, comes from the Arabic qinnab al-hind - literally meaning “Indian hemp”. Some also claim the word “assassin” is derived from “hashish” via an Ismaili sect known as the Hashashin (though that is disputed).

Anyway, the Tabsir blog has discovered an old book (1971) called The Herb: Hashish versus Medieval Muslim Society, by 
Franz Rosenthal, which “sorts through legal, medical and literary sources to provide a historical overview of the issues surrounding the use of hashish”.

As its use spread in the 12th and 13th centuries opinion became divided. Users, the book says, “felt that they could be at peace with their Muslim conscience. Where pure hedonism was not a sufficient excuse for indulgence, the drug could also be claimed to open up new spiritual and intellectual vistas and thus to contribute to an otherwise unobtainable sharpening of the religious experience, thereby bringing mankind closer to what was imagined to be its essential goal.”

This did not please Ibn Taymiyyah (1263-1328), the religious scholar much admired by salafis and jihadists today:

“Hashish,” Ibn Taymiyah says, “requires the hadd penalty more than wine. The harm a hashish eater causes to his own person is greater than that caused by wine. On the other hand, the harm a windedrinker causes to the people is greater (in view of the quarrels and the like provoked by alcohol). However, in these times, because the consumption of hashish is spreading, the harm coming from it to the people is greater than that of wine.”

The book is out of print but most of it can be read at
Google Books.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 15 August 2009. Comment

Fifteen aid workers 'kidnapped by rebels'

An update on events in Yemen.

The governor of Saada province says Houthi rebels have kidnapped 15 Red Crescent workers – doctors, nurses and administrators – at a camp for displaced people in al-Anad district. Speaking on state-run television, he said they were blindfolded, beaten and abducted at gunpoint. The kidnapping is said to have occurred on Thursday. So far, there is no independent confirmation.

The German Press Agency (dpa) says it has been told by government officials “that authorities cut off all communications with Saada Friday to isolate the rebels”. This presumably means the telephone system in the area has been turned off (a tactic used by the government before), so it is likely that for the time being only the government version of events will be reported.

The Saada governor, Hassan Mohammed Manaa, also said that over the past four days 17,000 families have fled their homes and accused the rebels of killing four leaders of al-Azl tribe and 15 other civilians, including women and children.

AFP says two soldiers and 16 rebels were killed in new clashes today (Friday); Reuters says five soldiers and 16 rebels were killed. Today’s fighting appears to have shifted southwards, towards Saada’s boundary with Umran province.

An editorial in the Yemen Post, published on Wednesday, explains the government’s alarm at the scale of the insurrection:

… the entire governorate of Sa’ada is in the hands of Houthis. The small group who fled to the mountains to run from death is suddenly ruling a big portion of the country, and are expanding to two neighboring governorates, Amran and Jawf.

Houthis today have changed their strategy, and they are now attacking and growing while they were before only demanding simple things. A portion of the Saudi-Yemeni border is now in the hands of Houthis, with sources saying that Houthi leaders have already met with Saudi officials, ensuring them that they will never enter Saudi lands.

This time war seems more important than ever for the government. They are not fighting a small group anymore, but rather fighting a group which is growing in number and power.

Governor Manaa has said the state of emergency imposed on Tuesday will be "lifted only when the rebels have been crushed". This is very reminiscent of Israeli bluster about crushing Hizbullah and Hamas. It didn’t work for the Israelis and it won’t work for President Salih’s forces either. 

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 14 August 2009, 2020 BST

Call for Yemen rebels to surrender

For a second consecutive day, Yemeni warplanes continued their bombardment of Saada province on Thursday. Various reports speak of “dozens” of casualties. 

The Houthi rebels issued a video said to have been recorded in Haidan on Wednesday. One scene shows smoke rising above the town – presumably after the aerial bombing of the marketplace.

Meanwhile, the government announced its ceasefire terms, saying the rebels must implement them “without procrastination or delay”. The six conditions are:

1. Lifting all road checkpoints that impede citizens’ travels;

2. Abandoning their military strongholds and coming down from the mountains;

3. Handing over all civil and military equipment they have seized;

4. Disclosing the fate of six kidnapped foreigners (one British man and a German family);

5. Handing over the kidnapped Sa'adah citizens;

6. Ending all interference with the local authority's affairs.

This basically amounts to a call for surrender and the Houthis have rejected it.

Separately, the interior ministry reported that two hand grenades linked to a timing device exploded yesterday near the wall of a government complex in Sarwah district of Marib province.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 14 August 2009. Comment

Lebanese apartheid

A survey by Human Rights Watch in Lebanon has found that 17 out of 27 beach clubs enforce some kind of restriction on migrants, the BBC reports. The ban is aimed at keeping out the domestic workers from Sri Lanka, the Philippines, etc, who are employed by many Lebanese families.

The BBC quotes the manager of The Sporting Club, one of Beirut's oldest beach establishments, as saying that if he allowed entry to domestic maids "we would get complaints, I would lose customers and it would affect my business".

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 14 August 2009. Comment

Censoring the internet

Internet censorship in the Middle East and North African is increasing, according to the latest report from the OpenNet Initiative:

Testing has revealed political filtering to be the common denominator across the region; however, social filtering is on the rise. Many Arab countries have begun blocking explicit and morally objectionable content in the Arabic language that was previously accessible. While many regimes are transparent about social filtering, most continue to disguise political filtering practices by attempting to confuse users with different error messages.

Among the Arab countries, Bahrain, Syria and Tunisia “have the strictest political filtering practices”, while Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, and the West Bank do not currently filter any content.
However, even where there is no filtering governments try in other ways to regulate internet use:

Some Internet café operators in Lebanon, for example, have admitted to using surveillance software to monitor browsing habits of clients under the pretext of protecting security or preventing them from accessing pornography. Egypt has monitoring measures in place that require Internet café users to provide their names, email addresses, and phone numbers before using the Internet. Algeria holds ISPs legally responsible for sites they host.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 14 August 2009. Comment

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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General topics

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



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Last revised on 31 August, 2009