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Yemen: the absent state

Under the headline "Areas outside state control", the Yemen Post has published a round-up of the country's multiple security problems, noting that in most governorates, the state controls only the main cities. Some key points:

Bani Dhabian, Sanaa: "Bani Dhabian is a tribal district in Sanaa province’s Khawlan region whose tribesmen implement constant kidnapping operations. There is no presence for security or the state apparatuses there ... The tribesmen make big sums of money, as kidnapping is a source for wealth ..."

Amran Governorate: "Armed conflicts are ongoing in al-Sawad area between the tribes of al-Ausimat Hashed and al-Ashah tribes of Bakil. Heavy and medium-sized weapons are used. Around 200 tribesmen have been killed and over 400 others injured. The apparent cause for war is a conflict over lands."

Al-Dhale’ Governorate: "Al-Dhale’, with its four districts al-Azareq, al-Shuaeeb, al-Dhale’ and Jihaf, are completely outside the state’s control and flags of former south Yemen are being hoisted everywhere ... The security presence is almost absent in the four districts ..."

Lahej Governorate: "Secessionist flags are hoisted in Radfan, Yafe’ and other districts of Lahej governorate and these flags are seen everywhere ... There is no presence for the state or its apparatuses in Tour al-Bahah and Ras al-Arah districts. Following the killing of Hafez and Yahya al-Sumali by security apparatuses, the tribesmen revolted and fired all state apparatuses ... Yahya al-Sumali’s brother, Yasser, was appointed as a manager of Tour al-Bahah. The state is completely absent there now. 

"Most people belonging to northern provinces left districts like Yafe’, Radfan, Al-Sabihah, Al-Anad and the commercial investments were shut ..."

Abyan Governorate: "Zinjibar remains of the tense and burning areas and the name of Tareq al-Fadhli stands out and no army or security personnel dare to enter Ja’ar city ... The 312 Brigade is positioned in Zinjibar outskirts ... The Revolution Council led by al-Fadhli and al-Beedh are dominating the scene."

Al-Jawf Governorate: "Sheikh Ali al-Aji, a dignitary from al-Jawf stresses that the security presence is zero and noted that although security sites exist along the distance from Mafraq al-Jawf to the capital city – about 30 km – their existence is formal. Tribesmen are tightly controlling al-Hazm and al-Khalq districts.

"Abu Rawiah, a wanted criminal who belongs to al-Jida’an in Mareb, is roaming the governorate and buys his qat from al-Hazm market every day, though the market is some four kilometres from the governorate’s building and 200m from the security headquarters."

Mareb Governorate: "Security forces have a significant presence in Mareb city and districts like Wadi Abeedah, Hareeb and al-Joubah, but their presence is weak in districts like Rahbah, Bidbideh, Hareeb al-Qaramish and Magzar. Al-Qaeda is strongly present in Wadi Abeedah, a wide desert district with some rugged and mountainous areas."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 15 September 2009. Comment

Bin Laden's latest message

Tapes attributed to Osama bin Laden rarely cause much of a stir these days, and the latest one is being interpreted (perhaps correctly) as evidence of al-Qaeda's current weakness.

However, Marc Lynch on the Foreign Policy blog suggests "it deserves attention in ways which many recent al-Qaeda communications have not". He concludes:

Overall, this tape struck me as something significant. Al-Qaeda has been on the retreat for some time. Its response thus far to the Obama administration has been confused and distorted. Ayman al-Zawahiri has floundered with several clumsy efforts to challenge Obama's credibility or to mock his outreach. 

But bin Laden's intervention here seems far more skilful and likely to resonate with mainstream Arab publics. It suggests that he at least has learned from the organization's recent struggles and is getting back to the basics in AQ Central's "mainstream Muslim" strategy of highlighting political grievances rather than ideological purity and putting the spotlight back on unpopular American policies. Several recent commentaries by leading Arab analysts ... suggest that this may be paying off. American strategic communications efforts will need to up their game too.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 15 September 2009. Comment

Selecting the opposition

In theory it’s very simple. A group of people get together to form a political party, then the voters decide if their policies are worth supporting. But in those Arab countries where parties are allowed – which rules out Bahrain, Kuwait, Libya, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE for a start – they usually function not so much by right as through the grace and favour of the regime.

In 2004 the Arab Human Development Report observed:

States which allow party activity … try to trip up the opposition parties, by depriving them of resources and media exposure, controlling nomination and election procedures, using the judiciary, the army and security services to curtail their activities, hounding their leaders and activists while tampering with election polls.

Some states have witnessed a massive rise in the number of political parties (27 in Algeria, 26 in Morocco, 31 in Jordan and 22 in Yemen). Some see this as a reflection of the divisions among political and cultural elites, or of the ruling regime’s manoeuvres to divide the opposition, rather than a sign of democratic vitality. Fragmented as they are, these parties are incapable of rallying popular support to achieve the objectives for which they were created … 

On the other side, governments deliberately freeze and ban parties that rally popular support: in Egypt seven out of 17 licensed parties have been frozen, in Mauritania six out of 17 and in Tunisia three out of 11. (p131)

Last month – for the fourth time – the Egyptian authorities refused a permit for the Wasat party, described as “a reformist Islamist party including several activists who left the Muslim Brotherhood in the mid-1990s”. According to the Arab Reform Bulletin it was rejected because its political platform “is similar to current parties and therefore offers nothing new”.

Many established democracies have rules governing political parties – for example, requiring large donations to be publicly disclosed. Apart from that, though, how the parties conduct their business and what policies they adopt is a matter for themselves, and for the electorate. However, the laws in Arab countries often stray beyond ensuring paries are properly constituted and funded into questions of their general suitability and acceptability.

In Egypt, parties’ platforms must “constitute an addition to political life according to specific methods and goals” and must not contradict “the requirements of maintaining national unity [and] social peace”.

Naturally, this creates opportunities for the regime, rather than the voters, to pass judgement on their suitability and the task of interpreting these requirements in Egypt is entrusted to the Political Parties Committee (PPC), a body where eight of the nine members are appointed by the president. 

The PPC has often rejected parties on the grounds that their policies are “not sufficiently distinct from those of existing parties”, while others have been rejected for espousing “a radical ideology”. One party – al-Karama (“Dignity”) – was rejected on separate occasions both for being too similar to other parties and also for being too radical. 

A report by Human Rights Watch a couple of years ago noted that over a 27-year period from its creation in 1977, the Egyptian PPC rejected 63 parties’ applications and approved only two.

As one opposition politician quoted in the report put it, “Under the terms of the political parties law, the ruling party has the right to select its opposition, on its own terms.”

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 14 September 2009. Comment

A month of 'scorched earth'

"Operation Scorched Earth" against the Houthi rebels in Yemen has been going on for a month now, with no end in sight. The 
government media continues with its vague reports of military successes and "heavy losses" inflicted on the rebels (the latter may well be true). 

The military are said to be "continuing their advance towards Harf Sufyan–Saada line with the aim securing the road and removing landmines and explosives". This is what the reports have been saying for some time, so if the military are making any progress at all it is clearly very slow.

A further indication that the road is unlikely to be cleared imminently comes from the Yemen Post, which says that Yemen and Saudi Arabia are discussing an alternative option for bringing humanitarian aid to the affected areas – from the north, across the Saudi border.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 13 September 2009. Comment

Chatrooms of death

A shocking report in the Observer by Afif Sarhan and Jason Burke:

Sitting on the floor, wearing traditional Islamic clothes and holding an old notebook, Abu Hamizi, 22, spends at least six hours a day searching internet chatrooms linked to gay websites. He is not looking for new friends, but for victims.

"It is the easiest way to find those people who are destroying Islam and who want to dirty the reputation we took centuries to build up," he said. When he finds them, Hamizi arranges for them to be attacked and sometimes killed.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 13 September 2009. Comment

Cost of a marriage in Tunisia

There's an intriguing tale about Tunisia on the French-language blog, Chakchouka Tunisienne, and I'm hoping readers may be able to shed some more light on it.

It says a businessman in Sfax was getting married and invited 
Belhassen Trabelsi, the president's brother-in-law to his wedding. Trabelsi turned up, blessed the newlyweds and even posed with them for photos.

A few days later, an emissary from Trabelsi allegedly presented the businessman/groom with a bill for 30,000 dinars ($23,000) and told him: "That's normal, you got Belhassen to your wedding, Belhassen agreed to let himself be photographed with you and your wife. You're going to use these pictures to make your business prosper. Think about what you'll earn through these pictures. It is a ticket to all kinds of facilities. So it's normal to compensate Mr Trabelsi."

I haven't heard of this happening before in Arab countries. The businessman isn't named, so I'm wondering if it's true. For all I know, it may happen regularly with well-connected people who get invited to weddings, or maybe it's just an urban myth. Or maybe Trabelsi's "representative" was simply an impostor trying to make a quick buck. Any clues gratefully received.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 13 September 2009. Comment

The Economist on Yemen

The Economist is the latest publication to raise serious questions about the future of Yemen. 

It says (rightly, I think) that much of the reason for the Houthi rebels' success lies with the Yemeni army: "Its aerial bombing and artillery fire have proved better at enraging locals than at subduing bands of guerrillas; and its induction of tribal allies has pushed their traditional rivals into the Houthis’ arms."

It ends by saying: "Mr Salih [the president] can still plausibly pose as the only man stopping the country from becoming the world’s next failed state." I'm sure that's how he would like people to view him, but I'd take issue with the word "plausibly".

There are many factors in play but one could plausibly argue that Salih's policies are part of the problem rather than the solution. It's worth pointing once again to the perceptive article by Khaled Fattah of St Andrews University which describes Yemen as a "self-cancelling" state because of the weakness of the central authorities:

This weakness has turned the Yemeni state from being an agency for providing law, order, security and welfare for the masses into being an elitist fountain for providing privilege, wealth and power for a small group of people. In other words, instead of being a provider of solutions, Yemen’s central government became a source of problems, losing its infrastructural power. 

This loss is evident in the absence of the state in many parts of the country, in the inability of state institutions to counter lawlessness and social disorder, in the very poor quality of basic government services, and in the very limited impact of state controls. Unsurprisingly, Yemen today is one of the best examples of political entities where the state is performing "self-cancelling". 

A recent Carnegie Paper by Christopher Boucek also examines the challenges facing Yemen.

It makes clear (unlike many news reports) that the country's problems extend far beyond the immediate security issues. It goes on to highlight the need for foreign assistance (from the Gulf Cooperation Council among others) and notes that "US aid to Yemen is disproportionately small given its importance to US national security". The problem there, as always, is how to deliver help in ways that promote real development rather than just prolonging the status quo.

Finally, there's an article by Brian O'Neill (formerly of the Yemen Observer) in the latest Arab Reform Bulletin: Rebellions and the Existential Crisis

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 12 September 2009. Comment

Islamists and violence

The Arabist blog makes some interesting observations about jihadist groups in North Africa and elsewhere who have recently been persuaded to renounce violence. It comments: "Even if they eschew violence, the ideology of these groups remains extremely radical, intolerant, bigoted ..."

I made a similar point in my book, What's Really Wrong with the Middle East (which should be in the shops very soon):

Distinguishing between “violent” and “non-violent” Islamists, between “terrorists” and “non-terrorists” is an obvious concern of governments and security forces but it can easily give the impression that Islamists who engage peacefully in electoral politics are not a problem. While this may be true from a security point of view, the preoccupation with combating terrorism tends to obscure a much bigger issue at the core of Islamist ideology: the relationship between religion and the state.

One of the basic requirements for freedom in politics is that sovereignty belongs to the people. Power may be delegated to representatives but the people should remain the ultimate arbiters. Islamists, no matter how they try to dress up their ideology, do not accept this key point ...

Although some visions of an Islamic state do allow more space for freedom and democracy than others, the underlying problem is still the same: an anti-libertarian assumption that linking the state with religion is both legitimate and necessary. Not only that, but religion claims the right, at least in some circumstances, to over-ride the will of the people.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 12 September 2009. Comment

150 arrested for breaking fast

There's a rumpus in Egypt over reports that police in various parts of the country have arrested more than 150 people for publicly breaking the fast during Ramadan.

Unlike some Muslim countries, Egypt has no specific law against fast-breaking and the wave of arrests seems to be the work of some especially religious-minded police officers. However, the authorities are supporting them on the grounds that public fast-breaking is a form of "incivility" covered by the Egyptian penal code. Bikya Masr reports:

Ahmed Mekki, the vice-president of the Court of Cassation said that the penal code criminalises this action and is punishable under Egyptian law.

He said that police, however, have no right to determine the penalty for the crime and must file a record against the individual and refer them to the prosecution’s office.

If the prosecution finds no reason for the individual to have broken their fast, they are then transferred to the criminal court where a penalty, most likely a fine, is delivered.

Several Egyptian columnists and rights activists have attacked the move. “This ... reveals that extremism has reached some policemen,” Gamal Eid, of the Arab Network for Human Rights, told The National. “Citizens have the right to observe Ramadan or not, even taking into accounts the feelings of others. It’s up to each individual. There is no penal code for these things, and no one has the right to enforce it on others or punish them for not doing so.”

Meanwhile, clerics at al-Azhar are backing the punishment of those who break the fast in public. “People are free not to fast, but privately; doing so in public is not a matter of personal freedom, but it reveals contempt for those who are fasting, for Ramadan and for the fasting as an obligatory religious duty,” said Sheikh Abdel Moati Bayoumi, a member of al-Azhar's Islamic Research Centre.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 11 September 2009. Comment

Motives of the suicide bombers

The idea that suicide bombers are insane or religious fanatics is challenged by some controversial new research that has been reported over that last few days in a variety of publications, from 
Yale Global in the US to the Daily Star in Lebanon and the Daily Times in Pakistan.

The article is by Riaz Hassan, an emeritus professor at Flinders University in Australia which claims to hold the world's most comprehensive suicide terrorism database, covering 1,200 attacks between 1981 and 2006.

Hassan writes:

The evidence from the database largely discredits the common wisdom that the personality of suicide bombers and their religion are the principal cause. It shows that though religion can play a vital role in recruiting and motivating potential future suicide bombers, the driving force is not religion but a cocktail of motivations including politics, humiliation, revenge, retaliation and altruism. The configuration of these motivations is related to the specific circumstances of the political conflict behind the rise of suicide attacks in different countries.

The main motive for many suicide bombings in Israel, he says, "is revenge for acts committed by Israelis". Among Libyan volunteers in Iraq, the motive appeared to be not so much "global jihadi ideology" but "an explosive mix of desperation, pride, anger, sense of powerlessness, local tradition of resistance and religious fervour".
He continues:

Apart from one demographic attribute – that the majority of suicide bombers tend to be young males – the evidence has failed to find a stable set of demographic, psychological, socioeconomic and religious variables that can be causally linked to suicide bombers’ personality or socioeconomic origins. With the exception of a few cases, their life stories show no apparent connection between violent militant activity and personality disorders.

Typically, most suicide bombers are psychologically normal and are deeply integrated into social networks and emotionally attached to their national communities.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 11 September 2009. Comment

Just passing by

Four men in two cars were stopped near the US embassy in Sanaa on Tuesday and found to have in their possession nine grenades, a machine gun, 296 bullets, five detonators, a siren device as used by ambulances and 20 fuel containers.

According to a security source they were just passing through and had no intention of targeting the embassy. 

The men were from Damaj in Saada province. Although the province is the seat of the Houthi rebellion, Damaj is actually a Sunni/Salafi stronghold. So that's OK, no need to worry.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 10 September 2009. Comment

Gaza casualty figures challenged

The Israeli human rights organisation, B’Tselem, today issues its findings on the number of Palestinians and Israelis killed during Operation Cast Lead in Gaza. The figures, which it says are the result of “months of meticulous investigation and cross-checks” sharply conflict with those published by the Israeli military – especially on the question of civilian casualties.

Israel has said that 1,166 Palestinians were killed and that 60% of them were members of Hamas and other armed groups. According to the military, only 295 Palestinians killed were “not involved” in the fighting.

B’Tselem says Israeli security forces killed 1,387 Palestinians. Of these, 773 did not take part in the hostilities, including 320 minors and 109 women over the age of 18. “Of those killed, 330 took part in the hostilities, and 248 were Palestinian police officers, most of whom were killed in aerial bombings of police stations on the first day of the operation. For 36 people, B’Tselem could not determine whether they participated in the hostilities or not.”

B’Tselem comments:

The extremely heavy civilian casualties and the massive damage to civilian property require serious introspection on the part of Israeli society. B'Tselem recognizes the complexity of combat in a densely populated area against armed groups that do not hesitate to use illegal means and find refuge within the civilian population. However, illegal and immoral actions by these organizations cannot legitimise such extensive harm to civilians by a state committed to the rule of law.

The extent of civilian fatalities does not, in itself, prove that Israeli violated the laws of war. However, the figures must be considered within the context of the numerous testimonies given by soldiers and Palestinians during and after the operation, which raise grave concerns that Israel breached fundamental principles of international humanitarian law and caused excessive harm to civilians.

Palestinians killed nine Israelis during the operation: three civilians and one member of the security forces by rockets fired into southern Israel, and five soldiers in Gaza.


Palestinians killed in Gaza: B'Tselem's figures

Did not take part in the hostilities   773
Of them, women (over 18)  109  
Of them, minor boys & girls (under 18) 320  
Took part in the hostilities    330
Women  0  
Minors  19  
Police officers killed at police stations   248
Unknown if took part in the hostilities   36
Women 0  
Minors 6  
TOTAL   1387

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 9 September 2009. Comment

Egyptian union leader questioned

The head of Egypt’s first independent trade union, Kamal Abu Eita, was questioned by a prosecutor yesterday and could face charges “of disseminating false information and defaming the reputation of the country’s state-controlled union leaders”.

Abu Eita was one of the founders of the independent General Union of Real Estate Tax Authority Employees. Almasry Alyoum newspaper says

The charges against Abu Eita stem from accusations levelled by Farouq Shehata, head of the state-controlled General Union for Banking and Insurance Employees. Abu Eita’s union was essentially formed to compete with Shehata’s union after the latter refused to support a national strike by the tax collectors in 2007, and Abu Eita claims that 37,000 of the 42,000 tax collectors under the state-run union have already switched sides.

The battle is mainly about recognition of independent unions. In most Arab countries (or at least, those that allow unions at all) they are controlled by the government. 

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 9 September 2009. Comment

King Farouk of Unesco?

Debate about the possible appointment of Egypt’s culture minister, 
Farouk Hosni, as head of Unesco has centred mainly on his remarks last May about burning Israeli books (for which he has since apologised). But his appointment is also controversial in Egypt, for different reasons.

In July, al-Mesryoon website published a vitriolic letter signed by 15 Egyptian academics and journalists saying that “this character with such dreadful history is not fit for such great position” [scroll down for the English translation]. He has also been the object of Islamists’ wrath – for example when he described the Arabian style of hijab as “a step backward for Egyptian women".

Despite some reservations, Roger Cohen in the New York Times says he should be given a chance. So does Joseph Mayton 
at Bikya Masr. On the other hand, an editorial comment in yesterday’s Wall Street Journal says he should be judged on his record – which makes him “as suitable to lead Unesco as a Cairene cat would be to guard a stew”:

Human-rights activists are not the only ones reeling at the thought of one of Egypt's pre-eminent censors being named standard-bearer in Unesco's self-described goal to "build peace in the minds of men." 

One can only imagine the peace in the minds of thousands of Egyptian writers, bloggers, artists, musicians, filmmakers, lecturers, broadcasters and other culture-purveyors who have been tortured, harassed, imprisoned or banned in Egypt since Mr. Hosni took office in 1987. 

Or the 100-plus heavy-metal fans arrested there over the last decade for their supposed Satanism. Or any of the remaining 80 million Egyptians regularly denied access to any new ideas their government deems harmful.

I don’t often agree with the Wall Street Journal but I think these are fair points. For the last 22 years (reputedly as a protégé of Mrs Mubarak) his basic role has been to soften the image of a repressive regime. The regime has been lobbying hard for his appointment to Unesco – again, for reasons of image and prestige. On those grounds alone, it should be rejected.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 8 September 2009. Post a comment. Reader's feedback.

Food riot in Socotra

Socotra, Yemen’s exotic island outpost in the Indian Ocean, witnessed its first-ever riot on Sunday when hundreds of people took to the streets protesting about “an acute shortage of wheat and flour”.

The Yemen Post says they hurled stones at one of the Economic Corporation's stores and police opened fire to disperse the crowd.

Back on the mainland, and aside from the Houthi rebellion in the north, Yemen now has four regional protest movements: the Southern Movement, the Desert Alliance Movement, the Tihama Coast Movement and the Central Plateau Movement.

The Central Plateau Movement, based in Taizz, is the latest to be formed and will be formally launched “in the coming days”, according to the Yemen Times.

One of the organisers told the paper it “will lobby the public to learn about their rights and demand change. Petitions, demonstrations and sit-ins will be carried out. Protests will escalate and civil disobedience will be the last resort if the state does not react favourably to the people’s demands”.

Last week, yet another group – the Shabwa Council for Just Development – was formed by “members of the Shabwa intellectual and social community”. The Yemen Times says it is demanding that at least 70% of the governorate’s resources be invested in the welfare of the people of Shabwa.

Sheikh Saleh Fareed al-Suraima, head of the group, said: “All we are asking is for a fair, decent life, knowing that our governorate has been providing the whole republic with oil and gas. It is only fair that some of our own resources be used for the benefit of the locals.”

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 8 September 2009. Comment

Obama's letter to Yemen

A letter from President Obama confirming US support "for the unity and security of Yemen" was delivered to President Salih on Saturday, according to the official news agency, Saba.

The letter allegedly promised "an initiative to support Yemen to face all its development obstacles and enhance efforts of reforms through International Monetary Fund, World Bank and donors as well as states of the Gulf cooperation council". 

Considering the recent statement from the US embassy expressing "deep concern" at the continuing conflict between the Yemeni millitary and the Houthi rebels – and calling for a ceasefire – I can't believe that Obama's message was one of wholehearted support. Nor can I believe that Obama would offer such wide-ranging economic and development help without some strings attached ... such as the Yemeni government drastically mending its ways.

A possible clue to the failure of last week's ceasefire lies buried in 
a report from IRIN, the UN humanitarian news agency. Mohammed Abdussalam, the Houthi rebels' spokesman, is quoted as saying that "their fighters in Harf Sufyan district in Amran province had not heard about the truce decision". Given the communication difficulties and the fact that mobile phones are cut off, this seems very likely.

It true, it suggests another ceasefire attempt would be worthwhile – this time paying more attention to the mechanics of implementation.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 7 September 2009. Comment

Charges against Egyptian Shia

A few more details have emerged about the case of Hassan Shehata, whose arrest I wrote about last month in connection with the harassment of Egypt's tiny Shia minority.

AP reports that the prominent cleric and 12 others have been accused of receiving funds from Iran for promoting the "extremist" Shia doctrine in Egypt.

The Bikya Masr website says they have been formally charged with “using Friday sermons in promoting Shiite ideals, recruiting foreign elements, leading a banned group, receiving financial support from foreign governments, as well as possessing books defaming the Sunni sect.” Biya Masr continues:

Iran and Egypt have been battling in recent months, with Egypt arresting dozens of men linked with Hezbollah and accused Iran of meddling in domestic affairs. Tehran, in turn, has accused Cairo of helping to train and arm Jundallah – a Sunni Islamic group that has attacked Iranian police in demands for their rights.

Egypt denies any involvement in the “training” in Pakistan, and while rumours have circulated that Egyptians are among those being held by Tehran ...

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 7 September 2009. Comment

Yemen's rampant corruption

While the Houthi conflict dominates the news from Yemen there’s a risk of other issues being ignored. One that certainly should not be ignored is corruption, and last week Alistair Lyon wrote an excellent report about it for Reuters AlertNet.

As Lyon notes, “Corruption is rampant in Yemen, whether defined as the abuse of public office for private gain, or in the form of patronage, the diversion of state resources to seek political quiescence.”

The nature of the problem was explored in detail by USAID in its 
Yemen Corruption Assessment three years ago. Following that (and probably in response to it) the Yemeni government created a Supreme National Authority for Combating Corruption which – not surprisingly – has made little progress.

Abdul-Ghani al-Iryani, a Yemeni co-author of the 2006 USAID assessment, is quoted by Lyon as saying corruption remains "as bad as could be".

According to one survey, 425 officials were charged with corruption between 2005 and 2007. Of these, only nine were sentenced to more than two years in jail; 44 were acquitted and 73 received suspended sentences. “Many suspects avoided charges by bribing police or judicial officials. Even those convicted were rarely fired,” Lyon writes. He continues:

Legally it is hard to make officials accountable. Only civil servants between the level of director and deputy minister are required to declare their assets – a vital way to crosscheck if their wealth is disproportionate to their salary.

No one at or above the rank of deputy minister can be charged unless a two-thirds majority of parliament votes to form an investigating committee – which has never happened.

Two other news items away from the Houthi front:

  • One person was killed and three injured during a four-hour battle between police and street vendors in Hayel Street, Sana’a.

  • Members of the Laqmosh tribe clashed with the army in Shabwa province (southern Yemen), apparently in a dispute about “a checkpoint for collecting qat taxes”. The tribesmen “managed to seize the military vehicles and take six soldiers hostages … military reinforcements were seen heading to the area.”

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 6 September 2009. Comment

Saudis close Shia mosque

Hot on the heels of the Human Rights Watch report about discrimination against Shia Muslims in Saudi Arabia, I received this photo of a Shia Ismaili mosque in Khobar. Note the concrete blocks placed in front of the entrance.

According to my source, security forces stormed the building yesterday and welded its door shut. They arrested the caretaker and about a dozen worshippers who refused to leave. 

There's also a note about it here, posted on an Arabic website.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 5 September 2009. Comment

A truce in Yemen?

The Yemeni government announced yesterday that it "does not view any objection" to suspending military operations against the Houthi rebels if the rebels will do the same. The rebels appear to have responded positively.

The "suspension" offer came into effect at 9am on Friday, with no specified time limit, and its stated aim is to allow humanitarian aid to reach the affected areas. The UN's latest report on the humanitarian situation, issued on Thursday, is here.

There have been no further reports of fighting* but how long that will last is anybody's guess. However, the government has dug itself into a hole with "Operation Scorched Earth" and "suspending" operations as a goodwill gesture towards the thousands made hungry and homeless could provide a face-saving exit strategy.

The Houthi conflict has been an on-off-on affair since it started five years ago and, even if the truce holds, it is doubtful whether the Yemeni government is willing or able to resolve the underlying problems without a lot of international help and cajoling.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 5 September 2009. Comment

* Late news: Al-Arabiya is reporting that Houthi rebels broke the ceasefire early on Saturday morning.

Further update: It's very clear now (11.00 BST) that the truce has broken down. Military sources say dozens were killed and wounded on both sides during violent clashes overnight in Malaheez and Harf Sufyan.

Humanitarian situation: The UN report which I linked to above says the estimated number of IDPs in the Saudi border area is 100,000-150,000. The UNHCR has issued a correction: it should say 100-150 families.

Sudan's battle of the trousers

A Facebook campaign, "We all together support the Sudanese journalist Lubna" has so far attracted more than 6,000 supporters. Lubna Hussein is due to go on trial in Khartoum on Monday, charged with wearing "indecent" clothing – namely, trousers. If found guilty she will probably be flogged.

I signed up to the campaign last night and would urge anyone who feels strongly about it to do the same. I have no idea if it will help, but it only takes a minute. 

This has turned into something of a test case. The Sudanese authorities seem embarrassed by the international publicity it has aroused and my hunch is that they are looking for a way out.

Lubna has written about it herself on the Guardian's website and there's also some background from Nesrine Malik.

Still on the subject of social transgression, Huffington Post has an interesting report from Michael Luongo in Iraq: Baghdad's Gay Community: A Tale of Two Cities.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 5 September 2009. Comment

The Yemen war and family rivalries

The war between the Yemeni government and the Houthi rebels, as regular readers will have gathered, has multiple dimensions: local grievances, tribal/religious conflicts and international rivalries among them. One further dimension – which I haven't mentioned so far – is a struggle to succeed President Salih, within his own family.

The Chatham House report published last year (which along with the ICG report provides one of the better analyses of the conflict) alluded to it in a single paragraph:

The government’s military campaign is conducted by army commander and Salafi convert Ali Muhsin, a Sanhan kinsman of the president who is widely expected to play a powerful role as kingmaker during a future succession. Rumours abound of rivalry between Ali Muhsin and President Salih’s son Ahmed, whose Republican Guard has also deployed in Saada. Several Yemeni newspapers have claimed there is a proxy war between the two men’s forces, under the cover of quashing the Houthis. [page 5]

Yesterday, the Land and People blog cast some more light on the matter:

A few days ago, I met a friend who has worked in Yemen for over 25 years and who was recently there. I asked him about the situation and this is what he told me:

"A big part of the problem with the Hawthi [Houthi] in the North has to do with the struggle for power between Ali Abdallah Saleh (the current president) and his relative (no one seems to be sure how they are related) Ali Muhsin. Muhsin was one of the officers who carried out the coup against the Imam but the story is that he let Saleh rule as he was bound to fail, and then Muhsin would take over and pacify matters. But Saleh did not fail in establishing his rule and in consolidating it, and Muhsin remained an influential army general. He now commands the Northern army units, fighting the Hawthi in Saadah.

Saleh is getting old and is probably tired. He is grooming his son to replace him. Ali Muhsin considers himself to be the more deserving than Saleh's son, especially that the latter has zero popularity and charisma and no one would recognise him in the street without his motorcade. So whenever Muhsin wants to put pressure on Saleh, he commands the army to engage the Hawthi who are always ready for a fight. 

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 4 September 2009. Comment

Plight of the Saudi Shia

Discrimination against Shia Muslims in the Sunni-dominated countries of the Middle East tends to attract less attention in the west than prejudice against Christians, Jews and Baha'is. Politics plays a part in that, of course, because of Shia Islam's associations with Iran.

I recently wrote about the treatment of Shia in Jordan and Egypt. Yesterday, Human Rights Watch published a report on "systematic discrimination and hostility toward Saudi Shia citizens". Quote:

The government tolerates inflammatory and intolerant statements by Saudi Sunni clerics directed toward the Shia, while preventing the Shia even from simple acts of religious worship such as praying together. Underlying state discrimination against Shia includes a justice system based on religious law that follows only Sunni interpretations, and an education system that excludes Shia from teaching religion, and Shia children from learning about their Islamic creed. 

The sectarian divide, and Saudi state and Sunni community hostility and suspicion toward Saudi Shia, reflects not just religious intolerance but also political tensions arising from the elevated profile of Shia politics in the broader region, from Shia Hezbollah in Lebanon to Shia dominance over Iraqi politics and fears over the designs by Shia-dominated Iran for the Shia population of the Gulf states, including Saudi Arabia.

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, as crown prince in 2003, initiated National Dialogues between the Shia and Sunnis, among others, but little has come of them. In 2008 the king led the call for tolerance between world religions at the United Nations General Assembly in New York, but neglected to promote tolerance for Saudi Arabia's Shia minority at home.

The report focuses mainly on the Saudi government's policies but that is only a part of the problem. Much more repugnant, at the day-to-day level, is the de-humanisation of Shia citizens by Sunni Saudis – an attitude that is reinforced and legitimised by the government's policies.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 4 September 2009. Comment

More on Menassat

After going off-line for several hours yesterday "for maintenance", the Menassat website is back – but without the announcement of staff sackings posted by earlier by "Robin Hood". There's one new article on the front page, about the presidential succession in Egypt.

A statement issued yesterday by the Dutch organisation, Free Voice, confirmed that it has ended financial support for Menassat. It said initial funding for the site – up to 1 August last year – was provided by the Netherlands foreign ministry, with the aim of making the site financially independent from that point. The statement continued:

Because this had not been successful, Free Voice has decided to provide, from its own means, additional funds for a number of times under the agreement that additional funds would be actively sought for from Beirut. Sadly, Free Voice has to acknowledge that these have not been secured and Free Voice is now forced to terminate its support, in line with these agreements. Free Voice will continue to monitor the possibilities of a second life for this initiative and will support this if possible. There are no reasons for Free Voice to terminate its efforts with regard to content.

This means that Menassat was being funded by Free Voice, not the Dutch government, when it published its article referring to "Israeli aggressions" and the Jerusalem Post was wrong in its claim that Dutch taxpayers' money was "being used to perpetuate Israel as the opium of the Arabs”.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 4 September 2009. Comment

Bankruptcy shock for Hizbullah

The case of a Lebanese financier who went bankrupt after investing hundreds of millions of other people’s money is sending shockwaves through Hizbullah and Lebanon’s Shia community.

Salah Ezzedine is thought to have lost more than $1 billion – which 
is affecting “thousands of Lebanese investors in the southern suburbs of Beirut and the Bekaa Valley, areas notable for positive Hizbullah sentiments”.

Ezzedine, from Maaroub near Tyre, is currently in custody while the authorities ascertain whether his bankruptcy “is fraudulent or of a technical nature”.

He is said to have "extensive connections" with senior members of Hizbullah. He owns Dar al-Hadi (a prominent Shia religious publishing house), and Hadi TV (a children’s channel), as well as a travel agency specialising in pilgrimages.

According to judicial sources cited by the Associated Press, he also had major business interests, particularly in oil and iron in Eastern Europe, and ran into trouble when oil prices fell last year.
The sources said he tried to make for his losses by taking money from Lebanese investors with promises of up to 40% returns on their deposits – which he was then unable to pay.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 3 September 2009. Comment

Dutch pull the plug on website

A strange announcement has appeared on the Beirut-based Menassat website under the by-line “Robin Hood of Arabia”. It seems that all nine editorial staff were sacked at less than 24 hours’ notice, pending the site’s closure.

Menassat was set up to promote free speech and improve the quality of journalism in the Arab countries – and in some ways it has been quite innovative, reporting at length on stories that got little coverage elsewhere.

It has been funded indirectly by the Dutch government via Free Voice, an advocacy group which organises “professional training sessions for Arab journalists, as well as activities aimed at improving the legal protection of journalists and the promotion of press freedom in general”. 

The Beiruter blog suggests political pressure lies behind the withdrawal of funding. In July, Menassat carried an article that was highly critical of the UN’s latest Arab Human Development Report and ended up saying that the two main threats to security in the region were public debt and “Israeli aggressions”.

A few days later, this was attacked by an editorial in the Jerusalem Post which said: “Thank you, taxpayers of The Netherlands. Your money is being used to perpetuate Israel as the opium of the Arabs.” The writer of the original Menassat article then 
hit back under the headline: “Mind your own occupation – I'll mind my own development”.

Possibly this was a factor, but I doubt it was the main reason for pulling the plug. Menassat’s continued funding had been in jeopardy for some time, and according to al-Akhbar (in Arabic) there was a problem last May over payment of wages. Anyone who can cast further light on the closure, please send me an email.

The “About Us” section on Menassat’s website says its primary goal is “to expose the problems and challenges that journalists in the Arabic-speaking world face on a daily basis, and to help overcome them”. Through its own example it has certainly done the former, if not the latter. 

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 3 September 2009. Comment

Trials of a Jordanian poet

Following the imprisonment of an Egyptian poet for “insulting” President Mubarak (reported here in July), another Arab poet – this time in Jordan – is preparing himself for jail.

Islam Samhan was arrested last October and charged him with insulting the prophets because of Quranic references in his book of love poetry. In June he was sentenced to a year in jail and fined $14,000. Although he is currently free and trying to appeal, he is not optimistic of success and expects to start his sentence when the courts come back from recess later this month.

The trouble began, according to Samhan, with a Jordanian website where “a man without any knowledge of either poetry or literature defined my poems as ‘an obscene insult to God’.” The Muslim Brotherhood later issued a press release which Samhan interpreted as a death threat and Jordan’s grand mufti – the kingdom’s highest religious authority – then joined in, calling him an enemy of religion.

Samhan, who is 28 and a journalist with al-Arab al-Yawm newspaper, told The National he believes the sentence “is politically motivated in order to please the department of iftaa [fatwas], the Muslim Brotherhood and their followers rather than a judicial decision.”

He told the paper that as a result of the case people shun him, his colleagues avoid talking to him and he continues to receive threats on his mobile phone:

“I couldn’t help but weep the other day when my sisters implied that their husbands do not want to see me at iftar. People are avoiding me. I have become an outcast,” he said. “If anybody harms me, he may have a legal protection because the grand mufti, who is the highest religious authority, called me an apostate.”

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 2 September 2009. Comment

UN warning on Yemen crisis

The UN refugee agency issued a new warning yesterday about the situation around Saada city in northern Yemen where fighting between government forces and rebels has displaced more than 35,000 people during the last three weeks.

"The situation is deteriorating by the day," UNHCR spokesman Andrej Mahecic said. "We are gravely concerned about the fate and well-being of the civilian population trapped inside the city as a result of fierce fighting between al- Houthi forces and the government troops."

A 12-hour curfew is restricting the movement of the local population and the internally displaced people, especially at night, according to the agency. Food reserves are running out and black market prices have risen dramatically in most of the districts affected by the fighting.

Those who can afford to pay are smuggled out of Saada city across the mountains to the neighbouring al-Jawf province. "We still do not have access to that part of Yemen, where we estimate as many as 4,000 internally displaced people have found shelter," Mahecic said.

All told, the conflict is estimated to have displaced some 150,000 people in the area since 2004.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 2 September 2009. Comment

Gadafy's Great Splaj

Today is the 40th anniversary of the revolution that brought the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamarihyya (officially abbreviated to the Great Splaj) into being – which makes Col Gadafy the longest-surviving Arab leader (a year longer than Sultan Qaboos in Oman).

On a visit to Libya in 2004, I photographed this car which is the star exhibit in the national museum:

A notice alongside the car, written in English, says:

Vehicle: Volkswagen
Property of: 2nd Lt. Moammar Gheddafi
Veh. Reg. No: 23398 LB
Date: 6/4/1967

This vehicle has been part in serious events, astonishing surprises, traveled thousands of kilometers, crossed valleys, plains, villages, cities rural zones and avenues all over the country during ember years which Moammar Gheddafi lived underground in a journey of four thousand days of clandestine activities.

This vehicle has carried manuscripts, secrets and men.

It was kept under closed watch, controlled observation, hot pursuits and investigations by oppressive military and security services of the defunct regime.

More than one warrant and more than an inquiry have been launched about it in several regions, from Benghazi to Brega, from Abugren to Sirte, Tripoli, Sebha, Derna Zawia and Beida.

This vehicle suffered failures, collision courses, incidents, halted journeys in difficult circumstances and hard times full of dangers that waylay it.

In more than once, carrying instigating circulars such as the circular distributed by the Leader himself in Tripoli's streets on behalf of workers calling the masses to rebel and avenge. At other time transporting organizational and ideological pamphlets to build and inspire the free Unionist Officers.

It has embodied the simplicity in confronting the Mercedes Benz car which has incarnated clamor, haughtiness and false arrogance.

There were great differences between both cars, while the Volkswagen was rolling up time and distances to bring closer the salvation day, the Mercedes was moving between night club, gambling halls and military bases driven by agents of the Italians, Americans and British in the defunct regime. All paid from the Libyan people's wealth. The people were suffering from poverty, oppression, sleeping on the ground, and protecting themselves from heat and cold by zinc panels under the yoke of an agent regime that had lost sovereignty, will and legitimacy whereas it infiltrated to the country from abroad in the darkness under the cover of charlatanism heresy and perversion under the protection of colonization.

This car as simple, normal and popular as it is shall be one of the flagrant public eye witnesses about the journey of four thousand plays' [sic] clandestine action.

Glory to the Revolutionary Moammar Gheddafi Leader of the Great El Fateh of the 1st September 1969.

Department of the Morale [sic] Guidance

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 1 September 2009. Comment

Keychain leads to jail

Naâma Asfari, a Western Sahara human rights activist, has been jailed for four months in Morocco following a row with a policeman about his keychain.

Asfari was stopped at a checkpoint outside Tantan on August 14. An officer noticed a flag of the Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (unrecognised by Morocco and most other countries) attached to his keychain and ordered him to remove it. An argument ensued, police reinforcements were called, and Asfari and his 21-year-old cousin were arrested.

It was Paris-based Asfari's third arrest in Morocco in the space of three years. "Moroccan authorities keep finding new excuses to lock Asfari up," said Sarah Leah Whitson of Human Rights Watch.

The offending flag

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 1 September 2009. Comment

Previous blog posts




September 2009

‘Honour’ killing in Jordan

Egypt to deport journalist

New clashes in southern Yemen

'Jeddah Casanova' in court

Man 'claimed to be Jesus'

Al-Azhar discrimination complaint

Yemen claims British backing

Al-Qaeda and the Houthi conflict

Plight of Iraqi interpreters

Iraq's growing language gap

Moroccan king's carbon footprint

Algerians and the internet

Yemen: foot-dragging over aid

Unesco: the blame game

Jailed for five-star sex

US calls for Yemen ceasefire 

Unesco rejects Farouk Hosni

Running dry

Where is Maqalih?

Tunisia: harassing the critics

'140 rebels killed' in Yemen

Fashion: from Gucci to Gadafy

Death on the border

Orientalism revisited

'Temporary ceasefire' in Yemen

Ramadan rebels

Trousers are OK, says Mufti

'87 civilians dead' in Yemen attacks

A bridge ... or a ghetto?

Doctor 'abandoned sick maid'

Yemen: the absent state

Bin Laden's latest message

Selecting the opposition

A month of 'scorched earth'

Chatrooms of death

Cost of a marriage in Tunisia

The Economist on Yemen

Islamists and violence

150 arrested for breaking fast

Motives of the suicide bombers

Just passing by

Gaza casualty figures challenged

Egyptian union leader questioned

King Farouk of Unesco?

Food riot in Socotra

Obama's letter to Yemen

Charges against Egyptian Shia

Yemen's rampant corruption

Saudis close Shia mosque

A truce in Yemen?

Sudan's battle of the trousers

The Yemen war and family rivalries

Plight of the Saudi Shia

More on Menassat

Bankruptcy shock for Hizbullah

Dutch pull the plug on website

Trials of a Jordanian poet

UN warning on Yemen crisis

Gadafy's Great Splaj

Keychain leads to jail


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



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Last revised on 30 March, 2014