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‘Honour’ killing in Jordan 

Three Jordanian brothers have been accused of murdering their 40-year-old sister because of her “bad reputation”, the Jordan Times reports.

The men killed the divorced mother of five after finding photos of her sitting with her alleged lover, police said. They stabbed her 15 times then set fire to her body and her house to cover up the evidence, the police added.

The men were arrested after being treated in hospital for minor injuries and smoke inhalation.

A source close to the investigation told the Jordan Times that the woman was divorced in 2003 and “the family had asked her repeatedly to move out of their building … The victim refused to move out so they decided to kill her and cleanse their family’s honour.”

The case is the seventeenth reported “honour killing” in Jordan this year and the second this month.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 30 September 2009. Comment

Egypt to deport journalist

A Swedish journalist/blogger is awaiting deportation from Egypt after being declared persona non grata.

Per Bjorklund, who has lived in Egypt for the last three years, was detained on arrival at Cairo airport yesterday. He told friends by phone that immigration officials had stopped him because his name was listed on a computer. Several blogs have details of the story, including 3arabawy and Bikya Masr.

3arabawy says Bjorklund “has been one of the most active foreign journalists (if not the most active) in covering the Egyptian strike wave and human rights abuses, stringing for a number of Swedish publications as well as activist websites like the Electronic Intifada.” He also took part in a small Palestinian solidarity demonstration in Egypt earlier this year.

His expulsion seems to be part of a pattern. At the beginning of September, Travis Randall, an American freelance writer who had lived in Egypt for more than two years, was stopped at Cairo airport and deported.

In February, Philip Rizk, a German-Egyptian activist, was detained – blindfolded and handcuffed – for four days before being released without charge.

All three had taken part in the same demonstration last February, which may explain why they have been targeted. The demonstration was a peaceful six-mile walk organised by the secular-liberal Wafd party, in which 15 people took part.

However, the Egyptian Chronicles blog suggests Bjorklund’s extensive coverage of industrial unrest may have upset the Egyptian authorities.

Various prominent Egyptian bloggers have been harassed at Cairo airport, including the famous Wael Abbas.

In 2004, American journalist Charles Levinson was refused entry after working in Egypt for years. He was initially declared “a threat to national security” but three weeks later the authorities decided it had been a “misunderstanding” and he was allowed to return.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 30 September 2009. Comment

New clashes in southern Yemen

Violence flared in southern Yemen yesterday after a month of relative quiet. 

Reuters reports that shelling and gunfire between security forces and southern separatists continued for over an hour in Zinjibar (Abyan province) around the house of a relative of Tariq al-Fadhli, the self-declared leader of the Southern Movement. 

According to NewsYemen, the clashes came after security forces detained one of al-Fadhli’s bodyguards and tried to arrest others in Zinjibar, apparently for stealing government vehicles, and protesters took over a government building "demanding the release of an imprisoned citizen".

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 29 September 2009. Comment

'Jeddah Casanova' in court

The trial has begun in Jeddah of Mazen Abdul Jawad, the 32-year-old Saudi who bragged on Lebanese television about his sexual conquests. Three others, who have not been named, are also on trial with him, on charges of "publicising vice".

After an initial hearing, the case was adjourned to an unspecified date. Meanwhile, the defendants have been asked to reply in writing to the charges.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 29 September 2009. Comment

Man 'claimed to be Jesus'

An Egyptian man has been detained in Dubai after reportedly claiming in a mosque that he was Jesus Christ. "Prosecutors are questioning the suspect over alleged charges of offending a divine religion," a senior prosecutor told Gulf News. It is unclear as yet whether he will be charged. 

Gulf News says:

According to article 312 of the Federal Penal Code, a suspect faces between one month and three years in jail and/or a fine (set upon a judge's discretion) in case the suspect offends Islam or any of its rituals, curses or offends a religion, promotes and/or encourages adultery or eats pork (applies to Muslim suspects only).

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 29 September 2009. Comment

Al-Azhar discrimination complaint

Al-Azhar – Egypt's ancient Islamic university – could face legal action for discriminating against female students, Almasri Alyoum reports.

Some female students have complained that the admissions process is prejudiced as the university requires higher standards for females, it says. 

Parents of female students who feel discriminated against were asked by Farkhkanda Hassan, secretary general of the National Council for Women, to submit a complaint to the council's grievances office and to refer the matter to al-Azhar president Ahmed el-Tayeb. 

Director of the Egyptian Center for Women's Rights, Nehad Abul Qumsan plans to file an appeal with the administrative judiciary court arguing that the discrimination is prohibited under Article 40 of the Egyptian Constitution and Article 2 of Islamic law.

Male students outnumber females by three to one and the imbalance is greatest in science and medicine. The university denies discrimination and says this is because there are more male applicants.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 28 September 2009. Comment

Yemen claims British backing

A headline at Almotamar, the Yemeni ruling party's website, 
announces: "UK confirms its stand by Yemen in facing up the rebellion".

Displaying the British and Yemeni flags side by side, it announces that Britain is "ready to increase its development aid to Yemen" and that "the United Kingdom will support [the] Yemeni government against any rebellion [that] intends to deter the development in the country".

This is apparently based on a meeting between British foreign secretary David Miliband and the Yemeni foreign minister, Abu Bakr al-Qirbi, at the UN general assembly in New York yesterday.

So far, there is no British account of what was said, though in a 
statement issued on September 17, Miliband was certainly not supporting the regime's onslaught against the Houthi rebels. "Continued fighting will only bring about further suffering for civilians in a region which has witnessed years of violent unrest. I call on both sides to halt the violence as a matter of urgency and deal with the underlying issues," he said.

Support for President Salih has been pouring in, if Yemeni news sources are to be believed. The Organisation of the Islamic Conference has denounced "the acts of violence and sabotage carried out by rebels in Saada" (Almotamar again) while News Yemen says: "The United States, the Gulf Cooperation Council’s countries and Egypt, Jordan and Iraq have expressed their full support to the efforts of [the] government of President Salih for a peaceful dialogue regarding conflict in Saada ..."

On Saturday, Salih called on aid agencies to stop moaning and get on with their job of helping people displaced by the conflict "without making media noise”. He added: “I call on international relief organisations which are crying over our citizens to provide aid and assistance without crying. We, as the political system and as the people, are responsible for assisting our brethren and our displaced people and those affected by the war in Saada.” 

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 28 September 2009. Comment

Al-Qaeda and the Houthi conflict

Two Saudi al-Qaeda suspects have been killed in the fighting in northern Yemen, al-Hayat newspaper reported yesterday.

One of the dead men, Fahd Saleh Sulaiman al-Jatili, aged 27, was No 62 (out of 85) on the kingdom's most-wanted list. The name of the other man has not been disclosed but he is said to be also on the list. Al-Hayat's report is in Arabic, but the Yemen Post summarises it in English

Jatili (or Jutayli) left Saudi Arabia eight years ago. He was later arrested in Afghanistan and imprisoned in Guantanamo before eventually being returned to Saudi Arabia.

The big question is what these men were doing in the midst of the conflict between the Yemeni government and the Houthi rebels – and which side killed them.

A headline in Mareb Press (again, in Arabic) says the Yemeni army killed them – implying they were fighting for the rebels – though the report itself contains nothing to support this.

However, considering al-Qaeda's politics, it seems more likely they were among the irregular forces – Wahhabis/Salafis and tribal militias – mustered by the Yemeni government to join the battle against the Shia rebels. This is only a supposition based on probabilities, but it's worth recalling that President Salih also used jihadists to support northern forces in the 1994 war with the south.

If it is confirmed that wanted al-Qaeda suspects are indeed supporting government troops against the Houthis the implications for Salih's regime, in terms of its international relations, could be very serious indeed.

Meanwhile, another government air strike has reportedly killed many civilians. The Yemen Post, citing "independent sources", 
says "dozens" of locals in the Damaj area of Saada died in an attack on Saturday morning. At present, there are no further details. On September 16, at least 87 displaced civilians – mainly women and children – were reportedly killed in a series of air strikes on their encampment.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 27 September 2009. Comment

Plight of Iraqi interpreters

The plight of Iraqis who worked as interpreters for the British army in Iraq is highlighted in The National. One of them, identified as "Hussein", resigned after a few months when insurgents began targeting interpreters as traitors and two of his colleagues were killed. He then fled to Syria:

Financially destitute, technically an illegal immigrant in Syria, yet unable to go to another country, Hussein, now 31, is increasingly despairing of the future. 

In an effort to solve the basic problem of paying for housing and food, on July 17 he joined more than 20 other former interpreters or their widows to file a legal action against the British government in a London court, suing the ministry of defence and the foreign office for compensation. 

The next stage in the court proceedings is not set to begin until January. Sitting in his small Damascus apartment – the rent is paid by a friend – he said he felt badly let down by the British.

The British government has been reluctant to acknowledge obligations towards the interpreters. After a good deal of pressure from the public, it eventually set up an asylum and compensation scheme, and 201 former Iraqi employees were granted asylum in the UK. A further 694 were rejected. 

Unfortunately for Hussein, the scheme only applies to those who were employed for 12 months or more.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 27 September 2009. Comment

Iraq's growing language gap

Two articles from the Institute for War & Peace Reporting highlight a growing language gap between Arabs and Kurds in Iraq.

“Arabic is officially the second language of Kurdistan and the primary language of Iraq,” Najeeba Mohammed writes. “Though studying Arabic is currently compulsory in Kurdish schools, the number of Kurds who can speak it fluently is rapidly shrinking.”

This linguistic barrier within a single country is a symptom of strained Arab-Kurdish relations but the fear is that it could also start to exacerbate them.

It is not just a problem of schooling. “Before the uprising [in 1991], television and radio broadcasts were mostly in Arabic, so the public had to learn Arabic to understand them,” the Kurdish education minister, Dilshad Abdulrahman, is quoted as saying.

“After the 1991 uprising, Kurds came to regard themselves as independent,” Abdullah Qirgaiy, a Kurdish writer, says. “They no longer felt obliged to learn Arabic and made no effort to master it.”

Kurds who learn a foreign language now often prefer English to Arabic because it enhances their employment prospects. At one private language school in Erbil, students of English outnumber students of Arabic by six to one.

In the second article, Husam al-Saray in Baghdad looks at the issue from the other side. “While Kurdish students no longer pay the same attention to Arabic, young Arabs in Baghdad continue their neglect of Kurdish,” he writes. “Most [Arab] Iraqis are only troubled by their lack of Kurdish when they come to Kurdistan as tourists.”

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 26 September 2009. Comment

Moroccan king's carbon footprint

Morocco's fun-loving king, Mohammed VI, has run into trouble with environmentalists for having one of his luxury cars flown to Britain for repairs.

The car, an Aston Martin DB7, travelled from Rabat in a specially-chartered Hercules transport aircraft. The Sun newspaper has photographs of it being unloaded at an airfield in Bedfordshire, from where it was transported by lorry to Aston Martin's workshop in Buckinghamshire.

The Sun says: "Morocco's closest Aston dealer is in Marbella, Spain – involving a 140-mile road trip from Rabat to Tangier, a 90-minute ferry crossing to Algericas then a 110-mile drive."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 25 September 2009. Comment

Algerians and the internet

Three-quarters of web users in Algeria regard the internet as "indispensable", more than 90% of them go online at least once a day and on average they spend one to two hours a day in front of the screen. 

These are some of the findings from a survey of almost 6,000 Algerian internet users. (The survey itself is in French but Magharebia has a summary in English.)

The internet has clearly become an important source of news for online Algerians, with 80% using it to read the press. Eighty-three per cent use email, 43% use instant messaging (MSN, Yahoo, etc) and 33% make online phone calls (eg Skype).

Fifty-eight per cent visit social networking sites but the survey suggests they are passive consumers rather than active producers. Less than a quarter of them post photos or videos on sites such as YouTube and Flickr, though 82% visit such sites. "Only" 41% have some kind of personal web page or blog, the survey says.

An estimated 12.8% of Algerians (4.5 million people) are internet users, according to the survey – slightly higher than the 10.4% figure given by Internet World Stats.

As might be expected, Algerian internet users tend to be male (74%), young (38% are aged under 30), educated (66% to baccalaureate level +1 or above) and urban (29% live in Algiers).

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 25 September 2009. Comment

Yemen: foot-dragging over aid

Food is running out for tens of thousands of civilians displaced by the conflict in northern Yemen, the UN warned yesterday.

"The continuation of hostilities, the failure of the truce and the closure of roads has prevented humanitarian agencies from coming to the aid of the displaced," spokeswoman Laure Chedraoui told AFP.

The international Yemen Flash Appeal for $23.7 million, launched more than three weeks ago, has still not attracted any donors and aid agencies are using dwindling reserve funds to finance their activities.

Alongside these funding problems, the Yemeni government appears to be dragging its feet with regard to the distribution of aid, and neighbouring Saudi Arabia is doing precious little to help.

The latest situation report from the UN cites one example of the difficulties aid workers are facing:

Humanitarian relief response teams from Islamic Relief Yemen and MSF Spain managed to reach al-Hazem, the capital of al-Jawf governorate, with the aim of establishing an operation site in al-Marashi. However, on 16 September, the governor of al-Jawf, citing security concerns, denied clearance to the teams for onward travel to al-Marashi … In the end, the teams were requested to return back to Sanaa.

If the roads are unsafe, the obvious alternative is air transport. “Given the recurring difficulty of access to Saada, activation of passenger air transport services from Sanaa to Saada is recommended by the LRT [Logistics Response Team],” the UN report says. “This should provide an option, on an ad hoc basis, for safe transport to Saada.” But that, too, is waiting for authorisation by the Yemeni government.

If access from the south is difficult, what about access from the north, via Saudi Arabia? One consignment of food, destined for displaced people in Baqem, is currently stuck in the kingdom.
"The cargo is being held 20 kilometres (12 miles) from the border. The Saudi authorities have given the green light for the cargo to pass to Baqem, but we are still waiting," Chedraoui said.

The hold-up in this case seems to be on the Yemeni side but there’s no doubt the Saudis could do far more if they really wanted to help. For a start, as Chedraoui pointed out yesterday, the kingdom could open its borders to receive Yemeni refugees.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 24 September 2009. Comment

Unesco: the blame game

I hadn’t been intending to say any more about Farouk Hosni and his unsuccessful bid to become head of Unesco, but his unseemly behaviour yesterday – blaming a Jewish conspiracy – merely confirms his unworthiness for the post.

Sections of the Egyptian media are spinning a similar line, as well as portraying the result as evidence of Islamophobia and US/European domination. The idea that Hosni was seeking the job as some kind of Islamic representative is particularly laughable and his defeat at the hands of a Bulgarian woman can scarcely be interpreted as western imperialism.

The fact is that the Egyptian regime had set great store by Hosni’s expected election, in order to enhance – undeservedly – its international prestige, and now it has lost face badly. Complaining about the outcome of the election is also a bit rich, coming from a regime that is one of the world’s leading experts in electoral manipulation.

Probably the best quote on the affair comes from Abdel-Wahab al-Effendi, writing in al-Quds al-Arabi: “In a dictatorship, the role of the minister of culture isn't to protect culture, but to stifle culture and to protect the regime.”

For some interesting takes on the story, see al-Arabiya, the 
German Press Agency and Egyptian Chronicles.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 24 September 2009. Comment

Jailed for five-star sex

Four Emiratis – two men and two women, all in their twenties – have been jailed for six months each in Dubai for having sex in a five-star hotel.

One of them, a married woman, was convicted of adultery along with her lover. Her unmarried sister-in-law was found guilty of having sex with a lover. The two couples were allegedly caught red-handed. Gulf News reports:

Law enforcement officers said the crime was exposed because another boyfriend of the married woman became jealous when he saw her going out with another man. He phoned the police and gave them the license plate number for the other man's car, accusing him of driving recklessly and causing a disturbance in front of his house.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 23 September 2009. Comment

US calls for Yemen ceasefire 

The United States has called for an immediate ceasefire in northern Yemen, where the military has been waging all-out war on the Houthi rebels for more than a month.

“We call on both parties to declare an immediate ceasefire, to ensure the security and access of humanitarian aid workers in the region,” State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said. 

This echoes a similar call from the US embassy in Sanaa last month, though the addition of the word “immediate” gives it more urgency.

The latest statement also called on “all states in the region to facilitate the safe passage of emergency relief supplies to those in need”. That seems to be pointed at Saudi Arabia which could provide significant help with relief efforts if it chose to do so.

After two failed ceasefire attempts, the rebels say a future ceasefire should be independently monitored. “Because of the lack of confidence between the two parties, we have asked that an independent local committee supervise a ceasefire on the ground,” rebel spokesman Mohammad Abdessalam told AFP by telephone. This sounds like a sensible proposal.

Meanwhile, the army says 76 rebels were killed and around 150 injured in clashes with government troops yesterday. The fighting reportedly took place in al-Malahid and Munabih districts of Saada province and Harf Sufian in Amran province.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 23 September 2009. Comment

Unesco rejects Farouk Hosni

There’s satisfaction in the Egyptian blogosphere today at the Mubarak regime’s failure to foist culture minister Farouk Hosni upon the rest of the world as head of Unesco.

Reporting of the contest for the job (eventually won by Bulgarian diplomat Irina Bokova) focused mainly on a remark by Hosni about burning Jewish/Israeli books, though as I pointed out earlier (as did others), this was by no means the only reason why he had to be rejected.

The question now is whether Hosni, who is 71, will return to his previous role as Egyptian culture minister.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 23 September 2009. Comment

Running dry

The drought in Syria – now in its fourth year – is affecting an estimated 1.3 million people. More than 800,000 of them have lost their livelihoods and around 300,000 farmers, herders, and their families have abandoned their homes for makeshift urban camps, the Christian Science Monitor reports.

In southern Iraq, it’s a similar story, the National says:

The ecosystem in Faw, on the Shatt al Arab waterway, has been badly damaged by rapid increases in salinity, a side-effect of reduced water levels in the Euphrates and Tigris rivers.

According to villagers, the Faw region has become all but uninhabitable. Scores of families have already abandoned their homes …

Water is a major cause for concern across Iraq. A three-year-long drought has added to fears that damage to the water table and environment may already be so severe that full recovery will be impossible.

The Iraqi government has blamed most of the problems on reduced water flows entering from Syria and Turkey, where the Tigris and Euphrates are heavily dammed … As the quantity of fresh water flowing downstream has dropped, tidal salt-water backflows from the Gulf have increased, poisoning once productive farmlands.

While most attention has focused on the role of Turkey and Syria in the water cutbacks, Iran has also been diverting growing amounts of water that once flowed into Iraq, according to senior Iraqi water officials.

The name "Euphrates" is Greek for "the good and abounding river", but today the water's flow has been reduced to a fraction of what it once was. The problems began in the 1960s when Turkey began building a series of dams on the Euphrates, to generate electricity and increase the amount of farmland in what is known as the south-eastern Anatolia project (Gap). Since then, other demands on the waters, further downstream, have exacerbated the problem.

Last week, Turkey agreed to allow more water through into Iraq, under a deal that will last only one month.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 22 September 2009. Comment

Where is Maqalih?

Amnesty International has called on the Yemeni authorities to “clarify the whereabouts” of journalist Muhammad al-Maqalih, who was seized by plain-clothed men last Thursday.

“Amnesty International suspects his apparent disappearance is the result of his strong opposition and criticism of the government, in particular over the armed clashes raging in Saada and the killings of civilians by government forces,” a statement said. He should be released “without delay if he is being held solely for his criticism of the government, which would make him a prisoner of conscience”.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 22 September 2009. Comment

Tunisia: harassing the critics

More harassment of the Tunisian regime’s critics:

Abdallah Zouari, a journalist for the Islamist newspaper al-Fajr, spent 11 years in jail for "membership in an illegal organisation" (al-Nahda party) and "attempting to overthrow the state". 

Following his release, he was forced to live in Hassi Djerbi, a remote village far from his family. The “administrative control” order confining him to the village officially ended in 2007. It was then verbally extended for another 26 months but without any legal basis. Since that expired, he has been technically free to travel but says he is constantly followed. Police cars have been parked outside his house day and night (see photographs), deterring visitors.

Last Tuesday, Zouari wrote a letter to the interior minister complaining about the surveillance but when he went to post it he was arrested and taken in for questioning. Human Rights Watch says:

The police told him to sign an affidavit saying he would not write articles that "defame the state and threaten its security." He refused. Then they threatened that if he did not stop his journalistic and human rights activities, they would release a film purporting to show him engaged in sexual activity. The police also insulted him repeatedly and threatened physical violence. They released him at 10pm without charge ...

Zouari is not the first human rights activist whom the authorities threatened with circulating images purporting to show the activist engaged in sexual acts. In 1993, fake pornographic photographs depicting the Tunis-based journalist and activist Sihem Ben Sedrine began circulating, an apparent effort to smear her reputation and detract from her human rights work.

Meanwhile, Reporters sans Frontieres has news (in French) about the hijacking of a Facebook page belonging to Mokhtar Yahiaoui, a human rights activist and former Tunisian judge.
On August 27 – the day Ben Ali announced he would be seeking another presidential term – hackers seized control of Yahiaoui’s Facebook account, deleted “all critical items” and posted slurs against various opponents of the regime.

Yahiaoui’s blog was also hacked, as was another belonging to Monef Marzouki, a former Tunisian political prisoner.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 21 September 2009. Comment

'140 rebels killed' in Yemen

The Yemeni army says it killed more than 140 Houthi rebels in Saada city yesterday in "the fiercest" fighting since Operation Scorched Earth began on August 11.

The rebels attacked at 3.00 am from three directions in an attempt to capture the government's regional headquarters, but the army foiled their advance, a military official said. "So far more than 140 bodies have been found."

Meanwhile, President Salih has adopted the "Gaza defence" in connection with civilian casualties. In a speech broadcast by the state media, he accused the rebels of using "human shields". 

However, there is no evidence so far that this was the situation when Yemeni warplanes killed more than 80 displaced people – mostly women and children – last Wednesday. The victims were sheltering on open ground and, according to one witness cited by Human Rights Watch, there were no armed clashes or rebels in the area at the time.

A military spokesman yesterday described footage published by the rebels, and apparently showing children killed in last week's air raid, as a "fabrication". He was probably referring to this (but don't watch if you're squeamish).

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 21 September 2009. Comment

Fashion: from Gucci to Gadafy

"Drawing upon the influences of Lacroix, Liberace, Phil Spector (for hair), Snoopy, and Idi Amin, Libya’s leader – now in his 60s – is simply the most unabashed dresser on the world stage."

I must admit I don't normally take much interest in Vanity Fair, so thanks to the Arabist blog for pointing out this wonderful series of photos of the colonel and his wardrobe.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 21 September 2009. Comment

Death on the border

Egyptian border guards shot and wounded a 20-year-old Ethiopian man who was among a group of African migrants trying to cross illegally into Israel, the German Press Agency reported yesterday.

  • On September 15, two Eritrean men were shot dead by Egyptian border guards and three seriously wounded while trying to make the Sinai crossing.

  • On September 13, border guards wounded an African migrant woman and arrrested 18 men from Ethiopia and Eritrea who were trying to cross illegally into Israel.

  • On September 10, four Ethiopians were reported killed and three others seriously wounded in another incident involving border guards.

  • On September 1, police killed an unidentified African migrant and wounded another in the border area. Eleven other migrants – 10 Ethiopians and one Eritrean – were arrested.

All told, more than 40 migrants have been shot attempting to cross into Israel during the last 18 months. According to Amnesty International, no known investigation has been carried out by the Egyptian authorities into any of the shootings.

African migrants face many problems in Egypt, including racism and the difficulty of finding work, and regard Israel as offering them a brighter future. Many are prepared to pay smugglers $1,000 to help them cross over.

Israel has been pressing Egypt to tighten up control of the shared border but, as human rights groups point out, that is no excuse for killing illegal migrants.

“The Egyptian authorities have yet to direct their forces on how to avoid killing migrants trying to cross the border,” Malcolm Smart of Amnesty said recently. “They must assert greater control over their forces at the border and take away their licence to kill.”

Last year Human Rights Watch published a report, Sinai Perils, on the risks faced by migrants, refugees and asylum seekers in Egypt and Israel. It called on Egypt to halt the use of lethal force against border crossers and stop deporting them to countries where they risk persecution or ill-treatment. It also called on Israel to halt forced returns of migrants to Egypt, where they face military court trials and possible unlawful deportation.

Many of the migrants come from war-torn parts of Africa, such as Sudan and Somalia, and are probably entitled to refugree status. However, there are problems obtaining recognition through the UNHCR in Egypt.

In 2005, thousands of Egyptian riot police brutally evicted a group of Sudanese migrants who had set up a protest camp in Cairo, killing at least 20 of them.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 20 September 2009. Comment

Orientalism revisited

Devotees and critics of the late Edward Said may be interested in the September issue of Viewpoints (from the Middle East Institute) where a variety of writers and academics reconsider his seminal work, Orientalism – "the critique it proffered, the controversy it aroused, and the influence it has had".

The articles are a useful compilation, reflecting the current state of the debate. Last year, to mark to the 30th anniversary of the book's publication, The Guardian also published a series of articles, including one where I expressed my own ambivalent feelings about Orientalism.

Talking of Edward Said, there's a campaign under way at Columbia University to re-open the question of tenure for Said's protégé, Joseph Massad. Massad was finally granted tenure last June but now a small group of professors are challenging it on procedural grounds.

They really ought to shut up. I have been very critical myself of his book, Desiring Arabs, but everyone knows the fuss over his tenure is not really an academic matter – it's about suppressing critical discussion of Israel in American universities.

If these people don't like Massad's views (and I don't like them much either, though probably for different reasons), they should cut out the intrigue and start engaging properly with his arguments.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 20 September 2009. Comment

'Temporary ceasefire' in Yemen

The Yemeni government last night declared a temporary truce in its war with the Houthi rebels for the duration of the Eid al-Fitr holiday, according to the German Press Agency. Whether it will take hold remains to be seen. A similar unilateral ceasefire declared a couple of weeks ago lasted only a few hours – possibly because some of the rebels had not heard about it.

The announcement followed international calls for an investigation into a series of attacks by warplanes which reportedly killed more than 80 civilians – mostly women and children – on Wednesday. 

Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said:
"The [Yemeni] government should launch a full-fledged investigation into what went wrong and take immediate measures to try to ensure we do not see a further avoidable tragedy of this nature. This is a deeply disturbing development in a conflict that was already troubling in terms of its impact on civilians."

The government has said it will investigate, but the specially formed "fact-finding commission" is not independent – it is under the control of the army – and there are already signs as to which way the investigation is heading. The defence ministry is 
blaming the rebels for "preventing citizens from leaving to the safe areas" and says, "The terrorists are using innocent citizens as human shields."

Meanwhile, Jane Novak (of the Armies of Liberation blog) 
reports that Mohammed al Maqaleh, the journalist who broke the story (in Arabic) of the attack on civilians, has been abducted, presumably by some branch of the security services:

Mr al-Maqaleh is the editor for the opposition Socialist Party’s website, al-Eshteraki ... According to witness reports, five gun wielding masked men in a minibus intercepted Mr al-Maqaleh’s car on Taiz street in Sana’a Thursday evening. They dragged a struggling Mr al-Maqaleh into their vehicle and sped away ...

His cell phone is off and his car found abandoned with the tyres slashed. Yemeni authorities refused to take a report from his family, who were turned away at both the police station and the Criminal Investigations Division.

The UNHCR's latest report on the humanitarian situation in the conflict area can be found here.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 19 September 2009. Comment

Update, 20 July 2009: Reports say fighting has continued, despite the ceasefire call.

Ramadan rebels

Ramadan is coming to an end, and in the Arab countries this year it has been accompanied by a rather unusual development: the issue of compulsory fasting versus personal liberty has at last entered the public discourse. 

In Egypt, the police diligently rounded up 150 people for fast-breaking – only to be criticised in the media and challenged on legal grounds by 10 local human rights organisations. In Dubai, three people were arrested for eating or drinking during daylight hours, including a European non-Muslim.

The most surprising turn of events, though, was in Morocco where the Mouvement Alternatif pour les Libertés Individuelles (MALI) – a group organised through Facebook – attempted to defy Article 222 of the penal code which prescribes a punishment of one to six months in prison and fines of almost 100 euros for breaking the fast.

The website moroccoboard.com describes what happened:

The meet-up was at the train station of Mohammedia, a few miles from Casablanca. Seventy people indicated their intention to attend but only a dozen made it through a cordon of security personnel. "We have called a lot of people because we were surprised by the heavy police presence that we encountered" said Ms Zineb Elghzaoui, journalist and a founder of MALI along with Ibtissam Lachgar, a psychologist.

More than a hundred officers, including riot and mounted police and military personnel had besieged the station and its environs.

"We had to show our backpacks and when they saw we had food, they [police] forced us to return to Casablanca on the next train," explained Lachgar.

The security forces were also keeping back local youth groups who were attempting to confront the Ramadan fast-breaking protesters.

"Our aim was to show that we are Moroccans, but that we do not fast, and that we have a right to exist," Ms Elghzaoui said. “Although the Moroccan constitution guarantees freedom of worship, each year there are arrests for public fast-breaking.”

It was the first protest of its kind in Morocco, and although the demonstration itself was stamped out, it was widely reported within the country. 

The local Council of Ulema has denounced it as the action of "agitators". It is an "abhorrent act that defies the teachings of God”, the council said in a statement.

The Moroccan authorities say that six people connected with the protest will be prosecuted.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 18 September 2009. Comment

Update, 20 September: The Arabist blog has posted a detailed discussion of the treatment of fast-breakers in Morocco and Egypt.

Trousers are OK, says Mufti

Following the conviction of Lubna Hussein in Sudan for "indecently" wearing trousers, Egypt's government-appointed Grand Mufti, Ali Gomaa, says it's OK for women to wear trousers so long as they are loose-fitting and not see-through.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 17 September 2009. Comment

'87 civilians dead' in Yemen attacks

Attacks by warplanes reportedly killed as many as 87 displaced civilians in northern Yemen yesterday. Details are sketchy but the Associated Press report cites several witnesses to the large number of casualties.

Human Rights Watch, which has called for an investigation, said in a statement:

The attacks were in ‘Adi, east of the town of Harf Sufyan, in ‘Amran governorate. In mid-August, a sixth round of heavy fighting erupted in northern Yemen between government forces and Houthi rebels, and it has continued since then.

A witness to the attack reached via a Yemeni human rights organisation, the Dialogue Foundation, said that Yemeni military planes conducted four raids this morning [Wednesday] and, without warning, bombed a group of displaced persons sheltering in an open area near a school.

There were no armed clashes or rebels in the area at the time, the witness said, but the area was close to a road sometimes used by Houthi rebels ... Some of the displaced persons carried automatic rifles, as is the custom for tribal men in that area of Yemen, the witness said.

Yemen News, an independent news website, earlier reported that 85 people had been killed in the repeated air raids ...

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 17 September 2009. Comment

A bridge ... or a ghetto?

Next week sees the official opening of King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) in Saudi Arabia, described as “a bridge between world cultures”.

The university, intended to promote international research, has been established by the king outside the control of the education ministry (and its oppressive religious influence).

Unlike other Saudi universities, it will have no gender segregation and it promises to be free of the restrictions and bureaucracy that hamper research elsewhere in the kingdom.

“This international research university is a contribution from Saudi Arabia to promote knowledge,” the king told a cabinet meeting on Monday. “KAUST is a big cultural achievement, not only for Saudi Arabia but for the whole world.”

The hope is that it will boost Saudi Arabia’s scientific and technological development and also have a positive impact on the educational system more generally.

But this is where the doubts creep in. The 9,000-acre campus is near Thuwal (on the Red Sea cost 50 miles north of Jeddah) which until recently was just a fishing village, and some fear it will just become a luxurious ghetto of liberalism, cut off from the rest of Saudi society.

“While KAUST enjoys almost unlimited funds, sophisticated equipment and is run by an independent board,” Reuters notes, “most Saudi schools and universities have curriculums still dominated by religion, despite reform efforts begun after the September 11 attacks of 2001.” It continues:

Analysts and diplomats say the KAUST launch is a step in the right direction, but state education will remain inefficient unless the government starts a radical overhaul.

"We need to change the mindset of the teaching concept. We need to review all our educational practices... We also need to be consistent with the needs of modern education and market requirements," said Saudi columnist Abdullah al-Alami.

Ghanem Nuseibeh, a senior analyst at Political Capital in Dubai, agreed: "The bigger problem remains primary education."

Despite its immense financial resources, the parameters of Saudi school and university education are governed by religious strictures and many subjects are off-limits for women to study.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 16 September 2009. Comment

Doctor 'abandoned sick maid'

A Jordanian doctor could face legal action after reportedly abandoning his Indonesian maid near Directorate of Chest Diseases and Foreigners' Health after she developed tuberculosis.

The 28-year-old woman was allegedly beaten by the doctor’s mother and received no wages during the 19 months that she worked for the family. On admission to hospital (where she is now recovering) her weight was less than 20 kilograms. The Indonesian embassy in Amman says it intends to file a lawsuit against the doctor.

About 20,000-30,000 Indonesians are thought to be employed as domestic workers in Jordan and the embassy operates a special shelter for those seeking refuge from their employers.

The Jordan Times says:

The two countries' labour ministries signed a memorandum of understanding in April this year to regulate the recruitment of Indonesian domestic helpers in the Kingdom.

Minister of Labour Ghazi Shbeikat, who signed the agreement with his Indonesian counterpart, Erman Suprano, said the memo will provide Indonesian domestic helpers in Jordan with legal protection. The memo also entails activating the role of the Indonesian embassy in Jordan in following up on Indonesian domestic workers and addressing problems they face.

Last month, the government exempted hundreds of Indonesian domestic helpers who sought refuge at their embassy in Amman from overstay and other fines and the embassy arranged for a direct flight to take the workers to Indonesia.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 16 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 26 March, 2010