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Libya: the son also shines

It was only last week that Colonel Gadafy pleaded with Libyan officials to help find a proper job for his 37-year-old son, Saif al-Islam.

Well, as luck would have it, a job has now turned up. The title is "coordinator of social and popular committees" which sounds modest but it gives Saif al-Islam "authority to oversee the parliament, government and security" – in effect making him the second most powerful person in the land.

Colonel Gadafy is the longest-surviving Arab leader, having come to power in a military coup in 1969. He is now 67 and obviously preparing for a smooth transfer. 

Constitutionally, Libya has no head of state and Saif al-Islam’s new post is the closest thing to it. The colonel himself is officially an ordinary citizen but also Leader of the Revolution – a title which refers to his historical role and one which, according to many Libyans, can never be inherited by anyone else.

Saif al-Islam, the colonel’s first son by his second wife, has been increasingly active over the last few years. He was involved in negotiations over Lockerbie and the cancellation of Libya’s nuclear programme. Internally, he has been charged with pushing through reforms, so long as they do not infringe the principles of the revolution.

Arab states have customarily been divided between the monarchies and the republics, and in the early post-colonial years there were rivalries between them – the traditionalists versus the revolutionaries. During the 1950s and 1960s, monarchies were overthrown in Egypt, Libya and Yemen.

More recently, though, the dividing line has become blurred. Arab republics have become more like monarchies as the ruling families entrenched themselves in power. In 2000, Bashar al-Asad succeeded his father as president of Syria. Gamal Mubarak is plainly being groomed to succeed his father in Egypt, as is Ali Abdullah Salih’s son, Ahmad, in Yemen.

Although this kind of birthright politics horrifies some Arabs (a new campaign was launched in Egypt only yesterday to oppose Gamal’s likely succession), it is an idea deeply imbued in Arab society – in traditionally-run families and businesses, for example – where handing power from father to son and placing relatives in key positions is regarded as natural and the norm.

It is also one of the main barriers to change in the Arab countries, as discussed in my new book, What’s Really Wrong with the Middle East.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 15 October 2009. Comment

Demonstration in southern Yemen

October 14 is Yemen's National Day – the anniversary of the day in 1963 when southerners launched their armed struggle against British occupation. As such, it provides an officially-approved excuse for people to take to the streets. 

The video above, via YouTube, shows the scene earlier today in Radfan, in the southern province of Lahj. The numbers taking part were huge, and they turned it into a protest against President Salih's regime.

They were not waving Yemen's national flag but the flag of the pre-unification southern state (with a pale blue triangle). The flags can be clearly seen in al-Jazeera's photo.

The former southern leader, Ali Salim al-Beidh, addressed the crowd by telephone from Germany.

"We will not retreat from the aim of realising our second independence, whatever the sacrifices are and however long it takes," he was quoted as saying. "The British occupation came from overseas, while the current one was the result of a coup by the Sanaa regime."

Another video shows people apparently arriving for the demonstration and al-Jazeera's report, with more footage, is here.

As I have pointed out before, the old southern state, which merged with northern Yemen in 1990, was a relic of British imperialism and there is no logical, ethnic or religious reason why it should re-emerge now. However, the current wave of separatist sentiment provides a rallying point for more generalised discontent which, apart from some specific local grievances, is shared with Yemenis in many parts of the country.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 14 October 2009. Comment

Tunisian electoral traditions

The Tunisian election campaign (parliamentary and presidential) has got under way in customary fashion. Magharebia has the details:

  • President Ben Ali delivered a speech to thousands of supporters. He outlined his platform and promised fairness in this year's elections.

  • Parties began placing posters, manifestos and pictures of candidates "in locations set aside for electoral materials". However, "some of the spaces designated for party materials remained empty, either because some parties found the locations inaccessible or because their manifestos and pictures of candidates were confiscated".

  • The Progressive Democratic Party announced it was pulling out of the parliamentary elections because of a "lack of the necessary requirements for participation".

  • Authorities confiscated the latest edition of the Ettajdid Movement's newspaper because "it included manifestos that were published without completing the necessary legal submission procedures".

Voting is on October 25. No prizes for guessing who will win.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 14 October 2009. Comment

Hamas man dies in custody

I have been searching Google for reports about the death in Egypt of Yousef Abu Zuhri, the brother of a Hamas spokesman. It's covered in Russia, China, Britain, Israel and several Arab countries, but so far the only major American news organisation to mention it seems to be Fox News. 

Zhuhri, 38, was arrested by the Egyptian authorities in April and died on Monday while still in custody. The Egyptian government says he died of natural causes – "a drop in blood circulation" resulting from liver and heart disease. Hamas says he died from weeks of torture.

The Egyptian Chronicles blog notes that Al-Aqsa channel's broadcast in Egypt was suddenly cut off just as it was announcing the torture allegations.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 14 October 2009. Comment

Troops seal off hospital

There's confusion in Yemen over the apparent forcible closure of an Iranian-funded hospital in the capital, Sana'a.

The hospital, which employs 120 staff (eight of them Iranian) was sealed off by security forces yesterday amid claims that it had links with the Houthi (Shia) rebels. The government has repeatedly hinted at Iranian involvement in the Houthi conflict, though nothing very substantial has so far been proven.

A government spokesman later denied the move against the hospital had anything to do with politics but said it owes the Endowments Ministry 27 million riyals ($130,000) in unpaid rent for the building.

In other developments, the opposition website, Sahwa Net, 
says the state-run printing house has refused to print the latest edition of al-Masdar newspaper. In the southern province of Lahj, the ruling party's headquarters was severely damaged by fire early yesterday. As I recall, this is the third or fourth fire at a government or ruling party building in the south during the last few months.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 14 October 2009. Comment

Father 'sold' disabled daughter

Writing in today’s issue of Arab News, Walaa Hawari tells the 
shocking story of a mentally and physically disabled Saudi woman who was married off by her father for money – without her consent and to a man she had never met.

The woman, identified by the name Fatima, suffered brain injuries in a car crash at the age of 14, which left her partly paralysed and suffering from memory loss. Several years later, following her mother’s death and abandonment by her father, she is being cared for by an aunt.

Her marriage only came to light when the aunt tried to register her for a rehabilitation programme and was informed that her paperwork was wrong.

“The rehabilitation centre requested a new paper saying Fatima was no longer on her father’s family card according to their database but on ‘her husband’s’ family card,” the aunt told Arab News.

The aunt added that she was able to find out Fatima’s “husband’s” name and workplace. “We then filed a complaint at a court and a police station in the Makkah area, but no action was taken,” she said, adding that she pursued Fatima’s rights for four years, arguing back and forth with her father.

It emerged that her “husband” was already married to a Bedouin woman from the Empty Quarter and had paid to marry Fatima in order to transfer her identity to his first wife.

Following intervention by the Saudi Human Rights Commission, the paper says, Fatima’s “husband” has now granted her a divorce.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 13 October 2009. Comment

Germany warns rebel's relative

There are further developments regarding Yahya al-Houthi, a relative of the Yemeni rebel leader, Abd al-Malik al-Houth, who is also an absentee member of the Yemeni parliament living in Germany.

On Sunday, I noted that he has been stripped of his parliamentary immunity in Yemen (temporarily, at least). Now, Sahwa Net reports that the German immigration authorities have warned him he will lose his political asylum status “if he undertakes any activities hostile to any state”. The website says similar warnings have been issued to Yemeni activists and journalists in Germany who have connections with him.

At the weekend Germany announced it would be donating $2.2 million to the international relief effort in Yemen.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 13 October 2009. Comment

15 years for 'honour' killing

A Jordanian man has been sentenced to 15 years in jail with hard labour for killing his sister “to cleanse his family's honour”. By Jordanian standards, the sentence is unusually tough – sentences in some previous cases have been as little as a few months.

According to a court official quoted in the Jordan Times, the 21-year-old man stabbed his married 18-year-old sister 26 times after her husband accused her of seeing other men.

She was taken into protective custody but released after her father signed a JD5,000 ($7,000) guarantee that he would not harm her. Next day, she was killed by her brother.

The relatively long sentence reflects the court’s view that the murder was premeditated but is probably also a sign of the authorities’ efforts to crack down on so-called “honour” crimes.

However, the battle against "honour" crimes continues to meet resistance from traditionalist and religious elements in Jordanian society. On Sunday, The National reported that moves to impose a minimum five-year sentence for “honour” killings appear to be blocked in parliament. Similar moves have previously been knocked back on the grounds that they would “encourage vice and destroy social values”.

In August, a special tribunal was set up in to handle “honour” crimes – which may help – though police are often reluctant to investigate them seriously.

There is also growing recognition that progress in this area will depend on changing people’s attitudes. The King Hussein Foundation has established a two-year project funded by the European Commission that seeks to change public perception of “honour” crimes. It includes an Arabic-language website, mathlouma.com (Arabic for “wronged woman”), with the slogan: “There is no honour in honour crimes”.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 13 October 2009. Comment

Libya threatens Unesco boycott

Just when the fuss over Unesco’s rejection of Egypt’s culture minister seemed to be dying down, Libya has entered the fray. It is threatening to boycott the organisation if Bulgarian diplomat Irina Bokova is formally installed as its head on October 15.

"Libya does not agree with the election of a Bulgarian citizen to the post of the Unesco director general and is planning to stop all co-operation with this organisation and pull out from all Unesco committees," Abdelkebir Fakhri, head of the Libyan General People's committee on education and scientific research 
is reported as saying.

The Libyan objection is apparently linked to the sad but farcical case of five Bulgarian nurses who were convicted of “deliberately” infecting children with HIV at a hospital in Benghazi during the 1990s. The nurses were initially sentenced to death but, after a lot of diplomatic activity by the EU, returned to Bulgaria in 2007, where they were pardoned by President Georgi Purvanov amid protests from both Libya and the Arab League.

According to one report, Libya claims Bulgaria flouted international conventions by setting the nurses free. However, if it does withdraw from Unesco under Ms Bokova’s leadership, it is unlikely to be missed.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 12 October 2009. Comment

EU-Syria agreement finalised

After years of delay, the text of the EU’s association agreement with Syria has been finalised and will be signed on October 26. The move is seen partly as a reward to the Damascus regime for progress so far and also as a way of encouraging further changes in its behaviour.

The last few months have brought a general thaw in Syria’s international relations. In 2002, John Bolton, the US ambassador to the United Nations, included Syria along with Cuba and Libya in an expanded list of “axis of evil” countries which originally consisted of Iran, Iraq and North Korea. Relations between Europe and Syria reached a low point in 2004 with the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.

The US still maintains sanctions against Syria but has gradually begun easing them.

EU association agreements are mainly about developing economic ties but they also include clauses on political development and respect for human rights.

Under the agreement, Syria will be required to meet international human rights standards and in theory violations will “directly affect the application of the agreement”.

In the Middle East and North Africa, the EU already has association agreements with Algeria, Egypt, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, the Palestinian Authority, and Tunisia. It does monitor human rights performance in these countries but, on the whole, doesn’t press them very hard. 

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 12 October 2009. Comment

The right way to shave

A three-day workshop organised by the Saudi ministry of municipal and rural affairs is due to start in Jeddah today. Arab News reports: "The workshop aims at familiarising people on using healthy shaving tools, especially razor blades. And also the tools used in barbershops and ways to use them."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 12 October 2009. Comment

Rebel leader 'ready for dialogue'

The leader of Yemen’s Houthi rebels, Abd al-Malik al-Houthi, said yesterday he is “ready for dialogue” to “save the country from corruption and injustice”.

His statement seemed to suggest he is seeking to engage with the opposition Joint Meeting Parties, which has called for a ceasefire, rather than directly with the government.

However, rebel spokesman Mohammed Abdessalam told AFP: "We are ready for dialogue with all political parties in Yemen including the government." He added that the rebels were willing to accept "Yemeni or Arab" mediation aimed at a ceasefire.

The government’s position is that the rebels must first accept the six points it has set as conditions for a ceasefire, and the rebels say they cannot start a dialogue while the war is continuing. 

The Yemeni parliament voted yesterday to lift the parliamentary immunity of Yahya al-Houthi, a member of rebel leader’s family who is also an MP. It is not the first time this has happened, and the move – requested by the justice minister – in effect extends an earlier lifting of immunity for a further three months.

Yahya al-Houthi fled to Germany in 2005, so the decision has little immediate practical effect. It could lead to him being formally expelled from parliament but so far the government has held back from doing that. It is thought the government may want to keep this as a bargaining chip for use in any future negotiations with the rebels.

The military say they have killed more than 100 rebels and wounded 280 in Saada province. Accounts of what happened are sketchy. A military statement quoted by Reuters said the rebels “infiltrated (areas) between military barracks and security posts in Saada province" on Thursday evening and were stopped with “painful and heavy blows”. The Yemen Post says the rebels launched a surprise attack on the republican palace, resulting a battle which lasted five hours.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 11 October 2009. Comment

Aid convoy from Saudi Arabia

The first UN aid convoy from Saudi Arabia to northern Yemen – delayed for several weeks – is expected to set off today carrying tents, mattresses, blankets and other items for about 2,000 people stranded in the border area as a result of the Houthi conflict.

It had been due to leave on Friday but its departure was again postponed because of security concerns.

The UN said yesterday it is trying to establish contact with the rebels to secure safe passage for aid agencies. A UN employee was injured on Thursday when a relief convoy was attacked by Houthi rebels in Jawf province, the official Yemeni news agency 
reported. It said the rebels fired at UN cars which were with the aid convoy, but armed citizens hurried to the area and exchanged fire with the rebels.

The British government announced yesterday that it is donating £2 million ($3.2 million) to support those driven from their homes by the fighting. The money will go to the International Committee of the Red Cross, as well as to UN agencies and non-governmental organisations working under the UN Flash Appeal for Yemen.

Douglas Alexander, Britain’s International Development Secretary, said: “I am extremely concerned by the serious deterioration of the security and humanitarian situation in the north of Yemen; the UK continues to lobby for a peaceful resolution to the conflict. I re-emphasise the calls made by the Foreign Secretary and our international partners, for both sides to halt the violence immediately and to facilitate humanitarian access.”

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 10 October 2009. Comment

UPDATE, October 11: The aid convoy from Saudi Arabia was delayed overnight at Alb on the border. AFP says Yemeni and Saudi officials were “unable to agree on border procedures”. Meanwhile, the UN’s World Food Programme has denied the report by the official Yemeni news agency that one of its convoys was attacked in al-Jawf province on Thursday.

UPDATE, October 12: The aid convoy from Saudi Arabia has finally got through.

The biter bit

Last week I wrote about the plethora of “hesba” lawsuits in Egypt where busybodies of a religious disposition launch what, in effect, are private prosecutions against people whose behaviour they consider un-Islamic. 

Now, there’s an interesting new twist. The National reports that Naguib Gobraiel, a human rights lawyer, is bringing his own hesba case against Nabih el-Wahsh – regarded as Egypt’s most vexatious litigant – accusing him of ghawi shohra (“fame-seeking”).

“No one is immune from Nabih el-Wahsh’s bombardment of legal complaints and lawsuits, which have increased considerably lately,” Gobraiel told the paper. “This guy spares no one; he has been trying to drag famous people in all fields, including Muslim and Christian religious figures, to court.” 

Wahsh has reportedly initiated about 1,000 lawsuits during the last 10 years. He has twice sought to have Nawwal el-Saadawi, the novelist, divorced from her husband on religious grounds.
In another case, he sought to have seven TV series taken off the air during Ramadan “for violating the Islamic law and presenting ‘hot scenes’.”

Most of his cases are rejected before they come to court, but he has won a few: 

Mr el-Wahsh had a rare victory this year when he won a case in February that led to the stripping of Egyptian nationality of people married to Israelis. 

He estimated there were 30,000 such marriages, which he characterised as against Islamic law and a threat to national security. But the verdict was never implemented and now he is threatening to sue the interior minister, Habib el Adly, for failing to implement it.

Whether the ghawi shohra case against Wahsh will get anywhere remains to be seen (he could be fined if convicted), but Gobraiel says the aim is to stop him abusing the legal system.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 10 October 2009. Comment

Anti-corruption journalist on trial

Algerian journalist and rights activist Hafnaoui Ghoul is due in court on Tuesday, accused of criminal defamation over an article that talked about corruption and maladministration in Djelfa province.

This is just one of 16 lawsuits against Ghoul – all of them brought by local officials and all "unmistakably politically motivated", 
according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Under Algeria's press law, he could be sentenced to between six months and five years in jail for each of the cases if convicted.

The CPJ says Ghoul has been the target of harassment by Algerian officials for years.

"In January, Ghoul survived a knife assault when he was attacked by unidentified assailants in front of his home ... In 2004, he spent close to six months in prison when he was convicted of defaming a local governor in an article he wrote in Arabic-language daily Djazair News and again in a subsequent interview with the French-language daily Le Soir D'Algerie."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 9 October 2009. Comment

Lebanon: waiting for salvation

The Saudi king's two-day "reconciliation" visit to Syria has prompted speculation about what it will mean for Lebanon, where wrangling over the formation of a new government continues, four months after the parliamentary election.

Saudi Arabia backs Saad Hariri's March 14 alliance while Syria backs the opposition March 8 grouping. Following their talks in Damascus, King Abdullah and President Assad both called for a national unity government in Lebanon. 

The Lebanese Daily Star newspaper, though, is sceptical. In an editorial this morning it says:

Even if the Saudi-Syrian rapprochement does somehow speed the formation of a unity government in Lebanon, this country will still be handicapped by a haphazardly designed constitution that leads to countless dead ends, a parliamentary election law that fails to ensure democratic representation, a massive public debt that is exacerbated by corruption and a judiciary that is subject to the whims of those in power. 

What’s perhaps even worse is that the Lebanese will still be stuck with many of the same leaders who have spent years in power without moving to solve any of these problems ...

Lebanon’s own leaders are to blame for the fact that Beirut lacks a government several months after elections – and for the fact that they have made no serious attempt to repair the cracks in the country’s political system. 

But politicians in this country tend to shift the responsibility for their own failings by blaming “foreign interference”. They then wait for foreign powers to come and resolve whichever problems are said to have been created by external meddling. Rarely if ever do they assume responsibility for Lebanon’s ills and devise plans and strategies of their own for curing them. 

A sad testament to the status quo is the fact that so many editorialists and commentators in Lebanon have called for the swift formation of a unity cabinet, and have opined that the country would be better off with any new government, even one that isn’t really functional.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 9 October 2009. Comment

Yemen rebels capture border district

The Houthi rebels in northern Yemen claim to have captured Munabbih (Munabah), a district bordering Saudi Arabia.

Reuters quotes a rebel statement saying local residents had turned against the authorities because of rights abuses and "citizens took full control of government buildings". 

AFP adds that the rebels have also attacked Baqam, another border village further east. Rashed Mohammed al-Alimi, deputy prime minister for defence and security, told parliament they "killed women and children and ransacked the premises of the local administration." He added: "The rebels were aiming to capture the Alb border post" and the government has sent extra troops to block the move.

Despite almost daily news of the killing of dozens of rebels by government forces, the latest situation report from the UNHCR says the war seems to be widening and "the signs suggest that the conflict is no closer to ending soon".

With access from the south severely restricted, hopes of providing humanitarian aid from the north via Saudi Arabia have also so far come to nought.

"The cross border operation between Saudi Arabia and Yemen to deliver assistance to those IDPs [displaced persons] stranded at the border has been delayed at the request of Yemeni government," the UNHCR says. "The government’s acting relief coordinator will visit the area to conduct a needs and security assessment before allowing UN staff to enter the area."

There are other problems further south: "In Amran, UN distribution has been stopped at the request of the government – despite the fact that UNHCR has access to this population – until the camp is established in Khaiwan. The authorities want to ensure that only IDPs benefit from the assistance and not members of the local community. In the meantime, UNHCR is working closely with the government to find a way forward to fill the assistance gap and is advocating that IDPs should not be penalised because there is no camp."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 9 October 2009. Comment

Protests at Egyptian niqab ban

The niqab debate rumbles on in Egypt. Yesterday, an Islamist MP called for the resignation of Mohammed Tantawi, the government-appointed Sheikh of al-Azhar, after he told a female student to remove her face veil (original story in Arabic here).

Tantawi, who said he plans to issue a formal ban on wearing face veils at al-Azhar university's premises, has also been criticised by Sheikh Ali Abu al-Hasan, former head of the Fatwa Council at the Islamic Studies Institute in Cairo. "No official has the right to order a young lady to remove a form of dress that was sanctioned by none other than Umar ibn al-Khattab, except for the purposes of identification for security reasons," he said. "The niqab is not in contravention of the sharia or Egyptian law."

The Qur'an requires Muslims to dress modestly, but how to apply that in practice is a matter of opinion and, in many places, local custom. Tantawi was right to say the niqab is not obligatory but it is difficult to see how he can make a sharia-based case for banning it. Women should be free to choose.

Students opposing a ban protested at several Egyptian universities yesterday.

The government has previously cited security reasons for banning the niqab at universities: higher education minister Hani Hilal said that 15 young men had been caught sneaking into female universities wearing the niqab as a disguise last year.

But one female demonstrator outside Cairo university yesterday 
told the German Press Agency: "The security reasons given by the minister are not the real reasons. They are targeting the niqab."

This is undoubtedly true. The government's main worry is the spread of Wahhabi/Salafi ideas, and the spread of the niqab in Egypt is one manifestation of that. But eradicating the niqab in order to prevent religious extremism is no more effective than eradicating pigs in order to prevent swine flu, and it can just as easily backfire on the government.

Meanwhile, the Bikya Masr blog suggests that Tantawi's stance is giving legitimacy to Islamophobic elements in Europe who are trying to ban the niqab and/or burka.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 8 October 2009. Comment

Rift over Houthi rebellion?

Yemen's parliament yesterday called on the government to bring the Houthi rebellion to a swift end (reports: Yemen Post and Almotamar).

Although this can be interpreted as support for the government's policy (since ending the rebellion is the declared intention of Operation Scorched Earth), The National (based in the UAE) detects signs of discontent on the government side with the way it is being handled. The paper quotes Mohammed Abdellah al-Kadi, a member of the ruling party, as saying:

“What we have heard today is something we have been listening to for five years. The main difference is that al-Houthi presence was restricted in 2004 to a small part of a mountainous village. Now, the state is fighting in four provinces ... 

“We need to know why al-Houthi has become so powerful. The state has failed in dealing with the situation in Saada and the southern provinces.

“The minister of the interior said 50 people protested in the south, while the photos we got say there were thousands. The problem is that we do not acknowledge the crisis ..."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 8 October 2009. Comment

'Jeddah Casanova' sentenced

This has been widely covered elsewhere but, since I've discussed the case on this blog here and here, I'll just note it for the record: the "Jeddah Casanova" has been sentenced to five years in jail and 1,000 lashes. He is appealing.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 8 October 2009. Comment

Egypt's VIP prisoner

Ever since Hisham Talat Mustafa was sentenced to death for murder, I have been wondering what device will be found to save him from the gallows.

Mustafa is no ordinary convict. He is – or was – a pillar of the Egyptian establishment: a multi-millionaire property magnate and a member of the upper house of parliament. Last May, he was convicted of paying a hit man $2 million to kill Lebanese singer Suzanne Tamim (with whom he is presumed to have had an affair).

He is appealing against his death sentence and, judging by a report in Asharq al-Awsat, a couple of other possible escape routes are emerging. 

Although his lawyers recently described him as being in good health, he is now apparently suffering from high blood pressure and has developed an irregular heartbeat which may require treatment outside prison.

Parallel with that, there are rumours of moves by Egyptian MPs to change the law so that blood money can be paid in murder cases. In that event, the death penalty would be reduced to seven years in prison.

Naturally, Mustafa is distancing himself from this. The paper quotes "legal sources" as saying: "Hisham [Talat Mustafa] himself does not favour this solution."

The sources added: "The rumors that [he] is prepared to pay 700 million Egyptian Pounds ($125 million) to the family of Suzanne Tamim, in exchange for them dropping the case against him, are unfounded. We are in contact with Hisham, and discuss with him what is happening … and he feels that the issue of paying blood money is out of the question … he remains fully confident of his innocence.”

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 7 October 2009. Comment

Protests as Moussa visits Yemen

Thousands of demonstrators took to the streets of southern Yemen yesterday, calling for independence and waving flags of the former southern state which merged with the north in 1990. (Reports: AP
AFP, Reuters, dpa.)

The protests were timed to coincide with a visit to Yemen by Amr Moussa, head of the Arab League. Moussa's visit was intended to show Arab concern about the deteriorating situation in the country but it's unclear what – if anything – the League proposes to do about it. 

The diplomatic language surrounding the talks was extremely bland. 

“The president expressed his openness to any dialogue with all Yemeni political forces inside or outside, provided that it is based on unity and stability of the country,” Moussa told journalists. “Any initiative that tackles the situation in Yemen should be based on that principle to ensure the unity, security and stability of Yemen."

According to Reuters, Moussa even "declined to say if the Arab League would attempt to mediate in either of the two conflicts" [the Houthi rebellion in the north or separatist activism in the south].

On Tuesday, ahead of the visit, Asharq Al-Awsat published a lengthy interview with Amr Moussa. This is the section relating to Yemen:

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you intend to convey new ideas during your visit to Yemen to contain the grave effects of the current battles?

[Musa] The situation in Yemen is important for all Arabs, and the stability of Yemen and the emphasis on and guarantee of its unity are fundamental for the Arab entity, even for the Arab survival. It is natural that I discuss this with President Ali Abdullah Saleh, and also that I discuss with him the possibilities of Arab action in this field.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] How could this situation be ended, especially as Yemen has announced its rejection of internationalization and Arabization?

[Musa] This is neither Arabization nor internationalization; it is sincere efforts to put an end to a worrying and grave situation, to preserve the Yemeni gains achieved by unification, and to establish stability. I will keep any other details until I meet the president and the Yemeni officials.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Will the Arab dealing be bilateral, especially as Egypt has sent its foreign minister and Minister Omar Suleiman to consult over the containment of the battles in Yemen?

[Musa] This Egyptian move is evidence of the concern felt by the Arabs. Since the beginning of the crisis I have been in touch with the Yemeni officials, and I have received many messages from the brethren in Sanaa. The situation requires us to consider how to conduct an actual action to preserve the Yemeni and Arab interests.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do the exchanged messages include indications of the gravity of the battle?

[Musa] I would like to keep the details of the entire issue within the framework of the dossier under discussion; this is what is going to be discussed in Sanaa.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is your comment on the reports saying that what is taking place in Yemen is a Saudi-Iranian war?

[Musa] There is a great deal that has been said and published. I do not consider it appropriate to comment on everything that is circulating, but we ought to conduct responsible consultations about the entire situation with all its dimensions.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you not think that the capabilities available to the Huthists are tantamount to the capabilities of a state, and exceed the potential of groups?

[Musa] We, indeed, monitor the presence of many capabilities. All this is under surveillance, and continuous monitoring. I do not want to talk about an issue that I will discuss with President Ali Abdullah Saleh during my visit to Yemen on Tuesday. I will restrict myself to this.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 7 October 2009. Comment

Freedom and the niqab

The Egyptian authorities seem to be worried about the growing number of women adopting the niqab – the face veil traditionally worn in the Gulf countries. Its use is relatively new in Egypt, and it tends to be favoured by those of a Wahhabi/Salafi religious disposition.

Various news sources are reporting an incident when Mohammed Tantawi, Sheikh of al-Azhar, asked a female student to take off her niqab.

"Niqab has nothing to do with Islam ... I know about religion better than you and your parents," he reportedly told her.

A security official also told The Associated Press that police have standing verbal orders to bar girls covered from head to toe from entering al-Azhar's institutions, including middle and high schools, as well as the dormitories of several universities in Cairo.

The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he's not authorised to speak to the press, said the ban was for security reasons.

The moves appear to be part of a government campaign cracking down on increasingly overt manifestations of ultraconservative Islam in Egypt.

Last month a Huffington Post article described various forms of discrimination experienced by women who wear the niqab in Egypt, such as exclusion from restaurants and beaches.

Much as I dislike the niqab, I think this is the wrong approach. Government-led attempts to impose dress codes – whether we’re talking about the niqab in Egypt or low-slung jeans in Saudi Arabia – are an infringement of personal liberty.

The Egyptian government’s real concern is with religious extremism, but attitudes are not going to be changed by telling people how to dress. Instead of being suppressed and allowed to fester, extremist religious ideas need to be exposed to the light and challenged. One way of doing that is to let secular Muslims have a voice – something the Egyptian authorities have been consistently reluctant to allow.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 6 October 2009. Comment

Arms traffickers named

The Yemeni government has taken the unusual step of publishing the names of several illegal arms dealers. Most prominent among them is Faris Mana’a, who headed the committee mediating with the Houthi rebels and is also brother of the governor of Saada.

Others named are mostly well-known tribal figures:

Sheikh Ahmed Bin Muili (from Marib)
Juma’n Mohammed Juma’n (from Saada)
Ahmed Awadh Abo Miskah
Hussein Ahmed al-Huthili
Abdullah Mubarak al-Zaghir
Ali Dhaifalla al-Sawadi

“The authorities warned all who were importing of any weapons or ammunition that it is against the law and they will expose transgressors to legal accountability,” the Yemen Observer says

The move seems to be connected with an announcement that the authorities have foiled an attempt by a group of arms dealers (possibly those named in the list) to import a large amount of ammunition from China, using “forged official documents”. Writing on the Armies of Liberation blog, Jane Novak says:

While it may seem odd that Faris Mana’a is also the head of the Yemeni goverment committee in the Saada war mediations, the biggest criminals in Yemen are normally very well connected. Likely he has sold weapons to rebels (a more plausible story than they were shipped from Iran) and gains his credibility there. The war economy benefits a variety of influential persons from sheikhs and lawmakers to soldiers, smugglers and arms dealers.

Meanwhile, the Yemeni military have lost another warplane involved in the Saada conflict – the second in the space of three days. Government media said the aircraft, a Sukhoi, crashed in al-Anad area “as a result of a technical failure while carrying out a military task”. 

Last Friday, a MiG21 fighter crashed over Saada province – which the government also blamed on a technical fault. The Houthi rebels say both planes were shot down.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 6 October 2009. Comment

A child with no name

Choosing a baby’s name ought to be a matter for the child’s parents, but it’s not always so simple. In Morocco, the parents of Tiziri el-Bechnaoui are struggling to register her name, six months after her birth.

The problem is that Tiziri – which means “moon” in the Berber language, Tamazight – is not on the government’s list of officially-approved names.

Moroccan law says that first names “must be Moroccan in nature and must not be either a family name nor a name composed of more than two forenames, nor the name of a town, village or tribe; similarly it must not be such that it would challenge morality or public order".

Local registrars are provided with lists of approved names (which include some Berber names) but many officials are still reluctant to accept any that are not Arabic/Islamic.

Parents can appeal against a refusal and, over the years, the High Commission of the Civil Registry “has ruled on dozens of Amazigh [Berber], European, and other non-Arabic-Islamic names, accepting some and rejecting others,” Human Rights Watch says.

In August, the Bechnaoui family went to court over Tiziri’s name – and won their case. Despite that, they are still waiting for local officials to register the name.

In many Arab countries there is a fear of acknowledging cultural and ethnic diversity. The roots of this lie in a preoccupation with national unity – often in the wake of struggles for independence – and in many cases this quest for unity involves denying elements of the national heritage that are not Arab or Islamic.

In Syria, for example, “Arabisation” policies have led to attempts to suppress the Kurdish language, as well as bans on Kurdish names for children and even businesses.

Morocco, to its credit, has gone some way towards recognising its 
Berber heritage but its policies seem confused. “The government does not have a clear strategy on sociocultural issues,” Brahim Akhiate, the secretary general of the Moroccan Association for Cultural Research and Exchange, told The National.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 5 October 2009. Comment

Saudi fashion news

The Saudi campaign against young men wearing low-waist jeans – which has already resulted in hundreds of arrests in Riyadh – has now spread to Madinah.

Police in the holy city, aided by the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, have begun apprehending youths who are “indecently dressed”, Arab News reports.

First-time offenders will be asked to sign letters promising not to reoffend, but second-time offenders risk prosecution.

Two judges told Arab News that the punishment would differ from one judge to another, and could include jail and flogging. “The two judges also agreed that the judicial system refuses to accept the testimony of witnesses who are dressed indecently.”

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 4 October 2009. Comment

Tunisian election-rigging

With just three weeks to go before Tunisia’s presidential and parliamentary elections, the Ettajdid Movement (one of the permitted opposition political parties) is complaining that half of its parliamentary candidate lists have been rejected by the authorities “without any convincing legal justification”.

Ettajdid, which currently holds three seats in parliament, had been hoping to contest all 26 electoral districts but now the number has been reduced to just 13. This leaves President Ben Ali’s Democratic Constitutional Rally as the only party with approved lists in all districts.

Ettajdid says the rejected the lists were mosty in the major cities (Tunis, Sfax, Monastir) and heavily populated areas or those "having a symbolic value in political terms".

Meanwhile, the Chakchouka Tunisienne blog (in French) reports that Hamma Hammami, the Communist Party spokesman and husband of rights activist Radhia Nasraoui, was beaten up by police at Tunis airport on Tuesday. He was returning from Paris where he had called for a boycott of the presidential election and had been interviewed by al-Jazeera and France 24.

After passing through customs, Hammami says he was hit on the face and kicked.

They also broke my glasses. As I screamed, they locked me in an office and continued to beat me and insulted al-Jazeera and France 24. They then confiscated personal papers and 345 euros that I had in my wallet. I left the airport and the police followed me for 200 metres, insulting me and my wife.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 4 October 2009. Comment

The Red Sea boat people

A briefing note from the UN refugee agency highlights the extraordinary numbers of people who risk their lives crossing the sea from the Horn of Africa, hoping to find safety in Yemen:

September and October are the height of the sailing season and the number of arrivals by sea is staggering. More than 50,400 people arrived on 994 boats to Yemen from the Horn of Africa so far this year, already passing the total for [the whole of] 2008 when 50,091 people crossed …

According to our staff in Yemen, so far this year 266 people drowned and another 153 are missing and presumed dead. For all of last year, the death toll was 589 people drowned and 359 others who went missing and were presumed dead.

More than half the arrivals this year are Ethiopians (27,633) while the rest are almost exclusively Somalis (22,791) who automatically get refugee status in Yemen. Those who make the crossing are fleeing desperate situations of civil war, political instability, poverty, drought and famine in Somalia and the Horn of Africa.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 4 October 2009. Comment

Egypt’s legal vigilantes

Writers and civil society activists in Egypt face a growing threat from “hesba” lawsuits, the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) warned this week. 

Hesba (or hisba) cases are prosecutions instigated by individuals rather than the authorities. They are usually brought by religious elements against people who express ”un-Islamic” views, but sometimes also by supporters of the regime – as a way of harassing its opponents at arm’s length.

Hesba is a long-established (and originally honourable) principle in Islamic jurisprudence. In the words of Egyptian scholar Gamal al-Banna, it was “a construct used to promote the good and criticise the bad. Every individual in an Islamic society is responsible for the actions of the society.”

More recently, though, it has begun to have the opposite effect, stifling critical thought and debate, rather than encouraging it.
The trend began in 1995 when a group of Islamist lawyers succeeded in divorcing Cairo university teacher Nasr Abu Zayd from his wife, on grounds of apostasy.

Since then, ANHRI says, there have been hundreds of hesba cases against writers and activists, brought by publicity-seekers and religious fanatics. It blames this on a “feeble reaction” from the Egyptian government and the willingness of courts – in violation of the law – to accept cases brought by people who have no direct interest: 

These primarily illegal cases are becoming a hovering threat over the heads of all intellectuals in Egypt. Instead of conducting a open, reasonable dialogue based on intellectuals’ opinions, hesba experts will rather start the legal chase and a chain of lawsuits.

The latest high-profile cases involve Nawal el-Saadawi, the writer, and Naguib Sawiris, the billionaire founder of Orascom. Sawiris, a Christian, is accused of “contempt for religion” after criticising 
Article 2 of the Egyptian constitution which says that “principles of Islamic law are the principal source of legislation”. The case has been brought by Nizar Ghorab, an Islamist lawyer who earlier this year secured a court ruling that ordered the government to block "venomous and vile" pornography on the internet.

The case against Saadawi, brought by a group of lawyers, also accuses her of contempt for religion, though ANHRI suspects the government is behind it. She recently formed an organisation called Egyptian Solidarity with Civil Society which, among other things, seeks to separate religion from the state.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 3 October 2009. Comment

Shot down – or not?

The Yemeni military lost a MiG21 warplane over Saada province yesterday. 

The Houthi rebels said they shot it down, and named the pilot as Lieutenant Shamsan Mohammed Abdo Mufleh (it is unclear if he survived).

The government said the aircraft was flying at low altitude and carshed “because of a technical problem and in an area where there is no combat”.

It was the first reported crash since Operation Scorched Earth began in August.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 3 October 2009. Comment

Moroccan cartoon crackdown

The Moroccan interior ministry has swung into action over a cartoon (above) published in the daily newspaper, Akhbar al-Youm, last weekend.

Police detained and interrogated editor/publisher Taoufik Bouachrine and cartoonist Khaled Kadar for more than 24 hours. They also sealed off the paper's offices, denying access to dozens of staff.

The cartoon refers to Prince Moulay Ismail, a cousin of the king, who was recently married. It shows him sitting on an amariya (a chair used for wedding ceremonies) with what appears to be a Moroccan flag in the background.

A statement from the interior ministry described the cartoon as showing "blatant disrespect to a member of the royal family". It continued:

In addition to tendentiously using the national flag, the cartoon undermines a symbol of the nation by insulting the emblem of the kingdom ... The use of the Star of David in the cartoon raises many questions on the insinuations of the people behind it and suggests flagrant anti-semitic penchants.

In light of the elements at hand, the interior minister has decided, in accordance with the laws in force, to sue and seize the daily, and to take the appropriate measures concerning the paper's equipment and premises.

Prince Moulay Ismail is also said to be taking legal action.

The meaning of the cartoon, and whether it actually shows a Star of David, is unclear. The star on the Moroccan flag is interwoven, golden in colour and has five points. The Star of David, at least on the Israeli flag, is not interwoven, it is coloured blue and has six points. Projecting the lines of the flag in the cartoon behind the prince's figure gives it six points rather than five, as the blogger Analitikis demonstrates. Whether that was intentional remains to be established, though the paper denies it.

Analitikis also suggests the prince's right arm is raised in a Hitler-style salute (a possible reference to the German origins of his new wife) – but the hand is not flat as it would be in a Nazi salute.

However, all that may be reading far too much into it. The fact is that the Moroccan authorities, while more relaxed about freedom of expression than they used to be, still draw a strong red line under any public discussion of the royal family. This was seen a couple of months ago when TelQuel magazine was seized for publishing an opinion poll showing that 91% of Moroccans have a "positive or very positive" opinion of the king's performance.

The independent daily, al-Jarida al-Oula is also being prosecuted over a front-page story in August that quoted medical sources as saying that the king, who had had to cancel his activities for five days, was ill with a virus.

Seizure of individual issues of newspapers and magazines is fairly common in Morocco, but sealing off newspaper offices – in effect shutting them down – is unusual. 

The Committee to Protect Journalists, which has condemned the action, says the interior ministry has no legal authority to shutter a newspaper unilaterally. "Article 77 of the Moroccan press law goes only so far as to authorise the ministry to ban a single issue of a periodical deemed disrespectful to the royal family.

“The time has come for a regime that constantly pays lip service to democracy to turn the page on abusing the law to settle scores with critical journalists.”

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 2 October 2009. Comment

Lebanon: the problems of power sharing

“While consensual democracy may be the worst form of government, it is better than all the others.” Discuss.

Almost four months after the Lebanese election, bickering continues over the formation of a new government. Elias Muhanna, of the Qifa Nabki blog, has written a challenging article for The National which raises fundamental questions about the Lebanese political system. He writes:

In Lebanon, where political power is distributed between different religious groups, the ideal of consensual government is seen by many as an essential ingredient to maintaining a modicum of inter-communal harmony. Indeed, as the oft-repeated formula goes, conflicts should have “no victor, no vanquished” – so as to prevent the domination of one sect over the others.

However, to conflate communal coexistence with consensual politics (and, by extension, with unity governments) entails three dubious assumptions: first, that sectarian communities are discrete entities whose interests are fully represented by political parties; second, that the practice of politics is nothing more than a zero-sum competition between these sectarian communities over the resources of the state; and third, that the best way to ensure that one sect is not allotted more than its fair share of spoils is to give every sect the ability to throw a spanner into the works. It is to assume, in other words, that political affiliations and sectarian identities are one and the same thing, which has the inevitable effect of further legitimising sectarianism as a dominant feature of Lebanese political life.

Sharing power with your political rivals may be a nice idea in theory, he says, but it is almost impossible to achieve in practice without regular breakdowns and severe inefficiencies:

In most developed democracies, the parliamentary opposition acts as both watchdog and gadfly, attempting to expose and highlight the failures of the ruling party in order that it might prevail in the next election. To do so, opposition parties woo swing voters, attempt to pick off smaller members of the ruling coalition, hamper the flow of legislation in parliamentary committees, and systematically prosecute the case against the ruling party in the public sphere. The formation of a national unity government, by definition, means that there is no such thing as an opposition – and therefore no force within the legislature to balance the power of the ruling coalition and its cabinet.

Furthermore, while there is an incentive for coalition allies in majority cabinets to work together efficiently to pass legislation that will help them get re-elected, under a unity government the impetus is for the opposite: Political parties try to stymie the achievements of their rivals’ ministries, so as to prevent them from distinguishing themselves to the electorate through improved services. Ministries, in other words, become warring fiefdoms, the protectorates of individual parties rather than cogs in a smoothly-running governmental machine.

It’s well worth reading in full.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 1 October 2009. Comment

100 arrests at Saudi party

Saudi police, together with the Committee for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, have arrested more than 100 people at a mixed-gender party in the city of Taif.

“Women took off their abayas and danced and mixed with men,” one Saudi news website reported.

Meanwhile there is media controversy over the flogging of 20 young men in the eastern province following acts of vandalism of September 23 – the eve of Saudi Arabia’s national day.

Twelve were flogged in Khobar and eight in Dammam on Monday. Each received 30 lashes. Four were said to be under the age of 18.

Although the floggings were carried out in public, The National 
points out that “the police tried to prevent people from taking photos or filming the flogging and because of that it changed the locations of the flogging in the two cities several times”.

While the punishment met with approval from some quarters (one headline urged “Flog them on YouTube”), others have been critical. 

Waleed Abu al Khair, a human rights activist and lawyer, complained that the youths had not appeared in court: the floggings were the result of an “administrative decision” and therefore infringed their rights. Even if they had been properly sentenced by a judge, he said the punishment would not have been acceptable in this case because it was not commensurate with the crime.

Abdu Khal, a columnist writing in Okaz, said the floggings showed the incompetence of Saudi society in dealing with the problem of youth crime and called for other methods to be explored.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 1 October 2009. Comment

Violence in southern Yemen

Anti-government and separatist protests continued in several cities of southern Yemen yesterday. Reuters talks of thousands of demonstrators and some idea of the scale can be gleaned from the pictures on News Yemen’s website (report in Arabic).

The most serious trouble occurred in ad-Dhali’ where one person was killed and as many as 22 injured, including nine policemen. Demonstrators reportedly attacked government buildings.

The dead man is said to be a retired general, Mahmoud Mohamed Ali.

In Zinjibar (in the southern province of Abyan) a senior intelligence figure, Major General Nasser Manour Hadi – who is the vice-president’s brother – survived an assassination attempt. The attackers, alleged to be followers of separatist leader Tariq al-Fadhli, opened fire on his motorcade, wounding two of his bodyguards.

As the war between government forces and Houthi rebels continues unabated in the north of the country – with devastating consequences for tens of thousands of displaced civilians – relations between the government and humanitarian relief agencies (strained at the best of times) have taken a turn for the worse.

UPI reports that Abdul Karim Ras'a, the Yemeni minister of public health, has lashed out at Oxfam, saying its statements warning of “a full-blow humanitarian crisis" unless there is a ceasfire are “without merit”. He is said to have warned that the government may expel any agency that makes “irresponsible” statements.

This echoes a remark made by President Salih on Saturday when he told aid agencies to stop moaning and get on with their job "without making media noise”.

The latest issue of the Yemen Times has a detailed on-the-ground report from Saddam al-Ashmori on the humanitarian crisis in the north.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 1 October 2009. Comment

Previous blog posts




October 2009

A reply to The Angry Arab

The state of Arab knowledge

The Iranian 'arms ship'

Victory for equality in Kuwait

Misery of the housemaids

Arming Yemen's rebels

Morocco bans Spanish paper

Lebanese politics 'inherently discriminatory'

Ben Ali again and again and again

Saudi TV woman escapes flogging

Revisiting the 'Facebook strike'

Soldiers die in Yemen ambush

Mubarak's thugs

Missile blamed for Airbus crash

And the winner is ...

Tunisia: all going according to plan

Yemen: 'army commander killed'

Undermining the climate talks

Yemen rebels 'clash with Saudis'

Arab winds of change

Arab press freedom: a sorry sight

Yemen's rebel leader 'is dead'

Hijab battle in Kuwait

Amr Moussa for president?

More Yemeni rebels face execution

Iran and the Yemeni rebels

Saudi gun restrictions to be relaxed

Reports of rebel leader's capture

Another 'honour' killing

Moroccan editor jailed

Endgame for the Yemeni war?

Saadawi and secularism

Libya: the son also shines

Demonstration in southern Yemen

Tunisian electoral traditions

Hamas man dies in custody

Troops seal off hospital

Father 'sold' disabled daughter

Germany warns rebel's relative

15 years for 'honour' killing

Libya threatens Unesco boycott

EU-Syria agreement finalised

The right way to shave

Rebel leader 'ready for dialogue'

Aid convoy from Saudi Arabia

The biter bit

Anti-corruption journalist on trial

Lebanon: waiting for salvation

Yemen rebels capture border district

Protests at Egyptian niqab ban

Rift over Houthi rebellion?

'Jeddah Casanova' sentenced

Egypt's VIP prisoner

Protests as Moussa visits Yemen

Freedom and the niqab

Arms traffickers named

A child with no name

Saudi fashion news

Tunisian election-rigging

The Red Sea boat people

Egypt’s legal vigilantes

Shot down – or not?

Moroccan cartoon crackdown

Lebanon: the problems of power sharing

100 arrests at Saudi party

Violence in southern Yemen


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



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Last revised on 12 December, 2011