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The state of Arab knowledge

The sorry state of education in Arab countries is of one of the major barriers to economic development and social change, so the publication of the first Arab Knowledge Report – a joint project by the UNDP and the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation – is potentially an important milestone. Its aim is to address "the state of knowledge, in all its dimensions, in the Arab region".

On education, it echoes earlier criticisms from the World Bank and the Arab Human Development Reports:

Despite having spent five percent of its GDP and 20 percent of its general budgets on education over the past 40 years, over one third of the adult population in the Arab region is unable to read and write. Some 60 million Arabs remain illiterate, two thirds of them women. Furthermore, only a few Arab countries will be able to meet the universal primary education goal of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) by 2015. 

Close to nine million primary school-aged children in the Arab countries do not attend school, and among those who do, over a large number do not pursue education beyond the basic level, hampering economic growth and sustainable development in the region as a whole.

Moreover, the quality of university education is problematic ... Often, it lacks emphasis in specialized science and modern techniques, including the most up-to-date communication technology. As a result, the region lacks a critical mass of highly skilled professionals equipped with the ability to innovate and capable of answering the needs of the marketplace.

I haven't had time to read the full report yet (I hope to comment on it later) but the Daily Star in Lebanon has some more nuggets. It highlights the general preference for military spending over education spending (11.9% of GDP on the military versus 3.6% on education in Oman, for example).

I devoted a whole chapter of my book, What's Really Wrong with the Middle East, to the education/knowledge problem and a remark by Adel Abdellatif of the UNDP, quoted in the Daily Star, broadly reflects my own conclusion: that the main issue is not money but "fear of the possible results of any educational reforms". Developing minds and allowing people to think outside the box is a prospect that Arab regimes find very scary.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 30 October 2009. Comment

The Iranian 'arms ship'

The Iranian embassy in Yemen has now given its own version of the "arms ship" affair (see previous post).

It says the vessel (there is still no disclosure of its size, type or name) normally operates in the Caspian Sea and had gone to Sharjah in the UAE for maintenance. It was returning to Iran with no cargo of any kind, on a route taking it back to the Caspian via the Red Sea, the Mediterranean, the Black Sea (and, presumably, the Volga-Don canal).

According to the embassy there were originally five Iranians and two Indians on board; one of the Indians died and the vessel had to spend a week in Oman sorting out the paperwork for that.

So far,Yemen has said very little about the affair officially, peddling the line that all will be revealed in due course when investigations are completed. This might be because the story is less significant than it first appeared to be – but I'm keeping an open mind about that. The other possibility, which may be more likely, is that there are diplomatic goings-on behind the scenes and the Yemenis are trying not to aggrave the situation by saying much in public.

If we accept the Yemeni claim that the Houthi rebels are being armed by rogue elements in Iran rather than the Iranian government, it would make sense not to embarrass the Iranian government while cajoling them into action against these rogue elements. But we shall have to wait and see.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 30 October 2009. Comment

Victory for equality in Kuwait

In an important ruling yesterday, Kuwait’s constitutional court 
decided that female members of parliament are not required to wear the hijab. Although only female two MPs and a government minister are directly affected, the case has much wider implications.

An electoral law introduced when Kuwaiti women were given full political rights four years ago said: “A condition for women to vote and be elected is to abide by the rules and terms of Sharia law.” This was a last-minute insertion demanded by religious elements.

Yesterday, the court decided that the clause was not well-defined and failed to specify whether the Sharia provision included wearing the hijab.

More significantly, though, it stressed the supremacy of the Kuwaiti constitution which guarantees personal freedom and freedom of religion. Article 29 of the constitution says:

(1) All people are equal in human dignity and in public rights and duties before the law, without distinction to race, origin, language, or religion.

(2) Personal liberty is guaranteed.

This was the second time in the space of a few days that the court had cited the constitution to over-ride legislation restricting women’s rights. Last week it ruled that a law requiring women to get approval from their husbands before they could obtain a passport infringed the constitutional principle of freedom and equality.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 29 October 2009. Comment

Misery of the housemaids

While the lot of Kuwaiti women seems to be improving, the same cannot be said of foreign domestic workers in the country. Ill-treatment of housemaids – and the apparent lack of public concern about it – is an issue that The Angry Arab follows regularly. It is a problem in all Arab countries where large numbers of households employ maids, but he has documented some recent examples from Kuwait:

  • “A Sri Lankan maid sustained injuries and fractures after a failed attempt to commit suicide in Mubarak Al-Kabeer due to cruelty inflicted on her by her Kuwaiti employer, reports Al-Watan Arabic daily. According to sources, the Kuwaiti woman poured boiling oil on the maid and made her stand on the roof of the house. The maid then tried to end her life by jumping from the roof, but failed.”

  • “Oct 26: An Indonesian woman aged 32 years died after falling from the 5th floor of her building in Hawalli on Sunday … It is believed that she committed suicide.”

  • “Oct 11: Police have arrested an expatriate man and his wife for torturing their housemaid, reports Al-Rai daily. It has been reported the maid called police and when they went to the home of the suspects, the man claimed it was a hoax call. However, not satisfied with the reply of the man, the Rumaithiya police got a search warrant from the Public Prosecution and entered the home of the expatriate and saw the maid suffering from burns.”

  • “Oct 11: Acting on information police and an employee from the Philippines Embassy in Kuwait rushed to the home of an Egyptian family in Salmiya and convinced their maid to open the door after she had allegedly locked herself inside the kitchen and threatened to end her life, reports Al-Shahid daily.”

  • “Sept 28: An Iranian woman aged 40 years ended her life by hanging herself from the roof of the Misdemeanor Department in Salmiya on Monday. According to sources, the woman was arrested and referred to the Department after her sponsor registered an absconding case against her. It is believed that he wanted to deport her …”

  • "Sept 26: An Asian maid ended her life in her sponsor’s home in Waha by consuming copious amounts of cleaning detergent, reports Al-Watan Arabic daily."

  • “Sept 22: An Asian housemaid is said to have ended her life by hanging herself with a rope tied to the ceiling inside her room at her sponsor’s home in Ahmadi, reports Al-Dar daily.”

  • “An Indian housemaid, in her 30s, committed suicide by hanging inside her sponsor’s house in Abdullah Al-Mubarak, says Al-Seyassah. The maid’s sponsor called the Operations Room after discovering her lifeless body …”

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 29 October 2009. Comment

Arming Yemen's rebels

There are numerous reports today about the "Iranian arms ship" seized on Sunday off the Red Sea coast of Yemen but facts are still scarce. It could be a very significant find or the government – not for the first time – may be making a mountain out of a molehill. Until more is known, it is unwise to jump to any conclusions.

The reports say the Iranian-flagged vessel (its size, type and name are not mentioned) was apprehended off Midi in the far north-west of Yemen and was laden with weapons, "mostly anti-tank shells". There is no indication so far of the quantity.

It is said that the plan was to off-load the weapons near Haradh and hide them in a farm, to be collected later by the Houthi rebels.

Some reports say the vessel had an Iranian crew of five, though others say one is Indian. Alternatively, the five Iranians are described as "instructors" who had planned to deliver weapons and then evacuate wounded Iranians (who would presumably have been fighting in support of the Houthis). 

It's perhaps worth mentioning that this occurred in an area where there have previously been reports of "exploding fishing boats".

President Salih has previously said the rebels are being funded by "certain Iranian dignatories" rather than the Iranian government itself.

The supply of weapons to the Houthis and other violent elements in Yemen is a very murky business. It is difficult to know what – or who – to believe but there are clearly some prominent Yemenis involved in it for the money rather than politics.

There are ongoing investigations into the affair of the "Chinese arms ship" recently discovered at Hodeida port. The cargo was initially said to be supported by forged defence ministry paperwork but the Chinese importer claims the paperwork is genuine (implying corruption in the defence ministry).

There is also an intriguing story from News Yemen which says that government troops withdrawing from the Raziq area left military equipment behind for the Houthis to pick up. It is implied that this was part of a deal negotiated with the rebels.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 28 October 2009. Comment

Morocco bans Spanish paper

The leading Spanish daily, el Pais, is the latest paper to be censored by the Moroccan authorities. Distribution of its Saturday edition was blocked in Morocco for "attacking the monarchy". 

El Pais had reprinted a cartoon which first appeared in Le Monde (also banned) as well as a caricature of the king's cousin, Prince Moulay Ismail, for which the Moroccan newspaper Akhbar al-Youm is currently being prosecuted. 

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 28 October 2009. Comment

Lebanese politics 'inherently discriminatory'

The Daily Star (Beirut) notes that the latest report on religious freedom from the US State Department says Lebanon's political system – which distributes power according to religious affiliation – "may be viewed as inherently discriminatory". In fact, there's no "may" about it; the system is discriminatory though it does help to keep the various factions from each other's throats.

Reading the Daily Star's story, you might imagine this is a new position adopted by the Obama administration, but actually it is not. Previous State Department reports have made exactly the same point every year since 2006, but at least it's good to see the issue discussed.

The Daily Star quotes Paul Salem, of the Carnegie Middle East Institute in Beirut: “It’s a common opinion in Lebanon that the confessional system has inherent problems and that by compartmentalising people there is no way of having proper representation. At the same time this is a system that is trying to balance a delicate situation.”

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 28 October 2009. Comment

Ben Ali again and again and again

So. In "an atmosphere of repression" (© Human Rights Watch) president Ben Ali won the Tunisian election with 89.62% of the votes. That's a drop of almost five per cent on the 1994 result and 10 per cent less than in 1999 when he got a truly incredible 99.66%. If his support continues to decline at this rate, he could lose in the 2049 election (by which time he'll be 113)..

Election observer Saïda Benhabyles, a former Algerian minister, 
told Magharebia that the poll complied with all the standards of a fair election.

This may be true of the way voting was conducted in polling stations, but the regime's constant harassment of its critics, its 
interference with the opposition parties, its arbitrary rejection of candidates and its manipulation of the media meant there could only ever be one result. 

Voters were allowed little information about Ben Ali's opponents: a group of NGOs complained about the disproportional media coverage of Ben Ali and his party, the Democratic Constitutional Rally. In the seven daily newspapers Ben Ali's presidential campaign "received 97.23% of the coverage space", they said. 

In the parliamentary election held simultaneously with the presidential election, the ruling party won 161 out of 214 seats (just over 75%). Its nearest rival, the Movement of Socialist Democrats, won just 16 seats.

Wikipedia has the detailed results

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 27 October 2009. Comment

Saudi TV woman escapes flogging

The king of Saudi Arab has "waived" a sentence of 60 lashes imposed on TV journalist Rozanna al-Yami, a government official 
announced yesterday. Ms Yami, 22, was thought to have been the first Saudi journalist sentenced to flogging in connection with her work.

The case arose out of an LBC TV programme last July which caused shockwaves in the conservative kingdom when the "
Casanova of Jeddah" boasted on air about his sexual exploits. Ms Yami was accused of helping to prepare the programme and advertising it on the internet.

On the king's orders, she and another woman journalist will now be referred to a committee of the information ministry which deals with media violations.

So far so good, but as the blogger Saudi Jeans points out, "this should have happened without a royal intervention".

It's very similar to another high-profile case a couple of years ago when, after a woman was sentenced to 200 lashes for being gang-raped at knife point, the king stepped in and issued a pardon. As I commented at the time, such cases follow a not-unfamiliar pattern in Saudi Arabia: 

... the courts do something stupid, there's uproar in the media (primarily the western media), the Saudi elite (especially its diplomats) is embarrassed, and eventually the king intervenes.

The trouble with the royal prerogative, though, is that it's every bit as arbitrary as the system that gives rise to these cases in the first place. And there are plenty of disgusting judgments where the palace does not intervene - as with the unfortunate Egyptian who was executed for witchcraft a few weeks ago.

The real need is for wholesale reform of the justice system but that would mean confronting the kindgom's religious establishment - and it's one nettle that King Abdullah seems reluctant to grasp.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 27 October 2009. Comment

Revisiting the 'Facebook strike'

Last year's "Facebook strike" in Egypt caused a good deal of excitement about the potential of online activism, though the strike itself was generally acknowledged as a failure.

In the latest issue of Arab Media and Society, David Faris takes a long and detailed look at this attempt to mobilise the nation through social media, and why it went wrong.

He suggests that multiple factors were to blame but sees no reason to abandon social media as a political tool:

If a viable opposition is to take shape with the assistance of electronic media like Twitter and Facebook, that opposition will have to pay much more careful attention to the kinds of small-scale struggles over freedom taking place every day in the courts, the press, the labour sector, and the professional associations ...

Future actions should probably be tied either to on-the-ground labour activism or to those areas in which activists and professionals have had the most success contesting the regime’s hegemony: human rights and issues of constitutional and economic justice. These issues are the subject of widespread political agreement among Egypt’s divergent opposition forces, and if they can successfully pool their resources, social media are likely to play a critical role in building political consensus, coordinating and executing concrete actions, and in putting together international human rights coalitions that can put pressure on the regime ...

It is up to individual activists to turn the possibilities of social media into reality, and even the most tech-and-politically savvy individuals will continue to face determined resistance from a regime that has so far confounded any and all attempts to challenge its hegemony.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 26 October 2009. Comment

Soldiers die in Yemen ambush

Five Yemeni soldiers were killed and three wounded yesterday in an ambush in the southern province of ad-Dhali'. They were escorting an abulance that carried the body of another soldier who had been killed in the Houthi conflict in northern Yemen.  Reports: Yemen Post and Xinhua.

Yahya al-Houthi, a member of rebel leader’s family who is also an MP, is due to be put on trial in his absence today, charged with rebellion, terrorism and sabotage in Saada province. 

Since 2005 he has been living in Germany, where the authorities have have warned him he will lose his political asylum status “if he undertakes any activities hostile to any state”. The Yemeni parliament recently lifted his parliamentary immunity, opening the way for a trial to take place.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 26 October 2009. Comment

Mubarak’s thugs

Plainclothes thugs attacked Ayman Nour, Egypt’s much-harassed opposition politician, and his contingent at a fish restaurant in Hurghada last night, Bikya Masr reports.

Ahmed Abdul Gawad, Nour’s media assistant, was severely beaten and wounded, Nour told Bikya Masr on Saturday evening in a telephone conversation detailing what had occurred. Until late on Saturday, Nour and his assistants remained stuck inside the restaurant, which was surrounded by the “thugs” who continued to shout: “Viva Mubarak, Viva Egypt” …”

Local opposition members said they recognised the thugs as “security forces aided by some members of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) Council in Hurghada.” 

Police failed to intervene, despite calls, but an official from the US state department reportedly helped to negotiate the group’s exit from the restaurant after several hours. Bikya Masr suggests the US became involved because an American film-maker was with Nour at the time.

Nour, the founding leader of al-Ghad party, challenged Hosni Mubarak in the 2005 presidential election and won 7% of the vote. He was jailed on what were widely regarded as trumped-up charges and eventually released last February.

Earlier this month, amid obvious signs that Mubarak’s son, Gamal, is being groomed to take over, Nour was involved in launching a campaign against a hereditary presidency. Last Wednesday, a meeting in Cairo connected with the campaign was stormed by about 50 police.

Earlier yesterday, Nour had told the German Press Agency that he was planning to bring a lawsuit against Gamal Mubarak for acting as “the unofficial ruler of the country”.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 25 October 2009. Comment

Missile blamed for Airbus crash

There are fresh claims from Yemen that the Yemenia Airbus which crashed into the sea off the Comoros islands last June was accidentally shot down by a French missile. 

Speculation that this was the cause first surfaced in Yemen and the Comoros a few days after the crash, but now Almotamar.net (a website belonging to Yemen’s ruling party) says it has been confirmed “by aviation experts and results of examining the black box”. It adds that the Yemeni government will be seeking recompense from France.

I have always been sceptical of this explanation and it is difficult to see what the “confirmation” claim is based on. The official investigation is far from complete but an initial report last week regarding transcripts from the cockpit voice recorder said that "no sound of an explosion has been detected” and that this supports the theory that the aircraft broke up on impact with water.

An article in Flight International discusses the diplomatic row that has ensued after the crash. Yemenia’s business has suffered considerably in Europe, mainly because of repeated European allegations about the airline’s attitude to safety. Yemen, consequently, is anxious to exonerate Yemenia and its pilots.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 25 October 2009. Comment

And the winner is …

Tunisians are voting for a new parliament today and also re-electing Zine el Abidine Ben Ali for yet another presidential term.

Ben Ali, who is 73, has been in power for almost 22 years.

Three other candidates are contesting the presidency but it’s scarcely worth mentioning them. Two of these “opponents” have already declared their support for Ben Ali.

The only question, really, is the size of Ben Ali’s majority. In 1999 (the first time alternative candidates were allowed to stand) he won with 99.66% of the vote. In 2004, he got 94.48%.

Majorities in the high nineties tend to be ridiculed these days, and anything in the eighties would cause a loss of face. So, just to make it look a bit more democratic than last time, let’s settle for a result today in the low nineties. How about 91%-92%?

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 25 October 2009. Comment

Tunisia: all going according to plan

The Tunisian authorities are taking their usual efficient measures to ensure that uppity journalists do nothing to cast a shadow over President Ben Ali's re-election tomorrow.

On Tuesday, Le Monde correspondent Florence Beaugé was refused entry and, after a night at Tunis airport, bundled back on a plane back to Paris. Government sources accused her of "an obvious malevolence toward Tunisia".

Also on Tuesday, plainclothes police roughed up Sihem Bensedrine, editor of the Kalima new organisation, and prevented her taking part in a workshop about coverage of the election campaign, the Committe to Protect Journalists reports.

Lotfi Hidouri, a journalist with Kalima and al-Quds Press, who had been under tight police surveillance since Saturday, was barred from the same workshop a day earlier.

Three Kalima journalists were detained by police for several hours last week after taking pictures of campaign scenes without government "authorisation".

Meanwhile, Thursday's and Friday's issues of Le Monde have been banned from sale in Morocco because of a cartoon (above). Le Monde's cartoon was a comment on the prosecution of Moroccan cartoonist Khaled Kadar over a caricature of the king's cousin, Prince Moulay Ismail, published last month in Akhbar al-Youm. 

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 24 October 2009. Comment

Yemen: 'army commander killed'

A senior Yemeni army commander died in an ambush yesterday (presumably at the hands of Houthi rebels), according to an Associated Press report which cites unnamed official sources:

"The officials say Brig Gen Omar Ali al-Issa, who headed an infantry division engaged in the fighting in the Saada province, was killed along with several soldiers by a rocket-propelled grenade on Friday afternoon."

In a speech on October 14, President Salih said the conflict would end very soon. "The army is achieving great, great progress in all frontlines, and over the coming few days the victory will be declared."

It's now October 24 and despite daily reports of large numbers of rebels being killed, there's no sign that "victory" is at hand.

One indication of that comes from the UN's latest Emergency Situation Report (number 11). Look at the large red/green circles on the map. The red areas represent tens of thousands of displaced civilians who cannot be reached by aid agencies because of the ongoing conflict.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 24 October 2009. Comment

Undermining the climate talks

The UN conference on climate change is only a few weeks away, and what are the Arab countries doing about it? Next to nothing, or even worse.

“Most Arab countries do not even have a position on climate change, and many of the delegates [who have attended international talks] do not have the mandate from their governments to engage in negotiations,” Christoph Bals, policy director of Germanwatch tells the Lebanese Daily Star.

Earlier this month, Germanwatch (which monitors development, environment and economic policies), together with IndyACT (the Lebanon-based League of Independent Activists) published a report analysing the positions of all 22 Arab governments in the current round of climate talks. It was especially scathing about Saudi Arabia.

“Despite the variability in the region, the current Arab position is mainly focused around protecting the oil trade rather than saving the planet from the adverse impacts of climate change," Wael Hmaidan, executive director of IndyACT said. "Saudi Arabia has utilised its political weight in the region, as well as benefited from the indifference of many Arab governments towards this issue in order to dominate the Arab voice.”

IndyACT's statement says the Saudis have been working in various ways to undermine key elements in the international climate negotiations.

A couple of weeks ago the Associated Press reported:

Saudi Arabia has led a quiet campaign during these and other negotiations – demanding behind closed doors that oil-producing nations get special financial assistance if a new climate pact calls for substantial reductions in the use of fossil fuels.

That campaign comes despite an International Energy Agency report released this week showing that OPEC revenues would still increase $23 trillion between 2008 and 2030 – a fourfold increase compared to the period from 1985 to 2007 – if countries agree to significantly slash emissions and thereby cut their use of oil. That is the limit most countries agree is needed to avoid the worst impacts of climate change.

The head of the Saudi delegation Mohammad S. Al Sabban dismissed the IEA figures as "biased" and said OPEC's own calculations showed that Saudi Arabia would lose $19 billion a year starting in 2012 under a new climate pact. The region would lose much more, he said."

PS: I can't find the full IndyACT/Germanwatch report on the internet. Anyone who can provide a link please let me know.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 23 October 2009. Comment

Yemen rebels 'clash with Saudis'

Yemen's Houthi rebels have reportedly clashed with Saudi forces involved in the construction of a border fence. Reuters and the BBC have the story.

Reuters quotes a statement on a rebel website which says: "Residents of the area reject any fence which would have a negative economic impact on them and cut them off ... from their brethren on the other side."

There has been no comment from the Saudis and Yemen's defence ministry has denied the reports, saying: "Such allegations indicate only that the rebels feel that their defeat is very close and they want to justify it by speaking about Saudi interference."

The rebels, who are accused of receiving support from Iran, in turn accuse the Yemeni government of receiving support from Saudi Arabia. They have claimed several times that Saudi warplanes have attacked them on Yemeni territory and on Monday they said that Saudi artillery pounded the market of al-Husama on north-western Yemen, where many people were shopping.

Separately from the Houthi conflict, Sahwa Net reports the arrest of 15 people in the central city of Ta'izz, apparently to prevent the launching of a new organisation called the Popular Movement for Justice and Change.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 23 October 2009. Comment

Arab winds of change

"If asked where change is likely to come from in the Arab countries, I would not put much faith in 'reformist' politicians and opposition parties – they're mostly no-hopers – but I would definitely put feminists, gay men, lesbians and bloggers very high on my list."

Read my full article on Comment Is Free.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 23 October 2009. Comment

Arab press freedom: a sorry sight

Arab countries are all in the bottom two-thirds of this year's Press Freedom Index issued by the Paris-based Reporters Sans Frontières (RSF). Kuwait has the highest ranking, in 60th place out of 175, closely followed by Lebanon.

This year, for the first time, Israel – in 93rd place, down 47 places – is outstripped by Kuwait, Lebanon, Comoros and the UAE. "Arrests of journalists (and not only foreign ones), their conviction and in some cases their deportation are the reasons for Israel’s nose-dive," RSF says. "Israel’s media are outspoken and investigate sensitive subjects thoroughly, but military censorship is still in force."

In Yemen, "the Salih government has drastically curtailed freedom of expression since May" and in Syria press freedom has also slipped: "Although there was less recourse to physical violence against journalists, the situation was very worrying, with repression steadily tightening its grip."

Libya rose slightly in the league table, though "its already limited tolerance of free expression suffered setbacks".

In Iraq, journalists face fewer threats to their safety but now "have to cope with hostility from officials and politicians ... Abusive prosecutions and defamation actions against newspapers that expose corruption are now common."

Repression increased in Algeria and Tunisia, while Morocco continued to fall in the rankings for the third year running: "The royal palace has become more vigilant about the 'red lines' that the press must not cross ... As with other regimes, financial reprisals are becoming the preferred weapon for use against journalists who go too far. Exorbitant damages awards now pose more of a threat to the Moroccan media than prison sentences."

Rankings of Arab countries (out of 175)

60 Kuwait 
61 Lebanon 
82 Comoros 
86= United Arab Emirates 
94 Qatar 
100= Mauritania 
106= Oman 
110 Djibouti 
112 Jordan 
119= Bahrain 
127 Morocco 

141 Algeria 
143 Egypt 
145 Iraq 
148 Sudan 
154 Tunisia 
156 Libya 
161 Palestine 
163 Saudi Arabia 
164 Somalia 
165 Syria 
167 Yemen

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 22 October 2009. Comment

Yemen's rebel leader 'is dead'

The field commander of the Houthi rebels, Abd al-Malik al-Houthi, has died in hospital after being captured, according to medical sources cited by the Yemen Post.

On Sunday, several local websites reported that Houthi – regarded by the authorities as the most dangerous man in Yemen – had been arrested by the military after being injured in an air strike.

The Yemen Post says he was transferred in a coma to the 48 Military Hospital in Sanaa with a serious wound to the back of his head. Ultrasound tests showed massive bleeding in the brain.

So far there has been no statement from the Yemeni government but there is no reason to doubt the Yemen Post's report. 

The rebels are no longer claiming that the reports are untrue. Their spokesman in Saada, Mohammad AbduSalam, told NewsYemen: “We are not allowed to make statements on this issue. We will only respond to official claims, but we are not ready to respond to claims by other sources."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 21 October 2009 at 19.50 BST. Comment

Hijab battle in Kuwait

Kuwait's constitutional court is expected to give a ruling later this month on whether female members of parliament must wear the hijab.

An electoral law introduced when Kuwaiti women were given full political rights four years ago says: “A condition for women to vote and be elected is to abide by the rules and terms of Sharia law.”

Islamist MPs, who long opposed the presence of women in parliament, interpret this as meaning they must cover their heads. In the current parliament, two of the four female MPs, plus the education minister, have their heads uncovered.

Earlier this month Kuwait's Fatwa Department ruled that under Islamic law, Muslim women are obliged to wear the hijab. AFP explained:

Although the fatwa, or religious edict, was general in nature and did not specifically refer to Kuwait's election law, it triggered conflicting reactions from Islamist and liberal lawmakers and activists.

Islamist lawmakers called on female MPs and a minister to comply with the ruling while liberal and female legislators stressed the fatwa is not binding since it did not come from the constitutional court.

Female MP Rola Dashti argues that including Sharia provisions in the 2005 electoral law was unconstitutional. "The regulations clearly violate articles in the constitution which call for gender equality and make no reference to Sharia regulations," she told AFP.

Another issue, according to Khalifa Alhoumaidah, a legal expert 
quoted in The National, is whether the 2005 law applies to women's behaviour in parliament or whether they are only required to comply with Sharia during the electoral process.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 21 October 2009. Comment

Amr Moussa for president?

The long-running debate in Egypt about Hosni Mubarak's successor took a new twist yesterday when Amr Moussa, the Egyptian head of the Arab League, hinted that he might run for the presidency in 2011.

"Every capable and efficient citizen has the right to aspire for the supreme post, which is the president of the republic," he said in 
an interview with al-Shorouk newspaper. "Undoubtedly, I am like others looking forward to participate in the project of Egypt's resurrection."

Moussa became a popular figure during his 10 years as Mubarak's foreign minister – mainly because of his criticisms of Israel and the United States. When he moved to the Arab League in 2001 there were suggestions that Mubarak had kicked him sideways because he was becoming too popular.

Shortly before leaving the foreign ministry he featured in a hit song by Egyptian crooner Shaaban Abdel Rahim, which included the line: "I hate Israel and I love Amr Moussa".

By the time the election comes around, Moussa will be 75 – a bit too old for the job perhaps, but still eight years younger than Hosni Mubarak.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 21 October 2009. Comment

More Yemeni rebels face execution

In the continuing trials of suspected Houthi rebels, 10 more men were sentenced to death in Yemen yesterday, bringing the total of death sentences so far to 22. Six others were jailed yesterday for 15 years each.

They are among 190 defendants in a series of trials connected with fighting that occurred between March and June last year.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 21 October 2009. Comment

Iran and the Yemeni rebels

The question of Iranian involvement in the Yemeni war is often raised, though with scant evidence to support the various claims. The Houthi rebels who have been fighting the government off and on for the last five years. are Shia Muslims and, even though their Zaidi version of Shi'ism differs from mainstream Iranian Shi'ism, there is evident sympathy for them in Iran.

But how far does this go in practical terms, beyond sympathy and expressions of support in the Iranian media?

President Salih has been careful not to point a finger at the Iranian regime but in a TV interview reported yesterday he said the rebels were receiving funds from Iran: "Their finances come from certain Iranian dignatories ... but we do not accuse the government." As usual, he gave no further details but cited documents that have been seized and confessions from captured rebels. How extensive such financial support might be remains to be seen.

Salih also said that the rebels appear to have gone through combat training similar to that of the Iranian-backed Hizbullah militia in Lebanon.

Last week the Yemen Observer cited military sources as saying that three Lebanese explosives experts had been killed in the fighting, while working for the Houthi rebels.

In August, the government announced that weapons captured from the rebels included “some” that were made in Iran, including machine guns, short-range rockets and ammunition. However, the number of weapons involved was not disclosed so the significance of this find remains unclear. In general, though, the rebels seem to be purchasing their arms on the open market through various local traffickers – which of course doesn't excluded the possibility they are using money from Iran to pay for them.

Taken together, these bits of evidence add up to more than nothing but perhaps not very much. People will obviously draw from them whatever conclusions they want to draw. For myself, based on what we know so far, I can't see a serious commitment by the Iranian government to supporting the rebels, though it may – like the Saudis on the other side – have a tentative finger in the pie.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 20 October 2009. Comment

Saudi gun restrictions to be relaxed

Of all the many restrictions on life in Saudi Arabia that might reasonably be lifted, making it easier to buy and sell guns does not spring to mind as an obvious necessity – but the interior ministry seems to think otherwise.

It has decided to allow anyone over 25 with a clean criminal record and a bank guarantee of 500,000 riyals ($133,000) to apply to open a gun shop.

The ministry has also said it plans to start issuing permits for gun clubs. Arab News says one of the requirements for such clubs is that they “should be away from civil establishments, residential districts, schools, hospitals, markets, petrol stations and gas warehouses”.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 19 October 2009. Comment

Update, 20 October 2009: The riyals-to-dollars conversion was wrong when this item was first posted. It has now been corrected.

Reports of rebel leader's capture

The field commander of the Houthi rebels, Abd al-Malik al-Houthi, was arrested yesterday by the military after being injured in an air strike, according to unconfirmed reports from several local news sources (Yemen Observer, News Yemen and
Yemen Online). 

At the time of writing, the Yemeni authorities are neither confirming nor denying the reports; the Houthis have issued a denial.

Two more rebels were sentenced to death by a Yemeni court on Saturday. Ten others have also received death sentences during the last few months.

They are among 190 defendants in a series of trials connected with fighting that occurred between March and June last year.
Yemeni warplanes bombed a hospital in Razeh yesterday, killing 27 people, the deputy interior minister said.

According to the military, the dead were rebels who had been shooting from inside the building. A rebel spokesman said “all those who were killed were innocent civilians”.

The hospital had been functioning at least until last Thursday when Medecins Sans Frontieres evacuated their staff.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 19 October 2009. Comment

Another 'honour' killing

A 22-year-old Jordanian woman with stomach pains was taken to the doctor by her father and an uncle on Saturday. The doctor found she was pregnant.

“On their way home, the father stabbed the girl with a sword 25 times in her stomach, killing her immediately as well as her unborn baby boy,” a police spokesman told AFP.

Both men have been charged with murder and the boyfriend has been taken into protective custody.

Last week, a Jordanian man was jailed for 15 years in connection with the “honour” killing of his sister.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 19 October 2009. Comment

Moroccan editor jailed

A Moroccan editor has been jailed for “intentionally publishing false information” about the king's health.

Driss Chahtan of al-Michaal newspaper was sentenced to a year in jail and two other journalists – Mostafa Hiran and Rashid Mahameed – were sentenced to three months each with a fine of 5,000 dirhams ($655).

Two journalists from another newspaper, al-Jarida al-Oula, are due in court next Wednesday, also charged in connection with reports about the king's health. Last August the paper published a front-page story which quoted medical sources as saying that Mohammed VI, who had had to cancel his activities for five days, was ill with a virus.

Earlier this week, a court in Casablanca confirmed an interior ministry order closing the daily Akhbar al-Youm, after it published a cartoon about the wedding of Prince Moulay Ismail, a cousin of the king. The paper's editor, Taoufik Bouachrine, and cartoonist Kalid Kadar are due in court on criminal defamation charges next Friday.

Although levels of press freedom in Morocco have improved in recent years, the authorities are still extremely sensitive about any public discussion of the royal family. In August, copies of two magazines were seized after they published an opinion poll showing that 91% of Moroccans had a "positive or very positive" opinion of the king's performance.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 17 October 2009. Comment

Endgame for the Yemeni war?

Two views on the war in Yemen. President Salih says it will end very soon. "The army is achieving great, great progress in all frontlines, and over the coming few days the victory will be declared," he said on Wednesday.

Well, it's Friday now and the war goes on. But let's give it another week and see what happens.

Since the president's remarks were part of his speech for Yemen's National Day, they could be bombast rather than a serious prediction. Simply ending Operation Scorched Earth and declaring outright victory over the Houthi rebels might sound too implausible to the Yemeni public – especially since he has tried that once before during the five-year conflict.

However, Salih could take a page from ex-President Bush's Iraq war book, declare an end to "major hostilities" and claim that any fighting that follows is merely part of a mopping-up operation. Mission accomplished. Or not.

A different view comes from Gregory Johnsen, of Princeton University and the Waq al-waq blog. In an article for Common Ground News Service, he writes:

The protracted nature of the Yemeni conflict has also led to evolving justifications for its continuation. Tribesmen have been brought into the fighting on both sides. Those backing the Huthis are doing so not out of any adherence to Zaydi theology but rather as a response to government overreaching and military mistakes. In effect, the government’s various military campaigns have created more enemies than it had when the conflict began.

There is, as five years of fighting have made clear, no military solution to this conflict. The Yemeni government has tried and failed numerous times to bomb the Houthis into submission, to no avail. 

Neither side has the political capital to yield to the demands of the other, and members of both sides are benefiting financially from a thriving war economy. But the longer the fighting goes on, the greater the threat to regional security. 

The United States must persuade the EU and, more importantly, Saudi Arabia to present a unified front to the Yemenis, convincing them that the military phase of the conflict is over and that it's time for a political solution.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 16 October 2009. Comment

Saadawi and secularism

I have written before about the trials and tribulations of Nawal el Saadawi – the Egyptian writer, feminist and secularist – at the hands of Islamists. She recently formed a new organisation, “Egyptian Solidarity with Civil Society”, which will be based on "scientific reason". 

Yesterday she had an article published by Almasri Alyoum, headed "Why a global solidarity movement for secular society?" Much as I sympathise with her intentions, I fear she's set off on the wrong track.

She starts the article with an exaggerated view of religion's influence on western foreign policy: "The big economic-military-nuclear powers in the United States, Europe and Israel need religion to establish their control over the world".

Her aim, presumably, is to show that she is not anti-Islam by pointing to the negative effects of politicised religion worldwide. But I can imagine Egyptian Muslims objecting: "If the western powers can play that game, why shouldn't we? After all, we have the true religion and theirs is false."

I can't see anybody being swayed by Saadawi's article. In the Arab countries religion has become such a dominant feature of everyday life that secularists need a much more subtle approach, demonstrating how separation of religion from the state can benefit Muslim believers. That is what Abdullahi An-Na’im does in his book, Islam and the Secular State, which begins with words: “In order to be a Muslim by conviction and free choice, which is the only way one can be a Muslim, I need a secular state.” 

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 16 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 05 November, 2009