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Lining up against the Shia

Suddenly, just about everyone (at least among the Sunni elements in the Middle East) is lining up to support Yemen and Saudi Arabia in their war with the Houthi rebels – even al-Qaeda. 

“We have a war of rhetoric and a lot of people with vested interest want to make this into a proxy fight [against Iran],” one analyst tells The National newspaper.

The Arab League says it rejects "undermining the sovereignty of the Republic of Yemen and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia". 

The Gulf Cooperation Council says Yemen is its "most important neighbour" and will continue to support it "in countering threats". 

Egypt has "reaffirmed the full solidarity of the leadership, government and people of Egypt with the government and people of Yemen against the elements of sabotage and terrorism in Saada."

Kuwait – not noted for success in defending its own borders – "stands ready to support Saudi Arabia in preventing any further attacks".

A group linked to al-Qaeda has also called on Sunni Muslims in Yemen and Saudi Arabia to "fight Iran-backed Shiite rebels". In a recording on the internet, Mohamed bin Abdul Rahman al-Rashid, who is on the Saudi list of most-wanted terror suspects, said: "Shiite Iran poses [a more] extreme danger to Sunnis of Yemen and Saudi Arabia than Jews or Christians. Driven by a greed to take over Muslim countries, Shiite Iran has long been plotting to install a Hizbullah-like group to occupy areas at the joint-border of Yemen and Saudi Arabia." 

Meanwhile, Iran's foreign minister said: "We strongly advise regional and neighbouring states not to interfere in Yemen's internal affairs and try to restore peace and stability to the state ... Those who choose to fuel the flames of conflict must know that the fire will reach them."

Yemen, not surprisingly, declined Iran's offer to help "restore security". A foreign ministry source said it "definitely rejects the interference in its internal affairs by any party" (unless, of course, they are supporting the regime). 

Two Arab countries with large Shia communities – Iraq and Lebanon – seem to be keeping quiet. The radical Iraqi Shia leader, Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army have allegedly been providing the Houthis with some assistance.

In Kuwait, there are claims that "religious groups" (presumably from the Shia minority) "have been supporting the rebels financially and through the media".

In Bahrain (Sunni-ruled but with a Shia majority), the opposition al-Wafaq party abstained from a parliamentary vote expressing support for Saudi actions against the Houthi rebels. One of the Shia party's MPs told Asharq al-Awsat: "We do not want to involve ourselves in the Yemeni problem ... this is a complicated and internal Yemeni issue."

On Tuesday, the official Yemeni news agency announced the 
signing of a "military cooperation" deal with the United States. Few details have been revealed and the Yemenis are possibly exaggerating its importance. There has long been military/security collaboration between the two countries in connection with al-Qaeda but the official US position on the Houthi conflict is that it will not be resolved militarily.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 12 November 2009. Comment

Rebels' challenge to Saudi state

Yemen’s Houthi rebels drew up a plan two years ago to establish a Shia state embracing parts of northern Yemen and southern Saudi Arabia, according to one of the movement’s former leaders quoted in the Yemen Post.

The state would include all of Saada province together with large areas of al-Jawf, Marib and Hajja in Yemen, plus large areas of Najran and Jizan in Saudi Arabia, “as a first step”, the paper said.

Whatever the motives of the ex-leader (identified as “Abu Sulaiman”) for saying this now, the story is certainly intriguing in the light of Saudi Arabia’s increasingly public military embroilment in the conflict.

There has been much talk in the past about the Houthis wanting a separate state in Yemen (which may be one of several alternative options) but as far as I’m aware this is the first suggestion that such a state would aspire to include parts of Saudi Arabia too.

It would not be very surprising if the Houthis were indeed thinking along these lines, however. As I pointed out last week, there are strong affinities between the Zaidi Shia in northern Yemen and many of their neighbours across the border in Saudi Arabia – a shared sense of ethnicity, shared religion and long-term marginalisation.

That does not necessarily mean the Houthi rebels have supporters or sympathisers within the kingdom but it’s a possibility that the Saudi authorities must surely be considering.

Meanwhile, the Saudis are said to have “imposed a naval blockade on the Red Sea coast of northern Yemen to stem the flow of weapons and fighters”, though it is unclear how extensive or effective this will be. With numerous islands dotted around the sea in the vicinity, plus lots of small fishing boats and others bringing refugees from Africa, it’s probably quite difficult to police. The Saudi navy is also quite small, and split between the Gulf and the Red Sea.

A strongly-worded editorial in the Yemen Post suggests the Saudis will get a bloody nose from taking on the Houthis, and that Yemen’s president can now sit back and watch it happen:

The headache of the last five years has suddenly turned into the gift that Salih always dreamed of having, making Saudi pay for its mistakes against Yemen.

Even though we respect Saudi Arabia, we cannot hide the fact that they are the main reason for the sectarian clashes in Saada between Houthis, Zaidis, and the Saudi-supported Wahhabis.

One of the factors underlying the conflict is Zaidi resentment at the spread of Wahhabi/Salafi influences from Saudi Arabia in their area.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 11 November 2009. Comment

Kuwait's heritage industry

Uncovering the past is one thing, but turning it into politicised "heritage" is something else. The National reports the arrival of 13 Polish archaeologists in Kuwait for a "rescue mission" before history is buried under a $77billion megaproject known as City of Silk:

Piotr Bielinski, the director of the research institute who is heading the excavations, said the Poles were on an “intellectual mission”, but because Kuwaitis use archaeology to build a national identity, there is also a political angle.

Mr Bielinski said archaeology in Kuwait was given a boost in 1991 after the allied forces ended the Iraqi occupation ... He said the Kuwaitis started to legitimise their statehood by “looking for particular features of their civilisation”.

But you don't need an archaeologist to dig up the relevant Wikipedia page to find that the Sabah family, who preside over this ancient civilisation, arrived from Nejd (in modern-day Saudi Arabia) as recently as the 18th century.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 11 November 2009. Comment

Saudis admit attacks in Yemen

Saudi Arabia has now admitted what the Houthi rebels have long claimed and the Yemeni government has long denied: it is engaged in cross-border military action in Yemen.

The admission, which was possibly accidental, came when Prince Khaled bin Sultan, the deputy defence minister, visited troops in Jizan province earlier today.

"We are not going to stop the bombing until the Houthis retreat tens of kilometers inside their border," the prince said in remarks reported by the Saudi TV channel, al-Arabiya.

Clearly, pursuing the rebels for tens of kilometers beyond the frontier line cannot be achieved without cross-border action.

Al-Arabiya also said that one of the Saudi soldiers earlier reported missing had "returned to the kingdom" on Monday with important maps and other military documents. It did not say from which country he returned but, given the context, the presumption has to be that it was from Yemen.

Four Saudi soldiers are still missing, possibly held captive by the rebels. A Houthi video posted on the internet purports to show one of them receiving medical attention.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 10 November 2009. Comment

What did the Iraq 'surge' achieve?

Some important new research raises doubts about the effects of the famous "surge" in Iraq and whether it could become a model for Afghanistan

In an article for ISN Security Watch, Claudio Guler argues that the US surge – and the troop increase in particular – was not responsible for ending the flare-up of violence in Iraq in 2006-2007. Instead, he suggests, the surge dovetailed with "converging dynamics on the ground", facilitating a cessation of hostilities rather than directly bringing it about.

"Iraq’s civil war was foremost about the country’s violent post-invasion shift from a Sunni minority-run state under Saddam Hussein to a Shia majority-run country," Guler writes.

A central element in this shift was the sectarian "cleansing" of Baghdad, and a series of maps produced by Michael Izady of Columbia University shows the city's changing sectarian make-up through 2003, 2006, early 2007, late 2007 and 2008-2009.

Pre-invasion Baghdad was the most ethnically diverse part of Iraq, and what the maps demonstrate "is that from early 2006 to mid-2007 the Mahdi army and affiliated Shia militia groups cleansed Baghdad of Sunnis, forcing diehards into Sunni stronghold neighbourhoods in the western part of the city," Gular says. 

Most of the bloodshed associated with this had already occurred before the extra US troops arrived. 

Guler suggests that changes in US military tactics and the embracing of the Sunni "awakening movements" helped to "temper the bloodletting" but the 28,000 extra troops probably "played a marginal role in stamping out smouldering embers".

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 10 November 2009. Comment

Middle East International is back

Middle East International was a unique publication, once described by Edward Said as “the best fortnightly on the region”. Sadly, it closed in 2005 but now it's back, under the editorship of the BBC's former Middle East correspondent, Gerald Butt.

Among other things, the current issue takes a detailed look at the situation in Yemen. It also has a review of my book, What's Really Wrong with the Middle East. The magazine is available both in print and online, and a sample copy can be downloaded free of charge in PDF format.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 10 November 2009. Comment

Video of 'captured Saudi'

Yemen's Houthi rebels have released a video purporting to show a captured Saudi soldier, one of several they claim to be holding after last week's fighting.

"The rebels identified the man, who is seen receiving medical attention in the video, as Ahmed Abdullah Mohammed al-Amri," al-Jazeera reports

The video – which has not been independently verified – is here, along with several others posted on Facebook under the name 

On Sunday, the Yemeni military lost another warplane – the third to crash since Operation Scorched Earth began on August 12. As on previous occasions, the rebels said they shot it down and the government blamed a technical fault.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 10 November 2009. Comment

Facing the music in Kuwait

Another ludicrous parliamentary row has broken out in Kuwait - this time over a decision to include music in the core curriculum of schools.

Mohammad Hayef al-Mutairi, a tribal-Salafist MP, is seeking to grill the prime minister (a move that can lead to impeachment) and threatening to introduce a bill that would ban music from schools altogether.

He is supported by the Kuwaiti Society of the Constituents of Human Rights which says that “requiring students to study music or to produce the biographies of singers and composers is a blatant violation of human rights".

Music has been taught in Kuwait for the last 45 years but from the start of the current school year it counts towards students' overall results.

Salafists believe music is forbidden in Islam but some MPs accuse Mutairi and other Islamists of wasting parliamentary time on trivial issues. The music protest also signals their disapproval of education minister Moudhi al-Humoud, who is a woman. Mutairi is one of seven MPs who walked out during her swearing-in ceremony last year because she was not wearing a headscarf.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 9 November 2009. Comment

Tunisian blogger interrogated

Reinvigorated after its meticulously orchestrated election victory, the Ben Ali regime in Tunisia is hard at work again.

Fatma Riahi, a 34-year-old blogger and drama teacher from Monastir, was detained last week for interrogation – along with her computer. She has since been released following a Facebook campaign and at present it's unclear if she will face charges. Her blog and her personal Facebook page have been deleted.

It's thought the authorities were trying to discover if Fatma has any connection with the cartoonist "Z" whose political satire on the DEBATunisie blog (see below) has enraged the regime.

But it looks as if they are no closer to tracking down the culprit. While Fatma was detained, "Z" posted a cheeky cartoon saying "I am not Fatma. We are all Fatma."

"After the electoral comedy - the feast of Halloween." A recent cartoon by "Z".

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 9 November 2009. Comment

Saudis deport 3,000 to Yemen

One serious question that arises from last week’s fighting between Saudi forces and the Yemeni-based Houthi rebels is whether the “infiltrators” have any support inside the kingdom.

The Saudi authorities certainly seem to be taking no chances. Under the reassuring headline “Situation under total control”, the Saudi daily, Arab News, reveals that some 3,000 people (described as “violators of Saudi residence regulations and unidentified persons”) have been summarily dumped across the border into Yemen – presumably as a result of security checks on the local population.

Portraying the events of the last few days simply as an “incursion” by “infiltrators”, as many of the news reports have done, doesn’t fully reflect the complexities on the ground – in particular the long-standing connections and affinities among inhabitants on both sides of the Yemeni-Saudi border.

Jizan (Jazan, Gizan, Gazan) province is not what we usually think of as “typical” Saudi Arabia. It is one of the ethnically Yemeni areas conquered by the Saudis in 1934 and not permanently ceded by Yemen until the border treaty of June 2000.

The border in this area is difficult to control (especially with numerous islands dotted around the Red Sea nearby) and consequently it’s a hornets’ nest of illicit activity which sometimes extends to government officials.

Local tribes view the border either as a modern inconvenience or an opportunity to make money from smuggling. To avoid arrest, smugglers have even trained donkeys to transport goods across the frontier pathways unaccompanied. This was also the route taken from Yemen by two al-Qaeda militants who were shot dead in Jizan province last month.

The 100,000-plus population of Jizan city, the provincial capital, is a mix of Arabs and Africans – with the Africans mainly of Somali or Eritrean origin. The Yemeni Arabic dialect predominates over Saudi dialects.

In religious terms, Jizan province is traditionally Shia (Zaidi and Isma’ili), with a Sunni minority. Wahhabi influence has increased since the Saudi conquest in the 1930s. This is another element of common ground, since the Houthis in Yemen are also Zaidi Shia.

The root of the “Houthi problem” in Yemen is marginalisation coupled with resentment at encroaching Wahhabism. Similar conditions exist in the southern provinces of Saudi Arabia – so the main threat to Saudi security is not so much attacks by rebel infiltrators as the possibility that sections of the local population might start to identify with their struggle.

Shia Muslims are marginalised throughout the kingdom but there is also an ethnic dimension with the Yemenis, who are often presumed to be illegal migrants or members of a criminal underclass, and this further exacerbates tensions.

The map below shows the area affected by the current fighting in Saudi Arabia, with the white line marking the border. Jabal al-Dukhan, where the rebels first attacked on Tuesday, is at the top right, east of Ruayli. Samtah/Samitah (centre left) is where casualties have been taken to hospital.

Dagharir, where six “infiltrators” were reportedly caught sitting on the roof of the village mosque, is close to the point where the road from Samitah to Ruayli intersects with another on the map. It is well inside Saudi terrority – a good 30 miles by road from the border. Unfortunately, the villages of al-Qarn, Qawa and al-Dafeneyah, mentioned in an AFP report, are not marked.

Shrinking the map brings in Jizan city and the Red Sea. 

View Larger Map

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 8 November 2009. Comment

Saudis continue battle with Yemeni rebels

Saudi Arabia continued its air strikes against Yemen’s Houthi rebels yesterday but insisted all the attacks were confined to Saudi territory.

Similar air strikes on Thursday were widely reported to have included targets inside Yemen. Two videos posted on the internet (here and here) purport to show the Saudi airforce in action over Yemen. The Yemeni government continues to deny this – probably for political reasons. It does, however, admit that the two countries are “cooperating and sharing intelligence”.

The Saudis say they have captured 103 Yemeni rebels on Saudi territory in the Jabal al-Dukhan area – including 40 who were trying to escape disguised as women. The rebels, in turn, say they have captured an unspecified number of Saudi soldiers

Although the air strikes now appear to have ceased, ground operations are reported to be continuing today – suggesting that some rebels are still in the area.

I’m not sure that “incursion” is the best word to describe the rebels’ presence in Saudi Arabia, because there has always been a lot of unregulated cross-border by the local population. A Reuters article suggests the rebels have been using the kingdom as a “back base” and the Saudis have come under pressure from Yemen to put a stop to it. (The article, incidentally, contains a good deal of useful background information.)

There’s no indication that Saudi Arabia wants to become heavily involved in Yemen militarily – the result would be a quagmire – but there’s a risk of being gradually drawn in. Some already view the Houthi conflict as a proxy war, with Sunni Saudi Arabia on one side and Shia Iran on the other. That probably overstates the situation at the moment, though it’s clearly heading in that direction.

On the Iranian side, we now have a few more details about the “arms ship” detained by Yemeni forces on October 26 with a crew of five Iranians and one Indian. Finally, there is a photo of it:

Almotamar website (connected President Salih’s party) says its name is Mahan 1 – which also happens to be the name of a US Navy destroyer – and it has a cargo capacity of 1,000 tons.

The Yemen Observer gives its name as Yohan 1 and says those on board threw equipment into the sea before they were arrested.

"The Iranian crew of the ship destroyed the SIMs of the mobiles and all documents in their laptops and some of the ship's devices so that nobody can understand where the ship came from and where it was going," an unnamed investigator is quoted as saying.

The ship was reportedly stopped near Midi and the Yemen Observer says: “Midi harbour is only a few kilometers away from al-Malahaid, the western frontline of fighting between al-Houthi rebels and the government troops.”

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 7 November 2009. Comment

Coming soon: female muftis

The UAE is likely to appoint its first government-approved female muftis by the end of next year, according to The National. Six women are currently being considered for the training programme, which last several months.

A mufti is a scholar qualified to interpret Islamic law and issue religious opinions (fatwas).

The move appears to be the most significant of several changes in various Arab countries that are beginning to give women a greater role in religious affairs.

The Abu Dhabi fatwa centre, for instance, already has female religious advisers but their role is limited to "women's issues". The new female muftis will have a wider role advising on "matters of worship, jurisprudence, morality and behaviour", Dubai's Grand Mufti, Ahmed al-Haddad, said.

AFP notes that last year Egypt appointed its first female Islamic notary with the ability to perform marriages and divorces, and that since 2006, Morocco has trained mourchidates – female "guides" who give religious advice, especially in prisons, hospitals and schools.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 6 November 2009. Comment

Saudi Arabia joins the war

Saudi forces hit back relentlessly at Yemen's Houthi rebels earlier today with fighter jets and artillery.

The attack followed a border incident on Tuesday when rebels crossed into Saudi territory, killing at least one soldier, and apparently seized an area known as Jabal al-Dukhan. Saudi forces are now said to have recaptured the territory, killing about 40 rebels in the process.

Numerous reports from various sources say the Saudis also attacked the rebels with air and artillery fire inside Yemen. Possibly special forces are involved on the ground too. According to al-Jazeera, six locations were hit in Yemen, including one that received about 100 missiles in the space of an hour.

Although the Houthis have been alleging Saudi military involvement for some time, Yemen continues to deny it. However, today's statement from the government news agency not a blanket denial; it merely denied Saudi "air raids targeting Yemeni villages".

Saudi involvement would be unpopular with many Yemenis and admitting it would cause a serious loss of face for the government, implying (probably correctly) that its own military is incapable of handling the situation itself.

Now, though, it's looking as if the Saudis intend to become much more heavily and openly involved. One Saudi source talked to AP of "a sustained operation which aims to finish this problem on our border". If the conflict drags on, this in turn could lead to increased Iranian support for the Shia rebels.

In the light of President Salih's recent call to end the conflict within 10 days, it may be that Yemen and Saudi Arabia have agreed on a combined push to quell the rebellion.

The Yemen Observer's report of Yemeni tanks and artillery destroying houses in a rebel-held district of Saada city suggests the government may be close to regaining control there. That would be a significant breakthrough, though the rebels do have a habit of resurfacing in unexpected places.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 5 November 2009 at 21.00 GMT. Comment

Reforming Arab education

In Arab schools, the time allotted to religious instruction is far above the global average of 5%. In Saudi Arabia it is 28%, in Yemen 20%, in Sudan 18% and in Oman 17%. This is one of the factors that skew the curriculum, with the result that maths is virtually the only subject where the proportion of teaching time (around 16%) matches the rest of the world.

Comparisons such as these – between the Arab countries and between the Arab region and other parts of the world – are one of the strengths of the Arab Knowledge Report published last month. They help pinpoint areas of deficiency which, hopefully, can be addressed by policymakers.

I wrote an introductory note about the report here a few days ago and promised to take a more detailed look later at three of its key chapters.

The chapter on education runs to more than 40 pages and I won't try to summarise it all. It covers the whole range, from literacy at the most basic level, through to postgraduate studies at universities.

One thing that stands out, though, is that in education there are problems of both quantity and quality. For example, in maths, where by world standards the quantity seems right, there is obviously something wrong with the quality. In a comparative maths test, Arab students from 10 countries performed noticeably worse than the international average.

The key question, of course, is what to do about it. The report says:

The poor quality of education almost across the board in Arab countries and, indeed, the quantitative deficiencies in many of them, reveal that our dream of using education as the avenue to becoming masters of nature and of our fate – the great dream of the Arab Renaissance – remains thwarted. Some of the obstacles have been inherited from the past, but others are rooted in our failure to properly manage our problems in education ...

Better management, wiser allocation of resources and so on can certainly make a difference, but the report doesn't really acknowledge the limitations of this "must try harder" approach. You can't go very far down that road before running into the problem of political choices. Imagine the furore, for instance, if Saudi Arabia tried to cut its religious education quota down to the world average. Not even the king would dare to do that.

Amid all the facts and figures, useful as they are, what I felt the report fails to convey is any real sense of the character of Arab education – of the culture that encourages people to absorb what they are told without asking questions.

I heard some horrifying stories from students and ex-students while researching my recent book. One, who had studied economics at a university in Egypt, told me:

There was an emphasis on making profuse notes when you attended lectures. You tried to get the professor’s [exact] wording because you would be expected to regurgitate that in the exam and the closer you came to how the professor put it, the higher the grade you were likely to get.

A lot of that, he said, is about "prestige and authoritarianism in the sense that professors expect you to act like a disciple – what they say is gospel". He added: "I would often question the professor’s thinking in lectures and exam papers, and that hurt my grades."

A Moroccan told me that at his secondary school students believed they could get higher marks by writing "bismillah" at the start of an essay and decorating it nicely with coloured pens.

These attitudes, far more than resources or good management, are the central problem in Arab education – and ultimately this is a social and political issue. 

In principle, Arab governments are happy to "improve" education if that brings economic benefits further down the line. For the most part, though, they don't want improvements that will produce thoughtful, informed citizens with original or unorthodox ideas. But in an age where economic progress and so much else hangs on free flows of information and thinking outside the box, they can't have it both ways.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 5 November 2009. Comment

Tackling slavery in Mauritania

Mauritania's law against slavery is not being properly enforced and victims are not encouraged to come forward, according to a UN expert who has just completed a fact-finding mission to the country.

Although "significant steps" have been taken, "a comprehensive and holistic national strategy" is needed, the UN Special Rapporteur, Gulnara Shahinian, told a news conference in the capital, Nouakchott. If the issue is not addressed, "slavery in all its forms may be an obstacle to the stability, sustainable development and prosperity of Mauritania,” she warned.

The practice of owning slaves, which has gone on for centuries, was not criminalised in Mauritania until two years ago. Since then, no one has been prosecuted but Ms Shahinian said she was informed that the government has "some cases under investigation".

The afrol News website says "Only the recent military reform government under Colonel Ely Ould Mohamed Vall (2005-07) and the democratic government under President Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi (2007-08) seriously addressed slavery in the country."

The current regime, led by president, Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz, who seized power in 2008 and recently won a dodgy election, has shown little interest in fighting slavery and helping slaves to be freed, afrol News says.

Ms Shahinian, who will report to the UN Human Rights Council next year, is urging changes in the 2007 law. These include a clearer definition of slavery (which would facilitate prosecutions) and support programmes for victims that would encourage them to come forward.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 5 November 2009. Comment

'Ten more days' of war in Yemen

President Salih has ordered Yemen's military to "put an end to the battles with the Houthi insurgents within 10 days", according to the Yemen Post. 

Whether this is a realistic prospect, or whether it will simply open an even more bloody phase in the conflict, remains to be seen. In a speech on October 14, Salih predicted that victory would be declared "over the coming few days" but it didn't happen.

On Tuesday, the rebels clashed with Saudi forces – reportedly for the first time on Saudi soil. One Saudi border guard was killed and 11 others injured. This could possibly signify a widening of the conflict (the Houthis have repeatedly accused Saudi Arabia of providing military support for Yemen's military) but at the moment it looks more like an isolated incident. AFP cites a website close to the rebels as saying the clash started when Saudi border guards fired on one of their vehicles, killing one person. 

The Times interprets the skirmish as a sign that the rebels "have been backed up against the Saudi border" by Yemeni forces.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 5 November 2009. Comment

Torture in Egypt: UN report

Amid all the fuss about the Goldstone Report and accusations of anti-Israel bias at the Human Rights Council, another damning UN report – this time about Egypt – has attracted zero attention from the world's media.

The report, issued last month, is by Martin Scheinin, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Protection of Human Rights while Countering Terrorism and, according to the source who sent me a link to it, the Egyptian government is "really pissed off" – especially about the parts that discuss systematic torture, secret detentions and extraordinary renditions.

Professor Scheinin visited Egypt last April, mainly to look at the government's plans for ending its exceptional powers under the "state of emergency" (which has been in force almost continuously for more than half a century) and replacing them with an anti-terrorism law. He was not happy with what he found.

The draft anti-terrorism law "appears to include in the definition of terrorism acts that do not entail physical violence against human beings" such as the occupation of buildings, his report says.

The Egyptian authorities also seemed to have a rather wide-ranging notion of what constitutes a "terrorist organisation". "Any anti-terrorism law that is not properly confined to the countering of terrorism is problematic," the report warns.

Professor Sheinin was also troubled by the "highly problematic" Article 179 of the Egyptian constitution (as amended in 2007) which appears to allow detentions, home searches and surveillance or seizure of communications without judicial oversight. Article 179, he says, "carries features of a permanent state of emergency, although under a new name".

In a section headed "Irregular detention facilities and the use of torture during investigation of alleged terrorist crimes", the report speaks of "an alarming lack of judicial oversight" for facilities run by the State Security Investigations (SSI).

Although torture by the security services "appears to display a systematic pattern" and suspects held by the SSI are "at particular risk", it says that "complaints against SSI officers in this regard have produced no results".

Noting "credible indications that Egypt has been one of the most prominent countries involved" in the much-criticised CIA rendition programme, the report says: "The Special Rapporteur regrets that the government of Egypt has not started any meaningful internal investigation into any rendition case, and he is deeply concerned about its passive obstruction of investigations by other countries by refusing to cooperate ..."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 4 November 2009. Comment

Al-Qaeda threat to Hizbullah?

The Lebanese Shia organisation, Hizbullah, is on its highest possible state of alert, according to The National. Besides confirmation of this from an unnamed Hizbullah military commander, the paper notes signs of unusually strict security measures on the ground.

“In 20 years, I have never seen Hizbullah this paranoid and worried about security incidents,” a resident of Beirut's southern suburbs with close ties to the organisation is quoted as saying.

Although the alert may be connected with Israel, The National suggests the cause of Hizbullah's fear could be coming from another direction: Sunni militants linked to al-Qaeda.

The article mentions "a reported influx of Sunni jihadists from across the region who are drawn to Lebanon because of its poor internal security, proximity to Israel and its large population of Shiites". It quotes an official from Hizbullah's military wing who says: “The Qaeda guys want to target us, you can see their statements on the internet about targeting the Islamic Resistance in Lebanon.”

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 4 November 2009. Comment

Security chiefs killed in Yemen

Suspected al-Qaeda militants ambushed and killed three senior security officials along with several guards yesterday near the Saudi border in Yemen's south-eastern Hadramawt province. The dead included the chief of political security for Hadramawt, the regional security chief and the head of the regional criminal investigation division. Reports: AFP, BBC, New York Times.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 4 November 2009. Comment

UPDATE at 0820 GMT: In an unrelated incident, Houthi rebels from northern Yemen appear to have carried out their first attack inside Saudi territory. A Saudi security officer has reportedly been killed and the rebels claim to have captured a mountainous area known as Jabal al-Dukhan.

Investigating slavery in Mauritania

The UN's special rapporteur on modern forms of slavery, Gulnara Shahinian, is due to complete a two-week fact-finding visit to Mauritania with a press conference today.

Despite legislation against it, light-skinned Arab Muslims (bidanes) continue to own black-skinned haratines, though estimates of the numbers vary wildly. Many technically "freed" slaves are said to remain dependent on their former masters.

A report by Anti-Slavery International in 2002 said:

Virtually all cases of slavery in Mauritania concern individuals whose ancestors were enslaved many generations ago. Birth continues to impose slave status on different ethnic groups, whereby they are viewed as slaves by some and as servants or family retainers by others. They typically work as herders of livestock, agricultural workers and domestic servants, but remain completely dependent on their traditional masters to whom they pass virtually all the money they earn or for whom they work directly in exchange for food and lodgings.

Slavery in Mauritania was officially abolished by a presidential decree in 1981 but it was not until 2007 that a law was passed criminalising the practice, with penalties of up to 10 years in jail for owning slaves.

Before leaving for Mauritania, Ms Shahinian – the first UN slavery expert to visit the country – said her aim was to investigate "the impact of this newly-adopted legislation”. She will present a report on her findings to the Human Rights Council next year. 

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 3 November 2009. Comment

The Arab Knowledge Report

Last week I noted the publication of the first Arab Knowledge Report and said I would come back with more comments after taking a closer look.

Sadly, my first reaction was one of disappointment. The Arabist blog is right to say the report contains “a lot of turgid language”, which makes the content less accessible than it might have been. The report also re-traces a lot of ground previously covered by the Arab Human Development Reports. That is probably unavoidable, but at least it provides more detail with more up-to-date information.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on it, though. It’s not meant to be the last word on the state of Arab knowledge but, rather, the first in a series of reports. And it does pinpoint a host of issues that merit further investigation, either in subsequent Arab Knowledge reports or by other researchers.

The knowledge project – a joint venture by the UNDP and the Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Foundation – is based on two premises. Firstly, that knowledge, development and freedom are inter-related. Secondly, that building a knowledge society “tends to engender social development, including economic, social, and cultural efforts to overcome the deficiencies that limit the expansion of human well-being” [p27]. This seems a reasonable starting point. 

The aim, the report says, is “to furnish the Arab decision-maker, specialist, and citizen with a reference study that includes reliable indicators by which to measure the condition of knowledge in the Arab countries and thus assist with the development of plans and the assessment of performance and to kindle the spirit of competitiveness in a field in which this is of the essence” [pII].

The report is clearly seeking to influence policy in a positive direction, but that is where things start to get tricky and political. It’s not just a matter of providing “better” education, more computers, and so on. You can’t build a knowledge society without also changing the nature of Arab society and the regimes that govern it. Nor can you build a knowledge society without challenging a lot of the current religious teaching.

Not surprisingly, the report doesn’t really get to grips with this fundamental problem, though it does hint at it here and there.
Despite all that, though, there’s still plenty of meat to chew on and over the next few days I hope to look in more detail at three of the key chapters – on education; information and communications technology; and research and innovation. 

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 3 November 2009. Comment

Book review

The first review of my book, What's Really Wrong with the Middle East was published today in the Jordan Times.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 2 November 2009. Comment

Egypt's 'war on butterflies'

You've probably heard of the butterfly effect – an idea in chaos theory where some small event, such as a butterfly flapping its wings, can trigger hurricanes, tidal waves and other cataclysms.

In order to avert such crises in the future, Dr Makhboul Rasmi, a scientist at Azhar hospital, has come up with a plan to exterminate all of Egypt's butterflies, and he'll be presenting a paper on the subject at the Copenhagen Climate Summit next month, according to El Koshary Today.

It's completely untrue, of course. The story is mocking the Egyptian government's ludicrous decision last April to slaughter all the country's pigs in the mistaken belief that this would prevent the spread of swine flu.

El Koshary – named after the cheap but filling Egyptian dish and billing itself as "Egypt's most reliable news source" – was created by web designer Tarek Shalaby, and good luck to him. 

I've often thought there's far too little satire in the Middle East. But perhaps that's because the reality is often so bizarre that satirists can't improve on it. Anyway, all we have to do now is sit back and see who will be the first blogger or news organisation to pick up one of El Koshary's stories and report it as fact.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 2 November 2009. Comment

Dangers of slamming the door

Writing in The National, Marc Lynch of George Washington University cautions against slamming the door on democratic currents within Islamist movements.

"Moderate Islamist movements across the Arab world have made a decisive turn towards participation in democratic politics over the last 20 years," he says. "They have developed an elaborate ideological justification for contesting elections, which they have defended against intense criticism from more radical Islamist competitors. 

"But rather than welcome this development, secular authoritarian regimes have responded with growing repression. Again and again, successful electoral participation by Islamists has triggered a backlash, often with the consent – if not the encouragement – of the United States."

After examining in some detail the efforts to suppress the Muslim Brotherhood in Jordan and Egypt, and alluding to western rejection of Hamas's electoral victory in 2006, he concludes:

The Jordanian, Egyptian and American governments may see all this as something of a success story: the influence of the Islamists has been curbed, both in formal politics and in the social sector, and the restraint exercised by the Brotherhood leadership has meant the states have not faced a backlash. 

But this is dangerously short-sighted. The campaigns against Islamists weaken the foundations of democracy as a whole, not just the appeal of one movement, and have had a corrosive effect on public freedoms, transparency and accountability ...

Sowing disenchantment with democratic politics in the ranks of the Brotherhood could forfeit one of the signal developments in Islamist political thinking of the last few decades. The failure of the movement’s democratic experiment could empower more radical Islamists, including not only terrorist groups but also doctrinaire salafists less inclined to pragmatic politics.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 2 November 2009. Comment

Al-Azhar capitulates over niqab

Al-Azhar's bold but brief confrontation with the niqab (face veil) seems to have fizzled out, leaving Mohammed Tantawi, the government-appointed Sheikh of al-Azhar, with egg all over his face.

It began early last month when Tantawi asked a female student to remove her niqab, reportedly saying there was no Islamic obligation to wear it. Tantawi was heavily criticised at the time – not only by Islamists but also human rights groups arguing for freedom of choice – and on Saturday the research centre at al-Azhar (Egypt's oldest university) issued a definitive set of rules which amount to a wholesale capitulation. There are three situations where female students should remove the niqab, the research centre said:

1. In an all-female class with women teachers; 
2. In exam rooms when all students and supervisors are women;
3. In all-female dormitories.

It is hard to imagine even the most conservative salafis finding fault with that, but it doesn't really get Tantawi off the hook. None of those rules would apply to the situation where he asked the student to take off her veil.

An article by Yasser Khalil in the Daily Star discusses the political/religious ramification of the controversy. He suggests it has damaged al-Azhar because Tantawi is viewed by Egyptians as too much influenced by the government and "more concerned with upholding the current regime than religious principles".

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 1 November 2009. Comment

President of mass destruction

A journalist who described President Salih as a "weapon of mass destruction" has been given a two-year jail sentence and banned from writing for two years by Yemen's special press court. 

Munir al-Mawri, who now lives in the US and was tried in his absence, also questioned the president's political ability and accused him of protecting corrupt officials in an article for al-Masdar newspaper last May.

The paper's editor, Sameer Jubran, was given a one-year sentence, plus a one-year ban from his post.

According to the head of the Yemeni Journalists' Syndicate, these are the toughest sentences imposed on journalists since 1990, when Yemen formally espoused press freedom. A court set up specifically to deal with media "offences" started work last July with about 150 cases pending.

Article 103 of the Yemeni press law says it is forbidden to criticise "the person" of the head of state but adds, ambiguously, that this does "not necessarily apply to constructive criticism".

In remarks quoted by the German Press Agency, al-Masdar's editor argues that the article in question was a criticism of "the president's performance", not his person.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 1 November 2009. Comment

Previous blog posts




November 2009

God or government?

Tunisian president: health rumours

Yemen 'dragged Saudis into war'

Reflections on Eid al-Adha

What's Really Wrong ...

Too graphic for Egypt

Doing the hajj in style

Jailing Egypt's boat people

Deadly clashes in southern Yemen

A very British coup

Saudi witch hunt

Rescuing Yemen?

Kuwait's prime minister may face grilling

Saudi troops 'enter Yemen'

Widows 'bring bad luck'

Rebels kill three Saudi soldiers

'Indecency' in the UAE

Saudi Arabia's border clear-out

Arabic and information technology

Plight of Lebanon’s Palestinians

Saudis fanning the flames

Palin’s peace process

Clashes in southern Yemen

Qatar's progress against corruption

Moroccan journalists face jail

With respect, Mr President ...

Clearing out civilians

After the meal ... jail and flogging

Shielding corruption

Lining up against the Shia

Rebels' challenge to Saudi state

Kuwait's heritage industry

Saudis admit attacks in Yemen

What did the Iraq 'surge' achieve?

Middle East International is back

Video of 'captured Saudi'

Facing the music in Kuwait

Tunisian blogger interrogated

Saudis deport 3,000 to Yemen

Saudis continue battle with Yemeni rebels

Coming soon: female muftis

Saudi Arabia joins the war

Reforming Arab education

Tackling slavery in Mauritania

'Ten more days' of war in Yemen

Torture in Egypt: UN report

Al-Qaeda threat to Hizbullah?

Security chiefs killed in Yemen

Investigating slavery in Mauritania

The Arab Knowledge Report

Book review

Egypt's 'war on butterflies'

Dangers of slamming the door

Al-Azhar capitulates over niqab

President of mass destruction


Blog archive

All blog posts

General topics

Saudi Arabia 


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



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Last revised on 13 December, 2009