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Squabbling over the Rosetta Stone

Among the objects on sale at the British Museum shop in London are miniature reproductions of the Rosetta Stone, along with Rosetta Stone bags, Rosetta Stone neckties, Rosetta Stone mugs, Rosetta Stone teatowels, even Rosetta Stone umbrellas.

All that could stop if Zahi Hawass, head of Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities, gets his way. He wants the famous stone returned to Egypt where it was inscribed more than 2,000 years ago and eventually discovered in 1799.

"It is an icon of our Egyptian identity and its homeland should be Egypt," he says.

Personally, I don't care where it's kept and, apart from curiosity value, I can't see a lot of point in going to view the stone, as it were, in the flesh. It's an important artefact, certainly, but not in any sense a beautiful object.

Describing it as "an icon of Egyptian identity" entirely misses the point (though the claim has given Dr Hawass some welcome publicity at a time when he is promoting his latest book). True, the stone's inscription does cast some light on the Ptolemaic period in Egypt (tax concessions for temple priests) but that is a minor matter.

The stone's real significance is that its text is written in three scripts: Greek, hieroglyphic and demotic (the script used for everyday purposes in ancient Egypt). The British Museum explains:

Soon after the end of the fourth century AD, when hieroglyphs had gone out of use, the knowledge of how to read and write them disappeared. In the early years of the 19th century, some 1400 years later, scholars were able to use the Greek inscription on this stone as the key to decipher them. 

Thomas Young, an English physicist, was the first to show that some of the hieroglyphs on the Rosetta Stone wrote the sounds of a royal name, that of Ptolemy. The French scholar Jean-François Champollion then realised that hieroglyphs recorded the sound of the Egyptian language and laid the foundations of our knowledge of ancient Egyptian language and culture.

This was a major French-British achievement and a noble example of international cooperation.

In the light of that, claiming that the stone rightfully belongs in Egypt or Britain, or even France, seems narrow-minded and petty. In a sense, the stone is no longer of any value: it has yielded up its secrets and the knowledge thus provided is the property of the world.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 15 December 2009. Comment

Yemeni president calls national dialogue

President Ali Abdullah Salih of Yemen has now set a date for the start of a "national dialogue" on "all the issues that concern the homeland". It is to begin on December 26 and will be held under the auspices of the Shura Council – the presidentailly-appointed upper house of parliament.

In a speech at the end of Ramadan, Salih said:

"We renew the call to all political forces in the government and opposition with whom we share the responsibility of building and developing our country to discuss all our national issue and concerns through an open dialogue. A dialogue that is away and free from violence or imposing conditions. We need to reach common grounds to achieve the goals of the dialogue." 

According to the ruling party's website and the official Saba news agency, those invited to take part are:

  • Members of the Shoura Council

  • Political parties registered with the Party Affairs Committee

  • 22 scholars from the Yemen Scholars' Association

  • Heads of parliamentary blocs 

  • Chairpersons of "successful" civil society organisations

  • 22 sheikhs and social dignitaries

  • Secretaries-general of local councils across the republic 

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 15 December 2009. Comment

A fight to the finish?

I haven't written about the Yemeni-Saudi-Houthi war for a while, mainly because it's so difficult to work out what is really going on. 
The Saudis, who became heavily involved early last month, continue to claim success after success against the rebels, though as the Washington Institute notes, "the fighting has not been going entirely well for the Saudi forces".

Saudi forces using tanks and helicopter gunships have been fighting for several days to regain the border post of al-Jabiri, which they earlier denied having lost to the rebels. 

The rebels claimed to have captured al-Jabiri on Wednesday, forcing 200 Saudi troops to flee, but a Saudi official quoted by Asharq al-Awsat newspaper at the time suggested this was impossible: "A Houthi cannot get close to the Saudi border without either being killed or surrendering," he said.

There was more confusion in Yemen yesterday over a series of air strikes on the village of Bani Maan (in the Razah district of Saada province) which according to the rebels killed at least 70 people and wounded more than 100. The rebels blamed Saudi warplanes, while Yemen's military said their own aircraft had carried out a number of raids in the area.

It is now exactly two months since President Salih announced that victory was at hand and it would all be over in a matter of days. Again, at the beginning of November, he reportedly ordered his commanders to "put an end to the battles with the Houthi insurgents within 10 days" – but they didn't.

Saudi involvement has raised the Yemeni government's hopes that victory can be achieved eventually, despite warnings from the US that the Houthi problem cannot be resolved militarily. 

At the weekend, Ali Muhammad al-Anisi, head of Yemen's national security agency said the government is determined to win the war. He also said that earlier attempts at mediation had only allowed the Houthis to build up their military strength and readiness.

Meanwhile, the US seems to be getting more involved militarily, though still at arm's length. The Saudi news channel, al-Arabiya, is due to broadcast a pre-recorded interview with General David Petraeus this evening and, according to the channel's website, he says that "US ships found in Yemeni waters are not only there for monitoring but for also for hindering the flow of arms to Houthi rebels".

The Saudi navy is already patrolling the Red Sea coast in an attempt to cut off arms supplies but, as far as I am aware, this is the first mention of the US Navy joining in. 

The Daily Telegraph reports that Oman – Yemen's eastern neighbour – is also stepping up its naval patrols "around the Arabian peninsula". The paper says the aim of the Omani operations is to prevent movement by al-Qaeda elements between Yemen and South Asia. Yemen's own naval capacity is minimal, so it appears that the Saudis, Americans and Omanis have got together to guard its coastline.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 14 December 2009. Comment

Orientalism in reverse

Controversy continues to surround Joseph Massad of Columbia University and his book, Desiring Arabs. Earlier this month, the ResetDOC website published an interview with Massad where he renewed his attack on western gay rights activists who, he said, insist on inflicting "epistemic and physical violence" against "other peoples and societies in the name of liberation and in the name of reproducing a world in their own image".

Besides attacking the "Gay International" (as he calls it), Massad's book is also dismissive of local – Arab – gay activism, and in his recent interview he described Helem, the Lebanese LGBT organisation, as "founded by a tiny minority of individuals who want to assimilate into the western gay movement".

This has now provoked a lengthy reply from Ghassan Makarem, one of the founders of Helem, arguing that contrary to what Massad might think, they are not agents of the west.

Massad was a protégé of the late Edward Said, author of the influential book, Orientalism, and he claims that Desiring Arabs was written with Said's support. However, it is doubtful whether Said read a complete draft before he died. Massad later had a dispute about its content with Harvard University Press, the publisher that Said had lined up for him, and switched to the University of Chicago Press.

Part of Said's critique in Orientalism, as Dror Ze'evi notes, focused on the way western writers and artists represented oriental sexuality: "By falsely endowing the Orient with a different, corrupt sexual urge, Europe and America could rationalise their colonialist schemes."


A different kind of sexuality? The cover of Orientalism shows Jean-Léon Gérôme’s painting, “The Snake Charmer” (1883)

Although Massad seems to regard Desiring Arabs as reinforcing Said's arguments, his book actually suggests the orientalists were right in that there really is such as thing as a specifically oriental sexuality. Ze'evi comments: 

Rather than create an imaginary and false construct of the Orient, as Said claimed, what “the west” effectively tries to do [according to Massad] is efface this difference and incorporate the Orient into the heteronormalised Occident, in total disregard of the damage done to its inhabitants.

These two conflicting views, from Said and Massad, are not easily reconciled – which prompts Ze'evi to describe Massad's book as "first and foremost a refutation" of Said's Orientalism thesis (though perhaps unintentionally so).

But I think that is going too far. Massad's book is basically a case of "reverse orientalism", an increasingly popular attitude in the Middle East which accepts the first part of the orientalists' view – that Arabs and the west are essentially different – but then turns it into an argument for cultural protectionism, resisting all kinds of "foreign" influence. 

The opposing argument is that different cultures can (and should) interact with each other for their mutual benefit – and this is what seems to have been happening with perceptions of homosexuality.

Ze'evi, the author of a book on sexual discourses during the Ottoman period in the Middle East, writes:

Massad clearly shows that from the beginning of the twentieth century, long before the wicked “Gay International” was hatched, Arab literature has been grappling with the notion of homosexuality. In fact ... Massad's evidence reveals that for more than a century the spectre of heteronormalcy (or the rigid division of people into heterosexuals and homosexuals) has engendered deep anxiety in Arab literary production.

It should be obvious that such a long-term entanglement with the notion of homosexuality could not but produce a sizable group of people who understand and define themselves or some of their peers as homosexuals, at least in literate circles. 

If Massad's evidence is to be trusted, then he is completely wrong in his conclusions. Arab homosexuality and the persecution of gays are not products of “The Gay International” but rather of a long and intense engagement between Arab East and European West. If ever there was a moment when East and West were two completely separate and uncontaminated spheres of sexuality, it disappeared the moment the first modern Arab author described Abu Nuwas as a corrupt homosexual.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 13 December 2009. Comment

UPDATE: Massad later wrote a reply to Makarem.

Return of Prince Sultan

Arab News has a predictably deferential editorial today welcoming the return of Prince Sultan, heir to the Saudi throne, "after a full recovery from his illness".

"We share the general pleasure at his recovery and join with everyone in warmly welcoming him home," it says.

The prince, who is thought to be 83 or older, had spent most of this year "convalescing" at his palace in Morocco following surgery for an unspecified illness in the United States. 

Although Arab News looks forward to his "resumption of duties", others are drawing parallels with the terminally ill King Hussein who returned to Jordan in 1999 after treatment in the US, only to die a few days later.

Prince Sultan is thought to not get on well with 85-year-old King Abdullah and, in the words of Wikipedia, "his alleged roles in numerous corruption scandals involving hundreds of billions of dollars in military contracts ... severely marred his public persona".

In the event of Prince Sultan's death, the reactionary Prince Nayef, 76, is expected to become Crown Prince and heir to the throne.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 12 December 2009. Comment

Civil rights move blocked in Kuwait

A bill that aims to grant civil rights to almost 100,000 stateless Arabs in Kuwait was stymied yesterday because too few MPs turned up to discuss it.

The debate had been scheduled for December 10 to coincide with 
International Human Rights Day but only 26 MPs and five ministers were present – two short of a quorum. (The full parliament consists of 49 elected MPs and 16 ministers.) After waiting half an hour the Speaker adjourned the session.

The stateless people, known as bidoon or bedoun (from the Arabic word for “without”), are long-term residents who have not been recognised under Kuwait’s 1959 nationality law. Their problem was explained more fully in a Human Rights Watch report nine years ago and, more recently in a US State Department report.

According to the Kuwait Times, the bill that MPs were due to consider yesterday “stipulates granting a majority of Bedouns permanent residence permit to live in Kuwait, the right to free medication, education and work. It also grants them the right to obtain birth and death certificates, attest their marriage certificates, obtain a driver's licence and a passport.”

Some MPs oppose the bill and the government is also said to have some reservations, which may partly explain the absenteeism. But there were also claims yesterday that the interior minister had sabotaged the session by imposing a security blockade around the parliament building. This was ostensibly to prevent the bidoon and their supporters from holding a demonstration but – accidentally or intentionally – it may have prevented some MPs from arriving in time.

The Kuwait Times says:

MP Hassan Jowhar, head of the parliamentary committee for bedouns, regretted that the long-awaited session was aborted on the anniversary of the Universal Declaration for Human Rights. "It's unfortunate, as if we are telling the world that we are against human rights" Jowhar said.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 11 December 2009. Comment

Hacker 'used Yemen ministry's ID'

The NewsYemen website, which was destroyed by a hacker last month, is back in business with a limited service in Arabic only. The website has blamed the Yemeni authorities for destroying its data.

In a press release, NewsYemen says it met the Yemeni telecommunications minister on Saturday and he confirmed that anyone from the ministry who was proved to have been involved in the attack would be punished.

News Yemen says that according to its US-based hosting company, the hacker used an ID belonging to Yaser al-Emad, director of the internet department in the telecommunications ministry. It also says there had been a series of failed attempts to hack the site during the previous six months.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 10 December 2009. Comment

Kuwaiti prime minister questioned

Kuwait's prime minister, Sheikh Nasser Mohammed al-Ahmed al-Sabah, is due to face a no-confidence motion in parliament next week following six hours' questioning by MPs behind closed doors.

The questioning of Sheikh Nasser – who is the emir's nephew – was an unprecedented political event in Kuwait.

The formal questioning of ministers, which under the constitution can lead to a vote of no confidence, is something the ruling family has often manoeuvred to avoid. Since the Kuwaiti parliament was established in 1962, more than 30 ministers (though never before a prime minister) have been questioned but questioning has often been pre-empted by resignations, cabinet reshuffles and even the dissolution of parliament. 

The questioning of Sheikh Nasser followed allegations about misuse of public funds and a personal cheque given to a former MP.

In a statement after the grilling, Sheikh Nasser said it was his duty to face questions because he believed in democracy.

There were some protests at the decision – by 40 votes to 23 – to hold the questioning in private but even so it can be considered an important milestone towards ministerial accountability.

The coming no-confidence motion could still be blocked by the emir but it's looking more likely that the government will decide to sit it out, since Sheikh Nasser would probably win if it came to a vote. The ruling family's concern seems to be over their possible loss of dignity in the process.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 10 December 2009. Comment

UPDATE: The prime minister survived a confidence vote on December 16 with 35 votes in his favour, 13 against and one abstention.

In Dubai, they still don't get it

It began with a caricature of Dubai's ruler, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al-Maktoum, floundering in a sea of debt. At the Sunday Times, they probably thought nothing of it: far less flattering images of politicians appear day after day in the world's press. But in Dubai it proved too much for the authorities ... 

Read more at Comment Is Free

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 9 December 2009. Comment

New paper in Syria

Following the unlamented closure of the government-run Syria Times last year, a new English-language daily is being launched in Damascus today.

It's called Baladna English and it's produced by the United Group, already publishes the Arabic-language Baladna.

So far, there's nothing on its website that could alarm the authorities. Nothing at all.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 9 December 2009. Comment

Dire state of Egypt's opposition

Egypt's opposition parties have become so fixated on campaigning against the succession of President Mubarak's son that they are losing sight of other issues crucial to their political future, Amr Hamzawy of the Carnegie Middle East Centre says in an article for The National:

While opposition forces have been exclusively focused on the one issue – Gamal Mubarak’s possible ascendancy – the Egyptian regime has been carefully creating an environment which will sustain its rule. The ruling elite is no newcomer to this game. They have consistently manipulated the political process by preventing the opposition from registering candidates in elections, obstructing the campaign process, and fomenting violence on election day.

In contrast to the ruling elite’s clear direction, the opposition has no guiding compass and is left wandering through the challenges posed by the political agenda in Egypt. Their failure cannot be solely attributed to the regime’s repressive measures – a great part of the responsibility belongs to the opposition parties themselves.

Egyptians, he says, "are in desperate need of competent political parties" but the opposition is failing in several important areas.

The Muslim Brotherhood, despite winning an unprecedented 88 parliamentary seats in 2005, "has yet to push for serious reform of the political system", he says, and there are unresolved concerns about its positions "on equal citizenship rights for Copts and Muslims, women’s participation in politics and freedom of expression".

He suggests three key priorities for the opposition parties:

1. To clarify their stance on the question of domestic and international monitoring of elections.

2. To prioritise calls for abolition of the emergency law.

3. To become "more attuned to new political opportunities, expanding grassroots activities to capitalise on growing protest sentiment among wide segments of the population who are suffering from deteriorating social and economic conditions".

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 8 December 2009. Comment

The shock of accountability 

Reverberations continue in Saudi Arabia over the tragic floods in Jeddah. Though some expect the inquiry ordered by King Abdullah to result in the usual whitewash, others detect a breakthrough in holding public officials accountable.

The Saudi Jeans blog notes the unusually strong language of the royal decree setting up the inquiry:

“We cannot ignore the fact that there were mistakes and failures on the part of some departments and it is our duty to identify those responsible and take action against them.”

"By Saudi standards, this is not normal," the blog says. "The firm language of the decree makes believe that it is going to be different this time."

In a signed article for Arab News, Khaled Almaeena, the paper's editor, writes:

Look at back issues of newspapers and count the billions that have been appropriated for sewage projects, storm water drainage, water pipes, properly built roads and culverts. Had these things become reality, the act of God might well not have turned into an unimaginable disaster ...

We now hear voices saying that those whose houses were destroyed in the floods were wrong to build in the waterways and wadis. Who, we ask, were the officials who gave them permits for building? Where were the town planners? How was electricity supplied to their houses?

He continues:

The public asks what was done during the decades when those who were managers supposedly did their jobs. The bureaucrats may blame nature for the disaster but even in the heart of Jeddah, newly built bridges, underpasses and roundabouts were covered with water and rendered unusable. The rain, we hear over and over, was the cause of it all. Not the indifferent, heartless officials. Not the corrupt individuals. Not those who approved shoddy and substandard work.

King Abdullah’s setting up of an investigative body must have come as a shock to them; they might actually be held responsible for not having done what they were well-paid for many years to do. To ordinary citizens, on the other hand, to the families of those who died in the waters, to the sick and the orphans, the announcement was like a balm. King Abdullah has added two words to the Saudi vocabulary – transparency and accountability. They must be taken seriously by all officials.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 7 December 2009. Comment

Self-righteous agonising over Muslims

An interesting spat has broken out between New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman and Stephen Walt, Harvard professor of international affairs (and co-author of that controversial book, The Israel Lobby).

In a column prompted by the Fort Hood shootings, Friedman suggested that the man accused of the attacks, Major Nidal Malik Hasan, had been got at by what he called "The Narrative" ... 

Read more at Comment Is Free

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 6 December 2009. Comment

President Baradei?

“Things have just gotten a lot more interesting,” the Arabist blog says, commenting on news that Mohamed ElBaradei, former head of the IAEA and Nobel peace prize winner, is thinking or running for the Egyptian presidency in 2011. The Arabist continues:

This may peter out in smoke, but … ElBaradei’s candidacy has the potential to turn into the first moment in which Egypt has had a plausible face for its opposition for a long time. It will shift the focus on the Mubarak regime, its fraudulent elections and its lack of legitimacy – both at home and abroad. I am not surprised that opposition figures like Ayman Nour and the Muslim Brothers’ Muhammad Habib seem negative … ElBaradei has much more gravitas and “presidentiability” than either.

However ElBaradei says he will only compete if the election is held “under the full supervision of the judiciary ... and in the presence of international observers from the United Nations ... to ensure transparency”. 

He is also calling for a new constitution and “the erasing of all constitutional and legal obstacles that are limiting the right of the majority of Egyptians to run, “otherwise those elections will lack the needed legitimacy and will contradict the essence of democracy which is the right of the people to choose who to represent them, and it will end in a Greek tragedy.”

These criticisms of the current system have not pleased the Mubarak regime and, perhaps recognising that ElBaradei is too much of a heavyweight to be thrown into jail as Ayman Nour was, it has launched an early media offensive against him.

A headline in the semi-official al-Ahram said: “ElBaradei demands a constitutional coup” and another in al-Ahram al-Messaei read: “Imported president for Egypt”. Efforts are being made to portray him as a foreigner (having spent a good deal of time outside the country) and there are claims that he has a Swedish passport.
Sections of the opposition are also unhappy about ElBaradei’s intervention, as The National points out

But Alaa Al Aswany, author of the best-selling novel, The Yacoubian Building, and a prominent critic of the government, thinks ElBaradei’s candidacy is a good idea. “ElBaradei is the most serious opposition candidate – if he should stand in the presidential election, he would create real problems for the regime,” he said. “He is a figure of international dimensions and has proven his ability to act competently and with efficiency.”

It is not clear, though, if El-Baradei would be allowed to stand in a presidential election: the rules for candidates are designed to make it difficult. 

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 6 December 2009. Comment

Saudi floods: now the inquest

Reporting the start of the official inquiry into the Jeddah floods, Sebastian Usher of the BBC says: “Some in Saudi Arabia have described what is happening with the public mood as a turning point – with Saudis for once forcing the authorities to take responsibility for their mistakes.”

It is not only about floods or the scale of the disaster (which probably killed several times the officially-declared number, currently 150). It is also about those who govern Saudi Arabia and the way they govern it.

“People died in this tragedy because of negligence, mismanagement and corruption,” Maha Akeel writes in Arab News:

The rain began in the early morning and lasted for six hours. During that time, why were the roads that were becoming submerged not blocked from access and traffic diverted? Why were the residents of those districts in the valleys not warned to stay indoors and to move up from ground floors? Why were they not evacuated as soon as the rain began flooding their homes? No one came to their rescue until hours after the rain had stopped. Why were there no precautionary measures before, during and after the rain?

The floods are also a story of bureaucracy and obstruction by officialdom in areas where it shouldn’t matter and, equally, a lack of regulation in areas where it should matter.

Rescue officers refused to assist stranded women without their mahram (male guardian) … volunteers also complained about being questioned why men and women were in the same car.

One man, trying to rent a temporary apartment for his family, found he could not do so without the required paper from the Civil Defence. “This was necessary because apartment buildings refused to accommodate families without the paper,” Arab News says. “A neighbour left his family in their flooded home to get the paper only to find on his return that they had all been electrocuted.” 

According to the authorities, 5,029 properties were damaged by the floods, along with 4,664 cars. The cars were scooped up and taken to 15 separate compounds, leaving their owners to hunt for them. The registration numbers were apparently not recorded and one man told the Saudi Gazette he spent the entire Eid holiday looking for his car, without success. Another man trying to reclaim his vehicle said: “I was asked to bring the ownership documents and a photo of the car. They made things very difficult for me because all the documents were in the car.” Those fortunate enough to get an official release permit are then asked to pay 500 riyals for towing costs.

Meanwhile, householders are getting contradictory instructions regarding damage to their property. Ahmad al-Juhani told Arab News …

... a Civil Defence official arrived at his house to inspect the damage, claiming he did not bother to get out of his car. Al-Juhani added the official simply told him to specify what was damaged in the property and to start cleaning up. When he went to the financial ministry representative, he was instructed not to touch anything until a special committee evaluates the damage.

Besides these immediate concerns, there are two long-term questions that reflect on the Saudi authorities’ general approach to running things: why does Jeddah still not have an effective drainage/sewage system, and why has there been so much unregulated construction in areas prone to flooding?

One controversy relates to “Misk Lake”, a pond covering more than 2 sq km where the city’s sewage is dumped. It is widely regarded as a health hazard (mosquitoes, dengue fever, etc) and during last week’s rain there were fears that an earth dam would burst, engulfing the city in sewage. The Bin Laden company has now been hastily called in and is constructing an additional barrier which should be finished in a week.

It is not as if the sewage problems are new; people have complained about them for years. The Crossroads Arabia blog comments:

”Misk Lake” has every appearance of being a “temporary” solution to the sewage problems that confront Jeddah, but one that was allowed to become more or less permanent … Jeddah, it seems, needs a major, expensive, tedious, and disruptive retrofit of a modern sewage and drainage system. The corners cut when the Saudi economy was bad, the “commissions” skimmed off of budgets, the looking the other way when it came to friends’ behaviour are all now showing their weaknesses.

Much of last week’s destruction was in unplanned districts that have been established over many years in normally-dry river beds. How these were allowed to develop is one question the inquiry ought to answer.

Nazih Nasief, who was mayor of Jeddah from 1997 to 2000, 
told the Saudi Gazette he never approved any himself but added: “My relationships with a lot of people were affected as I was trying to stop them from establishing new unplanned districts.”

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 5 December 2009. Comment

Burst tyre in Damascus?

The explosion in Damascus yesterday that wrecked the back and side of an Iranian bus, killed at least three people, started a fire and smashed windows in a building nearby was caused by the bursting of an over-inflated tyre – at least, according to the Syrian interior minister who attended the scene in person.

It is scarcely surprising, though, if others – looking at the photos of the wreckage – doubt the minister's explanation. This is, after all, a country where official versions of events, such as the "suicides" of former prime minister Mahmoud al-Zohbi and a previous interior minister, Ghazi Kanaan, are normally viewed with more than a little scepticism.

What we do know about yesterday's explosion is that the bus had checked into a garage, probably for repairs to a tyre. 

What we don't know is how the minister was able to conclude so quickly and categorically that the explosion was an accident. Indeed, we shall probably never know for sure, because the minister himself supervised a swift clean-up of the scene – thus destroying any possible evidence to the contrary.

Considering that two senior Iranian officials were visiting Damascus at the time, the Syrian authorities presumably felt obliged to assure everyone that there was nothing sinister about this tragic incident. 

But their handling of it has been less than reassuring. A thorough investigation, followed by a full explanation of what happened, would do far more to bolster public confidence and enhance their own credibility.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 4 December 2009. Comment

Gunfight during Yemen protests

Separatist demonstrators took to the streets of several cities in southern Yemen yesterday – protesting at the banning of demonstrations on November 30 (Yemen's Independence Day) and demanding the release of those arrested.

One person died in a gunfight during a protest in Zinjibar and two people, including a senior police officer, were wounded in Qatabah, 
AFP reports.

Meanwhile, the NewsYemen website – which lost all its data last week – is claiming that the site was deliberately destroyed by a virus from the telecommunications ministry.

“We have received information from the host company of our website that indicated that the virus was sent from the Internet Administration at the Ministry of Telecommunication,” publisher Nabil al-Sofi told the Yemen Observer.

“We received some warnings from different people in the government, but we expressed our willingness to abide by any list they sent us of what not to write about. Nevertheless, we never heard a response, and instead, now we have lost five years of our work,” he said.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 4 December 2009. Comment

Minarets, culture and creed

File:Tongxin mosque.JPG

Pagoda-style minaret: Tongxin Mosque in Ningxia, China


A shack-mosque in Nouadhibou, Mauritania. The 'minaret' is a wooden pole with a louspeaker


A Geneva-based website has come up with the most sensible response yet to the Swiss "minaret crisis": do-it-yourself minarets that anyone can construct without permission.

"Standing more than 50cm tall, this cardboard minaret is easily erected and will disseminate its positive aura in the office or on your balcony," the wesbsite says. "Feel free to download, print, cut, fold and paste your apartment's own minaret." So there!

The Swiss, of course, are not the first to try to ban minarets. The early Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia did so too, on the grounds that they were bida' (an innovation). Historically speaking, the Wahhabis were right about that. The earliest mosques had no minarets and they did not start to appear until about 80 years after the Prophet's death, providing a high point from which to announce the call to prayer. 

Though the Swiss vote against minarets obviously reflects local xenophobia and Islamophobia, Taj Hargey of the Muslim Educational Centre in Oxford argues that Muslims "should not embrace a victim mentality" over it but should seize it as an opportunity for some positive thinking:

European mosques should stop mindlessly mimicking Eastern design and create prayer halls that blend into the landscape.

Muslims who have settled in Switzerland (and elsewhere in Europe) should not confuse culture with creed. To become integrated into their surroundings, they must relinquish the cultural baggage of their ancestral homelands. They should practice a Swiss Islam that is rooted in the society in which they live.

Stand by for the first yodelling imams.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 3 December 2009. Comment

Saudis destroy border communities

A couple of weeks ago I suggested on this blog that the uprooting of thousands of villagers in southern Saudi Arabia last month was not just for safety reasons following an attack by Houthi rebels from Yemen and that the "temporary evacuation" was likely to become permanent. I was right: the evacuees will not be going back.

The Saudi authorities are using the conflict to implement a long-term plan for securing their border by creating uninhabited buffer zones on either side of it. Securing their border is one thing, but their chosen means for achieving it is appalling, though so far no one seems to be making a fuss about it.

Civilians living in the border area were ordered to leave their homes immediately, some of them at night, leaving behind most of their belongings and, in many cases, the livestock that provided their income. Some were robbed on the way to emergency camps.

In the first few days, some 240 villages were cleared of inhabitants and, according to some reports, that number has since increased to 400 villages.

We still don't know exactly how many people the Saudi authorities have driven from their homes. Thousands are currently living in a tented camp which, if Saudi press reports are to be believed, is almost like a holiday resort.

Visiting the "war front" yesterday, King Abdullah confirmed that the evacuation is to be permanent – by announcing that 10,000 new housing units will be built within a year for "deserving" people who have been "relocated". There was no mention of compensation for the loss of belongings or livelihoods.

This high-handed behaviour by the authorities probably won't surprise anyone, but it's disgraceful nonetheless. And whatever security it brings to the border area is likely to be offset by the disaffection it generates among an already-marginalised community within the kingdom.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 3 December 2009. Comment

Dancing in the rain

Public anger continues in Saudi Arabia over the authorities' handling of the floods that killed more than 100 people last week.

In Arab News, Turki al-Dakheel attacks the official Saudi Press Agency (SPA) for its upbeat coverage of the disaster. One news item said:

“The SPA reporter found the people [in Jeddah], particularly children and women, enjoying the heavy downpour that the city was not used to over the past many years. Many of them headed to the corniche beach to enjoy this happy and wonderful weather.” 

Dakheel wonders if the SPA's reporter ever left the office: "Did he actually see the Jeddawis dancing with joy while bodies were floating in the streets?" 

He continues: "Writing in a shameless manner about an incident, the reality of which is known to everyone, is deeply embarrassing even for the information minister. It is, in fact, a gross belittling of a tragedy.

"Unlike in the old days, people now have access to the resources to record their own news. Even the most ordinary mobile phone can record and upload events to television channels and the Internet, or send directly to other people. The time of concealing news is a matter of the past."

News that the king has ordered a "massive inquiry" to establish responsibility for the disaster has been greeted with deep scepticism. The Crossroads Arabia blog points to the five officials appointed to head the inquiry and their largely irrelevant qualifications. 

"I don’t find a forensic economist on the list, someone to track the money intended for flood mitigation and control," it says. "Nor do I see any civil engineers listed. There was a physical failure of systems, not unlike the failure of flood control in New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina. And what about geologists, hydrologists, or even cartographers?" It continues:

It is unfortunately the case in Saudi Arabia that those responsible for serious problems frequently escape culpability because of their connections, wasta. Usually it’s family connection, often connections through marriage, but sometimes through tribal origins, business relations, or simple friendship. The lack of accountability is a crippling factor for the Saudi economy and Saudi society. If nothing else, escape from accountability means that there are no ‘lessons learned’ from earlier problems.

Ali Saad Al-Mosa, in Arab News, is equally dubious:

This committee will discuss the reasons behind the tragedy. First they will blame the sky for raining without warning. Then they will blame the floods for flooding. The dead, too, will be blamed for being responsible for their own tragedy, for daring to live in the low-lying Quwaizah district instead of the high-and-dry al-Shatie. Why didn’t they listen to the previous night’s weather forecast? Why did they insist on living on ground floors? Why did they buy small cars instead of big ones like some officials who buy their vehicles from government money?

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 2 December 2009. Comment

Rebuilding Lebanese politics

The abolition of political sectarianism in Lebanon was identified as a national "priority" in the Taif agreement that ended the civil war 20 years ago. The agreement set no time-frame for abolishing it, and nothing was done.

Following the parliamentary elections last June (and five months of wrangling over the composition of the new government) the issue of constitutional reform has come to the fore again, though politicians still seem more interested in minor tinkering with the system – such as the creation of an upper house of parliament – than wholesale reform.

The Qifa Nabki blog, which has tackled this subject before, 
returns to the debate:

First of all, it’s important to appreciate the complexity of this issue. After all, it’s not simply a matter of getting rid of parliamentary quotas or holding a census. Rather, it’s a question of how to build a completely different political system, practically from the ground up.

Where does one begin? I would propose to begin at the end. In other words, one should start by asking: What kind of a political system do we want to end up with? Should it have one legislative chamber or two? Should it be a presidential or prime ministerial system, or some kind of combination? How should powers be separated between the various branches of government? What kinds of protections should religious minorities enjoy, if any? What kind of electoral law should be adopted? Will expatriate Lebanese be allowed to vote? What kind of role will administrative decentralisation play? The list goes on and on.

Answering these questions requires, in part, being able to identify what is so odious about the current system. On the one hand, it is easy to see how the mixture of religion and politics is anathema to democracy activists. However, would an ostensibly non-sectarian system populated entirely by sectarian political parties really be any better than what we already have?

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 2 December 2009. Comment

Southern protests thwarted

Troops were out in force in southern Yemen yesterday to prevent separatist demonstrations timed to coincide with Independence Day – the anniversary of the British withdrawal from Aden in 1967.

The last such occasion – Yemen's National Day on October 14 – brought thousands on to the streets in southern cities, many of them waving the old southern flag, and the authorities were clearly determined not to allow a repeat of that yesterday.

Agency reports (Reuters, AP) say hundreds of soldiers lined the streets of Aden and set up checkpoints to prevent demonstrators entering the city. About 200 were arrested as they tried to gather in a downtown square for a rally.

Sporadic violence continues in the south, though on a much smaller scale than the Houthi rebellion in the north. Reuters, citing a security official, says that on Sunday activists shot dead a soldier in the southern province of Shabwa and secessionists clashed with the armed forces in the Radfan. One person died and a grenade hit the local intelligence headquarters in the latter incident.

Last week, in a speech to mark Eid al-Adha, President Salih called for a new national dialogue. He said:

"We renew the call to all political forces in the government and opposition with whom we share the responsibility of building and developing our country to discuss all our national issue and concerns through an open dialogue. A dialogue that is away and free from violence or imposing conditions. We need to reach common grounds to achieve the goals of the dialogue." 

It is doubtful whether much will come of this. Although the prime minister has said the dialogue is open to all political parties, there is no sign that the two key elements – the northern Houthis and the southern separatists – will be included.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 1 December 2009. Comment

Death for drug dealers in Gaza

The Hamas-run government in Gaza is introducing a law that will allow execution of drug dealers, AFP reports.

Attorney-general Mohammed Abed said the government is cancelling the existing (Israeli) drug law and replacing it with an Egyptian law from 1962.

"The latter law is more comprehensive in terms of crime and criminals and the penalties more advanced [sic], including life sentences and execution," Abed said.

"The Zionist law included light punishments that encouraged rather than deterred those who take and trade in drugs, and there is no objective, national or moral justification for continuing to apply it."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 1 December 2009. Comment

Previous blog posts




December 2009

Mauritanian journalist on hunger strike

Dozens questioned over Jeddah floods

US pours more money into al-Hurra

The internet's snowball effect

Bored with al-Qaeda

Yemen rebel leader may be dead

Egyptian Copts welcome distinguished visitor

Confusion over al-Qaeda airstrike

Lebanon's generous billionaire

Keeping watch on Baradei

Abu Zayd still hounded after 17 years

Mission accomplished?

Victory for Brotherhood's old guard

Perils of the Red Sea boat people

Yemeni ministers face questions

Victory for Egyptian niqab supporters

Lebanon: what has changed?

Algeria to censor internet

Polygamy row in Egypt

Yemen terror raid botched?

When is a dictator not a dictator?

Writers in search of readers

Mixing the sexes: Saudi Arabia's great debate

Moroccan internet 'crimes'

Yemeni security forces accused

Squabbling over the Rosetta Stone

Yemeni president calls national dialogue

A fight to the finish?

Orientalism in reverse

Return of Prince Sultan

Civil rights move blocked in Kuwait

Hacker 'used Yemen ministry's ID'

Kuwaiti prime minister questioned

In Dubai, they still don't get it

New paper in Syria

Dire state of Egypt's opposition

The shock of accountability

Self-righteous agonising over Muslims

President Baradei?

Saudi floods: now the inquest

Burst tyre in Damascus?

Gunfight during Yemen protests

Minarets, culture and creed

Saudis destroy border communities

Dancing in the rain

Rebuilding Lebanese politics

Southern protests thwarted

Death for drug dealers in Gaza


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



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Last revised on 18 December, 2009