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Mauritanian journalist on hunger strike

Mauritanian journalist Hanefi Ould Dehah has reportedly begun a hunger strike in protest at his continued detention after completing a jail sentence.

Ould Dehah, editor of the Taqadoumy news website, was serving six months for "indecency" but since his sentence expired on 24 December the authorities have failed to release him. Members of the Mauritanian journalists' union held a demonstration in his support on Monday.

He was arrested after former presidential candidate Ibrahima Moctar Sarr accused him of defamation over an article alleging that Sarr used campaign funds to buy a villa.

At his trial, Ould Dehah was cleared of the defamation charge, as well as "incitement to rebellion" and "incitement to commit crimes and misdemeanours". However, he was convicted of "offending public decency" in connection with a page on Taqadoumy's website which discussed morality and sex education. 

The Ould Dedah campaign has a Facebook page.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 29 December 2009. Comment

Dozens questioned over Jeddah floods

Saudi police have detained more than 40 people for questioning in connection with last months flooding disaster in Jeddah. They include current and former officials as well as contractors and engineers, and others in the property business.

According to the Saudi Gazette, eight people were taken away from the mayor's office on Sunday morning – including four department heads, and a former head of the Projects Department.

It appears that at this stage those concerned are simply being questioned and are not facing charges, at least for the time being.

The action is largely a response to unprecedented levels of public anger and unusually sharp criticism in the Saudi press in the wake of the floods, which killed about 150 people according to official figures (but possibly far more). However, the Crossroads Arabia blog is sceptical about how high up the investigation will go:

Whether these [officials, etc] are the only ones responsible (unlikely) or the most responsible is open to question. Questionable, too, is whether these individuals are the ones most ‘detain-able’ through lack of high-level connections.

One issue under investigation is the apparent misuse of public funds in connection with the city's drainage system. As The National newspaper puts it:

The Jeddah municipality said that it was only able to complete 30 per cent of the drainage system in the city due to the lack of adequate funds provided by the ministry of finance. The ministry said it allocated sufficient funds to do the job. 

The other main issue relates to land sales and building permits in areas affected by the floods. The National explains

As housing costs in central Jeddah are expensive, especially for lower-wage earners, many of them are forced to live on the outskirts, settling in valleys and low-lying areas and obstructing water passageways.

Much of this development was illegal. How much of it is attributable to corruption and how much to official negligence is still to be established.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 29 December 2009. Comment

US pours more money into al-Hurra

Al-Hurra, the little-watched TV station established by the Bush administration to win hearts and minds in the Middle East, has been granted another $112 million by Congress to keep it going through the coming year. Total cost so far: $650 million.

Writing for the Huffington Post, James Zogby of the Arab American Insitute explains why it's money down the drain.

For background on al-Hurra, see al-bab's media section.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 29 December 2009. Comment

The internet's snowball effect

"The gap between Arab governments and internet activists is widening day after day," the Cairo-based Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI) says in a report issued last week.

The report includes useful information about the current state of play between the authorities and internet users in almost all the Arab countries. It also has a section on Arab internet activists' tools: blogging, Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Flickr.

The first decade of the 21st century has certainly seen a growth in Arab regimes' efforts to regulate internet use, along with efforts to circumvent them. 

Although the restrictions are often oppressive, there is an air of desperation about them and they probably do little more than give the authorities a fragile sense of reassurance. But as the ANHRI points out, "Now that the snowball is rolling, it can no longer be stopped."
The choice for Arab regimes is a stark one. If they embrace the IT revolution wholeheartedly they risk seeing their power trickle away. If they don't embrace it, their country is in danger of being left behind. For the time being, they are mostly sitting on the fence. ANHRI says:

A few Arab governments are striving to catch up with this technological revolution and become associated with it, such as the UAE and Kuwait. However, the aspiration of these governments is to increase the number of websites or increase their content. They miss that the technological revolution is measured by the change induced in society at cultural, and political, social and economic level.

Eventually, though, something will have to give. ANHRI quotes a RAND Institute study: 

The information revolution is not a game where you can pick and choose ... The fundamental part of the information revolution, the indispensable part, is freedom of expression, exchange of information and a universal access to information.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 28 December 2009. Comment

Bored with al-Qaeda

Marc Lynch at foreignpolicy.com notes the lack of interest shown by the Arab media in the Detroit plane bomb affair. He writes:

The Arab media's indifference to the story speaks to a vitally important trend. Al-Qaeda's attempted acts of terrorism simply no longer carry the kind of persuasive political force with mass Arab or Muslim publics which they may have commanded in the immediate aftermath of 9/11. 

Even as the microscopically small radicalised and mobilised base continues to plot and even to thrive in its isolated pockets, it has largely lost its ability to break out into mainstream public appeal. I doubt this would have been any different even had the plot been successful – more attention and coverage, to be sure, but not sympathy or translation into political support. It is just too far gone to resonate with Arab or Muslim publics at this point. 

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 28 December 2009. Comment

Yemen rebel leader may be dead

It seems increasingly likely that Abd al-Malik al-Houthi, the leader of the northern rebels in Yemen, is dead.

He was reportedly injured in an airstrike on December 17 and is said to have died later from his wounds. According to the latest reports, he was secretly buried on Saturday in al-Malahidh, next to the home of Ahmed al-Hadawi, a family friend.

It is of course possible that the stories of his death are being circulated for propaganda purposes (and the Yemeni government is certainly trying to capitalise on them by urging rebels to surrender). But an apparent slip of the tongue when the rebels' spokesman referred to Houthi as a "martyr" in a BBC interview has given the stories credibility.

The rebels, perhaps concerned about morale among their supporters, continue to insist he is still alive – though so far they have produced no evidence to support their claim.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 27 December 2009. Comment

Egyptian Copts welcome distinguished visitor

Why, you might wonder, is the Virgin Mary apparently spending so much of her time at the moment in Cairo?

The Coptic Pope, Shenouda III, has an explanation: "The Virgin Mary loves Egypt, where she stayed for three-and-a-half years when Jesus was a child," he told worshippers in his weekly sermon. "She misses Egypt, and – from time to time – chooses to bless it with her appearance."

Her first reported appearance in the current series came on December 10 – hovering over a church in al-Warraq district. Since then, thousands are said to have seen the apparition and numerous videos have been posted on YouTube.

Many others are sceptical but, as Pope Shenouda assured his congregation, "If you don't believe in the Virgin Mary or in her divine intercession, you won't be able to see her."

Atef Beshay, a Coptic scriptwriter quoted in the Los Angeles Times, offers an alternative theory:

"What is going on now is a result of people's massive feeling of corruption, social injustice and the financial gap between various classes in Egypt. Some people are desperately seeking 'aid' from anyone, even if this aid will only come from the Virgin Mary's apparition.

"We also shouldn’t disregard the increasing religious tensions between Muslims and Copts. Some Copts wait for [a] phenomenon like this because it gives them some sort of mental advantage over Muslims."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 26 December 2009. Comment

Confusion over al-Qaeda airstrike

Once again, there are conflicting reports about the latest airstrike in Yemen directed against al-Qaeda.

Yemeni officials say at least 30 suspected militants were killed when they gathered for a meeting at Rafadh in Shabwa province yesterday.

The Yemen Observer says the strike demolished the home of Anwar al-Awlaki, who has been linked to the US army officer accused of the Fort Hood shootings in Texas.

Two other prominent figures may have been present: Nasser al-Wahaishi, described as al-Qaeda's regional leader, and Said Ali al-Shihri, a Saudi national who is said to be his deputy.

It is unclear whether any of these were among the dead, though The National newspaper names four other militants who were killed. The paper also quotes local sources as saying only seven people were killed and two wounded, rather than the 30-plus claimed by the Yemeni government.

The Yemen Observer has a fairly detailed report of those killed in recent operations against al-Qaeda. Separately, the Yemen Observer also reports a statement to parliament on Wednesday by Rashad al-Alimi, the deputy prime minister reponsible for security. Alimi expressed regret at civilian casualties but blamed al-Qaeda, saying two of its members had brought their families with them.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 25 December 2009. Comment

Lebanon's generous billionaire

Fouad Makhzoumi, a Lebanese billionaire and former arms dealer, is at the centre of a political row in Britain after it emerged that one of his companies has donated £100,000 to the Conservative Party during the last four years.

But besides his support for the British Conservatives, he has also employed lobbyists in the United States.

In Lebanon, Makhzoumi runs the National Dialogue Party which has no parliamentary seats and has been described as a one-man show. A couple of years ago an article on the Now Lebanon website said:

According to reports filed with the US Secretary of the Senate, the National Dialogue Party paid just over $300,000 in 2006 to the top-tier Mississippi-based lobbying firm Barbour, Griffith & Rogers to “provide guidance and counsel with regard to foreign-policy matters before the US Government.” 

Furthermore, in 2004 and 2006, Future Pipe Industries Inc – a multimillion dollar company chaired by Makhzoumi – paid US Foreign Service Officer Cheryl Steele an undisclosed amount to lobby on its behalf, mostly for industry-related reasons, but also to advance “the Middle East peace process”.

The Angry Arab blog has some comments on the matter and also links to a document connected with the US lobbying.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 25 December 2009. Comment

Keeping watch on Baradei

The document above has been posted on the internet by several Egyptian bloggers, including Amr Salama and Wael Abbas. It appears to be the start of a four-page memo from the interior ministry, discussing plans for surveillance of Mohamed ElBaradei and his family by state security.

ElBaradei, the Egyptian former head of the IAEA and a Nobel peace prize winner, angered the Mubarak regime recently by saying he might run in the 2011 presidential election (where Mubarak's son, Gamal, has already been earmarked for victory).

The document has not been authenticated but another Egyptian blogger, Zeinobia, says she would not be surprised or shocked if it's genuine: the same thing happened to Ayman Nour and Noman Gomaa, candidates in the last presidential election.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 24 December 2009. Comment

Abu Zayd still hounded after 17 years

Seventeen years after Egyptian Islamists decided his religious views were suspect, Nasr Abu Zayd is still paying the price.
Arriving in Kuwait last week with a valid visa, he was turned away at the airport on the orders of the State Security department.

He had been due to give two lectures at the Kuwaiti Tanweer ("Enlightenment") Centre – one on religious reform, the other on women and the Qur'an. It is thought that the interior minister had succumbed to pressure from Islamist MPs not to allow him into the country.

Abu Zayd then travelled to Cairo to attend a conference but was barred from entering the Journalists' Syndicate building where the event was being held. The Egyptian daily, al-Masri al-Youm reports:

According to Mohamed Abdel Qoddous, head of the syndicate's freedoms committee, the order to bar Abu Zayd from syndicate premises was issued last year. "Only the syndicate president can rescind the order, but he's out of town," said Abdel Qoddous, without explaining why the order had been issued in the first place."

In 1992, Abu Zayd – who was then teaching Arabic literature at Cairo university – applied for a professorial post and the Standing Committee of Academic Tenure and Promotion considered three reports on his work. 

Two were favourable but the third, prepared by the Islamist Dr Abdel-Sabour Shahin, questioned the orthodoxy of Abu Zayd’s religious beliefs and claimed that his research contained “clear affronts to the Islamic faith”. The committee then rejected his promotion by seven votes to six. Not content with that, Shahin later wrote an article for an opposition newspaper accusing Abu Zayd of apostasy.

This in turn inspired a group of Islamist lawyers to file a lawsuit at the end of 1993, seeking to divorce him from his wife, on the grounds that a Muslim woman cannot be married to an apostate. The Cairo appeals court eventually declared his marriage null and void.

“After the verdict was handed down, I was accompanied by a police guard at every step,” Abu Zayd told al-Ahram Weekly. “My last visit to Cairo University after that was to take part in debating a PhD dissertation in the Faculty of Arts, Islamic Studies branch. The university was turned into a military fortress to protect me. The question was, ‘Will the university be able to take these measures every time I went there to teach?’ 

"It was impossible to teach like this and, at the same time, I could not imagine not teaching. On the way home, I told [my wife], ‘This is not going to work out.’ She nodded … When some of our neighbours asked our guards why they were with us, they responded, ‘because of the kafir [the infidel]’.”

In July 1995 Abu Zayd and his "ex-wife" left Egypt and settled in the Netherlands, where he took up a professorial post at the University of Leiden.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 24 December 2009. Comment

Mission accomplished?

After more than six weeks of fighting on its southern border, Saudi Arabia announced yesterday that it will suspend major operations against the Yemen-based Houthi rebels within the next few days.

"We are left with only a few infiltration attempts and sniper attacks, but the Saudi forces will stand up for these encounters until the last infiltrator [is killed],” deputy minister of defence Prince Khalid bin Sultan told journalists during a visit to the area.

“All the kingdom’s border from Sharurrah to Jizan is completely secured and the points of infiltration are already known and we will destroy any infiltrators,” he said.

Yemeni infiltrators are still hiding in the village of Jabiriya but “they have 24 hours to surrender, or we will destroy them,” the prince added.

The Saudis have been making optimistic statements – not always justified by events on the ground – since they entered the conflict and it remains to be seen whether they can extricate themselves quite so easily. Some analysts suggests the Houthis could still pose a threat.

The repeated claims of military successes heard over the last few weeks were clouded yesterday when Prince Khalid revealed casualty figures for the first time.

He said 73 Saudi soldiers have been killed, 470 wounded and 26 have gone missing since the fighting began. Twelve of the missing soldiers are thought to be dead. Of the wounded, 60 are still in hospital.

This is a high casualty rate when compared with western military operations in Afghanistan (for example) and it may be explained by the Saudi forces' lack of training in unconventional warfare. There have been unconfirmed reports of Jordanian troops being sent to assist them.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 23 December 2009. Comment

Victory for Brotherhood's old guard

The results of elections to the Muslim Brotherhood's 16-member Guidance Bureau in Egypt are being interpreted as a victory for the conservative camp amid a growing rift with reformist elements.

The wing now dominating the movement is more focused on the religious aspects and is not in touch with the political reality on the ground, according to one analyst. There are suggestions that the Brotherhood will now focus more on its survival than its political impact – which is no doubt a satisfactory outcome for the Egyptian regime as it seeks a smooth transfer of power from Hosni Mubarak to his son, Gamal. 

Writing for the Christian Science Monitor, Ursula Lindsey sees the Brotherhood's internal conflict as partly a battle between generations, with the older conservatives holding the upper hand.

Marc Lynch at foreignpolicy.com says the result probably signals "a withdrawal from political engagement" in the face of repression and political manipulation by the regime which has "slammed the door in the face of MB efforts to be democrats". 

But he says the real question is "whether the frustrated reformists will split from the MB and form a new political movement ... something the MB has largely avoided in the past, but which now looms large on the horizon".

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 22 December 2009. Comment

Perils of the Red Sea boat people

A record number of people fleeing conflict, poverty and drought in the Horn of Africa have risked their lives crossing the Red Sea into Yemen this year. The total of more than 74,000 is a 50% increase on last year, according to the United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR.

“The mixed migration route through the Gulf of Aden and the Red Sea is presently the busiest and the deadliest one in the world,” UNHCR spokesperson Andrej Mahecic said.

While Somalis have accounted for most of the arrivals in previous years, the number of Ethiopians reaching Yemen has doubled from last year to more than 42,000, while the number of Somalis has remained steady at around 32,000.

On Sunday, Human Rights Watch issued a report documenting the migrants' treatment – both during the perilous journey and after their arrival in Yemen. Smugglers take the migrants by boat from either the Somali port city of Bosasso or the town of Obock in Djibouti, HRW said in a press release:

Conditions aboard the boats are inhumane and the smugglers – especially those operating out of Bosasso – often treat their passengers with astonishing brutality, robbing, beating, and even murdering them.

Smugglers order passengers on the overcrowded boats not to move, even to stretch cramped limbs, which is impossible since the journey from Bosasso normally lasts one to three days. They routinely beat their passengers with whips and sticks. Many suffer far worse. Human Rights Watch documented cases of passengers being murdered and thrown overboard and of women being sexually assaulted and raped on board the overcrowded boats while other passengers looked on helplessly. Others suffocate, locked into cramped and airless spaces below deck as punishment or simply as a way of cramming more people on board. Hundreds of people die every year during the crossings.

For many, the worst danger lies when the boats are finally in sight of Yemen. Many smugglers, to minimise their own risk of capture, force their passengers to leap into deep water and swim, beating or even stabbing them if they try to refuse. Many, not knowing how to swim or simply too exhausted from their ordeal on the boats, drown within sight of shore. Human Rights Watch interviewed people who watched other passengers – in some cases even their own children – drown less than 200 metres from land.

According to the UNHCR, 309 people have died this year trying to reach Yemen, while the death toll last year was almost 600.
Somalis arriving in Yemen are assumed to be refugees and are almost automatically given protected status. But Ethiopians and other non-Somalis are assumed to be illegal immigrants, even if they are fleeing persecution.

"Those who are caught are generally imprisoned and put on a fast track toward deportation, with no meaningful opportunity to claim asylum," HRW says.

"The Ethiopian asylum seekers who ... reach a UNHCR office without being arrested are able to apply for refugee status." It continues:

If UNHCR recognises them as refugees the government will not arrest and deport them. But they still face discriminatory government policies that relegate them to a kind of second-tier refugee status.

The Yemeni government will not issue official identification documents to non-Somali refugees, preventing them from claiming rights and services to which they should be entitled. Ethiopian refugees also suffer harassment and violence, fuelled in part by the perception that the government will not protect them. In many cases, Yemeni police officers have refused to investigate or arrest Yemenis responsible for serious crimes against Ethiopian refugees.

Last week UNHCR said it has been "expressing its serious concern" to the Yemeni authorities over the continued detention and deportation of Ethiopians who are not allowed to contact the refugee agency.

But Georgette Gagnon, Africa director at Human Rights Watch, put it more bluntly: "UNHCR's strategy of quiet diplomacy with the Yemeni government simply isn't working," she said. "The agency needs to start treating the plight of Ethiopian asylum seekers and refugees in Yemen as a priority and not a secondary concern."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 22 December 2009. Comment

Yemeni ministers face questions

Yemen's parliament yesterday urged the government "to enhance the accuracy of its targets and avoid any error" when carrying out operations against "terrorists, insurgents and outlaw elements", the official news agency says.

The defence minister and the deputy prime minister responsible for security have both been summoned by parliament to "present more explanations" later today regarding last week's raids directed against al-Qaeda elements.

One of the raids killed 49 civilians, including 23 children and 17 women, according to a local official quoted by AFP.

A leader from the al-Kazam tribe, also quoted by AFP, said al-Qaeda has chosen to build a training centre "on land where bedouin nomads pitch their tents, and the government forces believe the nomads harbour al-Qaeda forces."

The United States reportedly provided assistance for the raids, though it is unclear whether US forces participated directly. 

In the north of the country, Houthi rebels said Saudi airstrikes killed 54 people yesterday – mainly women and children – in Razeh (Saada province). The report has not been independently confirmed.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 21 December 2009. Comment

Victory for Egyptian niqab supporters

Supporters of the niqab (face veil) have won the latest round in their long-running battle with the Egyptian authorities.

Yesterday, the Administrative Court annulled a decree by the education minister that banned students wearing the niqab from entering dormitories at Cairo's Ain Shams University.

It found the ban unconstitutional on the grounds that weaing niqab is a "personal freedom" so long as it does not threaten public order.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 21 December 2009. Comment

Lebanon: what has changed?

Lebanese prime minister Saad Hariri sat face-to-face at a state banquet on Saturday with Syrian president Bashar al-Assad – whose regime has been widely suspected of assassinating his father.

Hariri's bridge-building visit to Damascus seems to have cautious support from a range of Lebanese politicians, according to the Beirut Daily Star.

Meanwhile, the Qifa Nabki blog reflects on what has – or has not – changed since the assassination in 2005. "On the one hand," 
it says, "many of the same internal power dynamics are in place ... On the other hand, there is little doubt that the landscape has been altered in fundamental ways." It continues:

Syria, for all of its influence among certain political groupings in Beirut, no longer has the Lebanese parliament on a leash, as it did from 1990 to early 2005. Many who once supported Syria (Sunnis in particular) today regard their eastern neighbour with a great deal of suspicion – brotherliness and Arabism be damned. 

Michel Aoun is back, and his movement had become a political force to be reckoned with. There are Lebanese and Syrian embassies in Damascus and Beirut. A new electoral law was implemented last year that was not drawn up by Rustom Ghazali in a smoke-filled office somewhere in Anjar, and Lebanon’s civil society is pushing for many more reforms for 2013. 

Hezbollah, despite maintaining its weapons, has been constrained in its activities both by UNSCR 1701 and by its own political calculations. In short, this is not the same Lebanon that Syria controlled so effortlessly less than five years ago.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 21 December 2009. Comment

Algeria to censor internet

Algeria is planning to introduce a centralised system for filtering 
(i.e. censoring) the internet. It is also proposing stiff penalties for 
anyone who circumvents the government's filtering, according to the Magharebia news website.

Algeria is one of the few Arab countries (along with Egypt and 
Iraq) that does not routinely block access to disapproved websites at present, though it seeks to control internet use in other ways.

Under a law introduced in 1998, internet service provides (ISPs) 
are responsible for the sites they host, and must take “all 
necessary steps to ensure constant surveillance” of content to 
prevent access to “material contrary to public order and 

Last year, the government introduced a wide-ranging bill to 
criminalise hacking, stealing of personal data, promoting 
terrorism and crimes online, blackmailing, and copyright 

Earlier this year it established an new security service 
specialising in "cybercrime". Police officers were also given powers to “break into, inspect and control” internet cafés in 
the interest of preventing terrorist activities.

The government says it has a "responsibility" to protect citizens 
from "malicious content online" and is presenting the filtering 
plan as way to block pornography and websites that promote 
terrorism, though the system could also be used to block 
politically sensitive content.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 20 December 2009. Comment

UPDATE: The Algerian Review blog has further discussion of the government's internet policies.

Polygamy row in Egypt

An Egyptian member of parliament has filed a lawsuit against a female journalist over a newspaper article headed “My four husbands and I”.

Writing in the independent daily, al-Masri al-Youm (here, in Arabic), Nadine al-Bedair asked why Muslim men are allowed to have more than one wife, while women are not allowed more than one husband.

She ended the article by proposing that either polygamy/polyandry should be permitted for men and women alike, or there should be a new "map of marriage" to stop husbands using "boredom" as an excuse for taking more than one wife.

The article has brought predictable reactions from the usual suspects. Bikya Masr blog quotes one religious scholar, 
Sheikh Mohamed Gama’i, as saying that "no woman has the right to attack our traditions in this manner". 

However, Ms Bedair's complaints have also found some support. Sheikh Amr Zaki, who runs a mosque in downtown Cairo, said: “People should wake up and look at how women can be treated by their husbands and the fact that in our world today polygamy should be unacceptable. There is no need for it and besides, no man can truly love more than one woman and vice versa.”

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 19 December 2009. Comment

Yemen terror raid botched?

Last Thursday the Yemeni government congratulated itself on a 
series of raids which reportedly killed 34 al-Qaida terrorists and led to the arrests of 17 more. The raids were said to have foiled a series of suicide attacks.

President Obama even phoned President Salih and praised Yemen's efforts in the fight on terrorism, particularly "Thursday's raids in which dozens of al-Qaida suspects were killed and arrested" – according to the ruling party's website. 

By Friday, though, the picture was looking more murky. Citing two local residents, al-Jazeera reported that one of the raids, at Arhab in Abyan province, killed 64 people including 23 women and 17 children. An unnamed security official was quoted as saying that "grave mistakes occurred in the operation due to failures of information, which led to a large number of civilian deaths."

Today, the Associated Press reported that the US had "provided firepower and other aid to Yemen" in the raids. This, it said, had been done with Obama's approval at the request of the Yemeni government.

Yemen has been under increasing pressure from the US to show take stronger action against al-Qaida and it seems that either the Yemenis or the Americans were careless (to say the least) in their eagerness to get some results.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 19 December 2009. Comment

When is a dictator not a dictator?

Decision-making in authoritarian regimes can be a lot more complicated than it looks. The idea that dictators simply dictate is often wide of the mark: they may not care much about public opinion but they do have to juggle with conflicting demands inside their own power base, and sometimes they can't even be sure their instructions will be implemented.

Syria is one country where the inner workings of the regime can seem baffling ... 

Read more at Comment Is Free.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 18 December 2009. Comment

Writers in search of readers

The problem of Arabic literature is a lack of readers rather than writers, Rasheed el-Enany, professor of modern Arabic literature at Exeter university, says in an interview with the Egyptian newspaper, al-Masri al-Youm.

Fiction is flourishing, often in unexpected places like Iraq and Saudi Arabia, "but I am pessimistic about how this talent goes unnoticed because there’s no readership – Arabs don’t read," he tells the paper. 

"We have 300 million people [in the Arab countries] and every writer could potentially have a significant readership across a wide geographical area. But this doesn’t happen.

"Writers don’t make any money out of their work and nobody reads what they write. And there’s no literary criticism either. The maximum is fleeting book reviews, which are often more advertisements than criticisms."

I have often wondered about Arab reading habits. While it's an exaggeration to say that nobody reads, Arabs certainly seem to read books less than many other people. The reasons are unclear, though, and somebody should do a study to find out why. Is it the price of books, the dearth of good bookshops and libraries, or are there factors in the home and everyday life that make book-reading less likely?

In the interview, Enany says censorship is "a huge problem" but social censorship is worse than government censorship. Social censorship "is much more ferocious, much more unpredictable and potentially much more violent then the measured censorship of the state." He continues:

The present kind of censorship by say, religious conservatives, is much more damaging and much more frightening for the writer because you don’t know exactly who you are offending, where the threat is coming from or what the possible punishment might be. When the state was exercising censorship, you knew: the book would be banned and you’d be stopped from writing for a while – maybe even go to prison for a little while if it was really bad. All this is awful, of course, but at least it's calculable.

But the current kind of censorship enforced now is the one that killed Farag Foda and almost killed Nagib Mahfouz. It’s real terror. It’s the kind that leads to a court case where a man is forced to divorce his wife, as in the case of Nasr Abu Zaid.
This is the worst thing that can happen and it leads to self-censorship. This means you try to anticipate all these horrible things and guard against it from the beginning. No Arabic writers can really write about religion, for instance.

People can write about politics, in some Arab countries anyway, and they can write about sex. But the fundamental question of faith, of belief, of the role of religion in society – this remains a hugely taboo area, one that I’m sure countless authors are really wary about expressing their views on.

This year's Naguib Mahfouz Medal for Literature was awarded last week to Khalil Sweileh, a Syrian author, for Warraq al-Hubb ("The Scribe of Love").

The shortlist for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (the "Arab Booker") was announced this week. The nominees are:

  • Muhammad al-Mansi Qindeel (Egypt) – "A Cloudy Day on the West Side"

  • Mansoura ez-Eldin (Egypt) – "Beyond Paradise"

  • Rabee Jabir (Lebanon) – "America"

  • Abdo Khal (Saudi Arabia) – "She Throws Sparks"

  • Raba'i Madhoun (Palestine) – "The Lady from Tel Aviv"

  • Jamal Naji (Jordan) – "When the Wolves Grow Old"

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 18 December 2009. Comment

Mixing the sexes: Saudi Arabia's great debate

Last week Sheikh Ahmed al-Ghamdi, head of the religious police in Mecca, gave an extraordinary interview to the Saudi newspaper, Okaz. In fact, it was so extraordinary that I decided not to write about it at the time, imagining the sheikh’s remarks must have been misquoted or at least taken out of context. But it seems now that the report was correct.

Ghamdi began by praising the newly-opened King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (Kaust) – a personal initiative of the king – where, controversially for Saudi Arabia, mixing of the sexes is allowed.

But he then went on to say that the concept of ikhtilat (gender mixing) and its prohibition “is a recent adoption that was unknown to the early people of knowledge ... Mixing was part of normal life for the ummah and its societies.”

He added: “Those who prohibit the mixing of the genders actually live it in their real lives … In many Muslim houses – even those of Muslims who say mixing is haram – you can find female servants working around unrelated males.”

Coming from one of the leading figures in the organisation responsible for enforcing gender segregation in Saudi Arabia, this was truly astonishing.

Ghamdi went on to cite various ahadeeth in support his position. “Those who prohibit ikhtilat cling to weak ahadeeth, while the correct ahadeeth prove that mixing is permissible, contrary to what they claim,” he said.

An English-language version of the interview was reported in the Saudi Gazette which also two cited non-Saudi scholars, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, head of the International Union for Muslim Scholars, and Ali al-Jum’ah, the Grand Mufti of Egypt, who hold a similar view:

“Islam does not forbid the mixing of the sexes as long as it is conducted according to Shariah,” it quoted Qaradawi as saying, and continued:

According to Grand Mufti al-Jum’ah, there is “no harm in coeducation between male and female students within Shariah rules and within a learning environment …

“Explaining a hadith from al-Bukhari, Ibn Al-Battal said: ‘Separation of women from men in terms of place or in direct dealings is not obligatory for the women of the believers, but only applies to the wives of the Prophet (peace be upon him)’,” al-Jum’ah said.

“It is also permissible for a man to speak to an unrelated woman to ask her of issues if they are of public benefit,” he said.

The practice of gender segregation in Saudi Arabia appears to have been influenced by Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya, a prominent 14th-century scholar whose work is admired by Wahhabis, according to The National. The paper quotes Jawziyya’s book, Al-Turuq al-Hukmiyyah

“There is no doubt that enabling women to mix freely [ikhtilat] with men is the root of every calamity and evil. Free mixing between men and women is also the reason for increase in immorality and illegal sexual intercourse.

“Had the rulers known what corruption it causes in worldly affairs and the society, before the hereafter, they would have been the strictest in stopping it.”

Intentionally or not, the establishment of KAUST as an un-segregated university is beginning to look like a very smart move by the king which might in the end justify the billions of dollars spent on the project. It has provoked an unprecedented debate about gender mixing within the kingdom.

The response to Ghamdi’s remarks has been overwhelmingly positive, according to the Saudi-owned news channel, al-Arabiya. It praised him for showing “the necessary daring” and said that until recently “no one would have been expected to discuss such sensitive and thorny topics the way al-Ghamdi did”.

Ghamdi has also been supported by the Saudi justice minister who suggested that supporters of strict segregation are failing to distinguish properly between permissible ikhtilat (mixing in public with modesty and chasteness) and forbidden khulwa (or khalwa) which according to some definitions means people of the opposite sex being secluded together in “a place of privacy which is not usually accessible to others”.

The implications of this debate for Saudi society are enormous. Depending on the outcome, it could mean the end of gender segregation in education and workplaces, and much else besides.

Inevitably, though, there is also resistance and rumours are circulating that conservative elements in the religious police have either removed Ghamdi from his post or are trying to do so.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 17 December 2009. Comment

Moroccan internet 'crimes'

A blogger and the owner of an internet cafe have been jailed in Morocco. The blogger, Bashir Hazzam, was sentenced to four months for "disseminating false information harmful to the kingdom's image concerning human rights".

He was arrested after publishing a statement on his blog from students complaining about disproportionate use of force by the authorities during demonstratons in Taghjijt (200km south of Agadir) on December 1.

The internet café owner, Abdullah Boukhou, was jailed for a year after being accused of sending information and photos of these events, according to Reporters Sans Frontières (Google translation here).

Last October the Moroccan government presented a plan to improve access to the internet in order to better integrate the kingdom into the information society and digital economy. 

"These convictions represent a step backwards and show that freedom of expression on the Internet does not apply to criticism of the authorities," RSF said.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 16 December 2009. Comment

Yemeni security forces accused

Human Rights Watch yesterday issued a report on abuses by security forces in connection with the protest demonstrations in southern Yemen. It also details harassment of journalists attempting to cover the protests.

Here is part of the report's summary:

The security forces, and Central Security in particular, have carried out widespread abuses in the south – unlawful killings, arbitrary detentions, beatings, crackdowns on freedom of assembly and speech, arrests of journalists, and others. These abuses have created a climate of fear, but have also increased bitterness and alienation among southerners, who say the north economically exploits and politically marginalises them. The security forces have enjoyed impunity for unlawful attacks against southerners, increasing pro-secessionist sentiments in the south and plunging the country into an escalating spiral of repression, protests, and more repression.

While the government publicly claims to be willing to listen to southern grievances, its security forces have responded to protests by using lethal force against largely peaceful protesters without cause or warning, in violation of international standards on the use of lethal force. Protesters occasionally behaved violently, burning cars or throwing rocks, usually in response to police violence ...

Security forces have made it increasingly difficult for wounded persons to obtain medical care by ordering public hospitals not to treat persons wounded at protests, stationing officers from the Political Security Organisation (PSO) and other security agencies at hospitals, and even carrying out attacks inside hospitals or seizing wounded patients from their beds. Such actions gravely endanger the lives of wounded persons, many of them unlawfully shot by the security services. 

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 16 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 30 December, 2009