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Hariri assassination – five years on

Today is the fifth anniversary of the explosion in Beirut that killed former prime minister Rafik Hariri and at least 20 others – an event that triggered the most extraordinary period in Lebanese politics since the civil war.

Five years on, though, it's difficult to say what the Cedar Revolution (as it became known) really achieved apart from the withdrawal of Syrian troops. Lebanon's political landscape hasn't changed that much. Hariri's son, Saad, is now prime minister and apparently is now reconciled with the Syrian regime: last December he dined with President Bashar in Damascus.

Demands to uncover "the truth" about the assassination are still unfulfilled. The UN investigation rumbled on for four years and the ensuing tribunal, set up a year ago to try the so-far-unindicted suspects, seems embroiled in politics.

The most noteworthy changes, however, have happened on the Syrian front. "Socially, politically and economically, Syria has changed more in the past five years than in any similar period in our generation," the Syrian News Wire blog says – and it's true. If anyone had predicted in 2005 that Syria would be in this position today I would have said they must be joking.

Lebanon will be commemorating the assassination today. For many Lebanese, but certainly not all of them, Hariri has been posthumously elevated to something approaching sainthood.

Last week there was a walk-out by several politicians at the Antonine University when a speaker made "offensive comments" about the late prime minister. The comments in question referred to an academic paper in the Leadership Quarterly entitled "The dynamics of effective corrupt leadership: Lessons from Rafik Hariri's political career in Lebanon".

Despite the offence caused, the paper (reproduced here) actually made a very interesting point. Noting that "corrupt political leaders are usually ineffective, self-interested, and bad for the countries they serve", it argued that Hariri was an exception: 

"Hariri ... proved to be an effective corrupt leader – one who engaged in corrupt practice, but actively pursued, and delivered, tangible welfare benefits to his people."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 14 February 2010. Comment

Beirut 2005: Graffiti in Martyrs' Square

Beirut: 14 March, 2005

Resisting the Valentine ban 

The annual Valentine's Day ban in Saudi Arabia has prompted some discussion in the local media. Regardless of what Saudis actually think about it, the fact that this issue can now be discussed so openly is one reflection of the way the kingdom is changing.

Judging by comments from the anti-Valentine crowd, the objections are only partly religious: it's also seen as an imposition of western culture. One man quoted in Arab News says:

“We are embracing western culture at the expense of our religious teachings, and that is very dangerous. It will erode aspects of our culture and stray us from our religion. Even music and those who trade in it must be banned.”

And a female schoolteacher says:

“What next? Shall we be coerced into buying and decorating Christmas trees? Why our young are so easily attracted to the less significant aspects of western culture? Why cannot they adopt the more serious characteristics of those societies like hard work, discipline, and proper work ethics? This is a lost generation.”

As often happens with official attempts to dictate personal behaviour, many Saudis seem to be ignoring the authorities (and, in some cases, the wishes of their own families) by marking the day in secret. In the Saudi Gazette, Noha, a female university student, says:

“This year my fiancé is working in Riyadh, and I cannot celebrate the day with him, that is why I am trying to find a way to send a gift by mail, without telling my family ... Sending a gift or celebrating Valentine’s Day is something shameful in my family – that is why I am trying to hide this issue, even though I am celebrating it with my fiancé.”

The Saudi Gazette found several shops planning to defy the ban by selling gifts, chocolates and flowers under cover:

“We will have a new collection of cakes decorated with hearts and red colors especially for Valentine’s Day, but we are planning to show it in a way that cannot be identified by the religious officials,” said a chocolate shop owner. 

“We will present the collection without advertising that it is for Valentine’s Day.”

According to the shopkeeper, only observant people will be able to spot the Valentine’s Day cake collection in the shop.

Meanwhile, the paper says, others are relying on the internet for solutions:

"Some couples have turned to electronic means to express their love for one another. Internet is being used to send e-Valentine’s Day cards, gifts, flowers, and songs via emails, Facebook, Twitter, and other websites ... Many young Saudi women are using electronic means to send a message to their loved ones without fear of being criticised by the government or society."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 14 February 2010. Comment

Shop early for Valentine's Day

February every year brings a plethora of stories about the suppression of Valentine's Day in Saudi Arabia and, once again, the religious police have obliged. As a headline in The Scotsman puts it: "Roses are banned, violets are too".

As most of the stories point out, heart-shaped objects and other romantic paraphernalia can be purchased in the kingdom at any time of the year – except for a few days during the run-up to February 14. So the trick is to make your purchases before the annual ban comes into force.

As with most of the mutawa's efforts to dictate personal behaviour, it's basically about pretence: what people are seen to do concerns the authorities more than what they actually do in private.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 12 February 2010. Comment

Yemen's Houthi war 'is over'

After six months, the latest round in Yemen's pointless war with the Houthi rebels is officially over. An agreed ceasefire was declared at midnight on Thursday.

But a ceasefire is not the same as lasting peace. It doesn't mean the Yemeni government can sit back and do nothing (as is likely to happen) once the fighting has stopped. The important thing is to tackle the problems that could lead to a recurrence.

The International Crisis Group, in a report last May, suggested a number of peace-building measures (pages 25-28) which should be implemented, along with others, as soon as possible. They include: 

Bridging the sectarian gap: The portrayal of Huthi militants, both in the media and official discourse, as agents of a wider Shiite conspiracy to take over the country is largely unfounded and – in the context of deepening regional sectarian polarisation – dangerous. Instead, the state should renew efforts undertaken by the republic in the late 1960s to more systematically integrate Zaydis and Hashemites into the political system. It also should discourage media outlets from fanning social or religious prejudice. Finally, it ought to take steps to ensure representation of Hashemites and Zaydi revivalist figures in higher government and ruling party circles.

Although Zaydi revivalist fears of Salafi or Wahhabi attempts to eradicate them are exaggerated, they contain a kernel of truth and have led to a self-defence reflex. For the state, the appropriate response should be not exclusion and repression but accommodation and inclusion ...

Reintegrating the Houthis into politics: Five years into the conflict, it remains difficult to identify the rebels’ objectives. Huthi leaders never spelled them out clearly, often limiting themselves to rejecting government claims. Failure to articulate a coherent political platform has encouraged rumours of secret political and sectarian projects as well as of foreign manipulation. If they are to facilitate resolution of this conflict, the rebels will have to cogently list their grievances – Saada’s underdevelopment and exclusion; stigmatisation of Zaydi and Hashemite identities; detention and disappearance of Huthi fighters and allied political figures and intellectuals; and governmental failure to fully compensate war victims – and demands.

More broadly, a key to lasting peace likely will be the Huthi movement’s normalisation as a political party, a Zaydi revivalist religious-cultural movement, or both ...

Encouraging civil society initiatives: Muted reactions from civil society, the opposition and media have been an important and unfortunate feature of the Saada war from the start. Criticism and in-depth analysis of the belligerents’ actions have remained rare, in part due to the information vacuum, in part due to fear of state repression ...

[Public debate holds] a key to improving public information, debunking myths on both sides and building confidence between belligerents by establishing forums for open expression and debate. Local, non-affiliated organisations also could help provide credible assessments of destruction and casualties and assist in reconstruction projects, thus enhancing their credibility in rebel and international eyes.

A new international role: International efforts essentially have been of two types: regional intervention (at times well-intentioned but unable to solve the conflict) and humanitarian (chiefly by UN agencies and international humanitarian organisations).

A more positive, political and proactive international role is important. This will require a change in outlook on the nature of the war ... Donor countries should hold out the promise of long-term development aid to neglected regions such as Saada as an incentive to end the war.
How aid is structured also matters. Support should be allocated to specific reconstruction projects jointly identified by the government, rebels and members of civil society ...

Longer-term development could be supported by incentives for private investment, notably in the labourintensive agricultural sector ...

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 12 February 2010. Comment

The do-it-yourself revolution

During a discussion that I attended yesterday a prominent Islamist with Palestinian connections (who unfortunately I can't name) was asked if Islamist movements in the Middle East are growing or declining. He replied that the movements themselves are declining but that the influence of religion is growing in less formal, more unstructured ways.

This struck me as an important observation – look at the Amr Khaled phenomenon, for example – but I think it goes much wider than religion. Disaffected Arabs these days are not, on the whole, looking to opposition parties or mass movements to solve their problems. What we are seeing is the growth of  small-scale activism, often based around single issues, or people simply trying to escape the system and do their own thing.

Rami Khouri makes a similar point in an article for today's Daily Star, discussing Arab youth:

New research being conducted throughout the region by local scholars suggests that many, perhaps most, young Arabs feel unnecessarily constrained by the social, political, religious, security or economic controls that confine their lives. 

If they cannot move elsewhere to build a more satisfying life, they often create new lives for themselves in their own home environment – on-line, in shopping malls, at mosques, in volunteer charitable societies, or on the street and in the neighborhood. Their second lives allow them to express their multiple identities and manifest their full personalities and values, in domains such as politics, sexuality, ideology, religion, anti-colonialism, ethnicity, culture, resistance, consumerism, and art.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 11 February 2010. Comment

Can Gulf states really help Yemen?

On the face of it, the Arab Gulf states have every reason to want to help Yemen: if it finally tips over the brink, they will be among the first to suffer. But while none of them wants to see Yemen turn into another Somalia, the idea of a stable, prosperous Yemen is something they also find rather scary ... Read more at Comment Is Free.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 11 February 2010. Comment

Idea of the day

My book, What's Really Wrong with the Middle East, was featured on Monday in the New York Times website's "Idea of the Day" section:

Today’s idea: The problems of the Arab world lie as much with oppressive families as with authoritarian regimes, an author argues.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 9 February 2010. Comment

Yemen ceasefire sticking points

Despite talk of a ceasefire in the Yemeni-Saudi war with the Houthi rebels, fighting continues. AFP reports that 10 Yemeni soldiers died in the latest clashes, while the rebels say Saudi warplanes fired at least 150 rockets on Sunday, killing two children.

One encouraging sign, though, it that the rebels have not flatly rejected the ceasefire timetable issued by the Yemeni government at the weekend. According to Xinhua news agency they have "reservations" about it, saying "the mechanism is inapplicable on the ground". They also want the Joint Meeting Parties (the Yemeni opposition alliance) "to serve as a national guarantee or monitor to oversee the ceasefire".

This does at least indicate that the practicalities of establishing a ceasefire are being discussed but with three parties now involved (the Saudis having joined the conflict three months ago) it's likely to be complicated. Xinhua says:

Sources close to the rebels revealed that Houthis also refuse the presence of Yemeni government troops on the northern borders with Saudi Arabia, saying the group wants its forces deployed along the borders so that the government will not surround the rebels and "hit them from the back."

It's beginning to look as it some form of external mediation may be needed in order to achieve a ceasefire. Qatar has helped in the past but my hunch is the Saudis would not want that because they view Qatar as a competitor for regional influence.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 9 February 2010. Comment

Character assassination 

An interesting sidelight on the "trial" last week of Mauritanian journalist Hanefi Ould Dehah (or Dahah). The Moor Next Door blog reports that an Arabic translation of a Wall Street Journal article calling for his release was circulated in the courtroom and in the streets outside. But it wasn't exactly the Wall Street Journal article: bits had been changed to blacken Ould Dahah's character.

The WSJ article said he had received an ultra-conservative religious education but "broke with the Islamists as an 18-year-old". The translation said he had "left Islam" at 18 – meaning that he is now an apostate.

The Moor Next Door continues: "The so-called 'translation' of the WSJ piece attributes statements to Ould Dahah that simply do not appear in the original. These do not come down to semantic problems, but glaring, malicious word choices based on a political agenda ..."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 8 February 2010. Comment

From jihad to the stars and stripes

Tariq Alhomayed, editor-in-chief of the Saudi newspaper, Asharq Al-Awsat, has been reflecting on that bizarre incident (reported here last week) when Tariq al-Fadhli, self-appointed leader of Yemen's southern separatist movement, hoisted an American flag at his home in Abyan while sounds of The Star-Spangled Banner drifted through the air.

Alhomayed writes:

At a time that religious fatwas are being issued in Sana'a stating that Jihad will be declared against the US should it intervene in Yemen against the al-Qaeda organisation, Tariq al-Fadli, the man who fought a jihad against the Russians in Afghanistan in the eighties, is flying the American flag over his home in southern Yemen.

... the entire issue is one of political opportunism and power struggle, and so it seems that loyalties in Yemen are seasonal. Therefore we see al-Fadli, who was always proud of his jihad in Afghanistan, a man who fought for Sana'a against the south during the Yemeni civil war, losing no time in joining the southern movement, and flying the American flag over his home in order to demonstrate his innocence of the accusations made against him by the government that he is cooperating with the al-Qaeda organisation. Al-Fadli has forsaken his former comrades in Afghanistan in the same manner that he has forsaken northern Yemen.

I often disagree with Alhomayed's columns but I think he's right about this. Asharq Al-Awsat has also published an interview with Fadli where he talks about al-Qaeda and violence in the south.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 8 February 2010. Comment

Female circumcision 'declining'

Saturday was the UN-sponsored International Day of Zero Tolerance to Female Genital Mutilation. In Egypt, about 1,000 girls took part in a protest in Minya province calling on the government to implement its law against the practice.

According to statistics cited by al-Masry al-Youm newspaper, female circumcision is still very widespread in Egypt, but shows signs of declining:

The prevalence of FGM among women aged 15 to 49, who are or have ever been married, is 91%. However, rates appear to be declining among younger women, with approximately three-quarters of girls aged 15-17 having been circumcised. 

These findings are supported by a recent study conducted by the Egyptian Ministry of Health and Population among a sample of primary, preparatory, and secondary female school students. The study found 50% of students surveyed to be victims ... while in certain governorates, especially in Upper Egypt, the number was as high as 70%.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 8 February 2010. Comment

Yemen ceasefire hopes rise

AFP is reporting that the Yemeni government has drawn up a ceasefire timetable and relayed it to the Houthi rebels via an intermediary. There is also talk of having the ceasefire implementation overseen by parliamentary committees.

This is beginning to look more hopeful. At least one previous ceasefire attempt failed through lack of an implementation mechanism.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 6 February 2010. Comment

A Yemeni view

Calm analysis of Yemen's problems, by Yemenis from inside the country, is rather scarce but Abdullah al-Faqih, Professor of Political Science at Sana’a University, provides exactly that in an article headed "The challenges of dealing with Yemen’s deep crises".

It's a clear and concise review of the main problems facing Yemen, and how they came about: the war in the north, the southern secessionist movement, al-Qaeda and the economy. It doesn't say anything very new but for anyone wanting to catch up on the current situation this would be an excellent starting point.

Faqih's views on what should be done are also interesting and I'll quote his conclusion in full:

President Saleh’s foremost concern is to retain total economic and political power in his own hands as long as he lives, and to hand it down to his son afterwards. The US and the international community are concerned about the threat al-Qaeda poses to regional and international peace and many educated Yemenis are concerned about the potential for tension between Saleh’s goal and that of the international community.

Of all his enemies in the south and north, al-Qaeda appears to be the least dangerous and less of a threat to what he values most. In fact, he has had it on his side on at least few occasions. Saleh might not be using al-Qaeda or the Houthis to blackmail neighbouring and friendly countries, as some of his critics often suggest, but it is obvious that he lacks a strong incentive to be rid of al-Qaeda once and for all or to reach a settlement with the Houthis. With Saleh and his country’s future depending largely on what the outside world says and does, al-Qaeda is an insurance policy for dancer and stage, but can also become an accelerator for the collapse of both of them.

The international community’s options in Yemen are very limited. On the one hand, it cannot turn its back on Yemen without risking disastrous consequences; on the other, it cannot rally behind Saleh against his opponents either in the north or south or even against al-Qaeda alone while leaving the other two for Saleh to handle alone. 

Any sound strategy to tackle Yemen’s complexities should meet several conditions: (1) it should be comprehensive in scope and inclusive of political, economic and security issues; (2) it should aim as its priority to dismantle the ongoing political conflicts in the north and south –the Saudis, in particular, should immediately stop paying the bills of the war in the north and direct the money instead towards development and reconstruction; and (3) the international community should fully engage Saleh using a combination of incentives and disincentives.

Containing the secessionist movement in the south and preventing Yemen from degenerating into a Somalia-like state will require restructuring and strengthening the Yemeni state and political system in ways that will allow meaningful power-sharing, accountability, the de-personalisation of power and the rule of law. Parliamentarianism, deep decentralisation, bicameralism, proportional representation and free media are all key components to any viable solution to Yemen’s current myriad problems. 

The separation of south and north is almost impossible and if allowed could lead to the breakdown of the country as a whole into warring tribes, sects, regions and ideological orientations. As in Afghanistan, Somalia, Iraq and elsewhere, only extremist groups focusing on passion and advocating terror can gain advantage in the event of a split.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 6 February 2010. Comment

Journalist sentenced again

A brief update on Hanefi Ould Dehah, the Mauritanian journalist whose case I reported last December. After completing a six-month sentence for "indecency", Ould Dedah – editor of the Taqadoumy news website – was not released but continued to be held in jail illegally.

At a new trial on Thursday, he was sentenced to a further two years on charges of violating public decency, inciting revolt and “criminal publication”. 

He was initially 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 first trial, Ould Dehah was cleared of defamation but convicted of "offending public decency" in connection with a page on Taqadoumy's website which discussed morality and sex education. An article on Huffington Post gives more background.

The campaign in support of Ould Dedah has a Facebook page here.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 6 February 2010. Comment

UPDATE: Ould Dehah was freed on 26 February 2010. He was among 100 prisoners pardoned by president Ould Abdel Aziz to mark the Prophet's birthday.

Saudis 'torture Houthi rebels'

A video purporting to show members of the Saudi armed forces torturing suspected Houthi rebels has been posted on the internet.

The Washington-based Saudi Information Agency (critical of the Saudi regime) says

The prisoners, who are suspected to be affiliated with the Houthi rebel group operating in the northern Yemeni province of Saada, are seen being beaten on the soles of their feet with metal wires by Saudi military officials.

Several uniformed Saudi army officers, several soldiers and civilians are seen beating Yemenis who were crying, “I am a Yemeni” and the Islamic slogan “there is no God but God,” while soldiers were questioning about their nationality. The torture appears to have taken place inside a Saudi security building near the borders with Yemen.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 5 February 2010. Comment

Arabs, gay rights and modernity

Hussein Ibish, of the American Task Force on Palestine, has written a thoughtful and, I think, important essay about the controversy surrounding Joseph Massad and gay rights in the Arab countries.

This is partly in response to those on the American right who seem more eager to tar Massad with the label of homophobia (and indeed antisemitism) than consider the underlying issues, and also in response to Massad's insulting attack on Helem, the Lebanese gay rights organisation, which I reported here in December.

Massad's argument, put very simply, is that the gay/straight binary is a creation of the west, which the west has exported through colonialism and neocolonialism – and which should therefore be opposed. He claims that this, rather than anything in Arab societies themselves, is the cause of homophobia and attacks on sexual minorities in the Middle East.

The implication of Massad's argument (expounded in his book, Desiring Arabs) is that without foreign interference Arabs would be revelling in a multiplicity of diverse sexual experiences, untramelled by fears of persecution or agonising about sexual identity. This is highly questionable and, as Ibish points out, there is plenty of evidence pointing in the opposite direction, such as punishment for same-sex acts and "the existence of derogatory language that appears to predate any sustained encounter with the colonial west".

Ibish's key point, though, is about modernity. Where Massad views gay/straight concepts purely in terms of cultural imperialism, Ibish thinks they should be regarded as unavoidable products of modernity:

Massad is missing a crucial point about the nature of modernity that I think eludes many intelligent, well-meaning people: modernity is a package deal and not an à la carte menu. It seems to me that almost all contemporary identity categories have been either directly produced or completely redefined by modernity, leaving very little if any meaningful social identity categories that are not, in effect, precisely the products of modernity. 

Contemporary notions, both east and west, of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, nationality, ideological affiliation, etc. all seem to me to be produced or defined by modernity, that is to say by their modern context. Even well-established identity categories that obviously and deeply precede colonialism and modernity in the Middle East, such as divisions between Sunnis and Shiites (as well as other smaller Muslim denominations) or premodern tribal affiliations, have all been restructured and redefined in the context of a postcolonial Arab modernity defined first and foremost by the Arab state system. 

In other words, I'm arguing that certain kinds of social and political identities, including the gay and other non-normative sexual identities, are, to all intents and purposes, built into modernity in the same way that race, ethnicity, nationality, gender and other comparable political identity categories obviously are. Some of them predate modernity, but have been redefined. Others are new or have taken on new significance, for example with regard to women's rights.

Massad's problem, Ibish suggests, is that he "treats modernity as if it were an à la carte menu in which a society may pick and choose the items it wants for its own purposes and simply decide to avoid some other aspects that are inherent in modernity such as gay and other 'problematic' socio-political identities". 

This kind of cherry-picking, unfortunately, is not peculiar to Massad. It's very widespread throughout the Arab countries – not just in the area of sexuality – and there are many other examples in my book, What's Really Wrong with the Middle East.

Massad, a protégé of the late Edward Said, teaches at Columbia University and his work is directed primarily at an academic audience. He does make some valid points, especially about the undesirability of fitting everyone into hard-and-fast sexual identities. But, as Ibish notes, we can't ignore the political significance of Massad's arguments in the real world: they may not be homophobic in themselves but they do risk reinforcing homophobia in others.

This is why Helem and many other gay rights activists in the region find his arguments threatening – especially when Arabs who identify as gay are portrayed as victims of an insidious western influence.

Ibish writes:

[Massad] actually seems to oppose the political agenda of providing Arab gays and lesbians with legal protection as a class because of his opposition to the [gay/straight] binary and the gay identity it produces ...

Ultimately this is a highly irresponsible position, and ungenerous in an inexplicable way. He seems to be so opposed to the gay identity as a socio-political category in theory that he opposes the gay rights agenda in practice. 

Of all of the beleaguered groups and threatened movements in the Arab world, picking on Arabs who openly identify as gay and gay rights activists seems a very strange choice indeed.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 5 February 2010. Comment

Land of the free, home of the brave ...

An intriguing clip from YouTube, apparently filmed at the home of Sheikh Tariq al-Fadhli, erstwhile jihadist and associate of Bin Laden, and now self-appointed leader of Yemen's southern separatists.

It shows the hoisting of an American flag in his compound with people standing to attention as the American national anthem is played. What's it all about? I haven't a clue but Jane Novak 
suggests it's “like a distress signal for rescue from tyranny”.

Fadhli (or Fadli) has a very chequered history as a veteran of the Afghan war who caused trouble in southern Yemen during the early 1990s (read about it here) before becoming an ally of President Salih and, more recently, falling out with him.

Last May, he told the BBC that if the south achieved independence under his leadership, he would to tackle terrorism and improve maritime security in the Gulf of Aden "with integrity and co-operation with the west, especially the United Kingdom".

The Financial Times published a profile of him last month.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 4 February 2010. Comment

New elections in Saudi Arabia?

Five years ago this month, there was a good deal of excitement in Saudi Arabia when men (but not women) were given an opportunity to vote for the first time in 40 years. 

They were electing half the members of municipal councils – the other half to be appointed by the king – and there was no shortage of candidates. In Riyadh alone, 640 candidates vied for just seven seats and some spent absurd sums of money campaigning.

The councils (largely powerless) were elected for four years, but when 2009 came and they were due for re-election, nothing happened.

The reason given at the time was that the next elections had been postponed for "re-evaluation" and some suspected that the whole idea of local democracy would be quietly dropped. But apparently not.

According to a report in the Saudi Gazette last month, work is proceeding on a new law "that seeks to completely overhaul the powers and functions of the kingdom’s 179 municipal councils, including harsh penalties for vote rigging and other violations and an increased emphasis on public accountability".

Judging by the paper's report it contains some sensible provisions. John Burgess, on the Crossroads Arabia blog, notes that the draft law does not exlcude women from eligibility to vote – "though in Saudi Arabia, this does not mean that they will not be stopped from participating. There’s no law that prohibits women’s driving, after all." 

He adds:

The draft laws do appear to grant more authority and autonomy to the councils. I think this a prerequisite to effective civil governance. If the councils serve as no more than figurehead or bookmark offices, then they have no utility beyond the minor one of providing jobs to a few hundred people. If, however, the councils gain authority and concomitant responsibility for their actions, then they will serve an important role in defining the future of representative government in the kingdom.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 4 February 2010. Comment

Chaos and the Arab state

Following on from my talk at SOAS last week about the "crunch points" in Arab society, a reader asks:

How do you explain the apparent contradiction between the authoritarian nature of all of these societies and the apparent (often shocking) lack of order and discipline, and an almost chronic inability to organise and plan? I thought authoritarianism should at least in theory teach people discipline and order.

There's clearly a paradox here and it's a big subject, but I'll offer a few suggestions. Readers are welcome to chip in with other explanations.

I think there are several factors at work, including: the weakness of the state, a lack of transparency and public debate, favouritism (which relates to a lack of commitment to equal rights), and widespread corruption.

The weak state: Though Arab regimes may may establish large armies and security forces and employ vast bureaucracies, their ability to effect change and influence the behaviour of their citizens is far more limited than it looks. As Nazih Ayubi noted in his ground-breaking book, Over-stating the Arab State:

Their capabilities for law enforcing are much weaker than their ability to enact laws, their implementation capabilities are much weaker than their ability to issue development plans. (page 447)

Possession of arbitrary powers and the absence of constitutional restraints is of little use, Ayubi argued, if the regime’s will cannot be translated into a sound political or social reality.

Where survival of the regime becomes the chief priority of government it is hardly surprising that the power of the state should be directed towards controlling dissent, and that this should be the area where state power is deployed most forcefully and effectively. 

In areas where regime survival is not at stake the picture is somewhat different: the same “control mentality” exists in the form of laws, decrees and regulations but in a far more tokenistic way since the regime often lacks the capacity, and sometimes the inclination, to enforce them.

One illustration is the contrasting attitudes towards enforcing laws that serve the public good – environmental protection, health and safety, etc – and those that serve the good of the regime. 

Another factor in state weakness is the lack of delegation in decision-making. Too many decisions have to be referred to the top. This clogs up the system; people get fed up waiting and seek out ways to circumvent the bureaucracy.

Lack of transparency: There is a contrast here between the Arab countries and most European countries. EU citizens, for example, enjoy more freedom than those in Arab countries and yet in many ways the regulation of their lives is far more extensive. Everyday activities such as work and business practices are subject to a multiplicity of rules that simply do not exist in most Arab countries.

Despite this extra burden of regulation, compliance in the EU countries is higher. High levels of compliance depend not just on the existence of laws but on perceptions of their legitimacy and public acceptance of the rationale behind them. 

That requires a culture of public scrutiny and debate where interested parties and the media can express their views freely (it helps too, of course, if the ultimate decision rests with a properly-elected body). Where there is general acceptance of a law, enforcement becomes a last resort rather than the first line of defence. 

In Arab countries, on the other hand, laws tend to be handed down from on high by diktat and the lack of critical scrutiny before they are approved often results in vague or ambiguous language that makes them more difficult to implement. With less debate, there is less opportunity for the public to be persuaded of the rationale behind new laws – a difficulty which is compounded by the general perception of government as a creator of obstacles rather than a facilitator and a partner with society in solving problems. 

Favouritism, privilege, inequality: One major problem here is the belief among people of a certain status that the rules don't really apply to them: "I'm important, I'm in a hurry – how dare you stop me for speeding." It surfaces in many ways, for example when some prominent person accused of a crime is allowed to flee the country in order to avoid arrest, or when some minor indignity is involved such as a security check.

There are also the demands of kinship, the duty to help relatives and return favours, which undermine efforts to apply principles of equality, and especially equality of opportunity. It's difficult to have orderly procedures when queue-jumping is the norm.

Corruption: This undermines the system in much the same way as social privilege but is based around money. It operates at many levels but let's return to the question of compliance with the law. As mentioned earlier, compliance in European countries is usually secured without enforcement, though compliance is encouraged by the threat of enforcement and the knowledge that defiance is likely to be futile (unless there's some kind of organised mass resistance, in which case the law may end up being changed). This all hinges on an independent judiciary and a recognition by the public that the police, the courts and enforcement officials cannot be influenced by bribery or pulling rank – conditions which don't often exist in the Arab countries.

Planning: I disagree slightly with the questioner about a lack of planning in Arab countries, but it depends what sort of planning. Arab governments are quite fond of their development plans, even if they have trouble implementing them. 

Where I think a lack of planning does show up is when things go wrong. Communal violence is one example (Kurds in Syria, Christians in Egypt, etc). There is very little effort to investigate the causes and take steps to prevent a recurrence. This probably relates to the lack of transparency: it's easier (and more conforting) to deny that a problem exists and blame a few troublemakers that to allow an open public debate.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 3 February 2010. Comment

Junblatt versus Jumblatt

Yesterday's discussion of Arabic transliteration prompted several emails from readers. One pointed out that Junblatt – the Lebanese politician's name – is usually written as Jumblatt in English. This seems to be a case of phonetics taking priority over the written form: if you say "Junblatt" quickly the N tends to turn into M.

Still in Lebanon, we also have Rafiq, Rafik and Rafic al-Hariri (with the C spelling the most popular according to Google). And let's not forget Gibran Khalil Gibran whose name changed permanently to Kahlil because someone put an H in the wrong place when he first registered for school in the United States.

Writing from Harvard, Mohamed El Dahshan (or should that be Muhammad al-Dahshan?) says: "There's more [than] 'preference and utility' to the way words are spelled: sometimes spelling reveals political differences and preferences. Hizb-allah, Hezbollah and Hizbullah, for instance, will be used by different people."

I've noticed this too. Israelis often seem to prefer Hezballah with an A in the middle, though I'm not sure if there's a political point to it.

Mohamed goes on to suggest that the Romanised spellings of Arabic names can help to identify a person's place of origin and that someone called Muhammad is more likely to be non-Arab than Mohammed.

The other side of this is when English speakers try to put a name or phrase into Arabic. A few years ago I was regularly getting emails from people wanting tattoos in Arabic. It seemed to start around the time David Beckham had his wife's name 
tattooed on his arm in Hindi, and eventually I set up a web page to answer the FAQs.

Having seen how Spanish souvenir shops around the Alhambra (sorry – al-Hamra') mangle their reproductions of the palace's Arabic inscriptions, I usually suggest Arabic tattoos are not a brilliant idea unless you're sure the artist knows what he's doing. 

A lot of the requests were for Arabic renditions of barely-translatable English phrases or names like "Vanessa" where I'd have to explain that Arabic has no letter V, so would she mind being "Fanisa" instead?

But tastes change. Yesterday, this email arrived: "I am tiling the backsplash of an Islamic [sic] friend in a stone tile. I would like to paint Islamic phrases on a few tiles ...(short prayers ... "happy" words ... not sure what would be appropriate) and would like some suggestions. Can you help?"

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 2 February 2010. Comment

Family values in Iraq

Eager to promote traditional family life, the Conservative party in Britain is promising tax incentives for married couples if it wins the next election. 

But already Iraq has gone one better (and possibly two or three better) with financial incentives to promote polygamy, according to Al-Iraq al-Qanoun website.

Men in Anbar province – which reportedly has as many as 130,000 single women – are being offered cash sums for taking on extra wives: $2,000 for marrying a second wife and $5,000 for a third or fourth wife.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 2 February 2010. Comment

Arabic and the Roman alphabet

A lengthy post by Kal on The Moor Next Door blog delves into the thorny question of how best to represent Arabic words and names in the Roman alphabet.

This has been controversial territory since 1926 (if not before) when T E Lawrence's manuscript for Revolt in the Desert was sent to the typesetters and a sharp-eyed proofreader spotted some inconsistent spelling in the 130,000-word text.

Lawrence's reponse was amusing but unhelpful, and he explained: "Arabic names won't go into English, exactly, for their consonants are not the same as ours, and their vowels, like ours, vary from district to district." 

It is a problem with no perfect solution, though that has never stopped people trying to find one. There are two basic approaches: one is phonetic – trying to approximate the sound of the original – while the other tries to represent the letters of the word as it is written in Arabic. Both methods work up to a point but ultimately both are doomed to failure.

The trouble with phonetic spelling is that it doesn't produce consistent results. There are regional variations in the way Arabic words are pronounced (J becomes G in Egypt, for example, and Q becomes G in Saudi Arabia). Foreigners also have inconsistent ways of representing the sounds they hear and spellings are often shaped by colonial history: the surname Shaheen, for instance, is likely to be spelt as Chahine where there is French influence. 

Some people take this too far, of course – as happened when 
Sky News and the Daily Mail transformed Hassan Abedin of the Oxford Islamic Centre into "Hassan Aberdeen". 

Letter-for-letter transliteration might seem more scientific than the phonetic approach – except that only eight letters in Arabic (B, F, K, L, M, N, R, and Z) have an indisputable equivalent in the Roman alphabet. There have been several attempts to devise a standard system of transliteration (as I discussed here) but none has emerged as a clear winner.

On the whole, I share Kal's view that there are more important things to bother about. It's not a problem if you have a working knowledge of Arabic because you can normally work out, even from bad attempts at transliteration, what the word is supposed to be.

It can be confusing, though, if you don't know any Arabic because you won't necessarily realise that words or names spelt in two different ways may actually represent the same thing. 
Alternative spellings of names – Mohammed, Mohamed, Muhammad, etc – became a particular problem for intelligence agencies after the 9/11 attacks when trying to identify terror suspects. But you can't really expect all the world's Mohammeds to standardise their names; it's something the keepers of databases will have to learn to cope with.

Some people say that whatever spelling you adopt it's important to be consistent. But these days, I'm not even sure about that. Here on this blog, I sometimes vary the spelling of names deliberately to help the search engines.

Kal concludes that in the end it all boils down to utility and personal preference. Ah yes, preference. Don't get me started on that. I do have my preferences. One that still irritates me is the Guardian's switch, a year or so ago, from "Hizbullah" to "Hezbollah". Ugh!

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 1 February 2010. Comment

Yemen's non-ceasefire

This Yemeni ceasefire business is getting confusing. Yesterday, the government appeared to reject the offer from the Houthi rebels. But now Yemen's National Defence Council says it "will have no objection" to ending military operations if the rebels abide by all six of the government-decreed conditions for a ceasefire.

At least they haven't closed the door entirely, but the war goes on – with both sides saying it's up to the other to make the first move.

Meanwhile the main opposition grouping, the Joint Meeting Parties, has welcomed the rebels' ceasefire offer.

"It is time for the government to declare the end of military operations in Saada," it said in a press release. "There is no longer a cause to go on the war which led to disastrous consequences in the state as a whole."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 1 February 2010. Comment

Previous blog posts




February 2010

Wide-scale protests in southern Yemen

Misery of the housemaids (4)

Medical bribes scandal in Egypt

Egyptian blogger 'faces court martial'

Algerian in-fighting

The ElBaradei factor

Yemen's southern problem

Misery of the housemaids (3)

Lebanese against confessionalism

Civil society: independent or not?

Tight lips as Moussa meets ElBaradei

Headbanging against repression

Breakthrough for female lawyers

Questions surround minaret disaster

ElBaradei has landed

'Don't welcome ElBaradei'

Brighter times for Syria

Mutawa man had six wives

Homosexuality a disease, say doctors

UN reviews human rights in Egypt

Court ruling against websites

Saudi underwear boycott

Lesbianism shocks the Emirates

Is anybody watching?

Hariri assassination – five years on

Resisting the Valentine ban 

Shop early for Valentine's Day

Yemen's Houthi war 'is over'

The do-it-yourself revolution

Can Gulf states really help Yemen?

Yemen ceasefire sticking points

Character assassination 

From jihad to the stars and stripes 

Female circumcision 'declining'

Yemen ceasefire hopes rise

A Yemeni view

Journalist sentenced again

Saudis 'torture Houthi rebels'

Arabs, gay rights and modernity

Land of the free, home of the brave ...

New elections in Saudi Arabia?

Chaos and the Arab state

Junblatt versus Jumblatt

Family values in Iraq

Arabic and the Roman alphabet

Yemen's non-ceasefire


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 27 February, 2010