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Wide-scale protests in southern Yemen

Thousands took to the streets of southern Yemen yesterday in protests timed to coincide with a meeting of the country’s international donors.

Demonstrations were reported in the main towns of four provinces – Dhali, Lahij, Abyan and Hadramawt – but there seem to have been only minor outbreaks of violence. Three civilians were shot and wounded in Abyan, and police used tear gas and fired into the air in Mukalla (Hadramawt province).

The official news agency initially said a state of emergency had been declared in Dhali, though this was later denied. Some reports spoke of a curfew; if so, it was widely ignored but security forces did stop vehicles entering Dhali’ city.

As usual, demonstrators waved flags of the old southern state. AFP also mentions the presence of Saudi flags – which would be unusual if true.

The exiled former vice-president, Ali Salim al-Baidh, had called for "two days of southern anger" to coincide with the donors’ meeting in Saudi Arabia. He said:

"I call on you over the next two days to send a message to our Arab brothers and to the representatives of the international community gathered in Riyadh underlining your rejection of the occupation and your commitment to self-determination.

"Our only weapon is our determination to recover our rights whatever the cost … We will succeed in regaining our independence."

Al-Baid led the south into union with the north in 1990, but later had second thoughts. The southern army, which had not been disbanded, fought a brief and unsuccessful war of secession in 1994.

Yesterday, former jihadist Tariq al-Fadhli – who regards himself as leader of the southern movement – urged a crowd in Zinjibar "to continue your struggle until the south is freed from Yemeni occupation".

An interview with Fadhli was published in the New York Times on Saturday. Among other things, he talks in the interview about his friendship with Osama Bin Laden and his recent hoisting and saluting of an American flag at his home in Abyan.

Another New York Times article looks at the background of the southern protests. Afra Khaled Hariri, a lawyer who has represented arrested members of the movement, is quoted as saying the separatists are deep divided – a mixture of socialists and Islamists with wildly different goals and unresolved disputes.

“There is no clear leadership, everyone wants to be the boss,” she says. “If the movement succeeds in making a separate state, I expect disaster because of our bloody past.” 

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 28 February 2010. Comment

Misery of the housemaids (4)

A 30-year-old Nepalese maid was found dead in her room at Hafr al-Batin, Saudi Arabia, on Friday. The unnamed woman is reported to have hanged herself. She was said to be "suffering psychological duress and had recently refused to work".

Less than a week ago an Indonesian maid died after falling from a building in Mecca. 

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 28 February 2010. Comment

Medical bribes scandal in Egypt

From the Egyptian daily, al-Masry al-Youm:

"The Public Funds Prosecution has uncovered that 11 MPs and 27 of their supporters in seven governorates accepted bribes from patients to receive state-financed medical treatment. According to investigators, the bribes ranged from LE1,000 to LE10,000" [$180–$1,800].

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 28 February 2010. Comment

Egyptian blogger 'faces court martial'

Stories are circulating on the internet that a young Egyptian named Ahmed Mustafa is about to be court-martialled for remarks he posted in a blog.

There are not many details but it seems that he complained about someone being removed from a military college so that a rich kid could take his place. He has also been questioned about his activities in the 6 April youth movement.

He is said to have been charged with "disseminating news and information distort the image of the armed forces".

Commenting on the case at Egyptian Chronicles, Zeinobia 
writes: "From a legal point of view Mustafa should not be prosecuted in front of a military court. From a logic point of view he should not prosecuted at all because he did not breach any military secrets."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 27 February 2010. Comment

Algerian in-fighting

The killing of Ali Tounsi, chief of the Algerian police, has been reported briefly in the international media. He is officially said to have been shot dead in his office by a colleague in a fit of madness.

His alleged assailant – named in the Algerian press as Choaïb Oultache – had worked with Tounsi for years and the two men were neighbours. At one stage, Oultache had been responsible for overseeing Tounsi's personal safety.

On Thursday, Oultache was apparently surprised to read in a newspaper that he was being suspended pending a corruption investigation. He went to see Tounsi and a confrontation ensued. Oultache was also wounded and is now in hospital.

Two blogs, Algerian Review and The Moor Next Door, describe the affair in more detail and also explore some of the background.

Tounsi's killing may have been the result of a personal, self-contained quarrel – or possibly something bigger. There are several corruption investigations going on in Algeria at present involving high-ranking figures, most notably in connection with the state oil company, Sonatrach.

High-level corruption is rarely investigated in the Arab countries unless there are ulterior political motives for doing so. It is so widespread that corruption charges provide a convenient (and often easily provable) means for getting rid of those who have fallen out of favour for other reasons. Syria is one example: under the guise of fighting corruption, the incoming President Bashar managed to consolidate his position by clearing out various "unreliable" sections of his father's old guard.

The Algerian regime, like many in the Middle East, is not a monolith but a delicate balance of competing factional interests. Describing the current situation there, The Moor Next Door says:

"Over the last ten years many of the key figures in the military hard-line – Mohamed Lamari, Smain Lamari, Khaled Nezzar, Larbi Belkheir, et al. – have died, retired or grown too ill to manipulate politics. What is left are the stalwarts of the praetorian order, especially the ones most well entrenched in the 'privatised' industries."

Inevitably, as the number of old-time stalwarts dwindles, there is a re-balancing of the power structure and jockeying for position. Accusing rivals of corruption, or threatening to expose them, is one way of pursuing that.

"Given [President] Bouteflika’s age, health and the ambiguity about succession," The Moor Next Door writes, "there may be some who see now [as] a do or die period and others who see it as a season of opportunity."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 27 February 2010. Comment

The ElBaradei factor

No apologies for returning once again to the topic of Mohamed ElBaradei. A week after the former IAEA chief arrived in Cairo as a possible presidential candidate, Egyptian politics has become more interesting than at any time since the 1952 revolution.

I have said before that opposition parties – not just the regimes – should carry some of the blame for the dire state of Arab politics. Of course, their room to manouevre is constrained by the regimes but a large part of the problem is their defeatist attitude. Far too often, they regard themselves as permanent opposition rather than potential alternative governments.

What Egypt has now, in the shape of ElBaradei, is a heavyweight figure that opposition parties can rally around (if they so choose), along with all those who are tired of the old system (including the opposition parties and the way they have traditionally behaved). There is also, for once, the prospect of a clear vision of where they want to go – starting with fair elections, a less oppressive state and a system where the people tell the politicians what to do, not the other way round. These are all areas where a consensus can be built across the political spectrum.

Over the last few days, ElBaradei has been busy trying to consolidate his support base. On Tuesday, he met a broad group of opposition representatives who decided to form a "National Assembly for Change" and reportedly agreed on the need "to ensure the integrity of the upcoming elections and a new constitution for Egypt". Even the Muslim Brotherhood attended, though it said its involvement “does not mean that we support for Dr ElBaradei as a candidate for president.” On Wednesday, 
he met "young advocates for change" – Facebook activists and several members of the 6 April movement. 

The Mubarak regime has gradually been losing control of the political discourse and ElBaradei's arrival on the scene seems likely to speed up that process dramatically. The talk, now, is not just of change but achievable change. 

Whether that makes ElBaradei the next president of Egypt is a different matter, though. We don't even know if he'll be allowed to stand. And the regime – through the army, its patronage networks, its control of large sections of the media, its ability to manipulate elections, and so on – still has a hugely powerful machine on its side. Change will really only happen when that starts to crumble.

Yesterday Baheyya, the queen of Egyptian bloggers, broke a long silence to give her view of the situation:

At this point, it’s hard to see how ElBaradei can even run in the elections, much less have a real chance at winning. But I think he’s doing more than launching a symbolic campaign. He’s raising the costs of electoral engineering for the Mubarak regime, making 2010 and 2011 the toughest polls yet in Mubarak’s tenure. What’s more, ElBaradei’s entry comes at a time when the regime is at its weakest. Mubarak is fast fading, his son is flailing, the bureaucracy is riven with unbelievable corruption and civil servant protests, and all social classes are literally fed up and can’t stand the Mubaraks anymore. None of this means that ElBaradei is going to displace the system, but it does mean that the regime will have to work harder than it ever has to weather the electoral cycle.

The whole post is worth reading, but she concludes:

Perhaps the scariest thing for Mubarak, wife, and son is that ElBaradei’s social democratic centrism, liberalism, and personal air of gravitas is rapidly forming him a constituency inside and outside Egypt. Like any dictator, the purpose of Mubarak’s existence is to snuff out the bottom-up formation of constituencies around rival groups or individuals. So far, Mubarak has succeeded in blocking or containing the growth of constituencies around challengers. Because elections are the time when constituency-building happens, they’ve always constituted an annoying but ultimately manageable nuisance for him. When the Ikhwan’s constituency-building threatened the parliamentary majority of Mubarak’s party in 2005, state violence was at the ready to strike at both voters and candidates. When Ayman Nour’s unexpected constituency-building in 2005 threatened to embarrass Mubarak, he mobilised his media and legal machine to smear Nour and put him safely behind bars. These tried and true tactics won’t work with ElBaradei. I’m going to enjoy sitting back and watching how the Mubaraks deal with this wildcard.

I hope the US will sit back too and let this thing play out. There would be nothing worse than having ElBaradei regarded as Washington's candidate. But, just a few days ago, the influential blogger, Andrew Sullivan, seemed eager for the US to weigh in when he wrote:

This is could turn into a slo-mo Arab version of the Iranian democracy protests – and unlike in Iran, the US can actually have an impact here.

Please! No. Don't mess it up.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 26 February 2010. Comment

Yemen's southern problem

With the suspension of hostilities between the government and the Houthi rebels in northern Yemen, this seems like a suitable moment for a brief update on the continuing separatist troubles in the south.

It is difficult to get an accurate picture because independent reporting of events in the south (as in the north) is severely restricted; most of the news comes from government sources. Nevertheless, several things are clear. 

The southern insurrection – or whatever is the right word to describe it – is not an all-out military conflict of the kind seen recently in the north. The broad picture is of street demonstrations, some of which pass off peacefully, some of which are prevented by the authorities, and some of which turn into riots. Alongside that, there are violent attacks on people and property but usually on a small scale.

Last Friday, for example, suspected separatist gunmen ambushed and killed the director of criminal investigations in al-Dhali’. A soldier also died in the attack and three others, including two soldiers, were wounded.

On Tuesday night, a guard at al-Maflahi district court in Lahj province was shot dead by a gang in two cars. The official news agency accused Taher Tamah, a prominent secessionist leader. It said Tamah and another man, Sami Dayan, had formed armed groups “to cut roads and commit banditry, kidnap cars and loot public and private properties”. 

The interior ministry says at least 130 people, variously described as outlaws, rioters and destructive elements, have been arrested in three southern provinces (Hadhramout, Lahj and al-Dhali’) since the beginning of this month.

According to the ministry, “The arrested were involved in subversion including rioting and road cuts and banditry with the aim to disturb the public security and spread hatred among the people.” 

Those arrested include about 80 who were rounded up over a period of three days following a week of disturbances in al-Houta (Lahj province). According to officials and residents cited by Reuters, army positions came under fire and shops owned by northerners were burnt. Separatists also tried to block the road from Lahj to Aden. These are all fairly typical of the kind of separatist activity reported many times before.

Xinhua news agency also reported the arrest of at least 16 people late on Friday in various parts of the south in connection with “unauthorised protests”. They were said to have been carrying anti-government leaflets and banners, and some of them threw stones at security forces.

Those arrests followed a call from separatist leader Tariq al-Fadhli for an “uprising” last Saturday and were possibly meant to pre-empt it.

On Tuesday it was reported that citizens in al-Houta had handed over 600 tyres to the authorities. The tyres were allegedly “ready for burning by separatists to launch acts of riots and vandalism in the town”.

During the last year, Yemeni security forces killed 147 people in the south, according to a document posted on Jane Novak’s Armies of Libeation website. The document, compiled by Awad Ali Haidarah, names all the victims and briefly describes the circumstances of their death. Their ages range from 18 months to 70 years.

Although the insurrection in the south has a very different character from the Houthi war in the north, there are important similarities. In both cases, the underlying problem is marginalisation and in both cases the government is treating it as a security issue (even if the methods used are different). Depending on how they are applied, security measures can either contain it or exacerbate it. But in the end, as in the north, the southern problem can only be resolved through politics.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 25 February 2010. Comment

Misery of the housemaids (3)

It happens all the time and no one seems to care. Yet another foreign domestic worker has plunged to her death from a building, this time in Saudi Arabia.

Arab News says the unnamed 25-year-old Indonesian woman fell from a two-storey building "while trying to run away from her sponsor" in Mecca. She had been in the kingdom for four months.

The paper adds that "Police have launched an investigation into the incident to ascertain the reason behind the woman's death." Really?

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 24 February 2010. Comment

Lebanese against confessionalism

An opinion poll highlighted by the Qifa Nabki blog shows strong popular support in Lebanon for abolishing confessionalism. Fifty-eight per cent are in favour, plus a further 10% who favour abolition but think the time is not right. Only 22% oppose abolition.

Interestingly (but not surprisingly since they would probably benefit most), the Lebanese Shi'a strongly support abolition (89%) while the Maronites tend to oppose it (43% against abolition, 31% in favour).

Asked what they understood by the term "abolishing confessionalism", 40% said it meant removing the sectarian quotas from government, 24% did not know, and 13% said it meant "equality among all Lebanese, regardless of sect".

On the question of civil marriage, the poll found Lebanese almost evenly divided (48% against, 45% in favour), with the Maronites favouring it more than the Shi'a.

As-Safir newspaper discusses the poll in more detail in Arabic.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 24 February 2010. Comment

Civil society: independent or not?

“I do not think we have a real civil society independent from the state ... If you are not somehow connected to the regime, they will not establish you.” These are the words of Abdullah al-Faqih, Professor of Political Science at Sana’a University, quoted in yesterday's Financial Times. 

Developing civil society organisations is increasingly seen as a way to undermine the Middle East's autocratic regimes – which is why most of the regimes try either to stifle independent initiatives or harness them for their own purposes.

The FT article, by Abigail Fielding-Smith, looks at the state's grip on civil society in Yemen, whether through licensing systems, the control of access to funding, or setting up rival organisations with similar names – a practice known as istinsakh, or cloning.

“Most Yemenis are able to diagnose the problems faced by their country, but the real sticking point is in implementing the necessary solutions, and in navigating the opaque power networks necessary to get things moving,” Sarah Phillips, an academic at Sydney University’s Centre for International Security Studies, is quoted as saying.

Of course, the problems faced by civil society are not peculiar to Yemen; they are found to varying degrees in almost all the Arab countries (as I explain in my book, What's Really Wrong with the Middle East). But the issue has assumed international importance in Yemen because of the recent conference aimed at saving it from turning into a failed state: donor countries want to know where their money is going.

Billions of dollars in aid originally promised to Yemen back in 2006 have still not been disbursed, largely because of Yemeni bureaucracy and donors' fears about corruption. 

As elsewhere in the region, there are hopes that increased use of IT can help to overcome corruption and inefficiency by tracking administrative procedures and the flow of money. In Yemen, the article says, the Social Fund for Development, a quasi-independent body, is doing just that – though on a fairly small scale. 

The fund has its own financial management system using IT to provide an accurate record of transactions. "It is audited by KPMG, the professional services group, and hires independent consultants to evaluate performance," the article adds.

Unsurprisingly, this causes some resentment among those who prefer the old, more opaque, way of doing things and the fund has been accused of "attempting to create a parallel bureaucracy". To which its managing director replies: "You have to serve the poor, no matter how. Do you want to wait until you have reformed the civil service?”

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 23 February 2010. Comment

Tight lips as Moussa meets ElBaradei

It's intriguing that the first public figure Mohamed ElBaradei met after returning to Egypt was Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League, who has also been mooted as a possible candidate in next year's presidential election.

What did they talk about? Well, neither man is saying very much, but "the nuclear file" was mentioned. Come to think of it, that's quite a good metaphor for the explosive question of who will succeed Mubarak.

Moussa is an ambivalent figure. He was Egypt's foreign minister for years and a regime loyalist, though he was later kicked sideways to run the Arab League – allegedly because he became too popular for Mubarak's liking.

Zeinobia, at the Egyptian Chronicles blog, wonders if Moussa met ElBaradei as a friend or as a messenger for the regime. It looks as though we'll be kept guessing for a while but Zeinobia suggests that if Moussa's purpose was to warn ElBaradei off, he could have done it a lot more quietly.

Meanwhile, ElBaradei has given more broad hints about running for the presidency. Here are some of his remarks from a TV interview, reported by al-Masry al-Youm:

  • "I'm willing to run against anyone in upcoming presidential elections if the public wants me to."

  • "I'm no saviour, but you can help me transform the authoritarian system – by which we've been ruled for 7000 years – into a democratic system. I would wager that about 99% of the people are desirous of this change."

  • "We must change from a people who are told what to do into a people who can present their political, social and economic demands in an appropriate manner."

  • "How can our constitution deprive 99% of the people of the right to run in elections?"

  • "I have no army or government behind me, but I have independent thought. If this scares the regime, then we're in more trouble than we think."

  • "I can't promise the poor prosperity, but I'll try to achieve acceptable living conditions and a better future. If I succeed, it will be because of you; if I fail, I will step aside for someone else to take my place."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 23 February 2010. Comment

Headbanging against repression

Discussion of censorship mostly focuses on the spoken or written word, while censorship of art and music tends to be sidelined. In the field of music, probably the most controversial genre – and the one most censored worldwide – is heavy metal.

Heavy metal has some enthusiastic followers in the Middle East where it's also considered highly subversive and dangerous. A few years ago I wrote about the efforts to suppress it in Morocco and Egypt. 

Last August, the Saudi authorities broke up a concert at a compound in Riyadh and arrested "a group of Satan worshippers".

Today, Freemuse, an international organisation advocating freedom of expression for musicians and composers, has published a report: Headbanging Against Repressive Regimes.

You don't need to like heavy metal music to see its significance. Mark LeVine, the report's author, writes that underground genres of popular music "are avatars of change or struggles for greater social and political openness. They point out cracks in the facade of conformity that is crucial to keeping authoritarian or hierarchical and inegalitarian political systems in power." In China, for instance, metal "has become a bellwether for the contradictory processes of cultural and economic liberalisation coupled with entrenched authoritarian rule".

Although the report looks at the global picture, it has a substantial section on the Middle East, with case studies from Morocco, Egypt and Iran. Mark LeVine will be hosting discussions about it later today on Facebook and Skype.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 22 February 2010. Comment

Breakthrough for female lawyers

For the first time, Saudi Arabia is planning to let female lawyers argue certain types of cases in court. Justice minister Mohammed al-Issa said yesterday that a draft law to this effect will be issued shortly as part of King Abdullah’s “plan to develop the justice system”.

At present, women with legal qualifications are allowed to work behind the scenes in the kingdom, in government offices and court offices, but they cannot argue cases in court.

Although the proposed law would limit their court role to cases of child custody, divorce and other family matters, it is nevertheless an important breakthrough – and may yet meet opposition from traditionalist elements.

Historically, justice systems have proved to be one of the last bastions of male privilege in many countries. Britain, for instance, did not allow female solicitors until 1922 (though today women account for more than half the new entrants into the profession). Gradually, women have moved up to higher levels in the system but it was not until 2003 that the first woman was appointed as a Law Lord – a judge in Britain's highest court.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 21 February 2010. Comment

Questions surround minaret disaster

The collapse of a minaret which killed at least 41 worshippers during Friday prayers in Morocco is raising similar questions to the tragic floods that hit Jeddah in Saudi Arabia last November: were the deaths preventable and, if so, who failed to prevent them?

The Moroccan interior ministry has been quick to blame heavy rain for weakening the 18th century structure but this was challenged by a senior official at the state weather service who said: "The weather was not especially bad in Meknes. It would be fair to look for another factor than the weather."

Meanwhile, residents are saying they reported fears about the safety of the building but the authorities did nothing.

"People are furious. We told them repeatedly that there were cracks in the walls which were widening and that the minaret was beginning to lean but they ignored these warnings," according to one resident quoted by Reuters (and reported in Le Nouvel Observateur in French).

Another said: "We believe in God and what fate brings, but this time, lives could have been saved if the authorities hadn't shown that they do not care what people say."

One factor under investigation in the Jeddah tragedy is unauthorised diversion of funds allocated for drainage work, and it's possible that something similar lies behind the Meknes disaster. The National newspaper quotes a local activist, Younes Chaker, as saying that the minaret figured in a list of some 520 buildings described in a municipal survey as needing immediate renovation. “What happened to the budget set aside for this work?” he asked. 

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 21 February 2010. Comment

ElBaradei has landed

الدكتور محمد البرادعي فور وصوله مطار القاهرة
ElBaradei arriving at Cairo airport. Photo:al-Masry al-Youm / Mohamed Abdel Ghany

Despite warnings that they were breaking the law, hundreds of Egyptians – perhaps more than 1,000 – turned up yesterday to greet Mohamed ElBaradei on his arrival at Cairo airport. Reports from al-Masry al-Youm and DPA describe the scenes, while the Egyptian Chronicles blog links to several video clips.

In some ways, his reception echoed the early days of Obama's presidential campaign in the United States: an outsider who attracts enthusiastic grassroots support. Although one blogger talks of his "star power", he has nothing like Obama's charisma, but he did actually do something to win his Nobel peace prize. He's also a household name in Egypt because of his work for the IAEA, and especially regarding weapons inspections in Iraq.

Whether or not he runs for the presidency next year (and the rules constructed by the Mubarak regime probably mean he can't) is really beside the point. What ElBaradei can do, if he plays it right, is breathe fresh life into Egyptian politics and get people talking about change in new ways.

“We have four messages today,” Nasser Abdel Hamid, an organiser in the campaign for El-Baradei's nomination and member of the Democratic Front Party, told al-Masry al-Youm:

“The first message is for the west to know that there’s a third alternative to the regime and to the Islamists. The second message is for the regime to know that there’s someone that can challenge its quest for succession. The third message is for us, that we can achieve what we want, that we can organise ourselves and do proper political work in Egypt. The final message is for him [ElBaradei]. We assigned him to go through a battle for reform for which we can mobilise thousands of supporters.”

By descending (literally) out of the skies like this, ElBaradei has seriously wrong-footed the regime and its plans for a smooth handover of the presidency to Mubarak's son. The usual tactics for discrediting locally-based opposition candidates are not going to work. Wael Nawara explains:

Not too long ago, Mohamed ElBaradei was considered a source of national pride and supporting evidence to the regime's claims of the important role Egypt, or rather Mubarak, plays in the international political scene. It was a false piece of evidence, of course, because Egypt, under the same regime, had supported another candidate against ElBaradei as head of the international nuclear watchdog. 

Yet, the regime maintained the appearances and began to proudly show support for ElBaradei as he was elected three times to the post. The national media praised his courage when he publicly disputed the US justification for the invasion of Iraq and celebrated his success as a national victory when he became the forth Egyptian to win Nobel Prize. Mubarak himself awarded ElBaradei the highest accolade in Egypt, the Nile Medal.

Yet, as soon as ElBaradei "hinted" in November that he may consider running for president in Egypt's 2011 election, the so-called national media took him on in a vicious defamation campaign. The man who had been a national hero until a few days before suddenly became accused of being a traitor, an ignorant fool, a foreigner and a US stooge. Al-Ahram newspaper described ElBaradei's demands of democratic reforms and fair elections as a "call for a constitutional coup" that would open a door for George W Bush's policy of creative chaos into Egypt.

Far from discrediting ElBaradei, this kind of thing just makes the pro-government media look silly; everyone knows that in the run-up to the Iraq war he was anything but a stooge for the Bush administration.

Continually emphasising his long absence from Egypt may also be a mistake – and one that ElBaradei could turn to his advantage. As an outsider (though still an Egyptian), he is not tainted by domestic politics, and that could prove very attractive to voters who are disillusioned with traditional opposition parties as well as the regime itself.

In the words of a Cairo restaurant owner who had given half his employees a day off to welcome ElBaradei, "'We need to change the whole kitchen, because the same kitchen will produce the same kind of food."

The excitement generated by ElBaradei and Amr Moussa (head of the Arab League who has also been mooted as a candidate) highlights the dearth of locally-based opposition politicians with "presidential" stature – a situation that the Mubarak regime has of course carefully engineered over the years. And so, now that the principle of multi-candidate presidential elections has been conceded, Egyptians have to look elsewhere.

"People start looking at names with a global reputation. So you hear about Amr Moussa, Ahmed Zeweil [an Egyptian-American scientist who is also a Nobel prize winner] and Mohamed ElBaradei," Shafik Gabr, an industrialist and member of the ruling party, said recently in an interview. He continued: "It takes years to create political leadership. It doesn’t happen overnight. You need to get known, you go into institutions, become a member of parliament or the senate, and then you run for president. 

"But because there has been a vacuum, when these names have come out, you hear all this hype. I think it’s healthy. I think it’s a process that Egypt is going to go through."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 20 February 2010. Comment

'Don't welcome ElBaradei'

Following its review of human rights in Egypt on Wednesday, the UN Human Rights Council will be issuing recommendations this afternoon.

By an ironic coincidence, this comes as Mohamed ElBaradei, former head of the IAEA, winner of the Nobel peace prize and – of more immediate significance – a potential candidate in the 2011 presidential election, is due to return home to Egypt after many years abroad.

The authorities have warned that any large crowds gathering at the airport to welcome him will be treated as illegal. This is one of the restrictions imposed under Egypt's semi-permanent "state of emergency" (which the UN is likely to criticise today).

Earlier this week, two members of the Sixth of April Youth movement were arrested for spray-painting walls in Cairo with slogans calling for political change and supporting ElBaradei.

So far, ElBaradei has only hinted that he might run for the presidency if the rules are changed to allow a free and fair election (which is unlikely) but that was enough to trigger a hostile reaction from the Mubarak regime.

The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights will be tweeting from Geneva during this afternoon's session of the Human Rights Council. A couple of noteworthy tweets from the Wednesday session were: "The Egyptian government failed to engage constructively with the review and instead chose to justify or deny human rights abuses" and "Most Arab states, took the floor in mass to offer praise while avoiding making any substantial human rights recommendations to Egypt."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 19 February 2010. Comment

Brighter times for Syria

As the US prepares to send an ambassador to Syria for the first time in five years, elements on the American right are fighting a limp rearguard action against engagement with the Damascus regime.

Syria expert Joshua Landis discusses this on his blog and argues that sanctions have failed miserably.

Writing for Comment is free, Chris Phillips analyses President Assad's recovery from the dark days of 2005 in the immediate aftermath of the Hariri assassination in Lebanon.

Assad's liberalising economic policies have reaped rewards, he says, with Syria's unexpected growth enhancing Damascus's emerging international confidence:

New trade from Turkey, Iraq and the EU has eased fears that economic demands would force Syria to compromise with the US and Israel. Instead, western investors are flocking to Syria, and even the tourist industry is expanding, with Damascus recently named by the New York Times as seventh top destination for 2010. Not surprisingly, Assad's domestic popularity is enhanced by the developing middle class, who credit their president for this economic success.

Whatever you think of his regime, it's hard to dispute that Assad has also played a rather smart game on the diplomatic front. Phillips continues:

While sharing his father's unwillingness to bend to US pressure and, perhaps less ruthlessly, stifling of opposition at home, Assad has shown himself to be a different kind of leader. Since the Lebanon withdrawal he has demonstrated opportunism when backed into a corner and a sound reading of the international climate. After the initial disaster of 2005, Assad was quick to adapt the hard power exercised over Beirut by Hafez [his father] into the soft power and indirect influence that has seen Syrian dominance in Lebanon return.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 19 February 2010. Comment

Mutawa man had six wives

A member of the Saudi religious police who was found to have six wives (two more than the legal maximum) has been sentenced to 120 lashes – which, as Arab News notes, works out at 20 lashes per wife.

Considering that the man was employed by the mutawa to enforce Islamic law (as interpreted by the ultra-strict Wahhabi sect), his defence in court was an odd one:

"The accused had claimed he did not know it was against Islamic law to have more than four wives at the same time. He told the judge that he had no education beyond elementary school."

The judge decided to spare him from stoning to death, saying there was insufficient evidence that having the excess wives amounted to adultery – which in Saudi Arabia carries the death penalty.

Three of his wives were Saudis and three were Yemenis, but two of the Yemeni wives were found to be living illegally in the kingdom. The 56-year-old man, who has not been named, faces a separate prosecution "for marrying foreign women without official consent".

In addition to the flogging, he has been ordered to memorise two suras of the Qur'an, he has been forbidden to deliver sermons or lead prayers in mosques, and has been banned from travelling abroad for five years.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 18 February 2010. Comment

UPDATE at 1800 GMT: A spokesman for the religious police clarified: "The accused was neither a field employee nor an administrator ... but rather a building security man."

Homosexuality a disease, say doctors

In a survey among doctors in Lebanon, 60% viewed homosexuality as a disease that needs medical assistance and 73% said it needs psychological counselling.

The findings are in one of two reports presented at a meeting organised by Helem, the Lebanese LGBT organisation, last week. The other report is about homophobia in Lebanese universities. The reports themselves do not appear to be online but the Bekhsoos website gives some details.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 18 February 2010. Comment

UN reviews human rights in Egypt

Egypt's human rights record is facing scrutiny at the UN in Geneva today. Though the meeting is scheduled to last only three hours, this is the first time Egypt has been in the spotlight at the Human Rights Council under a process that reviews the performance of each member state in turn.

Human Rights Watch has submitted a report to the council. It calls for Egypt "to lift its longstanding abusive emergency regulations; to hold security forces accountable for serious human rights abuses such as arbitrary arrest and incommunicado detention; and to end systematic torture and unfair trials before state security courts". 

Sixteen Egyptian organisations have also issued a joint report which concludes by saying: "Despite some achievements made, in general systematic violations of human rights and a climate of impunity persist, as does the lack of political will to confront the situation."

There will be a live webcast of the proceedings from 9am to 12 noon (Geneva time), with a transcript here later. The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights will be giving regular updates on Twitter.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 17 February 2010. Comment

Court ruling against websites

I didn't spot this when it happened last month, but it has important implications for freedom of expression. The Jordanian Court of Cassation ruled that websites can be classified as "publications" and are therefore subject to penalties under the kingdom's Press and Publications Law for anything that "may be deemed offensive or imply criticism of the government, national unity or the economy".

This is obviously a backward step, as both the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and Article 19, the campaign for free expression, point out. The CPJ argues that instead of 
extending "the outdated and restrictive standards that apply to print publications", the Jordanian government should be bringing the press law into line with international standards.

A number of prominent print journalists in Jordan have switched to the internet in order to avoid the restrictions on what they can write. In addition to blogs, there are thought to be about 30 popular Jordanian news websites.

The Ministry of Culture in Saudi Arabia also seems to be pushing for a law to regulate "electronic media" and several Saudi news websites are said to be supporting the idea – apparently because they are more interested in advertising revenue than editorial independence.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 17 February 2010. Comment

Saudi underwear boycott

The complexities of Saudi Arabia's gender apartheid are highlighted by the latest campaign against men selling underwear to women. Reem Asaad, a female economics professor in Jeddah, is urging a boycott of lingerie shops that don't employ saleswomen.

She argues that women can feel embarrassed buying underwear from male staff, but replacing them with female staff is difficult because of traditionalist objections to working women.

The issue has been rumbling on for more than five years, since the government issued a decree aimed at increasing female employment. In 2006, the authorities threatened to prosecute shops that failed to comply, but no action appears to have been taken. At the time, a survey in Jeddah found that out of 247 shops selling lingerie and beauty products only three employed women.

Meanwhile, the Shura Council (Saudi Arabia's unelected parliament) is to consider a plan for women-only public transport in the kingdom. It is said that this would benefit around two million female workers and save them money on hiring male drivers.

A much simpler way forward, of course, would be to let women drive their own cars – but Saudi traditionalists are still very reluctant to allow that.

And, as I've said before in connection with Egypt, segregated transport does nothing for women's rights – it further entrenches discrimination.

US secretary of state Hillary Clinton is visiting Saudi Arabia today. Maybe she could tell the Saudis a thing or two about the battles over segregated transport in America during the 1950s:

Under the system of segregation used on Montgomery buses, white people who boarded the bus took seats in the front rows, filling the bus toward the back. Black people who boarded the bus took seats in the back rows, filling the bus toward the front.

Eventually, the two sections would meet, and the bus would be full. If other black people boarded the bus, they were required to stand. If another white person boarded the bus, then everyone in the black row nearest the front had to get up and stand, so that a new row for white people could be created. 

Often when boarding the buses, black people were required to pay at the front, get off, and reenter the bus through a separate door at the back. Sometimes the bus-drivers would drive away before black passengers were able to reboard.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 16 February 2010. Comment

Lesbianism shocks the Emirates

XPRESS, a weekly tabloid in the Emirates, reports

A shocking trend is sweeping across educational institutions in the UAE. It’s called same-sex relationships and it’s worrying officials and parents no end. 

A number of students, school employees and others confided in XPRESS that inappropriate intimacy among girls is on the rise on campuses.

“They sit intimately close and touch each other inappropriately,” said Umm Rawan, an employee at the Sharjah University for Women.

The paper quotes a police spokesperson as saying that "student delinquency" at schools in Ajman emirate is 70-80%, "with lesbianism accounting for 40% of this percentage". 

Meanwhile, the authorities are working to "curb deviant behaviour to better reflect the traditional conservative laws of the UAE". According to Dr Alia Ebrahim, "a family and educational issues consultant", the solution "includes gathering accurate statistics and assigning specialised committees to tackle the problem and setting in motion a mechanism to educate students and create awareness".

The paper also reports a few "case studies". One of the people concerned even "refused treatment".

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 15 February 2010. Comment

Is anybody watching?

Writing for the Huffington Post, Magda Abu-Fadil – director of journalism training at the American University of Beirut – points to the growing number of countries beaming Arabic-language TV towards the Middle East and suggests it's "an exercise in futility".

The list includes the US, Britain, France, Russia, China and Turkey. Apart from the difficulty of attracting an audience, it is doubtful whether they serve a useful purpose. 

Even the assistant director for Arabic news at France 24 seems uncertain. "What with the technological revolution, people no longer need to be fed news from the outside," she says. 

The American al-Hurra channel – established by George Bush – has had a particularly expensive and disastrous history.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 15 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 08 March, 2010