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Yemen airstrike against al-Qaeda

Yemen says it launched an airstrike against al-Qaeda in the Moudia district of Abyan province yesterday.

"Our air force carried out a raid on terrorist elements who were planning attacks on vital installations (and) two al-Qaeda leaders were killed," a defence ministry statement said. There are no further details at present, though al-Jazeera, via Reuters, suggests there may have been civilian casualties.

On Saturday, al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) announced that one of its senior leaders, Ibrahim Saleh Mujahid al-Khalifa (aka Abu-Jandal al-Qusaimi) was killed "in clashes with the Yemeni security forces when he led his Saudi-Yemeni group of al-Qaeda fighters to attack a government security checkpoint in a southern Yemeni province". 

There was no indication of when or exactly where the incident happened.

The statement, issued by al-Malahim Media Foundation and posted on Islamist websites, described Qusaini, a Saudi, as a fundraiser for AQAP who was "also the coordinator behind smuggling groups of wanted Saudi militants to Yemen through the Saudi-Yemeni joint border".

Meanwhile, in Abyan province, another southern separatist has been shot dead. Wadie Juneidy (or Zain al-Jonidy), who was "wanted in connection with burglary, blocking roads, looting and rebel acts", died in an exchange of gunfire with security forces on Saturday, according the the official Saba news agency.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 15 March 2010. Comment

Jordan's refinery scandal

Four high-ranking Jordanians are imprisoned and awaiting trail in what looks like becoming the kingdom’s biggest-ever corruption case. Bribes of JD12 million ($17 million) are alleged to be involved, in connection with expansion plans for Jordan's only oil refinery.

Those arrested are: 

  • Adel Qudah, a former finance minister and former chairman of the Jordan Petroleum Refinery Company (JPRC)

  • Ahmad Rifai, former director general of JPRC

  • Mohammad Rawashdeh, the prime minister’s economic adviser

  • Khaled Shaheen (or Shahin), a billionaire businessman who is head of the Shaheen Business and Investment Group (SBIG).

Last week, just as it appeared that the accused were about to be released on bail, their case was transferred to the State Security Court – which means they will almost certainly be held in prison until trial and won’t have an opportunity to flee the country (as tends to happen in the Middle East when senior figures are accused of crimes). Their assets have also been frozen.

Although state security courts in Arab countries are often misused – dealing with cases that have little or nothing to do with national security – there does seem to be a plausible argument for handling the refinery case in this way because of its strategic importance to Jordan’s economy.

The Jordanian authorities have now decreed that local media must not report or comment on the refinery affair without prior approval. This could be to ensure that the forthcoming trial is not prejudiced by media coverage, though some suspect it's a way of hushing up any further embarassing revelations.

In view of the local clampdown on reporting, and without pre-judging the guilt or innocence of those involved, it's worth summarising what is known about the affair so far.

Noting that corruption cases in Jordan rarely come to light unless there are political factors behind them, Marc Lynch at Foreign Policy considers what the motives for prosecution might be in this instance, and whether it signals the start of a serious clean-up at the top.

But I think he may be reading more into it than necessary. It may simply be that too much information had become public knowledge and the refinery scandal was so important economically that it could not be ignored. Doing nothing about it would also have sent a very bad message to potential investors in Jordan.

The key point is that before the whistle was blown, an obscure company registered in the tax haven of Jersey was on the verge of acquiring control over all of Jordan’s petroleum supplies.

For more than 50 years, the JPRC has had a government-granted monopoly. Besides running Jordan’s only refinery, it is “the sole provider of all petroleum products for the local market”.

The monopoly was due to end in 2008 and, in the light of that, Jordan began exploring various options. Eventually it was decided to upgrade the existing refinery and increase its capacity, and the government invited tenders from would-be partners in the development programme, estimated to cost more than $2 billion. Some 15 companies initially expressed an interest. In the meantime, JPRC’s monopoly was temporarily extended to December 2009.

Last July, the Jersey-registered Infra Mena made a formal bid to become the JPRC's “strategic partner”. Infra Mena – about which very little is known – is variously described as an “investment company” and an “international consortium”. According to some reports, the consortium is headed the arrested billionaire, Khaled Shaheen, whose SBIG company is itself registered in the financially secretive tax haven of Luxembourg. 

Under the proposed deal, Ifra Mena was to inject new share capital into JPRC, giving it control of the company.

This seemed to meet with approval from the Jordanian government and in September the council of ministers agreed to grant JPRC (and Infra Mena) a 15-year extension on the monopoly. This meant that for a relatively modest outlay of around $380 million – and probably borrowed money at that – Infra Mena would gain control of Jordan’s entire petroleum market.

However, objections were raised in parliament and the Jordan Times published an article asking questions about Infra Mena’s suitability for the project. A few days later the paper also published a reply from Ahed Sukhon, who signed himself as “senior vice-president” of Infra Mena. Sukhon has business connections with Khaled Shaheen; in an American court case a few years ago he was described as vice-president of Shaheen’s SBIG company.

Infra Mena’s plans started to unravel in December when the government headed by Nader Dahabi resigned and King Abdullah 
appointed Samir Rifai as prime minister in his place. Rifai, whose father and grandfather were previous prime ministers of Jordan, was working as chief executive of the Jordan Dubai Capital company at the time of his appointment.

At Rifai’s first cabinet meeting on December 15, ministers were briefed on the refinery issue and decided to set up a committee “to study the procedures followed in refinery expansion to ensure their soundness and to meet treasury rights”.

According to the government news agency, “The council of ministers also asked the Jordan Petroleum Refinery to suspend all procedures until the committee submits its recommendations.”

Around the same time, JPRC’s board sacked its chairman and director-general.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 14 March 2010. Comment

Another migrant shot on Egypt's border

An Ethiopian migrant was shot and seriously wounded by Egyptian border guards yesterday while trying to cross illegally into Israel. Seven others – three Eritreans and four Ethiopians – were also arrested.

The latest incident came litte more than a week after Navi Pillay, the UN human rights chief, urged Egypt to stop shooting migrants in the border area. By the government's own admission, security forces killed 56 between January 2008 and June 2009. Since the start of this year, nine more have been killed.

"I know of no other country where so many unarmed migrants and asylum seekers appear to have been deliberately killed in this way by government forces," Pillay said last week. "It is a deplorable state of affairs, and the sheer number of victims suggests that at least some Egyptian security officials have been operating a shoot-to-kill policy ... Sixty killings can hardly be an accident." 

She continued:

“There needs to be clarity about what has occurred, what policies have been applied to migrants trying to cross this border, and what specific orders have been given to security forces patrolling the area … The fact that this is a very sensitive border, and a restricted military zone, is no excuse. Security forces are only permitted to use lethal force when it is strictly unavoidable in order to protect life.”

Last month at the UN Human Rights Council, Egypt gave an undertaking that its police would "act with restraint when not directly threatened” but there is no sign yet that this has been communicated to the border guards.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 13 March 2010. Comment

Helping or hindering internet freedom?

One of the more significant changes since the Obama administration came it power is that the US is beginning to recognise the importance of the internet in struggles for freedom in many parts of the world.

This is highlighted in the State Department's latest annual report on human rights which describes 2009 as ...

"... a year in which more people gained greater access than ever before to more information about human rights through the internet, cell phones, and other forms of connective technologies. Yet at the same time it was a year in which governments spent more time, money, and attention finding regulatory and technical means to curtail freedom of expression on the internet and the flow of critical information and to infringe on the personal privacy rights of those who used these rapidly evolving technologies."

The US Treasury has now modified its sanctions against Iran, Cuba and Sudan "to ensure that individuals in those countries can exercise their right to free speech and information to the greatest extent possible". Voice of America explains:

"US companies will now be able to legally export certain free services and software related to the exchange of personal communications over the internet, including web browsing, blogging, email, and social networking. 

"US Deputy Treasury Secretary Neal Wolin said, 'As recent events in Iran have shown, personal internet-based communications ... are powerful tools. This software will foster and support the free flow of information – a basic human right – for all Iranians'."

So far, so good. But American companies are also complicit in curtailing freedom on the internet. Just a few years ago, for example, they were queing up – along with others from Europe – to sell filtering software to the Saudis. ''This would be a terrific deal to win," one of them said. ''Once we sell them the product, we can't enforce how they use it,'' another said, shrugging off any responsibility for the consequences.

Now, Microsoft seems to be getting in on the censorship act too, with its Bing search engine. Research by the OpenNet Initiative (ONI) has found that "users in the Arab countries – or, as termed by Microsoft, 'Arabian countries' – are prevented from conducting certain search queries in both English and Arabic."

Testing of Bing using the "Arabian countries" setting showed that various sex-related keywords, in both Arabic and English, are filtered out. Searching for these terms produces no results but a short message from Bing saying "Your country or region requires a strict Bing SafeSearch setting, which filters out results that might return adult content."

ONI wonders whether that is actually true. It says:

"It is unclear ... whether Bing’s keyword filtering in the Arab countries is an initiative from Microsoft, or whether any or all of the Arab states have asked Microsoft to comply with local censorship practices or laws.

"It is interesting that Microsoft’s implementation of this type of wholesale social content censorship for the entire 'Arabian countries' region is in fact not being practised by many of the Arab government censors themselves. That is, although political filtering is widespread in the MENA [Middle East and North Africa] region, social filtering, including keyword filtering, is not practised by all countries in MENA. ONI 2007-2008 and 2008-2009 testing and research found no evidence of social content filtering (eg, sex, nudity, and homosexuality) at the national level in countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Libya."

The problems with this kind of "keyword" filtering are widely recognised and Microsoft really ought to know better. ONI explains:

"Microsoft’s declared aim from this type of censorship is to filter out 'results that might return adult content'. However, filtering at the keyword level results in overblocking, as banning the use of certain keywords to search for websites, not just images, prevents users from accessing – based on Microsoft’s definition of objectionable content – legitimate content such as sex education and encyclopedic information about homosexuality."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 13 March 2010. Comment

Arabs and the death penalty

Use of the death penalty tends to be taken for granted in Arab countries. Saudi Arabia, of course, is one of the world's leading executioners, chopping off heads for all sorts of reasons other than murder. Just this week, a court in Madina upheld the death sentence against Ali Hussein Sibat, a Lebanese TV magician accused of "publicly practising black magic, thus spreading corruption on the earth".

In general, though, most Arab countries are much more sparing with their executions and several haven't executed anyone for a very long time. Mauritania, a backward country in many other respects, has had no executions since 1987. In Morocco, the most recent execution was in 1993; in Tunisia 1991; in Algeria 1993.

But formally abolishing the death penalty is a different matter: as in the United States, it runs into opposition from the more extreme religious elements. Morocco considered abolition in 2007-2008 but eventually dropped the idea, apparently fearful of the God squad's reaction.

Now it has cropped up again, this time in Algeria where executions have been suspended for the last 17 years even though the courts have continued handing out death sentences which are not carried out. According to Amnesty International, Algeria ranks fourth in the world in terms of the number of death sentences passed.

The current Algerian debate was sparked by an announcement from Farouk Ksentini, head of the National Advisory Commission on the Promotion and Protection of Human Rights, that he intends to lobby for full abolition. 

This has brought a predictable response from religious elements, with the Movement for Society and Peace saying: "We must preserve the death penalty as a precept set forth by the Qur'an."

Meanwhile, Sheikh Bouamrane, head of the High Islamic Council, has said he "could never endorse the abolition of the death penalty", because doing so would "jeopardise several verses of the holy Qur'an", and Bouabdellah Ghlamalah, the minister for religious affairs and endowments, has also come out against abolition.

On the other side of the argument, Ali Yahia Abdennour, of the Algerian League for the Defence of Human Rights, says the religious justification for keeping the death penalty is weak. "In the Qur'an, there are only two verses that call for the 'law of retaliation', leaving room for other options before the execution of this sentence," he said.

At least one government official has also challenged the religious objections. Benchaa Dani, director of political affairs and international security at the foreign ministry said on the radio: "We won't defy the religion by abolishing the death penalty, if that will benefit society."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 12 March 2010. Comment

Yemen confiscates TV transmitters

The Yemeni authorities have confiscated two "unauthorised" transmitters belonging to local offices of al-Jazeera and al-Arabiya TV channels. 

This seems to be part of a wider pattern of harassment, particularly of al-Jazeera, over its coverage of separatist protests in the south. In recent days there have been several complaints from the government and its supporters that al-Jazeera "fabricates stories", broadcasts "false reports", "lacks credibility", etc, etc.

Last July, an MP from the ruling party called for the closure of al-Jazeera's Sanaa office and shortly afterwards the channel's bureau chief received a telephoned death threat.

Following President Salih's offer to talk to the separatists, a gun battle broke out in Tor al-Baha yesterday when government forces tried to recapture the municipality building which had been taken over by separatists. Two people were reported killed.

Two protesters were also shot dead in Dalea (al-Dhali'), according to Reuters, and security forces used teargas and water cannon against demonstrators in Ta'izz. (Ta'izz is not technically south Yemen but in the area known as al-wasat – "the middle". Politically, it has a foot in both northern and southern camps.)

Reuters adds that mobile phone networks remain turned off in some parts of the south as a security measure.

  • There is some excitement in the US media at the discovery that Sharif Mobley (or Sharif Mobily), the al-Qaeda suspect who tried to shoot his way out of a Yemeni hospital last weekend, is an American citizen from New Jersey. Initial reports had said he was a German national of Somali origin.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 12 March 2010. Comment

Saudi jailed and flogged for gay video

A 27-year-old Saudi man from Jeddah has been sentenced to 1,000 lashes, a year in jail and a fine of 5,000 riyals ($1,330) after appearing in an amateur gay video (above).

The film, which lasts 2 minutes and 46 seconds, shows him dressed in a police uniform asking to inspect someone's driving licence and then flirtatiously demanding "physical comfort" after saying the licence is expired. He later opens his shirt and rubs his chest, removes his cap flaunting his long hair and waves a gun suggestively. That's as far as it goes.

Arab News says: "The video quickly spread online and through SMS ... Attempts have been made to block the video from being viewed in Saudi Arabia."

The man has not been officially named but he is named on the internet as Ahmad al-Faqih. He was arrested in January and reportedly tried in a closed court. He was charged with impersonating a police officer, committing a “general security” offence and being homosexual.

The man who filmed the video was also arrested but his fate has not been reported.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 11 March 2010. Comment

ElBaradei supporter 'tortured'

An Egyptian physiotherapist, Taha Mohamed Abdel el-Tawwab, is in hospital after being summoned for questioning at the State Security headquarters in Fayoum on Monday. He had come under suspicion after voicing support for Mohamed ElBaradei in next year's presidential election.

According to al-Masri al-Youm newspaper:

"An officer questioned him about his role in activities in support of ElBaradei, and whether he had called for action to protect al-Aqsa [the mosque in Jerusalem].

"Abdel el-Tawwab said the officer beat him, insulted him with obscene language, and kicked him. He said that the officer then ordered policemen to strip him and beat him yet again.

"Abdel el-Tawwad said he was then detained naked until the following morning when he was discharged, suffering from extreme fatigue. Some passers-by found the physiotherapist lying on the ground before dawn and took him to the Senoures central hospital for treatment."

More than 30 Egyptian lawyers have called for an investigation and the attorney-general has agreed to look into it.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 11 March 2010. Comment

The economics of free expression

Like him or loathe him, when Rupert Murdoch has something to say it's always worth listening. Giving the opening speech (full text here) to the Abu Dhabi Media Summit yesterday, he made an economic case for freedom of expression in the Middle East. And it was presented in a way that many in the audience must have found tempting.

Murdoch, whose News Corporation owns the Wall Street Journal, New York Post and Fox in the US as well as the Times and the Sun in Britain, pointed out that Arab countries will need to create 50 million new jobs in the next 10 years. 

"A thriving creative industry would contribute many of these jobs," he said, "most of them environmentally friendly, well paying, and contributing to a better quality of life for all."

Citing Indonesia as an example of what can be achieved, he continued:

"Recently I had dinner with the trade minister from another Muslim country, Indonesia. We started talking about the economic value of a creative sector. She told me that the creative sector now accounts for more than 5.4 million jobs and 6% of the Indonesian economy – and is the country’s fifth largest source of exports. She also told me her government set a target that would nearly double the contribution to GDP by 2025. Think of the millions of stimulating new jobs that would mean for the Indonesian people."

It was a clever speech, with a mixture of flattery ("Making guests feel at home is a long and honoured tradition in your culture") and appeals to national pride ("Many of your own citizens prefer Hollywood movies or American television shows to local production"), with an old Arabic proverb thrown in (“If a wind blows, ride it”). 

He also held back from criticising media restrictions directly (one of his own papers, the Times, was recently censored in Dubai) and even empathised with Arab rulers who are confronted "with the occasional inconvenient or unwelcome story". But he argued that this is something they will have to learn to live with:

"I speak from some personal experience. Throughout my life, I have endured my share of blistering newspaper attacks … unflattering television coverage … and books that grossly distort my views or my businesses or both.

"I have learned that this kind of coverage is a fact of life in a modern media society. I have learned too that it is the price one pays for success.

"For a nation, the stakes are even higher. In [the] face of an inconvenient story, it can be tempting to resort to censorship or civil or criminal laws to try to bury it. ... In the long run, this is counterproductive. Markets that distort their media end up promoting the very panic and distrust that they had hoped to control.

"Certainly each nation and culture has the right to insist that the people they allow into their countries to do business respect their national values and traditions. This is best administered, however, with a gentle touch. Human creativity flourishes in freedom. By making the decision for greater openness, you will signal the importance you have assigned to creativity in your plans for the future – and declare your confidence in your people."

Of course, Murdoch has his own reasons for saying this. He recently bought a stake in the Rotana media and entertainment group which, among other things, is the largest producer of Arab music. Rotana is owned by Prince Alwaleed bin Talal of Saudi Arabia and there are still many in the kingdom who regard its activities as immoral. Strict Wahhabis, for example, believe music is forbidden.

"To be frank, Rotana does not really need our financing," Murdoch said. "We are partnering with Rotana for something more ambitious: To tap into Arab talent and ultimately produce original Arab content for markets both here and abroad." He continued:

"Yesterday we further extended our presence by announcing a strategic partnership between Fox International Channels and Abu Dhabi’s twofour54. First, we will move some of our satellite channels from Hong Kong to here. Second, we will establish a production office here for one of our documentary filmmaking companies. And third, we will headquarter the Middle Eastern operations for our global online advertising network business in Abu Dhabi as well.

"I mention these partnerships only to emphasise that my words are backed up by my investments. With these new partnerships, we are sending a message. When we look to the future, News Corporation is betting on the creative potential of the more than 335 million people who make up the Arab world."

What I find interesting about all this is not Murdoch's own plans – how many Arabs really want to watch Fox News? – but the fact that he's extending his business to the Middle East. His media empire is involved in many countries (even China) but up to now he has steered clear of the Arab countries, for obvious reasons: there were just too many restrictions. Clearly, he senses that the media climate is changing, at least in some parts of the region: "If a wind blows, ride it."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 10 March 2010. Comment

An olive branch for Yemen's south

President Salih of Yemen held out an olive branch to the southern separatists yesterday, offering to discuss their grievances.

"Come talk with your brothers in the authority, and we will talk with you," he said. "We extend the hand of dialogue without (you) having to resort to violence or blocking roads or raising the flag of separation ... I am certain the flags of separation will burn in the days and weeks ahead. We have one flag we voted on with our free will. We welcome any political demands. Come to dialogue."

Having suspended his war with the Houthi rebels in the north, Salih is under international pressure to bring quiet to the south – in theory so that he can concentrate on repairing the economy and fighting al-Qaeda militants.

Following a recent show of force in the south (here, here and here), Salih may feel he's now in a strong enough position to negotiate – though it's doubtful whether much will come of it. As Reuters points out, "the fractured nature of the [southern] movement, without a unified leadership, makes serious talks difficult", adding:

"The offer for talks with separatists was not Saleh's first. Diplomats say previous such offers have not been followed by concrete action to address southern complaints that Sanaa neglects the southern region and treats southerners unfairly, including in property disputes, jobs and pension rights."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 10 March 2010. Comment

Charges against blogger dropped

A military court in Cairo yesterday dropped charges against Ahmed Mostafa, the young blogger who was arrested a fortnight ago and accused of "tarnishing the image" of the armed forces.

He had written in his Arabic-language blog about someone being removed from a military college so that a rich kid could take his place. 

The use of a military court to try a civilian blogger for grumbling about corruption was widely seen as a backward step and an abuse of a system that had been intended to protect national security. Protests followed, in Egypt and outside; Human RIghts Watch and Amnesty International both complained. 

According to Mostafa's lawyer, the case was dropped after he was instructed not to repeat his "offence". The Egyptian Chronicles blog says he has been told to remove the post but 
it is still there.

Although the Egyptian authorities have won some praise for eventually seeing sense, there are still far too many of these ridiculous cases coming to court. Last year, for example, an amateur poet was sentenced to three years in jail and fined $18,000 for “insulting” President Mubarak in unpublished verses. It was only when the media kicked up a fuss that an appeal court quashed his sentence.

Now that the case against Mostafa is not being pursued, I wonder if anyone in authority will investigate his complaint about the military college to find out if it is true.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 8 March 2010. Comment

Yemen hospital gunfight

An al-Qaeda suspect who was taken to hospital in Yemen after claiming to be ill seized a gun from one of his guards and shot him dead, then held two other guards hostage yesterday. 

The suspect, named Sharif Mobily – a German national of Somali origin – was eventually overpowered and taken to another hospital to be treated for injuries received during the fight. Reports: Reuters, DPA and NewsYemen.

Reuters also reports continuing clashes yesterday between security forces and separatist gunmen near the city of al-Dhali' (Dalea) in southern Yemen. Five people are said to have been wounded. 

In Abyan, a man blew himself up – apparently accidentally – while trying to attack the local headquarters of the ruling party, the General People's Congress. There were no other casualties and the blast caused only slight damage.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 7 March 2010. Comment

Saudis to block BlackBerry?

A rumour has been going round that the Saudi authorities are about the cut off the BlackBerry Messenger service (BBM) – much to the annoyance of its customers. According to versions the cut-off was due to happen last Saturday, though it hasn't materialised yet.

The story began when al-Watan newspaper reported that the Saudi Communication and Information Technology Commission (CITC) demanded access to the codes so that it could monitor messages, and threatened to shut down the service if this was refused.

It would be no surprise if the Saudi authorities are wanting to read people's messages but Research in Motion, the Canadian company behind BlackBerry seems to have heard nothing officially. Similarly, the mobile phone companies affected by the reported move say they have received no instructions to stop BBM.

Meanwhile, students at the King Abdulaziz University are complaining about new campus rules which include a ban on mobile phones and laptops that have built-in cameras.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 7 March 2010. Comment

Al-Qaeda's tribal roots

An article for the Jamestown Foundation's Terrorism Monitor takes a brief but interesting look at the social roots of al-Qaeda in Yemen.

The author, Murad Batal al-shishani, says al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (as the Yemen-based network is known) is dominated by Yemenis (56%) with Saudis accounting for 37% and others 7%. 

Its Yemeni majority are drawn almost equally from northern and southern tribes. AQAP "finds a ready audience among tribal people, whether in the south or the north," Shishani notes.

"A focus on tribes in Yemen has been a main reason behind al-Qaeda’s success in finding a safe haven there," he continues, saying that AQAP's area of influence extends across half Yemen's territory – "an area known for its tribal affiliations rather than its affiliation to the state and an area where there are few state institutions and where tribal laws dominate". 

The article concludes by saying that "traditional tribal relations, injustice, and local grievances are the best allies of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula".

This indicates that Yemen's al-Qaeda problem is basically a symptom of the wider "Yemen problem" and it ought to suggest long-term strategies for dealing with both through state-building and developing a political system that is more responsive to people's needs. 

None of this is likely to happen under the current regime. As Gregory Johnsen observed in his recent testimony to the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee:

"Al-Qaeda is the most representative organisation in Yemen. It transcends class, tribe and regional identity in a way that no other organisation or political party does. Nasir al-Wahayshi [the leader of AQAP] and others within the organisation have proven particularly talented at creating a narrative of events that is designed to appeal to a local audience."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 7 March 2010. Comment

Yemen flag protester shot dead

A demonstrator was shot dead by security forces in Yemen yesterday as he tried to remove a Yemeni flag from a government building and hoist a southern flag in its place during a separatist protest. The shooting, in Radfan (Lahej province), is reported by Reuters and DPA.

Meanwhile, more details have emerged about the killing of prominent separatist (and arms supplier) Ali Saleh al-Yafei. The day before government forces attacked his home, he had publicly hanged and burned an effigy of President Salih at a demonstration. Mareb Press and al-Ishtiraki have some photographs. 

Al-Ishtiraki (in Arabic) says security forces surrounded al-Yafei's house, firing at it with machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades and tear gas. Some of them reportedly opened fire from the top of a minaret nearby.

Contrary to earlier reports, al-Ishtiraki says al-Yafei's wife and daughter were not killed but were seriously injured, though his brother and seven-year-old granddaughter died in the gunfight.

Government sources have sought to implicate al-Yafei with al-Qaeda (which may or may not be true), though he was a close associate of Tariq al-Fadhli, the ex-jihadist turned separatist leader.

Fadhli himself has been besieged at his home for three days by "a large contingent" of security forces, according to Reuters. It seems they may be trying to starve him out.

Fadhli was involved in a similar siege in the early 1990s when the southern authorities sent their Third Armoured Brigade to arrest him. The attempt failed and Fadhli escaped.

In the capital, Sana'a, security forces have arrested 11 men said to be "suspected of links to al-Qaeda". The father of one of the suspects was reportedly shot dead after opening fire. 

Though the men may well have been connected to al-Qaeda it is difficult to be sure because of the government's propensity to tar any subversive elements with the al-Qaeda label. These reports would be a lot more convincing if the authorities issued a "most wanted" list of the suspects they are seeking (as the Saudis did a few years back).

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 5 March 2010. Comment

Algeria's disappearing witnesses

It now appears that no one saw the murder of Ali Tounsi, Algeria's national security chief, in his office last week. The interior minister has promised "full transparency" in the investigation but says: "The crime was without witnesses."

This is odd but no doubt convenient for the regime. Press reports at the time referred to several witnesses and one was even quoted by name.

Though the murder could be a self-contained incident, it is being widely linked to rivalries within the regime. The Moor Next Door blog has a long and detailed post about the internal tussles, and there's a shorter article in The Economist.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 5 March 2010. Comment

What's Really Wrong with the Middle East

Two new reviews of my book, What's Really Wrong with the Middle East: one by Magda Abu Fadil at Huffington Post, the other by Deen Sharp for Executive magazine.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 4 March 2010. Comment

Yemen admits botched al-Qaeda raids

Last December, the United States provided "firepower and other aid" for air strikes against suspected al-Qaeda militants in Yemen. At the time it was hailed as a great success. President Obama even phoned President Salih and "praised Yemen's efforts in the fight on terrorism, particularly [the] raids in which dozens of al-Qaeda suspects were killed and arrested". 

But it wasn't long before local residents began claiming that the raids had killed dozens of innocent civilians

Today, the Yemeni government finally admitted that these claims were true. In a statement to parliament, the Deputy Prime Minister for Defence and Security apologised for the deaths of 42 civilians and said the government would pay compensation to their families. I wonder if the US will be providing any of the money.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 3 March 2010. Comment

An ex-president of sorts

It's strange how Reuters grandly describes the prominent Yemeni separatist, Ali Salim al-Baidh, as "an exiled former president of South Yemen". At a stretch, it's technically correct but it's also misleading.

Al-Baidh was secretary-general of the Socialist Party during the last few years of its rule in the south but never president; the president at the time was Haydar Abu Bakr al-Attas. 

After the merger with the north in May 1990, al-Baidh became deputy chairman of the presidential council – in effect making him vice-president of the unified state.

On 21 May 1994, following the outbreak of war between the former regimes of north and south, al-Baidh proclaimed the birth of a breakaway state in the south – the Democratic Republic of Yemen – and made himself its president. The only country ever to recognise it was Somaliland (itself a recently-declared state unrecognised by the rest of the world). 

The Democratic Republic of Yemen lasted precisely 47 days and al-Baidh's "presidential" role in it is questionable, to say the least. Almost immediately after declaring secession, he disappeared to Mukalla – leaving his deputy, Abd al-Rahman al-Jifri in charge in the capital, Aden – before eventually fleeing to Oman.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 3 March 2010. Comment

But is it fiction?

The winner of this year's International Prize for Arabic Fiction, announced yesterday, is the Saudi writer, Abdo Khal (pictured above). 

His book, known in English as "Throwing Sparks as Big as Castles", is the story of a young man who leaves his family in a poor community in Jeddah to work as a servant for a rich businessman living in a palace.

The citation describes it as a painfully satirical novel, depicting "the destructive impact that power and limitless wealth has on life and the environment":

"It captures the seductive powers of the palace and tells the agonising story of those who have become enslaved by it, drawn by its promise of glamour. Spewing Sparks as Big as Castles exposes the inner world of the palace and of those who have chosen to become its puppets, from whom it has stolen everything."

Reuters quotes Taleb Alrefai, the Kuwaiti chair of the judges, as saying: "The winning novel is a brilliant exploration of the relationship between the individual and the state ... Through the eyes of its two-dimensional protagonist, the book gives the reader a taste of the horrifying reality of the excessive world of the palace."

Discussing the shortlist on The Arabophile blog, Youssef Rakha wrote

"The novel is set in a destitute Jeddah neighbourhood and in the palace that has recently been built next door. The owner of the palace is a well-connected, wealthy and powerful man, about whose origins little is known. The owner, a ruthless and sadistic tycoon, seizes and tortures those who have crossed him; he enlists the narrator – a child of the neighbourhood notorious as a homosexual and a bully – to sexually abuse his victims, who are videotaped as they suffer.

"But the narrator, in Khal’s account, is not just an unthinking instrument in the hands of power: he is a participant in the violence, an agent of political oppression, but also a victim of economic dispossession. Khal’s depiction of the narrator’s extended family and neighbours – particularly his bravely disapproving aunt, from whose eyes the sparks of the title emanate – reflects an entire society caught up in the horror of inequality and the absurdity of power."

By Saudi standards, this is heady stuff and, as one comment posted on the internet says, "I don't think that's fiction, I think that's fact."

The book's title is lifted from a description of hell in the Qur'an (77:32 – al-Mursalat): "Innaha tarmi bi sharar ka al-qasr".

إِنَّهَا تَرْمِي بِشَرَرٍ كَالْقَصْرِ

In the opening pages of the novel, Khal compares two parts of Jeddah in the midst of a real estate boom. Nabil Shawkat, writing in The National, said:

"He refers to the best part as heaven and the worst part as hell, then he races into a graphic account of sex, repression, love and despair. One might expect Khal to run out of breath after a few chapters of trauma-inducing scenes, but he keeps the madness going at relentless pace, with characters cheating and being cheated, torturing and being tortured, exacting revenge and becoming objects of revenge. Khal has written a thriller from beginning to end, and his brand of writing is quite unusual for this part of the world."

The Arabist blog has a short extract in English.

Abdo Khal was born in al-Majanah, southern Saudi Arabia, in 1962 and studied political science at King Abd Al-Aziz University in Jeddah. His previous works include A Dialogue at the Gates of the Earth, There's Nothing to be Happy About, and Cities Eating the Grass. 

The International Prize for Arabic Fiction – sometimes known as "the Arab Booker" – was established three years ago. Details of the other shortlisted authors are here.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 3 March 2010. Comment

Gun battle in Abyan

Security forces in southern Yemen raided a house in Zinjibar (Abyan province) early on Monday and a gun battle ensued. Several people were killed, including Ali Saleh al-Yafei, his wife and at least two children, plus two or more soldiers. Reports differ on the number of casualties.

According to the defence ministry, al-Yafei was wanted for links with al-Qaeda. Whether he was actually connected with al-Qaeda remains to be seen; similar government claims in relation to other raids have been disputed in the past.

The ruling party’s website also says al-Yafei “was in contact with the secessionist Tariq al-Fadhli and his follower elements and was supplying them with weapons”. The Yemen Observer describes him as “a weapon trader”. The AFP report calls him “a separatist leader accused of al-Qaeda links”. Take your pick.

Today, in an incident which may or may not be connected, security forces surrounded Fadhli’s home in Abyan and his guards opened fire on them, according to sahwa.net. The security forces eventually withdrew.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 2 March 2010. Comment

UPDATE, 4 March 2010: The day before al-Yafei was killed, he publicly hanged and burned an effigy of President Salih at a demonstration. Mareb Press and al-Ishtiraki published photographs. Several members of his family were also killed in the shoot-out though reports now say his wife and daughter survived with injuries.

Fatwa wars aren't the solution

New products, new books, new fashion collections, you name it – the PR events to launch them are two a penny. But one PR event in London this morning was surely the first of its kind: the "launching" of a fatwa against terrorism and suicide bombing ... Read more at Comment Is Free.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 2 March 2010. Comment

Blogger on trial in military court

More details have emerged about the case of Ahmed Mustafa, the young Egyptian blogger hauled up before a military court for "tarnishing the image" of the armed forces.

His "offence" occurred more than a year ago when he wrote in his Arabic-language blog about someone being removed from a military college so that a rich kid could take his place. 

However, he was not arrested until last week (on the orders of Egypt's military prosecutor). Al-Masry al-Youm says the prosecutors appointed state lawyers to defend him but did not notify his family of his arrest. His trial began at a military tribunal yesterday.

He is being tried under the Military Courts Law which is supposedly intended to deal with cases of terrorism and other threats to national security.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 1 March 2010. Comment

UPDATE, 2 March: Human Rights Watch issued a 
statement calling for all charges to be dropped. The Committee to Protect Journalists has also taken up the case. The next court hearing is scheduled for 7 March.

Aid flounders as Yemen protests continue

Separatist demonstrations continued in Yemen yesterday, the second of “two days of southern anger” called to send a message to the international donors’ conference in Riyadh.

Twenty-one people were reportedly arrested as result of 
Saturday’s protests. The authorities switched off mobile phone services in two provinces, while demonstrators placed stones on roads to hamper security patrols.

According to the News Yemen website, a notable feature of the demonstration in Abyan yesterday was “the obvious participation of women” and it reports one woman’s criticisms of the Yemeni opposition parties:

“Zahra Hussein addressed the rally and said that the leaders in the Yemeni Socialist Party are three kinds: ‘some have partnership with the regime, some exploit the south crisis for their own interest and some have engaged in worries of southern people.’

“Zahra also said the Joint Meeting Parties, particularly the Islamic Islah party, are ‘partners of the regime to hit and destroy the south’. She also criticised the Saudi support to the government and said ‘the Saudi financial support to Yemen means war on south and Saudi Arabia is a partner in this crime and sin’." 

There appears to be no shortage of countries willing to provide aid to Yemen; the immediate problem is one of delivery.

Abdel Aziz Abu Hamad Aluwaisheg, director-general of international economic relations for the Gulf Cooperation Council, is quoted in The National as saying that the weekend meeting in Riyadh dealt mostly with technical matters – in particular how to get the rest of the $5.5bn promised to Yemen in 2006 into the aid pipeline.

It was originally intended that all the money would be disbursed by the end of this year but so far only 58% of it has been released to the Yemeni authorities. The National continues:

“What is more disturbing to donors is that even less – somewhere between 10 to 20 per cent – has actually been put to use on aid projects by Yemen.

“As these bottlenecks were discussed at the Riyadh conference it became apparent, said Mr Aluwaisheg, ‘that Yemen’s ability to handle the flow of aid has not improved’. Although pledged aid had quadrupled, Yemen’s technical expertise to handle that amount of aid has not increased.”

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 1 March 2010. Comment

Previous blog posts




March 2010

Yemen jails southern activists

Saudi prince's drugs arrest

Middle East bookshelf: the final list

Yemeni girl, 12, granted divorce

Gaza hairdressers carry on snipping

Middle East bookshelf: society and politics

Middle East bookshelf: Islam

Yemen frees two journalists

Harassment in Tunisia

Child marriage law stymied?

Middle East bookshelf: fiction

Egypt clamps down on NGOs

Coq au vin, Dubai style

Middle East bookshelf: history

Yemen debates child marriage

Did the neocons get anything right?

Misery of the housemaids (5)

Migrants captured alive

A Middle East bookshelf (1)

Middle East for beginners

Saudi writer accused of blasphemy

Government bluster in Yemen

Abu Dhabi tackles domestic abuse

Murdoch, Israel and Avatar

More airstrikes in southern Yemen

Baha'is face new struggle for ID cards

Yemen airstrike against al-Qaeda

Jordan's refinery scandal

Another migrant shot on Egypt's border

Helping or hindering internet freedom?

Arabs and the death penalty

Yemen confiscates TV transmitters

Saudi jailed and flogged for gay video

ElBaradei supporter 'tortured'

The economics of free expression

An olive branch for Yemen's south

Charges against blogger dropped

Yemen hospital gunfight

Saudis to block BlackBerry?

Al-Qaeda's tribal roots

Yemen flag protester shot dead

Algeria's disappearing witnesses

Yemen admits botched al-Qaeda raids

An ex-president of sorts

But is it fiction?

Gun battle in Abyan

Blogger on trial in military court

Aid flounders as Yemen protests continue 


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Brian Whitaker, 2009



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Last revised on 01 April, 2010