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Tamim family drops murder claim

The family of Suzanne Tamim, the murdered Lebanese pop star, have dropped their civil claim against her alleged killers, according to numerous reports (The National, Reuters, AFP, etc).

Hisham Talat Mustafa, an Egyptian property magnate who is close to the Mubarak regime, was convicted of her murder last year along with a former state security officer. Mustafa, who is believed to have had an affair with Ms Tamim, allegedly paid the other man $2m to kill her.

Both men were sentenced to death, but a re-trial began in Egypt last week.

Because of his connections, it is widely expected the Mustafa will not in fact be executed. The only really interesting question is what legal device will be found in order to spare him.

Last October there were moves in the Egyptian parliament to change the law and allow blood money to be paid in murder cases. Rumours at the time said Mustafa was prepared to pay Ms Tamim's family $125 million.

Her family's decision to drop civil proceedings – and they are insisting that no money has changed hands in return for this – should not directly affect the re-trial but the relevant papers are due to be presented to the criminal court, so it may have some influence.

We shall see.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 30 May 2010. Comment

Sign of the horse

An interesting variant on that hoary old tale of Muslims who cut open aubergines, tomatoes, etc, and find the word "Allah" miraculously inscribed in Arabic by the arrangement of the seeds.

Now, the Yemen Observer reports a similar miracle of a more secular kind: a 32-year-old man who has a birthmark on the left side of his abdomen in the shape of a horse – the electoral symbol used by Yemen's ruling party, the General People's Congress.

The owner of the birthmark, Mohammed Ali al-Shaibani, has sent a letter to President Salih saying: “In conjunction with the 20th anniversary of blessed Yemeni unity on the 22nd of May, I offer this God’s creation to His Excellency the President, head of the GPC, wishing him and the Yemeni people progress and prosperity.”

I trust that the president is suitably thrilled.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 30 May 2010. Comment

Justice, Moroccan style

A story of a kind that's all too familiar in the Middle East. Last Friday night, an altercation broke out between two motorists in the streets of Rabat, right in front of the parliament building. In the ensuing scuffle, one of the motorists (a local doctor) was injured.

The police swiftly arrested the other man, who then got on the phone to his father – Khalid Naciri, the Moroccan minister of communication.

The minister duly arrived on the scene and ordered the police to let his son go. The police were at first reluctant but the minister reportedly warned them: "Release my son or I'll do what's necessary." 

After the son's release, negotiations continued throughout the night, according to al-Massae newspaper [in Arabic], and the injured doctor agreed not to pursue the case.

The short video clip above, posted on YouTube, shows protesting bystanders.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 28 May 2010. Comment

Morocco welcomes Elton John

Tens of thousands of Moroccans saw Elton John perform at a free concert in Rabat last night. Despite earlier opposition from Islamists on the grounds of his sexuality, no violence was reported, though security was tight.

The Associated Press describes the event as a "litmus test" for Morocco's drive to modernity, "probing this Muslim nation's complex and ambiguous attitudes toward homosexuality like rarely before":

The tension over the concert is part of a tussle between conservatives and modernisers in a nation that criminalises homosexuality but has long been famous for a swinging party scene. Morocco has attracted gay celebrities such as designer Yves Saint Laurent and writer Paul Bowles, and recently saw the launch of its first gay magazine.

In contrast to Egypt, where Elton John was refused permission to perform earlier this month, his Moroccan concert was advertised in street posters and appeared to have tacit royal approval – it was part of the Mawazine Festival held under the patronage of King Mohammed VI.

Le Matin newspaper, which often reflects an official viewpoint, spoke out in favour of the concert, saying that differences "are to humanity what seasons are to life".

Abdellah Taia, the first openly gay Moroccan writer, described it as a sign of the country's rapid evolution but told AP: "I just wish they'd extend the support they give Elton John to ordinary Moroccan gays."

Despite the country's reputation as a gay tourist destination, gay Moroccans are regularly harassed by the police and young men who consort with foreigners are often assumed to be engaged in the sex trade. In 2007 there was a huge furore over a party that was claimed to be a "gay wedding".

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 27 May 2010. Comment

Hariri's Future

The International Crisis Group issued a strongly-worded report yesterday on the Sunni community in Lebanon and the Hariri family's Future movement. In order to combat sectarianism, it says, prime minister Saad Hariri will have to "relinquish his de facto position as Sunni leader" and turn the Future movement into a proper political party.

The Future movement, it says, is "organised around patriarchal figures" and "works somewhat in the manner of a royal court in which access to resources generally is a function of proximity to the ruling family":

At the same time, the Future Current never established party-like organisational or ideological structures ... It lacks a clear political programme, a coherent, institutionalised decision-making process and professional cadres capable of mobilising and organising supporters. To an extent, supporters are bound together by the power of Rafic Hariri’s memory and legacy, although the staggering national debt, persistent conflict with Israel and shape of the new unity government call into question large components of Rafic’s grand design.

In so far as the Future Current has presented a unifying vision, it essentially has been a negative one, predicated on hostility toward Hizbollah and its local and foreign backers.

The report continues:

Saad Hariri himself has undergone a remarkable shift, from a confrontational role that predetermined much of his behaviour and limited his options to a position at the crossroads of a number of important dynamics: he heads a national unity government which strives to maintain a subtle domestic balance; he embodies a compromise between Syria and Saudi Arabia even as he retains strong credentials in the west; he has a stake in stability and moderation in an environment that, at its core, remains radicalised and volatile; and his success as prime minister depends in part on reversing the very sectarian mobilisation that brought him to power and that ensured his ascendancy over the Sunni community.

In order for Hariri to successfully govern, this transition now needs to be solidified and deepened. Much will depend on his ability to further distance himself from sectarian and clientelist politics and, with Damascus, to manage the thorny issue of Lebanese-Syrian normalisation.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 27 May 2010. Comment

Bahrain's halal sex shop

Khadija Ahmed, a 32-year-old mother who owns what is thought to be Bahrain's first sex shop (discreetly known as "Khadija Fashion House"), was up in court on Monday, accused of insulting a customs officer during a dispute over the types of items she is allowed to import. The case was adjourned until September.

Interviewed in the Gulf Daily News, Mrs Ahmed says her shop is intended for married couples and makes a plausible argument that it is performing a public service:

"Infidelity is one of the main reasons couples get divorced and my store helps tackle that, because once the intimate relations of a couple become better, then they will work harder on their relationship.

"It's similar to marriage counselling, but concentrating on the sex lives of couples. New and exciting passion breaks the daily routine of married life."

There's often a knee-jerk reaction against this kind of thing in conservative Muslim societies, although historically Islam has tended to be far less squeamish than Christianity about the pleasures of sex. As far as I'm aware, her business is thoroughly halal, so long as it caters for married couples and keeps a fairly low profile.

An online "Muslim" sex shop was recently established in the Netherlands. There are also various "Christian sex shops" in the west, though Cath Elliott, in a recent article, wonders why "Christians or other people of faith feel the need to have their own, separate sex shops".

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 27 May 2010. Comment

Misery of the housemaids (12)

Saudi employers have found a new way to dispose of Nepalese housemaids when they become surplus to requirements: by dumping them at the gates of the Nepalese embassy. Arab News has the details.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 26 May 2010. Comment

Another botched airstrike

Another disastrous airstrike in Yemen aimed at al-Qaeda accidentally killed the deputy governor of Marib province along with his bodyguards yesterday.

The deputy governor, Jaber al-Shabwani, was reportedly "on a mediation mission to persuade al-Qaeda elements to hand themselves over to the authorities". 

His tribe then responded by attacking military sites and the republican palace in Marib, and damaging other properties, according to the Yemen Observer. Some reports say his tribe also blew up an oil pipeline

The government has said it "regrets" Shabwani's death and President Salih has ordered an investigation.

It is unclear whether the airstrike was carried out by the US military, the Yemeni military, or both of them working together. CBS News suggests it was a covert American operation.

The problem with these airstrikes is that they are often counter-productive and just end up antagonising the local population – as has clearly happened in this case. In March, the Yemeni government was forced to formally apologise for airstrikes directed against al-Qaeda which killed at least 42 innocent civilians last December.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 26 May 2010. Comment

The power of Facebook

Facebook now has 15 million users in the Arab countries and the number is growing rapidly, according to new research. The figure represents about 27% of all internet users in these countries and suggests that Facebook has become an important means for Arabs to communicate with each other. Facebook use in Egypt (currently 3.4 million users) is growing by more than 100% a year, the report says.

The addition of an Arabic-language interface to Facebook just over a year ago has brought an extra 1.1 million users and this is likely to lead to further growth. Even so, English is still the most popular language. Fifty per cent of Facebook users in the Arab countries choose English as their primary language, compared with 25% choosing French and only 23% Arabic.

Preference for English is highest in Lebanon (93%). French is used by the vast majority in Algeria (87%), Morocco (82%) and Tunisia (95%), while preference for Arabic is highest in Yemen (65%).

The study, by the Dubai-based company, Spot On PR, found a relatively low proportion of female Facebook users – 37%, compared with 56% in the US and 52% in the UK.

As might be expected, Arab Facebook users are predominantly young (under 25) and unmarried.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 25 May 2010. Comment

Misery of the housemaids (11)

A brief update on the case of the Filipina maid in Saudi Arabia who complained that she had been repeatedly raped by her employer over a period of three years.

Arab News reports that she will shortly be repatriated but the rape charges against her employer will be dropped.

Following a meeting at a police station in Taif, she "agreed to drop the case in exchange for immediate repatriation and SR10,000 [$2,650], plus two months unpaid salaries," the paper says. Her salary was SR800 [$212] a month.

Although she is now free to leave the kingdom she will have to pay her own fare home.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 25 May 2010. Comment

Israel and the Bomb

It's hard to imagine anything quite so damaging for the Netanyahu government right now as the release of official documents showing that Israel offered to sell nuclear weapons to South Africa during the apartheid era.

It's not just the confirmation that Israel does indeed possess such weapons (in at least three different sizes, apparently) but that it was prepared to engage in nuclear proliferation by supplying them to what at the time was a pariah state.

There are basically three dimensions to this:

One. Israel will no longer be able to maintain its policy of "nuclear ambiguity". As the only nuclear-armed state in the Middle East, it will have to be included in future discussions about non-proliferation and disarmament in the region – whether it wants that or not.

Israel, which along with North Korea, India and Pakistan has long resisted joining the non-proliferation treaty, will now come under increasing pressure to sign it and allow inspectors in.

Two. This blows a large hole in Israel's argument that Iran must not be allowed to develop nuclear weapons. Part of its case is that the Iranian regime, if it does get the Bomb, cannot be trusted not to supply it to others. It's now clear that Israel cannot be trusted on that score either.

Three. The fact that Israel's intended nuclear customer was South Africa, and its warm relations at the time with racists like John Vorster (a former supporter of Hitler), will invite the drawing of further parallels between apartheid in South Africa and what is happening in Israel today.

Israel reportedly tried to stop the incriminating documents being released, so presumably it has had time to prepare some kind of explanation – though on past form it may refuse to say anything and hope that the issue will go away. But while the Iranian nuclear programme remains in the spotlight it's going to be very difficult to ignore.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 24 May 2010. Comment

Promoting democracy

An article by Khaled Hroub caught my eye. It's headed: "The west's hollow talk of Arab democracy".

Hroub's basic argument is that it has been "much easier in the post-colonial Middle East for the west to do business with undemocratic regimes". He's talking here about doing business politically rather than commercially and he explains: 

"The western agenda for reform and democracy has been used more often than not as a threat, a typical message being: 'Help out in the war against Iraq or we press for democracy and human rights in your own country'. An Arab message in return would be: 'Stop pressing on the reform issue or we won’t cooperate in the war on terror'."

While I think it's broadly true that pressure for reform is used as a bargaining counter in this way, I would dispute Hroub's claim that undemocratic regimes are generally easier to deal with. Relations between "the west" and democratic regimes elsewhere in the world tend to run more smoothly than those with undemocratic regimes

In the Middle East, while the west (and more specifically the US) may get on quite well with some undemocratic regimes, negotiating with others – such as Syria, Libya, Iran and Iraq under Saddam Hussein – has proved extremely difficult. That probably has as much to do with their character (and America's lack of understanding of it) as with their actual policies.

Hroub also suggests that undemocratic regimes, because of their lack of accountability and transparency, are better-placed to make unpopular decisions, including imposing "whatever relationship with Israel they choose":

"It is far easier to launch negotiations and eventually sign peace agreements between Israel and authoritarian regimes like Egypt and Jordan, and in the future with Syria, where there is no need for any parliamentary agreement."

This may be true to some extent, but Israel is one of the few areas where Arab regimes are nervous of public opinion and can't totally disregard it.

Hroub says two major issues have sustained the trade-off between democracy and authoritarianism: Israel and the rise of Islamist movements. There is certainly a case for saying that American rewards to the Egyptian regime in return for making peace with Israel have delayed progress towards democracy in Egypt, and that the US tends to lift the pressure off undemocratic regimes when they crack down on Islamists, even if it's to the detriment of human rights. But I think Hroub misses two other important factors.

One is that the US really does try to promote democracy in countries where there is some prospect that it will produce a US-friendly regime, but not in those where the regime is already friendly towards the US. This of course results in double standards which undermine the whole democracy promotion effort.

The other factor is that western policy, over many years, has been concerned mainly with preserving stability and the status quo: "The devil you know is better than the devil you don't know", "He may be a bastard, but he’s our bastard," etc, etc.

This was an attitude that George Bush and the neocons initially rejected. "In the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty," Bush said in 2003. He was right about that, but then he went about it the wrong way, got his fingers burnt in Iraq and backed off pretty quickly. 

The trouble with propping up autocratic regimes in the Middle East (as Hroub notes in his article) is that it has resulted in "marginalising local liberal and democratic forces, even as it paved the way for the rise of Islamist radicalisation". There may be short-term benefits in prioritising stability but in the long term the price could be very high indeed.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 23 May 2010. Comment

Salih declares an amnesty

As part of Yemen's 20th anniversary "festivities" yesterday, President Salih announced an amnesty for all journalists convicted or facing trial for press offences, together with "all detainees held in connection with the Houthi rebellion in the far north ... and the rioting in some southern provinces".

The release of the journalists is certainly welcome (assuming that it actually happens) but it's probably only a matter of time before he starts locking them up again. As for the others, if they are seriously believed to have committed violent offences, wouldn't it make more sense to put them on trial?

I know this is the way things work in Yemen, but treating people as a threat to the very existence of the state one minute, and releasing them on a whim the next, just makes a mockery of the legal system. In that respect, arbitrary releases do as much damage as arbitrary detention. Long-term, they both make it more difficult to establish the effective rule of law independently from politics.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 23 May 2010. Comment

Saudi 'emo' girls arrested

The emo phenomenon has raised its head again in the Saudi city of Dammam. Ten girls were arrested by the religious police for wearing strange clothes and disturbing customers in a coffee shop.
They are said to have been dressed in dark colours and "trying to imitate men". DPA reports:

"The girls were detained until their parents signed a pledge that they will not repeat 'such violations' and will stay away from fashions that contradict 'the conservative Islamic society'."

Last March the religious police "foiled" a gathering of emos in the same city.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 23 May 2010. Comment

Yemen: 20 years of unification

Today is the 20th anniversary of the unification of north and south Yemen (an event that I wrote about in detail in my online e-book, 
The Birth of Modern Yemen).

In 1990, the north-south union made a lot of sense and in principle it still does today, but because of the way unification was carried out, and the subsequent souring of relations between northern and southern leaders, the brief war of secession in 1994 – won by the northern forces – came as no great surprise.

But if anyone had predicted in 1990 that 20 years later southern Yemen would once again be in the throes of a separatist struggle, I would have found it hard to believe them.

Yesterday, AFP reports ...

The man who led South Yemen's short-lived secession in 1994 asked the United Nations ... to send a commission of inquiry into what he said was the people's right to self-determination.

Ali Salem al-Baid said the UN commission should recognise "the right of the inhabitants (of South Yemen) to independence and to the reestablishment of their sovereign state with Aden as its capital."

He said in a statement ahead of Saturday's 20th anniversary of the country's first unification that separatists had "set next year as a target for independence."

The irony here, which AFP fails to mention, is that al-Baid was not only a central figure in the 1994 secession attempt but had earlier steered the south, almost single-handedly, into union with the north.

The people of the south certainly have many grievances but it's a giant leap from that to deducing that they need a separate state. The problems faced in the south may be more deeply felt but they are very similar in nature to those in the rest of the country.

De-unification might solve some of those problems but it would also create new ones too.

Southerners should keep in mind that their real quarrel is not with the people of the north but with the regime of Ali Abdullah Salih.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 22 May 2010. Comment

Activists on trial in Egypt

Three of Egypt's most prominent human rights activists are due in court this morning, facing criminal charges of “insult, libel, blackmail and abuse of internet services”.

The three are Ahmad Saif al-Islam (of the Hisham Mubarak Law Centre), Gamal Eid (of the Arab Network for Human Rights Information – ANHRI) and a well-known blogger, Amr Gharbeia. 

The actual case is a rather bizarre one, brought by judge Abdel Fattah Murad who seems to have a reputation for seeking to put dissidents on trial. In this particular case, it appears that the judge did not take kindly to claims that he plagiarised large portions of the ANHRI's reports in a book that he wrote.

For more details, see Global Voices, Human Rights Watch and 
Reuters AlertNet.

Separately, the Egyptian foreign minister has begun a 
criminal defamation case against Hamdi Kandil, a veteran journalist who is also spokesman for the National Association for Change (recently formed by the potential presidential candidate, Mohamed ElBaradei). The prosecution results from an article by Kandil published in al-Shourouq on May 3. He could face six months in jail, plus a fine, if convicted.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 22 May 2010. Comment

Bahrain bans al-Jazeera

Bahrain has "temporarily frozen" the activities of al-Jazeera television inside the country for "breaching professional media norms and flouting the laws regulating the press and publishing". 

The ban came to light on Tuesday when a team from al-Jazeera were prevented from entering Bahrain to interview Yvo De Boer, the UN climate chief who is due to leave his post in July. The Qatar-based network has no permanent office in the country.

The Bahraini authorities have not said how al-Jazeera is supposed to have breached "media norms" but it may be connected with a programme about poverty in Bahrain which was broadcast on Monday and described as "obscene" by the culture and information ministry.

Another possibility, according to a Kuwaiti newspaper cited by Gulf News, is that the ban results from heightened tensions between Bahrain and Qatar "after a Bahraini was wounded when Qatar's coastguards fired at him for entering Qatari waters and not heeding their warning".

An announcement from the official Bahrain News Agency yesterday suggests Bahrain is seeking to re-negotiate the terms under which al-Jazeera can be allowed to operate in the country.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 21 May 2010. Comment

1,600 women back gender apartheid

In Saudi Arabia, 1,600 women have signed an open letter supporting the kingdom's ban on gender mixing.

"Women are like sweets. If you keep them out in the open ... then nobody will take them. On the other hand, if you cover them then everybody will like them," one of the letter's supporters tells Arab News.

The letter raises fears that an end to segregation could force women into becoming the victims of sex abuse, harassment, rape and infectious diseases such as AIDS (all of which exist in Saudi Arabia today). Arab News continues:

The letter also urges the Kingdom's rulers to stop people from playing with the Kingdom's stability and values, and from deriding its religious teachings, Islamic scholars and religious rulings.

It further urges the authorities to clear the country's media and education system from people who support gender mixing, warning that it is people like these who have led to the prevalence of corruption in many Muslim countries ...

The letter says secularists wish to use women as a gateway for sedition and evil in the Kingdom, thus spreading immorality, diseases, the break-up of families, the dislocation of children and the prevalence of divorces.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 21 May 2010. Comment

'Here were houses'

Videos have been posted on the internet showing the aftermath of Saudi Arabia's bulldozing of a Yemeni village (reported here yesterday). "Here were houses," a man says in one of them. There doesn't seem to be much left of the village and I can't help thinking that if the Israelis had done this, including destroying the mosque, there would have been an almighty fuss.

The Saada Online website (in Arabic) has links to more videos – scroll down to the bottom of the page.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 20 May 2010. Comment

Saudi bulldozers destroy Yemeni village

Saudi forces are active across the border again, in Yemeni territory. In an incident that is being likened to Israel's destruction of Palestinian homes, the Yemeni village of Um Quaia’ah, close to the Saudi border, "was ravaged by Saudi bulldozers, including mosques and electricity poles", the Yemen Observer reports, citing eyewitnesses. 

A Yemeni local government official contacted by the paper declined to comment but did not deny the news. "The destroyed village is now empty of local residents except Saudi Hummers and military vehicles," the paper says. 

Um Quaia’ah is/was close to al-Malahidh area – the scene of heavy fighting during the recent war with the Houthi rebels – but is said to have remained neutral.

Saudi forces have also "retrieved" two young German girls – members of a group held hostage in northern Yemen for almost a year. The exact location of that incident has not been disclosed and it is unclear whether it was connected with the bulldozing of Um Quaia’ah. The rescue was reportedly carried out by Saudi special forces in collaboration with the Yemeni military.

The Saudis became militarily involved in Yemen last November at the height of the Yemeni government's six-month-long "Operation Scorched Earth" against the Houthi rebels. In an effort to prevent cross-border activity by the rebels, they declared a 10-km exclusion zone on either side of the frontier, where civilians would not be allowed. The destruction of Um Quaia’ah seems to be a continuation of that policy.

In the maritime border area, the Yemen Observer also reports the Saudis' seizure of 20 Yemeni fishermen and 13 boats which the paper says were in international waters off the Farasan Islands. Presumably this was part of the Saudi effort to prevent the Houthis receiving weapons by sea.

Meanwhile, in southern Yemen, fierce clashes were reported yesterday between security forces and "armed gangs" (i.e. separatists) in al-Habilain district of Lahij province. Al-Habilain was the scene, on Saturday, of an apparent attempt to kill President Salih.

The Yemen Post website says security forces "randomly opened fire using artilleries and tanks causing a state of horror among the people ... Homes and commercial shops were affected with some burned".

No deaths were reported but News Yemen says five people, including two soldiers, a child and a woman, were injured.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 19 May 2010. Comment

Sex and the City and the UAE

The Abu Dhabi authorities seem to be in a quandary over whether to let Sex and the City 2 be shown in the emirate. The film, due to be released on May 27, has Abu Dhabi as its setting.

Plans to shoot the film in neighbouring Dubai, using the ultra-modern facilities of Dubai Studio City, had to be abandoned (as I reported here last year) after the authorities disapproved of the script and the Abu Dhabi setting was eventually re-created in Morocco.

The first Sex and the City film was not shown in cinemas in the Emirates, though the TV series could be viewed there on the Showtime network.

Discussing the authorities' dilemma, Nicholas McGeehan of the 
Mafiwasta organisation (which campaigns for workers' rights in the UAE) points out that in many ways the film represents exactly the kind of glizty image that the Emirates like to promote to the outside world, glossing over such issues as racial discrimination, the ill-treatment of women and the exploitation of guest workers from developing countries.

At the same time, though, the authorities also have to consider local cultural and religious sensitivities: "Internally, their legitimacy to rule still hinges on tribal loyalty and they cannot be seen to abandon what they characterise as Islamic principles." McGeehan concludes:

Domestic opinion aside, and despite the rulers' efforts to formally distance themselves from the film, Sex and the City 2 seems fully on message in terms of the UAE's ongoing legitimisation project which seeks to convince the outside world that the country is a progressive state, friendly to rich tourists and open for business.

The country's rulers believe flashy public relations will always prevail over wishy-washy notions of equality, justice and fundamental rights, and that it is possible to go on violating those rights in the most obscene and flagrant manner, as long as the brand remains untarnished. You can beat women, you can rape women, and you can throw them in jail when they protest, but as long as you dress the country up all shiny and sparkly, and put it in a pair of Jimmy Choo shoes, nobody will be all that bothered.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 19 May 2010. Comment

Against homophobia in Beirut

Photo: mozzoom

The International Day Against Homophobia (Idaho) was observed in Beirut on Sunday with a programme of events. (I think Lebanon was the only Arab country where this happened, though there may have been something in Morocco.)

A set of photos has been posted on Flickr and there are reports (in Arabic) from al-Akhbar newspaper and the Bekhsoos website.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 18 May 2010. Comment

UPDATE, 19 May: Details of Moroccan Idaho activities here.

Misery of the housemaids (10)

Saudi police are investigating a complaint by a Filipina maid that she was repeatedly raped over a period of three years by her employer in Taif. It is the second such case in less than a week. Arab News reports.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 18 May 2010. Comment

Salih assassination attempt

The Yemen Times has a few more details of the apparent attempt to assassinate President Salih on Saturday. The paper says the vehicles that came under attack were indeed the presidential convoy, though Salih was not in it – he had left earlier for Taizz by helicopter. The Yemen Times continues:

One of the armed attackers, Mohsen Abdulla Obaid, was killed and another was injured. A civilian was also injured as a car from the convoy ran him over, according to an official source ... The security force arrested three relatives of Obaid, according to local sources in Lahj.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 18 May 2010. Comment

Migrant killed on Egyptian border

Egyptian security forces shot and killed another Sudanese migrant on Saturday night as he tried to cross the border into Israel.

Adam Ali Mohamed, 38, was hit three times after reportedly ignoring a call to stop.

More than 60 migrants have died at the hands of border guards since January 2008. In March, Navi Pillay, the UN human rights chief, accused Egypt of operating a shoot-to-kill policy:

"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," she said. "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." 

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 17 May 2010. Comment

Houthi rebellion simmers on

Yemen's Houthi rebels have not received much attention internationally since the ceasefire was declared in February. Since then, there have been numerous small-scale incidents, indicating that the war is dormant rather than at an end.

Last week, a 30-minute battle between rebels and security forces in Amran province resulted in the deaths of two soldiers and an unspecified number of rebels. Four soldiers were also reportedly abducted at gunpoint from a car in al-Jawf province.

Last Wednesday, a Unicef official complained that both rebels and pro-government elements have been seizing schools – which drives away teachers and pupils in are area where school attendance is in any case low.

"Schools are being seized by armed men from both sides," Unicef representative Geere Cappelaere told Reuters. "This may be indicative of the jeopardisation of the ceasefire as a whole ... We would have loved to see these efforts being sustained. Unfortunately there are indications that we're headed in the opposite direction."

The National also reports fears that the conflict could flare up again. It quotes one soldier as saying: “The situation is very tense and everyone’s hand is on the trigger. A seventh wave [of fighting] is imminent at any time.”

A student from Saada (the original seat of the rebellion) told the paper: “The rebels are not committed to the [ceasefire] conditions. Their checkpoints are still there and they refuse to let security men or military to enter to some areas.” 

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 17 May 2010. Comment

Assassination attempt in Yemen?

There are conflicting reports of an attack in southern Yemen which may have been a botched attempt to assassinate President Salih.

A convoy of vehicles came under fire – apparently from southern separatists – in al-Habilain district of Lahij province yesterday. At least one soldier was killed and four or five others wounded. Shooting reportedly lasted for an hour.

According to al-Jazeera, the vehicles included presidential cars, though Salih was not travelling in the convoy. AFP, citing an unnamed official, says "the attack was on a convoy of elite republican guards".

Meanwhile, NewsYemen says Rashad al-Alimi, the deputy prime minister for defence and security, was in the convoy, though according to Reuters this has since been denied. The German news agency, citing an unnamed official, says the convoy was "ferrying military officers from the southern port city of Aden to the capital, Sana'a". The official Saba news agency simply describes the attacked convoy as "a military patrol".

Last Thursday, a convoy carrying Sadiq Ameen Abu Ras, the deputy prime minister for local affairs, was attacked by gunmen in the southern province of Shabwa.

President Salih is currently touring the country in connection with celebrations to mark the 20th anniversary of Yemen's unification on May 22.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 16 May 2010. Comment

Saudis debate women drivers

It's probably now only a matter of time before women are allowed to drive in Saudi Arabia. Today's Arab News reports on a TV debate of the issue, broadcast on the Saudi-owned al-Arabiya channel.

Although the question of women driving in the kingdom has been much discussed over the years, the article sheds some interesting new light on how change might come about.

Politically, the main obstacle is a fatwa issued by the Council of Senior Islamic Scholars following a protest in November 1990 when a group of women drove cars through the streets of Riyadh. That resulted in a formal prohibition from the interior ministry in order to "preserve sanctities and to prevent portents of evil", such as exposing women to "temptation". Up to that point, the exclusion of women from driving had been merely custom and practice.

It appears that nothing can be done to change the rules unless the ulema's 20-year-old fatwa is superseded by another fatwa or over-ruled by a royal decree. However, this is not beyond the bounds of possibility.

In the TV programme, Sheikh Abdul Aziz Bin Baz, son of the late Grand Mufti, argued that the circumstances surrounding the original fatwa no longer apply. It was issued "in a particular context in the early 1990s, a time when there was much upheaval in the region, including the Gulf War, Saddam’s invasion of Kuwait and the arrival of US forces, something that some conservatives described as an American invasion".

The Gulf War may seem an odd reason to have banned women from driving, but there was a lot of agitation about the presence of foreign troops in the kingdom at the time and religious leaders saw the driving protest as another manifestation of "foreign threats" to the Saudi way of life. Leaflets were circulated denouncing the female protesters as communists, secularists and American agents.

Such arguments are less likely to be taken seriously today.
However, there is still the religious issue of sadd al-dharai ("blocking the means to evil") – based on the idea that if women were allowed to drive they could be exposed to sexual harassment. But accepting that argument, Bin Baz says, indicates that “we do not trust our education system which teaches a sense of right and wrong that is derived from Islamic teaching.”

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 16 May 2010. Comment

Previous blog posts




May 2010

Tamim family drops murder claim

Sign of the horse

Justice, Moroccan style

Morocco welcomes Elton John

Hariri's Future

Bahrain's halal sex shop

Misery of the housemaids (12)

Another botched airstrike

The power of Facebook

Misery of the housemaids (11)

Israel and the Bomb

Promoting democracy

Salih declares an amnesty

Saudi 'emo' girls arrested

Yemen: 20 years of unification

Activists on trial in Egypt

Bahrain bans al-Jazeera

1,600 women back gender apartheid

'Here were houses'

Saudi bulldozers destroy Yemeni village

Sex and the City and the UAE

Against homophobia in Beirut

Misery of the housemaids (10)

Salih assassination attempt

Migrant killed on Egyptian border

Houthi rebellion simmers on

Assassination attempt in Yemen?

Saudis debate women drivers

Egyptian regime's contempt for religion

Marriage for the masses

Human rights in Kuwait

The great unwatched

'No political prisoners' in Yemen

Egypt prolongs state of emergency

New call to ban Elton John

Gunmen try to free arms dealer

Protests over journalist's murder

Resisting homophobia in Lebanon

Child labour in the Middle East

Investigating nepotism

Blocking Skype in Yemen

Bahrain's alcohol dilemma

Double standards in Saudi Arabia

Yemeni body language

Money versus love in Oman

Britain and the Middle East

Absurd ban on Sufi ceremonies

Anti-smoking students banned from exams

Elton John faces Egyptian ban

Head of religious police dubbed an atheist

The king ... with women

Controlling Egypt's Sufis


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



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Last revised on 30 May, 2010