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Room with a view

This was the view from my hotel room in Beirut last week. Two men, with not so much as a hard hat or a ladder between them, were erecting a scaffolding at the Phoenicia Hotel on the opposite side of the road.

They only used planks on the level where they were currently working and at 6pm, when the day's work was done, they scrambled down swinging from pole to pole, monkey fashion.

There's construction work going on all over Beirut at the moment and dangerous practices like these are more or less the norm. The workers, of course, are foreigners (often impoverished Syrians) so it doesn't matter if they get killed. They can easily be replaced.

Considering the Phoenicia charges between $310 and $1,100 per night for a room, it doesn't have much excuse for employing cheapskate contractors who put people's lives at risk in this way. It's also part of the giant international IHG group ("Great Hotels Guests Love") – so how about setting an example by applying international health and safety standards?

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 15 June 2010. Comment

Did video lead to Egyptian's killing?

More on the brutal killing of Khaled Said at the hands of Egyptian police. Zeinobia at the Egyptian Chronicles blog has photos and video of the latest protests. The Arabist also has a compilation of reports setting out what is known about the case so far (warning: it includes a very gruesome picture of his mutilated face).

In a new post this morning, Zeinobia raises questions about the behaviour of the police and discusses the video above. One story circulating is that Khaled was in possession of the video and wanted to publish it on YouTube but his family advised him not to. (It has subsequently been published.)

At least one of the officers alleged to have attacked Khaled is seen in the video, and the suggestion is that the video is what led to his death.

According to the interior ministry, the video shows members of the police celebrating after the arrest of a drug dealer. An alternative suggestion is that they were dividing up the confiscated drugs for re-sale.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 15 June 2010. Comment

Egyptian 'beaten to death by police'

Demonstrators protesting at the brutal killing of a 28-year-old Egyptian while in the hands of the police were themselves assaulted by security forces in Alexandria yesterday. 

Earlier, some 600 people attended funeral prayers for Khaled Said whose death on June 6 is being seen as the latest example of abuses made possible by Egypt's semi-permanent "emergency" law.

Amnesty International has called for "an immediate, full and independent" investigation: 

Shocking pictures of Khaled Mohammed Said's body, whose face is almost unrecognisable from the beating he received, at the hands of the Egyptian police and in public according to reports, [have] been posted on the internet.

The horrific photographs are shocking evidence of the abuses taking place in Egypt which are in stark contrast to the image of the country depicted today by Egyptian officials to members of the UN Human Rights Council and their reluctant recognition of some minor wrongdoings …

Although, the exact circumstances surrounding the killing are still being pieced together, what is known is that Khaled Mohammed Said was severely beaten by two plain-clothes police officers in an internet cafe. He was reportedly dragged out of the café and the beating continued until he died.

For more details see Associated Press and al-Masry al-Youm. Egyptian Chronicles discusses the case further (here and 
here), and there is also a Facebook page (in Arabic) about Khaled Said's death.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 14 June 2010. Comment

Where next for the Middle East?

Still in Beirut, I gave a talk yesterday at the American University. Text of the talk is here, and there's also a report in this morning's Daily Star. 

There were some interruptions by a supporter of medialens.org, who eventually walked out.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 10 June 2010. Comment

Character assassination

An unpleasant tale from Morocco:

Ali Amar was co-founder of the independent Moroccan weekly, Le Journal Hebdomadaire, which was forced to close last January. He is also author of Mohammed VI: Le grand malentendu, a book critical of the king which was published last year (extracts here, in French). 

Zineb El Rhazoui is a freelance journalist and founder of the Alternative Movement for Individual Freedoms (Mali). This is the group that last September attempted to defy Article 222 of the Moroccan penal code which criminalises eating in public during Ramadan. She is currently banned from leaving the country as a result of the Ramadan protest.

Ali Amar had been away from Morocco for a while, apparently waiting for the fuss over his book to die down, but recently he returned. 

At 5.45 last Friday morning a large number of police, supervised by two very senior officers, broke down the door of Rhazoui's apartment in Casablanca and found her inside with Ali Amar.

They asked quesstions about the nature of their relationship then ordered the couple - who were reportedly fully clothed - to sit on a bed to be photographed together. They also photographed the remains of a dinner and two empty wine bottles:

They then dismantled the computers and computer peripherals of the two journalists who had just finished a session of work involved in writing articles for the international press. Officers were flipping their documentation work, searched their bags, papers and personal effects. One of the officers ordered an officer to examine the library of Zineb El Rhazoui to determine whether it’s porn.

The two journalists were then taken away for interrogation.

The explanation given by police for their dawn raid is that they were investigating the reported theft of a computer. This seems to arise out of a dispute between Ali Amar and a former partner over the ownership of a laptop. 

Exactly what role the bed and the wine and the suspected pornography played in the "theft" of the laptop, or why the police felt a need to investigate in this fashion, remains unclear. But it will no doubt provide ammunition for religious elements in Morocco to wage a moral crusade against two of the regime's critics.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 9 June 2010. Comment

UPDATE June 10: Human Rights Watch issued a statement on the case.

US and the 'Abyan massacre'

There have long been suspicions that the "Abyan massacre" - a botched airstrike in Yemen last December which killed 41 civilians, including 14 women and 21 children (plus 14 alleged al-Qaeda members), was carried out by the United States rather than the Yemen military. Photographs from the wreckage released by Amnesty International now appear to confirm this.

The pictures show parts of a BGM-109D Tomahawk cruise missile - possessed only by US forces - and cluster bombs which it was apparently carrying.

In March, the Yemeni government, which is reluctant to admit US military involvement in the country, formally apologised for the attack and said it would pay compensation to the victims' families.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 8 June 2010. Comment

Arab Free Press Forum (3)

While printed newspapers in the US and Europe are fighting for survival in the face of a drop in sales and advertisin, it's an odd fact that circulations worldwide - including the Middle East - are still increasing.

What's more, while newspaper advertising in the west is unlikely to fully recover, even as the effects of the credit crunch fade, newspapers in the Middle East can look forward to continued growth in advertising.

At least, that is what Eamonn Byrne, business director of WAN-IFRA told the Arab Free Press Forum in Beirut yesterday, and I have no reason to doubt his word.

At the same time, the forum heard of various Arab newspapers that have come under pressure or even been force to close because of advertisers' boycotts (usually for political reasons).

Independent newspapers are especially vulnerable to these boycotts because they usually depend on a very small numberof big-spending advertisers. Byrne produced some interesting statistics to show that developing a large base of smaller-spending advertisers is a better way for papers to secure their future while also making them less vulnerable to boycotts.

Since Arab publishers are less worried by falling circulation than those in the west, they are also less inclined to put effort into developing their websites, which in many cases simply reproduce the content of their print editions.

I think they are missing a trick here. The forum's afternoon session heard journalists' complaints about problems with access to information - and this is an area where the internet could help. When information is difficult to obtain, crowd-sourcing via their websites could be a useful route to explore.

I was also struck by the reluctance of publishers to join forces when faced with threats to their freedom (too many rivalries, probably).

In Morocco, for example, discussion of the royal family i and trying to break. The trouble is that they get picked off by the authorities in ones and twos each time they try to do something.

It seems to me that the best hope of a breakthrough, next time there's a story about the king, would be for all the independent papers to publish it simultaneously. The government would then have to choose between suppressing all of them or none.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 8 June 2010. Comment

Arab Free Press Forum (2)

During today's afternoon session at the Arab Free Press Forum in Beirut, Jad Melki, an assistant professor at the American University, presented some findings on the media habits of 2,500 young people (aged 13-28) in Jordan, Lebanon and the UAE.

The full report is due to be published next month, but in relation to the internet, he summarised the picture thus: Young Arabs are consumers, not producers; English is their main internet language (except for news); entertainment is the dominant purpose of internet use; the web is for free; print is weak but not dead; there is an alarming trust in new media; young Arabs are tech savvy but not media literate.

I would like to have heard more discussion of this - particularly the extent to which it might or might not differ from internet use by young people elsewhere in the world. 

The extensive use of English by young Arabs on the internet is interesting if not surprising (it tallies with a recent report on the preference for English on Facebook). But I wonder why Arabic is more important when it comes to news. Is it because there are now adequate amounts of Arabic content on the internet in the news field whereas in other areas there are not? Or is it because they feel more comfortable getting news from Arab sources (even if in reality many of the reports are just translations from western sources)?

The other interesting finding was that 53% regard information on the internet as "somewhat trustworthy" and 30% regard it as "very trustworthy". For Melki, this reflects a lack of media literacy (something his classes at AUB seek to rectify). But I wonder if the apparent trust in new media might also be relative, reflecting their not unreasonable distrust in the Arab world's old media.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 6 June 2010. Comment

Arab Free Press Forum (1)

The Arab Free Press Forum, which I'm attending in Beirut, opened today with a discussion of "soft" censorship and the judicial stranglehold on the media.

The prevalence of soft censorship in Arab countries is not a sign that regimes are becoming more civilised, we were told, and in many ways it is more dangerous than "hard" censorship.
Soft censorship includes judicial harassment, either through repressive laws or mis-application of the law by judges, together with various forms of economic harassment.

Although economic censorship is not often discussed, Aboubakr Jamai, co-founder of the now-defunct Journal Hebdomadaire, described it as the Number One problem for independent publishers in Morocco: "When someone refuses to advertise with you, what can you do?"

After Le Journal had been banned a couple of times in 2000, some of its advertisers decided not to return - among the a Spanish telecom company. The fact that it had previously been one of the paper's biggest advertisers, suggested the reasons behind its decision were political rather than commercial - though the company was probably also thinking about the cost to its business if it offended the Moroccan government by continuing to advertise.

In situations like that, Jamai said, "the only weapon we have is transparency - to let people know what's going on".
Another economic tactic which seems to be particularly favoured by the Moroccan authorities, is to flood the market with pro-government publications which soak up the advertising (though not necessarily readers).

One possible solution, Jamai suggested, is for independent papers to shame the others by their circulation properly audited, in the hope that advertisers will realise they are throwing money away in the pro-government publications. Speaking from the floor, a Lebanese journalist doubted this would work, pointing out that in Lebanon even audited circulation figures are often fabricated.

Much of the discussion about judicial harassment centred on Yemen where a court set up specially to try journalists has issued 145 in the space of a year - unlike the anti-corruption court which, despite rampant corruption in Yemen, has yet to issue its first judgment. 

As might be expected, there was much grumbling about Arab media laws. In Jordan, "every three years the law is changed, and every three years the law is worse," said Nidal Mansour of the Jordanian Centre for Defending Freedom of Journalists. But it's not just the media laws: other laws can be used to harass journalists too. In Tunisia, the offence of "disrupting traffic" has even been used against them.

The other problem with this is that when cases come to court there is often no prospect of a fair trial. "In Tunisia, no judge can issue an independent judgment, especially if it's related to freedom of expression," one speaker said. Only about 20% of Tunisian judges are regarded as having a measure of independence.

No easy solutions emerged from the discussion. One speaker said it was vital to have observers attending court cases, while another said it was important to report judicial rulings so as to "expose the mediocrity of their legal reasoning".

More generally, it was suggested that Arab journalists would do better looking for support from civil society in the west rather than western governments, who are often reluctant to apply pressure.

Another speaker urged journalists to "make repression as costly as possible for the authorities", though without stooping to their level - "your own ethical behaviour is vital".

Coinciding with the forum, the Ifex Tunisia Monitoring Group has issued a report which I may write about later.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 6 June 2010. Comment

Visiting Beirut

Just a note to say that I'm off to Beirut for the Arab Free Press Forum, so depending on internet connections and other things, I may not be blogging much over the next week or so.

On Wednesday, 9 June, I'm scheduled to give a talk at the American University of Beirut, based around my book, What's Really Wrong With the Middle East. It's at 5pm in Auditorium B, West Hall, AUB, under the auspices of the Issam Fares Institute. Anyone interested is welcome to attend.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 5 June 2010. Comment

Guns for the dead

Following last month's botched airstrike which accidentally killed Jaber al-Shabwani, the deputy governor of Marib province, along with four bodyguards, his tribe has now accepted compensation from the Yemeni government – in the form of five million riyals ($22,000) and 200 Kalshnikov rifles.

I know that guns are a traditional part of the compensation package in such cases, but it's hard to squared with the declared government policy of trying to disarm Yemen's heavily armed civilian population.

Meanwhile, the government says it may review its methods in fighting al-Qaeda (the intended target of the airstrike that killed Shabwani). 

There are widespread suspicions that an American drone was used in the attack, but US military involvement in Yemen is a highly sensistive issue and a government inquiry into Shabwani's killing threatens to shed unwelcome light on a relationship that the authorities would prefer to keep quiet about.

In an interview with Gulf News, foreign minister Abu Bakr al-Qirbi pleaded ignorance:

“If there was a drone, and we don’t know, then we have to find out if this was used by the Yemeni security forces or by others, but we don’t know how the incident happened. We will have to wait for the results of the investigation,” Qirbi said.

Asked if other parties could include the US, Qirbi said: “Yes.”

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 2 June 2010. Comment

Church versus state in Egypt

In a legal ruling that has far-reaching implications, Egypt's Supreme Administrative Court last week ordered Pope Shenouda III to allow two Coptic Christians, in two separate cases, to remarry after divorce.

At present the Coptic church does not allow re-marriage except in very limited circumstances – for example, in proven cases of adultery or if a spouse converts to another faith.

The court decided that the "right to family formation is a constitutional right, which is above all other considerations". This, in effect, asserts the authority of the state over that of the church.

At one level, the decision can be viewed as an extension of personal freedom and, in the words of a Reuters report, a challenge to "the church's efforts to hold sway over its flock". 

Equally, though, it can be seen as an extension of the state's already-pervasive control over religion. The Coptic church, not unreasonably, claims a right to manage its own affairs and ought to be allowed to decided who it will, or will not, marry.

The whole problem could be neatly avoided civil marriages were recognised as an alternative – but that would call into question Egypt's faith-based system of family law.

Meanwhile, Pope Shenouda has rejected the court's ruling. "We are only bound by the Holy Bible," he said in a sermon on Monday. He threatened to defrock any priest who allows a divorced Christian to remarry, except in the specific cases permitted by the church.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 2 June 2010. Comment

Egypt opens Gaza border

Egypt opened its border with Gaza yesterday in a move which is "seen as a response to increasing Arab anger at what is perceived as Egyptian complicity in the [Israeli] blockade" (as the Guardian puts it).

The decision followed demonstrations in Cairo on Monday and may take some of the heat out of public anger directed at the Mubarak regime.

Egypt has been in the habit of opening the border occasionally for a few days but this time, the reports say, it will remain open until further notice. 

A huge rally protesting at the Israeli assault on the aid ships was held in the Yemeni capital, Sanaa, yesterday. NewsYemen 
says hundreds of thousands attended, while the official news agency puts the number at tens of thousands. The demonstration clearly had the government's blessing and no doubt provided a welcome diversion from Yemen's own political troubles.

Three Yemeni MPs who had joined the flotilla were arrested by the Israelis and are expected to return home via Jordan.

Yemen's tiny Jewish community reportedly joined in condemning the Israeli attack.

The Yemen Observer also reports that President Salih had a meeting with Khaled Misha'al of Hamas on Monday "to discuss the Arab possible reaction to the Israeli massacre committed against peace activists".

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 2 June 2010. Comment

Saudis tackle child brides

The Saudi government has begun issuing new papers for marriage contracts which will require the age of the bride to be recorded. Arab News reports:

“The new marriage contracts represent a serious step to prevent the marriage of young girls,” said sources at the ministry. “There is a serious drive by the ministry to determine an age for girls to marry following the recent reporting of older men marrying young girls,” the sources added.

The sources also said they expect the government to enact legislation fixing the minimum marriage age. “By doing so the Kingdom will keep pace with other Arab and Muslim countries,” they added.

The move, which has been welcomed by human rights activists in the kingdom, follows a series of scandals involving child brides (here and here, for example).

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 2 June 2010. Comment

Collateral damage

Israel's assault on the humanitarian aid flotilla brought protesters on to the streets in numerous western countries yesterday, with 
demonstrations in Washington, London, Paris, Rome, Stockholm, Greece, Cyprus – and of course Turkey which seems to have suffered the brunt of the casualties. In Jerusalem, a small number of Israelis protested too, though rather more seem to have joined an anti-Turkish demonstration in Tel Aviv.

Arab leaders were generally vociferous in their condemnation of the attack, though with the exceptions of Lebanon, Iraq and Egypt, plus a sit-in at UN offices in Syria, there was not much activity reported from the Arab streets. Of course, that's hardly surprising. Impromptu demonstrations are not tolerated in a lot of the Arab countries and next Friday's Muslim prayers may be the first opportunity for many to express their feelings.

Over the next few days, Arab governments may well allow some public venting of wrath – they can scarcely do otherwise – but they are always nervous as to where it may lead. 

I am reminded of an interview with the Egyptian blogger-activist, 
Hossam el-Hamalawy, while researching my book, What's Really Wrong with the Middle East, a couple of years ago. 

"The Palestinian cause has always been the main radicalising factor for the Egyptian students," he told me. "If you look at the anti-Sadat opposition – for example, who was leading it – it was the Society of Supporters of the Palestinian Revolution in Cairo and Ain Shams universities."

He continued:

You'd start by chanting in support of the Palestinians. A few minutes later, people would start asking, "So why isn't our government doing anything to help the Palestinians?" 

And then, a few minutes later, it would be: "And why is the government sending the troops when we are demonstrating peacefully and they are not sending the troops to help the Palestinians fight the Israelis?" … and it's the same government that's giving us a shitty educational system, that's giving us a bad health system … people start reflecting on their local situation from the Palestinian cause.

It's not a coincidence that the slogan that was raised in 2000 by the radical left and which got picked up immensely back then was "The road to Jerusalem passes through the Arab capitals."

Another at the time slogan was:

Thawra, thawra, hatta nasr
Thawra fi Filasteen wa fi Masr

["Revolution, revolution until victory. Revolution in Palestine and in Egypt"]

Hamalawy continued: 

Cracks started to happen and people were chanting against the regime in ways that did not exist in the 1990s, from October 2000 – one week after [start of] the intifada.

In 2002 I saw also the April riots over the Jenin massacre and for the first time I heard the slogan:

Hosni Mubarak zay Sharon
Nafs il shakl, wa nafs il lawn

[Hosni Mubarak is like Sharon – same shape, same colour]

Even we, as radicals – we were shocked, but happy of course. We were like: Woah! 

In 2003, with the Cairo downtown anti-war riots, people were burning Mubarak's posters, and what's interesting to note is that the radicalisation was happening all because of regional issues. It's as if you start with Palestine and end up in Cairo.

The political consequences of yesterday's attack on the aid ships could be especially interesting in Egypt because of the Mubarak regime's complicity with Israel in maintaining the Gaza siege (for which it is handsomely rewarded with American aid). One effect of Israel's action is to further undermine the regime's credibility among the Egyptian public.

Writing for the Arabist blog, Issandr el Amrani says yesterday's protest in Cairo was the biggest about Palestine since the Gaza war – which, considering the regime's unwillingness to tolerate such protests, came as a surprise:

This evening, thousands gathered at the al-Fath mosque on Ramses Square and staged an impressive protest, even if they were penned in by several hundred uniformed riot control troops and police officers, as well as tons of plainclothes security people and a bunch of baltiguiya (street toughs hired to intimidate, and need be, beat up protesters).

He continues:

We might see more in the next few days, including on Friday after prayers. This may revive local activism on Gaza as well as linkages made between the situation there and the situation in Egypt – notably the Mubarak regime's collaboration with Israel on the blockade. Expect a fierce fight in the media over this in the next few days, and more opportunities to express all sorts of grievances. But when Turkey expels its ambassador and Egypt is seen to be doing nothing, it looks very, very bad for Cairo.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 1 June 2010. Comment

Previous blog posts




June 2010

Woman shot dead on Egyptian border

Seventeen face jail over gay parties in Syria

Lebanon Facebook arrests

Khaled Said and the emergency law

Thousands at risk in Syrian drought

Arrests at Sudan fashion show

Mubarak regime under pressure over killing

Zionist 'gay workshop' cancelled

Protest over 'personal status' law

Gay life in Syria

Misery of the housemaids (13)

Khaled Said's 'light' injuries 

Partygoers to be jailed and flogged

Egyptian churches at loggerheads

More clashes in Yemen

Iraqi police raid gay 'safe house'

Yemen releases top arms trafficker

Tunisians forbidden to contact EU

Church versus state in Egypt (2)

Pinkwashing Israel

New autopsy for Khaled Said

Safety in the heat

Room with a view

Did video lead to Egyptian's killing?

Egyptian 'beaten to death by police'

Where next for the Middle East?

Character assassination

US and the 'Abyan massacre'

Arab Free Press Forum (3)

Arab Free Press Forum (2)

Arab Free Press Forum (1)

Guns for the dead

Church versus state in Egypt

Egypt opens Gaza border

Saudis tackle child brides

Collateral damage


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 15 June, 2010