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Woman shot dead on Egyptian border

A 38-year-old Eritrean woman was shot and killed by Egyptian border guards while trying to cross into Israel, Reuters reports. Two other women and a child were arrested.

According security sources, the dead woman was shot three times – in the stomach, right arm and left hand.

More than 60 migrants have died at the hands of Egyptian 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." 

Last week border guards shot and wounded a Sudanese man and arrested three others.

Earlier this month, Israeli forces killed a man who was said to be trying to smuggle drugs across the frontier.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 30 June 2010. Comment

Seventeen face jail over gay parties in Syria

Around 25 men arrested at gay parties in Syria earlier this year are expected to go on trial shortly, according to a note posted on Facebook. Seventeen of them are facing three to seven years in jail for "unnatural acts" while others are likely to be tried for drugs offences.

The Gay Middle East website (GME) says four private parties were raided between March and April. Some of the men have been detained ever since, because their families refused to stand bail for them.

GME quotes a senior police officer as saying "Syrian authorities' major interest is the safety of people, we targeted those parties only because of the increasing rate of drug use."

In February, there were unsuccessful raids on two gay parties, at separate locations in Damascus, on the same day.

GME says this was the result of a tip given to a policeman by a bar owner in Damascus who overheard a phone conversation discussing the parties. "Fortunately, a gay man was present at the time and he called a few guys he knew that were going to those parties, warning them about the raids. When the police arrived everyone had already left and no arrests were made."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 30 June 2010. Comment

Lebanon Facebook arrests

Three people in their twenties were arrested in Lebanon yesterday for allegedly defaming President Michel Sleiman on Facebook.  
A warrant has been issued for the arrest of a fourth person, AFP reports:

The justice ministry said the case met the requirements for a slander and defamation lawsuit, adding "media freedom in Lebanon and any civilised country reaches its limits when the content is pure slander and aims at undermining the head of state."

"The inappropriate comments published on websites are subject to prosecution and punishment as they meet the requirements for litigation as stipulated in the media law and penal code," the statement said.

This is utterly stupid. Have they not heard of the Streisand Effect?

Before long, people will be queuing up to "defame" the president on Facebook, Twitter, etc. In fact, one of my Lebanese Facebook friends has already posted: "Fuck u Michel Sleyman ... Are you going to arrest me?"

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 29 June 2010. Comment

Khaled Said and the emergency law

Writing for the Foreign Policy website, Soha Abdelaty discusses the death of Khaled Said in the context of Egypt's semi-permanent (and recently renewed) emergency law:

In many ways, the case of Khaled Said is tragically symbolic of everything that is wrong with the state of emergency under which Egyptians have been living for almost three decades. In such an arbitrary and opaque system, torture and ill-treatment are a natural byproduct. And in fact, torture in police custody has been systematic and well documented since the 1990s. Khaled Said's case is unusual only because his murder was witnessed by so many, captured on film, and distributed to thousands via Facebook.

Abdelaty continues:

Few were fooled when, by presidential decree, the Egyptian government renewed the state of emergency while claiming that its provisions would be limited to Article 3 (1) and (5) of the emergency law and only for drug- and terrorism-related crimes. Article 3 (1) permits "restrictions on the freedom of persons to assembly, movement, residence and passage in certain places or times; the arrest and detention of suspects or those representing a danger to public security and order; and the search of persons and places without regard for provisions of the Code of Criminal Procedure." 

In effect, this means that provisions in Article 3 (1) and (5) of the emergency law will be applied to anyone deemed by the Ministry of Interior to be a "suspect" under one of those crimes. Given the broad definition of terrorism in the Egyptian penal code, a point which has been sharply criticised by several UN entities, as well as national and international NGOs, this effectively means anyone and everyone can be a suspect. Included in that definition is "any threat or intimidation" aimed at "disturbing the peace or jeopardising the safety and security of the society."

... Said did not have any political affiliations, nor was he an activist – and he was hardly a terrorist. That the ministry claimed in its defence that he was an ex-con, apart from being false, raises the harrowing possibility that it believes it justifiable for a man to be beaten to death by security forces, with no judicial recourse, for being a suspected criminal.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 28 June 2010. Comment

Thousands at risk in Syrian drought

The long-running drought in eastern Syrian – and the upheaval it is causing – has so far received scant attention. The UN's World Food Programme says it has received less than half the $22m needed to support 300,000 vulnerable people this year. Consequently, 110,000 will not be given help and the WFP has warned of tens of thousands suffering from malnutrition.

A report in The National says:

Estimates vary but as many as a million people may have fled the land in Syria’s so-called Jazeera region as a result of three consecutive years of crippling drought. Some 160 villages have been abandoned entirely, researchers say, their residents moving to already over-populated urban centres in search of work. Squalid camps of rural migrants have sprung up on the outskirts of Damascus and other cities.

The UN reports that 40,000 families have left the once-lush farming areas, a number likely to amount to more than 300,000 individuals.

In addition, this year's Syrian wheat harvest is expected to be half the 2007 level, forcing the country to rely on imports when previously it was self-sufficient in wheat.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 28 June 2010. Comment

Arrests at Sudan fashion show

About two dozen people were arrested in Sudan on Thursday night as they emerged from a fashion show. Those arrested included male and female amateur models as well as make-up artists and others who had provided the clothes.

So far, there has been no official explanation from the Public Order Police, whose role includes enforcing "morality". All those arrested were released on Friday but some have been told to report back to the police today, and it is thought they could be charged with "indecency".

Last year, a group of 13 women were arrested in Sudan for wearing trousers in public. Ten pleaded guilty and were subsequently flogged. One of them, journalist Lubna Hussein, contested the charge amid a welter of international publicity. She was eventually fined and was jailed when she refused to pay. She was released after one night in jail when the journalists' union paid the fine on her behalf.

Arrests of this kind are common in northern Sudan – police statistics show that 43,000 women were arrested in Khartoum province in 2008 for clothing offences.

According to one fashion show participant quoted by Reuters, "there was nothing bad about the clothes" on display on Thursday night. "There were wedding dresses, traditional Sudanese clothes, suits, clothes from local shops and tobs [traditional Sudanese wraparound dresses]."

Fashion shows are not unknown in Sudan, though they are often held in private. Thursday's show – held in a popular club in Khartoum – was unusual in that both male and female models shared the catwalk.

AFP quotes the brother of one a particpant as saying there was no single reason for the arrests.

"Some people were arrested because they did not have a permit to organise a party, others because they partied beyond 11:00 pm and others were detained for apparently drinking alcohol."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 27 June 2010. Comment

Mubarak regime under pressure over killing

The Egyptian regime is under growing pressure to take action in the case of Khaled Said, the 28-year-old man who died while being arrested in Alexandria on June 6. Witnesses say he was severely beaten and horrific photographs of his body show extensive injuries to his head and face. The authorities say he choked to death while trying to swallow a packet of cannabis.

Yesterday, in the biggest protest so far, several thousand demonstrators took to the streets of Alexandria – prominent among them reform campaigner Mohamed ElBaradei and former presidential candidate Ayman Nour (reports: BBC, New York Times, al-Masry al-Youm).

The US State Department has called for a "transparent investigation" and Human Rights Watch has called for prosecutions. HRW said in a statement:

"Witness accounts and the photographs of Khaled Said's mangled face constitute strong evidence that plainclothes security officers beat him in a vicious and public manner. All those involved should be speedily interrogated, and the prosecutor should fully investigate what caused the fractures and trauma clearly evident on his body."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 26 June 2010. Comment

Zionist 'gay workshop' cancelled

More news of the workshop on gay liberation in the Middle East which was due to be held in Detroit last Thursday. The hosting body – the US Social Forum (USSF) – cancelled it at the last minute following complaints about the workshop's organisers, a militant Zionist organisation called Stand With Us.

A statement from the forum's planning committee said it had been cancelled "for violating the submission procedure and transparency requirements for all workshops, and for being in violation of the anti-racist principles central to the US Social Forum".

This is a significant success for the various LGBT organisations that had campaigned against it.

A statement from Stand With Us says: "The cancellation letter claimed that we had 'masked the true nature' of the workshop and were really trying to 'defend Israel', but this is patently false." It continues: "Apparently, USSF was so afraid that participants might indirectly learn that Israel has an outstanding record on LGBT issues and is a refuge for persecuted gays in the Middle East that they chose to turn their backs on the cries for help from this suffering minority across the region."

Last month, Stand With Us organised a six-boat flotilla in Israel as a counter-demonstration against the flotilla that was trying to deliver aid to Gaza. This week, it was among a group of pro-Israel groups that organised a "real freedom flotilla" opposite the UN building in New York. Supporters of Stand With Us have also been accused of offensive behaviour towards Jews who don't share their militant views.

Though not an LGBT organisation itself, Stand With Us has latched on to the gay rights issue as a way of "pinkwashing" Israel's image.

Brett Cohen, the Midwest regional coordinator for Stand With Us, recently circulated an email saying he is trying to assemble "a speakers bureau of Arab, Israeli, Druze, Phonecian [sic], and Kurdish gay people to tour campuses in the west and talk about gay life in the region," but he appears to be having difficulty recruiting gay Arabs and Kurds. "It's been an uphill battle to say the least," he wrote.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 26 June 2010. Comment

Protest over 'personal status' law

At last, someone is talking sense on the issue of Egypt's discriminatory new personal status law for non-Muslims. Yesterday, the security forces graciously allowed a group of Coptic lawyers ("of a secular disposition") to hold a 30-minute protest at the justice ministry.

The lawyers rightly pointed out that all citizens should be treated equally before the law, that religion is a personal matter and that the state should not interfere in church affairs.

Democracy, they said, means heeding the will of the citizens, while religion does not necessarily express the will of all people.

On President Mubarak's orders, the Egyptian government is rushing through a new and ill-conceived personal status law because the Coptic church, under the anachronistic leadership of Pope Shenouda III, claims the right to decide which of its members can be divorced and remarried.

Last month, in two separate cases, an Egyptian court ordered the Pope to let two Copts to re-marry after being divorced. That triggered a crisis in church-state relations which the new law is intended to resolve.

The whole messy business could be sorted out very simply, not by creating special laws for non-Muslims, but by allowing civil divorce and marriage – but the church fears that it would then start to lose control over its members, and for political reasons the Mubarak regime is anxious to appease the church.

Quoted in al-Masry al-Youm, Amira Gamal, coordinator of the lawyers' protest, says: "Society should help Christians obtain their natural and legal right to divorce without having to change their denomination or circumvent the law and the church." 

Changing to a more amenable denomination is one route for getting a divorce, but even that is far from simple. Gamal explains: "Changing denominations has become a big business. It could cost as much as US$10,000, paid to the church."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 25 June 2010. Comment

Gay life in Syria

The Gay Middle East website (GME) has published a report summarising the situation for gay people in Syria –a country which is rarely discussed in this connection.

Although "carnal relations against the order of nature" are still punishable by up to three years in jail, GME detects some improvement in the authorities' attitude over the last two years:

During this period, gay and lesbians were occasionally harassed or even imprisoned (one notable exception was the case of an asylum seeker to the UK), but the majority, if they behaved very cautiously and did not come out or demanded rights were left alone with minor harassment.

However, it suggests that an AFP report last year, headed “Syrian gays edge gingerly out of the closet” was "a bit exaggerated". 

GME continues:

The increase of accessibility to the internet for Syrians, albeit under very strict control, has enabled many gays and lesbians for the first time to communicate, network and develop a nascent self-consciousness. The Syrian authorities seem to have been quick to catch up with this trend. 

Members of the LGBT Syrian communities now exercise extreme caution when contacting each other or exposing their identity on the web. This is because the Syrian Secret police has now increased their presence on the web and try to intercept gays and lesbians by chatting to them as potential dates or mates. 

Syria has also moved to block various LGBT related sites and search terms. In the last months GME has received increasing complaints ... on police raids. In recent raids over private parties 25 gay men were arrested ... They are now at least several weeks held under arrest without bail and face a very uncertain future. 

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 24 June 2010. Comment

Misery of the housemaids (13)

The Philippines consulate in Jeddah has taken up the case of three housemaids who say they have not been paid for five months and complain of abuse by the Syrian wife of their Palestinian sponsor.

One of the women says the wife beat her, and another than the wife threatened to scald her with hot water.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 24 June 2010. Comment

Khaled Said's 'light' injuries 

A second autopsy on Khaled Said, the 28-year-old Egyptian, who witnesses say was beaten to death by police, has concluded that choked on a "foreign body" (a packet of cannabis that he attempted to swallow). The report says his injuries (gruesomely pictured here) were "light" and had been sustained when police officers attempted to "control" him as he resisted arrest.

Al-Masry al-Youm says:

According to witnesses interviewed earlier by al-Masry al-Youm, Said had been forcefully searched by two police officers before being removed from a local internet cafe in Alexandria. Witnesses say he was subsequently beaten to death on the sidewalk as passers-by looked on.

Initial reports said the officers had demanded money from the victim. Members of Said's family, for their part, say the young man had been targeted because he possessed video footage of police officers engaging in drug deals.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 24 June 2010. Comment

Partygoers to be jailed and flogged

Fourteen partygoers – 11 your men and four young women – have been sentenced to jail and flogging in Saudi Arabia for gender mixing, Arab News reports.

The paper quotes a source as saying: "All arrangements had been completed for the party and they had brought liquor. But the intervention of commission [religious police] officials turned their plans upside down. Although the culprits tried to run away from the site, security officers were able to track them down."

The men were jailed for two years. Two women were jailed for one year and two others sentenced to 80 lashes each.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 23 June 2010. Comment

Egyptian churches at loggerheads

Predictably, the Egyptian authorities are getting in a twist over their discriminatory new personal status law for non-Muslims (or possibly just Christians).

Separate laws for members of different religions are an inherently bad idea but, since President Mubarak wants this one to be ready within two months, they might at least try to make a decent job of it. New laws, if they are to be effective, require extensive public debate but, as usual, the instincts of the Egyptian regime are to minimise the discussion.

The head of the Greek Orthodox Church in Alexandria has complained to the justice minister that his church has not been represented in the committee drafting the law. "And so we shall not abide by it," he wrote.

The Evangelical Church is also claiming exclusion. "When I arrived, I was surprised to find out I was excluded from the committee without being given any reasons," the church's representative, Ekram Lamee, told al-Masry al-Youm.

According the the paper. Lamee accused the Coptic pope of applying double standards. "The Pope wants to remove the section on adoption from the new law in order to appease Muslims, even though the Bible permits adoption," he said. "Why is the Pope ignoring a clear text in the Bible for the sake of Muslims, while insisting on the literal interpretation of another text that disapproves of divorce except where adultery has been committed?"

The Evangelicals are also reportedly keen to see the introduction of "modern techniques for proving incidents of adultery".

Meanwhile, the assistant justice minister, who is chairing the committee has ordered its members not to speak to the media. Statements to the press about the committee's work "are the responsibility of the minister of justice alone," he is quoted as telling them.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 22 June 2010. Comment

More clashes in Yemen

Five people were killed, including three soldiers, and 11 people injured during clashes in Yemen's Amran province "between militants and military personnel", Shawa.Net reports.

Shooting is said to have broken out when the "militants" set up road blocks in protest at non-payment of "allowances for their participation as volunteers in Saada war".

Amran was one of the provinces affected by the recent Houthi conflict. Various militias and unofficial bands of fighters joined the war on the government's side and the unidentified "militant" group is presumably one of them.

In the southern city of Dhali' two military offices died on Sunday when their vehicle was attacked – apparently by separatists. The National says two of the attackers were also killed.

Meanwhile, the authorities say they have arrested the leader of the group that attacked the intelligence headquarters in Aden on Saturday. He has been named as Goudol Mohammed Ali Naji and is said to be a member of al-Qaeda. Despite eyewitness reports that the attackers released a number prisoners, the authorities now say there were no detainees in the building at the time

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 21 June 2010. Comment

Iraqi police raid gay 'safe house'

Police in Karbala last week raided a "safe house" used by gay, lesbian and transgender Iraqis, and took away the occupants.

The house (pictured above, after the raid) was one of several established by the UK-based Iraqi LGBT organisation to protect them against vigilante attacks. A press statement from Iraqi LGBT says:

On Tuesday 16 June, twelve police officers burst into the house, then violently beat up, and blindfolded the six occupants sheltering there, before bundling them off in three vans. According to a source who witnessed the raid, the police also confiscated computer equipment before burning down the house.

According to reports, one of the arrested people has turned up in hospital. Nothing is known about the whereabouts of the other five individuals, which include two gay men, one lesbian and two transgender people. It is feared they may have been taken to the Interior Ministry in Baghdad, where, it is reported, many gay people have been tortured and executed in the last two years.

Government forces have previously siezed people particularly at roadblocks and handed them to militias who have then tortured them and their bodies have later been found.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 20 June 2010. Comment

Yemen releases top arms trafficker

Faris Mana'a, Yemen's top arms trafficker, was released from jail last week, according to tribal sources. The Sahwa.Net website describes his release as "astonishing" and says his return home was welcomed by "masses" of sheikhs and citizens in Saada province.

Mana'a served for some time as head of the committee mediating between the Yemeni government and the Houthi rebels, while allegedly simultaneously supplying the rebels with weapons. His brother was governor of Saada province, where the rebellion originated.

He was named in a list of illegal arms traffickers issued by the Yemeni government last October and was also named in connection with a Chinese weapons ship discovered at Hodeida port around the same time.

In April, his assets were frozen by the US Treasury on the grounds that he "has directly or indirectly supplied, sold or transferred to Somalia arms or related material in violation of the arms embargo".

Last month, his relatives opened fire on a police convoy taking him to court, killing the driver of a passing mini-bus. During the court appearance his detention was extended for a further 25 days. That period elapsed last week – presumably leading to his release.

Meanwhile in southern Yemen, gunmen thought to be connected with al-Qaeda attacked the intelligence headquarters in Aden yesterday, killing at least 10 members of the security forces. An unknown number of suspects held in the building were released – and reportedly left the scene in a bus.

The incident has been widely reported by international media (BBCAFP, AP, al-Jazeera, Reuters), so I won't go into detail about it here. Breakouts of this kind are not particularly unusual in Yemen. The BBC notes that in 2003, 10 men escaped from the same building – including one later convicted in connection with the attack on USS Cole.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 20 June 2010. Comment

Tunisians forbidden to contact EU

Tunisia's parliament has approved a law which will criminalise human rights activists and others who make contact with "foreign organisations" with the aim of harming the country's "vital interests and its economic security". Offenders face up to five years' jail in peacetime or 12 years in wartime.

The new measure – in the form of an amendment to Artice 61a of the penal code – seems to be directed at one "foreign organisation" in particular: the EU. Tunisia is currently seeking "advanced status" with the EU, which among other things would give it preferential trade terms. Various local and international groups have been lobbying against this, on the grounds that Tunisia should improve its human rights performance first.

Towards the end of April, representatives from several independent Tunisian NGOs (LTDH, ATFD, CNLT, CRLDHT, FTCR and OLPEC) visited Madrid to lobby to the Spanish presidency:

The purpose of our advocacy mission was to show EU officials that the advanced status claimed by Tunisia in its partnership with the EU should not be given as a reward for dictatorship. Tunisia should devote its efforts to making real progress on its human rights performance and respect for the rule of law, which have seen serious setbacks recently. The lobby was a routine activity, one that followed similar efforts within the Euromed partnership, as enshrined in the Association Agreements signed between the EU and Tunisia in 1998.

The EU, of course, was not unaware of the problem. Responding to Tunisia's "advanced status" application last March, the EU commissioner responsible for the Tunisia file wrote:

Clearly, the very concept of "advanced status" implies a higher level of ambition in setting common objectives. This level of ambition must apply to all areas: political relations, economic development, trade and investment, social reform, cooperation in justice and freedom, and sectoral cooperation on the economy, energy, and elsewhere. But it must also apply to human rights and the rule of law.

On 11 May, the EU-Tunisia Association Council met in Brussels to explore the application further and issued a statement urging the Tunisian government "to intensify its efforts towards reforms, particularly in terms of pluralism and democratic participation, independence of justice, freedom of expression and association and protection of human rights defenders".

Apparently infuriated by this, just over a week later, the Tunisian cabinet decided to rush through an amendment to the penal code aimed at preventing any further lobbying by Tunisians. The activists who made representations to the EU have been denounced locally as "traitors" and the regime has hinted that it will hold them responsible if the "advanced status" talks fail.

In remarks quoted by Human Rights Watch, the Tunisian justice minister, Lazhar Bououni, said the prohibition against "harming Tunisia's vital interests" will be interpreted to include "inciting foreign parties not to grant loans to Tunisia, not to invest in the country, to boycott tourism or to sabotage Tunisia's efforts to obtain advanced partner status with the European Union".

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 19 June 2010. Comment

Church versus state in Egypt (2)

Earlier this month I noted an important decision by Egypt's Supreme Administrative Court which, basically, over-ruled the Coptic church on the question of allowing divorced Christians to remarry.

The Coptic leader, Pope Shenouda III, rejected the court's decision – setting the scene for a confrontation between the church and the Egyptian state.

Now, in a move to defuse the situation, the government is promising a new "Unified Personal Status Law for Non-Muslims". This has been talked about for years but the Justice Ministry is said to have "almost finished work" on the draft and President Mubarak has asked for it to be finalised within two months.

Already there is also discussion about changing the law's name. One suggestion is to call it the "Unified Law for Christians in Egypt". According to al-Masry al-Youm, the aim of that would be "to deter other non-Muslim sects – such as Baha'is and certain Christian sects not recognised by the orthodox churches – from asking to be included in the draft law".

In the midst of all this, Pope Shenouda has adopted an extremely reactionary position, similar to that of the mroe conservative Muslim scholars who insist that sharia law is fixed for all time and cannot be opened up for debate. 

In a sermon on Wednesday, he argued that religious law does not change over time and criticising those who say it "should change to keep pace with changes in society". He continued: "God's word remains constant over the ages; we will adhere to and leave as-is the laws that Christ laid down."

(As far as I'm aware, Jesus never expressed any views about the remarriage of divorced Christians but presumably Shenouda has some reason for thinking he did.)

If the new personal status law does eventually materialise, I really can't see it resolving much. Arab countries have got themselves into a terrible mess by trying to operate multiple legal systems based around the various religions and sects. The general nature of the problem is explained here in an article by Sami Awad al-Deeb. This in turn feeds into the much wider debate about the need of a secular state.

Reforming personal status laws is a huge and complex task, and it isn't going to be achieved overnight. At present, though, there seems to be no clear vision of what the ultimate goal should be.

It ought to start with a recognition that parallel legal systems are unsustainable in the long run, so the need is for state-run laws and courts that treat everyone equally, regardless of their religion. Beyond that, there should be space for believers to manage their personal affairs freely, so long as they don't impinge on the rights of others.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 18 June 2010. Comment

What's Really Wrong with the Middle East

For various reasons (which I won't go into here) my book, What's Really Wrong with the Middle East, has taken a long time to reach the United States. I'm happy to say that it's now available at amazon.com for immediate delivery.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 18 June 2010. Comment

Pinkwashing Israel

The US Social Forum brings together organisations from across the United States with the aim of working for social justice. This year's forum, which opens next week in Detroit, includes a workshop on "LGBTQI Liberation in the Middle East". According to the blurb:

The purpose of this workshop is to expose the underground LBGTQI Liberation movements that currently exist across the Middle East ... We will introduce participants to the stories of young people from across the region striving for acceptance. Some stories are harrowing and gut wrenching, while others are triumphant, but all are inspirational. The end goal is to engage the participants in supporting the cause of LGBTQI Liberation, and to connect them with outlets through which they can offer their support. 

So far, so good. But the workshop is organised and sponsored by Stand With Us – an organisation which describes itself as "the next generation of Israel advocacy" and claims to employ "a powerful breadth of strategies to elevate the level of consciousness and understanding of the State of Israel".

Stand With Us is not just about "understanding" Israel. It's a militant Zionist organisation which has been accused of offensive behaviour towards Jews who don't share its opinions and it recently organised a campaign of public support for the "brave men" from the IDF who attacked the Gaza flotilla.

Though not an LGBT organisation itself, Stand With Us has latched on to the gay rights issue as a way of "pinkwashing" Israel's image.

Last year, for example, it organised iPride – a campaign to link "gay pride with pro-Israel pride" (as Jewish peace activist Richard Silverstein put it on his blog). The idea was to invite gay Jews from the diaspora to Israel and give them the message "that Israel is a liberal country, a multicultural, pluralistic country".

Exactly what message Stand With Us will bring to the Social Forum next week remains to be seen, but two of its fliers are probably a good indication. One, showing an executioner's noose, is headed: "Treatment of Gay Men by the Palestinian Authority". The other, showing a happy bunch of people waving rainbow flags, asks: "Why does Israel look like paradise to gay Palestinians?" It adds: "Israel is a sanctuary to many gay Palestinians, who suffered beatings, imprisonment, and death at the hands of their families and the Palestinian Authority police ..."

Not surprisingly, Arab LGBT organisations are furious at this apparent attempt by pro-Israel extremists to hijack the Middle East gay rights agenda. Four of them – Helem, Aswat, al-Qaws and Palestinian Queers for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions – have issued a joint statement:

Stand With Us is cynically manipulating the struggle of queer people in the Middle East through its workshop ...

Stand With Us has no connection with the LGBT movement in the Middle East apart from ties to Zionist Israeli LGBT organisations, yet it claims to speak for and about our movements. It has no credibility in our region, and as organisations working in and from the Middle East, we condemn its attempt to use us, our struggles, our lives, and our experiences as a platform for pro-Israeli propaganda.

Since Israel’s brutal wars on Gaza and Lebanon in 2006 and particularly after the recent unprovoked attack on the flotilla of activists going to Gaza, the Israeli government has found itself increasingly marginalised ... To remedy this, it has launched a massive PR campaign using organisations such as Stand With Us to convince the world that Israel is not a brutal settler-colony state, but rather a free democracy where human rights in general, and LGBT rights in particular, are respected and upheld. 

Stand With Us deceptively uses the language of LGBT and women’s rights to obscure the fact that institutionalised discrimination is enshrined within the state of Israel.

Our struggle is deeply intertwined with the struggle of all oppressed people, and we cannot accept that we are being used as a tool to discredit the Palestinian cause. 

It is true, of course, that Israel has a number of achievements to its credit in the field of gay rights. It legalised same-sex relations between men in 1988. Four years later, it went a step further and became the only country in the Middle East that outlaws discrimination based on sexuality. A series of court cases then put the theory into practice – for example, when El Al was forced to provide a free ticket for the partner of a gay flight attendant, as the airline already did for the partners of its straight employees.

Despite what the Stand With Us flier suggests, however, its treatment of gay Palestinians seeking refuge in Israel has been less than admirable.

But it is the attempt to harness gay rights to the Zionist cause that mostly troubles LGBT activists, including a some Israeli activists. Hagai El-Ad of Jerusalem's Open House described his ambivalent feelings about this in 2002 when Ariel Sharon became the first Israeli prime minister to formally meet a gay delegation. He wrote:

Is this an achievement for our community, or an example of a lack of feeling, callousness and loss of direction?

... It would be unbearable to simply sit with the prime minister and, on behalf of our minority, ignore the human rights of others, including what's been happening here in relation to Palestine for the past year: roadblocks, prevention of access to medical care, assassinations, and implementation of an apartheid policy in the territories and in Israel.

The struggle for our rights is worthless if it's indifferent to what's happening to people a kilometre from here ...

All we get by holding the meeting with the prime minister is symbolic legitimacy for the community. What he gets for sitting down with us is the mantle of enlightenment and pluralism.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 17 June 2010. Comment

New autopsy for Khaled Said

More than a week after Khaled Said was beaten to death by police in Alexandria, there are signs that the Egyptian authorities are beginning to take the case more seriously.
The prosecutor general has ordered a fresh autopsy, to be carried out by the country's most senior coroners, the BBC and 
AFP report.

The attack on 28-year-old Khaled in an internet cafe has prompted numerous demonstrations in Egypt (the Arabawy blog has video of one such protest, with calls for the beheading of General Habib el-Adly, the 72-year-old interior minister), and by early today the "Khaled killed" Facebook page had been "liked" by 171,903 people.

Amnesty International earlier called for "an immediate, full and independent" investigation and the US State Department expressed concern. "We urge the Egyptian authorities to hold accountable whoever is responsible," State Department spokesman Philip Crowley said in remarks quoted as by AFP.

All this pressure has no doubt helped to focus minds inside the Mubarak regime. 

Meanwhile, Egyptian journalist Osama Diab has proposed renaming Cairo's biggest square "Khaled Said Square". He writes: 

The government changes the name of streets all the time ... For example, Montazah Street in Heliopolis, where my good friend Karim lives, was renamed after some unknown police general. 

We can also do this. Let's name Tahrir square after Khaled Said. Let's start it unofficialy. Many places in Cairo go by their unofficial name, and maybe later we can lobby for changing it officially. "Tahrir" means "liberation", and I'm sure most of us are not keen on keeping its name until we're actually liberated.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 16 June 2010. Comment

Safety in the heat

Following my comment yesterday about the hazards of being a construction worker in Lebanon, I noticed a report in The National about Abu Dhabi's efforts to protect labourers during the hottest part of the day.

From now until September 15, anyone working "in the sun and open spaces" is supposed to be given a break between 12.30 and 3pm.

Last year 2,717 people were treated in the emirate's hospitals for heat-related illnesses and an unknown number died. The paper continues:

Under the law, labourers must be given sheltered areas with circulated air to rest and rehydrate, or be taken by bus to spend the early afternoon at a suitable off-site rest area. 

But it still permits labourers to continue working in shaded areas such as unfinished buildings, even if the structure lacks windows or air conditioning.

The health authority's "Safety in the Heat" campaign is certainly a good idea but determining whether employers are meeting the safety requirements is a fairly complicated business. It's not just a question of whether people are exposed to the sun or not. The health authority points out that air temperature, humidity and wind speed are also important factors.

This means that effective implementation of the rules will depend heavily on decisions made by the government's on-site inspectors. That, in turn, depends on having a robust inspection system which is not susceptible to influence from greedy employers. 

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 16 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


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Saudi Arabia 


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



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Last revised on 30 June, 2010