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Security buildings attacked in Yemen

More than 20 armed men attacked two adjacent security/intelligence buildings in southern Yemen yesterday. As many as five people may have been killed.

The attack occurred in Zinjibar (Abyan province). The Yemen Observer says

The attackers who were masked and riding motorcycles fired machineguns, grenades and RPGs at the two separate buildings and clashed for an hour with the security forces before they ran away heading to Ja’ar district the stronghold of the Islamic extremists. A security source said they arrested seven of the attackers that he believed are al-Qaeda affiliates.

There was a similar attack on the southern political security headquarters in Aden last month, in which 11 people died.

There have also been at least four attacks on people connected with the army or intelligence in Abyan province during the past month.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 15 July 2010. Comment

Male beauty parlour raided in Baghdad

Following last month's police raid on a "safe house" in Karbala used used as a refuge for gay, lesbian and transgender Iraqis, there's news of another raid – this time at a male beauty parlour in Baghdad. Interior Ministry forces took away the manager and four workers.

The London-based Iraqi LGBT organisation reports:

Eyewitnesses who were outside the building say Ministry of Interior forces raided at 3pm [on June 25]. Those on rooftops heard screams for help and saw the men being severely beaten by uniformed men carrying cattle prods. They say one was taken into custody on a stretcher.

One of the eyewitnesses who spoke with Amnesty International has since disappeared.

Iraqi LGBT has received no information about where the men were taken. However previous seizures of gays, lesbians and transgender people have resulted in them being handed to religious militia and their subsequent torture and discovery of their mutilated bodies.

An Iraqi online news site quoted "security sources" in a local newspaper saying: "After gathering evidence and information the police issued a order from a judge to raid the house where the house owner of the shop and a number of gay, mostly college students were caught red-handed, and have confessed openly their shameful work which is contrary to public decency, they were seduced by the devil to commit these acts."

The newspaper said forces had "captured a laptop computer and CDs from a pornographic network".

Iraqi LGBT says the beauty parlour was in a house used as a business for services such as waxing and massage in the Karada district of Baghdad. "Such services have long been used in a country with a body-building tradition," it says. "Neither waxing nor massage is illegal in Iraq, however it is 'forbidden' by Shia clerics."

Activists have been complaining about the reluctance of the American and British governments to take a stand over homophobic attacks in Iraq. Despite growing evidence to the contrary, both countries continue to deny that the Iraqi state is involved in them. 

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 14 July 2010. Comment

Personal status law opposed

More opposition in Egypt to the proposed new personal status law for non-Muslims – this time from the country's small Baha'i community.

Raouf Hendi, the community's spokesman, described the draft law as "racist and discriminatory", saying it will promote sectarianism. Bikya Masr reports:

Hendi said in statements to local Egyptian newspapers that the presence of the Personal Status law for Sunnis, Shiites, Orthodox and Evangelical Christians, "or any other religious minorities in Egypt, is devoted actually to sectarianism," pointing out that the only solution out of this impasse is "to produce a uniform civil code of personal status for all Egyptians without discrimination due to religion, sex, color, as the presence of a uniform civil code for all Egyptians enshrines the principle of citizenship."

He added that "for those who want the blessing of the Church or al-Azhar, let them be, but without the threat from religious institutions, because we must all respect the law".

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 14 July 2010. Comment

Filming in Saudi Arabia

The National newspaper has a report on the struggles of independent film-makers in Saudi Arabia – a land without cinemas:

Outdoor shoots are huge hassles with actors of both genders. Invariably, the religious police arrive and shut down filming, sometimes arresting everyone, despite a five-year-old royal order allowing photography and filming anywhere in the kingdom unless expressly forbidden by posted signs, al Mutairi said. "They stop us all the time, even if we don’t have women."

The absence of cinemas means that Saudi film-makers depend on private home screenings, or the rare film festival, to show their works. But festivals are never a sure thing, as demonstrated a year ago with the Jeddah Film Festival. After three years of increasing success, it was cancelled by the ministry of interior on the eve of its fourth annual opening.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 14 July 2010. Comment

New Houthi war 'imminent'

The ceasefire agreement that halted the all-out conflict between the Yemeni government and the Houthi rebels last February seems to be gradually breaking down. A headline in the Yemen Observer predicts that a seventh round in the war is "imminent".

The paper quotes Houthi sources as saying that an army brigade has arrived in Saada "with 30 military carriers carrying armored vehicles, ammunition and materiel, in addition to 20 tanks and numerous military vehicles".

"The continuation of reinforcements to Saada after the sixth round ended reflects the aggressive intentions of the authority," a statement from the rebels said.

Since the truce was announced five months ago, arguments have continued about implementing the terms of the ceasefire agreement and little or nothing has been done to address the underlying causes of the conflict.

Many of the people who fled their homes during the last round of fighting are still living in camps and the UNHCR says it has received only $24m of the $52m needed to help internally displaced persons and refugees in Yemen during 2010.

Meanwhile, a Yemeni freelance journalist who was abducted at gunpoint outside a restaurant in Sanaa on Sunday was released yesterday.

According to a witness, three armed men jumped out of a car and forced Abdulelah Shai into the vehicle which then sped off. The police were called and began an investigation.

Initial reports suggested he had been kidnapped by a tribe with al-Qaeda connections, but on his release Shai said he had been 
taken in for questioning by the government's Political Security Organisation. "I was interrogated for six hours about comments I made to newspapers and international media on al-Qaeda organisation and its activities in Yemen," he said, adding that he had been kept handcuffed and blindfolded.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 13 July 2010. Comment

Sudanese newspaper suspended

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) has protested at the suspension of of the Sudanese daily newspaper, al-Intibaha. Last week the paper received a phone call from the Security and National Intelligence Service saying it had been suspended indefinitely and its latest edition would be confiscated.

Al-Intibaha has been accused of "strengthening separatist tendencies in the south and the north". Robert Mahoney of the CPJ said: "This suspension is clearly intended to silence any potential critics ahead of next year’s referendum."

The CPJ notes: "The atmosphere in Sudan is heated ahead of a referendum scheduled for January 2011 that will determine whether the south will separate from the rest of the country. Sudanese authorities have intensified a crackdown on journalists and critical newspapers in recent months as a result."

In an article for Comment Is Free, Nesrine Malik discusses the paper's suspension in the context of the referendum scheduled for next year on north-south separation. She ends on a sceptical note, suggesting the referendum may not actually take place.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 13 July 2010. Comment

'Honour' killing in Jordan

A 28-year-old woman was stabbed to death in a suburb of Amman yesterday – the eighth reported "honour" killing in Jordan so far this year.

She is said to have been stabbed 16 times and her four brothers are being questioned by police, according to the Jordan Times.

The paper quotes a source as saying that the woman, who has not been named, had been divorced six months ago on grounds of adultery.

"It seems that the suspects were not happy with the divorce and wanted to get rid of their sister to cleanse their family’s honour," the source said.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 11 July 2010. Comment

Oil workers kidnapped in Yemen

Five Yemeni oil workers were kidnapped in the sparsely-populated northern province of al-Jawf late on Thursday, and the interior ministry is blaming the Houthi rebels.

"The Houthis captured five staff from an oil company in Marib along with their car when they were inspecting fuel stations in the directorate of Barat in al-Jouf province," the ministry said in a statement.

According to Reuters, a Houthi source denied involvement, saying the kidnap was a result of a tribal dispute.

The incident is the latest sign of growing tensions between the government and the rebels following the ceasefire that was agreed last February. AFP reports:

Houthi rebels and the Sanaa government increasingly accuse each other of failing to honour their respective commitments to the ceasefire agreement ...

Sanaa and its loyal tribes in the restive region of Saada have charged that the Zaidi Shiite rebels did not evacuate their positions in the rugged mountains and are continually violating the truce in other ways.

The rebels, meanwhile, have accused the government of flouting the accord by failing to release hundreds of prisoners and by ignoring a commitment to work on reconstructing the city of Saada.

The rebels also accuse President Salih of failing to keep a promise to release about 3,000 people who were detained during the conflict.

Yesterday, the rebels complained that the Yemen government had threatened them with "genocide and all-around war". A representative of the rebels said: "The threats came from top governmental officials of the Sanaa-based presidency palace."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 11 July 2010. Comment

Court victory for Coptic church

It's back to Square One in Egypt on the question of divorced Christians re-marrying. In May, the Supreme Administrative Court ordered Pope Shenouda III to allow two Coptic Christians, in two separate cases, to remarry after divorce.

The Coptic church appealed, and now the Supreme Constitutional Court has overturned the earlier ruling and the church will be able, once again, to prevent its divorced members from remarrying.

In the earlier ruling, the administrative court decided that the "right to family formation is a constitutional right, which is above all other considerations". This, in effect, asserted the authority of the state over that of the church.

The church objected, claiming a right to manage its own affairs and decide who it will, or will not, marry. The Egyptian authorities initially sought to resolve the issue with promises of a new personal status law for non-Muslims which President Mubarak had reportedly ordered to be ready within a month (it wasn't).

Squabbling broke out over the content of the proposed law and last month a group of secular-minded Coptic lawyers protested against it.

Reporting the constitutional court's decision, al-Masry al-Youm says:

Coptic Archbishop Armia expressed his thanks to the Justice Minister, the presiding judge and members of the court on behalf of the Coptic Church for overturning the controversial decision.

"This historic verdict proves that we have a fair judicial system that does not interfere in Coptic religious affairs," the archbishop said.

Meanwhile, the Coptic church continues to interfere in the personal affairs of ordinary Christians.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 9 July 2010. Comment

Corruption in Morocco

Once corruption becomes institutionalised, it is very difficult to eradicate. Morocco, ranked 89th worldwide in last year's Corruption Perceptions Index, is a typical example and a new report from the kingdom's Central Authority for the Prevention of Corruption (ICPC) examines the nature of the problem.

Interestingly, the Moroccan list of relevant offences "includes practically the same elements as the United Nations' anti-corruption convention" but the report (as relayed by the Magharebia news website) highlights a number of loopholes:

  • Attempting to engage in acts of corruption is not seen as a criminal offence. 

  • There is a lack of legal protection for witnesses and whistle-blowers.

  • In terms of prevention, there is no legislative framework to guarantee access rights to information.

In the political sphere:

  • The law on political parties does not include any obligation to publish documents brought before the Court of Accounts.

  • The electoral code does not oblige candidates standing in legislative elections to present a list of expenditures to the verification board, and does not require the board to publish its report. 

  • Legislators have failed to make it a criminal offence to break the rules, and have not set out the necessary penalties.

  • Legislation on the declaration of assets is also incomplete: the law does not stipulate any obligation to declare the assets of a spouse or offspring who have reached legal age.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 9 July 2010. Comment

CNN and the new McCarthyism

I didn't post here yesterday because I was busy writing for Comment Is Free about the sacking of Octavia Nasr, CNN's senior editor of Middle East affairs.

While I do think her tweet about Ayatollah Fadlallah was ill-judged, the way she was hounded out of her job is worrying. Writing for Salon, Glenn Greenwald views it as part of a broader pattern of harassing journalists who don't toe a right-wing (and pro-Israel line) in the United States. Andrew Sullivan makes a similar point in his blog for The Atlantic.

The campaign against Ms Nasr came partly from the usual neocon elements (such as the Media Research Center and Michael Goldfarb of the Weekly Standard) but largely from pro-Israel groups.

Honest Reporting, which organises mass emailings to news organisations that are not sufficiently sympathetic to Israel, urged its supporters:

"Octavia Nasr's position at CNN has been fatally compromised. CNN cannot continue to employ an apparent Hezbollah sympathiser in such a senior post. Please send your considered comments to CNN calling on the news organisation to take the appropriate action ..."

This is the organisation that gave an "honest reporting" award to newspaper magnate Conrad Black (before he was jailed for fraud). For more about Honest Reporting's background, see this article from 2001 by David Leigh.

Meanwhile, the Jewish Internet Defense Force claims to have been "on the forefront of a campaign to call her [Nasr] out on this, and call for her to be fired".

The Anti-Defamation League sent a letter to CNN which stopped short of calling for her to be sacked but said "It is clearly an impropriety for a CNN journalist/editor to express such a partisan viewpoint as Ms Nasr did in her tweet. We trust that CNN will deal with this matter ..."

Complaints of this kind are invariably based on an allegation of "bias", with the assumption that having a view about something it prevents the journalist concerned from doing his or her job properly. Of course, this perception of "bias" depends to a large extent on what kind of view the journalist holds. As I pointed out in my Cif article, if Ms Nasr had expressed delight at Fadlallah's death, rather than sadness, there would have been no fuss in the US.

Those who make such complaints are basically ignoring one of the central philosophical debates in contemporary journalism – about the nature of objectivity and the processes of journalistic verification. For anyone who is interested, Jack Shafer discusses it in detail in an article for Slate. The key book on the subject is The Elements of Journalism by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel (2001).

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 9 July 2010. Comment

Four jailed for bribery in Jordan

Four men were convicted yesterday in a multi-million-dollar bribery case involving expansion plans for Jordan's only oil refinery. Those convicted are:

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

  • Ahmad Rifai, former director general of JPRC

  • Mohammad Rawashdeh, the prime minister’s economic adviser

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

All were given three-year sentences – a relatively light penalty considering the seriousness of the case – and are free on bail 
pending an appeal.

The background to the case was explained in a previous posting on this blog.

The trial is widely seen as signalling a tougher approach to corruption by the Jordanian government but there have been efforts to minimise media coverage of the case – possibly so as not to deter foreign investors in Jordan.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 7 July 2010. Comment

Officer survives Yemen attack

A Yemeni security officer named as Ali Khanbash survived an assassination attempt at his home in Zinjibar yesterday, al-Sahwa reports. Another person was injured.

It was the fourth such attack in the southern Abyan province in the space of a month. On July 3, an army officer was found shot dead in the Khanfar district. On July 1, an intelligence officer was shot dead by two men on a motorcycle. In June, a former intelligence director for Abyan province was shot dead as he left a mosque.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 7 July 2010. Comment

Dancing in the street

Don't stop, make it pop
DJ, blow my speakers up
Tonight, I'm a-fight
'Til we see the sunlight
Tick tock on the clock
But the party don't stop, no

The extraordinary video has been doing the rounds on YouTube. It shows Israeli troops from the Nahal Brigade’s 50th Airborne Batallion patrolling Hebron in full combat gear ... and dancing to Kesha's Tik Tok. The Falafel Mafia blog has more to say about it.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 7 July 2010. Comment

Slavery in Yemen

A remarkable investigation by a Yemeni newspaper, al-Masdar, has discovered that slavery persists in Yemen, long after if was officially abolished. Five hundred or more people are said to be living in servitude in parts of Hajja and Hodeida provinces. Sheikhs and members of the local authorities are said to be among the slave owners.

Slavery is outlawed in Yemen and anyone involved in the trade can be jailed for up to 10 years, but the revelations have prompted calls for action to eradicate it.

A report in The Media Line says: 

Rights advocates say there are two common forms of slavery in Yemen: ‘inheritance’ and migration. With inheritance, the descendants of the slave’s owner upon death inherit a slave and their family. In the case of migration, poor migrants arriving in Yemen from Africa find themselves indebted to businessmen who helped pay their passage. 

"In Yemen there is a social class of people called 'the servants', who have usually come from Somalia or other African countries, who live in a stage of bondage and are very widely disregarded in society," Christoph Wilcke, a senior researcher at Human Rights Watch’s Middle East and North Africa Division told The Media Line. "It has to do with dark skin, being foreign and living in poverty or in debt."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 6 July 2010. Comment

RIP: Nasr Abu Zayd

Nasr Abu Zayd, one of the leading liberal Islamic thinkers, died in Egypt yesterday at the age of 66. (Reports: Reuters and al-Masry al-Youm.) In the 1990s, he was at the centre of a notorious "hesba" divorce case after being targeted by Islamists.

The trouble started when Abu Zayd, who was teaching Arabic literature at Cairo University, applied for a professorial post and the Standing Committee of Academic Tenure and Promotion considered three reports on his work. Two reports were favourable but the third, prepared by the Islamist Dr Abdel-Sabour Shahin, questioned the orthodoxy of Abu Zayd's religious beliefs and claimed that his research contained "clear affronts to the Islamic faith". The committee then rejected his promotion by seven votes to six.

Not content with that, Shahin later wrote an article for an opposition newspaper accusing Abu Zayd of apostasy. This in turn inspired a group of Islamist lawyers to file a lawsuit at the end of 1993, seeking to divorce him from his wife, on the grounds that a Muslim woman cannot be married to an apostate. In 1994, a court in Giza threw out the case but in 1995 the Cairo appeals court then reversed its decision, declaring the marriage null and void.

"After the verdict was handed down, I was accompanied by a police guard at every step," Abu Zayd told al-Ahram Weekly. "My last visit to Cairo University after that was to take part in debating a PhD dissertation in the Faculty of Arts, Islamic Studies branch. The university was turned into a military fortress to protect me. The question was, 'Will the university be able to take these measures every time I go there to teach?' It was impossible to teach like this and, at the same time, I could not imagine not teaching. 

"On the way home, I told [my wife], 'This is not going to work out.' She nodded ... When some of our neighbours asked our guards why they were with us, they responded, 'because of the kafir [the infidel]'."

In July 1995 Abu Zayd and his wife flew to Madrid for a conference and decided not to return to a life under siege in Egypt. They settled in the Netherlands, where he took up a professorial post at the University of Leiden. Although continuing to live and work in exile, he had made various trips to Egypt in recent years.

I met him in Leiden two years ago, to interview him for my book, What's Really Wrong with the Middle East. He told me then that he believed the Islamist campaign against him had also had backing from the Egyptian government: "It's very hard to make the distinction. It was not from the government as an official body, but the Islamist who made the case was part of the ruling party ... The entire affair came out of the university, and the university is a government institution."

His alleged "affronts to the Islamic faith" were not the whole story, he said. There was a political dimension too because he had been analysing the way presidents made use of religion. He explained:

Sadat [president of Egypt from 1970 to 1981] wanted to have his own legacy. He wanted to fight against Nasserism and to fight against socialism and communism. It's well known he had to make a pact with Islamism. His discourse - if you saw how Sadat liked to look - with jallabiyya[AW1],[Unp2] with the sebha [prayer beads] most of the time ... He was a man of everything but he presented himself as "the believing president" (al-ra'is al-mu'min). It's very very important, this kind of symbolism. Nasser was just Nasser, the president, and when Sadat presented himself as the mu'min [believer] it meant Nasser was not mu'min. It was a game.

My real crime in Egypt was that most of the time I was busy analysing this discourse. In analysing religious discourse I did not mean the people who are in al-Azhar, I meant religious discourse in politics: the speeches of the president and how the president started his speeches by quoting the Qur'an, ended his speeches by quoting the Qur'an, presenting himself as something like the Mahdi, the imam. Whether he was a good Muslim or not, this was the discourse.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 6 July 2010. Comment

Muslim Brotherhood taking over Europe?

There was an extraordinary conversation on the BBC Radio 4 programme, The World This Weekend, yesterday, in which a prominent American neoconservative claimed that European governments have been "penetrated" by the Muslim Brotherhood.

On Wednesday, the European parliament will be voting on a re-negotiated deal to provide the US authorities with details of personal financial transactions by everyone in Britain and other European countries. The deal is intended as an anti-terrorism measure.

In a discussion with Frank Gaffney (who was responsible for international security at State Department under President Reagan and later founded the neocon thinktank, the Center for Security Policy), Baroness Sarah Ludford, a British Liberal Democrat MEP, pointed out that the US will not be providing Europe with details of American citizens' banking transactions in return. 

The conversation starts around 22 minutes 12 seconds into the recording:

Ludford: We don't have a reciprocal right to US banking data and some of us have wondered what Congress and the Senate in particular would say if Europe was to request that the banking data of all US citizens was to be transferred in bulk, en bloc, to Europe. 

BBC interviewer: Frank Gaffney, that's fair enough isn't it? If you're going to be given access to my bank details ... shouldn't that work the other way around as well?

Gaffney: I can't speak for the US government, obviously, because I'm not a government official any more but I suspect that one of the reasons why there might be a resistance to the kind of reciprocity that seems otherwise unobjectionable is that to the extent that European governments and maybe even the European parliament itself have been penetrated by folks who are sympathetic to, or actually working for, organisations like the Muslim Brotherhood – that would be a real problem for me from the security point of view.

Ludford: I can assure you that that is not the case. 

Gaffney (interrupting): I can assure you that it is the case.

The discussion continues:

Gaffney: All I am saying is I don't believe it is intelligent to embrace the Muslim Brotherhood and organisations that are fronts for that.

Ludford: I don't think anybody is suggesting ...

Gaffney: I assure you ma'am, that that is being done in Britain, it is being done on the continent of Europe, it is being done by the European parliament.

Ludford: I can assure you that the European parliament – MEPs – are not at all motivated by concern for the Muslim Brotherhood in our insistence on strict data protection privacy safeguards.

Gaffney: I can simply assure you that it is absolutely a point on which you agree with the Muslim Brotherhood, so whether you are doing it at their behest or simply doing it in parallel is beside the point to my way of thinking.

Ludford: I think that is really unhelpful. I'm sorry ... I just find that so unhelpful to somehow cast aspersions on anyone who is championing data protection, whether it's our banking data, our email, our internet usage, our phone calls or travel information ... [that] it ought to be open season for law enforcement to go fishing around in it all because if you don't agree to that you're somehow a front for the jihadists. I think that is absurd.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 5 July 2010. Comment

Syria: the technology factor

Writing in the Saudi-owned paper, as-Sharq al-Awsat, Hussein Shobokshi discusses the recent visit to Syria by senior figures from leading American IT companies: Microsoft, Dell, Cisco Systems and Symantec.

He points out that the ability of these companies to do business in Syria is at present limited by US sanctions. In May, President Obama renewed sanctions against Syria for a further 12 months, though the US says it is willing to grant exemptions for "products related to information technology and telecommunication equipment and parts and components related to the safety of civil aviation".

Sanctions, originally introduced under President Bush, were meant to punish the Syrian regime, though there is now growing recognition of their adverse effects on citizen activists.

Shobokshi notes that Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of state, believes "modern high-tech goods, as well as modern digital and telecommunication technology, will positively and effectively contribute to improving the climate of freedom and bringing in public participation in political decision-making".

Clearly, American companies also have their eye on Syria's potential as a market for their products. 

Jared Cohen, a 28-year-old State Department official who was a member of the delegation to Syria, told CNN: "Syria's population is going to double in the next 17 years ... Young people in Syria are going to become increasingly digital and connected or increasingly isolated. It is in our interest to see they are digital and connected."

(It was Cohen who last year asked Twitter to delay scheduled maintenance so that supporters of the Iranian opposition could continue to tweet in the wake of the disputed presidential election.)

Sanctions are not the whole problem, however. According to an unnamed delegation member quoted by Reuters, Dell computers, Microsoft Office and Cisco routers can already be sold in Syria under an exemption granted by President Bush back in 2004, "as long as those tools are not used against the Syrian people". Despite the waiver, though, sales are not happening.

Other factors impeding sales include lack of efforts to combat piracy and intellectual property theft, along with widespread corruption and internet censorship. Pirated software is available in Syria for a fraction of what legitimate versions would cost.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 4 July 2010. Comment

Another officer shot dead in Yemen

The body of a Yemeni army officer was found in the Khanfar district of Abyan province yesterday, "close to the site of the army unit in which he served," according to a local official. He had been shot.

In a similar incident on Thursday, also in Abyan province, an intelligence officer was shot dead – reportedly by two men on a motorcycle.

Three weeks ago, a former intelligence director for Abyan province was shot dead in the same area as he left a mosque.

So far, it is unclear whether these attacks are the work of al-Qaeda, southern separatists, or a combination of both. Four men have been arrested in connection with Thursday's killing. The authorities say two of them are linked to al-Qaeda (a claim that has been made rather too freely in some previous cases), while the other two are described as "outlaw elements" – a term sometimes used when referring to separatists.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 4 July 2010. Comment

'Eight dead' in building collapse

A five-storey building fell down in Cairo on Friday, killing up to eight people who were inside. The accident happened in Abdel Fattah Nasser Street in the city's Shubra district.

Collapses of buildings are a frequent occurrence in Egypt. Regarding the latest accident, al-Masry al-Youm says a lawyer had hired some workers to restore the first floor of the property without first notifying the district council. 

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 4 July 2010. Comment

UPDATE, 6 July: Al-Masry al-Youm reported that a contractor and and a lawyer have been arrested. The final death toll appears to be seven people, including three children. The building was constructed in 1946.

Yemen: the fragile truce

Tension continues in northern Yemen, where a truce was called in February between the government and the Houthi rebels. 

The interior ministry said yesterday that rebels attacked the home of Ibn Aziz, a tribal leader in Harf Sufyan, killing three people. Ibn Aziz, who survived the attack, is a Zaidi Shia (like the rebels) but he took the government's side during the recent conflict.

Reuters quotes a rebel spokesman as saying: "Ibn Aziz was behind several assassinations of our followers and has caused the death of a number of citizens. He is the one who started the fighting against us."

Last month, Abd al-Malik al-Houthi, the rebels' leader, complained that the government had not released prisoners as promised on May 22, when President Salih announced an amnesty.

"Instead of releasing our fellow citizens in line with President Salih's amnesty, security authorities in the government are launching new arrest campaigns against our men," al-Houthi said.

It is thought that no more than 800 prisoners have been released out of a total of around 3,000 covered by the president's announcement.

In the official report of his May 22 speech, Salih referred very clearly to "all detainees held in connection with the Houthi rebellion". I criticised this at the time (on the grounds that arbitrarily releasing prisoners undermines the rule of law) and suggested that any detainees who are seriously believed to have committed violent offences should be put on trial. That is what the authorities have now apparently decided to do: "Gunmen arrested on battlegrounds or masterminds of the rebellion will be referred to the competent courts," a security source told IRIN

In the light of that, Salih's announcement of a general amnesty looks even more reckless. It raised false hopes among the rebels and is now providing them with a further grievance.

IRIN quotes Mohammed al-Dhahri, a political science professor at Sanaa University, as saying: "The fact that the government hasn’t released detained Houthis as promised will only make the fragile situation escalate ... Fresh clashes are anticipated as the real causes of the problem remain unresolved and promises unfulfilled."

Meanwhile, in what appeared to be another separatist attack in southern Yemen, an intelligence officer has been shot dead by two men on a motorbike in Zinjibar (reports: DPA and AFP). Another member of the intelligence services was wounded. 

The dead man is thought to be the fourth security official killed in Abyan province during the last few weeks.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 3 July 2010. Comment

The Brotherhood's own Facebook

The Muslim Brotherhood (known in Arabic as "al-Ikhwan") is engaged in a rather curious project to duplicate some of the world's most popular websites with its own "Ikhwan" versions.

So far, these include Ikhwan Wiki (resembling Wikipedia), Ikhwan Tube and Ikhwan Web Tube (YouTube lookalikes), Ikhwan Google (which searches the Brotherhood's websites) and – the latest addition – IkhwanBook which resembles Facebook.

The interesting and slightly puzzling question is what the Brotherhood hopes to achieve by this. It's hard to imagine the Ikhwan sites gaining anything like the popularity of those they replicate, and they look like a move towards exclusivity which is generally uncharacteristic of the Brotherhood. Writing in The National, Matt Bradley says:

Given the Brotherhood’s goals of recruiting new members and popularising its relatively moderate conception of political Islam, the new site seems somewhat counter-intuitive, say some of the movement’s followers and observers. With a subscriber base that exceeds the population of most large countries, Facebook should be the perfect platform for propagating ideas and attracting adherents.

But defenders of the site say they envision IkhwanBook as a complementary parallel – not a replacement – for Facebook. The organisation, members say, wants a social networking site of its own that can be tailored to its unique need for privacy, security and decency.

The paper quotes Mosab Ragab, a 22-year-old Brotherhood member, who is sceptical about it:

"When I think today that I am calling people who are frequenting the internet to real Islam, I’ll also study where they are, what are the places they go to. I will not establish a site or a place for myself and say ‘OK, here I am. Whoever wants to find my ideas they can come to my place.’ I find where those people are and I go to them."

The article adds:

Mr Ragab described IkhwanBook as technically "weak" because it relies on an open-source version of the original Facebook software rather than the company’s more advanced proprietary version. 

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 2 July 2010. Comment

Khaled Said case: police detained

A new and potentially important development in the case of Khaled Said, the 28-year-old Egyptian who died after being brutally beaten by police. The district attorney in Alexandria has now ordered two officers from Sidi Gabr police station – Mahmoud Salah Mahmoud and Awad Ismail Suliman –  to be detained for four days pending further investigations.

Meanwhile – unhelpfully for the authorities – a government forensic expert has suggested that the package of cannabis on which Said allegedly choked to death may have become lodged in his throat as a result of blows inflicted by the police.

Khaled Said's death, which has sparked street protests in both Alexandria and Cairo, is widely viewed as a consequence of the powers given to police by the semi-permanent emergency law.

The government renewed the emergency law last May but promised that in future it would be applied "solely for the purposes of countering terrorism and narcotics trafficking". On Tuesday, Human Rights Watch issued a list of 113 prisoners detained under the law who should now be released because their cases have no connection with terrorism or drugs.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 1 July 2010. Comment

Violations of UN resolution 1701

The UN secretary-general is due to issue one of his periodic reports on the implementation (or not) of Security Council resolution 1701 which brought a ceasefire in the 2006 conflict with Israel.

Hizbullah is clearly not in full compliance (it was supposed to be disarmed) but neither is Israel.

In a letter to Ban Ki-moon, the Lebanese government says Israel has committed a total of 6,945 violations since the resolution was adopted. It adds that since the secretary-general's last report, Israel has violated Lebanese airspace 347 times, along with 33 incursions by sea and 75 by land.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 1 July 2010. Comment

Failed States Index

The 2010 Failed States Index – an annual collaboration between Foreign Policy and The Fund for Peace – lists four Arab countries in the "critical" category. 

Somalia, once again, is the world's most failed state, with Sudan in third place, followed by Iraq (7) and Yemen (15 - three places worse than last year).

The "in danger" category includes Lebanon at 34 (an improvement of five places on last year) and Mauritania (39) which was only "borderline" last year.

Syria (48) has moved from "in danger" to "borderline". Other "borderline" countries are Egypt (48), Comoros (52) and Israel/West Bank (54 – four places worse than last year).

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 1 July 2010. Comment

Previous blog posts




July 2010

Call to ban Saudi Arabia from Olympics

Arabs and vegetarianism

'Captured soldiers' released, says report

Israel and homo-nationalism

Egypt's swine flu incompetence

Yemen rebels 'captured 200 soldiers'

British embassy attacked in Yemen

Safety in the heat (2)

Lettuce woman arrested in Jordan

Soldiers die in Yemen attack

Tweeting the revolution

Journey from left to right

Yemen death toll grows

Monitoring homophobia

Yemen's Houthi war resumes?

Arab jailed for sex with Jewish woman

Saudis and the rule of law

Tunisian newspaper seized

National dialogue in Yemen

Unfit to sail

Personal status laws in Egypt

Political gangrene

Eleven die in Yemen ambush

Syria bans niqab in schools

Security buildings attacked in Yemen

Male beauty parlour raided in Baghdad

Personal status law opposed

Filming in Saudi Arabia

New Houthi war 'imminent'

Sudanese newspaper suspended

'Honour' killing in Jordan

Oil workers kidnapped in Yemen

Court victory for Coptic church

Corruption in Morocco

CNN and the new McCarthyism

Four jailed for bribery in Jordan

Officer survives Yemen attack

Dancing in the street

Slavery in Yemen

RIP: Nasr Abu Zayd

Muslim Brotherhood taking over Europe?

Syria: the technology factor

Another officer shot dead in Yemen

'Eight dead' in building collapse

Yemen: the fragile truce

The Brotherhood's own Facebook

Khaled Said case: police detained

Violations of UN resolution 1701

Failed States Index


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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 17 July, 2010