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Call to ban Saudi Arabia from Olympics

A campaign is being launched today to exclude Saudi Arabia from the 2012 Olympics unless the kingdom allows women to compete. It is one of the last countries in the world not to let women take part.

Female sporting activity in Saudi Arabia is generally discouraged on religious grounds and local events involving women are sometimes banned, though attitudes have begun to change. A few years ago the Saudi Shura Council issued regulations for women's sports clubs but female participation in international sporting events is still strongly opposed by religious elements.

Under the slogan "No women, no play" (which echoes Bob Marley's song), the campaign is being organised by Ali al-Ahmed, a Saudi dissident who runs the Washington-based Institute for Gulf Affairs. It is seeking to persuade the International Olympic Committee to ban Saudi Arabia from the London games on the grounds of discrimination against women.

Other countries with strict Islamic rules have found ways to allow female participation. In the 2008 Beijing Olympics, half a dozen Egyptian women, three Iranians, and Afghan and a Yemeni all competed wearing hijab. This can place them at a disadvantage in some events, though in 2008 a female sprinter from Bahrain ran in specially-designed "aerodynamic" Islamic garb.

Married women were originally barred from the ancient Olympic games in Greece, though virgins and prostitutes were allowed to watch. In 392BC, however, a Spartan princess became the first female Olympic champion when she won a chariot race.

When the Olympics were revived in 1896 women were also barred at first on the grounds that their inclusion would be "impractical, uninteresting, unaesthetic, and incorrect". Four years later, they were allowed to compete in ballooning, croquet and golf. 

In 1912, women competed in swimming events for the first time, though none of them were from the US because American rules required all female competitors to wear long skirts.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 31 July 2010. Comment

Arabs and vegetarianism

Following the recent demonstrations by animal rights activists in the Middle East, Joseph Mayton has written an article for Comment Is Free about vegetarianism and Arab culture.

The actions by Peta (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) in Egypt, Syria, Lebanon and Jordan attracted a modest amount of media attention and, as far as I'm aware, this is the first time anything of the kind has happened in Arab countries.

Given the high regard for meat in the region, it's not surprising that many are sceptical about vegetarianism ever catching on. Mayton notes: "Carnivorous journalists and academics also argue that humans evolved to eat meat and need certain by-products from animals in order to survive."

Even so, I doubt that the meat debate, now it has started, will ever go away: that is one consequence of the globalisation of ideas. Those who talked about gay rights in the Arab countries were in a very similar position less than 10 years ago, but since then – though still very limited – the issue has gradually begun to work its way into public discourse.

The interesting thing about vegetarianism is that it's difficult to portray as a "western" concept: think of India. As far as most Arabs are concerned, the issue is much more about wealth, poverty and class. In the comments below Mayton's article, Khaled Diab writes:

In Egypt, much of the traditional diet consumed by the poor is vegetarian. Egypt's most popular dish is 'fuul' - which is both loved and hated by Egyptians of all social classes. However, there is a deeply ingrained culture that equates eating meet with robustness, good health and affluence.

Besides, there's nothing new about efforts to reduce meat consumption. In the past, meat was rationed and the government ran a campaign to encourage people to eat more vegetables - which was seen by many as a way of making the poor accept their lot. The Egyptian colloquial satirical poet Ahmed Fouad Negm mocked these efforts in his 'Fuul and meat epic' in which he invited a health specialist on government-run TV: "What do you think of a madman who says, let us (i.e. the poor) die eating meat and you (the rich) can live on fuul".

Here is the poem, for those who can read Arabic.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 30 July 2010. Comment

'Captured soldiers' released, says report

Two hundred Yemeni soldiers who were reportedly captured by Houthi rebels in the north of the country on Monday are now said to have been freed. AFP quotes a mediator and "tribal sources close to the rebels" as confirming the release.

Meanwhile, the Yemeni defence ministry issued a statement denying that 200 soldiers of the Republican Guard had been captured. "The Republican Guard forces have no deployment in those alleged positions," it said. 

Although the statement could be read as implying that no soldiers had been captured, it could also be interpreted as meaning that the soldiers, if indeed they had been captured, were not from the Republican Guard.

Initial reports had said that the soldiers were taken prisoner when the rebels took control of an army post in al-Zaala (Amran province).

As usual with disputed reports from Yemen, it's hard to know where the truth lies, though clearly it would be very embarrassing for the authorities to admit that so many of their troops had been captured. The rebels, if they did actually capture the army post, may have been equally embarrassed to have so many soldiers in their custody needing to be fed and guarded, and may have wanted to release them as soon as possible.

Separately, it is reported that Abd al-Raqib al-Qershi (or Qurashi), a Nasserist opposition figure who fled Yemen in 1978 after being accused of involvement in an assassination attempt against President Salih, has died in of gunshot wounds.

He had returned to Yemen from Syria in May at Salih's invitation and a month later was shot in the head after leaving a mosque in Sana'a. After emergency treatment in Yemen he was flown back to Syria, where he died in hospital yesterday.

AP says three suspects have been named but none has been arrested.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 29 July 2010. Comment

Israel and homo-nationalism

Following recent debates about the use of gay rights to "pinkwash" Israel's image (Toronto Pride, Madrid Pride, US Social Forum, etc), Aeyal Gross, associate professor of law at Tel-Aviv university, has written an interesting and level-headed essay: "Israeli GLBT Politics between Queerness and Homonationalism". 

Israel and its advocates often co-opt advances in gay rights to push forward a nationalist agenda, he writes:

LGBT activists in Israel now find themselves in a double bind. Victories for civil rights, which are gained with hard labor, and often with the government’s representatives explicitly objecting to them in the courts, are quickly co-opted by the government in its efforts to present Israel’s liberal credentials. 

Gay rights have essentially become a public-relations tool. In this campaign Israel is portrayed as a progressive "western" country, as opposed to "backwards", homophobic Islamic countries. This is then used to justify Israel’s own version of the "war on terror," including the occupation and attacks on the Palestinian population.

He concludes:

There is more need than ever for queer politics which will reject homonationalism, while not denying the progress achieved on GLBT rights and the need to join efforts in fighting homophobia.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 28 July 2010. Comment

Egypt's swine flu incompetence

The Egyptian government's uniquely incompetent handling of the worldwide swine flu outbreak last year is discussed by al-Masry al-Youm in the light of analysis by the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

The paper quotes a former preventive medicine advisor for the health ministry as saying: "Egypt might have been the only country in the world that took an irrational approach towards the pandemic."

Following the discovery of the H1N1 virus in Egypt, the cabinet ordered all pigs in the country (about 350 in total) to be slaughtered, even though it was known that pigs did not spread the virus. The paper continues:

The OCHA report says schools were the most affected, and the zibaleen (garbage collectors) the biggest losers, as a result of the government’s strategy. It describes intermittent closures of schools and the downsizing of class attendance by 50 percent, with some students attending school only three times a week.

Nadia Youssef, an educational expert at Cairo University, believes the state of confusion that accompanied the flu breakout severely damaged the whole educational process. Youssef said the problem was due to the fact that the virus manifested itself within the early months of the school year, leading to the closure of some schools and the cancellation of some parts of the syllabus ...

The analysis also notes that the Egyptian government spent LE30 million (US$5.4 million) in return for 1.9 million doses of vaccines, after it failed to secure the five million it was supposed to provide. The government also failed in its plan to vaccinate school students, as many parents refused to send their children to school on learning that the anti-flu vaccine causes deformations.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 28 July 2010. Comment

Yemen rebels 'captured 200 soldiers'

In the renewed conflict in northern Yemen, the Houthi rebels have taken 200 soldiers prisoner, according to a military official cited by AFP. The troops are said to belong to a regiment of the Republican Guard.

The capture of the soldiers has not been confirmed by the rebels. A Houthi spokesman said: "It might be true that there are prisoners, but no information is available on either their number or their fate." Meanwhile, tribal sources told AFP that the captive soldiers have been transferred to the north-eastern regions of Matra and Naqaa, the rebels' main strongholds.

If the report proves correct, this will clearly bring a new escalation in the conflict after the truce announced in February began to break down earlier this month.

Separately, it's worth sounding another note of caution about claims of al-Qaeda attacks in Yemen. In the past, al-Qaeda has been blamed for several incidents that turned out to be the work disgruntled tribesmen, and Monday's reported "attack" on the British embassy was attributed to al-Qaeda by the police. It now appears to have been nothing more than an altercation between two of the embassy's Yemeni guards (see update below).

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 28 July 2010. Comment

British embassy attacked in Yemen

Gunmen attacked the British embassy in Sana'a from a fast-moving vehicle late yesterday. Splinters from a rocket-propelled grenade were also found inside the embassy, according to Xinhua. No casualties were reported and al-Qaeda is being blamed.

Meanwhile, a few more details have emerged of Sunday's attack in the southern province of Shabwa. The official news agency says 15 "al-Qaeda members" were involved and that three of them were killed in addition to the six soldiers (or police) whose deaths were reported earlier. One of the dead attackers has been named as Zayid Ahmed Awadh al-Daghar, "a prominent al-Qaeda leader".

An article in the Yemen Post, by its editor, Hakim Almasmari, 
points out that continuing attacks attributed to al-Qaeda mainly benefit the Yemeni government – by strengthening international support for President Salih. Although these attacks are not confined to the south, Almasmari argues that they are particularly damaging for the southern separatist movement, raising fears "that if separation takes place, the south could be an al-Qaeda safe haven". Yemen, he writes, "is trying to picture to the world that the south is the backbone of al-Qaeda."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 27 July 2010. Comment

UPDATE, 27 July: The British embassy swiftly issued a statement denying that it had been attacked:

The incident appears to have been an altercation between two Yemeni security officials responsible for the protection of the Embassy. A number of shots were fired. This was not an attack against the Embassy. No Embassy staffs were involved, nor hurt in the incident. No damage was done to Embassy property. 

We have taken the matter up with the Yemeni authorities. Further inquiries should be directed to them.

Safety in the heat (2)

Following Abu Dhabi's efforts to protect outdoor workers from the summer heat, Saudi Arabia is planning to do the same – but the legal requirement will not come into effect until next year.

Employers will be obliged to give outdoor workers a break between noon and 3pm during July and August, when temperatures are at their highest.

Meanwhile, the government's Human Rights Commission is urging employers to implement the new rules immediately. The Supreme Judiciary Council has also joined in, with one of its senior scholars saying that forcing people to work in extreme conditions is not only a violation of human rights but is also forbidden in Islam, and if workers die as a result their families can claim blood money.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 27 July 2010. Comment

Lettuce woman arrested in Jordan

A woman clad in hijab and lettuce leaves was arrested by Jordanian police and detained for three hours yesterday, for holding an unauthorised demonstration.

The lone protester, Amina Tariq, carried a placard saying "Let vegetarianism grow on you".

Vegetarianism is an unfamiliar concept in most Arab countries and visitors who explain that they don't eat meat are liable to be offered chicken or fish as an alternative.

This was the fourth recent demonstration in the Middle East by supporters of the animal rights group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

Earlier this month, activists in Cairo handed out red and green chillies to passers-by, with the message: "Spice up your life: go vegetarian".

In Damascus, they held a protest against Kentucky Fried Chicken over factory farming and in Beirut a person dressed as a giant condom urged people to neuter their pets.

PETA, which acknowledges it faces an uphill struggle in getting its ideas across, says the aim of its demonstrations is "to shake people up and even shock them in order to initiate discussion, debate, and of course, action". 

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 26 July 2010. Comment

Soldiers die in Yemen attack

Six Yemeni soldiers died in an attack on a military site in the southern province of Shabwa yesterday. Officials are blaming militants connected with al-Qaeda.

Meanwhile, fighting involving the Houthi rebels resumed in northern Yemen after a ceasefire agreed less than 24 hours earlier broke down.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 26 July 2010. Comment

Tweeting the revolution

In a column for the International Herald Tribune headed "When Arabs Tweet", Rami Khouri takes issue with the US State Department's efforts to promote the internet and other digital technologies as a vehicle for political change in the Middle East.

Western policymakers, he says, need to "grasp more accurately the fact that young people use the digital media mainly for entertainment and vicarious, escapist self-expression". In the meantime, the west should "lower the contradictions" in its policies towards Middle Eastern governments and activists.

Contradictory policies are certainly a problem, but I think Khouri is wrong about the internet. He writes:

My impression is that these new media today play a role identical to that played by al-Jazeera satellite television when it first appeared in the mid-1990s – they provide important new means by which ordinary citizens can both receive information and express their views, regardless of government controls on both, but in terms of their impact they seem more like a stress reliever than a mechanism for political change.

The birth of al-Jazeera 14 years ago, along with other satellite channels, was a major development in its own right, especially in the way it opened up political debate. To a limited extent, it also gave ordinary people a voice, through phone-ins, etc. In Arab terms, al-Jazeera has also benefited from an unusual measure of editorial independence – though ultimately it is still controlled by the ruler of Qatar.

The internet does not in any sense play a role that is "identical" to that. It is a different creature altogether – the major difference being that it is unmediated: people can say anything they want, and be heard by anyone who is interested, without the need for intermediaries. That is why some Middle Eastern governments have put large amounts of money and effort into trying to control it – efforts that will most likely prove futile in the long run.

Khouri laments:

We must face the fact that all the new media and hundreds of thousands of young bloggers from Morocco to Iran have not triggered a single significant or lasting change in Arab or Iranian political culture. Not a single one. Zero.

Factually, he's correct, though the internet did become a hugely important tool for protesters in the aftermath of the dispute Iranian presidential election. In addition, there are plenty of examples where Arab bloggers' exposure of wrongdoing by officials has forced the authorities to take some action, even if it has not changed the political culture.

I'm also reminded of a conversation with Hossam el-Hamalawy, the Egyptian blogger/activist a couple of years ago. As far as Hamalawy was concerned, one of the most memorable videos on YouTube was made by two kids in the Egyptian city of Tanta, with a mobile phone. "They were filming the police assaulting a street vendor," he told me, "and you hear one of the kids telling the other: 'Send it to Wael Abbas, send it to Wael Abbas!' [Abbas is a famous Egyptian blogger] and the other says: 'No, no no, I’ll upload it to YouTube tonight' – and it’s there online."

The point of that story is that the youngster recognised he could publish the video himself, without help from anyone else – including bloggers.

Of course, if you look around internet cafes in the Arab countries you may well find that most of the customers are either chatting with friends or browsing the dating websites. But that, too, should not be underestimated. It's happening outside the traditional social cocoon where contacts with the opposite sex are highly regulated, and dating websites undermine the whole idea of family-approved and family-arranged marriages.

Khouri does accept that a social revolution is under way but he doubts that the new digital and social media are "a credible tool for challenging established political orders".

That may be too much to expect at the moment, but in the Arab countries social change and political change can't really be divorced from each other. As I argued in my recent book, What's Really Wrong with the Middle East, if you want political change you've got to have social change too.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 25 July 2010. Comment

Journey from left to right

This is outside the Middle East, I know, but relevant none the less. The American magazine, Commentary, is described in the New York Times as a small-circulation journal with an outsize influence. One commentator has even gone so far as to say that "no other journal of the past half century has been so consistently influential, or so central to the major debates that have transformed the political and intellectual life of the United States" – though today it is probably less influential than it was.

Founded in 1945, and originally published by the American Jewish Committee, it began life "as a voice for the marginalised and a feisty advocate for civil rights and economic justice. But just as American culture moved in its direction, it began – inexplicably to some – to veer right, becoming the voice of neoconservativism and defender of the powerful".

One of its former employees, Benjamin Balint, traces this journey in a new history of the magazine, "Running Commentary: The Contentious Magazine That Transformed the Jewish Left Into the Neoconservative Right". The book is reviewed here by Scott McConnell in The American Conservative. 

In its early days, Commentary even published anti-Zionist articles, but by the 1980s it "could be counted on to slam critics of Israel as antisemitic". McConnell continues:

By the 1990s, advocacy for Israel and alarmist pieces about Iraq’s supposed weapons of mass destruction were Commentary staples.

To his credit, Balint treats the debates swirling about the magazine in the age of 9/11 with considerable dispassion. He claims it is a “canard” that neocons cared more for Israel than the U.S., but quotes without sneering many of those who make the charge. 

In his epilogue, he adds this assessment from the late paleoconservative essayist Sam Francis: "What neoconservatives have done is to design an ideology ... that offers ostensible and plausible rationalisations for the perpetual war in which Israel and its agents of influence in the US government and media seek to embroil the United States (and which all too many American conservatives, out of a foolishly misplaced patriotism, are eager to support) without explicitly invoking the needs and interests of Israel itself."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 24 July 2010. Comment

Yemen death toll grows

Fighting between the Houthi rebels, government forces and pro-government tribesmen continued in northern Yemen yesterday despite a short-lived ceasefire and the death toll over the last few days of conflct may now be as high as 50.

The Yemen Observer reports:

Local sources said that the confrontations reached the peak on Wednesday noon adding that the army launched artillery and missile offensive from different military sites located in Harf Sufyan of Amran province and from Al Ammar district of Sa’adah province targeting al-Houthis sites in al-Amashyah in an attempt to break the siege imposed by al-Houthi rebels against member of the Parliament Bin Aziz whom al-Houthis accuse of killing three of their affiliates in an ambush last week.

The sources said that some tribal militants from Bin Aziz and BinZaidan tribes are heading to al-Amashyah for supporting the military forces.

The new confrontations broke out after three Houthis were killed and several others were wounded in Shagih district last week.

As often happens in Yemen, it is difficult to be sure exactly what is going on. Some sources say the rebels are besieging the (pro-government) tribe of Sheikh Sagheer Aziz, who is also a member of parliament. The rebels, meanwhile, say they are fighting the army, not the tribe.

Another tribal figure, Sheikh Zeidan al-Maqnaee (also pro-government) was killed along with his son and four bodyguards in the Munabbeh district of Saada province on Tuesday. The official news agency says he was ambushed. The rebels, in turn, deny that it was an ambush and say that the sheikh died in a shootout.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 22 July 2010. Comment

Monitoring homophobia

Helem, the Lebanese LGBT organisation, has begun monitoring cases of homophobia from across the Arab region. 

Although originally set up for the Lebanese in Lebanon, Helem often receives calls and emails from people seeking help in other countries where similar organisations don't exist. It is now inviting gay, lesbian and transgender Arabs to report homophobic incidents via its website.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 22 July 2010. Comment

Yemen's Houthi war resumes?

It looks as if the on-off Houthi war in northern Yemen may be on again following two days of clashes that have left at least 22 people dead and more than 50 injured.

The German news agency, citing tribal sources, reports that seven pro-government tribesmen and five Houthi rebels died in battles on Monday and Tueday in the Harf Sufyan and Amashiya districts of Amran province.

More fighting in Amran province on Tuesday resulted in the deaths of six tribesmen and four rebels.

The conflict has been running sporadically since 2004. Saudi forces were involved, as well as Yemeni forces and tribal militias, in the most recent round of all-out fighting, which was halted by a ceasefire in February.

The government has accused the rebels of 635 ceasefire violations since then, but little effort has been made to tackle the underlying causes of the conflict. 

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 21 July 2010. Comment

Arab jailed for sex with Jewish woman

Several papers are reporting the case of Sabbar Kashur, a 30-year-old Arab from East Jerusalem, who has been sentenced to 18 months in jail after having sex with a Jewish woman.

An Israeli court convicted Kashur of "rape by deception" because although the sex was consensual he had misled the woman into believing that he was Jewish.

"If she hadn't thought the accused was a Jewish bachelor interested in a serious romantic relationship, she would not have cooperated," the judges said in a written verdict.

The Guardian quotes Gideon Levy, a liberal Israeli commentator, as saying: "I would like to raise only one question with the judge. What if this guy had been a Jew who pretended to be a Muslim and had sex with a Muslim woman? Would he have been convicted of rape? The answer is: of course not."

The Telegraph adds:

Israeli human rights activists said that Kashur's actions reflected the deceits many Palestinians practise when in Israel in an attempt to avoid official and private prejudice because of their background.

"It is very well known that Israeli-Palestinians living in Israel disguise themselves," said Leah Tsemel, a human-rights lawyer. "You change your accent and you change your dress because if you look like an Arab you face harassment.

"If you want to enter a pub, you'd better not look like an Arab and if you want to have sex with an Israeli girl, you had better not look like an Arab."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 21 July 2010. Comment

Saudis and the rule of law

The National reports on Saudi Arabia's efforts to codify its largely unwritten law in the face of opposition from religious conservatives.

"The absence of a penal code with clear definitions of crimes and appropriate sentences gives judges great latitude and it is not uncommon for a judge to increase a sentence if a defendant exercises his right to appeal," the paper says. "Defendants are not always given lawyers and trials are generally not open to the public."

Codification is needed partly for clarity and consistency but also to promote international trade and investment. The paper explains:

The kingdom’s accessions to the World Trade Organisation and the G20 club of influential economies also mean that its legal system should meet international guidelines for commercial transactions.

Indeed, Saudi Arabia’s 2005 entry to the WTO was an impetus for King Abdullah’s renewed effort to reform the legal system, something that his predecessors had tried twice before only to be stymied by the religious establishment ...

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 21 July 2010. Comment

Tunisian newspaper seized

The latest issue of the Tunisian weekly, al-Mawqif, has disappeared from the news-stands – apparently confiscated by government agents.

There has been no court order (which would make the seizure legal) and the government denies taking action against the paper, though witnesses have reported seeing plainclothes agents removing copies.

Al-Mawqif was last confiscated on March 27. There are two likely explanations for the latest seizure of the paper, which is published by the opposition Progressive Democratic Party.

One is that the offending issue predicted an amendment to the constitution allowing 75-year-old President Ben Ali to seek another term in 2014, and denounced the idea of a "presidency for life".

The other is that it included an article about the arrest last week of Fahem Boukadous, a Tunisian journalist who is critical of the regime.

Boukadous is facing a four-year jail sentence "belonging to a criminal association" and spreading materials "likely to harm public order". He was arrested on July 15 after being discharged from hospital, where he was being treated for breathing problems. The case arose out of his coverage of violent protests in the Gafsa mining region of Tunisia in 2008.

The US State Department has criticised the way Boukadous has been treated and earlier this month a spokesman said: "The United States is deeply concerned about the decline in political freedoms, notably severe restrictions on freedom of expression in Tunisia."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 20 July 2010. Comment

National dialogue in Yemen

After months of delay, Yemen's ruling party, the General People's Congress, has signed an agreement on national dialogue with the opposition alliance, the Joint Meeting Parties. The goal is to hammer out electoral and constitutional reforms ahead of the parliamentary elections scheduled for April next year.

President Salih made some suitably optimistic noises after the signing ceremony. "This is a positive step towards political detente … and it opens a new political phase as the nation is for all people, not only for the ruling party or opposition," he said.

AFP's report quotes him as saying: "We are all in the same boat and we must sail together ... There must be one leadership for this ship from all political parties and I said in my speech in May that we welcome a partnership with all the political parties in Yemen."

In May, Salih proposed a national unity government embracing "all the influential political parties represented in the parliament". Given the country's current problems, this could provide a way forward but coalitions have not worked well in the past – mainly because of the ruling party's reluctance to cede any significant power to other elements.

Considering that the elections are only nine months away, it's also doubtful whether the national dialogue will achieve much in the time available. The likelihood is that it will end with some hasty – and probably unsatisfactory – legislation at the last minute.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 19 July 2010. Comment

Unfit to sail

Egypt ranks 19th in the world for violation of shipping regulations, according to a report by the International Maritime Organisation cited by Bikya Masr website. 

The website quotes Adel Shaaban, Director of the French Classification Authority in Alexandria, as saying that Egypt’s presence on the black list puts Egyptian vessels under supervision and inspection "as soon as they arrive in European ports, which is an extra burden on companies operating these ships".

As the Khaleej Times notes, "transport accidents are common in Egypt and are often blamed on poor maintenance and neglect."

In 2006, more than 1,000 people died when the Egyptian-owned Salam Boccaccio ferry capsized and sank in the Red Sea after a fire broke out on board. 

Last week, seven people died when a small boat sank on the Nile in Cairo. It had a capacity of seven people and was carrying 19. The operator has been arrested.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 19 July 2010. Comment

UPDATE, 1 August 2010: On 31 July the boat's owner was sentenced to 10 years in jail.

Personal status laws in Egypt

I received an email the other day from Jonathan Wright about my recent comments on divorce and the Coptic church in Egypt. He writes:

I rather think you're missing the point in your comments on the Coptic Church and remarriage. You end by saying that "Meanwhile, the Coptic church continues to interfere in the personal affairs of ordinary Christians." Well of course it does, that's what religious institutions do everywhere in the world. They tell people what they can eat, when they should pray, how they should treat their friends and relatives and so on, sometimes in great detail. 

It's absurd to imagine that the Coptic Church, which has survived some 1,800 years and which claims to speak with divine authority, would agree to take orders from an Egyptian state which has existed in its present form for less than 60 years and has a rather tenuous claim to legitimacy. 

The failure here is on the part of the Egyptian state, which insists that all Egyptians accept classification into one of three religions (or four if we now add Baha'ism) and that they follow the rulings of the relevant religious establishment on personal status questions. It refuses to make allowances for people who turn to atheism, agnosticism, Buddhism or anything else, or who simply disagree with the church, the Azhar or whatever. 

The solution is glaringly obvious – an alternative personal status law for ALL Egyptians who reject clerical interference in such matters. It will probably come about, but given that only a tiny fraction of Egyptians favour such a law it's going to take many years. It will also take bold leadership and Egypt doesn't have that. I'd be interested to hear what alternative scenarios you have in mind. Don't forget that divorce and remarriage were close to impossible in places like Italy and Ireland only a few decades ago.

I agree with most of what he says but perhaps I should explain the bit about the church interfering "in the personal affairs of ordinary Christians". Of course it's a church's business to give moral guidance to its members, but the situation in Egypt is that the Coptic church can prevent its members from re-marrying if it doesn't like the reasons why they got divorced.

Clearly, the church should not be forced to marry people in contravention of its own principles, but at the same time it should not be in a position to stop them being married by another route. That, in effect, is what happens. Egypt doesn't really offer civil marriage as an alternative, and changing to another church in order to re-marry is often not a practical option either. As Amira Gamal, a Coptic lawyer, has pointed out, "Changing denominations has become a big business [in Egypt]. It could cost as much as US$10,000, paid to the church."

Personal status laws – covering marriage, divorce, adoption, inheritance, etc – are a major issue in terms of the relationship between religion and states. They are especially problematic in countries like Egypt where one faith is dominant but there is also a large minority from another faith.

I hope to look at this in more detail shortly. Doing some preliminary research on Google, I found quite a lot of articles discussing personal status laws in terms of their impact on women's rights. However, I found very little about their impact on religious freedom – which is surprising, considering its importance. I'd be pleased to hear from any readers who have thoughts about that aspect, or who can point to any relevant research.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 18 July 2010. Comment

Political gangrene

"The fate of the Arab world’s two most important states lies in the hands of ageing autocrats," The Economist says, referring to Egypt (where there is renewed speculation about the health of 82-year-old President Mubarak) and Saudi Arabia (whose ruler, King Abdullah, is in his mid-eighties). "The grim reaper," The Economist adds, "will bring change in both places soon."

Arab gerontocracy is also one of the issues discussed by Kal in 
the latest of a series of essays for The Moor Next Door blog. "The political class in the Arab republics is often dominated by the elderly," he writes – and suggests a number of reasons:

1. Authority and leadership is often reserved for elders in Arab society and most others; 

2. Elite power is maintained by excluding political rivals and novices or those otherwise lacking in "experience" managing complex and fragile institutions; 

3. States are authoritarian and so membership in the political class as a whole and in the ruling clique changes hands infrequently over long periods of time; 

4. Rulers make enemies and are suspicious of newcomers and ambitious or clever youth; 

5. Youth have limited access to (and sometimes interest in) leadership and governing institutions; 

6. In states with professional and politicised militaries it takes time to advance to positions of seniority.

It's not just the Arab republics, though; the same could be said of several of the monarchies too. But I don't particularly buy the idea that this has much to do with respect for elders or the dismissal of youth, per se.

There are plenty of Arab leaders who came to power when they were young or relatively young: Gaddafi at 27, Ali Abdullah Salih at 35, Bashar al-Asad at 34, Abdullah II at 37, and Nasser was only 34 at the time of the Egyptian revolution.

The point is not really the age of the rulers themselves but the longevity of their regimes – and this is where the other factors come into play: the entrenchment of ruling cliques and the elimination of potential challengers. So the real question is not how soon the elderly will die. It is how long the survival strategies developed by the regimes, and which have proved resilient over many years, will continue to hold.

Probably, these strategies also contain the germs of their own destruction, and Kal points to a couple of interesting possibilities:

The geriatric elite holds skill and agency close to its chests and prevents newcomers from having anything but secondary say. Thus, rather than tutelage and a constantly replenishing leadership class, the outcome is more like political gangrene.

We have seen this to some extent in Algeria where, as the number of old-time regime stalwarts dwindles, there is in-fighting and jockeying for position. 

Arab regimes have also clung to power by possession and controlling information – especially information about their opponents and potential rivals. The question here is whether they make the transition from low-tech information control to high-tech. Kal continues:

A ruler immersed in a high-tech security apparatus wants already active network technologies to spread among his people if only for surveillance purposes. At the same time, he is frightened that this might allow his enemies to meet, organise and conspire against him. His natural disposition is to reserve the most advanced technologies for himself and his inner circles. Yet the world is not so easily micro-managed today ...

The Economist also looks to possible mechanisms for change and suggests (rightly, I think) that we should not put too much faith in elections:

Elections, though vital in the end, are not an early panacea. What the Arabs need most, in a hurry, is the rule of law, independent courts, freeish media, women’s and workers’ rights, a market that is not confined to the ruler’s friends, and a professional civil service and education system that are not in hock to the government, whether under a king or a republic. In other words, they need to nurture civil society and robust institutions. The first task of a new Saudi king should be to enact a proper criminal code.

In the Arab lexicon, the concept of justice means more than democracy. In the end, you cannot have the first without the second. But the systems that now prevail in the Arab world provide for neither.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 17 July 2010. Comment

Eleven die in Yemen ambush

Houthi rebels in northern Yemen ambushed a convoy of police and pro-government tribesmen on Wednesday, killing three officers and eight tribesmen. The convoy was reportedly carrying food supplies in the Majaz district of Saada province.

The attack came came amid growing tensions between the Houthis and the government, though President Salih is 
claiming "progress" in implementing the ceasefire agreed last February. 

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 16 July 2010. Comment

UPDATE, July 17: The Houthis have denied the attack, describing the incident as a tribal clash between rivals in a neighbouring village and the government-allied tribesmen.

Syria bans niqab in schools

The French parliament's vote to ban the niqab has aroused international controversy. Meanwhile, Syria's attempt to ban the niqab in schools has attracted less attention. The Economist says about 1,200 teachers are affected and some of them have been transferred to other jobs.

Joshua Landis discusses the move on his Syria Comment blog, noting how the popularity of Islamic clothing has grown over the last 40 years or so. He writes:

Many theories have been offered for why Islamic clothing has spread. Some of these theories are: it is due to the failure of secularism and materialist ideologies, such as communism and socialism; a protest against corrupt and authoritarian rule; in Syria, it has been argued that it is a “Sunni” protest against the dominance of Alawis, who are viewed to be lax Muslims (Alawi women do not wear the headscarf as a rule). I have heard other explanations, as well: fashion, western clothing is too expensive, the growth in women’s literacy has led to greater piety and familiarity with religion.

He also quotes a reader's comment which makes some interesting points:

One of our most miserable failures, as secular Arabs, was not to focus on a large marginalized segment of our society in the deep rural areas. So long as our cities looked more like western cities, with a tolerable amount of head-scarves, and so long as the rural only showed up in the commercial sector of our cities, or during their visits to city doctors, we thought that progress was happening as we had no idea, or we did not want to realize the extent of our failures in bringing true development, education, modernization, and progress into these rural areas. We may have brought electricity, built a few schools, facilitated rapid and excessive and unsustainable exploitation of land and water resources, but true enlightenment, i guess, we did not bring. The story is the same in most Arab “secular” republics.

With this failure, and as a significant segment of rural Arabs left their forgotten villages and came to the cities in search of better economic life, and in many cases, were even forced to do so through the extreme centralization prevalent in our societies, the cities started to reflect more of the true societal differences, and the more conservative leaning of the country, than they did when they only held about 15% of our “more affluent” westernized population. No secular Arab thinker dares to bring this issue, for it highlights our 70 year failure in affecting real, non-cosmetic progress. Tribal mentality remained the same, and it has by now spread into the cities where the narrow circles of old-urbanites , that used to be able to pretend that they represent the entire society, can no longer do so. Hence their nostalgia to the old days.

A population that remained more susceptible to wahabi ideas now constitutes a significant segment of Arab City dwellers, especially in Megacities, where traditionally, more cosmopolitan, enlightened strands of Islam was previously practiced. Ignoring the migrants after they migrated to the cities and leaving them to fend for themselves without real help exacerbated the problem and made more of the city now even more susceptible to Wahabi ideas. The same story can be told in countless Arab countries. It is not the Wahabi idea that is gaining, it is our failure to bring a large segment of our society into a level of development that can confront these ideas is the cause of what we now see.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 16 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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What's Really Wrong with the Middle East  
Brian Whitaker, 2009



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Last revised on 01 August, 2010