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Egypt: a parliament of cats and dogs

In the aftermath of Egypt's rigged election, Zakaria Azmy, the chief of Mubarak's presidential staff, is demanding legal action against al-Masry al-Youm newspaper for depicting members of parliament as cats and dogs.

Azmy, who is himself a member of parliament, says it's defamatory and insists that the elections were "free and fair".

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 14 Dec 2010. Comment.

Saudi Arabia: the conversion business

An article in The Economist, talking about China's business relations with Saudi Arabia, mentions that the new Mashair railway (also known as the Mecca Metro) was built by the Chinese.

The dual-track railway, which links Mecca with the holy sites of Mina, Muzdalifah and Mount Arafat, opened in time to ferry pilgrims for this year's hajj.

But hang on a minute. Isn't Mecca out of bounds for non-Muslims? So how did the Chinese do it?

Easy, says The Economist. "China simply converted hundreds of railway workers to Islam."

Wondering if this could be true, I dug around a bit on the internet and, sure enough, I found a report from Gulf News dated 27 September 2009 and headed: "Over 600 Chinese nationals working in Saudi embrace Islam".

According to Gulf News, the workers were given "books introducing Islam in Chinese language at their worksite at Arafat, which is outside the haram area''. Within 24 hours, hey presto! They had all apparently seen the light and converted to Islam en masse at a ceremony witnessed by Abdul Aziz al-Khudairi, undersecretary for the Mecca governorate.

Dr Abdul Aziz jubilantly described the conversions as a "direct response to critics of the government for contracting [a] Chinese company".

Clearly, miracles do happen in Saudi Arabia. Especially when contracts worth billions of dollars are at stake.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 14 Dec 2010. Comment.

Saudi court battle over marriage

The Saudi Gazette reports on a bizarre legal battle that ensued after a 37-year-old woman from Madina asked permission to marry and her father refused – apparently on the grounds that her proposed husband was a foreigner from a neighbouring Arab country (even though he belonged to the same tribe).

The daughter took her father to court, claiming 'adhal (denial of the right to marry). The judge threw out her case, on the grounds that the father had put forward a number of suitors which the daughter rejected.

The daughter counters that her rejection of them was reasonable: one was "morally objectionable", another had "a skin disease" and "some of the others are married".

The father then retaliated with a case claiming uqouq (disobedience towards parents). One of the woman's brothers is also threatened with prosecution for supporting her.

The woman, meanwhile, has fled the kingdom along with several of her brothers. The Saudi Gazette says:

The father, according to the terms of his court complaint, is demanding the return of his daughter from abroad and her punishment, as well as confiscation of her passport and a ban on her travelling abroad. The complaint states that he is "worried she might marry a non-Saudi while she is away". 

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 13 Dec 2010. Comment.

Separatists kidnap troops in Yemen

A total of seven Yemeni soldiers, including an army major, were taken hostage by southern separatists in two incidents on Saturday and Sunday.

The kidnappers are apparently seeking to pressurise the authorities after a 25-year-old man, Fares Adbullah Saleh, was sentenced to death for two bombings.

The bombings, at a sports centre in Aden on October 11, killed four people and injured 15. They were seen as an attempt to disrupt the Gulf Cup football tournament which was held in southern Yemen between November 22 and December 5, guarded by about 30,000 troops.

In the trial, which ended on Saturday, Saleh's brother, Raed Abdullah, was sentenced to five years for complicity in the bombings and three other defendants were acquitted.

Nasser al-Khubaggi, a leading member of the Southern Movement, 
told Reuters that the people behind the kidnappings are "armed citizens who are angry at the detention of their children and relatives in state prisons, among them the man sentenced to death on Saturday for the bombing of the sports club in Aden".

Protests over the death sentence were also reported in the southern city of Daleh.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 13 Dec 2010. Comment.

UPDATE, 14 December: Arab News, via Reuters, says six of the soldiers have been released.

Foolish words from the EU ambassador

What on earth has got into the head of Marc Franco, the EU's ambassador to Egypt? Writing for al-Ahram Weekly, in an article to mark Human Rights Day (December 10), he says:

Looking back over the last few years, it is only fair to say that Egypt has made courageous steps towards promoting a culture of human rights at all levels of Egyptian society.

He then goes on to enumerate some of the reforms that the EU has supported in Egypt "financially and technically":

Firstly, from an institutional perspective, Egypt has set up three new bodies that are powerful agents of change in the field of human rights: the National Council for Human Rights, the National Council for Women, and the National Council for Childhood and Motherhood. 

Secondly, from a reform perspective, Egypt has enacted legislation to improve the status of women and children in society, including a ban on female genital mutilation (FGM) and an active policy to protect vulnerable children, notably street children; the minimum age of marriage for women rose from 16 to 18 years and allowed women to obtain a birth certificate for their child without listing the father's name; the opening of 64 new seats in the new People's Assembly for women candidates is now a reality; important legislation on human trafficking was adopted in May 2010, as well as a new law on organ transplants that was enacted after a long standing debate on the issue.

That's all very well, but what about the rigged elections, the people who have died in police custody, the jailed bloggers and opposition activists, etc, etc? And has the ban on female genital mutilation actually made any difference? Or the law on human trafficking?

Accentuating the positive is one thing, but this is ridiculous. There's not the slightest hint of criticism anywhere in Mr Franco's article. Readers who didn't know any better would get the impression that everything in Egypt is fine and dandy.

But almost everyone in Egypt does know better, and by scraping the barrel to find nice things to say Franco has turned himself – and the EU – into a laughing stock. 

His job is to represent the EU in Egypt, not the Mubarak regime. Franco, a Belgian who previously served in Moscow, hasn't been in Cairo long – just over a year – but Catherine Ashton, the EU's foreign affairs chief, should call him back to Brussels tout de suite.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 11 Dec 2010. Comment.

Egypt accused over human trafficking

There is still no sign of the 250 African migrants who are reportedly held hostage by human traffickers in the Sinai desert of Egypt. The Egyptian authorities have expressed scepticism about the reports, though on Wednesday they did find 83 migrants who were trying to cross into Israel – and duly arrested them.

On Thursday, Human Rights Watch accused the Egyptian government of failing to prosecute traffickers and close down their detention sites.

"Egyptian authorities frequently say they are cracking down on organised crime in the Sinai," a spokesman for HRW said. "But the government is slow to react when human traffickers are holding hundreds of migrants for ransom."

The statement continued:

Throughout 2010, Human Rights Watch has obtained numerous credible reports - including detailed statements by Eritreans apprehended by Israel near Egypt's Sinai border - of a well-established trafficking network. Traffickers regularly hold hostage hundreds of mostly Eritrean and other sub-Saharan asylum seekers and migrants, including children, in various locations for weeks or months until their relatives abroad pay thousands of dollars to secure their release.

Explaining how the scam works, it said:

Numerous migrants reported that smugglers ask for US$2,500 to $3,000 to guide them to the border with Israel. But once these migrants arrived in Sinai, they found themselves in the hands of traffickers who shackled them and demanded additional money - ranging from $500 to $10,000. They threatened to kill or otherwise harm the migrants - in several cases, to remove and sell their kidneys for a large illegal market in Egypt - if they did not pay. 

In dozens of cases asylum seekers and migrants said that to coerce relatives to make payments, traffickers would make them call their relatives by mobile phone and then shoot in the air or physically abuse them so the relatives would hear their screams.

Some migrants said that once their relatives paid the additional money, the traffickers handed them over to other traffickers who asked for more money. 

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 11 Dec 2010. Comment.

Wikileaks: Lebanese newspaper hacked

The website of al-Akhbar, the Lebanese leftist daily, was hacked yesterday. Readers who tried to access its site were treated instead to a glimpse of various web pages that implied a Saudi connection to the hacking.

The website in now shut down while technicians work to restore it – probably by Saturday, according to the Angry Arab who writes a column for it. The paper's print edition was not affected.

There can be little doubt as to why al-Akhbar was hacked. It's the only Arab newspaper seriously reporting on the Wikileaks documents (and in a specifically Arab context). It appears to have received a number of the documents relating to the Middle East ahead of other publications and has been posting the full English-language text on its website, along with commentary in Arabic.

Who did the hacking is a more difficult question. The Saudi connection implied by the hackers is plausible, though that could just be a smokescreeen. 

Writing for the Foreign Policy blog, David Kenner points to three cables in particular that were embarrassing for the Saudis: the Saudi foreign minister's proposal for an "Arab force" to combat Hizbullah, King Abdullah's advice that the US should "cut off the head of the snake" in Iran, and the report of a Halloween party (which I wrote about on Wednesday).

There has also been embarrassing stuff about Lebanese politics, plus criticism of the Moroccan monarchy (a no-go area within Morocco), and some very harsh words about the "sclerotic" regime in Tunisia.

It was reported on Monday that the Tunisian authorities were 
blocking access to al-Akhbar's website within the country, and I have heard separately that they are blocking everything that mentions Wikileaks (including my own blog here on al-bab).

Anyway, there is no shortage of potential Arab suspects for the hacking. The United States, of course, has also been doing its utmost to stop Wikileaks, but I don't really see an American hand at work here. For one thing, snatches of English among the Arabic posted by the hackers suggest someone who is not a native English speaker.

Then, I suppose, there's always Israel – a possibility that was actually suggested by one of al-Akhbar's editorial people, though I seriously doubt it. The Israelis may not like al-Akhbar but why attack it over Wikileaks? For as long as the documents continue to embarrass Arab leaders, wouldn't it be much better for Israelis just to sit back and enjoy the mayhem?

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 10 Dec 2010. Comment.

Sudan fashion models guilty of 'indecency'

Readers of this blog may recall an incident last June when Sudan's Public Order Police, whose role includes enforcing "morality", arrested a couple of dozen people at a fashion show in Khartoum.

Yesterday, seven of the male models were convicted of "indecency" – for wearing make-up at the event – and each fined 200 Sudanese pounds (about $80). Under Sudanese law they could also have been sentenced to 40 lashes, but were spared that.

A woman was also convicted. The nature of her offence is unclear, though from the Reuters report it appears that she may have been the person who applied the make-up. Their lawyer is quoted as saying: "The court thought that they were indecently dressed ... The judge thought that wearing makeup could be offensive for men and allowing a woman to put makeup on men was against the law."

This follows a much-publicised case last year when a group of 13 women were arrested 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 have become common in northern Sudan – police statistics show that 43,000 women were arrested in Khartoum province in 2008 for clothing offences.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 9 Dec 2010. Comment.

Wikileaks: Tunisia, the 'friend' that isn't

"By many measures, Tunisia should be a close US ally. But it is not." That was the blunt message from the American ambassador in Tunis, in a document released by Wikileaks.

It was written by the departing ambassador, Robert Godec, in July last year, apparently as a briefing for his successor, the marathon-running Gordon Gray – and shortly before President Ben Ali was re-elected with an implausible 89.62% majority.

Describing Ben Ali's regime as "sclerotic", Godec continued:

Despite Tunisia's economic and social progress, its record on political freedoms is poor. Tunisia is a police state, with little freedom of expression or association, and serious human rights problems ...

The problem is clear: Tunisia has been ruled by the same president for 22 years. He has no successor. And, while President Ben Ali deserves credit for continuing many of the progressive policies of President Bourguiba, he and his regime have lost touch with the Tunisian people. They tolerate no advice or criticism, whether domestic or international. Increasingly, they rely on the police for control and focus on preserving power. 

And, corruption in the inner circle is growing. Even average Tunisians are now keenly aware of it, and the chorus of complaints is rising. Tunisians intensely dislike, even hate, First Lady Leila Trabelsi and her family. In private, regime opponents mock her; even those close to the government express dismay at her reported behaviour. Meanwhile, anger is growing at Tunisia's high unemployment and regional inequities. As a consequence, the risks to the regime's long-term stability are increasing.

The ambassador also complained that the Tunisian government makes it difficult for American diplomats "to maintain contact with a wide swath of Tunisian society". Government-controlled newspapers "often attack Tunisian civil society activists who participate in Embassy activities, portraying them as traitors":

Plain-clothes police sometimes lurk outside events hosted by [embassy officials], intimidating participants. In one example of the [government's] tactics, we awarded a local grant through MEPI to a Tunisian woman, but her boss at the Commerce Ministry told her not to pursue it. She persisted for a time, but backed out when she began receiving anonymous death threats.

The note continues:

[Government] leaders have made no secret of their disapproval of the ambassador's and other [embassy officials'] contacts with opposition party leaders – in particular the Progressive Democratic Party's Nejib Chebbi, the object of President Ben Ali's intense personal animus – as well as civil society activists who criticize the regime. They were intensely critical, as well, of the previous Administration's use of public statements (such as on World Press Freedom Day 2008), which they believed unfairly targeted Tunisia.

Perhaps surprisingly, considering his views on the regime, Godec suggests that public criticism may not be the way forward. 

For several years, the United States has been out in front – publicly and privately – criticising the [government of Tunisia] for the absence of democracy and the lack of respect for human rights. 

There is a place for such criticism, and we do not advocate abandoning it. We do recommend a more pragmatic approach, however, whereby we would speak to the Tunisians very clearly and at a very high level about our concerns regarding Tunisia's democracy and human rights practices, but dial back the public criticism. The key element is more and frequent high-level private candor.

He goes on to suggest maintaining dialogue "on a range of issues of mutual interest, backed up by increased assistance" and more engagement "directly with the Tunisian people, especially youth" – adding, "The Embassy is already using Facebook as a communication tool."

Considering the nature of the problem, these proposals sound rather feeble. But it's difficult ot know whaty anyone, inside or outside the country, might do about it at the moment. As Godec puts it: "Major change in Tunisia will have to wait for Ben Ali's departure."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 9 Dec 2010. Comment.

Wikileaks: Partying in Saudi Arabia

Saudis certainly know how to party. Well, some of them at least. The scene above (via the American Bedu blog) shows youthful revelry in the streets of Jeddah during last year's National Day celebrations.

But Halloween? Isn't that the kind of festival that's condemned by clerics and observed only by unbelievers?

At the end of October, US consular staff joined more than 150 young Saudis (male and female, mostly in their twenties and thirties) at an underground Halloween party in Jeddah.

"The scene resembled a nightclub anywhere outside the Kingdom: plentiful alcohol, young couples dancing, a DJ at the turntables, and everyone in costume," according to one of the latest Wikileaks documents. It says:

Behind the facade of Wahhabi conservatism in the streets, the underground nightlife for Jeddah's elite youth is thriving and throbbing. The full range of worldly temptations and vices are available – alcohol, drugs, sex – but strictly behind closed doors. This freedom to indulge carnal pursuits is possible merely because the religious police keep their distance when parties include the presence or patronage of a Saudi royal and his circle of loyal attendants ...

A report in the Guardian says the Halloween party was thrown by "a wealthy prince from the large al-Thunayan family" (though it does not name him) and adds that an American energy drinks company also put up some of the finance.

Parties in Saudi Arabia are something I've commented on before. There's one law for the rich and well connected – in which case it's OK – and another for everyone else – in which case you're liable to have the gathering broken up and get arrested and/or flogged.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 8 Dec 2010. Comment.

Wikileaks: Where are the Israel documents?

While we're on the subject of Wikileaks, I've been waiting eagerly for some interesting cables to emerge from the US embassy in Tel Aviv. After all, I seem to remember Hillary Clinton apologising to the Israelis in advance for any embarrassment that might ensue.

But it seems that all we're getting is incidental references to Israel in cables from the US embassies in other countries.

I've heard people voicing suspicions about this. Have the Israel cables been suppressed, they ask. 

The answer, apparently, is no. There's little or nothing from Israel in the 250,000 or so documents – and the explanation, I'm told by someone who ought to know, is very simple.

Israel, in the eyes of the US diplomats, is not a normal country like any other and so it's not dealt with in the normal way. Sensitive documents from Israel go through different channels – to the White House rather than the State Department – and are therefore not among the batch leaked to Julian Assange.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 8 Dec 2010. Comment.

UN intervenes over Egypt hostages 

A brief update on the shocking case of the African migrants held hostage in Egypt by traffickers who are demanding more money from them. Several reports now put the number at "up to 250", and it's good to see the UNHCR making representations on their behalf.

UNHCR officials say (here and here) that the Egyptian authorities "are giving this the utmost priority and attention" and that "around the clock efforts are underway to locate the hostages and release them".

What this means, in plain English, is that the Egyptians are saying they don't, at present, know exactly where the hostages are.

But how can a regime which is normally so adept at monitoring its rebellious citizens have so little information about 250 people who are reportedly locked up in shipping containers in Sinai? The answer, perhaps, is that they are only Africans and pose no threat to the regime.


Talking of sharks in Sinai, I was planning to ignore the Jaws IV story, but now that the governor of Southern Sinai has claimed that the underwater killers are part of an Israeli plot, I think it's worth pointing out that this is just the sort of remark that's guaranteed to get the Egyptian media excited and send reporters scurrying off to Sharm el Sheikh and, with any luck, forgetting all about the rigged election.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 8 Dec 2010. Comment.

Free expression: a strategy in tatters

The United States announced today that it will host next year's UNESCO World Press Freedom Day event in Washington from May 1-3. The press release says:

The United States places technology and innovation at the forefront of its diplomatic and development efforts. New media has empowered citizens around the world to report on their circumstances, express opinions on world events, and exchange information in environments sometimes hostile to such exercises of individuals’ right to freedom of expression. 

At the same time, we are concerned about the determination of some governments to censor and silence individuals, and to restrict the free flow of information. 

The highlight of the event will be the awarding of the World Press Freedom Prize, "determined by an independent jury of international journalists, [to honour] a person, organisation or institution that has notably contributed to the defence and/or promotion of press freedom, especially where risks have been undertaken."

I can think of one very obvious nominee for this award, and I'm sure readers can too.

The Wikileaks affair – or rather, the Obama administration's 
reaction to it – has left the US strategy of promoting free expression in the darker corners of the world in tatters. 

You can't promote freedom and good governance unless you practise what you preach. You can't discourage torturers while maintaining prisons like Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. You can't promote democracy while supporting dictators who happen to be well-disposed towards the United States. And you can't complain about regimes censoring the internet while attacking Wikileaks.

The American response to the disclosure of its embassy cables is a political disaster. Now, every tyrant in the world has a ready-made excuse for suppressing free speech – handed to him on a plate. 

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 7 Dec 2010. Comment.

Migrants 'held hostage in Egypt'

Delivering his weekly blessing in Rome on Sunday, Pope Benedict 
referred to "the ordeal of the hostages from Eritrea and other nations" who are trapped in Egypt's Sinai desert as "victims of traffickers and criminals".

He was highlighting a little-reported aspect of the migrant trade, where people from Africa are smuggled across the Egyptian border into Israel. Attention up to now has mainly focused on the shooting of migrants by Egyptian security forces (more than 60 have been killed during the last three years) and Israel-Egyptian efforts to seal the border.

But the story of migrants being held hostage in the desert by their "helpers" is new. The migrants are reported to have already paid $2,000 each for their passage to Israel but the traffickers are said to be demanding $8,000 more – and holding them captive until the money is forthcoming. Most are thought to be evangelical Christians from Eritrea.

The German press agency, citing "several humanitarian organisations", says at least 80 refugees have been held by the traffickers for 30 days.

However, according to Christian Solidarity Worldwide, the situation is far worse than that. It says hundreds of migrants from the Horn of Africa have been held for months in shipping containers by their Bedouin traffickers "on the outskirts of a town in the Sinai Desert".

It continues:

On 1 December Christian Solidarity Worldwide, Human Rights Concern Eritrea, Agenzia Habeshia and EveryOne Group issued a joint appeal for urgent international intervention in the plight of the refugees, who are currently being held in degrading and inhumane conditions, bound by chains around their ankles and denied adequate food and water. 

The appeal details extreme methods of torture suffered by the refugees, including electric shocks, to force friends and families abroad to make the payments. The women in the group, who have been separated from the rest, are particularly vulnerable to severe abuse.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 7 Dec 2010. Comment.

Saudi professor arrested

A Saudi law professor was arrested on Sunday after writing a article that discussed possible rifts within the royal family, and their political implications for the kingdom.

Dr Mohammed bin Abdullah al-Abdulkarim, who teaches jurisprudence at the Imam Mohammed bin Saud University, was 
seized from his home by four men. 

The Saudi Human Rights First Society says his detention is illegal, since he was arrested without a warrant and has been held for more than 24 hours without charge. His arrest has not been reported in the mainstream Saudi media, though it is being reported and discussed on the internet.

Dr Abdulkarim's article (in Arabic) appeared on the royaah.net website on November 23. The article was published shortly after 86-year-old King Abdullah travelled to the United States for an operation on his back. His is still there, and has since had a second operation after a blood clot was found.

In the meantime, the kingdom is being run by Crown Prince Sultan. Sultan, who is also in his mid-eighties, returned to Saudi Arabia last December after a long period of convalescence in Morocco following treatment in the US for an unspecified illness.

Third in line to the throne is the reactionary interior minister, Prince Nayeh, who is only 76.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 7 Dec 2010. Comment.

Wikileaks: Sibling rivalries in Libya

Mutassim al-Qadhafi with Hillary Clinton, 2009

After a year's withdrawal from the political scene, Coionel Qadhafi's second-eldest son, Saif al-Islam, made a triumphant return to the spotlight in August last year with the homecoming of convicted Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset al-Megrahi. Two months later, he was appointed "Coordinator of Social and Popular Committees" – a deceptively unassuming title which gave him "authority to oversee the parliament, government and security".

Parallel with this, another of the Leader's seven sons, Mutassim, appeared to fall out of favour. Mutassim was blamed for mis-managing the annual Revolution Day celebrations and for various mistakes during the Leader's visit to New York (where he failed to get permission to pitch the Leader's bedouin tent).

These ups and downs, and their political implications – especially for Libya's future leadership – were discussed in a couple of secret memos (now published by Wikileaks) from the US embassy in Tripoli in November and December last year.

Referring to various attempts by the two brothers to upstage each other, the November memo says:

Contacts suggest that although Mutassim is not as skilled in public relations as his older brother Saif, he wields significant power from behind the scenes. As National Security Advisor (NSA), Mutassim directs at least some of Libya's national security policy decisions, including purchases of equipment, and he reportedly plays on issues regarding the military purse. 

Contacts also report that younger brother Khamis al-Qadhafi, Commander of the 32nd "Khamis" Brigade (widely known to be the most well-trained and well-equipped force in the Libyan military), is closer to Mutassim than to Saif ... Mutassim's role as NSA and his reported closeness to Khamis would give Mutassim access to some of the most important military and security elements of the regime. Nevertheless, the ultimate authority over the regime's security apparatus remains in question.

The result of this was confusion – among Libyans as well as the Americans. The embassy note cites a report that "the Minister-equivalent of Defense, Major General Abu Baker Younis Jaber, recently called on his officers to swear allegiance to Saif in his new post, making it unclear whether the military establishment will report to Mutassim or Saif – or both – in the future".

A second embassy note, from December last year, says Saif al-Islam's staff "has shown an increased interest in bilateral military and security issues, particularly requests linked to Captain Khamis al-Qadhafi, including purchases of helicopters and "Tiger" vehicle components, and M113 refurbishment". 

It continues: "This increased attention may be reflective of Saif's broader plans to consolidate military and security issues within his expanding 'General Coordinator' portfolio. Saif's staff declined to comment on any future division of responsibility between Saif al-Islam and Mutassim al-Qadhafi in these areas."

When US embassy staff asked whether Saif would be the person to deal with on military and security issues in future, there was "a long pause" before they were told that "the embassy should continue to track military-related issues through Mutassim's office and to copy information to Saif's office from now on."

A comment at the end of the note says this "suggests that Saif is beginning to insert himself into the political-military and security spheres":

The discussion of Khamis' requests in particular may indicate that Saif is trying to curry favour with his little brother. Given the fact that the "Khamis Brigade" is considered the best-equipped and most capable of defending the regime, it seems only natural that anyone intent on assuming power would try to align himself with Khamis.

However, the memo speculates that "Saif's interest in these issues is still informal and perhaps not fully vetted within the Libyan government".

A comment in the November memo considers these manoeuvrings in the context of a struggle for succession:

As Libya undergoes this latest round of Qadhafi's political restructuring, without a constitution or clarified succession plan, burgeoning sibling rivalry among Qadhafi's progeny is near inevitable. Qadhafi has placed his sons (daughter Aisha is considered by some shrewder and smarter than her brothers but does not seem to be playing a visible role in the succession struggle) on a succession high wire act, perpetually thrown off balance, in what might be a calculated effort by the aging leader to prevent any one of them from authoritatively gaining the prize. It is also difficult to precisely gauge Mutassim's depth of ambition for the leadership role since those around him do not freely engage on the topic.

The rivalry is likely to play out publicly over the next few months in a continued realignment of political and business interests, as reformists ("Saif backers") and conservatives ("Mutassim backers") continue to vie for the elder Qadhafi's attention. Mutassim appears to believe that progress in the US relationship could prove key to keeping him in the game if he does indeed aspire to play a crucial role in the post-Leader era. 

Whichever of the Qadhafi children wins the "prize," there is a high level of anxiety among our Libyan contacts, given the potential for chaos in the absence of the traditionally "guiding hand" of the Leader and given the absence of viable state institutions to insure stability. 

They see a best possible outcome as a division of the spoils, with Saif handling the domestic side of the house and Mutassim handling the security and possible foreign relations part. A second possibility is a "trinity," whereby Saif would be the political face of the regime, Mutassim the national security face, and Khamis the military/security face.

Since the memos were written, these internal tussles have continued. Last month, for instance, Saif's Oea newspaper was 
suppressed on the orders of the prime minister and 20 or more journalists working for Said's publishing company were 
briefly arrested.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 6 Dec 2010. Comment.

Yemeni MPs to question minister over 'lie'

Fifty Yemeni members of parliament have signed a petition calling on Rashad al Alimi, the deputy prime minister for defence and security, to explain himself after apparently lying to parliament about American airstrikes in Yemen that killed dozens of civilians.

According to a Wikileaks document, at a meeting with Centcom commander David Petraeus in January, President Salih lamented the casualties but told Petraeus not to worry: "We'll continue saying the bombs are ours, not yours," he reportedly said.

At this, according to the document, deputy prime minister Alimi interjected, joking that he had just lied to parliament by telling MPs that the bombs in Arhab, Abyan, and Shabwa were American-made but deployed by the Yemeni military.

American airstrikes in Yemen are a hugely sensitive issue and the revelations have been deeply embarrassing for the Salih regime because they confirm its duplicity (which many Yemenis already suspected). They could also complicate future cooperation between Yemen and the US in countering terrorism.

It seems unlikely, though, that Alimi will be forced to resign since he was only doing the president's bidding. The official government line is that the remarks were mis-reported in the US embassy's note – a claim that few Yemenis are likely to believe.

Another incendiary sentence in the document quotes Salih as saying to Petraeus: 

"Tell (Djiboutian President) Ismail Guelleh that I don't care if he smuggles whiskey into Yemen – provided it's good whiskey) but not drugs or weapons." 

Among religious elements, this might be cited as evidence that Salih is not a good Muslim. His fondness for a tipple is well known, though not usually talked about quite so openly. Many Yemenis resort to whisky after chewing qat, because otherwise the qat would keep them awake for most of the night.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 6 Dec 2010. Comment.

Wikileaks: Tunisia's next president?

In Tunisia, 30-year-old Mohamed Sakhr El-Matri is increasingly viewed as a possible successor to his dictatorial father-in-law, President Ben Ali. The American ambassador in Tunis met him last year and wrote a report marked "secret" which has now been published by Wikileaks:

El-Matri presented himself as self-confident, but low-key. This was in marked contrast to his reputation as a flamboyant and aggressive business mogul. His reputation derives in part from the fact that he drives an Austin Martin and a Hummer among other cars, and rumours that he owns a pet tiger

With the ambassador, he was equally comfortable talking about political issues and personal issues. He indicated his awareness of his relative youth ... but did not seem uncomfortable with that reality. He also discussed his wife Nesrine's commitment to using only organic products from the food they eat to the paint and varnish in their new mansion.

With Tunisians, Sakhr El-Matri gets political credibility from his own family as well as by being the president's son-in-law. His grandfather, Dr Mahmoud El-Matri, was a famous activist in the nationalist movement of the 1930s. His father was a military officer and was sentenced to life imprisonment for an attempted coup against Bourguiba in 1962. He was later pardoned by Bourguiba ... The El-Matri family is also prominent in business.

El-Matri asked to work with the embassy on the conservation of the cliff on which both the ambassador's residence and his new mansion sit side-by-side. The ambassador offered to share with him the embassy's assessment of the cliff's stability.

Speculation about El-Matri as Ben Ali's favoured successor arises mainly from his election in 2008 to the central committee of the ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally (RCD) party – a remarkable feat considering he was still only in his twenties at the time. 

The ambassador's note adds that he was also given a prominent position on the podium for Ben Ali's annual November 7 speech celebrating his takeover (in a bloodless coup) from President Bourguiba. "Only one other of Ben Ali's four sons-in-law was also on the stage, Marouane Mabrouk."

Although the note says El-Matri has not "played up his political role" since joining the central committee, "he has continued to focus on economic issues and expand his business empire, including pursuing opening a religious-themed TV station and a new Islamic bank both named Zeitouna, building on his Quranic radio station".

In the 2009 meeting, the ambassador found El-Matri "willing to comment frankly on US-Tunisian relations and other issues". He seems to have grumbled a bit about the "fixed views" of elderly Tunisian government officials and he "acknowledged that Tunisia needs to improve its performance on human rights".

Regarding his business activities, the report says that in addition to his Goulette Shipping Cruise line, El-Matri controls under the Princess El-Materi holding company the concessions for Audi, Volkswagen, Porsche, Renault cars and trucks; a pharmaceutical manufacturing company, Societe Adwia; and two real estate companies, Les Hirondelles and Le Marchand de l'Immobilier. A comment at the end says:

Sakhr El-Matri comes across as someone who is in no rush but who is building his future both within the RCD and directly with the people through his Islamic radio and future bank. 

Unfortunately, along with his business dealings come a raft of rumours about corruption that make people cynical about his political intentions. At the very least, his business ventures thus far would not have been possible were it not for his close ties to President Ben Ali ...

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 5 Dec 2010. Comment.

Wikileaks: The Moroccan king's fears

Two attempted coups in Morocco during the 1970s (which came close to succeeding) continue to cast a long shadow over relations between the king and his military, according to a Wikileaks document.

The document – a memo from the US embassy in Rabat dated August 2008 – says Mohammed VI has slightly more confidence in the armed forces than his father, but "the monarchy still calculates that the military represents the biggest potential threat to the crown".

King Mohammed, it says, had only recently begun to allow armed military flights north of Ben Guerir air base (200km south of Rabat) – "an act not permitted in the past due to the king's desire to keep the military far away from the palace in Rabat".

The Alaouite dynasty depends on a strong military, the note explains, but its commanders "must remain sufficiently docile so as not to arouse suspicions of disloyalty". 

Consequently, the king keeps them on a short leash, with most of the forces stationed far to the south in Western Sahara. "No troop movements, exercises, or even travel of officers domestically or abroad happens without the king's approval."

Morocco's Gendarmerie is controlled separately from the army and air force, "in part as a check against a military coup," the document says:

While it most visibly serves as a state police/highway patrol, it has a wide range of units. Its commander, Lt Gen Benslimane, likely reports in some way directly to the king. He also leads the Moroccan National Soccer League, making him a popular figure inside and out of military circles. 

While there is no direct proof of Benslimane being involved in corrupt activity, low ranking Gendarmerie assigned to highway patrols are expected to pay approximately 4,000 dirhams ($540) to their immediate supervisors with extralegal earnings from motorists above which they can keep for themselves, according to one credible anecdote.

Discussing corruption in the military, the document continues:

Corruption is prevalent at all levels of Moroccan society and the military is also plagued by it, particularly at the highest levels. This may partly reflect a grand bargain struck by King Hassan II following at least two nearly successful coups in the 1970s: remain loyal, and you can profit. (Those whose loyalty was in question were subject to sometimes decades of harsh imprisonment.)

Credible reports indicate that Lt Gen [Abdelaziz] Benanni is using his position as the Commander of the Southern Sector to skim money from military contracts and influence business decisions. A widely believed rumour has it that he owns large parts of the fisheries in Western Sahara. Benanni, like many senior military officers, has a lavish family home that was likely built with money gleaned from bribes. 

Leadership positions in regional sectors are a significant source of extralegal income for military leaders. There are even reports of students at Morocco's military academy paying money to increase their class standings in order to obtain positions in lucrative military postings. 

Command in the southern sector, i.e., Western Sahara, given the predominance of military activity there, is considered to be the most lucrative of the sectors in this regard. Because command in the southern sector is also considered critical to high level advancement in the [Moroccan armed forces], positions there are highly sought after. 

Consequently, positions in this sector are often jealously "guarded" by a number of influential families in the military. The [Moroccan government] seems to be looking for ways to stop corruption, especially among the formative military ranks of colonel and below, but not much is being done to stop the corruption in the general officer ranks.

Corruption also makes it difficult to pension off older officers and promote younger ones:

Senior officers refusing to retire to allow younger officers to move up the ranks has become a significant problem for the FAR. Officers nearing the mandatory retirement age do not want to retire since this would mean relinquishing bribes, money-skimming, and some related sources of income. 

Even for those officers not "on the take", giving up government positions and paychecks is economically difficult for a sustained retirement. This "gerontocracy" problem, coupled with the king's notorious micro-management of the military has had a negative impact on the morale of mid-level military leaders.

In the 1971 coup attempt, rebels troops attacked the royal palace while King Hassan was having his 42nd birthday party. Ninety-two people died and four generals, five colonels and one major were later shot by firing squad.

The following year, three air force planes attacked King Hassan's Boeing 727 as it returned from France. The king allegedly seized the controls and called his attackers on the radio: "Stop firing! The tyrant is dead." Fooled by this, they allowed him to land safely.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 5 Dec 2010. Comment.

Iraq: the gay factor

More than seven years after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, Iraq is still a dangerous place for many of its citizens – and none more so than men who are gay or considered not "manly" enough .... Read the full article in the latest issue of Near East Quarterly.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 5 Dec 2010. Comment.

Qatar and the World Cup

Following FIFA's rejection of England to host the 2018 World Cup, there has been an extraordinary outpouring of hostility in the UK directed against Qatar, which was chosen to host the 2022 World Cup. I tried to set the record straight in an article for Comment Is Free, though clearly many people are still unconvinced.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 4 Dec 2010. Comment.

Wikileaks: a tragi-comedy in Sanaa

A batch of US embassy cables relating to Yemen emerged yesterday, courtesy of Wikileaks. I have linked them below, in chronological order. The New York Times has a commentary on them here, as does the Guardian (here and here).

The content isn't earth-shattering but it does provide some valuable insight into US-Yemeni relations. 

The Americans clearly find President Salih difficult to do business with (who doesn't?), though at times he's presented almost as a comic character – a self-important dictator who is preoccupied with angling for an invite to meet Obama in Washington and getting $11 million for a state-of-the-art "extremist rehabilitation facility" while his country falls to pieces.

The Americans, meanwhile, have been trying to persuade the Yemeni military to get rid of their shoulder-launched surface-to-air missiles (MANPADS), lest they fall into the wrong hands and are used by al-Qaeda to shoot down Salih's plane. Despite the apparent threat to the president's life, the military seem reluctant to disclose how many they have.

One interesting revelation, from a Riyadh embassy cable, is that the Saudis are eavesdropping on phone conversations in Yemen:

In this light, the recent attack against al-Qaida in Yemen "was very positive." Prince Mohammed noted that the Saudis have been monitoring conversations of Al-Qaida operatives in Yemen very closely, and whereas before the attack they were hearing relaxed 20-minute phone conversations over cell phones, after the attack the phones went virtually silent. This suggests that at least for now these operatives are more focused on their own security rather than on planning operations.

The documents

23 March 2009: Yemen president tells US to keep its Guantαnamo detainees

31 May 2009: Yemen president says foreign forces are wrecking his country

4 August 2009: America warns of security lapses in Yemen cargo screening over a year before printer bombs

15 September 2009: Bomb al-Qaida where you want, Yemen tells US, but don't blame us if they strike again

21 December 2009: Yemen trumpets strikes on al-Qaida that were Americans' work

4 January 2010: Yemeni president Saleh rejects US ground presence

19 January 2010: Saudis praise American strike against al-Qaida in Yemen

3 February 2010: US offers to help boost security at Yemen airports

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 4 Dec 2010. Comment.

Temporary marriages

Writing for the Jadaliyya blog, Lara Deeb offers some interesting thoughts on mut'a marriage among the Shia community in Lebanon.

In Muslim societies there's a general principle that sexual relations should take place within some kind of legal framework that legitimises them. But conventional marriage is not the only possibility here. Islam, as traditionally practised, includes a number of other options: misyar "visitor" marriages (popular in Saudi Arabia), 'urfi "customary" marriages (popular in Egypt), and of course mut'a "pleasure" marriages among the Shia.

These alternative ways of legitimising sex, it has to be said, are not approved of by all Muslims. Many frown upon them (as do many westerners). But in a situation where relations between the sexes are strictly circumscribed and transgressions can be heavily punished – by law and by society – alternative forms of "marriage" can be very appealing. As Deeb puts it, they provide young people with "ways to live moral lives while also dating" or to "get to know a potential spouse without violating their religious values".

Mut'a is a temporary fixed-term marriage ranging from years to days or even minutes, and when the time is up the marriage automatically comes to an end – without a need for divorce. Sometimes, though by no means always, it amounts to a legalised form of prostitution.

There's also little doubt that these alternative forms of marriage can be exploitative (especially for women) – and the informality of the contracts may be a factor. But there's no reason why they have to be exploitative: a lot depends on the attitudes of the participants.

Deeb notes that much of the English-language writing about mut'a is very negative and linked to broader fears about Shia influence (examples here and here) along with more generalised Islamophobia: "Sex appeal – How a branch of Islam wants to convert the West". 

"In the US context," Deeb writes, "these discourses are also infused with a long history of fascination with the exotic sexuality and assumed submissiveness of Arab women".

The usual assumption is that temporary marriage, along with 'urfi and miswar, is necessarily bad – which it is not. In Lebanon, Deeb sees its apparently increasing popularity as "an excellent example of youth-driven social change and the conflict between religious tenets and social norms". If young people are adopting an old and somewhat stigmatised practice and making use of it in new and creative ways, that is surely something to be explored in all its aspects, both positive and negative.

"There are also other reasons for writing on temporary marriage," Deeb says, "including the importance of examining gender inequalities, and the health and social consequences for women in particular, especially but not exclusively in situations of war or poverty." She continues:

But again the catch is to figure out how to do this without providing fodder for an increasingly absurd and vociferous Islamophobic political machine. The world of rhetorical authority on gender and Islam is populated ever more loudly by Ayaan Hirsi Alis and Irshad Manjis. And while ideas about women’s oppression at the hands of Muslim men, religion or culture have long been used to light western societies by shadowing Muslim ones, this kind of civilisational dichotomy has been put in service of new wars and new political-economic projects in the region during this century. 

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 3 Dec 2010. Comment.

Ceci n'est pas un cinema

The owners of Saudi Arabia's only cinema, which opened in Dammam last month, appear to be getting a bit nervous about the publicity surrounding it. 

In a move worthy of the surrealist painter, Renι Magritte, and despite appearances to the contrary (see picture above), they are now denying that it's a cinema. It is, in fact, a "projection auditorium" for the "intellectual development of children".

So far, the Saudi non-cinema (which is equipped with special effects seats) has been showing cartoons for child audiences – which are apparently acceptable to religious elements. It has not so far ventured to show any films for grown-ups, though it originally said it intended to do so.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 2 Dec 2010. Comment.

Facebook 'secrets' man jailed in Egypt

With attention in Egypt focused mainly on the rigged election, the jailing of a 30-year-old man for posting "defence secrets" on Facebook has passed without much notice.

Ahmed Hassan Bassyouni, whose case I highlighted here last week, was sentenced to six months' imprisonment and fined LE500 ($85) by a military court on Tuesday.

Bassyouni does not appear to have been a political activist, nor were the "secrets" he supposedly revealed an Egyptian version of Wikileaks. According to his lawyer, he merely set up a Facebook group to guide young Egyptians through the paperwork for military service.

He was arrested on October 30 after giving an interview on Egyptian radio about his activities.

Referring to the sentence, his lawyer told AFP: "This is a message that publishing anything about the armed forces, whether good or bad, won't be allowed."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 2 Dec 2010. Comment.

MEMRI asks for money – again

Yesterday I received a second email from MEMRI asking for money – just a week after the first one. OK, so they've gone into the red to the tune of $1.2 million over the last couple of years but that's not my problem. The answer is no.

As I said before, I haven't a clue why they think I might donate – especially considering the things I've written about them (here, here, here, here, here, and here). But I suppose beggars can't be choosers.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 2 Dec 2010. Comment.

Egypt: Back to square one

What to say about the fraudulent Egyptian elections? When I wrote about the rigging process last Sunday and said "There are indications this time that the government may have been too restrictive for its own good" in its efforts to suppress the opposition, I didn't expect it to be quite this bad. For all practical parliamentary purposes, the opposition parties have been wiped out. There still are run-offs to be held in some areas but the overall picture looks grim.

Mubarak's National Democratic(?) Party was determined to secure its position in preparation for a smooth transfer of power in the presidential vote next year but in the light of this week's poll, "secure" is not a word I would use. It's overwhelming – and dangerously so. As Shadi Hamid of Brookings puts it in the Guardian, "We're talking full-blown, unabashed dictatorship".

The message this sends to Egyptians who are discontented with life under the Mubarak regime (and there are millions of them) is that there is nothing to be gained from participating in electoral processes. Whatever hope there might have been for progress down that road, even in a system that was already so heavily weighted against them, has gone – at least while the old man is still alive and the apparatus that he surrounded himself with remains intact.

That is why the result is so dangerous. If change can't be achieved through the ballot box, people will look increasingly for alternatives. I don't just mean jihadism (though no doubt some will move in that direction) but street protests, strikes, disruption – any way they can think of to express their feelings.

The other side of this is the international reaction. The US State Department is "dismayed by reports of election-day interference" and "disappointed by reports ... of disruption of campaign activities of opposition candidates and arrests of their supporters". 

Dismayed and disappointed. Is that all? Think back to the stolen election in Iran last year and the reaction then. This week's Egyptian election is every bit as scandalous, and yet it is scarcely front-page news. One reason, of course, is that the Wikileaks affair has diverted people's attention. But the bigger reason is that Mubarak, unlike Ahmadinejad, is supposedly a friend of the west.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 1 Dec 2010. Comment.

UPDATE: December 1: Worth reading ... Issandr El Amrani's analysis in al-Masry al-Youm:

"The risk with this state of affairs is that politics becomes entirely a wealth-creation mechanism. With these elections, the autocrats sent a message that whatever opening took place in 2005 is now closed. They will now no longer tolerate genuine political alternatives, particularly ahead of a still uncertain presidential transition. 

"But they also sent a secondary message: that, as long as they operate within the rules, the plutocrats are invited to help themselves to a free-for-all in which court decisions will be routinely ignored, fraud tolerated and money will always trump the rule of law."

Readers' favourites

It's the start of a new month, so here are the top 10 readers' favourites from my blog during November (based on Twitter clicks):

1. Wikileaks: The Arab media dilemma Nov 30
2. Cinema returns to Saudi Arabia Nov 20
3. Date set for maid's execution Nov 3
4. Amer Khaled arrives in Yemen Nov 24 
5. Palestinian arrested for atheism  Nov 12
6. Election-rigging in Egypt Nov 29
7. All the president's family Nov 23
8. Royal families: British and Arab Nov 17
9. Human development and the Arab states Nov 5 
10. Wikileaks: Salih-Petraeus meeting in Yemen Nov 29

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 1 Dec 2010. Comment.

Previous blog posts




December 2010

Tunisia and the media

No answer from Ben Ali

Tunisian protests: week two

Protests spread to Tunis

Protester shot dead in Tunisian riots

Rioting in Tunisia

Saudi protests over schoolgirls' sport

Fatwa calls for death of ElBaradei

Half a million fatwas in Egypt

Yemen: Attacked 'foreigners' were CIA 

Officer kidnapped in southern Yemen

Hushing up Sunni v Shia clashes

Troops die in Yemen attacks

Egyptians in the Israeli army

Riot in Saudi Arabia

Egypt claims hostage reports 'fabricated'

Forbidden names

Clinging to Uncle Sam's coat tails

MEMRI: the crisis continues

Egypt: a parliament of cats and dogs

Saudi Arabia: the conversion business

Saudi court battle over marriage

Separatists kidnap troops in Yemen

Foolish words from the EU ambassador

Egypt accused over human trafficking

Wikileaks: Lebanese newspaper hacked

Sudan fashion models guilty of 'indecency'

Wikileaks: Tunisia, the 'friend' that isn't

Wikileaks: Partying in Saudi Arabia

Wikileaks: Where are the Israel documents?

UN intervenes over Egypt hostages 

Free expression: a strategy in tatters

Migrants 'held hostage in Egypt'

Saudi professor arrested

Wikileaks: Sibling rivalries in Libya

Yemeni MPs to question minister over 'lie'

Wikileaks: Tunisia's next president?

Wikileaks: The Moroccan king's fears

Iraq: the gay factor

Qatar and the World Cup

Wikileaks: a tragi-comedy in Sanaa

Temporary marriages

Ceci n'est pas un cinema

Facebook 'secrets' man jailed in Egypt

MEMRI asks for money – again

Egypt: Back to square one

Readers' favourites


Blog archive

All blog posts

General topics

Saudi Arabia 


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



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Last revised on 14 December, 2010