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Tunisia and the media

"If it was happening in Iran instead of Tunisia, it would be on the front pages of all the newspapers." Complaints of this kind about coverage of the Tunisian uprising keep appearing on the internet – many of them suggesting that editors around the world are protecting Ben Ali's regime from criticism for political reasons.

Politics may come into here and there, but it's not by any means the main factor, as Octavia Nasr (formerly of CNN) explains on her blog

When the trouble broke out in Iran last year, there was already a lot of media interest. The opposition had been active for months and, when the election came, its outcome was uncertain (unlike elections in Tunisia). Journalists who had gone to Iran for the election were already on hand to report the protests that came in its aftermath. 

Tunisia, by contrast, is off the international news map and none of the media are geared up to cover it to any great extent.

Also, while it's easy to see now that the trouble in Sidi Bouzid on December 18 marked the start of something much bigger, that was far from obvious at the time. 

I didn't hear about it myself until four days later when a report from Associated Press appeared on the Washington Post's website. When I first wrote about it on my blog, on December 24, it still looked like a very localised spot of bother: interesting, but hardly the kind of thing that would get news organisations scurrying to despatch reporters to the country.

Incidents of this kind occur quite often, even in unexpected places, and usually they go quiet after a day or two. A similar thing had happened (for different reasons) in the Saudi city of Madina the previous week before fizzling out.

It didn't really become clear until last weekend that the protests in Tunisia, far from fizzling out, were growing and spreading. 

Looking at it now, I think the Tunisian uprising is a very important event, potentially for the whole Middle East, not just Tunisia – though I woudn't have said that a week ago. At the same time, I can see why news organisations aren't pouring vast resources into covering it: there are too many obstacles on the ground and they are still uncertain about how long it will last.

To what extent, though, does international media coverage – or the lack of it – matter? Obviously it's good if people around the world know what is happening but how does it benefit the struggle going on inisde the country? The object of that struggle is not to get pictures in the New York Times; it's to get rid of Ben Ali. 

Some good-quality reporting would be nice, but I doubt that it's going to affect the outcome. Remember: despite all the media coverage of the Iranian protests, Ahmadinejad is still in power.

What we should be much more concerned about at this stage is the flows of information within Tunisia. Considering all the restrictions imposed by the regime, how well are the protesters able to communicate with each other and co-ordinate their efforts?

In his televised speech on Tuesday, President Ben Ali condemend the rioters and seemed to be urging Tunisians to make their point peacefully. 

"We reassert the need to respect freedom of opinion and of speech," he said. "We respect any position if it is expressed within the framework of law, the rules and dialogue."

So, how does this work in practice? 

Here's a little story from last May, when a group of Tunisian activists wanted to take part in the worldwide day against internet censorship.

They went to a police station, filled in the forms requesting permission to demonstrate – and were immediately detained by the police. One of them was then forced to record a video urging people not to turn up for the demonstration and to sign a document acknowledging that his call for a demonstration was "wrong".

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 31 Dec 2010. Comment.

No answer from Ben Ali

Tunisian demonstrators confront the police by singing the national anthem
With the disturbances in Tunisia showing no sign of abating, President Ben Ali decided to address his people on television last night. But his seven-minute speech, also relayed to the wider Arab world via al-Jazeera, didn't go quite according to plan. Three minutes and 39 seconds into the broadcast, crisis turned to hilarity when his phone rang.

Ben Ali didn't answer, and pressed on with his speech, looking slightly uncomfortable as the phone continued ringing. Within minutes of the broadcast ending, jokes about his mystery caller were circulating on Twitter.

As for the speech itself (English transcript here), Ben Ali didn't really have anything to say. A smart politician, in a similar situation, would have offered some new initiative for dealing with it, but from Ben Ali there was nothing beyond what has already been announced. He talked vaguely about "sparing no efforts", and urged government officials to "avoid all shortcomings" and "shoulder their responsibilities".

He expressed sympathy for the unemployed while pointing out that unemployment affects other countries too.

The initial incident with the jobless university graduate that triggered the riots was understandable and regrettable, he said, but it had been exploited "by some sides who do not wish good to the homeland" and by "some foreign television channels which broadcast false and unchecked allegations and rely on dramatisation, fabrication and defamation hostile to Tunisia". 

He also threated to use the law "rigorously" against "a minority of extremists and agitators in the pay of others". 

Overall, it was the kind of speech that old-style Arab leaders typically make when they are in a corner and, in the absence of any real content, and despite his claims that the disturbances have been hyped by foreign media, its actual effect was to signal – unintentionally – to the entire Middle East that something serious is happening in Tunisia.

In a parallel public relations offensive yesterday, Ben Ali paid a hospital visit to Mohammed Bouazizi (the young fruit seller who set fire to himself), "enquiring about his health". A rather grotesque official photograph showed Bouazizi swathed in bandages like an Egyptian mummy.

The president also met parents of Hassan Ben Salah Neji, the young man who electrocuted himself, and Mohamed Ammari, the teenager shot dead by police.

Among other events yesterday, al-Jazeera reports that an anti-government rally in Gafsa was blocked by police. 

In Tunis, about 300 lawyers held a protest near the main government building and a high school trade union demonstrated outside the education ministry.

Distribution of two opposition party newspapers, Tareeq al-Jadid and al-Mawqif, has reportedly been blocked because of their coverage of events in Sidi Bouzid.

The Los Angeles Times has an interesting article by Lahcen Achy about Tunisia's economic policies and where they have gone wrong. 

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 28 Dec 2010. Comment.

Tunisian protests: week two

Demonstrations continued in Tunisia over the weekend and have now entered their second week – an extraordinary development in Ben Ali's police state.

Here is a YouTube video showing protests outside a government building in Kairouan, 120km north-west of Sid Bouzid, and here is another at an unidentified location.

In both videos the protests appear to be nonviolent and police, probably outnumbered, can be seen standing by without intervening. However, a report by al-Ahram Online talks of "a campaign of night raids by security forces" and says that in the capital "security forces brutally attacked protesters to disperse from outside the Tunisian General Labour Union's HQ".

The Algerian news website, Ennahar Online, says hundreds demonstrated over the weekend in Souk Jedid, 15 km south of Sidi Bouzid. "Men of the National Guard [fired] warning shots to disperse demonstrators who surrounded the position of the guard and set fire to the sub-prefecture of this city of more than 19,000 inhabitants," it says, citing a trade union source. A member of the National Guard was reportedly shot in the thigh by mistake.

In Regueb, 37 km southeast of Sidi Bouzid, demonstrators clashed with police on Saturday evening and the disturbances continued through to the early hours of Sunday. "Youths claiming the right to work set fire to a bank to a court and destroyed a cafe belonging to a member of the ruling Democratic Constitutional Rally (RCD)," Ennahar says, again citing a trade union source.

In the video clip below, Renee Odeh of Aljazeera English gives an update on the general situation:

The clip includes an interview with Said Ferjani, of the outlawed Islamist Nahda movement, who touches on what may be the nub of the issue: not so much unemployment itself but the mismatch between the government's constant claims of economic progress and the experience of ordinary Tunisians. If things are really getting better, where is all the money going? 

In an article on al-Jazeera's website headed "Bin Ali Baba – Tunisia's last bey?", Dr Larbi Sadiki of Exeter University discusses the character of the Tunisian regime. He writes:

What happens when money, coercion and blood ties become the potion of power? A "state" is born. Not "Tunis", that place of congeniality and conviviality as its Arabic name suggests. Rather, a different "Tunis", a Tunis which is run and owned by a club of rich and powerful families. That "Tunis" today conjures up a disturbing political triad. "Bin Ali Baba" is partly Papa Doc, partly Suharto reincarnate.

Presidency for life, military background and nepotism, ingredients of misrule prevail as they did once in Haiti and Indonesia. The First Lady is almost the Philippines’ Imelda Marcos incarnate. But instead of shoes, Madame Leila collects villas, real estate and bank accounts. Rule of the wealthy (plutocracy) is wedded to autocracy ...

Yesterday, AFP reported the suicide of another unemployed man. Lotfi Guadri, 34, is said to have thrown himself into a well in Gdéra, five kilometres from Sidi Bouzid. However, it's unclear to what extent his death should be linked to the current protests. A relative is quoted as saying he suffered from psychiatric problems and had been due to start work next month.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 27 Dec 2010. Comment.

Protests spread to Tunis

Protests in Tunisia spread to the capital, Tunis, yesterday when human rights activists, trade unionists and students held a demonstration in the Place Mohamed Ali in solidarity with the people of Sid Bouzid. The nawaat.org website has videos and photographs.

Meanwhile, it is reported (via Twitter) that the towns of Meknassi, Mezouna, Menzel Bouzian – all in the Sidi Bouzid governorate which has been the scene of disturbances during the past week – are under curfew, with joint police-army patrols.

The protests are getting very little coverage in the mainstream media – one reason being the restrictions on journalists imposed by Ben Ali's regime, another being that the international news ogranisations are more or less on autopilot over the Christmas period, and so we're left mainly with information posted by individuals on the internet.

Also, judged within the overall framework of news from the Middle East, the events in Tunisia may not look particularly dramatic: "only" two dead so far, and al-Arabiyya puts the number of participants in yesterday's Tunis demonstration in the hundreds rather than thousands (though it does say that 2,000 took part in the Menzel Bouzaiene riot on Friday).

It's only when you view them in the context of Tunisia, a police state where such things are not supposed to happen at all, that the protests of the last week begin to look much more significant. If the regime isn't worried by them, it ought to be.

Yesterday, nawaat.org reported (in French) that the director-general of the central bank had paid an urgent visit to the presidential palace and that the presidential plane was on standby, ready to fly the Ben Ali family out of the country. That may be wishful thinking on the part of nawaat's sources. However, it may not be entirely preposterous to suggest that the writing is on the wall for the Ben Ali regime, even if its end is still some way off.

The first test is whether the events of the last week will succeed in breaking down the "fear barrier" among the Tunisian public. Is popular discontent about unemployment, corruption and many other things finally beginning to outweigh people's fear of the authorities? And if a small number are seen to have lost their fear, will others join them? It's possible, though by no means certain.

The second, and perhaps more important test, is the reaction from those who help to maintain the regime's control: the security forces and government officials. Will they continue to accept the official line that President Ben Ali has constantly lavished "unfliching care" on his citizens and that "certain sides" are behind the troublemakers? Privately, among the lower ranks at least, they probably share many of the protesters' frustrations. How many of them have sons, daughters, brothers or sisters who are struggling to find a job?

There's a story in the Qur'an – a sort of parable – about the ancient Marib dam in Yemen and how a mouse brought it down by dislodging a single stone, and in the process destroyed a civilisation. The trigger for the Tunisian riots was something equally small. Twenty-six-year-old Mohamed Bouazizi had a university degree but no work. To help out his family he took to selling fruit and vegetables in the street without a licence. When the authorities stopped him and confiscated his produce, he set himself on fire.

Bouazizi's action was extreme, but his plight is something many Tunisians can relate to. Contrast that with the corruption and the notoriously extravagant lifestyle of the president's family, and the anger becomes even more understandable. As the American ambassador put it last year, in a cable recently published by Wikileaks:

"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."

Besides the shopaholic Leila Trabelsi, there's the president's son-in-law and possible successor, Mohamed Sakhr El-Matri (or Materi), whose pet tiger consumes four chickens a day. The American ambassador had dinner at his house in Hammamet last year (again, reported in a Wikileaks document):

El-Materi's house is spacious, and directly above and along the Hammamet public beach. The compound is large and well guarded by government security. It is close to the center of Hammamet, with a view of the fort and the southern part of the town. The house was recently renovated and includes an infinity pool and a terrace of perhaps 50 meters. While the house is done in a modern style (and largely white), there are ancient artifacts everywhere: Roman columns, frescoes and even a lion's head from which water pours into the pool. El Materi insisted the pieces are real. He hopes to move into his new (and palatial) house in Sidi Bou Said in eight to ten months.

The dinner included perhaps a dozen dishes, including fish, steak, turkey, octopus, fish couscous and much more. The quantity was sufficient for a very large number of guests. Before dinner a wide array of small dishes were served, along with three different juices (including Kiwi juice, not normally available here). After dinner, he served ice cream and frozen yoghurt he brought in by plane from Saint Tropez, along with blueberries and raspberries and fresh fruit and chocolate cake. (NB. El Materi and Nesrine [his wife] had just returned from Saint Tropez on their private jet after two weeks vacation.)

... Most striking of all, however, was the opulence with which El Materi and Nesrine live. Their home in Hammamet was impressive, with the tiger adding to the impression of "over the top." Even more extravagant is their home still under construction in Sidi Bou Said. That residence, from its outward appearance, will be closer to a palace. It dominates the Sidi Bou Said skyline from some vantage points and has been the occasion of many private, critical comments. The opulence with which El Materi and Nesrine live and their behaviour make clear why they and other members of Ben Ali's family are disliked and even hated by some Tunisians. The excesses of the Ben Ali family are growing.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 26 Dec 2010. Comment.

Protester shot dead in Tunisian riots

A teenage protester was shot dead by police yesterday as rioting continued in Tunisia. 

Demonstrators in Menzel Bouzaiene reportedly set fire to three police cars, a train locomotive, the local headquarters of the ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally party and a national guard post.

The interior ministry said police shot "in self-defence" after being attacked with Molotov cocktails. The dead youth was named as Mohamed Ammari, 18.

Menzel Bouzaiene is about 70km south of Sidi Bouzid where there were riots after a young unemployed man set fire to himself last Saturday. On Wednesday, another unemployed man committed suicide in Sidi Bouzid by climbing an electricity pole and touching the wires.

Menzel Bouzaiene is now said to be sealed off, with no one allowed in or out, so it is difficult to be sure exactly what is going on.

Nevertheless, some information is leaking out via the internet. A video shows the burning police station (national guard post) and there's a photo purportedly showing a youngster who was tortured in Menzel Bouzaiene. Other information can be found on Twitter (#sidibouzid). The Moor Next Door blog discusses the situation in Tunisia and nawaat.org has a compilation of media coverage since the trouble began.

The big question is what effect – if any – this will have on the police state run by 74-year-old President Ben Ali. It has reacted, predictably enough, with a security clampdown and lots of arrests. On Thursday, the development minister also travelled to Sidi Bouzid and promised a $10m employment programme.

Whether the regime fully appreciates the potential scale of its problem, though, is another matter. In a system where people can't speak freely and fawning to the president is the order of the day, it's very difficult to examine the underlying issues objectively and address them properly.

Sid Bouzid's regional council held a special session on Thursday where it appears to have buried its head in the sand. A statement afterwards said it had ...

" ... extended warm thanks and high consideration to President Zine el Abidine Ben Ali for his commitment to lay the foundations of a comprehensive, fair and balanced development, as well as for the unflinching care he has constantly lavished on regions, as testified to it by the multitude of projects launched for the region’s benefit, the gains and achievements accomplished to hoist it to the rank of an active development pole."

If the disturbances in and around Sidi Bouzid are successfully quelled, the regime may fail to heed the warning signs. It's not a local matter. Fifty-four per cent of Tunisians are under 30 and many of them are well educated but frustrated. Unemployment is officially running at around 13% – which probably means it's actually a good deal higher.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 25 Dec 2010. Comment.

Rioting in Tunisia

Following an "incident" in the town of Sid Bouzid, Tunisia issued a statement to clarify "the groundless rumours spread by certain sides". It said:

"The matter has to do with a procedure carried out by the city of Sidi Bouzid’s municipal regulations services, as part of their ordinary monitoring operations, by notifying a street vendor who was carrying out his activities in an area unauthorised to this effect. The concerned services reminded the citizen to move away his activity elsewhere.

"The vendor refused to comply with the rules and insisted on remaining on the spot. And, when the municipal agents enforced the law, the vendor doggedly stuck to his refusal and attempted to his life by setting fire to himself."

The vendor in question was Mohamed Bouazizi, a 26-year-old university graduate who had been unable to find a job. He set himself on fire last Saturday when police confiscated the fruit and vegetables he was selling on a stall without a licence. He is now critically ill in hospital with third-degree burns.

Rioting followed – an unusual occurrence in Ben Ali's police state – and continued into Sunday with police firing tear gas to disperse the crowds. A number of videos have been posted on YouTube recording the scenes, though journalists have been prevented from entering the town.

On Wednesday, another unemployed man in Sidi Bouzid, 24-year-old Hussein Nagi Felhi, reportedly announced that he was going to end his life. He climbed a high-voltage electricity pole, shouted "no for misery, no for unemployment" and touched the wires.

The AP report continues:

The suicide angered young protesters, who hurled stones at police and were met by volleys of tear gas. Protesters in a nearby town set an administrative building on fire, said Mohamed Ben Fadhel, a local leader of a teachers' union.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 24 Dec 2010. Comment.

Saudi protests over schoolgirls' sport

Six girls-only high schools in Jeddah are being investigated by the Saudi education ministry for holding a sports competition without the ministry's permission.

Two hundred girls took part in the event on December 8, which included basketball, badminton, athletics and swimming. But when pictures appeared in the newspapers conservative elements began complaining and harassing the schools.

Farida Farsi, chairman of al-Hamra Schools, told Arab News she received "a huge number of letters and telephone calls from conservative Saudi men and sheikhs who said that I should’ve known better and advised me not to hold such competitions in the future because it’s not lady-like".

Sameera al-Harakan, administrator at al-Ferdous Schools, also had complaints: "I received more than 60 messages from anonymous people demanding I stop girls from taking part in sports, and that this is a boys-only activity and not for girls."

Arab News continues:

Ahmed al-Zahrani, director of the Girls Education Department in Jeddah, said the schools that participated in the competition have broken Ministry of Education rules and will be investigated ...

"We don’t have any regulations that say that it’s okay for girl schools to hold sports classes or training. This tournament was held by these schools, something that has now led us to know about their illegal activities," he said.

Female sporting activity in Saudi Arabia is generally discouraged by traditionalists 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.

Last July, a campaign was launched to ban Saudi Arabia from the 2012 Olympics unless women are allowed to take part.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 22 Dec 2010. Comment.

Fatwa calls for death of ElBaradei

An Egyptian cleric has issued a fatwa authorising the killing of Mohamed ElBaradei, the former head of the IAEA who is campaigning for reform in Egypt.

The fatwa, from Sheikh Mahmoud Amer, which is posted on the website of the Ansar al-Sunnah al-Muhamadiya, says: 

"We, in Egypt, are a people that for the most part follow the religion of Islam and anybody reading ElBaradei's statements can see that these call for civil disobedience and incite civil unrest against our Muslim ruler [President Hosni Mubarak] ... 

Regardless of the status of Egypt's ruler in the eyes of some people, he is the ruler and so should be listened to and obeyed … therefore ElBaradei and others are not entitled to make such statements [calling for civil disobedience]."

Sheikh Amer calls on ElBaradei to "declare his repentance for what he has said … otherwise the ruler is permitted to imprison or kill him in order to prevent sedition".

Several scholars at the government-controlled al-Azhar university have condemned the fatwa, as has the Egyptian Organisation for Human Rights, though it remains to be seen whether the authorities will take any action against Sheikh Amer.

Meanwhile, the Gamal Mubarak Support Coalition has filed more than 15 legal complaints against ElBaradei, alleging that he incited civil disobedience when calling for a boycott of next year’s presidential elections.

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Posted by Brian Whitaker, 22 Dec 2010. Comment.

Half a million fatwas in Egypt

Egypt's state-controlled Dar al-Ifta has issued almost half a million fatwas this year, according to its annual report.

"The edicts pertained to modern-day issues, such as a widow’s in vitro fertilisation, fetal gender determination, abortions, artificial heart valves made of pig tissue, and real estate loan interest," a 
news item in al-Masry al-Youm says.

Out of the 464,321 religious rulings issued by Dar al-Ifta, 2,316 were given in writing, 88,133 verbally and 255,058 over the phone. A further 113,468 were posted on the internet and 5,346 were issued in response to requests from abroad.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 21 Dec 2010. Comment.

Yemen: Attacked 'foreigners' were CIA 

It has emerged that the four people attacked in Sana'a last week (and described rather vaguely by the US embassy as "foreign residents" of Yemen) were in fact working for the CIA.

Their vehicle, a Toyota Hilux pickup truck, had stopped near the Pizzaiola restaurant in the Hadda district around 8.30 last Wednesday evening when it was attacked. The Yemen Observer 
says a grenade was thrown under it; the Yemen Times says an explosive device was placed in the back of it or underneath but failed to detonate properly.

No one was injured and it's unclear if the CIA employees were in the vehicle at the time.

A Jordanian man was promptly arrested by Yemeni "police protection officers" who appear to have been on hand. He is said to have had a silenced pistol, four different ID cards, and explosive materials in his possession.

The Pizzaiola restaurant is popular with foreigners and it's possible the attacker was simply targeting "westerners": he may not have been aware of the CIA connection. On the other hand, there may be more to this story than meets the eye.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 21 Dec 2010. Comment.

Officer kidnapped in southern Yemen

Yemen's southern separatists kidnapped an army officer near Habilayn (Lahej province) at the weekend – apparently as a bargaining ploy for the release of prisoners.

The officer, identified by the Yemen Post as Major Muhammad al-Khawlani and by AFP as Captain Mohammed Ali Abdullah Hadyan, is said to be a prominent member of an influential northern tribe which has now sent high-level mediators to the south.

AFP says "Capturing soldiers appears to be a new tactic adopted by the Southern Movement" – which it is, though hostage-taking for bargaining purposes is a long-established practice in Yemen. In this instance, it seems to have been prompted by the death sentence imposed on Fares Adbullah Saleh, a separatist who was convicted of killing four people in two bombings.

Last week, a group of soldiers were taken hostage in the south but promptly released after tribal mediation. 

For several months now, al-Qaeda has also been assassinating individual officers working for the government's security services in the south.

Meanwhile, disturbances continue in Habilayn following last week's demonstration and gun battle, and the military have
sent reinforcements to the area.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 20 Dec 2010. Comment.

Hushing up Sunni v Shia clashes

Saudi newspapers are continuing to portray Thursday night's rioting in the holy city of Madina as an outbreak of youthful vandalism. Meanwhile, police are claiming it was triggered by "an argument between teenagers during a football match".

Eight hundred people are said to have taken part in the riot; windows were smashed, about 38 cars were destroyed or damaged and an unknown number of people – including three security officers – were injured, according to published reports. The sabq.org website has a series of pictures, though they mainly show bystanders.

Today's Arab News reports that the area affected is still being guarded by 10 teams of special security forces, 60 patrol policemen and 300 security officers "to prevent further violence between the two groups". Thirty-eight people are said to have been arrested, "from both sides".

The kingdom's mainstream media have gone out of their way not to mention the sectarian nature of the riot, though it must be obvious to their readers that the trouble occurred on the night of Ashura, when Shia Muslims mourn the martyrdom of the Prophet's grandson at the battle of Karbala – an event that lies at the heart of the Sunni-Shia schism. Al-Riyadh newspaper did give a small clue, though, when it  blamed the rioting on "young zealots who were wearing black clothes" (a reference to the Ashura mourning rituals).

According to Shia sources, the violence in Madina started when a large group of Sunni extremists from the Asbaa district (which is mostly Sunni) attacked Shia Muslims in the Qabaa district with sticks and stones.

In many ways, Madina is a microcosm of the kingdom's sectarian problem, in which the Shia communities (about 10% of the population) have been marginalised and discriminated against over many years. The issue is generally considered so sensitive that it can't be discussed in public, and increasingly it has become linked with fears about Iranian influence.

As well as being a major centre for Sunni Islam, Madina is home to a large and long-standing Shia community. It is also home to the Islamic University, founded by a royal decree in 1961, which has around 7,000 students and is regarded as one of the world's main training centres for Salafi preachers.

Another bone of contention in the city is the Baqi' cemetery where the Prophet and a number of his companions are buried. In 1925, King Abd al-Aziz ordered the destruction of various mausoleums on the site – in line with Wahhabi doctrine which prohibits "grave worshipping" and revering the dead. Shia Muslims resented this and still commemorate the demolition with Yaum-e Gham (the "Day of Sorrow").

Shia visits to the cemetery have been contentious in the past. Last year there were clashes between Shia pilgrims form Qateef on one side and Saudi police and Sunnis on the other.

Women are also normally banned from the cemetery though in 2008, for the first time, King Abdullah permitted a group of female Iranian pilgrims to visit it.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 19 Dec 2010. Comment.

Troops die in Yemen attacks

As many as eight soldiers are reported killed in two separate incidents in southern Yemen.

Arriving on three motorbikes and in two minibuses, a group of armed men attacked a military checkpoint in the Shahara area of Zinjibar (Abyan province) around 4.30am on Friday with machineguns, grenades and RPGs, just as the soldiers finished their dawn prayers.

Conflicting accounts say between two and four soldiers were killed and five or seven injured. Al-Qaeda is suspected.

Four soldiers, including an army major, also died in the Habilayn district of Lahej province after a fight broke out on Thursday – apparently involving members of the Southern Movement. The trouble appears to have started when the military killed Abbas Tanbaj (or Tanbah), described a member of the movement who was wanted by the authorities.

That incident followed a demonstration in Habilayn (reported by the Aden News Agency) which seems to have been boycotted by some prominent figures in the south. The report talks of leadership disputes within the Southern Movement.

A US embassy vehicle was attacked with an explosive device on Wednesday, reportedly while parked outside a pizza restaurant in the upmarket Hadda district of Sanaa. It is unclear exactly what happened (CNN, Fox News, AFP and AP all give slightly differing accounts) but no one was injured and a Jordanian man has been arrested.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 18 Dec 2010. Comment.

Egyptians in the Israeli army

An short news item in al-Masry al-Youm says that 13% of the Israeli army's civilian employees are Egyptians, "according to recent reports in the Israeli media".

I'm curious to know more but the report has no further information beyond saying that the Egyptian ministry of manpower estimates there are 20,000-30,000 Egyptians living in Israel.

I have been searching for the Israeli media reports but can't find them – at least nothing in English. Can any reader cast more light on this?

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 18 Dec 2010. Comment.

Riot in Saudi Arabia

A large riot broke out in the Saudi city of Madinah on Thursday night. Arab News says:

According to some eyewitnesses, the trouble started when some teenagers and youths in al-Osbah neighborhood and residents of nearby districts began throwing stones at one another at about 10 p.m. on Thursday. The rioters, whose number he estimated at 800 men, also broke window glasses of parked cars.

Police have not said what caused the trouble and according to Arab News they are still trying to find out.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 18 Dec 2010. Comment.

UPDATE, 18 December: AFP and AP are reporting the clashes as a conflict between Sunni Muslims and the minority Shia Muslims who were taking part in Ashoura commemorations. The rasid.com website also has a report in Arabic.

Egypt claims hostage reports 'fabricated'

Egypt continues to dispute that large numbers of Eritrean migrants are being held hostage in Sinai by human traffickers. 

On Tuesday, foreign ministry spokesman Hossam Zaki 
described the reports as "fabrications" concocted by "dubious organisations" to stir up public opinion in Europe.

"We called on whoever has any information to present it to the Egyptian authorities," Zaki said, "but no one ever presented any information, so what shall we do?"

The foreign ministry is not telling the truth, according to Matteo Pegoraro, of EveryOneGroup, an Italian-based human rights group, quoted in al-Masry al-Youm.

Pegoraro insisted that Egypt has been provided with "all the information necessary" to locate the hostages.

They are being held on the outskirts of Rafah, inside a house near a government building, surrounded by a fruit orchard, next to a large mosque and a church that has been turned into a school, he told the paper.

In a statement on its website, EveryOneGroup says it has also provided Egypt with the mobile phone numbers of some of the traffickers, as well as the names of two of the guards.

"But in spite of this detailed description, the authorities have not lifted a finger," Pegoraro said.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 17 Dec 2010. Comment.

Forbidden names

The problem of Arab governments restricting the choice of names that can be given to children is an issue that I've discussed here before. It arises particularly among ethnic groups such as the Berbers in Morocco and the Kurds in Syria.

Human Rights Watch, which has been working on this issue in Morocco, now reports some progress. The law requires names to be "Moroccan in nature" and last April the interior ministry finally agreed that Amazigh (Berber) names could be included in the definition of "Moroccan".

"In the eight months since, there have been fewer complaints from citizens that local bureaus of the Civil Registry have refused to register Amazigh given names," HRW says.

However, it adds that the general requirement to choose names (from an officially-approved list) that are deemed "Moroccan in nature" continues to limit parents' choices and create administrative obstacles.

The historical roots of this policy lie in Arab nationalism and a desire to promote Arab-Islamic names as part of a wider process of diminishing the influence of the indigenous Berber culture. Since Mohammed VI came to the throne, though, there has been increasing recognition for Morocco's Berber heritage.

Despite this relaxation in the rules for choosing names, the Moroccan authorites still do not accept the fundamental principle that it's the parents' prerogative. 

Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East and North Africa director at HRW, said: "Morocco should reform its law to limit strictly the government's role in the name-regulating business. Unless a first name is patently offensive or objectionable or harmful to the interests of the child, authorities have no business curbing the right of parents to make this very personal choice."

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 16 Dec 2010. Comment.

Clinging to Uncle Sam's coat tails

Discussing the Wikileaks cables relating to the Arab countries on his blog, Gary Sick of Columbia University writes:

A theme that is prevalent in all these diplomatic cables is the working assumption by the various host countries that the United States can solve their problems for them. 

Those Arabs berating Iran had no plans of their own for dealing with their lowering neighbour. Rather, they merely seemed to be venting in the hopes of persuading the Americans to do something, anything, to solve the problem of Iran’s growing influence in the Persian Gulf. 

Publicly, however, they opposed such action. As the Prime Minister of Qatar memorably remarked: “They (the Iranians) lie to us and we lie to them.” Still, at the same time in other conversations Arab leaders and government officials were wringing their hands — publicly and privately — that military action would lead to a “catastrophe.”

So they seemed to be saying to their American colleagues: “I will hold your coat in private while you take action that I publicly deplore, and when it produces a catastrophe I will say that I told you so.”

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 16 Dec 2010. Comment.

MEMRI: the crisis continues

Dear Brian,

As a valued reader of MEMRI, you already know that producing and distributing MEMRI research while maintaining the numerous MEMRI websites is an increasingly costly undertaking ...

Indeed, I do know. MEMRI is losing money – lots of it – and this is the third email they have sent me in less than a month, begging for help. Once again, the answer is no.

Posted by Brian Whitaker, 16 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

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



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Last revised on 31 December, 2010