Arab Reform Bulletin: May 2008
|Wednesday, May 14,2008 18:57|
|By Michele Dunne|
To view this issue as a PDF, click here.
Read the Arab Reform Bulletin and other Middle East Program publications in Arabic at
Read the Arab Reform Bulletin and other Middle East Program publications in English at
Egypt: Second Generation Internet Users and Political Change
Jordan/Egypt: Why Don’t the Benefits of Growth Trickle Down?
Syria: Will the Anti-Trust Law Make a Difference?
Egypt: Salary and Price Increases; Local Elections; Brothers Sentenced
New publications on Palestine and the Arab-Israeli conflict, Iraq, Egypt, human rights, Islamist politics, Arab economies, and more.
Insights and Analysis
Kuwait: Interview with Ali al-Rashed, National Assembly member and candidate
Who has been responsible for the repeated crises between the Kuwaiti government and the recently dissolved National Assembly?
There were undoubtedly a number of responsible parties, but mainly it was members of the ruling family who were removed from positions of influence and wanted to get back at those who removed them. Such members sometimes would take this out on the prime minister and his first deputy, inciting Assembly members beholden to them to create problems in an effort to have the Assembly dissolved.
How will the law reducing electoral districts from twenty-five to five influence the parliamentary elections scheduled for May 17?
I hope for the better. We must recognize an important truth, which is that the people are used to the twenty-five district system that was in place for twenty-five years. We will not be able to judge the new system by these first elections; it will take another round to get used to the five district system and for it to produce a more effective National Assembly.
What do you say to accusations that the National Assembly has become an obstacle to economic growth?
This is not true, and I do not agree with it. The government merely wants to pin its own shortcomings in achieving growth on the National Assembly, and it uses the huge government media outlets to do this. It does this because the Assembly questions the government and holds it accountable on issues such as deficiencies in hospital, road, and housing construction. We ask why the government has no work program and vision for the years ahead.
When we entered the Assembly, we met with His Highness the Emir and the prime minister and asked them to submit any law or economic development plan that would benefit the country and that they wanted the National Assembly to enact. We were ready to hold a special session and to vote upon any plan without delay. The government did not once request that any law be enacted or voted upon. This shows that the neglect was on the part of the government, not the Assembly.
Do you expect improved cooperation between the government and the new Assembly after the elections?
There will be cooperation when the government has a real vision and specifies what it wants to do for the country with a clearly defined growth program offering specific dates. There will be cooperation when the government understands the meaning of democracy. The government does not know the meaning of democracy because in its view democracy means that the National Assembly approves everything that is presented to it; the government considers any disagreement a lack of cooperation. This means that it considers the views of the Assembly to be always wrong. If the government"s understanding does not change, it cannot say that the Assembly is uncooperative.
What is your view of the first experience with women’s participation in the 2006 elections? Do you expect any women to be elected this time?
I hope so. We are now taking the first steps toward social acceptance of female participation in elections. The performances of former minister Massouma al-Mubarak and current Minister of Education Nouria al-Subeih have demonstrated women’s abilities. We as a movement remain convinced that women are capable of serving in government, but there are other movements that believe the contrary. We always want to prove that women are capable of achievement, sometimes more so than men.
We as a society need some years to accept the situation and make an historic transition. This is natural in all societies, but I believe that in Kuwait we will achieve this transformation quickly, even before some of those states that had women in parliament before we did.
I am convinced that if women do not win in these elections, then they will in the next elections. But I expect that at least one woman will win in the coming elections and join the Assembly and we will support her. We, the National Democratic Alliance, will include women on our lists.
Do you think that the new Assembly will legalize the formation of political parties? And how would that affect the political process?
I hope that it will. I was the first to propose a law for the formation of political parties in the National Assembly. The current situation is chaotic. We need parties, governed by a law so that their size and funding and foreign links can be made clear. I submitted a draft law, but it was not debated because its turn did not come up. I will do so again in the coming session and will take care to ensure that it is a priority.
How do you see the future of the liberal movement, to which you belong?
I believe the liberal movement will achieve greater acceptance in the future and will attract many Kuwaitis. There are many who are leaving the Islamist movements. This is a good thing because the citizens of Kuwait have begun to realize that these movements are political, and that although they cloak themselves in religion, they are in no way religious. For us it is a matter of time and expansion, particularly in tribal areas where our presence is limited.
The Democratic National Alliance is new, only four years old. This is the first time that a movement of this age has announced candidates for three of the five constituencies; we might have as many as eight candidates. For us, this is not a simple step. We need the people to trust us more and we need greater media outreach and material assistance from our supporters.
In the past there has been some cooperation between liberals and Islamists in the National Assembly; will this be repeated?
That depends on the issue. Sometimes there are common issues, such as the electoral districts, which all agree upon. However, there are issues upon which we do not agree, such as personal freedoms. We, the liberals, consider such freedoms a red line and cannot accept any violation. The Islamists want to be the caretakers of society and we do not accept that.
Might you cooperate on a law legalizing political parties?
Yes, it is possible. We might differ on the details, but we all want a law organizing parties. There is sure to be significant cooperation on this among all of the groups in the National Assembly, not just between us and the Islamists.
The law proposing coeducation, which you proposed, incited a major controversy in Kuwait.
I received death threats because of this law. One zealot, not one of the Islamists, threatened that if I did not withdraw the proposal he would shoot me.
The law of coeducation is extremely simple. It stipulates that male and female students be permitted to study in the same lecture hall in the universities. This law was applied in Kuwait between 1965 and 1996—thirty-one years—but after the emergence of the Islamists in 1996 the situation changed and male and female students were segregated.
Segregation by sex has proved to be a failure culturally, scientifically, and practically. I proposed the coeducation law because it is a natural development and prepares male and female students to work in society. I have faced a number of accusations, but I have also been surprised by the extent of popular support the bill has enjoyed. This shows that I stirred something in the hearts of the people. They support this approach and this proposal, which I will continue to push until it is enacted, because we refuse paternalism and it is our right to choose how we educate our children. I will continue the struggle against any effort to infringe upon our freedoms.
Michele Dunne conducted this interview and Kevin Burnham translated it from Arabic.
Ahmad Zaki Osman
Although the general strikes on April 6 and May 4 have drawn limited public participation, they have revealed an important new political phenomenon in Egypt: political mobilization by young, second generation internet users via blogs, YouTube, and Facebook. After two years of intensive government efforts to outmaneuver the opposition, this mobilization caught the regime flat-footed. It highlighted the possible role of interactive non-traditional media in bringing about political change in Egypt, just as the government’s heavy-handed response to the strikes revealed its failure to find new forms of political control aside from the usual repression by the security apparatus.
In the past few years, bloggers and other internet users have played several different roles in Egyptian politics. First, internet users have voiced direct criticism of President Mubarak’s regime. For example, bloggers went beyond criticizing the amended Article 76 of the constitution, which regulates the process for presidential elections, and mobilized to record the flagrant abuses that tarnished the popular referendum on the amendment in May 2005, notably the sexual harassment of female journalists. The bloggers also stood in solidarity with the reformist judges who were subject to systematic attacks by circles close to the regime.
Bloggers have played a crucial role in uncovering abuses by institutions loyal to the regime. The spread of mobile phone video technology enabled bloggers to reveal incidents of torture in a number of detention centers, incidents that later became legal cases before the courts. Such efforts built bridges between bloggers and domestic human rights groups; some blogs now systematically map detention facilities in which officers commonly physically abuse detainees. The political opposition has used bloggers’ documentation to attack the regime for its use of torture not only as a means of suppressing political opposition but also in controlling political and social mobility.
Another area of blogger activism is the state of religious minorities, an extremely sensitive issue in Egypt. During the last three years, some blogs have specialized in transmitting the views of religious minorities in Egypt, as well as forms of discrimination practiced against them. Perhaps the most prominent examples are the blogs founded by members of the Baha’i religion. Blogs such as Baha’i misri (Egyptian Baha’i) and Min wijhat nazar ukhra (From Another Perspective) have become not only a source of information on the Baha’i sect and their situation in Egypt, but also a way to mobilize support for their demands. There are also blogs that document religious discrimination against Christians, expressing criticism that differs radically from the conciliatory political discourse of the Egyptian Coptic Orthodox Church. Here, the blog Aqbat bila hudud (Copts without Borders), edited by Hala Butrus, has given voice to those who see discrimination against Christians as being rooted not only in society but in the state and question the regime’s official discourse about "national unity."
Yet another area that bloggers are probing is the battle over strategies for various political players. Some recent examples include blogs by members of the Muslim Brotherhood and their debates over the draft party platform put forward by the Guidance Bureau in 2007. In the past, Brotherhood blogs served mainly to express the movement’s political ideas and recruit new members, for example students. In discussing the platform, however, the blogs expressed and crystallized the struggle between the reformists (such as Ana ikhwan) and the conservatives. Most Brotherhood blogs joined the reformist side of the debate, rejecting ideas such as supervision of the executive and legislative branches by a board of religious scholars or exclusion of women and Copts from the presidency. Brotherhood bloggers are also credited with bringing disagreements over the platform out from behind closed doors—as they are now doing with many political topics that were once taboo in Egypt.
Ahmad Zaki Osman is a journalist for the Egyptian daily al-Badeel. Paul Wulfsberg translated this article from Arabic.
Ibrahim Saif and Ava Leone
Recent labor protests and bread lines in Egypt—in which the army was called in to organize distribution and restore order—present a stark contrast to the Egyptian government’s narrative of impressive economic growth, which international financial institutions have validated. Jordan has not experienced serious protests recently, but it is also witnessing growing complaints about inflation despite notable economic growth. In both countries, the private sector has begun to play a much larger role, gross domestic product (GDP) has accelerated, and foreign direct investment, financial markets, and real estate are booming. Yet the two countries’ economies have thus far failed to address the needs of their poorest citizens, who feel the acute inflation in basic commodity prices. The gap between the rich and poor has not been reduced and unemployment levels remain stagnant.
Jordan’s real GDP grew steadily at an annual rate of 6 percent from 2003 to 2007. Investment surged from JD 52.8 million ($74.8 million) in 2002 to JD 2.2 billion ($3.1 billion) in 2006 and all other macro indicators are similarly positive. Nevertheless, unemployment remains static at approximately 14 percent and the number of Jordanians living below the poverty line—estimated at 14.7 percent in recent government reports—has not declined.
There are many explanations for this welfare-less growth. First, growth in Jordan has come from just a few sectors such as manufacturing, telecommunications, and construction. Within the manufacturing sector, most jobs resulted from qualifying industrial zones, designated areas that produce and export to U.S. markets. Investors mainly came from South Asia and based their competitiveness on cheap labor; 54 percent of some 40,000 new jobs in manufacturing have gone to non-Jordanians. In the construction sector, most new jobs also benefited foreign labor, primarily from Egypt. Thus, these sectors experienced growth and job creation, yet very little that benefited unemployed Jordanians. When new jobs were filled by Jordanians, they tended to be in low-paying sectors such as domestic services. These jobs are generally characterized by unacceptable working conditions and a lack of social security or overtime arrangements that protect workers.
The Jordanian finance and telecommunication sectors do create high-paying jobs, but they require levels of education that the poor normally do not possess. That growth has not benefited the poor is confirmed by the Gini coefficient—one of the most common means of measuring income inequality, where 0 corresponds to perfect equality and 1 to perfect inequality—which remained stagnant at 0.37 between 2002 and 2006. Jordan"s unchanging ratio suggests that despite economic growth, no structural change has taken place in terms of income or consumption that would permit greater mobility between social classes.
In Egypt, real GDP grew at a sluggish 1.7 percent in 2003 but has climbed steadily since, reaching 6.8 percent in 2007 and expected to exceed 7 percent for the 2007/2008 fiscal year. As a result of the 2.4 million new jobs, unemployment fell from 10.5 percent in 2006 to 9 percent in 2007. Just as in Jordan, however, growth in Egypt has come largely in sectors (energy, telecommunications, and construction) that do not employ unskilled workers, thus cannot absorb the 20 percent of citizens who live below the poverty line. The real estate market has been booming, putting housing increasingly out of the reach of the poor. Furthermore, the government has been forced to maintain food subsidies, leading to a budget deficit that in 2007 reached 7.5 percent of GDP and is expected to increase in 2008.
Hardship for many Egyptians is likely to increase. As in Jordan, the Egyptian government has begun to align energy prices with the international market, and intends to phase out most industrial energy subsidies by 2010. Egyptians—many of whom have stagnant wages—thus are beginning to feel the effect of global increases in energy and food prices, leading to an inflation rate of 6.2 percent in 2006 and 8.8 percent in 2007. Inflation has been concentrated in items such as food and basic commodities, which constitute a significant share of a household"s consumption. In 2007, food items accounted for 44 percent of total inflation and increased energy costs contributed 13.5 percent. Shortages also are emerging, as the recent bread crisis demonstrated.
Economic reform has also led to other changes that are beginning to spark unrest in Egypt. Thirty-eight percent of Egyptians who receive wages or salaries work without formal contracts or social insurance; in the private sector, the number is an astounding 71 percent. There is evidence that privatization has led to deterioration in health and safety conditions, as the Ministry of Manpower and Trade Unions tries to create a balance between the rights of workers and the economic interests of private sector owners. As a result, in 2007-8, Egypt witnessed an intensity of worker strikes and mobilization that had not been seen in decades. The strikes began in clothing factories, but have since spread to include a broader spectrum of the Egyptian working class and have increasingly become political in nature.
It is possible that both Egypt and Jordan are witnessing transition periods and that eventually the benefits of remarkable economic growth will trickle down to the poor. For now, the poor are suffering disproportionately from the inflation that often accompanies growth, as well as from global price trends. Inflation is generally more prevalent in food items and basic commodities that constitute the largest share of the poor"s consumption basket. Conversely, property and equity owners can adapt their expenditures and are more protected against the consequences of inflation. Considering the troubling political implications, it would behoove the Jordanian and Egyptian governments to formulate comprehensive macroeconomic polices to promote trickle down sooner rather than later. In this regard, governments should revise their fiscal policies toward subsidizing those in need rather than subsidizing all. Governments should also work to dismantle monopolies, particularly in commodity markets, so that the poor can negotiate more effectively.
Ibrahim Saif is a resident associate at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. Ava Leone is currently working as a researcher in the Economics Unit of Center for Strategic Studies at the University of Jordan.
On April 4, Syria issued its first Competition and Anti-Trust Law (Law No 7/2008), which some observers consider a significant marker on the road from a planned to a market economy. The anti-trust legislation follows on the heels of several new laws issued over the past months, including a new commercial law, an incorporation law, and an arbitration law, replacing old ones dating to 1949. All are designed to open the way for private investment, including foreign investment, and to bring Syria into line with international legal and business practices.
Kanaan al-Ahmar, the Syrian attorney who played a large role in drafting the anti-trust law (click here for the entire text in Arabic), told editor Jihad Yazigi of The Syria Report (Syria’s top economic digest) that the Competition and Anti-Trust law has five main provisions:
But no law is better than the authority that oversees and upholds it. Yazigi explains that "the text of the anti-trust law is as good and modern as any equivalent law in another country. Syria’s business environment has been significantly improved by this and the other laws promulgated recently. However, implementation will be a problem; one should not expect too much in the short-term. Most members of the body in charge of overseeing its implementation are appointed by the government. In other words, it is a very good law that will require political reform before it works as efficiently as it is meant to."
The government will completely control the thirteen-member Competition Council that will monitor the law’s implementation. Serving at the pleasure of the prime minister, the body will include eight financial and legal experts selected by various ministers and heads of government financial commissions, three businessmen selected by the Federations of Chambers of Commerce, and two unionists, one from the General Workers Union and another from the Peasants Union.
Among the key questions about the implementation of the new law is how, if at all, it will apply to industries currently dominated by the state. One Syrian businessman, a Wall Street executive who has numerous interests in Syria, said "It is not monopolies within the private sector that bother us businessmen; it is the state monopolies. The state owns some 250 different businesses of which only eight or so are profitable. They belong to the telecom and petroleum industries. The others are almost all dogs and produce tires, beer, biscuits, bottled water, cigarettes…the list goes on. Every businessman I know wants to get into these fields; there is good money to be made, but the state has to give up its monopolies first."
At the same time, despite their continuing frustration at the slow pace of change and continuing heavy hand of the state, many Syrian businessmen believe that the government is on the right track. "If Bashar has done one thing, he has changed some of the archaic and idiotic laws," one businessman said. President al-Assad also has opened up several strategic industries—banking, insurance, and advertising—to private capital. Investor response in these industries has been very good. Initial public offerings (IPO) of banks entering into the Syrian market have been oversubscribed. When Bank Audi entered the Syrian market in 2005, its IPO was oversubscribed by a massive 988 percent. Fransabank, the newest entrant into Syria just had its IPO in March, which was oversubscribed by 250 percent of the value of the offering.
The success of the financial sector has whetted the appetite of regional investors. And while it is not clear how well the new anti-trust and other laws will be implemented, they are already succeeding in creating the impression that Syria has become investment friendly. Still, business people are savvy about the risks in such an uncertain environment. A recent proposal for a $50 million venture in Syria began with the caution: "This proposal is being offered to sophisticated investors who could, in the worst case, afford to sustain the loss of their entire investment." Investing in Syria is not for the faint of heart.
Joshua Landis co-directs the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.
Educational reforms in Gulf Cooperation Council states are often attributed to U.S. pressure, as many in Washington believe that curricula in these countries have encouraged extremism and terrorism. In fact, economic globalization and changes in domestic politics have motivated educational change even more than external pressures related to terrorism. The ascendant, ambitious Gulf countries, especially those with skyrocketing revenues and rapid economic development, are eager to reshape and enhance their international image and fulfilling labor market requirements in a competitive international environment. Politics also have changed in these states, with the Arab-Israeli conflict now taking a back seat to domestic issues and growing nationalist sentiment.
Gulf educational development projects in many cases go well beyond curricular reform and adopt a holistic approach addressing teacher training, instructional methodology, assessment procedures, school buildings, responsiveness to labor market requirements, and foreign language education. It is true that some countries—Saudi Arabia in particular—are modifying their curricula. In the Kingdom, curricula for various religious subjects (Qur’an, Qur’anic recitation, theology, jurisprudence, and studies of the Prophet Muhammad) and the Arabic language have been reorganized and rewritten. Other subjects also have been consolidated and new topics, such as human rights, have been added. Other Gulf countries generally have needed to make only minor changes in religion and Arabic language.
Among the striking shared aspects of educational reform in all of the Gulf countries has been the frankness with which ministries of education have acknowledged poor performance to date. In fact, they sometimes seem to be competing to outdo one another in self-criticism, while agreeing on the need for development and launching various initiatives.
The small Gulf States have been particularly nimble in getting educational initiatives off the ground, focusing on the goal of founding top-notch schools. The United Arab Emirates began in 1999 with the "Vision 2020" plan. It now has "Partnership Schools," "Schools of Tomorrow," and "Model Schools;" there are also individual educational councils in each emirate carrying out development plans in cooperation with the UAE ministry of education. In Qatar, there is the "Education for a New Era" initiative overseen by the Supreme Education Council (established in 2002), as well as the "Independent Schools" initiative, in which schools are given broad powers to develop educational methodologies and curricula without centralized government control. The goal is for all Qatari schools to become independent in the coming years. In Bahrain, there are the "Schools of the Future" (established 2004), and the "National Project to Develop Education," directed by Australian education expert Martin Forest.
In all of these schools, English language education occupies a special place. Math and science education in English have absolute priority in the UAE and Qatari plans, while technology appears to be a prominent feature of the Bahraini experiment. In all three countries foreign experts have a noticeable presence, as do global consulting companies. Officials frequently invoke the experiences of countries notable for educational success—such as Singapore, Canada, and New Zealand—and seek to carry out joint programs with such countries or at least replicate their practices.
In Kuwait, which has huge oil revenues, the cabinet in 2003 adopted the "Education Development Strategy 2005-2025," and there is talk of other initiatives, but apparently without trying to approach educational problems in depth or apply experiments as extensive as those in the UAE and Qatar. The debate over education in Kuwait is constrained by ideological confrontations between Islamists and liberals, and dominated by issues such as the mixing of the sexes rather than concern about upgrading quality. In Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, it seems that long educational histories have made the bureaucratic legacy an impediment to far-reaching initiatives, while ideological disputes prevent the emergence of new ideas.
Saudi Arabia has been slower than the small states in introducing educational reform and so far its programs have been less comprehensive. In mid-2007, the "King Abdullah Project for Education Development" was announced; so far the project consists of general principles without operational plans, although 9 billion riyals ($2.3 billion) over six years have already been earmarked.
The fact is that Saudi Arabia’s problem is complicated, for in a country where school students number some five million and teachers are underpaid (monthly salaries at private schools run 2,000 riyals, or U.S. $550; public school salaries are about double that), any reform attempt will be fraught with economic dangers. Any attempt to evaluate teachers and eliminate unqualified ones, for example, would be controversial. In addition there are strong religious currents wary of educational reform. Expanding English language education, for instance, would require fighting major battles on that front.
The educational reforms being introduced by the smaller Gulf countries—flush with hydrocarbon revenues and with a limited number of schools to be reformed—appear promising, but the results of development efforts are still unknown. Previous initiatives have fizzled despite heavy investments and it will be some time before it becomes clear whether the current experiments are succeeding.
Amal Sakr is an Egyptian political researcher specializing in the Gulf. Paul Wulfsberg translated this article from Arabic.
In his article on the Moroccan electoral system (April 2008), Michael Meyer-Resende concludes that, based on the results of the September 2007 parliamentary elections the system is not as unfair as is generally believed. Meyer-Resende correctly points out that the fragmentation of Moroccan politics has causes other than the electoral system. He understates, however, the impact of particular electoral rules on political parties.
I would argue that Morocco’s electoral system is designed less to manipulate electoral results than to insulate the monarchy from electoral accountability. Morocco’s strange brew of proportional representation with very low district magnitudes, combined with a complicated "largest remainder" formula for allocating seats, made it very difficult for any political party to win more than one seat per district. Thus, many parties merely sought the minimum threshold of votes in the country’s ninety-five multi-member electoral districts. In addition, the composition of the electoral districts effectively diluted the strength of the Islamist Party for Justice and Development (PJD). Although the PJD underperformed in many areas, it would have fared much better under a majoritarian formula. For example, had each of Morocco’s sixteen regions allocated all of their seats to the party with a plurality of the vote, the PJD would have won more than one-third of the seats in parliament. This outcome could have led to a viable coalition with another party, a working majority in the lower house, and a potential counterweight to the palace.
On a final note, Meyer-Resende claims that one of the principal conclusions of the foreign observers was that the electoral system was unfair. As one of the foreign observers that helped finalize the National Democratic Institute’s post-election statement issued on September 8, 2007, I take issue with that claim and would argue that NDI’s election assessments did not go far enough in singling out particular electoral rules for greater scrutiny and criticism. The rules of the game matter and Morocco’s electoral rules are no exception.
Andrew Barwig, Ph.D. Candidate
Send your views on what you have read in the Arab Reform Bulletin to the editor at [email protected]
Egypt: Salary and Price Increases; Local Elections; Brothers Sentenced
The Egyptian parliament rushed through a package of increases in the price of fuel, cigarettes, and vehicle licenses on May 5 in order to pay for a 30 percent increase in public sector salaries proposed by President Hosni Mubarak on April 30. Several cabinet members and National Democratic Party (NDP) parliamentarians reportedly opposed the price increases, which passed in the People’s Assembly by a vote of 297 to 76 (the NDP holds 366 of the Assembly’s 454 seats). The steep increases—roughly 40 per cent for gasoline, for example—were implemented May 6. Click here for more information.
The government’s moves followed strikes on April 6 and May 4 to protest inflation, low wages, and poor worker conditions. The April 6 strike was not widely observed, but there were protests in several cities and some industrial workers, particularly in the Nile Delta town of al-Mahalla al-Kubra, took to the streets and defaced pictures of President Mubarak. Security forces clashed with protesters in al-Mahalla, leading to one reported death. Authorities arrested several well-known opposition figures, including Kifaya activists George Ishaq and Mohammed Abdel Quddus, on suspicion of instigating the April 6 protests; they were released a few days later. Facebook organizer Isra Abdel Fattah was arrested and held until April 23. The May 4 strike, called to mark Mubarak’s eightieth birthday, drew weak participation although the Muslim Brotherhood called on its members to participate. Click here for more information.
On April 8, the National Democratic Party won over 95 percent of the 53,000 seats in local council elections. The Muslim Brotherhood announced a last-minute boycott of the elections after nearly all of its candidates—as well as most candidates from legal opposition parties—were prevented from registering. Independent civil society monitors were denied permission to observe elections, but informal reports suggest that voter turnout was extremely low.
On April 15, an Egyptian military court convicted twenty-five members of the Muslim Brotherhood (five in absentia) for membership in an illegal organization and attempting to revive its military wing. Fifteen were acquitted, but the rest received unusually harsh sentences ranging from three to ten years in prison. Those tried in absentia in particular received 10 year sentences. Deputy Supreme Guide Khayrat al-Shatir, the third highest-ranking Brotherhood leader, was sentenced to seven years in prison. Amnesty International issued a statement condemning the trial.
Kuwait: Elections; Tribal Demonstration; Anti-demonstration Law Revoked
On May 17, Kuwait will hold general elections for fifty parliamentary seats; an additional fifteen ministers sit in the assembly as ex officio members. The parliament was dissolved March 19 following resignation of the cabinet. Some 360,000 Kuwaitis over age 21 are eligible to vote. This will be the second general election in which women will participate, and the first since electoral districts were reduced from twenty-five to five. Non governmental organizations such as the Kuwaiti Association for Developing Democracy and Kuwait Transparency Association plan to monitor the elections. The main political blocks include the Islamic Constitutional Movement, the Salafi Movement, the National Islamic Alliance, and the liberal National Democratic Movement.
Bahrain: New Press Bill; Minister Questioned on Naturalization
On May 6, Bahraini Information Minister Jihad Bin Hassan Bukamal proposed a new press law. The bill reportedly will abrogate jail sentences for journalists but imprisonment will still be possible in cases of insulting religion or the ruler or compromising national unity. The bill was passed to the parliament for review and approval. Click here for additional details.
On April 24, the parliament questioned Minister of State for Cabinet Affairs Sheikh Ahmed bin Attiyatallah al-Khalifain about accusations of tampering with national statistics and willfully providing incorrect data. The minister was accused of doing so as part of an effort to naturalize large numbers of Sunnis in order to tip the demographic balance. Al-Khalifain refuted all allegations but Shi’i opposition deputies said they intend to call him for more questioning. Click here for more information in Arabic.
Qatar has launched a mediation process between the Yemeni government and Abdel Malik al-Houthi, leader of a Zaidi rebellion in the north. The first meeting among Qatari mediators, Yemeni government officials, and representatives of al-Houthi took place on May 4. Click here for more information in Arabic.
Yemeni MP Saleh Hendi was killed on April 18 near Saada governorate, where government forces have been fighting with rebels.
On April 5, the Yemeni government revoked the license of al-Wasat newspaper on accusations of harming relations with Saudi Arabia. The newspaper published an article alleging that Saudi Arabia was responsible for smuggling and abusing Yemeni children. The Committee to Protect Journalists issued a statement on April 7 condemning the Yemeni government’s decision.
Saudi Arabia: Blogger Released
Saudi blogger Fouad al-Farhan, detained since December 2007, was released on April 27. Various international organizations and other Saudi bloggers have been calling for his release. Click here for more information.
Iraqi forces freed CBS news journalist Richard Butler on April 14. He had been abducted, along with his interpreter, two months earlier in Basra. The interpreter was released a few days after the abduction.
U.S. forces freed Associated Press photographer Bilal Hussein on April 16, after a two-year detention. Hussein was accused of cooperating with insurgents but no evidence against him was ever disclosed. The Committee to Protect Journalists has documented several cases in which the U.S. military detained journalists without charges or evidence. Click here for additional information.
Jordan: Political Party Law; Brotherhood Selects Leaders; Prison Demonstrations
The Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood selected a new governing body at its third national council meeting on May 1, after a postponement caused by disagreement between conservative and liberal members. After long discussions, the members reportedly agreed to appoint a predominantly liberal group to balance recently elected General Guide Humam Sa’id, who is considered a conservative. Click here for more information in Arabic.
On April 14, revolts broke out in at al-Muwaqar prison in southwestern Amman, reportedly due to the inhumane treatment of inmates. The violence initially left three prisoners dead and led to additional protests leaving thirty injured. The protest has garnered support from Jordanian opposition parties with the IAF being the most vocal.
As part of a package of economic reform initiatives (see article above), President Bashar al-Assad on April 15 issued a presidential decree that increased the sentence for stealing public funds from five to ten years. The Syrian Finance Minister indicated that the measure was part of an effort to overhaul the public sector and promote transparency and accountability.
On April 23, a Syrian military court sentenced political activist Kamal Labwani to a three-year prison term, in addition to the twelve year sentence he is currently serving. The government claims that Labwani insulted the president while in prison. Human rights groups called the charge unjust and politically motivated. The U.S. State Department and the European Union called for Labwani’s release.
On April 22, the Lebanese parliament postponed a session to elect a new president until May 13. This is the eighteenth postponement since President Lahud left office in November 2007.
Tunisia: Opposition Newspaper Seized; Appeal Court Upholds Journalist Sentence
Tunisia’s highest court upheld journalist Salim Boukhdir’s one year jail sentence on April 3. Boukhdir, correspondent for al-Quds al-’arabi,was convicted in December 2007 for "insulting behavior toward an official" after an incident in which he refused to produce identity papers. The April 3 ruling was Boukhdir’s final chance for appeal. Click here for more information.
Algeria: Ban on Passport Photos with Veil and Beard Contested
The Society of Algerian Muslim Scholars issued a fatwa on April 23 against the government ban on passport pictures of veiled women and bearded men. The fatwa claims that the ban infringes upon Islamic law and that both the veil and beard are integral to the Muslim tradition. Click here for more information.
Morocco: Criminalizing Violence against Women; Demonstrators Pardoned
King Muhammad pardoned on April 4 eight demonstrators convicted in 2007 on charges of undermining the monarchy. The eight men, all members of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights, were detained after chanting slogans critical of the monarchy. Click here for additional information.
The Moroccan government continues its effort to curb violence against women. The Ministry of Social Development, Family, and Solidarity announced it is drafting a bill that would criminalize domestic violence. The law is part of a broader plan that also involves setting up treatment centers for victims of domestic violence. Click here for more details.
Views from the Arab Media
The April 22 episode of al-Jazeera’s "al-Ittijaah al-Mu’akis" (The Opposite Direction) discussed recent social unrest caused by increase in inflation and cost of living. The debate centered on the discrepancy between high living costs and low wages as well as the Arab governments’ lack of response. University professor Muhammad Meqdadi blamed the current state of Arab economies on globalization, while Egyptian economist Rashad Abdu argued that globalization is inevitable and that the problem is the Arab economies’ inability to keep up with global markets and follow sound economic policies.
The April 27 episode of al-Jazeera’s "Ma Wara’ al-Khabar" (Behind the News) focused on the upcoming trial of former Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Tareq Aziz. Dr. Nabil Yassin, a London based Iraqi writer and political analyst asserted that Tareq Aziz and all those involved with the Ba’th regime are guilty of a variety of crimes among them oppressing the opposition and isolating Iraqi society. Mr. Badi’ Aref, Tareq Aziz’s lawyer stressed that the charges against him are unfounded and that this is a plot to implicate him simply because he was part of the regime.
Imad Marmal commented in the Lebanese daily al-Safir on April 18 on the Lebanese political deadlock and the recent efforts of Speaker of the Lebanese Parliament, Nabih Berri, to initiate dialogue amongst the various Lebanese factions. Marmal asked why Saudi Arabia has refused to meet with Berri and speculated that the Saudi message is clear: a president must be elected with no further delays.
Sateh Noureddine argued in a sardonic commentary published in the Lebanese daily al-Safir on April 21 that the U.S. administration has emerged as the uncontested champion of Arab nationalism. Noureddine said the United States has undertaken campaigns to revive feelings of Arab nationalism among Iraqis after Washington realized that the Sunni-Shi’i divide would only weaken its position in Iraq and strengthen Iranian influence.