Middle East Reform: Saudi Arabia's Municipal Councils and Libya's Paradigm Shift

Here are two articles were included in The Arab Reform Bulletin, November 2005 on reform in Saudi Arabia and Libya:

Saudi Arabia: Municipal Councils and Political Reform

Jafar M. Al-Shayeb

Saudis are still awaiting the inauguration of their partially-elected municipal councils, despite the fact that the last round of elections was held eight months ago. The delay has dampened popular enthusiasm for the councils and raised questions about the Saudi government's seriousness about political reform. It had been hoped that the municipal elections would open the door for wider popular participation and elections to other political bodies.

Elections and other opportunities for popular participation existed early on in the history of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, although they were limited to a few regions and posts. Until the early 1960s, municipal councils were fully elected, as were some academic and business posts. In the early 1960s, however, ultraconservative religious leaders supporting the Saudi regime deemed the idea of elections unlawful. In an effort to strengthen central government, the elected councils were dissolved and replaced with appointed district and provisional councils.

The decision to reestablish municipal councils was technically taken in 1977 but implemented only this year. One hundred seventy-nine municipal councils (consisting of four to fourteen members based on the size of each municipality) were created. Half of the members were elected; the remainder will be appointed by the Minister of Municipal and Rural Affairs. The responsibilities of these councils include preparing the municipality's budget and organizational structure, issuing codes and standards for urban planning and other activities, supervising financial transactions, and setting taxes and service charges.

Positive aspects of this year's elections included wide-ranging debate on issues and experimentation with political tactics. Campaign programs were a sort of democratic wedding, with citizens invited to enormous tents to hear speakers invited by candidates discuss issues such as corruption, land distribution, state budgets, wealth distribution, the rule of law and equal opportunities. Candidates created alliances among themselves, showing fairly sophisticated tactics in forging what were known as the “golden lists.”

Other aspects of the electoral process—which enfranchised only males over twenty-one not serving in the military, a mere 20 percent of the population—limited participation and enthusiasm. The government also exerted little effort to educate citizens and motivate them to vote, which may explain the low turnout around the country. The exceptions were the regions where social activists and community leaders actively promoted the elections and organized registration centers.

The effectiveness of the municipal councils also will be undermined by both electoral and structural factors. Each city was divided into many subdistricts and citizens cast votes for candidates in all of them, weakening the concept of direct representation. The fact that half of the council members will be appointed is likely to create tension in the council, as each appointee will try to defend the interests of his backers. Another shortcoming is the limited authority given to these municipal councils. They have no say in the sale and distribution of public lands (a sensitive issue due to official abuses), for example, nor will they oversee other public services such as health, education, and sewage.

Elected councilmen are well aware of the councils' shortcomings and are considering ways to address them once the councils are activated. Members are preparing to establish a national association of municipal councils in order to coordinate strategies and programs. Such an association could give the councils a more explicitly political role and would help them monitor and supervise government projects in order to reduce corruption and improve performance at the municipal level. Another common goal among elected council members is to increase communication with constituents by establishing community centers in all districts, a measure recently approved by the government.

The municipal elections in Saudi Arabia proved that citizens are ready for more political reform and for additional direct elections. Now it is up to the government to inaugurate the councils, allow them to play an active role in the political life of the country, and move on to begin a comprehensive and inclusive political reform program. Invigorated political debate and activity among Saudis would be an important antidote to the influence of the violent, fanatical groups that threaten the country.

Jafar Al-Shayeb is a Saudi writer and an elected member of the Qatif Municipal Council.


Libya: Status Report on the Paradigm Shift

Fred Abrahams

For three decades, human rights violations in Libya were committed under the rubric of “revolutionary defense.” The government and its extensive security apparatus imprisoned or “disappeared” critics who challenged the ideology of the 1969 revolution that overthrew the monarchy or of Colonel Muammar Qadhafi's system of Jamahariya, the “state of the masses.”

Since 2001—September 11 to be precise—that rubric has changed. The Libyan government has shifted away from revolutionary rhetoric towards a language more in tune with global concerns, and specifically with the war on terror. Today, as Libya continues its international rehabilitation, dissenters and critics are imprisoned for “terrorist” crimes. Some belong to an armed Islamic opposition. In addition to the Libyan Islamic Fighting Group, which is on the U.S. government's list of terrorist groups, others such as the Martyrs Group apparently seek the government's violent overthrow. But the government has used the reality of this armed opposition to justify silencing peaceful dissent in the name of fighting terror.

The government's new tactics were evident in the January 2005 decision to abolish the People's Court, which had long tried political crimes in violation of both Libyan and international law. The government transferred the cases before the court to regular criminal courts, and it remains to be seen whether they will provide the defendants with the due process that Libyan law guarantees. In addition, hundreds of Libyans convicted by the People's Court after unfair trials remain behind bars. Head of the Internal Security Agency Col. Tohamy Khaled told Human Rights Watch in May that those in prison for politically-related crimes were “terrorists” who had politicized Islam and sought the violent overthrow of the government.

These prisoners include 86 members of the Muslim Brotherhood arrested in 1998. The Brotherhood in Libya is a religious, social, and political group that denounces violence. But to Col. Tohamy, the Brotherhood is breeding ground for terrorists. “They spread an ideology until they're ready, and the next step is using violence,” he recently said. In a positive development, the Supreme Court ruled in October 2005 that the Brotherhood members should get a new trial, which will take place November 28.

The government currently is considering revising the penal code to reduce the number of crimes punishable by the death penalty, but Libyan officials have indicated that they will retain the option of punishing “terrorist” crimes with death. How the law defines terrorism—and whether that definition will be narrow enough to exclude peaceful criticism—remains to be seen. In addition, the notorious Law 71 (which bans any group activity opposed to the 1969 revolution and may bring the death penalty) remains on the books.

As the Libyan government works to improve its image abroad, there have been modest improvements. In September 2005, the government released five long-term political prisoners and a government committee recommended that 131 others be freed, among them the 86 Muslim Brothers. As of early November, however, all 131 men remained in prison. On November 15, the Supreme Court will review the controversial case of five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor on death row for infecting 426 children with HIV, and it remains to be seen how the court will rule.

More promising than the limited government steps has been a slowly rising tide of public criticism and debate. Academics, journalists, lawyers, and even some government officials have begun to speak more openly of the need for political reform. Their willingness to address previously taboo topics such as corruption and torture is significant.

Rapidly expanding Internet access in Libya is changing the environment by providing uncensored news and fostering debate. Dozens of websites based abroad give people in the country access to previously forbidden news and ideas. The government has tried to block access to some sites, and it arrested one Internet journalist who was posting from Libya. Abd Al Raziq Al Mansuri joined another peaceful critic in custody: former government official Fathi Al Jahmi. The Internal Security Agency has held Al Jahmi without trial since March 2004 after he criticized Qadhafi in the international media. Notably, Al Mansuri's family issued a public letter in October boldly condemning his arrest. Such criticism from inside has been rare until now.

As Libya continues to open to the world, the pressure for change from citizens is likely to increase. The West, thus far focused on securing Libya as a partner in the war on terror and gaining access to Libya's vast oil fields, should do more to encourage this trend. This applies particularly to the United States, which is likely to resume full diplomatic relations with Libya in the coming year. The United States and other Western countries should promote ties with academics, students, professionals, and other non-governmental actors, as well as hold the Libyan government to account when it imprisons peaceful opponents and stifles debate.

Fred Abrahams is a Senior Researcher at Human Rights Watch. He visited Libya for the organization in April-May 2005.



Some news concerning Middle East reform

This is the news section of The Arab Reform Bulletin, November 2005, a product of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, which is almost adopting, as I think, an approach to the Middle East reform rests on political considerations to push an ideological and political line related to the American politics more than the Middle East reform. I hope not.

The bulletin has also included some articles. I will post some of them with my review later.

Related post

Egypt: Parliamentary Elections Begin

The first of three rounds of elections for the People's Assembly (the lower house of parliament) began November 9. In preliminary results from the first round of elections as reported by Al Jazeera, 35 out of 164 races have been decided, 66 will go to run-offs, and 63 remain unanounced. The ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) won 31 of the 53 races decided so far; Muslim Brothers won three seats and an independent candidate won one. As expected, senior NDP leaders and government ministers including People's Assembly Speaker Fathi Sorour, Cheif of Presidential Cabinet Zakaria Azmi, NDP Vice Chairman Kamal Al Shazli, and Finance Minister Youssef Boutros Ghali retained their seats. In 66 races NDP candidates will face rivals in run-offs on November 15, with Muslim Brotherhood candidates participating in 41 races.

Opposition parties generally made a poor showing. The National Front for Change did not win any seats and none of the recognized parties will take part in run-offs. Al Ghad party Ayman Nour leader lost the parliamentary seat he has held for ten years to the ruling NDP's Yahya Wahdan (a former security officer) in the central Cairo district of Bab Al Sharia. Nour disputed the result and accused the NDP of intimidation and vote buying. Senior Wafd Party Deputy Munir Fakhry was also defeated.

Election monitors organized by civil society groups reported a number of violations. Hafez Abu Seada, head of the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights, complained of NDP-organized violence to discourage opposition voters. A joint statement by the National Campaign for Monitoring Elections, the Shadow Committee for Monitoring Elections, adn the Civil Society Election Monitoring Observatory reported incidents of vote-buying and voter coercion as well as outdated and incomplete registration lists. The statement asserts that some monitors were denied access to some polls and that the NDP transported government employees to a single polling place and allowed them to vote for an NDP candidate who victory was not assured. The Independent Commission for Election Monitoring reported several cases of vote-buying, intimidation of voters, ballot box stuffing, and repeat voting by NDP candidates and their supporters.

Contested in the first round are 164 seats in 82 districts located throughout the country including Cairo, Giza, Menufia, Beni Suef, Minya, Assiut, the New Valley, and Marsa Matruh. Subsequent rounds for the remaining 280 seats will be held November 20 and December 1, with runoffs to be completed by December 7. President Mubarak will appoint ten additional members and will call the 454-member Assembly into session on December 13. Elections are held on a winner-takes-all system, with two candidates (one of whom must be a “worker” or “farmer”) elected in each district.

Procedures for the elections will differ from those in 2000 parliamentary elections in several respects. First, there is now a Higher Commission for Parliamentary Elections, albeit not an independent one, headed by the Minister of Justice. Second, the Commission has agreed to allow Egyptian monitors trained and organized by non-governmental organizations to observe the process inside and outside of polling places. Third, the Commission approved the use of transparent ballot boxes to decrease the likelihood of fraud. As in 2000, judges will supervise all polling and counting stations.

The ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) will run a candidate for each seat (click here for a list and here for the NDP's electoral platform). There will also be a large number of independent candidates, many of them members of the NDP not nominated by the party. As in 2000, competition between NDP and independent candidates is expected to be an important aspect of the elections.

The Muslim Brotherhood is expected to run approximately 130 candidates nationwide, double the number it put forward in 2000. The Brotherhood has campaigned far more openly this year than in recent years, organizing electoral marches in Cairo and other cities. It continues to employ the slogan “Islam is the Solution,” despite protests from the NDP and secular opposition groups. The Higher Commission for Parliamentary Elections has banned campaign materials using religious symbols. Egyptian authorities have gradually released Muslim Brotherhood leaders arrested after spring protest marches over the past several months. Click here for the Muslim Brotherhood electoral platform.

Several opposition groups announced on October 8 the formation of a “National Front for Change” which includes the liberal Wafd, leftist Tagammu, and Nasserist parties; the as-yet unlicensed Wasat and Karama parties; the Egyptian Movement for Change (Kifaya); and three other pro-reform movements. The Front is expected to field approximately 200 candidates nationwide. The Muslim Brotherhood has participated in many of the Front's activities but has not agreed to coordinate candidates in most districts. The Front calls for political and constitutional changes including abrogating the emergency law, allowing every citizen the right to contest presidential elections, transferring many presidential powers to a cabinet accountable to the parliament, establishing presidential term limits, and establishing an independent electoral commission. Click here for the Front's founding statement and here for information on its electoral platform. The liberal Ghad Party, which is not part of the Front, will put forward approximately 60 candidates.

Iraq: Political Blocs Complete Alliances

Two hundred and twenty-eight political parties and alliances have registered for the parliamentary elections on December 15, according to the Independent Electoral Commission for Iraq. Most of the major political alliances resemble the dominant groupings in the January 2005 elections. The Kurdistan Alliance is still the main Kurdish bloc, composed of Iraqi President's Jalal Talabani's Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and Kurdish regional President Massoud Barzani's Kurdistan Democratic Party. This time, however, it will face competition from the Kurdistan Islamic Union, an Islamist group that has left the alliance. Former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi continues to lead the secular Iraqi National List, although he expanded it to include Sunni figures as well as communists and liberals. The United Iraqi Alliance retains its position as the main Shiite list. Led by Prime Minister Ibrahim Al Jafari, it includes the three major Shiite movements: the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the Dawa party, and the movement led by Shiite cleric Moqtada Al Sadr. Unlike in the January elections, however, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, the most revered Shiite cleric in Iraq, will not endorse the alliance.

New alliances have also formed, such as Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Chalabi's National Congress for Iraq. Most importantly, the elections will be contested by a major Sunni alliance known as the Iraqi Concord Front, composed of three Sunni parties: the Iraqi People's Gathering, the Iraqi National Dialogue, and the Iraqi Islamic Party (the only major Sunni group that supports the constitution). The participation of a Sunni list will probably guarantee greater representation of Sunni Arabs, who currently occupy only 6 percent of parliamentary seats.

Syria: Opposition Groups Unite in Damascus Declaration

In the midst of international pressure on Syria, Syrian opposition groups released the “Damascus Declaration” on October 16 demanding Syria's transformation through peaceful means from a “security state to a political state” based on free and regular elections, a democratic constitution, the rule of law, pluralism, and individual rights. The declaration calls for an end to Syria's emergency law (in place since 1963), the release of political prisoners, and the return of exiles, and also endorses the cultural and political rights of Kurds and other minorities. The document brought together leftist and nationalist groups, Kurdish movements, secular dissidents, an imprisoned lawmaker, human rights activists, and the exiled leadership of the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood is banned in Syria but believed to enjoy wide popular support. Click here for an English translation of the Damascus Declaration.

Jordan: Islamists Announce Reform Program

While Jordan awaits the release of the National Agenda, the Islamic Action Front and the Muslim Brotherhood presented their own reform program on October 23. With the declared aim of “achieving comprehensive national reform,” the program calls for political, judicial, economic, educational, social, and administrative reform within a framework that recognizes Islam as the only source of legislation. The document states that political reform must be based on the rotation of executive power and on political participation and pluralism. It also calls for a separation between the executive, legislative, and judicial powers, with a particular emphasis on increasing parliament's powers. This entails making all state institutions accountable to parliament, ensuring full judicial oversight of parliamentary elections, and dissolving the appointed upper h ouse. In the area of judicial reform, extraordinary courts should be abolished and military courts should only try military personnel.

Bahrain: Controversy over Reform of Family Law

A campaign for legislation on personal status matters has provoked heated debate in Bahrain. Led by the Supreme Council for Women chaired by King Hamad's wife Shaikha Sabeeka bin Ibrahim Al Khalifa, defenders of the initiative argue that the lack of a codified personal status law in Bahrain gives judges excessive discretion in their interpretation of Sharia law and allows them to rule against women in cases of divorce, inheritance, and child custody. Bahrain's largest political society Al Wefaq National Islamic Society is leading the opposition to the legislation on the grounds that it is un-Islamic and that only religious scholars should have a say in determining personal status issues. Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates are the only Arab states without codified personal status laws.

United States: National Intelligence Strategy Highlights Democracy Promotion

Bolstering the growth of democracy in other countries is a top strategic mission for the nation's intelligence agencies, according to the National Intelligence Strategy of the United States of America released on October 26. The document states that the intelligence community must “support diplomatic and military efforts when intervention is necessary” and “forge relationships with new and incipient democracies that can help them strengthen the rule of law and ward off threats to representative government.” It must also provide U.S. policymakers with an analytic framework for identifying both the threats to and opportunities for promoting democracy, as well as warning of state failure.

Media Freedom Report

Countries in the Middle East (along with some in East Asia and Central Asia) scored the lowest in press freedoms in 2005, according to the annual worldwide Press Freedom Index issued by the Paris-based watchdog group Reporters Sans Frontieres. The October 20 report states that the situation in Iraq, which was identified as the most dangerous place on earth for journalists in last year's report, has deteriorated further. In 2005, conditions in Egypt (ranked 143 of 167 countries) also deteriorated with attacks on several journalists and with President Mubarak failing to decriminalize press offences as promised. Authorities in Tunisia also tightened their grip on journalistic activity. In Libya, Syria , and Saudi Arabia, no independent media exist. Lebanon, traditionally the region's top ranking country, dropped more than 50 places because of recent attacks on journalists and now ranks 108 of 167 countries.

Upcoming Political Events

-Egypt: parliamentary elections, three rounds:

  • November 9 (Cairo, Giza, Menufia, Beni Suef, Minya, Assiut, New Valley, Marsa Matruh);
  • November 20 ( Alexandria, Beheira, Ismailia, Port Said, Suez, Qalyubia, Gharbia, Fayyum, Qena);
  • December 1 (Daqahlia, Sharqia, Kafr Al Sheikh, Dumyat, Suhag, Aswan, Red Sea, Northern Sinai, Southern Sinai), 2005.

-G8 “Forum for the Future” meeting, Bahrain, November 11-12, 2005.

-Palestine: municipal mlections, last round, 107 districts in the West Bank and Gaza, December 8, 2005.

-Iraq: parliamentary elections, December 15, 2005

-Palestine: legislative elections, January 25, 2006.


Strategies for Promoting Democracy in Iraq

The United States of Peace has published an interesting report "Strategies for Promoting Democracy in Iraq."

The report has a very good methodology combining the historical context and political theory to produce a very practical strategy of promoting democracy in Iraq.

Taking into account what I have read of research work in this domain, I can say that this report is very interesting.

I will quote from this report the sections: Summary, the approach of this report and strategies for promoting democracy.

PDF version of the full report

  • Social justice and economic development are essential for democracy in Iraq to succeed.

  • The idea of a democratic Iraq is not one imposed by foreign powers, but rather one that Iraqis themselves vigorously support.

  • Iraq has a tradition and history of democracy that can help promote the successful establishment of a democratic form of government in post–Saddam Hussein Iraq.

  • Many of the foundations of democratic governance began in Iraq's ancient Mesopotamian civilizations.

  • The nationalist movement in Iraq (1908–1963) had strong democratic impulses and emphasized cultural tolerance.

  • Sixty percent of the Iraqi population is under the age of twenty-five. They have known nothing but authoritarian rule and need to learn about democracy. The older generation of former democratic activists can pass on to younger Iraqis their memories and experiences of pre-1963 Iraqi society.

  • The establishment of an institution devoted to democracy could spread the concept of democratic government through workshops, contests, and grants to civil society organizations.

  • Citizenship and service learning programs in Iraqi universities could promote democratic principles among older students. A national reading project and essay contest could introduce younger students to democracy and strengthen the literary skills that are necessary for an informed citizenry.

  • The government should use the power of the Internet to involve citizens in the democratic process and improve education. Television and radio programs, coffeehouse events, national "town hall" meetings, summer camps for youth, and emphasis on common folklore could help overcome ethnic differences and promote tolerance and unity among the diverse ethnic cultures of Iraq.


The Approach of This Report

Throughout the world, people of good will sincerely hope that Iraq will be able to make a transition to democratic rule. In that spirit, this report offers proposals for projects that the Iraqi government and democratic activists might pursue to help promote the process of democratization. The proposals presented here are suggestions and can be modified as those who seek to implement them deem best. The proposals are based on the assumption that the promotion of democracy requires an active notion of citizenship and political and social organization. Consequently, the projects suggested below require a commitment of time, the creation of an organizational framework within which to implement them, and financial support from either public or private sources. However, many of the projects do not require substantial funding. Perhaps the most important factor supporting the suggested proposals is that Iraqis have demonstrated many times throughout their rich historical past that they possess the means to create a just and prosperous society. This report should be read as an effort to support the tremendous strides that Iraqis have already made in creating a democratic society following the fall of Saddam Hussein.


Strategies for Promoting Democracy

The Iraqi National Institute for Democracy

Building on the examples of other Arab organizations—such as the Ibn Khaldun Center for Development Studies in Egypt; Muwatin, the Palestinian Institute for the Study of Democracy; and MIFTAH, the Palestinian Initiative for Global Dialogue and Democracy—the Iraqi government should consider establishing a national institute designed to promote democracy. This institute could sponsor a number of national projects and provide training and resources, such as grants, for Iraqis who want to establish new political parties and civil society organizations or democracy "think tanks." The Iraqi National Institute for Democracy could also provide periodic workshops and seminars to help these organizations develop new programs as they expand.

The new institute would be publicly funded but autonomous, that is, not under the control of a particular branch of the Iraqi government. Following the model of similar institutes in other countries, the Iraqi National Institute for Democracy could be administered by a board of directors whose members would be nominated by the offices of the Iraqi president, vice presidents, and prime minister, and then appointed by the president.

One project that the new institute could sponsor is an essay contest on the theme "My Hopes for the New Iraq." This project would be modeled on a contest organized by the Women's Alliance for a Democratic Iraq (WAFDI) titled "Why I Love Iraq." WAFDI's initiative was intended for primary school students. The pilot project was implemented in Baghdad for first, second, and third grade students during the 2003–2004 academic year and offered a prize of $100 to the winning essay. The WAFDI essay contest could receive funding from the Iraqi National Institute for Democracy to expand it into a national program.

A contest on the theme "My Hopes for the New Iraq" could include not just secondary school students, but Iraqis of all ages. Allowing participants to achieve national recognition, and receive a small stipend, would certainly make such a contest attractive. In keeping with Iraq's position as one of the cultural centers of the Arab world—and the importance of the oral tradition in Arab culture—poetry that conformed to the contest's theme could form a separate category. Artistic works, such as documentary films, paintings, and sculpture, which could also be considered separate categories, would further enrich the project.

Winners of the contest would be invited to discuss their essays on state-run radio stations, and the essays could be posted on the website of the Ministry of State for Civil Society Affairs. When the security situation improves, successful contestants could appear on Iraqi television to discuss their projects and the ideas behind them. Copies of successful essays and poetry could be published in prominent newspapers, such as al-Zaman, al-Sabah, al-Sabah al-Jadid, al-Bayan, and al-Ta'akhi; distributed in schools and universities; and disseminated with the help of civil society organizations such as WAFDI. Successful artistic entries could be posted on government Web sites and in museums and public galleries. Making the results of the contest public would encourage Iraqis to think in greater detail about their own hopes and aspirations for the new Iraq.

Citizenship and Service Learning for University Students

The concept of citizenship and service learning is one in which students apply what they have learned in the university classroom to their community. In this educational model, learning is not just an abstraction, but experienced in a very real sense by the student. Faculty members locate community partners with which their students can work and then assign students to work with these partner organizations. For example, university students studying to become teachers help elementary school students improve their reading and writing skills, thereby assisting teachers and schools. The university students gain a better understanding of how teaching takes place in an applied setting, while the teachers and children both receive helpful assistance. In this model of learning, everyone benefits.

Students could serve in many capacities, such as working as interns in civil society organizations, tutoring high school students, helping to improve the quality of recreational programs for young people, or providing services to elderly people who have lost spouses or lack family support by bringing them daily necessities and reading materials. Students in medical school could help provide medical services to areas of Iraq where such services are lacking. Students in the arts could work to beautify public spaces, offer theater performances, or organize exhibits of paintings and sculpture. Obviously, the possibilities for citizenship and service learning are endless.

Citizenship and service learning promotes a deeper level of civic understanding on the part of university students. Not only do they improve their learning process, but they gain an appreciation of giving to the community. Citizenship and service learning also helps university students understand whether they are really suited for a career by giving them direct experience with that career. But most important of all, this form of learning helps inculcate civic values in students.

The Ministries of Higher Education and Scientific Research, Education, and Civil Society Affairs could play an important role in promoting citizenship and service learning. The Ministry of Higher Education and Scientific Research could offer academic credits to students who participate in this program. The three ministries could develop programs to give students the necessary training before they are sent to the communities and organizations with which they want to work.

A National Reading Project

A recent poll of 10,000 Iraqi urban and rural families, commissioned by the Ministry of Planning and Cooperative Development and conducted by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), found that 85 percent of Iraqi youth between the ages of nineteen and twenty-four rejected the idea that political disputes can be resolved through violence. The poll revealed little evidence that young members of the families surveyed were attracted to radical politics. In a less encouraging finding, however, the poll revealed that young Iraqis, like young people in many societies today, are visual learners and spend relatively little time reading books. Of course, this lack of reading among Iraqi youth stems partly from the UN sanctions of the 1990s, when few books were published and when Iraqi families could ill afford to purchase reading materials. The decline in interest in books also occurred during a time when the Iraqi education system experienced a serious decline in quality.

A democratic society requires a literate citizenry. One way to promote reading skills among Iraqi youth, as well as to promote a deeper appreciation of the values of tolerance, respect for cultural diversity, and political participation, is to organize a national reading contest around materials that emphasize these values. The contest would entail students reading from a list of publications suggested by Iraqi university faculty and secondary school teachers that promote democratic values, including works on literature, the arts, religion, history, politics, and civic values.

The Ministries of Education and Culture could organize this contest, in which students would receive prizes for reading a set number of books. The ministries could post a list of books, sections of books, or short stories on their Web sites. Through government and private funding, reading materials could be published as supplements to Iraqi newspapers. Teachers could be given a small salary supplement for participating.

At the beginning of the reading project, students would be given a ticket. After they read a certain number of publications from the list of materials, teachers would discuss these readings with them to ascertain whether they understood what they had read. Upon successful completion of this process, students would have their ticket punched and could then exchange it for a prize. Possible prizes could be tickets to soccer games or small items offered by local merchants. Students who read an especially large number of publications could receive a government certificate to add to their school record, a form of national recognition.

Teachers could be encouraged to discuss in their classrooms the readings that their students found especially compelling. Classroom discussion would allow the contest to move beyond the individual reader and have a broader impact on the Iraqi elementary and secondary school system. The National Reading Contest could thereby serve as a curriculum supplement as well.

Using the Internet to Promote Democracy

One of the important developments of the past decade has been the dramatic expansion of the Internet. The explosion of information now available to people living in even remote areas of the globe has significantly affected all aspects of life. Authoritarian regimes deny their people access to information. It is no surprise, then, that the use of computers and Internet access were strictly controlled by Saddam Hussein's Ba'athist regime. Since the fall of the Ba'ath Party, Internet use in Iraq has increased tremendously. From secondary school students who use it to find materials to complete homework assignments to women who gather before computers to learn from the experiences of women elsewhere how to promote their own interests in Iraqi society, the Internet has opened many avenues for change.

Both the Iraqi government and the organizations of civil society can make further use of the Internet. The Iraqi government can develop curricular material to be used by elementary and secondary school teachers and make it available on the Internet. A number of government ministries could participate in this activity, including the Ministries of Education, Higher Education and Scientific Research, and Culture. Creating such a website would be especially helpful, given the shortage of up-to-date textbooks in many school districts throughout Iraq. Although most Iraqi schools do not have computers, teachers could be given access codes to computers in Internet cafes where they could review new curricular materials. As more computers become available in the schools, these materials would become easier to access.

What types of materials would be especially useful in promoting a better understanding of the principles and functioning of a democratic government? As noted above, Iraq has an important democratic tradition that is largely unknown to Iraqi youth. Speeches by representatives who served in the pre-1958 parliament and those of Iraq's important democratic activists, such as Kamil al-Chadirji, leader of the National Democratic Party, could be posted. Postings could include statements made by Iraqi nationalists, both secular and religious, during some of Iraq's most important historical events—for example, clerics who issued fatwas defending Iraq during the British invasion between 1914 and 1918, or activists who participated in the 1920 Revolution, the 1931 General Strike, the 1948 Wathba, the 1953 Intifada, the United Electoral Front, which competed in the June 1954 parliamentary elections, and other important nationalist events. Postings that emphasized the unity of the Iraqi people, antisectarianism, and respect for cultural diversity—all key building blocks of democratic values—would underscore the importance of Iraq's democratic tradition.

Thus, one way to increase the quality and quantity of societal knowledge about Iraqi politics and society, and by extension a deeper understanding and appreciation of democratic values and practices, is to increase Internet access. As the Arab Human Development Report has indicated, Internet usage in the Arab world is still very limited compared to other regions of the world. One positive step, therefore, would be for the Iraqi government to facilitate access to the Internet. This would be especially important to poorer sectors of society. Following a model designed to promote civic involvement that was first suggested by the Italian author Umberto Eco to the municipal council of the city of Bologna, the Iraqi government could issue identification cards that would allow citizens free access to Internet terminals located in post offices or other municipal buildings in their communities. Like Bologna's residents, residents of Iraq's cities and towns could use their government-issued Internet access cards at these terminals.

Universal Internet access would allow students to study materials not available in the classroom and permit citizens to learn news from around the world. Moreover, the government could publicize on these Internet terminals how citizens could connect to the Web sites of government ministries and civil society organizations, laws affecting their everyday lives (e.g., laws relating to conducting business and economic investment), and suggestions for contacting the office of the municipal or provincial advocate (see below) if they are experiencing problems with government services.

Creation of a Web site Designed to Counter Insurgents' Misinterpretations of Islam

One of the main impediments to promoting democracy in Iraq is the ongoing insurgency. The insurgency is supported and funded by many elements who were part of, or had close ties to, the former regime of Saddam Hussein. Although the former regime was extremely secular in orientation, and suppressed efforts by Iraqis, both clerics and laymen, to express their religious beliefs in public, these same elements now carry on their insurgency in the name of Islam. While most adult Iraqis do not consider insurgents who engage in suicide bombings, assassinations, and murders to be true Muslims, it is critical that Iraqi youth understand that violence and killing are not condoned by Islam if a strong democracy is to be built in Iraq.

The Iraqi government should consider the efforts of a Yemeni judge, Hamoud al-Hitar, who challenged jailed al Qaeda members in a Sana'a prison to a debate over whether Islam sanctions violent and terrorist acts. Judge al-Hitar offered to declare support for the al Qaeda members if they won the debate. However, if he won the debate, he demanded that these young Yemenis renounce terrorism and violence once and for all. As would be expected of a judge well educated in Islamic law, he won what became a series of debates. The admission by many al Qaeda members that the judge had won the debates resulted in many terrorists being released from jail. Once released, they not only cooperated with authorities to bring other terrorists to justice, but also joined Judge al-Hitar in his efforts to spread a true understanding of the peaceful nature of Islam. Perhaps most significant, many former terrorists argued that they did not know that Islam did not condone the killing of innocent people and had been led by terrorist leaders to accept beliefs that were not part of the Muslim religion.

This story suggests the need for the Iraqi government to be more proactive in educating Iraqi youth about the true teachings of Islam. One way to do this would be for the Iraqi government to recruit Muslim clerics, both Sunni and Shi'ite, to answer questions about politics and society posed by Iraqi youth. This could be accomplished through a weekly television and/or radio program that answered questions mailed to them or posted on a website administered by the Ministry of Religious Affairs. Clearly, a better understanding among Iraqi youth of Islam's strictures against terrorism and violence will contribute to a political and social environment more conducive to the growth of democracy.

Expanding the Coffeehouse Culture

One of the most venerable Iraqi institutions is the coffeehouse, which has always played an important cultural and political role in Iraqi society. Traditionally, the coffeehouse was the venue for poets and intellectuals. The al-Zahawi Coffeehouse named after Jamal Sidqi al-Zahawi, the Haydarkhana Coffeehouse associated with Maruf al-Rusafi, the Hasan Ajma Coffeehouse associated with Muhammad Mahdi al-Jawahiri, and the Brazil Coffeehouse frequented by the famous short story writer Abd al-Malik Nuri are just some examples of Iraq's many famous coffeehouses. Coffeehouses provided the stimulus for the creation of important literary journals, such as New Thought, which was founded in the Swiss Coffeehouse. Coffeehouses also helped promote democracy. Badr Shakir al-Sayyab and Buland al-Haydari both wrote famous poems about the persona of the informer in which they describe the efforts of poets to deliver poetry that conveys opposition to the state, but in ways unintelligible to the government informer lurking in the coffeehouse. Prior to 1963, Iraqi nationalists would return to specific coffeehouses after engaging in political demonstrations. Thus the coffeehouse became a place where its customers could learn the nuances and subtleties of subverting the repressive state.

Iraqi coffeehouses have traditionally promoted egalitarian values by obscuring the lines of social stratification between the wealthy and the poor. Those who could not afford to purchase a newspaper could often read a copy in the coffeehouse. Those who could not read would find someone there who would read the newspaper aloud. In this manner, the coffeehouse has promoted civil society by expanding a sense of community in the cities, towns, and villages of Iraq.

A very effective way to promote civil society in Iraq, and by extension greater support for democratic institutions and practices, would be for the Iraqi government to offer long-term loans at nominal interest rates to organizations that seek to establish new coffeehouses for civic-minded purposes. In return for receiving a low-cost loan, the sponsoring organization would be required to host a certain number of events, or provide specific services, that would promote the expansion of civil society. A poetry society, for example, might offer poetry readings on designated nights of the week. A theater troupe might offer plays. Women's organizations might use a new coffeehouse to offer a lecture series exploring ways Iraqi women could assume a more prominent role in public life. In coffeehouses in poorer neighborhoods, university students enrolled in citizenship and service learning programs could offer reading instruction. Artists could use the coffeehouse to present new works that express civic themes. These are just some of the many ways the tradition of the coffeehouse's contribution to Iraqi society could be continued.

National "Town Hall" Meetings

In keeping with the proposition that a strong democracy depends on the availability of information and a sense of trust among the populace in the integrity and competence of its government representatives, this report suggests creation of a monthly national "town hall" meeting. Members of the Iraqi government, including at various times the president, vice president, prime minister, speaker of the parliament, and cabinet ministers, would appear on state-run television and radio on one evening each month to answer questions posed by telephone or through the Internet from Iraqis throughout the country.

First and foremost, the very existence of these town hall meetings would increase the bonds of trust between the citizenry and the government, provided Iraqis felt that government officials answered their questions honestly. Second, these meetings would provide a barometer of public opinion for government officials. Third, these meetings would strengthen bonds among different sectors of Iraqi society, as callers saw that their concerns and problems were shared. Finally, these meetings would strengthen government officials' sense of accountability.

To expand the reach of the town hall meetings beyond the television and radio audiences, their proceedings could be published on government Web sites. Iraqi newspapers could carry summaries of the proceedings. Of course, town hall meetings would be most effective if the government responds to the problems brought to its attention during the meetings. It could, for example, appoint government commissions or other official bodies to investigate matters of widespread concern.

Youth Programs

Creating a Youth Channel on Iraqi State Television

Given the large percentage of Iraqis who are under the age of twenty-five, the Iraqi government should be especially concerned with the needs of Iraqi youth. One way to organize programs for Iraqi youth would be to create a television channel especially for them. In the morning, this channel could offer children's programs that incorporate learning materials for preschoolers, especially reading and mathematics. If done in a creative way, such programming, which has been very successful in other countries, could help prepare children for elementary school.

Programs offered later in the day could be directed toward older students, combining entertainment with learning. For example, a program on folk poetry could both delight and educate viewers, as could a program on music that focused on the lute or the qanun (Eqyptian lap harp). Programs could also discuss the problems of teenagers in all societies, as well as preview possible careers for students nearing graduation from secondary schools.

Other programs could interview young Egyptians, Syrians, Palestinians, Turks, Iranians, or students from the Gulf area, just to give some possible examples. Organizations such as UNESCO, the Arab League, the United States Agency for International Development, and the European Union might be approached to help fund such a television channel. Iraqi university students interested in a career in the visual media could serve as interns at the channel, where they could help generate ideas for new and innovative programming. If Iraqi youth were involved in the development of this channel through public opinion surveys conducted in secondary schools and universities, and their opinions were taken seriously, the channel could be very successful and serve as a vehicle for promoting a more positive outlook among young people.

Summer Camps for Iraqi Youth

Although Iraq is not a sectarian society, those who would return it to authoritarian rule have tried to create conflict among Iraq's ethnic groups. To offset this destructive effort, it is important to inculcate in the next generation of Iraqis a respect for cultural diversity and a tolerance for difference. One way to promote appreciation for cultural difference is to encourage interaction among young people from different ethnic groups.

Obviously, there are many means to accomplish this end. One way would be to organize a summer camp program for Iraqi youth. Because the summer is quite hot, the best venue for these camps might be the cooler climate of Iraqi Kurdistan. While Iraqi students enjoyed themselves at camp, they could also be learning. Unlike the summer camps organized by Saddam Hussein's regime, which were intended to indoctrinate Iraqi youth into an authoritarian political culture, these camps would stress the inherent worth of all cultures, as well as the cultural commonalities of all Iraq's ethnic groups. Their programs would be designed to educate campers in the history and heritage of Iraq's major ethnic groups. Performances by folklore troupes, photographic and artistic exhibits, ethnic foods, storytelling, movies, and the celebration of ethnic and regional holidays could all be incorporated to support the camps' goal.

Using Folklore to Enhance Respect for Cultural Differences

During the rule of 'Abd al-Karim Qasim (1958–1963), the Iraqi government placed considerable emphasis on Iraq's folkloric heritage in government-sponsored television programs and publications. Prime Minister Qasim's focus on folklore was extremely popular among Iraqis at the time. Many urban Iraqis still maintained close ties to rural areas from which they had only recently migrated. They found folklore, or what is referred to in Arabic as "popular culture," highly attractive because it reflected both a concern with their cultural origins and a set of values and practices that were egalitarian in nature. Instead of emphasizing difference, as was often the case in "high" culture, folklore stressed what all Iraqis, Arabs, Kurds, Turkmen, and others shared. Much of the Iraqi population saw folklore as contributing to the building of a national culture and, by extension, promoting a common definition of political community.

Saddam Hussein's regime allowed the continuation of this emphasis on folklore. However, Saddam tried to use folklore to promote his own cult of personality. The concepts of heroism and toughness were used to promote Saddam's image as Iraq's father figure and military leader. Despite Saddam's efforts to manipulate folklore for his own political ends, the Journal of Popular Culture (Majallat al-Turath al-Sha'bi) was extremely popular under his rule, as were television programs that emphasized folklore themes, such as Aspects of Baghdad (Baghdadiyat), and historical works that emphasized folklore, such as the writings of al-Jahiz, including his famous book on misers, al-Bukhala.

One way for the Iraqi government to counter efforts to create sectarian feelings among the Iraqi populace would be to fund television and radio programs and films that emphasize folkloric themes. The current television program City Diaries (Yawmiyat al-Madina) is one such example. Programs that discussed music, sports, marriage rituals, artisan production, and proverbs, jokes, and riddles—both contemporary and historical—would foster greater national solidarity, especially if they dealt with the folklore of all Iraq's ethnic groups.

The creation of new museums throughout Iraq containing exhibits highlighting all of Iraq's ethnic groups would likewise contribute to a sense of national unity. The promotion of folklore would also serve to create a greater respect for tradition in the good sense of the word.

The Office of Public Advocate

To ensure that all citizens have equal and effective access to government services, the Iraqi parliament could create an Office of the Public Advocate in all of Iraq's major cities and provinces. The public advocate would act as the guardian of the public's interests, apart from any particular government or political party. The Office of the Public Advocate could report to Iraq's Court of Cassation, the highest court in the land. Public advocates should be appointed for a lengthy period (e.g., six years) and should be individuals of high moral stature and reputation. They could be drawn from the legal profession, the court system, or the education system. As a respected member of the community, immune from political pressure and serving for an extended period of time, the public advocate would add to the sense of confidence that Iraqis have in their government.



Freedom of Expression and Internet in Middle East

The Human Rights Watch has issued a report on the Online Censorship in the Middle East and North Africa. This report documents online censorship and cases in which Internet users have been detained for their online activities in countries across the region, including Tunisia, Iran, Syria and Egypt. Furthermore, Human Rights Watch said,

"This report examines Internet trends and policies in the Middle East and North Africa region as they affect freedom of expression, focusing particularly on Egypt, Iran, Syria, and Tunisia. Human Rights Watch selected these four countries for closer scrutiny as much for their differences as for their similarities, and their inclusion should not suggest that their policies are worse than those of other countries in the region. For each of the featured countries, Human Rights Watch examines government policies affecting Internet access, the role the Internet has played in fostering freedom of expression and civil society, laws restricting free expression, online censorship, and cases in which people have been detained for their online activities."

This report indicates important matters and illuminates significant facts. Although it talks about internet policies, it indicates the nature of the authoritarian governments, which based on repression and lying (the official-only-legitimate propaganda). They fear the truth, for that, they fear even the words.

The free opinion and expression are essential and effectual prerequisites for change in the Middle East as antidotes to the authoritarianism. The more the freedom of expression exists, the less the political system is authoritarian and vice versa. The freedom of conscience and expression is a real and indispensable foundation of the political reform and progress in the Middle East.

The U.S. and EU should support directly the freedom of expression in the Middle East and should pressure the authoritarian governments on that. Those governments should find no choice on that to alleviate any possible foreign pressure on more direct political issues.

By the way, to give you a practical example, every single word of mine here besides my sent email—when they could--are under close surveillance.

To Middle East liberals, danger is real; fear is legitimate.

Here are the summary, the regional overview and the recommendations of this report:

Report webpage

PDF file of report


The speed with which the Internet has spread throughout the Middle East and North Africa testifies to the region’s appetite for alternative means of getting and transmitting information. In countries where the press is rigidly controlled, the Internet has opened a window for greater freedom of expression and communication. Anyone with access to a computer, an Internet connection, and “blogging” tools can now publish to a potential audience of millions, free of charge, within minutes. Faced with this new technology, many regional governments have pursued contradictory policies. With varying degrees of enthusiasm, they have sought to facilitate the spread of information and communications technologies with economic benefits in mind. At the same time, they have sought to maintain their old monopolies over the flow of information.

In a Tunisian Internet café, not far from where the second phase of the World Summit on the Information Society is being held in November 2005, there hangs a portrait of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. This is not remarkable in itself: similar portraits hang in nearly every business in Tunis. But in this Internet café a sign posted immediately beneath the president’s likeness reads: “Opening disk drives is strictly forbidden. Do not touch the parameters of the configurations. It is forbidden to access prohibited sites. Thank you.” These “prohibited sites” include those the government blocks for publishing reports of human rights abuses in the country or criticizing the president.

The dilemma governments perceive in responding to the Internet is evident on this wall. The café exists thanks in part to the Tunisian government’s investment in fostering information technology. The restrictions speak to the Tunisian government’s desire to control information. Governments realize that they cannot live without the Internet, that to shut the country out from the World Wide Web would be to close the country to the world economy. But to one degree or another, they have also sought to control the uses of this technology.

This report examines Internet trends and policies in the Middle East and North Africa region as they affect freedom of expression, focusing particularly on Egypt, Iran, Syria, and Tunisia. Human Rights Watch selected these four countries for closer scrutiny as much for their differences as for their similarities, and their inclusion should not suggest that their policies are worse than those of other countries in the region. For each of the featured countries, Human Rights Watch examines government policies affecting Internet access, the role the Internet has played in fostering freedom of expression and civil society, laws restricting free expression, online censorship, and cases in which people have been detained for their online activities.

In countries such as Iran and Egypt, where the government began licensing private Internet service providers (ISPs) and network service providers earlier than in other countries in the region, the use of the Internet—including the use of the Internet to report news or express opinions—has grown more quickly than it has in countries such as Syria and Tunisia, which initially sought to limit the number of ISPs. In Egypt, the early entry of smaller, private ISPs that promised their customers unfiltered access to the Internet reportedly prompted the government to stop blocking hundreds of Web sites.

As this report went to press, soon after Syria’s “first privately owned ISP” started offering less-restrictive service, one Syrian computer programmer reported that at least one of the old, government-affiliated ISPs had lifted restrictions on protocols used to build Web sites, perhaps in a bid to keep its customers from moving to the new, less-restricted ISP. Perhaps, as Tunisian Minister of Communications Technology Montasser Ouaili recently suggested to Human Rights Watch, competition does stimulate free access to the Internet.

At the same time, all of the countries surveyed in this report continue to block Web sites for their political content or for other arbitrary reasons, and all retain and misuse vaguely worded and sweeping legal provisions to imprison Internet users for expressing unpopular or critical views. The following sketch of conditions in the region shows the broader set of problems.

Regional Overview

In Syria, the authorities censor information and correspondence with a free hand under the terms of emergency legislation promulgated more than forty years ago. The government tampers with the very fabric of the Internet, restricting the use of the basic electronic protocols that allow people to send emails and construct Web sites. Security forces have held online writers incommunicado and tortured them simply for reporting stories the government did not wish to see told. Despite these restrictions, Syrians continue to find new ways to circumvent online censorship and surveillance and have rapidly taken to the Internet as a means of getting news into and out of the country. “The Internet,” one prominent Syrian human rights activist told Human Rights Watch, “is the only way for intellectuals to meet and share ideas in Syria today.”1

In Iran, thanks in part to vigorous government investment, the number of Internet users has increased at an average annual rate of more than 600 percent for the past four years. Iranians “blog” to an extent unparalleled in the region. In 2004, the Iranian judiciary, relying on extralegal intelligence and security forces, began to target online journalists and bloggers in an effort to control this flourishing new medium. Iranian Web sites nevertheless continue to express opinions that the country’s newspapers and other media would never run. The government has imprisoned online journalists, bloggers, and technical support staff. It has blocked thousands of Web sites, including sites that offer free publishing tools and hosting space for blogs.

Innovative Egyptian policies designed to promote Internet use—notably the country’s “free” Internet program that allows any Egyptian with a computer, modem, and a phone line to browse the Web for the price of a phone call—have become models for developing countries around the world. Yet Egyptian security services have detained people for their activities online. In the past, the government used the Internet to monitor and entrap men engaged in homosexual conduct. The government blocks the Web site of the Muslim Brotherhood, arguably the country’s largest opposition group, and online writers risk imprisonment under a vaguely worded press law and emergency legislation that criminalizes a wide variety of critical expression.

In Bahrain, the government has blocked some critical Web sites, although recent tests indicate that previously reported blocks on Web sites have been lifted.2 Still, the government has sought to maintain control over the Internet by requiring all Web sites to register with the Ministry of Information under the pretext of helping to protect their intellectual property. An online bulletin board that remains popular despite government attempts to censor it, http://www.bahrainonline.org, and a site that parodies the ruling family, http://www.bahraintimes.org, remained blocked in Bahrain earlier this year.3 Over the course of late February and early March 2005, Bahraini security agents detained `Ali `Abd al-Imam, Muhammad al-Musawi, and Hussain Yusuf, who moderated http://www.bahrainonline.org. Though they are now free, the three still face charges of “defaming the king” for allowing users to post criticism of the ruling al-Khalifa family on the site.

Saudi Arabia hesitated for years before allowing public Internet access in the country in 1999. In March 2001, eighteen months after it extended service to the public, the Internet Services Unit (ISU), the state institution charged with coordinating Saudi Internet policy, boasted that it had blocked more than 200,000 Web sites since opening service to the public.4 Relative to other countries in the region, Saudi Arabia is forthright about its policies on and methods of blocking Web sites, listing them on the ISU’s Web site.5 Thousands of Web sites were consistently blocked in Saudi Arabia between 2001 and 2004.6 The vast majority of these featured pornographic material or material related to gambling or drugs, but some—such as specific pages from Amnesty International’s Web site criticizing human rights abuses in Saudi Arabia—were political. In October 2005, the ISU briefly blocked http://www.blogger.com, a service owned by Google that allows users to maintain blogs free of charge. Saudi bloggers report that http://www.flickr.com, a popular photograph-sharing Web site, remains blocked.7

In the United Arab Emirates, the sole Internet Service Provider (ISP), Etisalat, has long blocked Web sites containing pornographic, gambling-related, crime-related, gay- and lesbian-related material, as well as sites dedicated to the Baha’i faith, dating sites, and all sites whose addresses end in .il—i.e., sites based in Israel.8 In July 2005, Etisalat blocked a blog for the first time, briefly censoring http://secretdubai.blogspot.com for containing “nudity”—though the site contains no images. The anonymous blogger who maintains the site told Human Rights Watch she believes the blog was blocked because she had reproduced a poem satirizing the Dubai police’s request to tourists “not to violate the very fabric of society.”9

The Libyan government has blocked critical Web sites based outside the country. When Human Rights Watch visited Libya in April-May 2005, researchers were unable to access Libya: News and Views (at the time http://www.libya1.com) and the UK-based Akhbar Libya (http://www.akhbar-libya.com), from two Internet cafés in Tripoli.10 The editor of Akhbar Libya, Ashur Shamis, told Human Rights Watch that he believes hackers associated with the government crashed his site at least four times over the past three years, most recently on June 13, 2005. “They unpublished all the articles on the site and wiped out the archive material,” he said. “They did a lot of damage to the database.” Shamis said the reason for the online attacks has “always been something we published that hit a raw nerve with the Leader [Col. Mu`ammar al-Qaddafi] or the security people.”11 The site has published articles on the 1969 military coup—claiming that al-Qaddafi hijacked the coup with tacit U.S. approval—and a series of articles on corruption in al-Qaddafi’s entourage.

Sites such as Akhbar Libya, Libya Our Home (http://www.libyanet.com), Libya Today (http://www.libya-alyoum.com), and Libya: News and Views (currently http://www.libya-watanona.com) provide debate forums on topics previously taboo. Articles and letters from Libya talk about issues such as unemployment and health care, and sometimes address human rights violations such as torture and police abuse.

On January 12, 2005, Libyan Internal Security agents arrested 52-year-old `Abd al-Razik al-Mansuri in his hometown of Tubruk.12 Although ultimately charged with unlawful possession of a firearm (security agents found an old pistol and some bullets that belonged to his father during a search of his home the day after his initial arrest), al-Mansuri had written many articles critical of the government on http://www.akhbar-libya.com, a U.K.-based Web site.13

During an April-May 2005 mission to Libya, Human Rights Watch interviewed al-Mansuri in a private meeting in the Abu Salim prison director’s office.14 He said he had written between forty and fifty articles for http://www.akhbar-libya.com since 2004. “I study the Libyan people and life from all sides,” he told Human Rights Watch. “Why a Libyan has a beard, why they are maybe scared by someone, and why it’s not time for democracy in Libya.” He added, “What we want for Libya is that it becomes a better place, even through writing.”

Al-Mansuri published his last article on January 10, 2005, a critique of a debate between two government officials, one of whom, Shukri Ghanim, is a reputed reformer, and the other, Ahmad Ibrahim, is a reputed hardliner. Al-Mansuri expressed hope that al-Qaddafi would support the former.15 On October 19, 2005, Akhbar Libya reported that a Tripoli court had sentenced al-Mansouri to one-and-a-half years in prison for the illegal possession of a weapon.16
* * *
With this larger regional perspective as backdrop, this report details the Internet policies of Egypt, Iran, Syria, and Tunisia as they affect the right to freedom of expression. As with our 1999 report on the same issues in the region, we offer a critique of existing practices as well as a set of principles to guide policy and legislation. In so doing, Human Rights Watch seeks to encourage governments to strengthen protection for freedom of expression at this critical juncture marked by rapid growth in Internet use throughout the region.


1) Governments should continue to invest in expanding access to the Internet. Money spent on improving networks should not be diverted to improving surveillance or censorship technology.All of the governments surveyed in this study have invested significantly in making information and communications technologies more widely available. They should continue doing so. As they do so, they should not divert funds to improve the means of censorship and surveillance. In Syria, for example, restrictions on the protocols used to publish to the Web and to send email have served only to slow the spread of the Internet. Such measures are counterproductive and do not work: determined users continue to find ways around government attempts to censor or spy on data traffic. Lowering barriers to access, be they technical, financial, or legal, will lead the Internet to become more decentralized and participatory.

2) Release all those imprisoned or detained solely for exercising their right to free expression, online or otherwise.Egypt, Iran, Syria, and Tunisia have detained dozens of online writers for their activities online in recent years. Iranian blogger Mojtaba Saminejad is still in prison for the contents of his blog. As of November 1, 2005, Syrian online journalist Muhannad Qutaish was still in prison for emailing articles to a Gulf-based newspaper, despite the fact that his sentence had expired. Mas`ud Hamid, a Syrian journalism student, risks continued torture in prison for posting photographs of a demonstration on the Internet. Tunisian online journalist Mohamed Abou is still in prison for publishing articles critical of Tunisian President Ben Ali. These and other prisoners detained for expressing their opinions or publishing information protected under international standards should be released immediately.

3) Cease intimidation and harassment of online writers.In Tunisia, online journalists who express critical opinions or report on human rights violations in the country are kept under constant surveillance. They believe their emails and phone calls are monitored and that people working on behalf of the government send them harassing emails to interfere with their ability to work and to intimidate them. In Syria and Iran, security agencies have regularly “invited” bloggers, online journalists, and their families to come in for questioning, or have phoned them regularly to intimidate them. Such practices chill freedom of expression.

4) Cease blocking Web sites that carry material protected by the rights to free expression and free information. Iran, Syria, and Tunisia extensively block Web sites for their political content. Fewer sites are blocked for their political content in Egypt, but the continued unavailability of the Web sites of prominent Islamist political parties, including the Muslim Brotherhood, stands in violation of the government’s commitments to free expression. All such restrictions should be removed immediately.

5) Governments should provide strict legal guarantees ensuring the privacy of electronic communications. Governments should have authority to monitor email or other forms of electronic communication only when authorized by an independent court of law upon a compelling showing of genuinely criminal activity.Freedom from arbitrary and unlawful interference with one’s privacy and correspondence is protected both under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and applies to electronic communications, including email and newsgroup postings, as well as electronic forms of personal data retained about individuals.

6) Governments should repeal laws that unduly abridge the right to privacy or the right to freely access or disseminate information or opinions. They should further seek to pass new laws that affirmatively protect these rights and clarify the narrow circumstances in which government interference would be warranted according to international standards.Sweeping,vaguely worded Egyptian, Iranian, Syrian, and Tunisian laws that criminalize “spreading false news,” or criticizing the president, government officials, or the system of government abridge the right to free expression. In accordance with international standards, governments should seek to pass legislation that

a. Affirmatively protects the right of writers to advocate nonviolent change of government policies or the government itself;criticize the nation, the government, its symbols, or officials; and communicate information about alleged violations of international human rights and humanitarian law.

b. Removes unlimited liability from private ISPs or Internet cafés for carrying illegal content.

c. Permits the free use of encryption and other techniques to ensure the privacy of online communications. Law enforcement agencies should be allowed to decrypt private communications only after convincing an independent court of a compelling and particularized showing of need.

7) Allow free and unimpeded access to Internet cafés and Internet-connected libraries for all, and do not require such businesses to provide customer records without a specific court order based on a compelling and particularized showing of need.

8) Do not allow criminal liability for merely visiting Web sites, even those that may legitimately banned under international standards of free expression and information.


US disappointed of restrictions on freedoms in Tunisia

There is good news concerning some consequences of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) hosted by Tunisia.

The world is more introduced to the way in which the Arab societies are governed. The Arabic edition of the authoritarianism is becoming publicized after some decades of western apathy. The world has directly witnessed the Tunisian government conduct as regards the civil liberties and rights. This serves as a typical example of what is going in the Arab states, however, at different ranges.

The U.S. issued a statement Urges Progress in Tunisian Reform and Human Rights, expressing the U.S. "disappointment" and concern about restrictions on freedoms of speech and political activity in Tunisia.

It is indicative that the cooperation, friendship and the good relations with the Tunisian government did not preclude such candid statement. This serves as an indicator that the U.S. is serious about this course, beyond rhetoric. Furthermore, it gives the U.S. credibility a push in the Middle East and weakens the skeptics, especially, whom affiliated with the secret police (Mukhabarat). And sends the right signals to the Middle East reformists.

Related post: Middle East's Political Stirring.

Here is the information:

U.S. Delegation Urges Progress in Tunisian Reform, Human Rights

(International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State.)

The World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) ended November 18 with the U.S. delegation to the U.N.-sponsored meeting expressing both thanks and disappointment at the role of the hosting Tunisian government.

The summit was a chance for the community of nations to discuss both the expansion of information and communications technology and the free flow of information that is critical to the innovation and expansion of the Internet.

“We are therefore obliged to express our disappointment that the government of Tunisia did not take advantage of this important opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to freedom of expression and assembly in Tunisia,” said a press note issued by the delegation.

“We hope that the successful outcome of the second phase of the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunisia will provide additional incentive to the government in Tunisia to match its considerable economic and social accomplishments with comparable progress in political reform and respect for the human rights of its people,” the statement said.

Days before the summit began, State Department spokesman Adam Ereli also expressed concern about restrictions on freedoms of speech and political activity in Tunisia, at the same time noting progress in Tunisia’s economic and social reform.

For additional information on the November 16-18 WSIS conference, see World Summit on the Information Society.

The text of the statement follows:

(begin text)

U.S. DELEGATION TO WSIS [World Summit on the Information Society]
(Tunis, Tunisia)
For Immediate Release
November 18, 2005

As the second phase of the World Summit on the Information Society draws to a close, the U.S. delegation wishes to express its thanks to the Tunisian organizers and the Tunisian people for having succeeded in the considerable logistical challenges of hosting the event. The World Summit on the Information Society provided the world with an opportunity to discuss two vitally important issues – how to bring the benefits of information technology to the developing world and how to ensure a free flow of information that is critical to the success of the Internet.

Internet stakeholders have underlined in both the official meetings and in parallel events during WSIS the critical necessity of an open dialogue between governments, private sector, and civil society representatives. In hosting this Summit, the government of Tunisia had an opportunity and responsibility to demonstrate clearly its commitment to freedom of the press and its commitment to freedom of expression. Indeed, in a statement by the Western European and others Group (WEOG), during the Geneva Prepcom in September 2005, Tunisia, as host of the Summit, was called upon to demonstrate that it strongly upholds and promotes the right to freedom of opinion and expression necessary to promote the building of the global information society and ensure a successful second phase of the World Summit. We are therefore obliged to express our disappointment that the government of Tunisia did not take advantage of this important opportunity to demonstrate its commitment to freedom of expression and assembly in Tunisia. We hope that the successful outcome of the second phase of the World Summit on the Information Society in Tunisia will provide additional incentive to the government in Tunisia to match its considerable economic and social accomplishments with comparable progress in political reform and respect for the human rights of its people.

(end text)

The related Human Rights Watch Press Releases:

The World Summit on the Information Society

Dispatch from Tunis: The Civil Society Summit That Wasn’t
(Tunis, November 14, 2005) – Today as a global summit on the Internet got underway, the Tunisian government did all it could to smother a local summit on the same topic. One might think that a world conference on improving global Internet access represents a prime chance for the government to reverse its reputation for intolerance of dissent, but the day’s events proved it to be an opportunity missed.

The streets and landmark buildings of downtown Tunis are festooned with red national flags and portraits of President Ben Ali, while plainclothes police patrol in large numbers outside almost every major hotel and at known gathering points of Tunisia’s small human rights community. Meanwhile, some 10 kilometers away in the northern suburb of Kram, dignitaries, diplomats and members of accredited civil society and press organizations gathered to attend preliminary parallel sessions of the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS), whose official sessions open on November 16. But much of the Tunisian human rights community was barred from the global conference and thwarted in attempts to meet independently.

The government of Tunisia tolerates little dissent. Human rights organizations operate under heavy restrictions, and many are denied legal recognition by the authorities. Peaceful meetings of human rights activists are often blocked by plainclothes police who forcibly disperse would-be participants.

Cancelled venue
Many Tunisian human rights organizations that might have participated in WSIS could not for lack of formal legal status in Tunisia. For this reason, they together with international human rights organizations in town for the WSIS prepared to hold a parallel event in Tunis called the Citizen’s Summit to debate the same issues that would be discussed at the WSIS conference events. To that end, they rented a venue at the Hotel Oriental Palace, a major hotel in Tunis, and created a website with a schedule for the alternate summit.

On November 10, the hotel notified organizers of the Citizen’s Summit that the hall was no longer available, citing the sudden need for repair work at that time. The abrupt unavailability of a venue for gatherings by unauthorized groups has been part of a pattern of harassment, as has forcible disruption of “unauthorized” assemblies by plainclothes police.

Police intimidation
This morning at roughly 9 a.m., representatives of the organizations planning the Citizen’s Summit planned to meet at the Goethe Institute, a German cultural institute, in downtown Tunis, but were prevented from entering by several dozen plainclothes police. The police, who refused to identify themselves or give any explanation of their actions, manhandled Tunisian and foreign activists, knocking down several individuals as they pushed them along the streets. The police also confiscated the camera from a Belgian television cameraman who came to tape the scene, returning it without its cartridge, and attempted to confiscate the camera from a Swiss photojournalist, telling him it was forbidden to take pictures.

Among those who were dispersed by the authorities were Souhayr Belhassen, vice-president of the Tunisian League for the Defense of Human Rights, Sihem Bensedrine, Omar Mestiri, and Om Zied of the National Council for Freedom in Tunisia (an unauthorized organization), Mahmoud Dhaouadi, a member of the Union of Tunisian Journalists, (an unauthorized organization), and representatives of Human Rights Watch (New York); the International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH, Paris), Front Line (Dublin), the World Association for Community Radio Broadcasters (Montreal), the Association for Progressive Communication (Johannesburg), and the Human Rights Caucus of WSIS. Eventually, some of these delegates were able to meet when a high-level German diplomat attending WSIS and a Swiss diplomat personally hosted them at a nearby café. However, they had to leave when the café owner informed them that police surrounding the establishment said he would have to close it if they remained on the premises.

A second event of the Citizen’s Summit scheduled for the afternoon was also thwarted by Tunisian authorities. The Tunisian Association of Democratic Women (ATFD) had organized a meeting under the auspices of the Citizens Summit, on the theme of woman in the information society. They had rented the Espace Téatro in the Hotel Mechtel. Three days ago, that hotel official contacted the ATFD and informed it that the hall was no longer available. The ATFD decided to hold the event instead at its offices in downtown Tunis, at 5:00 pm. At that time, persons approaching the office to attend were confronted by plainclothes police, who informed them that the meeting was forbidden, and that they had orders to deny access to the site. The meeting could not take place.

At approximately 10 p.m., Omar Mestiri, of the National Council for Freedom in Tunisia, attempted to meet a Lebanese human rights activist visiting Tunis for WSIS at a local hotel. Police at the entrance prevented Mestiri from entering the building. After a brief confrontation, Mestiri was detained for approximately 90 minutes at a police station before being allowed to leave.

A select few
The limited participation of Tunisian civil society in the WSIS conference is reflected in the venue of the conference, in an exposition park at a distance from the city center, reached via a heavily guarded road. Only delegates with conference badges can even approach the site.

At a panel in the WSIS compound organized by Human Rights Watch today on Internet censorship in the Middle East, the question-and-answer period was dominated by individuals representing government-approved Tunisian organizations, who praised the government and contested the characterization of Tunisia as a country that practiced censorship and surveillance. Human Rights Watch has documented Tunisia’s record with regard to development and restriction of the Internet in a report to be released November 15. The few truly independent Tunisian human rights organizations that are accredited to the WSIS have stayed away, in solidarity with those that are not accredited to attend. No representative of Tunisian organizations that might have been able to share information about Internet surveillance or censorship was present at the panel.

Throughout the day, access to the Web site of the Citizen’s Summit, www.citizens-summit.org, was intermittently unavailable in Tunisia. Tunisian human rights activists have also reported difficulty accessing their usual email services.

Tunisia: Alongside a world summit, the police ban a gathering of international and Tunisian associations

(Tunis, November 14) The Tunisian authorities have forbidden Tunisian and foreign associations to hold a meeting in order to prepare an event within the World Summit on the Information Society this morning. This meeting was aiming to organize a “Citizen’s Summit” to debate the topics mentioned within the agenda of the WSIS, which is sponsored by the United Nations.

About ten civil policemen have prevented access to the Goethe Institute – the German cultural center – where the meeting was to take place. The policemen violently shoved the participants who attempted to regain the meeting place, without identifying themselves or providing a reason, forcing the participants to leave. Among the participants who were forced to leave were Souhayr Belhassen, the Vice President of the Tunisian Human Rights League, Sihem Bensedrine, Omar Mestiri and Om Zied from the National Council on Liberties in Tunisia (which is not recognized by the authorities), Mahmoud Dahouadi, a member of the Tunisian Journalists Union (also not recognized by the authorities), as well as some representatives from international organizations, like la Federation Internationale de la Ligue des Droits de l’Homme (Paris), Human Rights Watch (New York), Front Line (Dublin), World Association for Community Radio Broadcasters (Montreal), Association for Progressive Communication (Johannesburg) and the Human Rights Caucus for the World Summit on the Information Society.

The under-signed associations deplore this repeated violation of the right to assemble in Tunisia. It is all the more regrettable to see that the Tunisian authorities violate this right when Tunisia hosts the WSIS, a global UN event that is supposed to promote access to information.

Conseil National des Libertés en Tunisie
Sihem Bensedrine

Fédération International des Ligues de droits de l’Homme
Antoine Madellin

Front Line
Andrew Anderson

Human Rights Watch
Eric Goldstein

Ligue Tunisienne de défense des droits de l’Homme
Souhayr Belhassen

World Association for Community Radio Broadcasters
Steve Buckley


U.S. Foreign Spending Measure and Democracy Promotion

President Bush signed into law the foreign spending bill for the fiscal year 2006 (FY06).

The foreign spending bill is an extremely important tool in implementing the U.S. policy and serving its interests and objectives. Promoting democracy worldwide, especially in the Middle East, is our valuable aim, which must take advantage of this measure. The increasing room for the democratization policy within the foreign spending bill is something gradual and in need of time to get more applicable and harmonious with the many-objectives policy, considering the huge role and commitments of the U.S. in the world. But the start is possible and required currently. This fact, besides the importance of the deliberate pro-democracy policy to the U.S. interests and strategic position in the 21st century, must become clear to the U.S. congress.

Considering all, I don not say that the democratic considerations must constitute basic conditions to the foreign aid at this time. that would not be a realistic manner. What I hope is to take those considerations into account at delivering the foreign aid. Evolving somehow a flexible linkage between the foreign aid and the democratization policy would be helpful and significant as a part of the comprehensive pursuit of democracy promotion worldwide and particularly in the Middle East.

The basing on legal stipulations is a required advanced practice. I extremely hail the clause of economic assistance of Egypt, which obliges the Egyptian government to undertake "significant economic and political reforms which are additional to those which were undertaken in previous fiscal years".

The direct aid to the civil society and NGOs which intend the democratic improvement or transformation is indispensable for democracy promotion. However, this kind of aid is in many cases subject to political conditions particularly with regard to undemocratic governments. And I think it is something relative to the international order and norms and their development as I said in many previous posts.

Following is an outline of the 2006 foreign aid spending measure:

Bush Signs $20.9 Billion 2006 Foreign Aid Spending Measure

Bill boosts anti-AIDS budget, trims funds for new aid program

By Kathryn McConnell
Washington File Staff Writer

Washington -- President Bush signed into law November 14 a $20.9 billion foreign spending bill for the fiscal year ending September 30, 2006 (FY06).

A committee of Senate and House of Representatives negotiators agreed to the final version of the bill in early November. The House adopted the measure November 4 by a vote of 358-39 and the Senate by a 91-0 vote on November 10.

The measure provides $2.8 billion to fight HIV/AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis worldwide, exceeding by $258 million the amount requested by President Bush and by $629 million the 2005 appropriated amount.

Congress approved $1.77 billion for the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC), which administers the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA). The MCA is a Bush administration foreign aid initiative established in early 2004 to reinforce sound political, economic and social policies in developing countries. Bush had requested $3 billion for the MCA.

The measure provides funding for bilateral U.S. aid programs as well as global health and security initiatives, U.S. support for international financial institutions and other programs. Highlights of the measure include:


• Israel -- $2.3 billion in military aid -- a $60 million increase over 2005 levels -- and $240 million in economic assistance;

• Egypt -- $1.3 billion in military aid and $495 million in economic assistance, provided that Egypt undertakes "significant economic and political reforms which are additional to those which were undertaken in previous fiscal years";

• Jordan -- $250 million in economic assistance;

• West Bank and Gaza -- $2 million in development assistance for programs to be administered by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID);

The bill also provides $430 million for Afghanistan -- more than double the 2005 amount; $300 million in military aid for Pakistan; $70 million for development assistance for Sudan; and $10 million in economic support for the states of the former Soviet Union.


• $791 million for migration and refugee assistance;

• $477.2 million for narcotics control and law enforcement and $734.5 million to support counterdrug activities in the Andean region of South America;

• $410.1 million to support nonproliferation, anti-terrorism and demining;

• $322 million for the Peace Corps;

• $95 million to promote democracy and improvements in the governance, human rights and independent media of emerging economies;

• $80 million for the Global Environment Facility, which helps developing countries fund programs related to biodiversity, climate change, international waters, land degradation, the ozone layer, and persistent organic pollutants; and

• $4 million for programs that address the needs and protect the rights of people with disabilities in developing countries.


• $950 million for the International Development Agency (IDA), the arm of the World Bank Group that provides long-term interest-free loans and grants to the poorest developing countries; and

• $100 million for the Asian Development Fund, $3.64 million for the African Development Bank, $135.7 million for the African Development Fund and $1.74 million to the Enterprise for the Americas Multilateral Investment Fund.

To help enhance military security the bill provides $30 to the Philippines, $3 million to Mongolia; and $1 million each to Indonesia, Bangladesh, Thailand, Sri Lanka and Cambodia.
Legislators reduced to $61 million the amount for reconstruction programs in Iraq, saying funds remain from money already appropriated for Iraq. The administration had requested $459 million.

The funding measure would also provide $65 million for the sale, reduction or cancellation of debt owed to the United States by eligible poor countries.

It stipulates that no funding shall be made available to pay for abortions as a method of family planning.

The bill also includes money for the Export-Import Bank of the United States (Ex-Im Bank), which provides loans, loan guarantees and grants to credit-worthy U.S. exporters; the Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC), an agency that through loans helps U.S. businesses invest in economic development projects in new and emerging markets; and the Trade and Development Agency (TDA), which funds technical assistance, feasibility studies, training, and other activities that support the development of infrastructures and fair and open trading environments in developing countries.

Ex-Im Bank is to receive $100 million, OPIC $20.28 million and TDA $50.9 million.