2.17.2006

News Concerning Middle East Reform

This is the news section of the current issue of the Arab Reform Bulletin Published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace:


Palestine: New Parliament to Convene

The new 132-member Palestinian Legislative Council will meet February 18 to debate government formation. Hamas, whose Change and Reform list won 74 seats in addition to four independent seats, is expected to lead. The 45-seat Fatah parliamentary bloc elected MP Azzam Al Ahmad as its leader on February 11. Click here for final results of the January 25 elections released by the Palestinian Central Elections Commission.

The Election Cases Court on February 5 dismissed claims by Fatah that electoral violations necessitated new elections in the districts of Salfit, Nablus, Gaza, Khan Younis, and Jerusalem. The court similarly dismissed claims by Hamas that it had won 30 instead of 29 seats at the national level. A preliminary statement released on January 26 by the National Democratic Institute and the Carter Center praised the orderly and peaceful conduct of the elections but also recorded instances of improper campaign activity and restricted freedom of movement and campaigning.

The outgoing Palestinian Legislative Council, in its final act, approved a new law on February 13 that gives President Mahmoud Abbas the authority to appoint a new constitutional court without seeking legislative approval. Hamas strenuously objected to the legislation.


Egypt: Municipal Elections Postponed, Ruling Party Changes

Egypt 's parliament approved by a 348-106 vote on February 14 a proposal by President Hosni Mubarak that municipal elections be delayed for two years. The mandate of Egypt's municipal officials was due to expire on April 16 and elections were to be organized within a two-month period before that date. According to NDP Secretary General and Shura speaker Safwat Al Sherif, the postponement is necessary to draft a new law intended to devolve authority to municipalities. The delay, however, is widely seen in Egypt as an attempt by the NDP to regroup after the Muslim Brotherhood won 88 of 454 seats in parliamentary elections in November. The Muslim Brotherhood cannot field a candidate for president under current rules because it is not a legal party, but if it elected enough supporters to the local councils and the Consultative Council it could eventually place an independent candidate onto the ballot.

The ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) formed a new 29-member secretariat general on February 1 in a move observers believe signals a clear shift in the party in favor of younger members close to Gamal Mubarak. Gamal Mubarak became one of three assistant secretaries general replacing Kamal Al Shazli. A December 29, 2005 cabinet reshuffle also removed Al Shazli as minister of People's Assembly affairs and brought in several young technocrats. Click here for a list of the new cabinet.

Iraq: Election Results Final, Government Formation Begins

The Independent Electoral Commission of Iraq announced the final results of the legislative elections on February 10, almost two months after votes were cast. A new Iraqi government is expected to be in place by May. Under Iraq's constitution, President Jalal Talabani must convene the new 275-member parliament in the next 15 days. Parliament then has 30 days to elect a new president who in turn will have 15 days to name a new prime minister from the parliamentary bloc with the most seats—the coalition of Shiite religious parties. On February 12, the Shiite bloc selected Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari as its candidate for prime minister in the new cabinet. The leaders of the bloc hoped to resolve the contest between Jaafari and Adel Abdul Mahdi by consensus but ended up deciding the matter by a 64 to 63 vote. Jaafari's appointment must be confirmed by parliament and he will then have 30 days to present his cabinet to parliament for approval by majority vote. Formal negotiations between the different political groups about forming a coalition government have not started yet.

Voters in the December 15 poll overwhelmingly voted along religious and ethnic lines. The main Shiite bloc, the United Iraqi Alliance, won 128 of the 275 seats (more than twice as many as any other group but ten seats short of a majority). The major Sunni parties, the Iraqi Concord Front and the Iraqi Front for National Dialogue won 44 and 11 seats respectively. The Kurdistan Alliance won 53 seats and a rival Islamist Kurdish group, the Kurdistan Islamic Union, won 5 seats. An independent Sunni candidate, Mithal Al Alusi, won one seat and the Progressive party (loyal to Moqtada Al Sadr) won two seats. Secular alliances did not perform well, winning fewer seats than in the previous election. The National Iraqi List led by former Prime Minister Ayad Allawi won 25 seats and Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi's National Congress for Iraq did not win any seats. Click here for detailed results of the elections.

Unlike the previous legislative election, voter turnout was high among Sunni Arabs. In the mostly Sunni Salahuddin and Anbar provinces, turnout was 96 and 86 percent respectively.

In response to allegations of fraud, the electoral commission threw out 227 of the nearly 32,000 ballots, but this had little effect on final results. A January 19 report by the Jordan-based International Mission for Iraqi Elections praised the elections as well-run under difficult conditions, but noted that some vote-rigging had been documented and that “some additional fraud in all probability went undetected, although its exact extent is impossible to determine under current circumstances.”

Kuwait: New Leader and Government

The January 15 death of Sheikh Jaber Al Ahmad Al Sabah, Emir of Kuwait since 1977, sparked a succession struggle within the ruling Al Sabah family. The Kuwaiti parliament played a significant role in ending the political crisis by invoking a 1964 succession law and voting unanimously to remove Crown Prince Sheikh Saad Al Abdullah Al Sabah for health reasons. The parliament confirmed Prime Minister Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah, the country's de facto ruler for the past five years, as the new emir on January 29. The new emir named his brother Sheik Nawaf Al Ahmed Al Sabah (former interior minister and deputy prime minister) crown prince and appointed Sheikh Nasser Al Mohammed Al Sabah as prime minister. Reformists welcomed the new emir's decision to keep the posts of crown prince and prime minister separate, as they have been since 2003. The appointments ignore a Kuwaiti political tradition that the position of the emir and other top posts should rotate between the family's two wings. Sheikh Sabah, Sheikh Nawaf and Sheikh Nasser are all members of the Jaber clan of the Sabah dynasty.

The emir also swore in a new cabinet on February 11 amid criticisms by liberal MPs that reformist former ministers were excluded from the government line-up. The 16-member cabinet excludes two leading liberal ministers and includes three prominent Islamists: Shiite MP Youssef Al Zalzalah as commerce and industry minister, member of the Islamic Constitutional Movement Ismail Al Shatti as communications minister, and Abdullah Abdulrahman Al Matouq as minister of justice and minister of Awqaf and Islamic affairs. Members of the ruling Al Sabah family continue to hold the key portfolios of interior, defense, foreign affairs, and energy. Massouma Al Mubarak, the only female minister, retained her post as minister of planning. Click here for a cabinet list.

In another development, the Kuwaiti parliament is debating a new draft press law presented by parliament's Educational Committee on December 17. The draft law prohibits the closure of newspapers without a final court verdict, bans the arrest and detention of journalists until a final verdict is delivered by the Supreme Court, and allows citizens whose applications for licenses are rejected to sue the government in court. It also bans jailing journalists for all but religious offenses, criticisms of the emir, and calls to overthrow the government, stipulating up to one year in jail for such offenses and a fine of up to KD 20,000 (about US $68,000). This last stipulation was the source of heated debate in parliament as liberal MPs called for abolishing all jail terms while Islamist MPs insisted that jail penalties must be greater for religious offenses. Another parliamentary committee, the Legal and Legislative Committee, unanimously approved a draft law requiring top government officials and MPs to disclose their wealth before assuming office and after leaving their posts as part of a measure to combat corruption.

United Arab Emirates: New Cabinet

Sheikh Khalifa Bin Zayed Al Nahyan, president of the United Arab Emirates since his father's death on November 2, 2005, approved a new cabinet on February 9. The top ministers—defense, interior, finance, economy, and energy—retained their posts and eight new ministers were introduced to the 21-member cabinet, including Minister of Social Affairs Miriam Mohammed Khalfan Al Roumi who is the second woman to join the cabinet. Several ministries were abolished including the Ministry of Information, which is to be replaced by a governmental Higher Information Council in charge of licensing new media. A Ministry of the Federal National Council Affairs was created to begin implementing the president's December 1 announcement that half of the members of the Federal National Council (FNC), the closest body the country has to a parliament, will be indirectly elected. No date has been set for elections. The 40-member FNC serves in an advisory capacity, but former members of the FNC have recently voiced demands for legislative powers. Click here for a cabinet list.

Yemen: Technocrat Cabinet

President Ali Abdullah Saleh reshuffled the Yemeni cabinet on February 11, a move observers believe is an attempt to bolster his popularity before presidential elections in September 2006. The reshuffle (including key posts such as the ministries of defense, finance, planning and oil) replaced long-serving veterans with technocrats. All 32 cabinet members belong to the ruling General People's Congress. Click here for a cabinet list.


Bahrain: Opposition Group Will Participate in Elections

Bahrain's largest political society, Al Wefaq National Islamic Society, announced it will participate in legislative elections in September. Al Wefaq, along with four other political societies, boycotted the 2002 elections to protest constitutional changes that granted the appointed upper chamber of parliament equal legislative powers to the elected 40-seat lower chamber. Bahrain's King Hamad Bin Issa Al Khalifa asserted on February 4 that he welcomes participation by opposition groups in parliamentary elections. Political groups operate in Bahrain as associations due to a continued ban on political parties.

Jordan: Political Reform Developments

A nine-member committee created last December by Minister of Interior Eid Fayez has begun drafting a political party law. Observers expect the new law to lead to the elimination of some of the present 30 parties by making a distinct platform and demonstrated popular support prerequisites for registration and by implementing tighter funding controls. Jordan's Islamic Action Front warned it would reject the draft law if it bans establishing parties based on religion. Political party law reform has been the subject of debate in Jordan for several years and forms part of the Jordanian National Agenda's vision for economic, social, and political reform over the next ten years. The National Agenda is now available online in Arabic.

While Jordan's government and parliament are discussing new legislation to expand media freedoms and political participation, King Abdullah's reform agenda has “stopped short of addressing the deep flaws in Jordan's criminal justice system” according to Human Rights Watch. A February 7 statement by the organization calls on the government to address urgently the access to lawyers, inadmissibility of confessions obtained by torture, and prosecution of rights violators. Under Jordanian law security forces can detain suspects in crimes under the jurisdiction of the State Security Court for seven days without charge or access to a lawyer.

North Africa: Human Rights Developments

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) visited several Tunisian prisons and met with detainees after it signed an agreement with the Tunisian government on April 26, 2005. The ICRC has similar agreements with Algeria, Jordan, Lebanon, Palestine, and Kuwait, but its reports are submitted exclusively to the authorities and are not made public. In another development, Tunisian authorities cracked down on the press by seizing all copies from newsstands on January 20 of the weeklies Al Maoukif (published by the opposition Democratic Progressive Party) and Akhbar al-Jumhuriyya for carrying an open letter to President Ben Ali referring to a corruption case. Click here for more details about this case.

The Moroccan government has also launched a series of criminal cases against the Moroccan press, including criminal prosecutions of newspaper editors and the imposition of excessive fines on independent publications. Three journalists face possible imprisonment as a direct result of news or opinions published in their weeklies. Click here for a report by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) and here for a report by Reporters without Frontiers.

In Algeria, Bachir Larabi of the independent daily Al Khabar was arrested on January 21 on libel charges resulting from a December 9, 2003 article defaming a mayor. Click here for a report by the CPJ. Algerian authorities also closed two newspapers and arrested their editors on February 12 for reprinting cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad from a Danish newspaper.

The Libyan authorities have taken some important steps to improve human rights in the past year but continue to commit grave violations, according to a report by Human Rights Watch. “Libya: Word to Deeds; The Urgent Need for Human Rights Reform” argues that while the Libyan government has released political prisoners, improved prison conditions, and allowed human rights organizations to conduct fact-finding missions and advocacy in the country, it continues to ban political parties and groups, non-state run media and independent civic organizations. It also holds hold political prisoners, conducts unfair trials, and practices torture.

Upcoming Political Events

  • Bahrain: Municipal elections in May; legislative elections in September
  • Jordan: Municipal elections expected by mid-2006

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