3.20.2006

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:

Iraq: Government Formation Delayed

Formation of a new Iraqi government has been stalled due to a political deadlock following an upsurge in sectarian violence after an attack on a Shiite shrine in Samarra on February 22. Iraq's parliament delayed its first session until March 16 because of disagreements over the choice of a prime minister. According to the constitution, the prime minister is selected from the parliamentary bloc with the most seats, in this case the United Iraqi Alliance, which won 130 parliamentary seats in the December 2005 elections. The Shiite bloc has resisted demands from Kurdish and Sunni politicians that it withdraw Ibrahim Al Jaafari as candidate for prime minister in Iraq's new government on the grounds that he failed to improve the situation in the year he served as interim prime minister. For their part, the main Kurdish coalition chose current President Jalal Talabani as their candidate for the presidency and Sunni groups are still discussing candidates for the post of speaker of parliament.


Lebanon: National Dialogue Launched

Political leaders initiated a series of “National Dialogue” meetings on March 2 to discuss pressing issues that have divided the Lebanese political scene into anti- and pro- Syrian camps since the February 14, 2005 assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Items on the agenda include the investigation into Hariri's assassination, Lebanon's relations with Syria, and U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, which calls for free and fair presidential elections and the disarmament of all militias in Lebanon. The meetings bring together the leaders of fourteen political groups including Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, Future Movement parliamentary leader Saad Hariri, Druze leader Walid Jumblatt, Lebanese Forces leader Samir Geagea, Free Patriotic movement leader Michel Aoun, Phalange Party leader Amin Gemayel, Hizbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, and Speaker of Parliament Nabih Berri. So far, politicians have agreed on tasking the government with following up on the creation on an international tribunal to try the suspects in the investigation, on disarming Palestinian factions outside refugee camps within six months, and on establishing full diplomatic ties with Syria. They have also agreed that the Shebaa Farms—an Israeli- occupied border area that the UN says is Syrian unless Beirut and Damascus amend their border—is Lebanese territory. Two of the most controversial issues remain unresolved: the U.N. call for the disarmament of Hizbollah and the fate of President Emile Lahoud, whose mandate was extended under Syrian pressure for three years in 2004. The anti-Syrian majority in parliament has repeatedly called for Lahoud to step down since Hariri's assassination.


Jordan: New Laws, Leadership Change in the Muslim Brotherhood

Prime Minister Marouf Al Bakhit announced that a draft political party law will be submitted to parliament before the end of the current session on March 30. Under the proposed legislation, an independent body composed of members of the judiciary and the ministers of justice and political development would take over the task of granting party licenses from the interior ministry. The draft also introduces state funding to political parties in accordance with the number of seats won in parliamentary or municipal elections. The draft continues to penalize parties for obtaining foreign funding, which the government claims allows parties to fall under external influence.

A draft municipal elections law is also expected to be submitted to parliament. According to government officials, the new law would introduce a 20 percent quota for women and would redraw current municipal boundaries. Jordan's largest political party, the Islamic Action Front (IAF), opposes the quota on the grounds that it is unconstitutional and underestimates the ability of Jordanian women to win in a free race. The IAF is also opposed to redrawing municipal divisions because it would increase the number of governmental appointees to municipal posts; the 2003 Municipal Law allows the government to appoint the head of every council as well as half of its members. No final date has been announced for municipal elections scheduled to take place in 2006.

In another development, Jordan's Muslim Brotherhood elected a new leader on March 4. Salem Al Fallahat, member of the Muslim Brotherhood Shura (Consultative) council for four consecutive terms, was chosen general supervisor for a four-year term, replacing Abdul Majid Thneibat who held the post for twelve years and declined to stand for reelection. Jamil Abu Bakr, a prominent figure in the movement, was named deputy general supervisor.

Palestine: Constitutional Court Challenged

In its first session since being sworn in, the new 132-member Palestinian Legislative Council voted on March 6 to revoke all legislation passed by the previous parliament in its final session on February 13, including a new law that gave President Mahmoud Abbas the authority to appoint a new constitutional court without seeking legislative approval. Hamas, whose Change and Reform list won 74 seats in the January elections, strenuously objected to the legislation on the grounds that it would effectively give Abbas veto power over new laws, as judges would be empowered to decide whether laws approved by the new parliament were constitutional. Sixty-nine of 120 present MPs voted to revoke the laws and Fatah members withdrew in protest. It is unclear whether the revocation of the court will stand.


Syria: Closure of Human Rights Center; New U.S. Democracy Promotion Grant

On March 5, the Syrian government closed the country's first human rights center barely a week after it was established by the Belgium-based Institute for International Assistance and Solidarity with the aim of offering legal advice and training on human rights issues. According to the government, the center was closed because it had not received official permission to operate. Syrian security forces detained Ammar Qurabi, spokesman for the Arab Organization for Human Rights in Syria, upon his arrival at Damascus airport on March 12. Click here for more details on the case.

The U.S. State Department's Middle East Partnership Initiative (MEPI) announced on February 17 that it will grant $5 million to organizations in Syria promoting democratic practices such as the rule of law, government accountability, access to independent sources of information, freedom of association and speech, and free, fair and competitive elections. Grants are expected to range from $100,000 to $1,000,000. The group of Syrian opposition parties and activists known as the Damascus Declaration stated they would not accept U.S. funds because doing so would damage their credibility in Syria.


Egypt: Crackdown on Judges, Press, Muslim Brothers
On February 16, Egypt's Supreme Judiciary Council stripped four senior judges of immunity in order to question them about accusations against other judges of fraudulent activities during 2005 parliamentary elections. Mahmoud Al Khodairi (Vice Chairman of the Court of Appeals and Chairman of the Alexandria Judges Club), Ahmed Meki (Vice Chairman of the Court of Cassation), Hesham Bastawisi, and Mahmoud Meki (both members of the Court of Cassation) have also led the call for the Supreme Judiciary Council to be replaced by an elected body and have criticized the government's laxity in investigating charges of fraud and assaults on citizens and judges in the parliamentary elections. Several other judges also have been called in for questioning. The move was widely seen in Egypt as an attempt by the government to exert pressure on the judges given their increasingly confrontational stances regarding judicial independence. The case reportedly has been referred to the Ministry of Justice, and it is unclear whether the judges will face prosecution or disciplinary measures.

Tension is also on the rise between the Egyptian government and the press in light of recent court rulings against journalists facing prison time in libel cases. On March 7, a criminal court sentenced journalist Amira Malsh to one year in prison on charges of libeling a judge in a story published in the independent weekly Al Fagr in July 2005. On February 23 an appeals court upheld a one-year prison sentence given to Abdel Nasser Al Zuhairi, a journalist with the independent daily Al Masry Al Youm, convicted of libeling the country's former environment minister. Al Zuhairi and two colleagues from the same paper were also ordered to pay US$1,745 in damages to the minister. The events have prompted appeals for the 1996 law criminalizing libel to be repealed, which President Hosni Mubarak promised to do two years ago. Egypt's Press Syndicate has called for a general assembly on March 17 to review the situation.

Egyptian authorities arrested approximately twenty members of the Muslim Brotherhood during the first week of March after temporarily shutting down the Afaq Arabiya weekly, a publication known as the group's mouthpiece.


Algeria: Amnesty Law Implemented

The Algerian government announced on March 1 that it will release approximately 2,600 Islamists detained during Algeria's 1990s conflict. As part of this initiative, Algerian authorities released 150 prisoners on March 4 and the deputy-chairman of the banned Islamic Front for Salvation (FIS) Ali Belhadj on March 6. Belhadj was arrested in July 2005 on charges of encouraging terrorism; he had previously served a twelve-year term with FIS chairman Abbasi Madani. The releases come after the Algerian government approved on February 21 the implementation of the provisions in the National Peace and Reconciliation Charter, an amnesty law proposed by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to grant exemption from prosecution to any member of an armed group for crimes committed in the civil conflict that began in 1992. Proposed by Bouteflika in 2000 and approved by 97 percent of voters in a September 2005 referendum, the charter provides amnesty for all security forces who fought against armed Islamic groups, shields from criminal prosecution members of these groups who surrender their weapons in the next six months unless they participated in “mass murder, rape or the use of explosives in public places,” and provides for compensation of victims' families. A joint statement by Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the International Center for Transitional Justice, and the International Federation for Human Rights argues that the decree consecrates impunity for crimes under international law and will muzzle debate about Algeria's internal conflict.


Libya: New Prime Minister

A March 6 cabinet reshuffle replaced Libya's Prime Minister Shukri Ghanem, considered an economic reformer, with his more conservative deputy Baghdadi Al Mahmoudi. Appointed prime minister in June 2003, Ghanem faced opposition from hardliners in the Libyan regime who opposed his market-oriented economic plan to rationalize the government subsidy system and privatize state companies. Ghanem has been appointed head of the National Oil Corporation. The cabinet reshuffle created seven new ministries: agriculture, transportation, education, health, housing, social affairs and industry, and electricity.


Kuwait: New Press Law

The Kuwaiti parliament approved a new press law on March 6 by unanimous vote of the 53 MPs present at the session. The law, which replaces the 1961 press and publications law, will become effective when the government issues its bylaws in six months. The new law prohibits the arrest and detention of journalists until a final court verdict is delivered by the Supreme Court and allows citizens whose applications for newspaper licenses are rejected to sue the government in court (the 1961 law gave applicants the right to appeal only to the government itself). While the new law prohibits the closure of publications without a final court verdict, publications may be suspended for up to two weeks for investigation. 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 these offenses and fines ranging between US$17,000 and US$70,000.


United Arab Emirates: First Human Rights Association

The United Arab Emirates' first official human rights association was established on February 18 with the aim of “respecting and enforcing human rights according to the state's laws and constitution.” Led by former Ambassador Muhammad Al Duhaim, the organization will be based in Abu Dhabi.


Yemen: Release of Al Houthi Supporters

President Ali Abdullah Saleh pardoned 627 supporters of the late Shiite cleric Hussein Badreddine Al Houthi on March 6. The prisoners were accused of participating in Al Houthi's armed rebellion in northwest Yemen beginning on June 18, 2004.

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