4.15.2006

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:

Syria: Crackdown on Human Rights and Political Activists; Opposition Alliance

A recent wave of arrests and court sentences has targeted several human rights activists and opposition figures. On April 3, the Syrian State Security Court sentenced Kurdish human rights activist Riad Drar to five years in prison on charges of disseminating false news, inciting sectarian riots, and forming a secret organization. The court also sentenced Abdul Sattar Qattan, a member of the banned Muslim Brotherhood, to 12 years in prison on April 3 and three students accused of being Islamists to 10 years imprisonment on March 28. Syrian authorities arrested four human rights activists in the week of March 20, including the former vice president of the Human Rights Association in Syria Mohammad Najati Tayyara. Two weeks earlier Syrian security forces detained for four days Amar Qurabi, a spokesperson for the Arab Human Rights Organization in Syria, on his return from political conferences in Washington and Paris. Click here for more details on these cases by Amnesty International.

Meeting in Brussels on March 17, exiled Syrian opposition leaders announced the creation of a united front to form a transitional government to bring about regime change in Syria. Participants in the National Salvation Front include former Syrian vice president Abdel Halim Khaddam, leader of the banned Muslim Brotherhood Ali Sadreddine Al Bayanouni, and smaller Kurdish and communist parties. On April 9, a military court in Syria charged Khaddam, who has been living in Paris since he defected in December 2005, with inciting a foreign attack against Syria and plotting to take power.

Islamist Groups: Electoral Outcomes

Click here for a table showing parliamentary election results for the countries where Islamist parties and candidates have competed legally or openly in parliamentary elections.

The role of Islamist opposition parties in legislative elections varies across the Arab region. In Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, and Yemen, Islamist parties—parties whose main goal is the establishment of an Islamic state or the implementation of sharia—are permitted to compete in elections. In Egypt, Islamist political parties are banned, but Islamists have run for office as independent candidates, typically as members of the illegal but tolerated Muslim Brotherhood. Tunisia has a multiparty system, but forbids religiously-affiliated parties and candidates. Syria allows only candidates vetted by the ruling Baath party, which so far has excluded Islamists.

In Bahrain and Kuwait all political parties are illegal but Islamist candidates compete openly in elections as independents or with the backing of political and religious societies. Parties are also illegal in Oman, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia. Among these states only Oman, which has no notable Islamist movement, has so far held legislative elections. The UAE and Qatar have announced that they will hold legislative elections in the future. Saudi Arabia does not hold legislative elections but independent Islamists participated in the 2005 municipal elections.

Palestine: Multiple Challenges for Hamas Cabinet

Tensions are on the rise between the new Hamas-led government and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas after an April 5 decision by Abbas to assume security control over Gaza's border crossings. As head of the National Security Council, Abbas has final say over the Palestinian security forces but Prime Minister Ismail Haniyya criticized the decision as a violation of power-sharing agreements. On April 9, Abbas appointed a new commander of security forces in the West Bank and Gaza strip, a move observers believe was designed to alleviate tensions with Hamas.

The new Palestinian Authority also faces grave financial challenges. The Palestinian Authority will not be able to pay the salaries of about 140,000 government employees without foreign assistance. The European Union, the largest international donor to the Palestinians, suspended direct aid to the Palestinian Authority on April 7 because Hamas has not recognized Israel or renounced violence. European Union foreign ministers stressed they would seek alternative ways of providing money for humanitarian purposes. Click here for a list of the 24-member Hamas cabinet sworn in on March 29.

Iraq: Political Impasse Continues

Disagreement over the choice of a prime minister continues to hamper the formation of a new Iraqi government almost five months after parliamentary elections. On April 10, Kurdish and Sunni politicians reaffirmed their opposition to the continuation of interim Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari as prime minister in Iraq's new government on the grounds that he is responsible for the current rise in tensions. The United Iraqi Alliance, the parliamentary bloc with the most seats, has resisted demands that it withdraw Jafari as candidate. The parliament, which has held one session since the December 15 elections, is scheduled to meet on April 17 to discuss the formation of a new government.

Iraq's top religious leaders will meet in Amman on April 22 in an attempt to defuse the volatile situation in Iraq. The Iraqi Islamic Reconciliation Summit will be held under the patronage of Jordan's King Abdullah II and will be organized by the Arab League and the Aal Al Bayt Institute for Islamic Thought.

Jordan: Islamists Arrested; Debate Continues over New Press Law

Jordanian authorities arrested more than 100 members of the Islamist Action Front (IAF), Jordan's largest political party, on April 9 for distributing flyers calling for a strike in protest of Jordan's third fuel price hike since July 2005. On March 18 Zaki Bani Irsheid, considered a moderate, replaced Hamzeh Mansour as IAF Secretary General.

In the ongoing debate over a new press and publications law, parliament's National Guidance Committee rejected on March 13 a provision in the amended draft law that would have prohibited the imprisonment of journalists charged with violating provisions of the law. The committee insisted that “journalists should not have immunity.” Under the existing 1998 law, journalists may be imprisoned if they incite sectarian sedition; vilify a religion, God or a prophet; or commit slander. In response to criticism from the Jordan Press Association, government spokesperson Nasser Judeh stated on March 27 that the government continues to be committed to the principle of abolishing imprisonment of journalists. The draft law was first presented to parliament in 2004 by former Prime Minister Faisal Al Fayez's government. Click here to read a report on media freedom in Jordan in 2005 by the Arab Archives Institute.

Egypt: Campaign to Amend Press Law; Muslim Brothers Arrested

The Egyptian Organization for Human Rights launched a national campaign on March 13 to abolish jail sentences for press offenses, promoting a new draft press law proposed by the Journalists' Syndicate. President Hosni Mubarak announced at a February 2004 conference at the press syndicate that prison sentences for journalists convicted of libel would be abolished, but the promised reform has yet to be enacted. Click here for more details on the campaign.

In another development, Egyptian authorities arrested nine members of the Muslim Brotherhood in Alexandria on April 1, bringing to 30 the number of detained Muslim Brothers in the month of March.

Egyptian authorities released 950 members of the militant Islamist group Al Jamaa Al Islamiyya between April 2 and April 12, including several senior figures who had been imprisoned for over 20 years. Al Jamaa Al Islamiyya was responsible for a string of terrorist attacks in Egypt the 1990s but the group's leaders renounced violence and entered into a truce with the government in the late 1990s.

Tunisia: Crackdown on Political Activists

Five Tunisian opposition parties, led by the Progressive Democratic Party, have accused the government of harassing activists in civil society organizations in Tunisia. An April 10 statement by the head of the party, Najib Al Shabbi, called on the government to amend the constitution to abolish the one-party system and to amend press, political party, and electoral legislation. According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), Tunisian writer and human rights lawyer Muhammad Abbou is being mistreated in prison and his family is being harassed. Abbou was sentenced in June 2005 to three and a half years in prison because of an Internet article that allegedly “defames the judicial process” and was “likely to disturb the public order.” Click here to read the CPJ statement.

Political activist Neila Chachour Hashisha and her family are being harassed by Tunisian authorities after she spoke at a seminar for Arab reformers at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington DC, according to International Freedom of Expression Exchange. Referring to the matter in an April 3 statement, U.S. Department of State deputy spokesman Adam Ereli said that the U.S government encourages the government of Tunisia to “take actions consistent with its declared intentions to engage in democratic reform.”

A statement by Human Right Watch called on the Tunisian authorities to release Ali Ramzi Bettibi on the one year anniversary of his arrest for copying an online statement from a group threatening terror attacks onto a discussion forum he moderated. Human Rights Watch also pointed out that more than 300 political prisoners remain under detention after the presidential pardon announced on February 25, which freed or conditionally freed 1,650 prisoners including more than 80 political detainees.

Morocco: Debate over Electoral Survey

Morocco's Islamist Party for Justice and Democracy (PJD) has been at the center of debate after a poll by the U.S.-based International Republican Institute showed that the PJD could win 47 percent of the vote in the next legislative elections. In comments to the media, PJD representatives consistently played down the poll's results. PJD Secretary General Saad Eddin Al Othmani repeatedly emphasized that in many cases polls do not coincide with facts and reality and that Moroccans should not think too far ahead. In the same vein, senior PJD official Abdallah Kiran said on Al Jazeera's “ Ma Wara Al Khabar” (Behind the News) on March 25 that the party does not desire an electoral result that Morocco would not be able to handle and referred to Algeria as an example of a case where rapid change was disastrous. He argued that Morocco needs a gradual process of political reform that reassures all the political players.

Qatar: Parliamentary Elections Announced

Qatar will hold its first legislative elections in early 2007, according to an April 1 statement by Foreign Minister Hamad Bin Jasem Al Thani. Qatar's constitution, approved in an April 2003 popular referendum, creates a legislative body with thirty members elected by universal suffrage and fifteen appointed by the emir. Currently Qatar only has an appointed council with a limited advisory role. According to the constitution, the legislature will have three main powers: to approve (but not prepare) the national budget; to monitor the performance of ministers through interpellations and no-confidence votes; and to draft, discuss, and vote on proposed legislation, which becomes law only with the vote of a two-thirds majority and the Emir's endorsement.

Bahrain: Renewed Tension between Government and Human Rights Organization

The Bahrain Center for Human Rights (BCHR) lost an appeal in March to a September 2004 decision by the government to dissolve the center on the grounds that it had violated the 1989 associations law. Despite the 2004 decision, however, the center has remained active. On March 8, the Ministry of Social Development warned that it will recommend legal measures against the center if it continues its activities.

Kuwait: Women Vote for First Time

Kuwaiti women voted and ran for office for the first time in Kuwait's history on April 4 in a local by-election to fill a single seat in the16-member municipal council. Municipal elections took place in June 2005, but women could not take part in that vote because the government-sponsored suffrage bill had only been passed a month earlier.

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