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 Activists; Election Law Committee

The wave of arrests and trial of human rights activists and opposition figures in recent past months is continuing:

  • On May 14, Syrian authorities detained prominent writer and activist Michel Kilo days after he signed a petition calling on the government to improve relations with Lebanon. Kilo has long called for reform in Syria and has criticized the government's involvement in the political affairs of Lebanon.
  • On April 30, security agents arrested Fateh Jammous, a prominent member of the Communist Labor Party and a member of the broad coalition of Syrian opposition figures known as the “Damascus Declaration,” upon his arrival at Damascus airport from a trip to Europe where he met with other Syrian opposition figures. Jammous served 17 years in prison on charges of belonging to the banned Communist Labor Party before being released in 2000.
  • Anwar Al Bunni, lawyer and member of the Human Rights Association in Syria, said on April 23 that Shaher Haissa (detained six months ago on charges of belonging to a banned Islamic group) died due to torture while in police custody. The government said that Al Bunni died of a stroke.
  • Syrian writer Ali Al Abdullah and his son, arrested in April, will stand trial on June 18. Al Abdullah spent six months in jail last year for reading a statement by the exiled leader of the banned Muslim Brotherhood at the Al Atassi forum’s meeting in Damascus on May 7, 2005.
  • The Syrian State Security Court sentenced Mahmoud Ayoub Othman and Ibrahim Khalil Maho to up to four years in prison on April 30, on charges of belonging to the outlawed Kurdistan Worker’s Party. Said Mahmoud Khaled Bakri was also sentenced to four years on charges of belonging to an unidentified Islamist group. Click here for more information in Arabic.
The Syrian parliament announced on May 6 it will form a committee to draft a new electoral law before legislative and municipal elections in 2007. The committee will debate changing the current simple majority electoral system to a proportional representation system. Currently, candidates for legislative elections run in direct simple majority elections in 15 constituencies.

Egypt: Crackdown on Protests

Egyptian police and security officers beat and detained participants in a May 11 rally near a Cairo courthouse where two reformist judges were to have appeared in disciplinary proceedings. There were also reports that plainclothes police harassed journalists covering the protests; journalists from Al Jazeera, Reuters, and Qatar national television said they were beaten and their equipment was smashed. Click here for more details. According to the Muslim Brotherhood, 300 people were arrested including some of its members, but security officials say only eight people were formally detained. Between April 24 and May 7, approximately 50 other activists were arrested for demonstrating in support of the judges. They face charges of “insulting the president, spreading false rumors, and disturbing public order.” Click here for more details.

Fifty members of the Muslim Brotherhood were arrested for putting up posters and distributing leaflets protesting a two-year extension of the emergency law on April 30. The law allows indefinite detention without trial, permits trial of civilians in military courts, and limits freedom of speech and association by prohibiting gatherings of more than five people without permission. The law has been renewed every three years since its institution in 1981 after the assassination of President Hosni Mubarak's predecessor Anwar Sadat. Mubarak and Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif have pledged that the emergency law will be replaced by a more specific counter terrorism law.

Commenting on the events, State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said on May 11 that the United States was deeply concerned about the path of political reform and democracy in Egypt and considered these actions incongruous with the Egyptian government's professed commitment to increased political openness and dialogue. He called on the Egyptian government to allow peaceful demonstrations for reform and civil liberties. Click here to read the full statement.

Kuwait: Electoral Law Reform; Amendments to Public Gatherings Law

A heated debate is taking place in Kuwait over the government's proposal to amend the 1962 electoral law to reduce the number of electoral districts from 25 to 10. After weeks of political feuding, the parliament voted on May 16 to refer the electoral reform bill to the Constitutional Court, as suggested by conservative and tribal MPs who oppose the bill. After boycotting the vote because they believe the referral to the Constitutional Court is designed to stall the reform process, proponents of the amendment—the liberal and Islamist MPs—decided on May 17 to interpellate Prime Minister Sheikh Nasser Bin Muhammad Al Sabah, a move that may set the stage either for the dismissal of the cabinet or the dissolution of parliament by the emir. They argue the electoral amendments will make the elections more broadly representative (and less based on sectarian or tribal factors) and will discourage vote buying by undermining candidates who depend on tribal links and the provision of services in smaller districts to win seats. Despite the boycott by more than half of the MPs, all 16 cabinet members were present and voted in favor of referring the issue to the Constitutional Court. Kuwait's legislature has 50 elected deputies, but cabinet members have the right to vote in parliament. Minister of Information Anas Al Rushaid resigned on May 9 in protest against the amendment and was replaced by journalist Muhammad Al Sanousi.

On May 1, Kuwait's Constitutional Court revoked 15 clauses of the Public Gatherings Law No. 65 of 1979, which restricted public gatherings without prior permission from the authorities. The court ruled the law unconstitutional because it violated freedoms stipulated in the constitution. The law was enacted in 1979 by a decree from the late emir after he dissolved parliament. Observers believe this ruling sets a precedent in Kuwait by challenging the emergency powers of the emir; historically the Constitutional Court has shied away from ruling on the constitutionality of laws issued in the absence of parliament.

Iraq: Cabinet Posts under Debate

Disputes among Shiite, Kurdish, and Sunni politicians over the interior and defense portfolios in Iraq are delaying the formation of a government by prime minister-designate Nuri Al Maliki. Factions within the Shiite alliance are also wrangling over three candidates to head the Oil Ministry. Observers believe Maliki may take temporary control of the contested interior and defense portfolios in order to meet the May 22 deadline to form a government. The Sunni bloc has threatened to withdraw from the political process if it fails to receive its fair share in the new government.

In contrast to the discord at the national level, the parliament of Iraq's Kurdish region unanimously approved a 42-member cabinet on May 7 in an unprecedented show of unity between the region's two major parties—the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Nechirvan Barzani of the KDP was appointed prime minister and Omar Fatah of the PUK deputy prime minister.

Bahrain: Government Pressures the National Democratic Institute

The Bahraini government is attempting to restrict the activities of the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI), a U.S.-based nonprofit organization that promotes democracy worldwide, ahead of upcoming parliamentary and municipal elections. The head of NDI's office in Bahrain, Fawzi Guleid, was asked by immigration authorities to leave the country by May 12 because his residency had expired. According to Lulwa Al Awadi, head of the governmental Bahrain Institute for Political Development (BIPD), Guleid's residency was not renewed because NDI's activities in Bahrain violate the Law of Political Association which prevents foreign organizations from funding political societies. NDI rejected these accusations and affirmed that it does not fund political societies but rather offers training courses for elected officials and leaders of civic groups, including the political opposition, which recently ended a four-year election boycott. Since its formation in 2005, the BIPD has demanded that NDI seek prior approval of contacts with Bahraini civic groups. NDI has rejected these demands on the basis that it operates independently in all other countries it works in (including nine Arab countries). NDI was invited into Bahrain in early 2002, ahead of Bahrain's first municipal and parliamentary elections in almost three decades. NDI announced it will continue its activities in Bahrain from its Washington office.

Palestine: Hamas and Fatah Prisoners Sign Joint Petition

Amid violent clashes between members of the rival Fatah and Hamas parties, imprisoned members of both parties drafted a joint platform on May 10 that calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state within the 1967 boundaries alongside Israel. The document's two main signatories were Fatah leader Marwan Barghouti and a prominent Hamas figure, Abdel Khaliq Al Natsheh. While President Mahmoud Abbas welcomed the document, the response from Hamas was guarded. A “national dialogue” meeting between Hamas and Fatah to produce a common platform and pave the way for a government of national unity is scheduled to take place by the end of May.

Jordan: First Private Television Station

Jordan's first private television station, ATV, is set to be launched in the coming months. According to the station's managing director Muhind Khatib, former journalist at pan-Arab satellite station Al Arabiya, ATV is aimed at satisfying the dire need for a private Jordanian station focused on domestic issues. ATV, which has the same ownership as the independent daily newspaper Al Ghad, received a license from the Jordanian Council of Ministers in 2004.

Libya: U.S. Restores Full Diplomatic Ties

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced on May 15 that the United States will remove Libya from a list of state sponsors of terrorism and reopen an embassy in Tripoli “in recognition of Libya's continued commitment to its renunciation of terrorism and the excellent cooperation Libya has provided to the United States and other members of the international community in response to common global threats faced by the civilized world since September 11, 2001.” Relations between Libya and the United States dramatically improved after Libya committed to forswear support for terrorism and dismantle its weapons of mass destruction programs in 2003.

Algeria: President Pardons Journalists

In an unprecedented move, Algerian president Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced on May 3 a pardon for journalists sentenced to prison for “gross insult to state officials, offending the president of the republic, injuring state institutions, defamation, and insult.” The pardon only applies to journalists who have been definitively convicted after appeal, and not to those whose appeals are still pending. The pardon also excludes renowned journalist Mohamed Benchicou, who has been in prison since June 14, 2004, because he was not convicted of defamation but of violating the currency laws. His sentence, however, was widely viewed as retaliation for his daily Le Matin's critical editorial line against the government.

Morocco: Electoral Law Reform; Crackdown on Press Freedom

The Moroccan ministry of interior is drafting a new electoral law and will refer it to parliament in its spring session, which began April 14. The amendments are being debated by Morocco's main political parties. The Socialist Union of Popular Forces (USFP)—the party with the most parliamentary seats (50/325)—is calling for maintaining the current proportional representation system but increasing the size of the electoral districts and the percentage of votes a party must obtain to enter parliament. Currently, parties that win over three percent of the vote in legislative elections are allowed representation in parliament. The National Rally of Independents (RNI, 41 seats) prefers a single-member district system. According to the Party for Justice and Development (PJD, 42 seats), a single-member district system would increase corruption and state interference in the elections. Like USFP, the PJD is also calling for an increase in the three percent threshold.

Politically motivated prosecutions of independent newsweeklies are rolling back press freedom in Morocco, according to a new report by Human Rights Watch. In the past year, courts have imposed heavy fines on four weeklies or imprisoned their journalists; they are now instituting proceedings against a fifth weekly. The newsweekly facing the heaviest pressure is Le Journal Hebdomadaire after an appeals court upheld sentence of in a defamation suit. The punitive damages against the weekly's publisher Aboubakr Jamai and writer Fahd Iraqi were the biggest ever given to journalists in Morocco: 3.1 million dirham (US $356,500) to the head of the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center, a think tank in Brussels. The court also fined the magazine $10,900. Some rights groups argue that the government is using this case to intimidate independent media.

Press Freedom Reports

According to a report by Freedom House released on April 27, the Middle East and North Africa region continues to rank the lowest for press freedom in the world due to extremely restrictive legal environments in most countries. In a positive trend, however, the spread and influence of pan-Arab satellite television networks has led to greater openness in the media environment throughout the region. Also four countries—Algeria, Morocco, Jordan, and Egypt—have seen improvements since 2004 and are only one point away from being ranked as Partly Free on the Press Freedom Index.

Libya and Syria were ranked the fifth and ninth most censored countries in the world respectively in a May 3 report by the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ). According to the report, Libya has the most tightly controlled media in the Arab world. The government owns and controls all print and broadcast media and does not allow news or views critical of Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi or of the government. In Syria, the media are under heavy state control and influence; some newspapers and broadcast outlets are in private hands but are owned by regime loyalists or are barred form disseminating political content. The regime has harassed critics through arrests or warning.

A special CPJ report (“Princes, Clerics, and Censors") released on May 9 finds that independent reporting on politics remains nearly absent from the Saudi press. According to the report, the country's conservative religious establishment acts as a powerful lobbying force against enterprising coverage of social, cultural, and religious matters and government officials dismiss editors, suspend or blacklist dissident writers, order news blackouts on controversial topics, and admonish independent columnists over their writings to deter criticism or to appease religious constituencies.

Upcoming Political Events

  • Iraq: National Reconciliation Conference in Baghdad, June 11-12.
  • Bahrain: Municipal elections in May; legislative elections in October.
  • Jordan: Municipal elections expected in mid-2006.
  • Yemen: Presidential and municipal elections, September 2006.

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