6.16.2006

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:

Headlines:
  • Syria: Human Rights Activists Detained; National Salvation Front Meets in London.
  • Egypt: Crackdown on Demonstrators; Judicial Law Debated; Wafd Election.
  • Palestine: Debate over Referendum.
  • Lebanon: Debate over Electoral Law.
  • Jordan: Government Approves Anti-Terrorism Law.
  • Iraq: Key Cabinet Posts Filled.
  • Kuwait: Run-Up to Elections.
  • Bahrain: New Press and Association Laws; Run-Up to Elections.
  • Algeria: New Prime Minister.
  • Morocco: Detention of Al Adl wal Ihsan Members.
  • Upcoming Political Events.

Syria: Human Rights Activists Detained; National Salvation Front Meets in London

In a continuation of the arrests and trial of human rights activists and opposition figures in the past several months, between May 14 and May 23 Syrian authorities detained 12 activists who were among 300 Syrian and Lebanese intellectuals, writers, and human rights advocates to sign a petition (Arabic text) on normalization of relations between Syria and Lebanon. The May 12 petition called for a properly demarcated border, the release of political prisoners, and the exchange of ambassadors. Among those arrested were journalists Michel Kilo, human rights lawyer Anwar Al Bunni, and Mahmoud Meri of the Arab Organization for Human Rights. They face charges of “weakening national sentiment” and “spreading false or exaggerated news that can affect the standing of the state.” Two of the twelve activists have since been released, and the remaining ten began a hunger strike on May 30. Click here for a May 20 statement by Human Rights Watch and here for a May 23 press statement by U.S. Department of State Spokesman Sean McCormack.

In another development, the National Salvation Front formed by exiled Syrian opposition leaders held a conference in London on June 4-5 to discuss a plan of action for peaceful regime change in Syria. Participants in the National Salvation Front (including former Syrian vice president Abdel Halim Khaddam, leader of the banned Muslim Brotherhood Ali Sadreddine Al Bayanouni, and smaller Kurdish and communist parties) insisted that the regime should be removed through peaceful and democratic means without outside intervention. They called on the Syrian army and security forces not to enforce the leadership's orders.


Egypt: Crackdown on Demonstrators; Judicial Law Debated; Wafd Election

Tension is on the rise between the Egyptian government and opposition members after authorities cracked down on demonstrators protesting on May 18 in favor of two senior judges who were brought before a disciplinary committee for calling parliamentary elections fraudulent. Judge Mahmoud Mekki was acquitted while Hisham Al Bastawisy received a written reprimand. Human rights groups reported that several Egyptian and foreign journalists covering the protests were assaulted and detained. On May 24 the Egyptian State Security prosecutor charged three journalists who alleged fraud in last year's parliamentary elections with defamation. Click here for details by the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Also on May 18, Egypt's Court of Cassation rejected the appeal of Al Ghad Party leader Ayman Nour, convicted in December 2005 of forging signatures on petitions to establish his party. The U.S. Department of State criticized the highly politicized trial of Nour as a “miscarriage of justice by international standards;” click here for a text of the statement.

Hundreds of members and supporters of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood were detained during the May 18 protests, leading to a heated debate in parliament. In an unprecedented move, the Muslim Brotherhood has started a process to withdraw confidence from the government by requesting an interpellation of Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif.

The Muslim Brotherhood also clashed with the government regarding May 28 elections to the board of the Alexandria Chamber of Commerce. According to the Muslim Brotherhood, Egyptian authorities prevented its candidates from winning any seats by arresting 28 members and preventing voters from entering the polls. This was the first time Muslim Brotherhood candidates attempted to participate in Chamber of Commerce elections.

The Egyptian government is set to submit to the People's Assembly a controversial law of the judiciary, which was among the issues that precipitated the confrontation between the Judges Club and the government in 2005. The Judges Club has been lobbying the Egyptian government to pass a law freeing the judiciary from financial and administrative control by the Ministry of Justice. The government announced on June 5, however, that efforts to reach a compromise between the Judges Club and the Ministry of Justice had failed and that the government would move forward with its own draft law. Parliament is also discussing legislation to create a special court to try ministers and to regulate procedures for remanding citizens to custody. The People's Assembly also announced the formation of a three-member committee to study constitutional reforms.

On June 5, the Wafd Party announced that it had elected former parliamentary deputy Munir Fakhry Abdel Nour as its new secretary general. The selection of Abdel Nour came as a surprise and followed months of leadership controversy within the party, including accusations by Abdel Nour that the former Wafd leadership discriminated against him and caused him to lose his parliamentary seat because he was a Coptic Christian.

The Egyptian government has asked the International Republican Institute (IRI), a U.S.-based nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing democracy worldwide, to halt operations in Egypt until it acquires the necessary government permits. This action followed a newspaper interview in which the director of the IRI office in Egypt discussed IRI activities and prospects for democratization.


Palestine: Debate over Referendum

President Mahmoud Abbas announced on June 6 he will extend the deadline for Hamas to accept a platform (English text, Arabic text) that calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state within the 1967 boundaries alongside Israel. Abbas had given Hamas an ultimatum either to accept the platform or face a national referendum, but Prime Minister Ismail Haniyya argued that the Palestinian Basic Law prohibits referenda in Palestine. The platform was signed on May 10 by prominent Fatah and Hamas members imprisoned by Israel, but Hamas's leadership did not endorse it.


Lebanon: Debate over Electoral Law

The Lebanese cabinet is reviewing a draft electoral law proposed by the national electoral law committee on June 1. Headed by former minister Fouad Boutros, the 12-member committee (equally divided among Muslims and Christians) was commissioned nine months ago with drafting a replacement for the law passed in 2000 when Syria still exercised political and military control over Lebanon. While there is a general consensus on the need for a new law, politicians are deeply divided over several issues, primarily electoral districting. The draft law proposes that 51 MPs be elected by proportional representation in the large governorates (muhafazat) and 77 MPs by majority vote in the smaller districts (qada). Other amendments include bringing down the voting age from 21 to 18, allowing Lebanese expatriates to vote, instituting a quota for female candidates, and holding elections throughout the country on the same day instead of the existing month-long process. In an attempt to increase transparency in elections, the draft also proposes creating an independent electoral commission, prohibiting cabinet members from running in legislative elections, and preventing amendments to the law in an election year. After review in the cabinet, the law will be submitted within one month to parliament, where it is expected to be the subject of heated debate.


Jordan: Government Approves Anti-Terrorism Law

Jordan's government approved a new anti-terrorism law on May 27 that includes provisions allowing security forces to place suspects under tight surveillance, seize their financial assets, and detain them for two week periods that may be renewed without a court order. Under the current Penal Code, suspects may be held for only 24 hours before a court order authorizing further detention is required. Leaders of opposition groups and professional associations decried the bill as turning Jordan into a police state and argued that the regular penal code already includes clauses pertaining to combating terrorism. Secretary General of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood Jamil Abu Bakr said the law would “strengthen the grip of the security forces and limit public freedoms.” The Jordan Professional Association Council, an umbrella group of 14 professional associations, plans to launch a nationwide campaign against the bill. The legislation was first proposed in November 2005 in the wake of the terrorist bombings in Amman. It is scheduled to be debated in parliament in an extraordinary session in July.


Iraq: Key Cabinet Posts Filled

On June 8 the Iraqi parliament approved the appointment of three ministers to critical positions: Abdul Qader Muhamma Jassim Al Mifarji (a Sunni Arab) as Minister of Defense; Jawad Al Bohani (a Shiite) as Minister of Interior; and Sherwan Al Waili (a Shiite) as Minister of National Security. During the regime of Saddam Hussein, Al Mifarji was expelled from the Iraqi army and jailed for seven years for criticizing the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.


Kuwait: Run-Up to Elections

The Kuwaiti political scene is volatile in anticipation of the June 29 parliamentary elections. Emir Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmed Al Jaber Al Sabah dissolved parliament on May 21 after weeks of political feuding over the electoral districts (click here for an Arabic text of his speech). The 29 MPs who demanded the reduction of the number of electoral districts from 25 to 5 have announced the formation of an Alliance for Change front. Among the 402 candidates contesting the elections are 32 women, who will be the first female candidates to participate in elections in Kuwait.

A debate over the constitutionality of members of the royal family contesting elections ensued after Fahd Salem Al Ali Al Sabah, Sheikh Sabah Al Muhammad Al Sabah, and Sheikha Fawzia Al Muhammad Al Sabah announced their intention to run. Kuwaiti constitutional experts argue that while no provision of the constitution bans ruling family members from voting or standing in polls, an explanatory note advises royals to stay away from elections. Ultimately the three candidates withdrew their nominations upon request from the emir. No ruling family member has ever contested parliamentary elections in Kuwait, although a number have in the past expressed a desire to run.

In another development, some Kuwaiti tribes have organized quasi-primaries in various districts to elect one or two candidates from the tribe in a bid to boost their chances of winning seats in parliament. The government arrested several candidates and released them on bail because the 2003 electoral law bans such practices.


Bahrain: New Press and Association Laws; Run-Up to Elections

Bahrain's lower house of parliament approved on May 18 amendments to the Public Gatherings Law of 1973 that bans rallies near airports, hospitals, shopping malls, and locations deemed security-sensitive by the interior minister. According to the law, rally organizers must inform the authorities three days before the scheduled date and assume full civil and criminal responsibility for damage to private or public property during a demonstration. The law also bans carrying firearms or knives during demonstrations, stipulates that rallies may not be held before 7am or after 11pm, and notes that funeral processions may not be turned into political rallies.

A parliamentary committee agreed on May 30 to amend clauses in a draft press law stipulating prison terms for journalists, after a three-week campaign by journalists and rights activists. The first version of the law announced on May 3 mandated prison terms for “incitement to hatred, denigration of religious sects and vilification of parliament.” The new draft specifies that journalists can only be imprisoned for six months if found guilty of insulting Islam, the Quran, the king, or of inciting political regime change. The bill will be debated soon in parliament.

The Bahraini parliament rejected on May 31 by a 15-11 vote a proposal to require ministers to take questions in public before the whole legislature rather than behind closed doors in parliamentary committees.

Bahrain's largest political society, Al Wefaq National Islamic Society, is criticizing the government for failing to set a date for municipal and legislative elections supposed to take place in the fall of 2006. According to the constitution, elections dates must be set 45 days in advance. Al Wefaq announced earlier this year it will participate in elections. 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. In another development, 21 Bahraini women announced they will run in elections. No female candidates won seats in the 2002 legislative elections, but the king appointed six women to the upper chamber of parliament.


Algeria: New Prime Minister

Algeria's President Abdelaziz Bouteflika appointed his close ally and leader of the ruling National Liberation Front Abdelaziz Belkhadem as prime minister on May 25. Observers believe the appointment is a preparation for constitutional changes that will allow the president to run for a third term in office. Although no official reason was given for former Prime Minister Ahmed Ouyahia's resignation, he is known to have opposed a constitutional amendment.


Morocco: Detention of Al Adl wal Ihsan Members

Between May 24 and June 3, Moroccan authorities briefly detained between 300 and 400 members and leaders of the Islamist Justice and Charity group (Al Adl wal Ihsan), which is believed to be the largest (non-party) opposition group in Morocco. Mass arrests in several cities, quickly followed by releases, were made after the group launched an "open doors" campaign to recruit outside traditional areas such as mosques and universities. Group officials denied they have told their followers to prepare for an uprising this year, as reported in some Moroccan newspapers.


Upcoming Political Events

  • Iraq: National Reconciliation Conference in Baghdad, June 22.
  • Kuwait: Legislative elections, June 29.
  • Bahrain: Legislative and municipal elections, fall 2006.
  • Jordan: Municipal elections expected in mid-2006.
  • Yemen: Presidential and municipal elections, September 2006.

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