7.22.2006

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: Continuing Crackdown on Dissent
  • Egypt: Controversial Press and Judiciary Laws, Arrests, U.S. Aid Debate
  • Kuwait: Reformists Gain in Elections
  • Iraq: Amnesty Plan
  • Yemen: Run Up to Presidential Election
  • Bahrain: Debate over Anti-Terror Bill; New Association Law
  • Saudi Arabia: Reduced Powers for Morality Police
  • Jordan: Islamist MPs Arrested; Evidence of Torture in Prisons
  • Algeria: Referendum to Amend Constitution; Prominent Journalist Released
  • Morocco: Electoral Law Debate; Wave of Arrests of Justice and Charity Members
  • Democracy Assistance Dialogue: Sanaa Conference


Syria: Continuing Crackdown on Dissent

Seventeen state employees in Syrian ministries were dismissed by Prime Minister Muhammad Naji Al Otri on June 14 without explanation, but human rights activists believe it was because they signed the Beirut-Damascus declaration, a petition by Syrian and Lebanese intellectuals, writers, and human rights advocating normalization of relations between the two countries. Human Rights Watch has documented the arrest of 26 activists in Syria during the past three months.

Syrian journalist Ali Al Abdullah and his son Muhammad, both members of the Atassi Forum for National Dialogue, will be tried before a military tribunal on charges of insulting government employees, according to a June 20 statement by the Syrian National Organization for Human Rights. On June 6, a military court sentenced writer Muhammad Ghanem to six months for “insulting the Syrian president, discrediting the Syrian government, and fomenting sectarian unrest” after he published articles on a website calling on the Baath party to end the repression of Syrian Kurds. Click here for more information on this case.

Thirteen members of the banned Syrian Muslim Brotherhood arrested between 1981 and 1983 have been released, according to a July 9 statement by the head of the Syrian Organization for Human Rights Mhannad Al Hasni.

The Syrian government is drafting a new political parties law, according to a June 20 statement by Minster of Expatriates Buthaina Shaaban.


Egypt: Controversial Press and Judiciary Laws, Arrests, U.S. Aid Debate

The Egyptian parliament’s controversial amendments to the 1996 press and publications law, passed on July 10, do not abolish prison sentences for journalists, despite protests by human rights activists and journalists. Editors-in-chief of some 25 Egyptian independent and party newspapers suspended the publication for one day on July 9 to protest the government-drafted bill and hundred of journalists protested outside the People’s Assembly. At President Hosni Mubarak’s suggestion, parliament ultimately removed a clause that would have made reporting on the financial dealings of public figures punishable by up to three years in prison. However, the law retains punishment for criticizing public officials, mandating jail terms between six months and five years or a fine of 5,000-20,000 Egyptian pounds (US$870-3,480). A Human Rights Watch report criticized the new law, calling on Mubarak to follow through with his 2004 pledge that no journalist would go to prison for his or her writings.

An Egyptian court on June 26 sentenced independent weekly Al Dustour’s editor Ibrahim Issa and reporter Sahar Zaki to a year in prison for publishing a report critical of President Mubarak in April 2005. They were freed on bail of 10,000 Egyptian pounds ($1,743) pending a review by an appeal court. The trial of three journalists who alleged fraud in last year’s parliamentary elections has been postponed until September 16.

The People’s Assembly passed a new law of the judiciary on June 26, following a lengthy controversy between the Judges Club and the government. The new law includes two of the Judges Club’s demands: granting the judiciary budgetary independence from the Ministry of Justice and separating the office of the Public Prosecutor from the Ministry. The Public Prosecutor, however, will remain a presidential appointee. But the draft law ignores the judges’ demands that members of the Supreme Judicial Council be elected rather than appointed by the state. On July 2, several judicial officials considered close to the government were appointed to senior positions, including Maher Abdel Wahed (former Public Prosecutor) as head of the Supreme Constitutional Court and Moqbel Shaker as head of the Court of Cassation and Supreme Judicial Council.

Sixty members of the Muslim Brotherhood were arrested on June 19 and July 9 for allegedly holding illegal meetings. Almost 700 members have been arrested since March, including Essam Al Erian and Rashad Byoumi, members of the Guidance Bureau. Over 500 were arrested while demonstrating in favor of two senior judges who were brought before a disciplinary committee for denouncing the parliamentary elections as fraudulent. The public prosecutor released approximately 170 activists (some of them Muslim Brothers) between June 21 and July 7, all of whom had been involved in demonstrations in favor of the judges.

The Egyptian Movement for Change, known the Kifaya movement, released a report on corruption in Egypt on July 4.

On June 8, the U.S. Congress voted 225-198 against an amendment to cut $100 million of from the $1.7 billion in military and economic assistance for Egypt for the next fiscal year. The amendment was sponsored by Representatives Henry Hyde, Tom Lantos, and David Obey, who said that it would send a message that a major U.S. aid recipient should “reflect certain norms of decency with respect to the way they treat their population and the way they treat their political opponents.”


Kuwait: Reformists Gain in Elections

Kuwait’s new cabinet approved in its first session a major electoral reform that would reduce the number of electoral districts from 25 to 5, a widely debated issue that led the emir to dissolve parliament in May. The number of government opponents supporting this change went from 29 to 35 seats in the 50-member Kuwaiti parliament elected June 29, after they campaigned publicly for reducing the number of electoral districts to 5 to make politics more broadly representative and less based on sectarian or tribal factors. The reformist bloc, as it has come to be known, includes Islamist and liberal MPs. Its influence will be reduced by the fact that ministers also vote as ex-officio members of parliament.

For the first time in Kuwait’s history women were allowed to vote and run in elections, but none of the 28 women among a total of 249 candidates won a seat. Women comprise 57 percent of Kuwait’s 345,000 voters. Overall turnout was 65 percent but only 35 percent among women voters. Emir Sheikh Sabah Al Ahmed Al Sabah made only minor cabinet changes following the elections. He reappointed his nephew Sheikh Nasser Al Muhammad Al Ahmed Al Sabah as prime minister. Former Energy Minister Sheikh Ahmed Al Fahd Al Sabah and Minister for Cabinet Affairs Muhammad Daifallah Sharar, both strongly criticized by the reformists in the previous parliament for fostering corruption and trying to block political reform, were replaced. Sabah family members retained the top portfolios including energy, defense, interior, and foreign affairs. Click here for a list of the cabinet members.


Iraq: Amnesty Plan

Prime Minister Nuri Al Maliki presented a “national reconciliation plan” (Arabic Text, English Text) to the Iraqi parliament on June 25, offering insurgents an amnesty proposal, granting indemnity only to “those not proven involved in crimes, terrorist activities and war crimes against humanity.”


Yemen: Run Up to Presidential Election

Allegedly after widespread protests by his supporters, President Ali Abdullah Saleh reversed a July 2005 decision to retire from public life and announced he will run in Yemen’s presidential election on September 10. The Joint Meeting Parties (JMP), an opposition alliance that includes the main Islamist opposition group Al Islah and the Yemeni Socialist Party, nominated Islamist-leaning former oil minister Faisal Bin Shamlan as its candidate—the first such agreement among opposition parties in Yemen. Saleh, who has been in power since 1978, was reelected in 1999 with more than 96 per cent of the vote; his only challenger was a member of his ruling General People’s Congress (GPC). To compete in the election, candidates for the presidency must receive the nomination of at least 5 percent of the deputies present at a joint meeting of both houses of parliament.

On June 19, the GPC signed a memorandum of understanding with seven opposition parties to ensure that presidential and local elections are free of fraud. The accord states that official media will provide a platform for all presidential and local election candidates and bans the financing of campaigns through public funds. It also stipulates that the nine-member electoral commission will include five opposition party representatives. Saleh announced he would issue a decree prohibiting the intervention of the security forces in the electoral process. Parliamentarians and local officials in the Aden province threatened to sue the district’s security apparatus for trying to prevent JMP rallies on June 13 and 15. Saleh’s electoral platform includes a pledge to launch a civilian nuclear energy program.


Bahrain: Debate over Anti-Terror Bill; New Association Law

Disagreement over legal definitions of terrorism marks the debate in Bahrain’s parliament over an anti-terrorism bill. MPs believe the current definition is too broad. The proposed law defines terrorism as any use of violence or threats of violence to terrorize people, including any threat to people’s lives, property, freedom, rights or security, as well as damage to the environment, public or private utilities, national resources, or international facilities. Of 34 articles, only nine have been approved by the parliament so far, including the death penalty for jeopardizing public safety or damaging public utilities.

Human rights activists have criticized government-proposed amendments to the association law (Law 18/1973) that forbid “any speech or discussion infringing on public order or morals,” allow the police to attend any public meeting, and give security officials the power to break up meetings if any crime listed in the Penal Code is committed. According to Human Rights Watch (HRW), the amendments would allow security officials to restrict free expression and peaceful assembly arbitrarily. Click here to read the HRW letter to King Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifa and here for a letter by Amnesty International. The elected 40-member Council of Deputies approved the bill on May 18 and the appointed 40-member Consultative Council is expected to follow suit. The bill requires approval of the king to become law.

The government on July 3 introduced amendments to Article 246 of the penal code, which would ban media from publishing the names and photographs of suspects without permission from the Public Prosecutor or the relevant court. The Bahrain Center for Human Rights criticized this amendment on the grounds that it will restrict the ability of human rights activists to campaign publicly for the rights of the accused.


Saudi Arabia: Reduced Powers for Morality Police

Saudi Arabia’s Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice will no longer be allowed to interrogate those it arrests for behavior deemed un-Islamic, under an interior ministry decree published on May 25. According to the decree, “the role of the commission will end after it arrests the culprit or culprits and hands them over to police, who will then decide whether to refer them to the public prosecutor.” Commission members (mutawa’in) have until now enjoyed unchallenged powers to arrest, detain, and interrogate those suspected of “moral infractions.”


Jordan: Islamist MPs Arrested; Evidence of Torture in Prisons

According to media reports, Jordanian Prime Minister Bakhit and Intelligence Director Muhammad Al Dhahabi met with leaders of the Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood July 12 to defuse tensions that arose following the detention on June 11 of four Islamist MPs who offered condolences to the family of the slain leader of Al Qaeda in Iraq, Jordanian-born Abu Musab Al Zarqawi. On July 11, Jordan’s state security court prosecutor ordered the release of one of the MPs, Ibrahim Al Mashwakhi, and referred the other three—Mohammad Abu Fares, Jaafar Al Hourani, and Ali Abu Sukkar—to the state security court on charges of violating Article 150 of Jordan’s Penal Code, which bans all writing or speech that is “intended to, or results in, stirring up sectarian or racial tension or strife among different elements of the nation.” On July 10, Jordan’s attorney general suspended the board of the Islamic Charity Society, seen by officials as the financial arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, as part of an investigation into alleged financial irregularities.

The Muslim Brotherhood and its political arm the Islamic Action Front said that the government is cracking down on Islamists after Hamas’s victory in Palestinian elections and ahead of Jordan’s legislative elections next year. A statement by Human Rights Watch (HRW) described the arrests as “a rollback of the Jordanian government’s commitment to fully respect freedom of expression.” Government spokesman Naser Judeh said the HRW statement was an “insult to the families of the victims” of the hotel bombings in Amman in November 2005.

U.N. Special Rapporteur on Torture Manfred Nowak said on June 29 that he found evidence of systematic abuse in detention centers run by Jordanian police and intelligence services, but that he believed torture was not a policy in Jordan. Nowak recommended that Jordan make torture illegal, abolish special courts, and introduce measures to prevent abuse in state facilities such as better medical documentation and access to lawyers and doctors. Spokesman Judeh said officials would study this preliminary report and undertake reforms if necessary.


Algeria: Referendum to Amend Constitution; Prominent Journalist Released

Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika announced on July 4 that his country will hold a referendum by the end of 2006 on amendments to the constitution. Bouteflika did not specify the changes, but many believe they will allow him to run for a third term in office, as the constitution currently limits the president to two five-year terms. On May 25, Bouteflika appointed close ally and leader of the ruling National Liberation Front Abdelaziz Belkhadem as prime minister, replacing Ahmed Ouyahia, who is known to have opposed a constitutional amendment.

Mohammad Benchicou, publisher of Le Matin, a newspaper often critical of the government, was released on June 14 after serving two years in prison on charges of violating currency regulations. The charges were viewed by human rights groups as retaliation for his newspaper’s critical editorial line. According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, Algerian authorities have used tough criminal laws that prescribe prison terms in order to prosecute several leading journalists who are critical of the government. Click here for more information.

Algeria’s security services are using the “war on terror” as an excuse to perpetuate torture and ill-treatment, according to an Amnesty International report published on July 10 ahead of a visit to London by President Bouteflika to sign a series of agreement to facilitate the deportation of Algerian terror suspects.


Morocco: Electoral Law Debate; Wave of Arrests of Justice and Charity Members

After months of debate between the Ministry of Interior and political parties, the Moroccan government approved a new electoral law on June 26 and will refer it to parliament in July. The new law will bar parties that failed to win at least 3 per cent of the vote in the 2002 elections to field candidates in the 2007 legislative elections, a stipulation strongly criticized by small parties. The bill maintains the current proportional representation system and the size of the electoral districts, but increases the percentage of votes a party must obtain to enter parliament from 3to 7 percent. Moroccan expatriates will not be allowed to vote in legislative elections. The Islamist Party of Justice and Development criticized the government for excluding opposition parties from the debate.

Moroccan authorities briefly detained approximately 100 members and leaders of the Islamist Justice and Charity group (Al Adl wal Ihsan), which is believed to be the largest opposition group in Morocco, on June 14. According to the group’s spokesman Fathallah Arslane, among the arrested was the group’s second-in-command Mohamed Abadi who will face prosecutors in July. Between May 24 and June 3, Moroccan authorities briefly detained between 300 and 400 members after the group launched an "open doors" campaign to recruit outside traditional areas such as mosques and universities.

Democracy Assistance Dialogue: Sanaa Conference

The Yemeni government hosted a high-profile conference entitled “Sanaa conference on democracy, political reforms and freedom of expression” on June 25-26, under the G8-created program of Democratic Assistance Dialogue (DAD) and in partnership with the Italian non-governmental organization No Peace Without Justice. The conference, which was attended by more than 500 government officials and civil society representatives from around the world, stirred divisions among participants. Non-government representatives described the final communiqué as a “governmental vision.” In January 2004 Yemen hosted a similar conference in which participants signed the “Sanaa Declaration,” committing their respective countries to uphold democratic processes, institutions, and values.

Upcoming Political Events

  • Yemen: Presidential and municipal elections, September 2006
  • Bahrain: Legislative and municipal elections, fall 2006.

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