9.18.2006

News Concerning Middle East Reform

This is the news section of the September issue of Arab Reform Bulletin Published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace:


Egypt: Cabinet Reshuffle; Arrests of Muslim Brothers Continue

President Hosni Mubarak carried out a limited cabinet reshuffle on August 28. Former Chairman of the Supreme Constitutional Court Mamdouh Marai was appointed Minister of Justice, a development some observers expect to herald a new round of conflicts between the government and the Judges Club. Mubarak broke up the Ministry of Planning and Economic Development (seen as a vestige of Egypt's socialist days) into Ministries for Economic Development (Othman Mohammed Othman) and a Ministry for Local Development (Abdel Salam Mahgoub, formerly governor of Alexandria).

Observers believe more sweeping changes in the cabinet might follow the ruling National Democratic Party's annual conference on September 19-21. The Party has promised to preview amendments to the constitution related to the balance between executive and legislative powers to be introduced in the parliamentary session that will begin in November.

Seventeen members of the banned Muslim Brotherhood were arrested on August 18 for allegedly holding illegal meetings, including Mahmoud Ezzat and Lasheen Abu Shanab, members of the Guidance Bureau. Almost 700 members have been arrested since March, most of them while demonstrating against the extension of Egypt's emergency laws or in favor of judicial independence.


Iraq: Tension over Federalism Debate
The Iraqi parliament suspended debate on a federalism bill submitted by the largest Shiite bloc, the United Iraqi Alliance, after several parliamentarians boycotted the session on September 10. The proposal, pushed mainly by the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, aims to create a Shiite autonomous state in southern Iraq with broad powers over security and petroleum resources. The Sunni Iraqi Accord Front and National Dialogue Front of Saleh Al Mutlaq are strongly opposed to such legislation, fearing that such a provision would deny other regions access to oil revenues. Members of former interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi's secular Iraqi National list and legislators loyal to the Shiite cleric Muqtada Al Sadr also oppose the proposal. Debate is scheduled to resume on September 19.

Meanwhile, Kurdish regional President Massoud Barzani started a national debate about the Iraqi flag when he prohibited Kurdish government buildings from flying the banner on September 1. Prime Minister Nouri Al Maliki asserted that “the current Iraqi flag is the only one that can be raised on Iraqi soil until a decision is adopted by the parliament according to the constitution.”


Palestine: Deal on Unity Government

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Ismail Haniyya reached a deal on September 11 over the formation of a unity government in hopes that such a coalition will lead to the lifting of the international aid embargo imposed on the current Hamas government for refusing to recognize Israel, renounce violence, and abide by previous interim peace agreements. The details of the deal are as yet unclear but officials on both sides suggested that it would be based on the National Conciliation Document signed in May by Hamas and Fatah leaders in Israeli prisons and the Arab League's 2002 Peace Initiative, in which Arab states promised recognition of Israel in return for the latter returning to 1967 borders.


Jordan: Millennium Challenge Grant; Islamist MPs Indicted; Anti-Terror Bill

The Millennium Challenge Corporation's Board of Directors approved on September 12 a $25 million Threshold Program developed by the Jordanian government to advance political and economic reforms. The Threshold Program is designed to assist countries that are on the threshold of eligibility to receive Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) funds. Click here for the press release. Morocco is the only other Arab country designated as eligible for MCA assistance so far.

The Islamic Action Front decided not to boycott parliament after a heated debate following the indictment of two of its deputies, Mohammad Abu Faris and Ali Abul Sukkar, to 13-month prison terms on charges of fuelling national discord and inciting sectarianism after they attended the funeral of Al Qaeda militant Abu Musab Al Zarqawi in June. The two deputies will lose their membership in parliament and be unable to run in 2007 legislative elections.

The House of Representatives approved on August 29 a controversial draft counter terrorism law despite objections by Islamist deputies and human rights activists. The draft law entitles the State Security public prosecutor to detain suspects, carry out surveillance, prevent suspects from traveling, and monitor financial assets. A September 7 statement by Martin Scheinin, the UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights and fundamental freedoms while countering terrorism, called for amendments to the law. The bill must be approved by the senate and King Abdullah to become law. Parliament, which is currently meeting in an extraordinary session, also plans to discuss amendments to the press law, political parties law, and a financial disclosure law aimed at fighting corruption in the public sector.


Syria: Human Rights Developments

The Syrian Ministry of Social Affairs denied the National Organization for Human Rights a permit on August 30 without explaining the reasons for its refusal, according to the organization's president Ammar Al Qorabi.

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 September 27 on charges of disseminating false news, undermining the state, and defaming the president. According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF), they have been held for five months in unacceptable conditions and were forced to sign confessions under torture. Click here to read the RSF statement. On August 15 a military tribunal sentenced Syrian writer and activist Habib Saleh to the maximum sentence of three years in prison for "disseminating false news” after he published articles online attacking the Syrian president and his family.


Yemen: Run-Up to Elections

Tension is rising in Yemen as the September 20 presidential and local elections approach. President Ali Abdullah Saleh of the ruling General Congress Party accused the opposition coalition, known as the Joint Meeting Party, of undermining national unity and coveting the reserves of the central bank. Opposition presidential candidate Faisal Bin Shamlan charged Saleh, in power since 1978, with corruption and fraud. Groups opposed to Saleh called on the Supreme Council for Elections and Referenda (SCER) to ban religious edicts regarding elections, after a declaration by a cleric during Saleh's election rally that it is religiously impermissible to compete with the president. In addition to Saleh and Bin Shamlan, three others are running for the presidency: independent Ahmed Abdullah Al Majidi, Muslim Brotherhood candidate Fathi Azab, and National Council for Opposition candidate Yassin Abdo Naaman.

The European Union's electoral observers and Yemen's SCER launched a public awareness campaign banning guns in polling stations after three elections officials were killed on August 24 in the Al Jawf province. Previous elections have witnessed high levels of violence; sixty-seven people were killed in 2001 local council elections and thirteen were killed in 1997 parliamentary elections.


Bahrain: King Ratifies Counter-terrorism and Association Laws; Education Reform

King Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifa ratified two controversial laws despite opposition from human rights activists in Bahrain and abroad. On August 14 the king ratified the “Protecting Society from Terrorist Acts” bill that allows for extended detention without charge or judicial review. A press statement by UN Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of human rights Martin Scheinin expressed concern that the law's definition of terrorism is too broad. According to an Amnesty International report, the law restricts freedom of association and assembly and heightens the risk of torture and arbitrary detention. King Hamad also ratified on July 20 amendments to the association law that prohibit demonstrations in public places, set prison terms of up to six months for organizers of unauthorized protests, and allow the police to attend and break up any public meeting. The law also forbids non-Bahrainis from participating in political protests. Click here to read a Human Rights Watch letter to the king.

The Bahraini government announced a plan for educational reform on September 3 that will focus on improving curricula, training teachers, and combating illiteracy. According to pan-Arab newspaper Al Sharq Al Awsat, the plan aims to eliminate religious references in school curricula that may create discord between Sunnis and Shiites.


Kuwait: Islamists Present Reform Initiative; President Bush Praises Reforms

The Islamic Constitutional Movement (ICM), Kuwait's main Islamist group and an affiliate of the Muslim Brotherhood, launched an initiative on September 6 to create a “national reform bloc” in parliament that will work with the government to bring about economic and political reform. Click here for more details in Arabic. The ICM will hold its annual conference in October.

President George W. Bush congratulated Kuwait's emir Sheik Sabah Al Ahmad Al Sabah at a September 5 meeting in Washington for the “steady reforms” that have “served as a notable example for others in the region.” Click here for a link to the full text.


Saudi Arabia: U.S. Waives Religious Freedom Sanctions

The United States government decided on July 19 to continue to waive sanctions against Saudi Arabia for its policies towards religious practices and minorities. The Saudi government has created a human rights commission and promised to remove negative remarks about other religions from textbooks, retrain educators and imams who espouse intolerance, protect private religious practice. Designated a “country of particular concern” under the International Religious Freedom Act in 2004, Saudi Arabia is subject to U.S. trade sanctions. Click here for Ambassador at Large for International Religious Freedom John Hanford's statement to Congress.


Algeria: Extension of Amnesty for Armed Groups

The Algerian government announced on September 3 that members of armed groups who committed crimes in the civil conflict that began in 1992 will still be able to surrender their weapons despite the expiry of a six-month amnesty on August 31. The amnesty was part of the National Peace and Reconciliation Charter proposed by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika to grant exemption from prosecution to members of these groups unless they participated in “mass murder, rape, or the use of explosives in public places.” Up to 300 guerrillas have surrendered since the measure came into force on February 28, according to the government. 2,200 former Islamist rebels captured in the fighting have been released from prison and members of the security forces who fought against armed Islamic groups have received full immunity. The amnesty was rejected by the Salafist Group for Fighting and Preaching, Algeria's only remaining active militant group.


Morocco: Elections for Upper House of Parliament

Morocco's governing majority (dominated by the Independence Party and the Socialist Union of Forces for Progress) won two-thirds of the seats in partial elections to parliament's upper house on September 8. The Islamist Party for Justice and Development did not win any of the 90 seats. These elections are seen largely as a formality because the vote is limited to local councils, trade unions, and administrative bodies. Moroccan newspapers highlighted the scarcity of women among the candidates for the upper house; of 667 candidates only 17 were women. The Assembly of Councilors has 270 members who serve nine-year terms. Every three years elections are held for 90 seats.


Upcoming Political Events
  • Egypt: National Democratic Party Annual Conference, September 19-21, 2006.
  • Yemen: Presidential and municipal elections, September 20, 2006.
  • Bahrain: Legislative and municipal elections, November 2006.
  • Algeria: Referendum on constitutional revision, fall 2006.

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Nassim Yaziji's Neo-Internationalism

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