2.05.2007

News Concerning Middle East Reform

This is the news section of the latest issue of Arab Reform Bulletin (December 2006) Published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace:

Headlines:

  • Egypt: Constitutional Amendments; Muslim Brothers Released; Blog Writers Arrested
  • Bahrain: New Cabinet and Consultative Council after Elections
  • Syria: Human Rights Trials
  • Saudi Arabia: Human Rights Watch Visit
  • Yemen: Anti-Corruption Draft Law; Editors Imprisoned
  • Palestine: Debate over Early Elections
  • Jordan: Cabinet Reshuffle; New Public Opinion Poll; Anti-Corruption Law
  • Libya: Another Critic Detained; U.S. Call for Al Jahmi Release Reiterated
  • Morocco: Party of Justice and Development Prepares for Elections
  • Upcoming Political Events

Contents


Egypt: Constitutional Amendments; Muslim Brothers Released; Blog Writers Arrested

Egypt’s Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif announced on December 4 an 18-month timetable for constitutional amendments. According to Nazif, the government will present proposed changes to parliament in the coming months, with a referendum on those changes expected in the summer of 2007. The ruling National Democratic Party is expected to propose constitutional amendments that would relax rules for political parties to nominate candidates for presidential elections, increase parliamentary oversight powers, and pave the way for a new counter- terrorism law to replace the state of emergency in place since 1981.

A Cairo court released on December 10 the two most senior Muslim Brotherhood officials in detention, overruling a move by prosecutors to keep them under house arrest. Essam Al Erian and Muhammad Morsi were among more than 500 members detained by authorities in May when several demonstrations were held in support of two reformist judges facing disciplinary action. In August, a lower court ordered their release after they spent three months in jail without being charged, but two days later a higher court overturned that decision.

Egyptian authorities are cracking down on blog commentators who post material critical of the government. Rami Siyam was arrested in Cairo on November 19 and Abdel Karim Sulaiman Amer was detained in Alexandria on November 6. Amer is charged with “spreading information disruptive of public order,” “incitement against Muslims,” and “defaming the president.” Click here for more details.


Bahrain: New Cabinet and Consultative Council after Elections

King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa formed a new cabinet on December 11, appointing a Shiite Muslim, Jawad bin Salem Al Oraied, as a deputy prime minister for the first time in Bahrain’s history. The other two deputies of Prime Minister Sheikh Khalifa bin Salman Al Khalifa are members of the ruling family. The cabinet’s key portfolios were unchanged. A new portfolio, oil and gas, was given to the head of the National Oil and Gas Authority, Abdul Hussain bin Ali Mirza. Click here for a list of members.

The king also appointed a new 40-member consultative council (the upper house of parliament) on December 5. Observers believe the king appointed mainly liberal candidates to offset the victory of Islamists in elections to the lower house. The new members include 10 women. Click here for a full list of members.

Islamist candidates swept legislative and municipal elections held on November 25 and December 2. Bahrain’s largest political society and the main opposition group, the Shiite Al Wefaq National Islamic Society, won 17 of the lower house’s 40 seats. Sunni Islamist parties Al Manbar National Islamic Society and Al Asala Islamic Society won 7 and 5 seats respectively. Other pro-government candidates won 10 seats. A liberal candidate allied with Al Wefaq won one seat. The secular National Democratic Action Society failed to win any seats. Although the 206 candidates included 16 women, only Latifa Al Gaoud, a pro-government female candidate who ran unopposed, was able to win a seat. Click here for detailed results. According to the Supreme Elections Commission, the turnout rate was 72 percent. Election monitors from the Bahrain Human Rights Society pointed to circumstantial evidence that pro-government Sunni Muslims used fraud to win a majority of seats. Three liberal opposition candidates filed lawsuits seeking to overturn the results but Bahrain’s highest court rejected their cases.


Syria: Human Rights Trials

Syria's State Security Court (SSSC) sentenced four citizens to prison terms ranging from 45 days to five years on December 3 for alleged membership of the Islamic Liberation Party, according to the National Organization for Human Rights.

The SSSC held the first trial on November 28 of eight students arrested nine months ago for founding a public discussion group. The court has accused seven of the eight students of “subjecting the state to the risk of hostile acts” and “publishing false news that may offend the dignity of the state.” According to the Syrian Youth for Justice group, the students have been held incommunicado and without access to legal counsel since their arrest.

On November 19, the SSSC sentenced Nizar Restanawi, founding member of the Syrian branch of the Arab Organization for Human Rights, to four years’ imprisonment for “spreading false news” and “insulting the president.” Ristnawi was arrested on 18 April 2005 and detained incommunicado until August 2005. Click here for more details.


Saudi Arabia: Human Rights Watch Visit

A delegation from the New York-based Human Rights Watch began on December 1 the group’s first significant fact-finding mission in Saudi Arabia. During the three-week visit, the delegation will interview government officials, organizations, and individuals and will focus on the criminal justice system, political rights, the status of women, and foreign workers’ rights. Amnesty International is scheduled to make its first major visit to the kingdom in late January 2007.


Yemen: Anti- Corruption Draft Law; Editors Imprisoned

Yemen’s parliament is debating an anti-corruption draft law which, if passed, will establish a National Authority for Fighting Corruption to investigate corruption in state institutions. According to the draft law, Yemen’s elected lower house of parliament would elect 11 members from a list of 30 candidates (including civil society representatives, private sector representatives, and women) submitted by the appointed upper house of parliament.The law also stipulates that those convicted of involvement in corruption will face prison sentences of at least five years and a fine of no more than YR 5 million (US $28,593).

Yemeni courts are prosecuting editors for reprinting cartoons of the Prophet Mohammad that first appeared in a Danish daily in September 2005. On December 6, a court fined Mohammad Al Assadi (editor-in-chief of the English daily Yemen Observer) 500,000 rials ($2,859) for denigrating Islam. In November a court sentenced Kamal Al Aalafi (editor of Al Rai Al Aam newspaper) to a year in jail for reprinting the cartoons. The editor of another publication, Al Hurriya, faces similar charges.


Palestine: Debate over Early Elections

President Mahmoud Abbas might call for early elections if negotiations with Hamas over the formation of a national unity government remain deadlocked, according to members of the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s executive committee. Prime Minister Ismail Haniyya warned on December 10 that early elections would exacerbate tensions and accused Abbas of trying to force Hamas out of government. It is unclear whether Abbas has the legal right to call for early elections. Abbas’s advisors claim that the president is allowed to dissolve parliament if he also submits to the vote. Constitutional law experts argue that parliamentary elections before 2010 would require that the Palestinian Basic Law—the interim constitution for the Palestinian authority—be amended. Please click here for a guide to the powers of the Palestinian president by Carnegie Senior Associate Nathan J. Brown.


Jordan: Cabinet Reshuffle; New Public Opinion Poll; Anti-Corruption Law

On November 22, King Abdullah reshuffled the cabinet, which had been in office for a year, bringing in three former ministers and six newcomers. According to Prime Minister Marouf Al Bakhit, the reshuffle is intended to bolster the government’s program of political and economic reforms. Click here for a full list of the new cabinet.

A public opinion poll released by the University of Jordan’s Center for Strategic Studies (CSS) on December 6 showed that economic concerns (unemployment, poverty, and rising cost of living) top the issues citizens would like to see the new government tackle immediately. The poll showed that roughly half of respondents thought the previous government successful in promoting political reform and freedom of expression. Click here to access the poll results in Arabic.

King Abdullah on December 4 approved legislation passed by parliament to fight corruption through the creation of a “financially and administratively autonomous” six-member commission tasked with investigating corruption, including suspects among current and former officials. Jordan is one of six Arab countries—Egypt, Yemen. Libya, Algeria, and Djibouti—that have ratified the UN Convention against Corruption, adopted by the UN General Assembly in October 2003.


Libya: Another Critic Detained; U.S. Call for Al Jahmi Release Reiterated

Libya’s internal security agency has held Idrees Muhammad Boufayed, a critic of Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi, in incommunicado detention since November 5. Under Libyan law, the police can hold a detainee for up to 48 hours and the prosecution has up to six days to file charges, although a judge can extend this period for up to 30 days. Click here for more details.

Amid questions about whether Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will travel to Tripoli, the U.S. Department of State spokesman on November 16 reiterated calls on the Libyan government to release Fathi Al Jahmi, a leading human rights activist. Al Jahmi is charged with holding an unauthorized meeting with a foreign official (believed to be a U.S. diplomat). He was initially arrested in October 2002 after delivering a speech at a conference in Tripoli calling for democracy, and then released in March 2004, after U.S. Senator Joseph Biden advocated on his behalf during a meeting with Qadhafi. Libyan authorities detained Al Jahmi again two weeks later, after he reiterated calls for reform in several international media interviews. Click here to read the U.S. statement.


Morocco: Party of Justice and Development Prepares for Elections

The Secretary General of Morocco’s Islamist Party of Justice and Development (PJD) Saad Eddin Al Othmani announced on November 20 that his party will run candidates in most districts in the 2007 parliamentary elections. The PJD gained the third-highest number of seats in parliament in the 2002 elections, despite the fact that it ran in only 55 of Morocco’s 91 constituencies. In an interview in Ash Sharq Al Awsat (Arabic text) Othmani dismissed the possibility of his party winning a majority, citing the “nature of the Moroccan political scene.” The electoral system and the large number of political parties make it nearly impossible for one party to capture a majority of seats.

Upcoming Political Events

  • United Arab Emirates: Elections to the Federal National Council, December 16, 2006.

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