4.12.2007

News Concerning Middle East Reform

This is the news section of the latest issue of Arab Reform Bulletin (March 2007) Published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace:

Headlines:

  • Mauritania: Presidential Election
  • Egypt: Constitutional Amendments; Crackdown on Brotherhood; Blogger Sentenced
  • Kuwait: Government Resigns
  • Yemen: Islah Congress; Millennium Challenge Corporation Funding; Editors Prosecuted
  • Bahrain: Activists Released
  • Saudi Arabia: Travel Ban on Government Critics
  • Syria: Upcoming Parliamentary Elections; Activist Released; Muslim Brothers Sentenced
  • Jordan: Parliament Approves Controversial Press Law
  • Algeria: Human Rights Lawyers Trial
  • Tunisia: Court Bans Human Rights Congress
  • Upcoming Political Events


Contents:

Mauritania: Presidential Election

Two candidates will go to a runoff on March 25 in Mauritania 's first free presidential election, two years after the end of 21 years of authoritarian rule by President Maaouiya Ould Sid Ahmed Taya. Sidi Ould Sheikh Abdellahi (who served in the ousted government and is supported by a coalition of 18 groups previously loyal to the regime of President Taya) received 24.79 percent of the vote in the first round and Ahmed Ould Daddah (Coalition of the Forces for Democratic Change, which won 41 of 95 seats in the November 2006 legislative elections) received 20.68 percent. None of the 19 candidates—11 independent and 8 from political parties—crossed the required 50 percent threshold.

The Military Council for Justice and Development led by Ely Ould Mohammad Vall, who staged the coup in August 2005, is due to surrender power to the winner. In June 2006, Mauritanians voted to limit the president's mandate to two five-year terms.

Initial reports from international observers declared the poll, which drew a 70 percent turnout of eligible voters, free and fair. The European Union's 80-member elections observer mission stated: “For the first time, the people have been able to vote freely, without intervention.”


Egypt: Constitutional Amendments; Crackdown on Brotherhood; Blogger Sentenced

Opposition MPs formally announced on March 13 their rejection of amendments to 34 articles of the constitution currently under discussion in the parliament. A joint statement signed by more than 100 members of the parliament's 454-seat lower house rejected the proposals on the grounds that they will limit judicial monitoring of elections and ban the formation of political parties that have a religious frame of reference. The draft amendments were approved by parliament's upper chamber, the Shura Council, on March 12 and will be presented for a single vote by the People's Assembly on March 20. Opposition members of parliament are planning to boycott that session. The ruling National Democratic Party controls the two-thirds majority needed to pass constitutional amendments. If approved, the amendments will go to a nationwide referendum in April.

In a continuation of the government's crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, police arrested eighteen members on March 13, ten on March 5, and seventy-three on February 15. According to the Muslim Brotherhood, those arrested were mostly members who were expected to run in the April elections for the Shura Council. Over 300 members are currently detained, according to New York-based Human Rights Watch. Click here for details. A court ordered a freeze on the assets of twenty-nine known financiers of the Muslim brotherhood on February 28.

Egyptian blogger Abdel Kareem Nabil Suleiman, imprisoned since November 2006, was sentenced to four years in prison on February 22 on charges of inciting hatred of Islam and defaming the president. The case is the first in Egypt in which an Internet writer has been prosecuted for his published material. Click here for details and here for a statement by Amnesty International.

Kuwait: Government Resigns

Kuwait 's emir re-appointed Sheikh Nasser Al Muhammad Al Sabah as prime minister on March 6, after the previous government resigned on March 4 in a move observers believe was aimed at avoiding a no-confidence motion against Health Minister Sheikh Ahmed Al Abdullah Al Sabah. Ten MPs presented the motion in February over suspected financial and administrative breaches at the ministry. The vote was due to have taken place in parliament on March 5 and Sheikh Ahmad, a member of the ruling family, would have had to step down if legislators had voted against him. In December, Information Minister Muhammad Al Sanousi resigned a day before he was due to face questioning in parliament.

Yemen: Islah Congress; Millennium Challenge Corporation Funding; Editors Prosecuted

Yemen 's main opposition party Islah reelected on February 27 its ailing leader Shaikh Abdullah bin Hussein Al Ahmar for the fourth time since 1990. Under Islah's internal law, the presidency of the party is restricted to three terms, but the party's central committee made an exception. The 4,000 representatives attending the party's fourth general congress in Sanaa also elected 130 members to its Shura Coucil, including—for the first time—thirteen women. Mohammed Ali Ajlaan was elected president of the Shura Council, replacing Abdul Majid Al Zindani, who is on the U.S. Treasury Department's list of suspected supporters of terror activities. Click here for details about the congress.

The Millennium Challenge Corporation's Board of Directors reinstated on February 14 the eligibility of Yemen for participation in the Millennium Challenge Account (MCA) Threshold Program on the basis that the country has worked aggressively and demonstrably to improve performance on the selection criteria. Yemen was eligible for Threshold Program assistance in 2004, but the Board suspended its eligibility in November 2005. Click here for the press release. Morocco and Jordan are the only other Arab countries designated as eligible for MCA assistance so far.

Three Yemeni editors are being prosecuted on charges of defamation: Independent weekly Al Deyar Editor-in-Chief Abed Al Mahthari was charged with defaming Watani Bank for Trade and Investment; Al-Shoura.net Editor Abdelkarim Al Khaiwani was charged with publishing false information about the Defense Ministry; and independent Al Wasat Editor Jamal Amer was charged with defaming the Religious Endowment Ministry and the police. If convicted, each journalist could face up to one year in jail or a maximum fine of 10,000 riyals (U.S. $50) for each charge under the Yemeni press law. Click here for details.

Bahrain: Activists Released

Political activists Muhammad Said Al Sahlawi and Hussein Abdul Aziz Al Habshi, arrested on November 16 and sentenced to six and twelve months in jail respectively for possession of leaflets calling for the boycott of parliamentary and municipal elections, were released on February 25 reportedly based on a royal pardon from the king. The public prosecutor charged them under articles 160, 161, and 168 of the Bahraini Penal Code, which criminalize the dissemination and possession of materials that could “damage the public interest.” Click here for details.

Saudi Arabia: Travel Ban on Government Critics

Saudi Arabian authorities barred twenty-two prominent critics from foreign travel according to a February 9 letter by the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) to King Abdullah. The critics include Matrook Al Faleh, Abdullah Al Hamed, and Ali Al Domaini, three constitutional and political reformers arrested on March 16, 2004 for signing a petition for reform and pardoned by the king in August 2005. Click here for details. After its first significant fact-finding mission in the county that began on November 27, 2006, HRW reported numerous cases of unfair trials, prisoner abuses, labor abuses, restrictions on women's legal identity, and cases of children's detention. Click here for details.

Syria: Upcoming Parliamentary Elections; Activist Released; Muslim Brothers Sentenced

Syrian parliamentary elections will be held on April 22, as announced on March 8 by President Bashar Al Assad. Parliament is elected by popular vote from fifteen multi-seat constituencies to serve four-year terms. One hundred sixty-seven of the 250 seats are reserved for members of the National Patriotic Front, a coalition of the ruling Baath party and its six smaller allies. Opposition groups boycotted t he last elections, held March 2003, claiming the vote was undemocratic.

Secretary of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Unity Party Muhi Al Din Sheikh Aali was released on February 16 from a Political Security detention center in Damascus after being held incommunicado since December 20, 2006. Click here for more details.

The State Security court sentenced eight members of the banned Syrian Muslim Brotherhood to jail terms of up to 10 years, according to a March 5 statement by the National Organization for Human Rights in Syria. The members were arrested in early 2004 and charged with having ties with the group and possession of banned books and tapes. Syrian authorities did not confirm the sentences.

Jordan: Parliament Approves Controversial Press Law

Jordan's parliament endorsed on March 4 controversial amendments to press legislation that retain clauses allowing imprisonment of journalists for violations relating to defaming religion, offending religious prophets, inciting sectarian strife or racism, slandering individuals, and spreading false information or rumors. Journalists operating in the kingdom could face fines of up to10,000 Jordanian dinars (U.S. $14,114) and prison terms ranging from one day up to three years. The new law also places the licensing of new publications under the jurisdiction of the Ministry of Industry and Trade. The Jordan Press Association deplored the adoption of the draft law and urged the upper house of parliament, where the draft now goes for further discussion, to amend the legislation.

King Abdullah announced on March 2 that parliamentary elections will take place by the end of 2007, ending speculation that he would delay elections until next year. Parliament's four-year term ends in April.

Algeria: Human Rights Lawyers Trial

Human rights lawyers Amine Sidhoum and Hassiba Boumerdassi, on trial since August on charges of handing unauthorized documents to their clients in prison, face up to five years in prison if convicted and a fine of 10,000 to 50,000 dinars (US$141 to $705). Click here for details.

On February 7, authorities banned the Truth, Peace and Conciliation seminar organized by five Algerian organizations that represent families of the thousands of disappeared persons during the civil war in the 1990s. On February 6, Algeria 's foreign minister signed the International Convention for the Protection of All Persons from Forced Disappearance.

Tunisia: Court Bans Human Rights Congress

A Tunisian court barred the Tunisian Human Rights League from holding a congress on February 17. The organization has been unable to hold a congress since 2005 after twenty-two members, who are also members of the ruling Constitutional Democratic Rally party, filed suit accusing the director of violating internal rules and abusing his position. The organization's president, Mokhtar Trifi, says the government is using the case to stifle the group. A verdict in the case initially scheduled for June 2006 has been postponed twice.

The U.S. Department of State (March 1 statement) and the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (February 28 statement) called on the Tunisian government to free activist Muhammad Abbou jailed two years ago on charges of defamation of the judicial process and assault after publishing articles on the internet critical of President Zine Al Abidine Ben Ali.

The Tunisian government banned issues of two French publications, the daily Le Monde and the weekly Le Nouvel Observateur that carried articles critical of President Ben Ali by Tunisian journalist Taoufik Ben Brik. Click here for details.

Upcoming Political Events

  • Mauritania: Second Round Presidential Elections, March 25, 2007.
  • Qatar: Municipal Elections, April 1, 2007; Parliamentary Elections (Date not set)
  • Egypt: Referendum on Constitutional Amendments, April 2007; Shura Council Elections, April-May 2007.
  • Syria: Legislative Elections, April 22, 2007; Presidential Referendum, May 2007; Municipal Elections, August 2007.
  • Algeria: Legislative Elections, May 2007.
  • Morocco: Legislative Elections, September, 2007.
  • Oman: Shura Council Elections, October 2007.
  • Jordan: Legislative Elections (Date not set).

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