News Concerning Middle East Reform
This is the news section of the latest issue of Arab Reform Bulletin (April 2007) Published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace:
- Egypt: Referendum Turnout Contested; Shura Elections Coming
- Jordan: Press Law Amendments
- Syria: Activists' Trials Postponed
- Qatar: Municipal Elections
- Kuwait: New Government
- UAE: New Labor Law
- Algeria: Court Acquits Journalists
- Libya: Call for Free Press
- Morocco: Draft Press Law under Discussion
- Upcoming Political Events
Egypt: Referendum Turnout Contested; Shura Elections Coming
Civil society and opposition groups are questioning reported voter turnout for a March 26 popular referendum on amendments to thirty-four articles of the 1970 Constitution. According to Justice Minister Mamdouh Marei, turnout was 27 percent of Egypt's 35 million registered voters with 76 percent of participants voting yes. Independent monitors place the turnout figure closer to 5 percent. Opposition groups boycotted the referendum on the amendments, which took place only a week after the amendments were approved by parliament in a single vote. The Judges Club accused the government of widespread fraud, including ballot box stuffing and vote buying. Click here for excerpts from the amendments in English and a full text in Arabic.
Parties in Egypt are gearing up for elections in June to fill eighty-eight seats in the upper house of parliament, the Shura Council. An additional forty-four members of the 264- seat council will be appointed by presidential decree. Opposition groups have boycotted p revious Shura elections, but on April 14 the Muslim Brotherhood stated it intended to field twenty candidates. Elections will be held on a single day and supervised by an electoral commission rather than by judges, in compliance with the newly amended Article 88 of the constitution.
Following up on an amendment of Article 179 giving the president the authority to remand civilians suspected of terrorism offenses for trial in military courts, President Hosni Mubarak ordered the government to amend the military tribunals law to allow defendants the right of appeal. The proposed Supreme Military Appeals Court will be comprised of a board of five military judges headed by the chairman of the Military Justice Authority.
Approximately thirty members of the Muslim Brotherhood were arrested between April 12 and April 16, including students, businessmen, and leaders of the group, as well as blogger Abdul Monem Mahmoud.
Jordan: Press Law Amendments
Jordan's lower house of parliament endorsed on March 21 changes to the controversial press and publications law, abolishing clauses allowing imprisonment of journalists. The lower house had approved the draft law on March 4 but the upper house returned the law, recommending that imprisonment clauses be cancelled. Parliament replaced the provision with greater fines. Journalists operating in the kingdom could face fines of up to 28,000 dinars (US $40,000) for violations relating to defaming religion, offending religious prophets, inciting sectarian strife or racism, slandering individuals, and spreading false information or rumors. Click here for details.
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.
Syria: Activists' Trials Postponed
The trial of political rights activist Kamal al-Labwani was postponed again on April 10, provoking charges that Syria was keeping the 30-month detainee in a legal limbo. The First Damascus Criminal Court adjourned the case to May because a new judge was appointed. Labwani, detained in November 2005 upon his return from a two-month trip to Europe and the United States where he met with government officials, journalists, and human rights organizations, has been charged with weakening national sentiment, damaging the nation's image, spreading false or exaggerated information, and communicating with a foreign country to incite aggression against Syria. Click here for details. Two other political activists in Syria, Michel Kilo and Anwar al-Bunni, have been detained since May 2006 with repeated postponements of their trials after they signed the Beirut-Damascus joint statement. Kilo faces charges punishable by at least three years in prison including weakening national sentiment, spreading false information, and inciting religious and racial dissension. Click here for details.
Qatar: Municipal Elections
Elections to Qatar' s twenty-nine-member Central Municipal Council, an advisory body created in 1999 that issue s recommendations on municipal issues, were held on April 1. One hundred and twenty-five candidate s ran and 51 percent of the 28,000 eligible voters cast ballots, compared to 32 percent who participated in the 2003 election. The election is seen as a precursor to parliamentary elections for the country's first national legislature, expected later this year. Qatar's constitution, approved in an April 2003 popular referendum, creates a legislative body with thirty members elected by universal suffrage and fifteen appointed by the emir. Elections were initially planned for mid-2005 but postponed due to alleged problems with the voter lists. Currently Qatar only has an appointed council with a limited advisory role.
Kuwait: New Government
Kuwait' s emir Sh e ikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah approved a new sixteen-member cabinet on March 25, 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 members of parliament presented the motion in February over suspected financial and administrative breaches at the ministry. The reshuffle replaced the minister, but k ey portfolios — foreign affairs, defense, interior, labor and social affairs, and oil — remain unchanged. They are headed by members of the ruling Sabah family.
UAE: New Labor Law
The UAE's Labor Ministry proposed a draft labor law (Arabic text of law) which according to a March 25 report by Human Rights Watch, falls short of international standards for workers' rights. The report calls for the law to be revised to protect workers' rights to organize, bargain collectively and strike, and to cover excluded groups such as domestic workers. In addition, the draft law includes a number of provisions that discriminate against women workers.
Algeria: Court Acquits Journalists
An Algiers appeals court ruled on April 4 to give two journalists suspended sentences of six months in prison and a fine of 50,000 dinars (about US $ 720), effectively concluding the libel suit brought by Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi in October 2006 against Ali Fodil, the editor of the Arabic-language daily Ech-Chourouk, and Naila Berrahal, one of his journalists, over reports published two months earlier which allegedly “attacked his person, the Libyan state and the security of the Algerian and Libyan states.” Click here for 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.
Libya: Call for Free Press
Libyan journalists and writers inside and outside the country issued a statement (Arabic) on April 2 urging the Libyan government to allow free and privately-owned press, after the government announced the formation of a committee to study the status of the Libyan press. Click here for details.
Morocco: Draft Press Law under Discussion
A draft press law under discussion among journalists and the government would keep criminal penalties in place for journalists charged with violating bans against offending the monarchy, Islam, and state institutions such as the army and judiciary. The new draft law also stipulates the creation of a National Press Council whose 15 members would be appointed by the king and journalists. Click here for details.
Upcoming Political Events
- Syria: Legislative Elections, April 22, 2007; Presidential Referendum, May 2007; Municipal Elections, August 2007.
- Algeria: Legislative Elections, May 17, 2007.
- Egypt: Shura Council Elections, June 2007.
- Jordan: Municipal Elections, July 2007 ; Legislative Elections, 2007 (date to be determined).
- Morocco: Legislative Elections, September 2007.
- Oman: Shura Council Elections, October 2007.
- Qatar: Legislative Elections, 2007 (date to be determined).