6.05.2007

News Concerning Middle East Reform

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

Headlines:

  • Status of Political Parties
  • Recent Developments in Political Party Laws
  • Algeria: Run-Up to Elections
  • Egypt: Political and Legislative Update
  • Palestine: Interior Minister Resigns
  • Mauritania: New Government
  • Syria: Democracy Activists Jailed; Results of Parliamentary Elections
  • Jordan: Former MP Arrested; Crackdown on Press
  • Bahrain: Controversy over Minister Corruption Charges
  • Saudi Arabia: Human Rights Watch Denounces Torture in Prisons
  • Yemen: Government Closes Gun Markets
  • Upcoming Political Events

Contents:

Status of Political Parties

The status of political parties varies significantly across the Arab region. Algeria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Palestine, and Yemen allow political parties—including Islamists (parties whose main goal is the establishment of an Islamic state or the implementation of sharia)—to compete in elections. In Morocco, however, the government blocks some parties, such as the Justice and Charity Association, from full participation. Tunisia has a multiparty system, but forbids religiously-affiliated parties. In Egypt, Islamist parties are banned, but members of the illegal Muslim Brotherhood have run for office as independents. Syria is effectively a one-party state and allows only candidates vetted by the ruling Baath party to run for office; these have not included any Islamists.

Yemen is the only country on the Arabian Peninsula to allow political parties. In Bahrain and Kuwait, all political parties are illegal, but candidates across the political spectrum compete in elections with the backing of political societies. Parties are also illegal in Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. Independent candidates run for posts in parliaments with limited powers in Oman and the UAE. Qatar will hold its first legislative elections this year. Saudi Arabia does not hold legislative elections but independent candidates participated in the country's first municipal elections in 2005.


Recent Developments in Political Party Laws

Jordan: A coalition of political parties is planning to appeal the constitutionality of the political parties law endorsed by parliament in March 2007. According to Secretary General of the Islamic Action Front Zaki Bani Irsheid, the law “violates the constitution and restricts political and party life.” The law raised from 50 to 500 the number of members necessary for registering or maintaining party status and raised the minimum number of districts from which parties must draw their members. Political parties have one year to comply with these requirements or they will be disbanded.

Egypt: Several provisions of the recent constitutional amendments, passed by parliament and approved in a referendum in March, affect political parties. An amendment to Article 5 stipulates that “It is not permitted to pursue any political activity or establish any political parties within any religious frame of reference (marja'iyya) or on any religious basis or on the basis of gender or origin.” A revision to Article 62 paves the way for a change to a mixed system of party lists and individual districts, which would disadvantage candidates who do not belong to recognized parties. Amendments to Article 76 stipulate that only registered political parties that hold at least one seat in either the People's Assembly or the Shura Council may nominate a candidate in any presidential election that takes place in the next decade. (Thereafter, a party would need to hold 3 percent of seats in each chamber, or the equivalent number of seats in one chamber).

Syria: There is speculation that a new political party law might be passed before the presidential referendum on May 27, 2007, but opposition groups and democracy activists are skeptical. The Baath Party conference in June 2005 announced that a law authorizing independent political parties would be issued soon but did not mention abolishing article 8 of the Syrian Constitution, which enshrines the Baath as the ruling party. Observers believe that a new law will enforce licensing conditions whereby new parties must be neither Islamic nor based on sub-Syrian nationalism (Kurdish for example).

Bahrain: King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa ratified a controversial new law of political associations in August 2005, which stipulates that associations may not be based on class, profession, or religion and raises the minimum membership age from 18 to 21. After months of protesting the law, the main political societies (al-Wefaq National Islamic Society and the National Democratic Action Society) decided to register under the new law in October 2005. The parliament's legislative and legal affairs committee has repeatedly rejected proposals to transform political societies into legal parties with official rights to operate in the Kingdom on the grounds that it is "premature" to legalize full-fledged parties as doing so could endanger the “newly launched democratic experiment in Bahrain, which favors a gradual practice of politics.” The government states it will accept the legalization of parties if parliament so decides. Such a development would make Bahrain the first Gulf country to allow political parties.

Morocco: Parliament endorsed new legislation in July and October 2005 that tightens controls on party registration and forbids the establishment of political parties with a religious, linguistic, ethnic, or regional basis. Some provisions have created heated debate between political parties in Morocco, particularly the stipulation that only political parties that win 5 percent or more of the vote in parliamentary elections are eligible for public funding.


Algeria: Run-Up to Elections

Nearly nineteen million eligible voters will choose among 12,229 candidates from twenty-four parties and independent lists competing for 389 seats in the People's National Assembly in elections on May 17. Algeria is one of the few countries that provide legislative seats for citizens living abroad; eight seats represent the Algerian community abroad.

Algeria's ruling National Liberation Front (FLN) is expected to maintain its position of dominance in the new parliament; the National Democratic Rally (RND) is expected to take second place. Opposition groups are accusing the government of blocking the main opposition party, al-Islah, from contesting the poll. Minister Noureddine Zerhouni stated that Abdallah Djaballah was no longer the party's authorized leader because he had not held a party congress as required by law. Djaballah announced his party will boycott the elections, but a small faction of al-Islah that contests Djaballah's leadership may participate. Al-Islah won forty-three seats in the 2002 elections.

Algerian journalists Arezki Aït-Larbi, correspondent of the French daily Le Figaro, and Saad Lounes, former editor of the daily El-Ouma, are facing political and legal harassment according to the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders. Click here for details.


Egypt: Political and Legislative Update

The Egyptian Supreme Administrative Court overturned on May 15 a May 8 ruling by a lesser administrative court that President Hosni Mubarak's order to try thirty-four members of the Muslim Brotherhood before a military court was not valid and that they must be tried before a civilian court. The new ruling effectively clears the way for the resumption of the military trial of the detainees. The detained Muslim Brotherhood members, including second deputy leader Khairat al-Shatir, are facing charges of terrorism and money laundering.

In a separate case, two Muslim Brotherhood MPs, Sabri Amer and Ragab Abu Zeid, were arrested on April 29 in the governorate of Menufiyya and released twenty-four hours later. Parliament voted May 9 to lift both MPs' immunity. Twelve other members of the movement arrested with them remain in custody.

Parliament endorsed a law on May 8 that raises the official retirement age for judges from 68 to 70, in a move critics claim aims to keep long-time partisans of the NDP in key judicial positions ahead of Shura Council elections in June. The Judges Club, which has led a campaign for judicial independence since the 2005 parliamentary elections, opposed the change but announced that judges will abide by it. The government has repeatedly raised judges' retirement age over the past fourteen years.

The People's Assembly endorsed on April 21 a new military tribunals law that creates an appeals process for military personnel or civilians sentenced by military courts. Representatives from the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Wafd, and leftist parties opposed the law on the grounds that it is a superficial attempt to justify the recent amendment of Article 179 of the constitution, which gives the president the authority to remand civilians suspected of terrorism offenses for trial in military courts.

The government ordered on March 25 the closure of the headquarters of the Center for Trade Union and Workers' Services, which offers legal aid to Egyptian factory workers and reports on labor rights issues. The Ministry of Social Solidarity blamed the center for inciting labor unrest around the country. According to media reports, there were more than 200 labor protests in Egypt during 2006. Click here for details.

Al-Jazeera journalist Howaida Taha was sentenced by an Egyptian court on May 2 to six months in prison and a fine of 20,000 Egyptian pounds (US $3,518) on charges of spreading false information “that could undermine the dignity of the country” in connection with an al-Jazeera documentary about torture in Egypt. Taha was briefly arrested in January and is currently free on bail in Qatar, pending appeal. Click here for details.

Egyptian blogger Abdel Monem Mahmoud was detained on April 15 for fifteen days on charges of belonging to the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood and defaming the government with his reporting. Mahmoud was detained for six months in 2006. Click here for details.

Palestine: Interior Minister Resigns

Palestinian Interior Minister Hani al-Qawasmi resigned on May 14 in frustration over a surge in factional violence in the Gaza Strip, casting the future of the two-month-old Palestinian unity government into doubt. According to al-Qawasmi, neither Fatah nor Hamas would give him the power necessary to integrate competing security agencies into a unified force capable of reestablishing order. Prime Minister Ismail Haniyya of Hamas will temporarily take charge of the interior ministry.


Mauritania: New Government

Mauritania's new president Sidi Ould Sheikh Abdullahi, elected on March 25 in the country's first free presidential election, appointed on April 28 a cabinet composed primarily of technocrats and led by Prime Minister Zeine Ould Zeidane, a former central bank governor who came in third in the presidential race. Most of the twenty-eight cabinet members are first-timers and have no previous association with the authoritarian rule of President Maaouiya Ould Sid Ahmed Taya, while two candidates served in previous governments. Click here for a list of cabinet members.


Syria: Democracy Activists Jailed; Results of Parliamentary Elections

Syrian courts sentenced four prominent activists to prison sentences. Michel Kilo and Mahmoud Issa were sentenced to three years in prison each on May 13 on charges of weakening national feeling, fomenting sectarian rifts, and spreading false information. Kamal Labwani, a Syrian activist who was arrested in November 2005 after returning from a visit to the United States was sentenced on May 10 to twelve years in prison for contacting a foreign country and “encouraging attacks on Syria.” On April 24, a Damascus court sentenced prominent human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni to five years in prison and a fine of 1,000 Syrian pounds (US $2,000) for “spreading false or exaggerated news that weakens national sentiment” and for his membership in an unlicensed human rights center. Kilo, Issa, and al-Bunni were arrested in May 2006 after signing the Beirut-Damascus Declaration, which called for improved Lebanese-Syrian relations based on respect for each country's sovereignty. Click here for details. The Syrian government seized on May 2 the assets of former MP Mamoun Homsi who was arrested for five years in August 2001 for seeking to “illegally change the constitution.”

The Nationalist Progressive Front (NPF), a coalition of the Baath party and nine other parties that has ruled Syria since 1972, won the majority of seats in parliamentary elections on April 22-23, an expected result as two-thirds of the 250 seats are automatically allocated to the NPF. The Baath party won 134 seats and other NPF members won 36 seats. Independent candidates, who have been allowed to run for parliament since 1990, competed for the remaining 80 seats. Syrian opposition groups boycotted the elections. The new parliament unanimously approved on May 10 the nomination of President Bashar al-Assad for a second seven-year term. A presidential referendum is scheduled for May 27, 2007.


Jordan: Former MP Arrested; Crackdown on Press

Former MP Ahmad Oweidi al-Abbadi, was arrested on May 3 on charges of “harming the state's dignity, slandering officials, and violating laws governing e-mail practices” after he accused Jordan's government of corruption in an e-mail to U.S. Senate Majority leader Harry Reid. Al-Abbadi will be detained for a fifteen-day renewable period pending interrogation. Click here for details.

Jordanian authorities banned the April 30 edition of the weekly al-Majd to prevent a front-page story about a “secret plan” to oust the Hamas-led Palestinian government. According to the New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists, the weekly has been censored on two previous occasions because of sensitive articles. Click here for details. On April 18, the Jordanian government seized a taped al-Jazeera interview with former crown prince Hassan bin Talal. Click here for details.

Bahrain: Controversy over Minister Corruption Charges

MPs from the largest political society and the main opposition group, the Shi'i al-Wefaq National Islamic Society, walked out of the Bahrain parliament on May 8 in protest after their request for a corruption investigation of State Minister of Cabinet Affairs Sheikh Ahmad bin Ateyatallah al-Khalifa, a member of the royal family, was denied. The forty- member lower chamber dismissed the motion as only nineteen lawmakers voted in favor of the investigation, two votes short of the majority needed. The corruption charges were first brought to light in a report by former government advisor Salah al-Bandar describing a conspiracy led by Sheikh Ahmad to rig parliamentary elections to reduce the powers of Shi'a. On May 6, a Bahraini court sentenced al-Bandar in absentia to an additional year in jail, adding to a previous four-year jail term handed down in April on charges of sedition.

Saudi Arabia: Human Rights Watch Denounces Torture in Prisons

The New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) is calling on Saudi Arabia's government to conduct a comprehensive probe into alleged cases of torture, beatings, and deaths from ill-treatment at prisons across the kingdom. HRW conducted its first significant fact-finding mission in Saudi Arabia in late 2006. Click here for details.

Yemen: Government Closes Gun Markets

Yemen's cabinet decided on April 24 to close all arms markets selling weapons without a license as part of a campaign to collect heavy and medium weapons in a bid to neutralize revels battling army troops in the north of the country. Authorities have accused the rebels, lead by Abdul Malik al-Houthi, of trying to topple the regime and establish an Islamic state. Unofficial reports indicate there are some eighteen arms markets, 300 small gun shops, and 40-50 million weapons in Yemen.

Upcoming Political Events

  • Algeria: Legislative Elections, May 17, 2007.
  • Syria: Presidential Referendum, May 27, 2007; Municipal Elections, August 2007.
  • Egypt: Shura Council Elections, June 2007.
  • Jordan: Municipal Elections, July 17, 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).

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