10.04.2007

News Concerning Middle East Reform

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

Headlines:

  • Morocco: Nationalists Win Parliamentary Elections; Journalists on Trial
  • Tunisia: Political Prisoners Released
  • Egypt: Four Editors Convicted; Brotherhood Members Arrested
  • Palestine: Electoral Law Amendments; Hamas Crackdown on Journalists
  • Lebanon: Run-Up to Presidential Elections; Army in Control of Refugee Camp
  • Jordan: Coming Legislative Elections; Municipal Election Results; Prisoners Abuse
  • Syria: Municipal Election Results; Political Prisoner Released
  • Saudi Arabia: Calls for Reform; Suspension of al-Hayat; Demonstrators Charged
  • Kuwait: First Female Minister Resigns; Blogger Arrested; TV Series Banned
  • United Arab Emirates: Website Closed, Administrator Sentenced to Prison
  • Yemen: Editor Abducted, Severely Beaten
  • Mauritania: Slavery Criminalized
  • Upcoming Political Events

Contents:


Morocco: Nationalists Win Parliamentary Elections; Journalists on Trial

Morocco's nationalist Istiqlal party emerged as the single largest winner in the September 7 elections, which were marred by the lowest turnout ever recorded in Morocco. Turnout was estimated at 37 percent of registered voters, down from 52 percent in the 2002 elections, and included many invalid ballots. The Istiqlal party, part of the previous ruling coalition, won 52 seats (compared to 48 in 2002), ahead of the Islamist Justice and Development party (PJD) with 47 seats (compared to 42 in 2002). The Popular Movement and the National Rally of Independents won 43 and 38 seats respectively. The Socialist Union of Popular Forces (USFP), the dominant party in the previous ruling coalition, won only 36 (compared to 50 in 2002). Under Morocco's proportional representation system, it is extremely difficult for any party to win a majority. The King is expected to appoint a new prime minister, who will lead negotiations with different parties to form a ruling coalition, soon.

The Islamist PJD cried foul after failing to win its projected 70 seats and accused opponents of buying votes. Observers from the National Democratic Institute for International Affairs (NDI), however, said the vote took place in an orderly and professional fashion with “isolated irregularities.” NDI judged that only “significant change”—enhancing the power of elected representatives, increasing transparency of the electoral system, and improving accountability to the electorate—would persuade more Moroccans to participate in the political process. Click here for NDI’s statement.

A Casablanca court adjourned the trial of newspaper editor Ahmed Benchemsi until November 7. The editor of the two weeklies Nichane and Telquel is being tried on the charge of “disrespecting the king.” Benchemsi received a suspended prison sentence for libel in 2005 and could go to jail if convicted again.

Al-Watan al-An journalist Mustafa Hurmatallah was released from prison September 11, pending the outcome of his appeal against an eight-month prison sentence he received August 15 for publishing a leaked internal security memo.


Tunisia: Political Prisoners Released

Twenty-one political prisoners were released on July 24, Tunisia’s national day. Those released include Muhammad Abou, a lawyer sentenced in 2005 to three-and-a-half years in prison for criticizing President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and conditions in Tunisian prisoners. Leaders of the banned Islamist al-Nahda movement who had been imprisoned since the 1990s were also released. While continuing to clamp down on critics, authorities have freed long-term political prisoners in batches since 2004, usually on the occasion of national holidays.


Egypt: Four Editors Convicted; Brotherhood Members Arrested

Four editors of independent newspapers—Ibrahim Eissa of al-Dustur, Wael al-Abrashy of Sawt al-Umma, Adel Hammouda of al-Fajr, and Abdel Halim Kandil of al-Karama—were convicted on September 13 of "publishing false information likely to disturb public order" after they criticized statements by President Mubarak and Gamal Mubarak about Hizballah. All four were sentenced to one year in prison and a fine of 20,000 Egyptian pounds (US $3,540) each. They were released on bail pending an appeal. In a separate case, Eissa was charged on September 5 with a similar offense for publishing rumors that President Husni Mubarak was seriously ill. In that case Eissa faces up to four years in prison under articles 102 and 188 of the criminal code.

The latter charge against Eissa followed a tense period after President Mubarak failed to hold his usual summer talk with university students in Alexandria in August. Al-Ahram newspaper published an interview with the president on August 31 in which he implicitly accused the banned Muslim Brotherhood of spreading rumors of his illness. In a September 2 television interview, First Lady Suzanne Mubarak dismissed the rumors and called for those responsible to be punished. The government-controlled Supreme Council for the Press announced on September 3 that it had created two commissions formed of media experts and legal consultants to evaluate the scale of the rumors and decide what measures to take.

Egyptian police forces arrested 20 senior members of the Muslim Brotherhood on August 27, including political department chief Isam al-Aryan. They face accusations of belonging to a banned organization, possessing illegal documents, and holding a meeting to plan illicit activities. The group said the gathering in question was a routine meeting. Approximately 400 Brotherhood members are now detained, most of them without charge or trial, after a crackdown that began in December 2006.


Palestine: Electoral Law Amendments; Hamas Crackdown on Journalists

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas announced on September 2 changes in the election law that would favor his Fatah party against its rival Hamas. Hamas described the move as illegal, as Abbas made the change by decree rather than through the Palestinian Legislative Council, which is unable to meet because of the Fatah-Hamas rift and Israeli detention of many Hamas deputies. Under the new law, Palestinians will vote solely for party lists. In the 2006 elections, half the seats were chosen by national party lists and the other half by district; Hamas was particularly successful in districts. The decree also requires all electoral candidates to recognize the Fatah-dominated Palestine Liberation Organization as the "sole, legitimate representative" of the Palestinian people, a position rejected by Hamas.

Six journalists were arrested and detained for several hours on August 24 when Hamas security forces intervened to disperse a pro-Fatah demonstration in Gaza. Three days later, Hamas leaders announced their intention to implement a 1995 press law under which journalists may be imprisoned for six months and newspapers may be closed if they publish reports that “jeopardize national unity or incite crime, hatred, division, or sectarian dissention.” On September 3, Hamas declared a plan to dissolve the Gaza branch of the Union of Palestinian Journalists, mostly supportive of Fatah, and create a government committee for the media.


Lebanon: Run-Up to Presidential Elections; Army in Control of Refugee Camp

Parliamentary speaker Nabih Berri called for a special session on September 25 to elect a new president. A successful vote requires a quorum of 86 members, two thirds of the 128-seat house. Prime Minister Fouad Siniora’s ruling coalition has 67 MPs, meaning that it must reach a compromise with the political opposition. Current pro-Syria President Emile Lahoud said August 30 that he would appoint an interim government headed by Lebanon’s army chief if no agreement is reached by the time his term expires on November 23. The current “unconstitutional government” cannot remain in power if the election of a president is not possible,” said Lahoud in reference to Siniora’s cabinet, which the Hizballah-lead opposition has deserted.

Candidates who have declared their intention to run for president, a post reserved for a Maronite Christian, include Michel Aoun, Boutrous Harb, Nasib Lahoud, and Robert Ghanim. The narrow win of a parliamentary candidate backed by Michel Aoun to replace assassinated anti-Syrian MP Pierre Gemayel in the Maronite al-Matn district in August reflected the bitter Christian divide between supporters of the parliamentary majority and followers of Aoun, a former acting president allied with Hizbollah.

The Lebanese army took full control of Nahr al-Bared Palestinian refugee camp in northern Lebanon on September 2, where it had been battling militants from the al-Qaeda-affiliated Fatah al-Islam for over three months. The fighting has been Lebanon’s worst internal violence since the 1975-1990 civil war, killing more than 300 people. Prime Minister Siniora pledged to rebuild the area and place it under the sole authority of the Lebanese state.


Jordan: Coming Legislative Elections; Municipal Election Results; Prisoners Abuse

Jordan’s Prime Minister Marouf al-Bakhit announced that parliamentary elections will be held November 20. King Abdullah issued a decree on August 21 dissolving parliament, whose four-year term formally ended in April. Tribally-based politicians had urged the monarch to delay the elections for fear of Islamist takeover of the legislature. Paradoxically, the Islamic Action Front (IAF) has threatened a boycott because the current electoral law favors tribal constituencies over the largely-Palestinian populated cities, which are Islamist strongholds.

A cabinet reshuffle on September 1 brought in new finance, water, and health ministers ahead of November’s legislative elections. Hamad al-Kassasbeh was appointed finance minister, replacing Ziad Faris who resigned after Bakhit ruled out his proposal to raise fuel prices. Muhammad al-Shatnami and Salah al-Mawajdeh replaced Zafer al-Alem and Saad Kharabsheh as ministers of water and health respectively. Al-Alem and Kharabsheh resigned July 29 after hundreds of people were hospitalized after drinking contaminated tap water in northern Jordan. Click here for a new cabinet list.

The Islamic Action Front (IAF) won two out of 965 seats in July 31 municipal elections, despite having withdrawn from the race. IAF secretary general Zaki Bani Irsheid dismissed the official numbers and called for the Jordanian monarch to cancel the election results. The Islamists withdrew their 25 candidates after polls opened, accusing the government of fraud and manipulation of votes cast by military personnel, who participated in the elections for the first time. Jordanian Prime Minister Bakhit dismissed the withdrawal as illegal, telling reporters that any pullout must come at least a day before the elections. Final results showed that more than 1.1 million Jordanians out of 1.9 registered voters cast ballots to elect 965 council members and mayors among 2,686 candidates in 94 municipalities. The vote was the first since a law was passed earlier this year granting women a 20 percent quota and reducing the voting age from 19 to 18. Twenty women candidates above those elected by quota won council seats and one woman won a mayorship.

A Human Rights Watch August 30 statement called for the government to take immediate steps to prevent and punish abuses in Jordanian jails. After visiting five Jordanian prisons in the last two weeks of August, the human rights organization reported on beatings and other serious abuses that often go unpunished.


Syria: Municipal Election Results; Political Prisoner Released

Syrians voted on August 26 and 27 to elect municipal council representatives in the country’s fourteen governorates. Voting took place in 740 constituencies, with 32,058 candidates competing for a total of 9,687 seats. According to government sources, turnout increased from 38 per cent in 2003 to almost 50 per cent this year. Women won 319 seats, up from 294. The Nationalist Progressive Front, a coalition of the Baath party and nine other parties, which has ruled Syria since 1972, won the majority of seats, as they are automatically allotted 60 percent representation, with the remaining seats filled by independents. Syrian opposition groups, including the Damascus Declaration for Democracy, boycotted the elections.

Journalist and political activist Habib Saleh was released September 12 after 27 months in prison. Saleh was arrested in May 2005 and sentenced to three years in prison by a military court for "spreading mendacious information" in open letters to the Baath Party criticizing the regime, which he posted on various websites.


Saudi Arabia: Calls for Reform; Suspension of al-Hayat; Demonstrators Charged

Prince Talal Bin Abdulaziz al-Saud announced September 6 that he may abandon his plans to form a political party in exchange for greater political participation in the Kingdom. Prince Talal, brother of the Saudi monarch, had issued an unprecedented statement September 4 announcing his intention to form a political party that includes opposition figures. He spoke against what he called the monopolization of authority and corruption of a small group in the ruling al-Saud family. Senior members of the ruling family did not comment on the Prince’s statements.

Prince Khalid Bin Sultan al-Saud, publisher of London-based al-Hayat newspaper and deputy defense minister, succeeded August 31 in reversing a ban on his newspaper by the Saudi Ministry of Culture and Information. The ministry had banned the newspaper for four days beginning August 27 for publishing criticism of Saudi ministers and articles by controversial columnists.

Saudi writer, lawyer, and activist Abdullah al-Hamad is on trial in connection with a peaceful protest held in July by a group of women demanding the speedy trial of their relatives. Al-Hamad's initial hearing was held September 9, in which he was charged with inciting the women to protest and obstructing police work. Saudi Arabia forbids public demonstrations, although there is no explicit legal basis for such a prohibition.


Kuwait: First Female Minister Resigns; Blogger Arrested; TV Series Banned

Kuwaiti Health Minister Massouma al-Mubarak resigned on August 24 after a deadly fire broke out at a government hospital. Hours earlier, two Islamist MPs had submitted a motion to question al-Mubarak over the fire (which killed two patients and injured 19) as well as alleged financial abuses and deteriorating health services. In her resignation letter, al-Mubarak accepted political and moral responsibility for fire, but claimed that certain MPs had harassed her from the moment she took office “for reasons which are no secret to you,” referring to the opposition of Sunni Islamist MPs to her appointment. Al-Mubarak, a member of the country’s Shi’i minority, made history when she became Kuwait’s first female minister in June 2005, a month after parliament passed a bill granting women political rights. In the past five years, six Kuwaiti ministers have resigned to avoid interpolation in parliament.

Bashar al-Sayegh, blogger and editor of the daily newspaper al-Jareeda, was arrested on August 18 by order of the general prosecutor’s office for insulting the emir of Kuwait, a charge that carries a possible five-year prison sentence. The arrest was prompted by an anonymous comment posted on al-Sayegh’s blog, Alomma.org, criticizing the emir’s leadership abilities and frequent travels outside the country.

The Ministry of Information banned the broadcast of a television series on September 10 for reportedly criticizing Shi’i beliefs and practices. The ban came after after a Shi’i protest in Kuwait City and pressures from Shi’i and Sunni Islamist MPs.


United Arab Emirates: Website Closed, Administrator Sentenced to Prison

A Ras al-Khaima criminal court sentenced web writer Khalid el-Asly and forum administrator Muhammad al-Shouhi September 13 to five months in prison for defamation after they published an article criticizing discrimination and corruption in Ras al-Khaima’s health department. An August 8 ruling had sentenced al-Shouhi to a year in prison, ordered him to pay 80,000 dirhams (approximately $22,000) in fines and damages, and shut down the website. Two additional court cases against the two men are pending.


Yemen: Editor Abducted, Severely Beaten

Abdel Karim al-Khaiwani, former editor of the online newspaper al-Shura, was abducted and severely beaten by gunmen suspected of being part of the government’s security forces on August 27. The gunmen reportedly threatened to kill al-Khaiwani and his family if he criticized Yemeni President Ali Abdullah Saleh again, specifically mentioning an article he had written on the status of prisoners and conditions in the country’s jails. Al-Khaiwani also faces terrorism charges brought by a state security court on July 4. He was arrested on June 20 and released on bail in late July.


Mauritania: Slavery Criminalized

Mauritania’s national assembly adopted a law on August 8 criminalizing slavery for the first time. Slavery was abolished in Mauritania under an act passed in November 1981, but an implementation decree had yet to be enacted. Under the new law, people convicted of acts of slavery will risk between five and ten years in prison. Slavery in its original form has become rare in Mauritania but still exists, especially in the countryside. No official statistics on slavery exist.


Upcoming Political Events

  • Lebanon: Presidential Election, September 25, 2007.
  • Oman: Shura Council Elections, October 27, 2007.
  • Egypt: National Democratic Party Conference: November 2007 (date to be determined).
  • Jordan: Legislative Elections, November 20, 2007.
  • Algeria: Municipal Elections, November 29, 2007.
  • Middle East Peace Conference, November 2007 (date and location to be determined).


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Nassim Yaziji's article:

- The Conflict Over the New Middle East

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Nassim Yaziji's Neo-Internationalism

Nassim Yaziji's Articles
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