11.15.2007

News Concerning Middle East Reform

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


Headlines:

  • Lebanon: Presidential Elections; Anti-Syrian MP Assassinated
  • Egypt: Media and Human Rights Crackdown; Brotherhood Leaders Released
  • Yemen, Morocco: New Millennium Challenge Corporation Agreements; Fact Sheet
  • Syria: Blogger Sentenced
  • Jordan: Ex-Legislator Sentenced; IAF to Contest Elections; Publication Restrictions
  • Tunisia: Pressure on Newspaper; Activists’ Hunger Strike
  • Algeria: FIS Leader Arrested
  • Morocco: New Cabinet; Journalist Sentenced to Jail
  • Saudi Arabia: Succession Law; Judicial Reforms; Women Driving Campaign
  • Oman: Run-up to Shura Elections
  • United Arab Emirates: Jail Sentence for Journalists Abolished
  • Kuwait: TV Producer Charged with Insulting Shi’a
  • Bahrain: NDI Returns; Cabinet Change; Anti-Corruption Efforts
  • Upcoming Political Events

Contents:


Lebanon: Presidential Elections; Anti-Syrian MP Assassinated

Parliament adjourned a session to elect a new president until October 23, after members of the Hizballah-led opposition bloc boycotted and the required two-thirds quorum was not reached. The opposition wants to prevent the Western-backed majority from electing an anti-Syrian head of state. President Emile Lahoud is due to step down no later than November 23, by which time the parliament must choose a successor who, by political consensus, must be a Maronite Christian. Leading presidential candidates include Nasib Lahoud, Boutrous Harb, Robert Ghanim, Jean Obeid, and Michel Aoun.

MP Antoine Ghanim, a member of the Maronite Phalange Party, was assassinated September 19 in a car bomb attack in the mainly Christian Sin al-Fil District in East Beirut. MP Ghanem belonged to the March 14 coalition led by Prime Minister Fouad Siniora, which now has a dwindling majority of 67 in the 128-seat parliament. Since the February 2005 murder of former Prime Minister Rafik al-Hariri, six March 14 MPs have been assassinated.


Egypt: Media and Human Rights Crackdown; Brotherhood Leaders Released

On October 7, twenty-two Egyptian newspapers staged a one-day strike to protest the recent crackdown on independent journalists. The latest case came on September 2 4 , as al-Wafd opposition newspaper editor Anwar al-Hawari, deputy editor Mahmoud Ghalab, and political editor Amir Salim were convicted under Article 102 of the penal code for publishing news that “disturbs public security,” after the newspaper published the minutes of a closed session of the Shura Council’s Legislation Committee. The three editors were sentenced to two years in prison and ordered to pay 2201 Egyptian pounds (US $397) each in fines and damages. They filed an appeal and are free on 5,000 Egyptian pounds (US $895) bail each. Click here for details. On September 13, four independent newspaper editors received similar sentences for criticizing President Mubarak and Gamal Mubarak.

In a related development, the trial of Ibrahim Eissa, editor of the Egyptian daily al-Dustur has been postponed to October 24, 2007. Eissa was charged on September 5 with publishing false rumors that President Husni Mubarak was seriously ill. On October 1, the court announced that eight additional related charges have been filed against Eissa, seven of which have been filed by lawyers affiliated with the ruling National Democratic Party. Click here for more information.

The Cairo Governor’s Office shut down the Association for Human Rights Legal Aid, which reports on human rights violations and provides legal assistance to victims, and took control of its assets on September 18. The governor had issued a decree September 4 that ordered the closure of the organization, citing article 17 of the Law on Associations (84/2002), which bans nongovernmental organizations from receiving foreign funding without prior government permission. The organization has appealed the decree before the Administrative Court, and a hearing was set for October 21. Click here for details. The White House expressed “deep concern” at the closure and the crackdown on journalists; click here for the statement.

Muslim Brotherhood political department chief Isam al-Aryan and nine other leading Brotherhood members were released from detention on October 6. The men were arrested on August 27 in an escalating Egyptian crackdown on political dissent. On October 3, the State Security Court ordered the release of senior members Mohyi Hamid, Mahmoud Ghozlan, and Mustafa al-Ghonaimi within fifteen days.

Two Egyptian activists for Shi’i rights were detained and questioned on September 29, after they criticized torture in Egyptian prisons. The Public Prosecutor charged Muhammad al-Dereini and Ahmed Sobh under Article 98(f) of the penal code with "promoting extreme Shi`i beliefs with the intent of creating contempt for the Islamic religion," and under Article 102 with "spreading false rumors" to "undermine trust in security agencies." Conviction on these charges can result in up to five years in prison. Click here for more information.

Authorities detained eight trade unionists at a giant textile factory north of Cairo on September 24 on accusations of “unlawful gathering” and “destruction of public property.”Thousands of workers at the government-owned Misr Spinning and Weaving Company went on strike September 23 to protest unpaid profit shares and low wages. The strike ended September 29 after management agreed to give higher bonuses and improve working conditions. Since 2006, local media have documented over 200 instances of labor unrest, primarily demanding wage increases, in Egypt.


Yemen, Morocco: New Millennium Challenge Corporation Agreements; Fact Sheet

In September 2007, the Millennium Challenge Corporation (MCC) approved a two-year $20.6 million threshold program with Yemen to fight corruption, increase judicial capacity, improve elections, and strengthen the investment climate. After suspending Yemen from eligibility for threshold assistance in November 2005 due to a decline in eight categories (including corruption control, regulatory quality, trade policy, and fiscal policy) MCC reinstated Yemen as eligible for threshold assistance in February 2007, citing a series of reforms. Broad improvements in governance would be necessary for Yemen to become eligible for a full MCC compact.

The MCC also signed a compact agreement valued at $698 million--representing a six-fold increase in annual U.S. assistance--with Morocco in August. The planned projects will target productivity and employment in agriculture, fisheries, and tourism, and the financial sector, as well as promoting entrepreneurship among young people.

Click here for a fact sheet on the MCC and Arab countries compiled by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.


Syria: Blogger Sentenced

On September 23, the Supreme State Security Court convicted online writer Ali Zine al-Abidine Mejan of “writings unauthorized by the government that harm ties with a foreign state” and sentenced him to two years in prison for posting online commentaries criticizing Saudi Arabia. Syrian authorities have held two men in incommunicado detention since June 2007 for expressing online views that are critical of the Syrian government. Click here for more information.


Jordan: Ex-Legislator Sentenced; IAF to Contest Elections; Publication Restrictions

A state security court sentenced on October 9 former parliamentarian Ahmad Oweidi al-Abbadi to two years in prison for "attacking the state's prestige and reputation." Al-Abbadi, a member of parliament 1989-1993 and 1997-2001 and head of the Jordan National Movement (a party not recognized by the government) was arrested on May 3 after posting an open letter to U.S. senator Harry Reid on his party’s website that accused Interior Minister Eid al-Fayez and other government members of corruption. Click here for more information.

Jordan’s principal opposition party, the Islamic Action Front, issued a statement on September 25 announcing that it will participate in parliamentary elections scheduled for November 20 “in view of the difficult national and regional situation and to spare our youth from pessimism and depression.” The Front had threatened to boycott elections, alleging that the current electoral law favors tribal constituencies over the Islamist-strongholds of Palestinian-populated cities.

The Jordanian Press and Publications Department announced on September 25 that regulations of the Press and Publications Law will be extended to websites and online publications. The department stated that it will not attempt to censor content, but will monitor it and prosecute if needed. Journalists and civil rights activists protested the measure as “damaging to freedom of expression.” The press law provides for fines of up to 28,000 Jordanian Dinars (approx. US $40,000) for defamation, libel, and insult to religious beliefs, or publishing material that fuels sectarianism or racism.


Tunisia: Pressure on Newspaper; Activists’ Hunger Strike

A Tunisian court on October 1 ordered the eviction of the opposition weekly al-Mawkif from its offices. Editor-in-chief Rachid Khechana called the eviction a punishment for publishing a joint statement with the Progressive Democratic Party (PDP) calling for political reform on July 25, 2007. Al-Mawkif Director Nejib Chebbi and Secretary General of the PDP Mia al-Gariby have been on a hunger strike since September 20 to protest the government’s use of the judicial system to intimidate reformists. Lotfi Hajji, the local correspondent for al-Jazeera, was physically abused by plain-clothed police four times between September 20 and 27 as he tried to report on the hunger strike. Click here for more information.


Algeria: FIS Leader Arrested

Algerian police arrested Abdel Qader Bourkhamkham, a founding leader of the banned Islamic Salvation Front (FIS), on October 3 at Jijel airport as he was boarding a plane to the capital. Authorities did not announce a reason for the arrest, but observers attribute it to a September 22 online statement in which Bourkhamkham denied Islamist involvement in armed activities, attributed the violence to pro-government forces, and called al-Qaeda operations in the Maghreb countries a myth. Boukhamkham was previously sentenced to five years in prison in 1991, of which he served three together with other FIS leaders.


Morocco: New Cabinet; Journalist Sentenced to Jail

Morocco announced on October 15 its new thirty-three member government, led by Prime Minister Abbas al-Fassi. Al-Fassi, previously Minister of State without portfolio, is leader of the nationalist Istiqlal (Independence) party, which won a plurality in September 7 elections for the lower house of parliament. The most significant cabinet changes include new Finance Minister Salaheddine Mezouar and Foreign Minister Taieb Fassi Fihri. Minister of Interior Chekib Binmoussa and Minister of Islamic Affairs Ahmed Toufiq will continue in their positions, considered key to national security. The new cabinet includes seven women, up from two in the previous government, and is formed of a coalition of Istiqlal, the Socialist Union of Popular Forces, the National Rally of Independents, and the Party of Progress and Socialism, plus independents. Al-Fassi did not invite the Islamist Party of Justice and Development, which won the second highest number of seats in the elections, to join the government. Click here for the cabinet line-up in Arabic.

A Casablanca court of appeals sentenced al-Watan al-An journalist Mustafa Hurmatallah to seven months in prison September 18 for publishing a leaked internal security memo. Hurmatallah had appealed an earlier sentence of eight months on the same charge. Click here for more information.


Saudi Arabia: Succession Law; Judicial Reforms; Women Driving Campaign

Saudi King Abdullah issued a royal decree outlining regulations to implement the October 2006 succession law aimed at ensuring a smooth transition of power. The succession law created a committee, to be comprised of sons and grandsons of Abdul Aziz al-Saud, the Kingdom’s founder, to select crown princes, thus future kings. The new rules will not apply to succession after King Abdullah, who has already chosen Prince Sultan al-Saud to follow him. Succession in the past has been decided by a small group of powerful royals; the new procedures aim to broaden the process.

The Saudi King announced on October 3 a comprehensive overhaul of the Kingdom’s legal system. The King issued a number of new laws regulating the judiciary and the Board of Grievances and allocated seven billion Saudi riyals (approx. $2 billion) for the planned reforms. The new rules, which emphasize the independence of judges, set up a supreme court whose main functions will be to oversee the implementation sharia as well as laws issued by the king, commercial courts, labor courts, personal status courts, and a fund for training judges. The Board of Grievances will continue to handle administrative disputes involving government departments. Currently, justice in Saudi Arabia is administered by a system of religious courts, and judges have wide discretion to issue rulings according to their own interpretation of Islamic sharia. Click here for more information.

Over 1,100 Saudi activists, men and women, petitioned Saudi King Abdullah on September 23 to lift a ban on driving for women. The petition, submitted on Saudi Arabia’s National Day, is the brainchild of four activists (Fawzia al-Ayouni, Wajiha al-Huwaider, Ibtihal Mubarak, and Haifa Usra) who established the Committee for Women’s Rights to Drive. This petition marks the second major effort by women to break the ban on driving. In November 1990, a group of forty-seven women defied the ban in Riyadh, only to be rounded up by police. The following year, a fatwa was issued by then-mufti Sheikh Abdul Aziz Bin Baz prohibiting women from driving. Click here to view the petition in Arabic.

Lawyer Isam Basrawi, one of nine advocates of an Islam-based constitutional monarchy, was released from prison on September 22 after being held without trial for more than seven months. His release came after a September 13 petition to King Abdullah signed by 135 activists calling for the nine detainees (who include lawyers, university professors, and businessmen) to be freed or tried publicly. The interior ministry attributed their arrest to alleged involvement in terror funding. Click here for more information.


Oman: Run-up to Shura Elections

Elections for Oman’s Shura Council will be held on October 27, with 717 candidates (including 20 women) running in 61 districts. Districts with more than 30,000 inhabitants will elect two members; smaller ones will choose one member each. All nationals aged 21 and above are qualified to vote and stand as candidates. A total of 338,683 voters has registered for this year's ballot, an increase of 50 per cent compared to the last election in 2003.


United Arab Emirates: Jail Sentence for Journalists Abolished

UAE prime minister Sheikh Muhammad bin Rashid al-Maktum decreed on September 25 that journalists can no longer be imprisoned for reasons relating to their work, setting a first for the decriminalization of media offenses in the region. A long-time demand of journalists, the decision came two days after a Dubai court sentenced two journalists to two months in prison for libel against a woman involved in a domestic dispute. Click here for more information.


Kuwait: TV Producer Charged with Insulting Shi’a

The Kuwaiti Public Prosecutor charged on October 1 Nayef al-Rashid, producer of a controversial television series, with insulting Shi’i beliefs and practices and producing a program for the Saudi-owned satellite channel MBC without prior approval by the Kuwaiti Ministry of Information. The TV series had already been banned.


Bahrain: NDI Returns; Cabinet Change; Anti-Corruption Efforts

Bahrain’s Crown Prince, Sheikh Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, announced on September 22 a campaign to combat corruption and bring corrupt high officials to justice. A wide-ranging investigation into the country’s major government-owned companies resulted in the criminal prosecution of a number of high executives in Bahrain’s Aluminum Company (ALBA) and Gulf Air.

The Bahrain government announced on September 25 that the National Democratic Institute (NDI) will resume its work in Bahrain under the supervision of Bahrain’s governmental Institute for Political Development (BIPD) with a series of training programs for parliamentarians. NDI’s operations in Bahrain were suspended and its representative was ordered out of Bahrain in May 2006, several months before parliamentary elections.

Two ministers left office in September under pressure from parliament. Minister of Health Nada Haffad was removed from office September 25 following a parliamentary probe into deteriorating health services and alleged mismanagement. Haffad, Bahrain’s first female minister, had announced that she would resign if the parliament continued to abuse its investigatory powers for political gains. Information minister Muhammad Abdul Ghaffar was also removed from office on September 25; he was facing a parliamentary investigation for allowing an allegedly provocative dance performance at a cultural festival. He was also facing criticism from the business community for measures banning alcohol and entertainment in hotels.

The opposition al-Wefaq parliamentary bloc submitted on September 19 draft amendments to the controversial Public Gatherings Law. The current law stipulates that permission of the Ministry of Interior is to be obtained three days before a public gathering and that rallies may not take place within 500 meters of a school or a health center. The Law provides for a jail sentence of up to six months for violations. Al-Wefaq’s amendments seek to reduce the notice period to 24 hours, remove geographical restrictions, and reduce the jail sentence to one month.

Eleven Bahraini human rights organizations, opposition groups, and representatives from the International Center for Transitional Justice met in a conference September 24-27 to discuss a proposed Truth and Reconciliation Committee to address government human rights violations from the 1970s to the 1990s. The Committee’s launch date was set for December 10, 2007, the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.


Upcoming Political Events
  • Lebanon: Parliamentary session to elect president, October 23, 2007
  • Oman: Shura Council Elections, October 27, 2007
  • Egypt: National Democratic Party Conference: November 3-6, 2007
  • Jordan: Legislative Elections, November 20, 2007
  • Middle East International Meeting, Annapolis MD, November 2007 (tentative)
  • Algeria: Municipal Elections, November 29, 2007


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