News Concerning Middle East Reform
This is the news section of the latest issue of Arab Reform Bulletin (July 2007) Published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace:
- Kuwait: Ministers Resign
- Bahrain: First Income Tax; Press Law; Truth and Reconciliation Committee
- Saudi Arabia: Government Critic Arrested
- Yemen: Opposition Journalist Arrested
- Morocco: Run-up to Elections
- Algeria: Electoral Law Amendments
- Libya: Journalists on Trial
- Egypt: New Islamist Party; Nour Update; U.S. Considers Conditioning Aid
- Jordan: Former MP Charged; Run-up to Municipal Elections; Child Labor Code
- Syria: Student Activists Arrested
- Upcoming Political Events
Kuwait: Ministers Resign
Kuwait's oil and transportation ministers resigned on June 30 over a parliament inquiry into corruption allegations. The parliament had scheduled a vote of confidence for July 9 regarding Oil Minister Sheikh Ali al-Jarrah al-Sabah's alleged involvement in the multi-million dollar Kuwait Oil Tanker Company fraud case. Ten MPs filed the motion on June 26 after questioning the minister for nine hours. Transportation minister Shareeda al-Maousherji resigned in solidarity. The ministers of electricity and housing will temporarily fill the vacancies. Previous motions to question ministers in parliament have led either to cabinet resignations or to dissolution of the legislature. In March, the Kuwaiti cabinet resigned after eight months in office to abort a no-confidence vote against former health minister Sheikh Ahmed al-Abdullah al-Sabah.
Bahrain: First Gulf Income Tax; Press Law; Truth and Reconciliation Committee
Bahrain has become the first Arab Gulf state to introduce an income tax on residents. As of June 25, all public and private sector employees began to contribute 1 percent of their salary to an unemployment insurance plan. Citizens and non-citizens alike must pay the tax, but only citizens will receive benefits. Labor unions criticized the tax in light of rising inflation and widespread dissatisfaction with low wages. Workers also object to the exemption of military personnel and elected officials. Key religious figures labeled the tax as un-Islamic as it deducts money without the consent of the worker. Bahrain's largest opposition group, the Shi'i political society al-Wefaq, welcomed the unemployment insurance plan but criticized the tax on the grounds that the government should fund unemployment insurance.
Bahrain's upper house of parliament, the Shura Council, passed amendments to the 2002 press and publications law on May 28, abolishing jail sentences for journalists and stipulating that editors may not be sued for articles they did not write. The current press law allows prison sentences of six months to five years for journalists convicted of press offences. According to local media sources, more than sixty-five lawsuits have been brought against journalists since 2001. The new draft law is awaiting discussion in the lower house of parliament. In 2003, parliament rejected a similar bill.
Eleven Bahraini human rights organizations and opposition groups, including Islamist and leftist political societies, joined forces on June 26 to form a truth and reconciliation committee in order to address human rights abuses by the government in the 1970s-1990s. Participants at the meeting called for the committee to uncover the facts and provide compensation to anyone who sustained injuries or was subjected to torture, deportation, or arbitrary arrest. They also called for punishing those who allegedly carried out torture, explicitly rejecting the 2002 amnesty law (known as Decree 56) that pardoned all political prisoners as well as those who may have committed human rights violations. Committee members will be announced on December 10, 2007, the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Saudi Arabia: Government Critic Arrested
Former university professor Said Bin Zuair was arrested in Riyadh on June 6 on charges of collecting money to aid terrorists, but observers believe he was arrested for criticizing the government. He was previously arrested in 2004 for his critical remarks about the Saudi government's approach to tackling terrorism during a debate on al-Jazeera. He was later convicted on vague charges that included “disobeying the country's ruler,” and sentenced to five years in prison, but was released in August 2005 following a pardon by King Abdullah. He was also detained in 1995 and held without charge or trial for some years. He is currently being held incommunicado at an unconfirmed location. Click here for details.
Yemen: Opposition Journalist Arrested
Abdelkarim al-Khaiwani, former editor of the online newspaper al-Shoura, was arrested on June 20 on charges of conspiring with anti-government rebels in the northwestern city of Saada. A state security court in Sanaa extended his pre-trial detention for one month on June 25. Al-Khaiwani and fourteen other suspects were accused of belonging to a terrorist cell, carrying out terrorist operations, destroying military and security installations, manufacturing explosives, murdering two soldiers, undermining public opinion, and publishing false information about the government's battle with the rebels. Al-Khaiwani was sentenced to a year in prison in September 2004 for incitement, insulting the president, publishing false news, and causing tribal and sectarian discrimination for his published criticisms of the government's conduct in the fighting. The Yemeni government has also blocked al-Shoura's website episodically. Click here for details.
Since mid-June, Yemen's information ministry has been censoring the distribution of news to mobile phone by SMS messages. Messages criticizing Saleh's government had circulated in the weeks prior to the ban.
Morocco: Run-up to Elections
The Moroccan government has allotted U.S. $24 million to finance political parties' campaigns ahead of legislative elections on September 7. The government will initially grant $60,000 to thirty-four political parties with further grants contingent on the parties' performance in the elections. Parties that do not win at least 5 percent of the vote nationwide will have to return some of the funds to the government.
After weeks of debate, the Supreme Authority for Audiovisual Communications relented to political pressure from Morocco's pro-government parties and abandoned proposed modifications in the use of air time during the parliamentary campaign. Proposed quotas would have allocated 40 percent of air time to parties that currently hold 90 percent of parliamentary seats, 30 percent to parties holding 10 percent of seats, and 30 to newly created parties. Instead, the Authority will revert to the same quotas used during non-electoral periods: 30 percent for the government, 30 percent for parties in the governing coalition (USFP and Istiqlal), 30 percent for opposition parties in parliament, and 10 percent for parties unrepresented in parliament. Small political parties objected to this reversal, as it gives the government and its allies 60 percent of air time.
The Party of Justice and Development (PJD) voiced concerns over the harassment of its MPs in Fez by gangs reportedly funded by the Istiqlal party.
Algeria: Electoral Law Amendments
The Algerian cabinet proposed amendments to the electoral law on June 13 that would adjust the requirements for political parties and independents participating in local and legislative elections. If adopted by the People's National Assembly, only parties receiving more than 4 percent of the votes in one of the last three legislative elections and over 2,000 votes in each of twenty-five provinces would be eligible to propose slates. Parties would also qualify if they have at least 600 elected members in the local or national assemblies, distributed across at least twenty-five provinces, with no fewer than twenty elected members per province. First-time participants in legislative elections would need to secure signatures from at least 400 registered electors for each seat contested; for local elections they would need the signatures of at least 5 percent of registered voters in the local district. According to the cabinet, the amendments aim to prevent the participation of small parties and independent candidates who “are not sufficiently rooted in society.” If the law is passed, only nine parties—the National Liberation Front (FLN), the National Rally for Democracy (RND), the Movement of Society for Peace (MSP), the Workers Party, the Algerian National Front, the Movement for National Reform (al- Islah), the Rally for Culture and Democracy (RCD), the Front of Socialist Forces, and the Islamic al-Nahda Movement—would be eligible to field candidates in local elections scheduled for November.
Libya: Journalists on Trial
The trial of twelve men detained in connection with a planned demonstration against the authorities in February began on June 24. According to Amnesty International, the detainees have been held in incommunicado detention for prolonged periods since their arrests and there are reports that at least two have been tortured. On April 20, Ahmed Youssef al-Obaidi, Adel Saleh Hmeed, Ali Saleh Hmeed, Faraj Saleh Hmeed, al-Mahdi Saleh Hmeed, and al-Sadeq Saleh Hmeed were charged in a Tripoli court with offences including attempting to overthrow the political system, possessing weapons and explosives with the intention of carrying out subversive activities, and communicating with enemy powers. They were transferred to al-Jadida Prison in Tripoli, where they are said to be held in solitary confinement. The remaining six journalists (Idriss Boufayed, Juma Boufayed, Alaa al-Drissi, Jamal al-Hajji, Bashir Qasem al-Hares, and Farid Muhammad al-Zwai) are reportedly being held in Ain Zara Prison in Tripoli. Click here for details.
Egypt: New Islamist Party; Nour Update; U.S. Considers Conditioning Aid
Islamist lawyer Muntasir al-Zayyat announced that he will form a new political party that will incorporate several Islamist trends. According to al-Zayyat, the new party, Union for Freedom, would not be the mouthpiece of any one faction but would symbolize the Islamist movements' transition from armed struggle to peaceful political cooperation. Several Gamaat Islamiyya leaders denied any involvement in the proposed party.
An Administrative Court announced that it would present a final ruling on the request for release from prison on health grounds by opposition party leader Ayman Nour on July 31. Nour, former chairman of the liberal al-Ghad Party and a candidate in Egypt's first contested presidential elections, was jailed in December 2005 on charges of forging the signatures needed for his party to be licensed. Even if released, Nour would be banned from running for public office due to his conviction on a criminal offense.
The U.S. House of Representatives adopted a bill on June 21 that proposed withholding $200 million from the annual $1.3 billion military aid package to Egypt pending improved human rights practices, judicial freedom, and closure of Sinai-Gaza smuggling tunnels. The U.S. Senate Appropriations committee, however, approved the assistance without conditions on June 28. The full assistance package might not be finalized by the U.S. Congress for several months. Foreign Minister Ahmed Aboul Gheit criticized the conditionality as “unacceptable interference in Egyptian affairs.”
Jordan: Former MP Charged; Run-up to Municipal Elections; Child Labor Code
Jordan's State Security Court prosecutor charged former MP and head of the Jordanian National Movement Ahmad Oweidi al-Abbadi on July 1 with belonging to an illegal organization and distributing pamphlets illegally. Al-Abbadi was arrested on May 3 following a complaint filed by Interior Minister Eid al-Fayez over the content of an April 30 email al-Abbadi sent to U.S. Senate Majority leader Harry Reid, in which he accused Jordan's government of corruption. Al-Abbadi was questioned by Amman prosecutor Sabri al-Rawashdeh for two months before being referred to a military prosecutor.
In preparation for municipal elections on July 31, Jordan's Islamic Action Front (IAF) announced it will run candidates in Amman, Irbid, Zarqa, al-Rasifa, Madaba, and Kerak, despite its opposition to some elements in the new municipalities law. The party will not announce full lists of candidates before July 24, but has released some lists. In Zarqa, the party will only contest half of the seats and will run two women. Click here for details in Arabic. The IAF announced it intends to run female candidates in many of the districts (the new electoral law includes a quota for women), a marked departure from its practice in the 1999 municipal elections. The IAF boycotted the 2003 municipal elections.
Jordan launched a code of conduct for child labor on July 5 with guidelines for employers in order to abide by ILO conventions. Jordanian law bans the employemnet of children under 16 and stipulated that children between 16 and 18 years of age are not permitted to work longer than six hours a day, but this rule is frequently violated. According to a recent Ministry of Labor study, 13 percent of working children in the country are subjected to forced labor, with more than 16 percent only earning JD 10-50 (US $14-70) per month. The code of conduct has no legal power.
Syria: Student Activists Arrested
Syria's Supreme Court sentenced seven students involved in developing a youth discussion group and publishing pro-democracy articles to prison terms on June 17. Maher Isber Ibrahim, Tareq al-Ghorani, Hussam Ali Mulhim, Diab Siriyeh, Omar Ali al-Abdullah, Allam Fakhour, and Ayham Saqr were all convicted under Article 278 of the Syrian Penal Code of “taking action or making a written statement or speech that could endanger the State or harm its relationship with a foreign country, or expose it to the risk of hostile action.” Ibrahim and al-Ghorani were also convicted under Article 287 of the Code of “broadcasting false information” and received seven year prison sentences. The other five received five year terms. They were arrested between January 26 and March 18, 2006 and reportedly detained in solitary confinement until the end of April 2006. Click here for details.
Upcoming Political Events
- Jordan: Municipal Elections, July 31, 2007; Legislative Elections, November 2007.
- Syria: Municipal Elections, August 2007.
- Morocco: Legislative Elections, September 7, 2007.
- Lebanon: Presidential Election, September 25, 2007.
- Algeria: Municipal Elections, November 2007.
- Oman: Shura Council Elections, October 2007.
- Qatar: Legislative Elections, 2007 (date to be determined).
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