3.26.2008

News Concerning Middle East Reform

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

Lebanon: Presidential Vote Delay; Sectarian Clashes
Palestine: Gaza Escalation; Population Growth; Villages Demolished
Arab States: Arab League Summit
Egypt: Muslim Brotherhood Arrests; New Torture Cases; Re-conversion Decision
Iraq: Legislative Progress
Kuwait: Mughniyah Mourning; Segregation Controversy; Internet Law
UAE: Cabinet Reshuffle; Green City
Bahrain: Calls to Release Activists
Libya: Ministries Abolished
Tunisia: Comedian Jailed
Morocco: Islamist Party Banned; Moroccan Jailed for Impersonating Prince Online
Sudan: Cabinet Reshuffle
Upcoming Political Events


Lebanon: Presidential Vote Delay; Sectarian Clashes

On February 25, the Lebanese parliament postponed for the fifteenth time the session to elect a new president. It is now scheduled for March 11. Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa left Lebanon on February 9 after failing to break the deadlock between the Western and Saudi-backed majority and the pro-Syria opposition. The two sides agreed on Army Commander General Michel Suleiman as president, but are now divided on the composition of a new government. Lebanon has been without a president since the expiration of pro-Syrian Emile Lahoud’s term on November 23, 2007.

On February 14, thousands of Lebanese took to the streets in two separate rallies: Hizbollah supporters lined the streets of Beirut to watch the funeral procession of Hizbollah militant Imad Mughniyah, killed February 12 in a car bombing in Damascus. During the funeral, Hizbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah warned that the group is ready for “open war” with Israel. Supporters of the government meanwhile gathered in Martyrs Square to mark the third anniversary of the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafiq al-Hariri. Violent street clashes later erupted in several mixed Sunni-Shi’i areas of Beirut on February 16, leaving at least fourteen people injured. On February 12, Lebanese prosecutors charged nineteen soldiers, including three officers, in the case of the fatal shooting of seven Shi’i protestors in Beirut on January 27.


Palestine: Gaza Escalation; Population Growth; Villages Demolished

Israel launched a new incursion into Gaza on March 4 following renewed rocket attacks. Israel had pulled its ground troops out of northern Gaza on March 3 after days of coordinated operations in which more than 100 Palestinians were killed. Israel says that most of those killed were armed militants, but Palestinian officials say that more than half were civilians, including several children. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas initially cut off peace talks with Israel in response to the incursions, but in a March 4 joint press conference with U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who is concluding a visit to the region, Abbas confirmed his intention to resume talks with Israel.

Nearly 4,500 Palestinians formed a human chain in the Gaza Strip on February 24 in protest of the Israeli blockade on Gaza. Israel had put troops on alert along the frontier and threatened to open fire if protesters tried to surge across the border. The event, organized by Hamas and allied activists, ended peacefully two hours later. Click here for more details.

The Palestinian population in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem grew by about 30 percent in the last decade, according to data published by the Palestinian Central Bureau of Statistics on February 9. The census numbers for 2007 show a total of 2.345 million Palestinians in the West Bank, 1.4 million in the Gaza Strip, and 208,000 in East Jerusalem. Click here for more details and statistics.

The Israeli army continued on February 6 the demolition of two Palestinian villages in the West Bank. The Israeli army has declared most of the Jordan Valley, where the villages of Humsa and Hadidiya are situated, as a closed military area from which the local Palestinian population is barred. The evacuation of the villages began in April 2007 and has left dozens of Palestinians homeless and without access to running water or electricity. Click here for a statement by Amnesty International.

The Israeli cabinet approved on February 6 the construction of a reinforced fence along its border with Egypt to stop Palestinian militants reaching Israel from the Sinai desert. The measure was ratified in a security cabinet meeting following the temporary breach of the Gaza-Egypt border in January and a February 5 suicide bombing that killed one woman in the southern Israeli town of Dimona. Click here for more information.


Arab States: Arab League Summit

The Arab League plans to hold its twentieth annual summit in Syria on March 29-30. Syria is keen for high-level representation at the summit, but Arab divisions over Lebanon have cast a shadow over the meeting. Arab media sources report that Saudi King Abdullah and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak may not attend if a Lebanese president is not elected. President Mubarak said in a statement to Bahrain Television on February 25 that Syria was part of the problem in Lebanon, and called on Damascus to help resolve the crisis before the summit. Meanwhile, Arab foreign ministers started a series of meetings in Cairo on March 5 to prepare the summit agenda.


Egypt: Muslim Brotherhood Arrests; New Torture Cases; Re-conversion Decision

An Egyptian military court adjourned on February 26 the trial of forty Muslim Brotherhood leaders, including second Deputy Guide Khairat al-Shatir, until March 25. The Brotherhood leaders face charges of membership in a banned organization; reports differ on whether previous charges of money laundering have been dropped. Egyptian authorities also arrested more than 120 Brotherhood members between February 14 and 28. Some 400 Brotherhood members are now in detention, most of them without charge. The Brotherhood says a continued crackdown by the authorities is aimed at preventing its members from running in local elections in April. Click here for more information.

On February 25, an Egyptian Court appointed Egypt’s first female ma’zun (justice of the peace) to perform and register marriages. Egypt appointed its first female judge in 2003. Click here for more details.

The Ministry of Information banned the distribution of four foreign newspapers on February 19, the day on which the papers reprinted controversial Danish cartoons deemed offensive to the Prophet Muhammad. The four banned newspapers were Germany's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and Die Welt, the London-based Observer, and the New York-based Wall Street Journal. Click here for more information.

On February 11, an appeals court in Cairo upheld the conviction of al-Jazeera documentary producer Howayda Taha for “harming Egypt’s reputation” due to her work on a program about torture in Egyptian prisons, but overturned her conviction on the charge of “spreading false news.” The court struck down the six-month prison sentence she received in May, but upheld a fine of 20,000 Egyptian pounds (U.S. $3,607). Click here for more details.

A Cairo Criminal Court postponed on February 11 the trial of four police officers charged with torture until April 13. The police officers are charged with torturing a prisoner to death in July 2002. In a separate case, Egyptian prosecutors charged on February 9 two policemen with murdering a man by throwing him off a balcony in Cairo in the latest high profile case of suspected police abuse. Five policemen have been convicted and sentenced to jail on torture charges since November 2007.

The Egypt Supreme Administrative Court ruled on February 10 in favor of allowing twelve Christian converts to Islam to reconvert to Christianity. The ruling overturned an April 2007 lower court decision that upheld the government policy of refusing to allow the converts to change mandatory national identification cards to reflect their reconversion. Click here for more details.

A February 5 Human Rights Watch statement called on the Egyptian government to overturn the convictions of four men for the “habitual practice of debauchery,” and to free four others who are currently detained on similar charges. The human rights organization also called on authorities to end arbitrary arrests based on HIV status and to take steps to end prejudice and misinformation about HIV/AIDS. A recent wave of arrests of homosexuals began in October 2007, when police stopped two men having an altercation on a street in central Cairo.


Iraq: Legislative Progress

On February 27, Iraq’s Presidency Council ratified two key draft laws, the General Amnesty Law and the 2008 Budget Law, but rejected the draft Provincial Powers Law and returned it to parliament for revisions. The Provincial Powers Law defines the relationship between Baghdad and provincial authorities, and is a key step before a date can be set for provincial elections. The General Amnesty Law grants amnesty to thousands of detainees in Iraqi and U.S. custody. Parliament approved all three bills on Feb. 14 in what was seen as a major legislative breakthrough and a boost for reconciliation among Iraq's divided communities. The main Sunni political party, the Accordance Front, said the amnesty law was an important step in bringing about its return to the central government. The party quit the government in August and made repeated demands for the release of prisoners as part of the condition for its return. Click here for the laws in Arabic.

President of the Iraqi Journalists Union Shihab al-Tamimi died on February 27 from injuries he sustained from a targeted shooting in Baghdad four days earlier. The attackers were not identified. In 2007, more than twenty-five journalists and media assistants were kidnapped in Iraq. A total of 208 have been killed in connection with their work since the start of the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Click here for more information.


Kuwait: Mughniyah Mourning; Segregation Controversy; Internet Law

Kuwait's Popular Action Parliamentary Bloc expelled on February 19 two of its members, Adnan Abdulsamad and Ahmed Lari, for publicly mourning Hizbollah militant Imad Mughniya as a martyr. The bloc condemned the two MPs for participation in the rally to mourn Mughniyah, “who brutally killed two Kuwaitis during the [1988] hijacking” of a Kuwaiti plane. The two MPs remain in the legislature but face prospective lawsuits by Kuwaiti citizens. Click here for more information.

Controversy over gender segregation returned to the forefront in Kuwait after liberal MPs submitted a draft bill on February 5 to allow coeducation. Kuwait’s first university segregation law, which required the public system to be segregated, was passed in 1996 and implemented in 2001. The second law, which requires private universities to be segregated, was passed in 2000 and has not yet been fully implemented due to the high cost of building separate facilities for men and women. Islamist MPs insist that gender segregation is required by Islamic law and are campaigning for a full implementation. A senior liberal MP, Ali al-Rashid, reportedly received death threats over the proposal. Click here for more information.

Reporters without Borders issued a statement on February 11 calling on the Emir of Kuwait to clarify a proposed draft law for regulating the internet. Minister of Communication and Islamic Affairs Abdulla al-Muhailbi announced on February 6 that the cabinet would soon propose a law that would allow the government to monitor and regulate websites and blogs. Click here for more information.


UAE: Cabinet Reshuffle; Green City

UAE Prime Minister and Dubai ruler Muhammad bin Rashid al-Maktum announced a new cabinet on February 17, appointing new economic, foreign trade, and labor ministers and doubling to four the number of female ministers. There was no change in the key ministries of energy, foreign affairs, or interior. The prime minister also holds the defense portfolio. Click here for the new cabinet line-up.

On February 10, Abu Dhabi announced the beginning of a $22 billion project to build what it called “the world’s first zero-carbon, zero-waste, and car-free city.” Masdar city, which will take an estimated eight years to build, is planned to be home to 50,000 people and 1,500 businesses. The ambitious plans include powering the city by solar energy and establishing a transportation system consisting of travel pods running on magnetic tracks. Abu Dhabi also plans to become home to the world's largest hydrogen power plant. Click here for more information.


Bahrain: Calls to Release Activists

On February 25, fifty-five local, regional, and international human rights organizations issued a call to Bahraini King Hamad to release demonstrators and human rights activists and to refrain from torturing detainees. Bahrain is currently detaining some fifty activists arrested after December 2007 demonstrations in which one protestor was killed. Human Rights Watch issued a statement on February 16 calling on the Bahraini government to investigate allegations of torture and abuse of political detainees.


Libya: Ministries Abolished

On March 4, Libyan leader Muammar Qadhafi announced his intention to dissolve the country's existing administrative structure and disburse oil revenue directly to the people. The plan includes abolishing all ministries, except those of defense, internal security, and foreign affairs, and departments implementing strategic projects. Qadhafi has made at least three similar announcements in the past, the most recent of which was in March 2000, when he declared the elimination of twelve government ministries. Click here for more information.


Tunisia: Comedian Jailed

A Tunisian court sentenced comedian Hedia Ould Baballah on February 4 to one year in prison and a fine of 1000 dinars (U.S. $800) for possession of narcotics. At the hearing, Baballah denied any knowledge of the drugs and alleged that there was a police conspiracy against him in connection with his controversial political satire. Baballah had been performing a skit in which he imitated President Ben Ali. Click here for more information.


Morocco: Islamist Party Banned; Moroccan Jailed for Impersonating Prince Online

The Moroccan government issued a decision on February 20 to ban the al-Badil al-Hadari (Civilized Alternative) Islamist Party over allegations of terrorism. The Party’s President, Mustafa Mutassim, was among thirty-two people arrested on February 19 and accused of planning to assassinate several top army officers, government ministers, and Moroccan Jews. Click here for more details.

A Casablanca court convicted on February 22 an IT engineer for “modifying and falsifying information technology data and usurping an official’s identity,” because he posted a fictitious profile of Moroccan Prince Moulay Rachid on Facebook. He was sentenced to three years in prison and ordered to pay a fine of 10,000 Moroccan dirhams (U.S. $1,320). Click here for more information.


Sudan: Cabinet Reshuffle

Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir announced on February 14 a cabinet reshuffle that replaced twelve ministers, mostly from the National Congress Party, which rules the country jointly with the southern Sudanese People's Liberation Movement (SPLM). Analysts considered the shuffle an attempt to appease SPLM officials who objected to certain ministers. Minister of Justice Muhammad al-Mardhi lost his post in the wake of heavy criticism for his handling of an alleged coup attempt involving former presidential assistant Mubarak al-Fadil. Controversial Minister of Interior al-Zuhair Bahir Tara was demoted to the post of Agriculture Minister. Click here for more details.


Upcoming Political Events


  • Egypt: Arab League foreign ministers meeting, March 5, 2008
  • Lebanon: Parliament will attempt again to elect a president , March 11, 2008
  • Syria: Arab League Summit, March 29-30, 2008
  • Egypt: Local elections, April 8, 2008
  • Qatar: Parliamentary elections, June 2008

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