4.30.2008

News Concerning Middle East Reform

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

Egypt: Bread Crisis; Editor Convicted; Ayman Nour to Remain in Prison
Arab States: Arab League Summit
Lebanon: Presidential Vote Delayed; Tenth Hariri Investigation Report
Palestine: Peace Process; Fatah-Hamas Dialogue; Journalist Arrested
Syria: Journalist Trial; Attack on Kurdish Celebration
Jordan: Journalists Sentenced to Prison; Restrictions on Internet Cafés
Iraq: Attacks on Journalists
Kuwait: Cabinet Resigns; Parliament Dissolved; Two Ex-MPs Detained
Saudi Arabia: King Calls for Dialogue; New Fatwa Condemns Writers
Bahrain: Minister Questioning Over Population Controversy
Qatar: First Church
UAE: First Female Judge; Labor Unrest
Yemen: Publications Banned
Tunisia: Constitutional Amendment; Comedian Released
Libya: Political Prisoner Released to Hospital
Algeria: Churches Shut Down; Journalist Interrogated
Morocco: Journalist Fined; “Online Prince” Pardoned
Mauritania: Journalists Arrested


Egypt: Bread Crisis; Editor Convicted; Ayman Nour to Remain in Prison

On March 16, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak ordered the army to boost bread production and distribution to cope with a recent bread crisis that has sparked unrest leading to two reported deaths. Demand for subsidized bread has gone up steadily in recent months, fueled by increasing commodity prices that have made unsubsidized bread less affordable for the 50 percent of the population living below the poverty line. At the same time, the supply has declined as subsidized bakeries have allegedly sold some of their flour; out of the 20,000 tons of flour supplied to bakeries daily, an estimated 4,000 tons are sold on the black market. Click here for more information.

On March 12, state security forces raided the home of Abduljalil al-Sharnouby, editor in chief of the IkhwanOnline web site—the official site of the Muslim Brotherhood—over coverage of the upcoming municipal elections, and confiscated books, papers, and other belongings. Click here for more information.

A Cairo court sentenced Ibrahim Eissa, editor of al-Dustur newspaper, to six months in prison on March 26 for printing rumors about President Hosni Mubarak’s health deemed “likely to disturb public security and harm the country’s economy.” Eissa posted bail to avoid imprisonment until appeal. At least eight journalists have been sentenced to prison for press-related offenses since September 2007. The Committee to Protect Journalists designated Egypt as one of the worst backsliders on press freedom, citing an increase in the number of legal and physical attacks on the press. Click here for more information.

Thousands of Egyptian university lecturers held a nationwide strike on March 23 demanding salary increases and better pensions. Lecturers are demanding a doubling of their salaries, currently approximately 2,000 Egyptian pounds (U.S. $365) per month. The country has been hit by a wave of labor strikes and demonstrations in recent months in the face of inflation. Click here for more information.

On March 17, Cairo’s Supreme Administrative Court rejected a bid to free jailed opposition politician Ayman Nour on health grounds. Nour was sentenced to five years in prison on December 24, 2005, on charges of forging documents. Nour's lawyer issued a plea to President Mubarak to pardon the one-time presidential contender. Click here for more information.

On March 4, the Bush administration released $100 million in military aid to Egypt, waiving Congressionally-imposed restrictions on “national security grounds.” The 2008 appropriations bill passed by Congress in December 2008 withheld $100 million of a $1.3 billion military aid package to Egypt until the administration certified Egypt had done enough to protect the independence of the judiciary, curb police abuses and put a stop to arms smuggling to Gaza. Freedom House issued a statement on March 20 expressing disappointment at the administration’s decision.


Arab States: Arab League Summit

The Arab League held its twentieth annual leaders’ summit in Damascus on March 29-30. The summit’s final statement expressed concern about “rising Islamophobia around the world,” called on Lebanon to elect a consensus president, and re-endorsed an Arab initiative for peace with Israel. The Saudi-led initiative, which offers normalization of relations with Israel if it withdraws from occupied Arab territories, was first adopted in the 2002 summit in Beirut. Half the leaders of the 22-member Arab League, including those of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan, did not attend the Damascus summit, blaming Syria for Lebanon's protracted crisis. The leaders agreed on Doha as the venue for their 2009 summit. Click here for the leaders’ speeches in Arabic.


Lebanon: Presidential Vote Delayed; Tenth Hariri Investigation Report

On March 25, the Lebanese parliament postponed for the fifteenth time the session to elect a new president. It is now scheduled for April 22. The Western-backed ruling coalition and the pro-Syria opposition led by Hizbollah remain unable to agree on the makeup of a new government. Lebanon has been without a head of state since November 2007, when Syrian-backed Emile Lahoud stepped down at the end of his term.

The UN International Independent Investigation Commission looking into the assassination of Rafiq al-Hariri and other political killings in Lebanon submitted its tenth interim report to the UN Security Council on March 28. The Commission indicated it has evidence that a network of individuals acted in concert to carry out the assassination of al-Hariri and that this same network, or parts of it, is linked to other political killings in Lebanon. The report did not name any suspects. In addition to the Hariri case, the UN Commission is mandated to assist Lebanese authorities probe twenty attacks against anti-Syrian targets in Lebanon.


Palestine: Peace Process; Fatah-Hamas Dialogue; Journalist Arrested

Israelis and Palestinians agreed on March 30 to a series of steps including an Israeli pledge to remove fifty roadblocks, upgrade checkpoints to speed up the movement of Palestinians through the West Bank, and give Palestinians more security responsibility in the town of Jenin. U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, visiting the region for the second time this month in the hopes of energizing the faltering talks, said the moves “constitute a very good start to improving” a Palestinian economy crippled by the Israeli restrictions. Meanwhile, Jerusalem authorities announced on March 31 plans to expand an Israeli settlement in East Jerusalem, adding 600 new housing units. The Israel-based activist group Peace Now reports that expansions in 101 Israeli settlements in the West Bank are currently underway.

Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal invited Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to Gaza on March 31 for unconditional talks. Fatah and Hamas reached a Yemeni-brokered deal on March 23 to open their first direct talks since the 2006 Hamas takeover of Gaza. The “Sanaa Declaration,” signed by Fatah and Hamas representatives, calls for talks between the two parties and a “return of the Palestinian situation to what it was before the events in Gaza.” Recent media reports cite criticisms by some Fatah leaders of the declaration and Fatah-Hamas disagreements over its interpretation.

Palestinian Authority security forces in the West Bank arrested Amer Nawaf of the Ramattan News Agency in Ramallah on March 12, accusing him of being a member of Hamas. Nawaf was freed the next day without being charged. Since the Hamas-Fatah split in June 2007, dozens of journalists have been subject to brief detention and interrogation in Gaza and the West Bank. Click here for more information.


Syria: Journalist Trial; Attack on Kurdish Celebration

On March 15, a military tribunal adjourned the trial of journalist Mazen Darwish, head of the Syrian Center for Media Freedom and Freedom of Expression, until April 15. Darwish is accused of “slandering and defaming state bodies” for publishing a report about January 2008 riots in Damascus and criticizing the failure of the security bodies to protect the citizens killed in the riots. Arrested on January 12 while covering the riots, Darwish was released three days later. Click here for more information.

A March 24 Human Rights Watch statement called on Syrian authorities to investigate the March 20 shooting of three Syrian Kurds by security forces in the northern town of Qamishli during a celebration of the Persian new year, Nowruz. Syrian authorities have not issued an official statement on the incident, but Syrian forces have used force in the past to break up Kurdish cultural celebrations. In March 2006, security officers arrested dozens of Kurds and used teargas and batons to stop a candle-lit procession on Nowruz.


Jordan: Journalists Sentenced to Prison; Restrictions on Internet Cafés

On March 16, an Amman court sentenced five journalists to three months in prison each in two separate cases. In the first case, two of Jordan's main daily newspapers, al-Dustur and al-Arab al-Yawm, were found in contempt of the judiciary for publishing a news item about a lawsuit filed by a Jordanian disputing a court decision to deprive him of his citizenship. The court handed prison sentences to Usama Sharif and Fayez al-Lawzi of al-Dustur, and Taher al-Adwan and Sahar al-Qasem of al-Arab al-Yawm. In the second case, a court convicted satirical writer Abdul Hadi Raji Majali of slander for an article about the Higher Media Council. Click here for more information.

The Jordanian Ministry of Interior issued new instructions for monitoring internet cafés on March 9. The new instructions oblige café owners to install cameras to monitor internet users, register their personal information, and record data on the websites visited. The instructions also mandate installing a censorship program to prevent access to websites containing pornographic material, insulting religious beliefs, or promoting the use of drugs or tobacco. The Arabic Network for Human Rights Information denounced the decision, calling it a violation of rights to use the Internet and exchange information. Click here for more information.

A Jordanian court sentenced a Palestinian-born Frenchman to three months in jail on March 12 for slandering Jordan’s King Abdullah. The man pleaded guilty and was initially sentenced to a year in jail by the state security court, which later reduced the penalty because he was a foreigner. Punishment for defaming the King can be up to three years in prison. Click here for more information.


Iraq: Attacks on Journalists

Iraqi media executive Qassem Abdul Hussein al-Eqabi was shot by an unknown gunman on March 13 in Baghdad’s largely Shi’i Karradah neighborhood. Al-Eqabi was the head of public relations and distribution for the local political daily newspaper al-Muwatin. According to the Iraqi Union of Journalists, this death brings the total number of Iraqi journalists killed since the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003 to 272. Click here for more information.

Editor Mohammed Saleh Hajji Taha of the Kurdish daily Rahsen, was freed on bail three days after his March 16 arrest for writing articles criticizing the penal code of Iraq. No date has been set for his trial.


Kuwait: Cabinet Resigns; Parliament Dissolved; Two Ex-MPs Detained

Kuwait’s Amir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmed al-Sabah announced on March 19 his decision to dissolve the parliament, citing its "irresponsible conduct." New elections will be held on May 17. The decision followed the resignation of the cabinet on March 17, less than a year after it was sworn in, complaining of a lack of cooperation by the national assembly. The cabinet resignation left Sheikh Sabah with two options under the constitution: to order the formation of a new cabinet or to dissolve the parliament and call for new elections within two months. A continuing government-parliament standoff has paralyzed political life in Kuwait and delayed key economic development projects. This is the fifth time the parliament has been dissolved since it was set up in 1963. Sheikh Sabah’s predecessors suspended parliamentary life from 1976-81 and 1986-92.

On March 26, Kuwaiti police used tear gas to disperse hundreds of tribesmen protesting the arrest of eight men for organizing an illegal form of primary elections. The eight men from Kuwait's major Bedouin tribes were remanded in police custody after interrogation about their role in organizing tribal elections banned by law. Kuwaiti tribes often resort to primary elections in a bid to field a small number of candidates to boost their chances of winning seats in parliament.

Former Shi’i MPs Abdulmohsen Jamal and Nasser Sorkhouh were released on a 10,000 dinar bail (U.S. $37,855) on March 25, after being arrested and interrogated by Kuwait’s public prosecutor. The MPs had been detained since March 9 on suspicion of membership in an alleged “Kuwaiti Hizbollah.” Police also arrested prominent Shi’i cleric Sheikh Hussein al-Maatuq and four other activists on the same charge. All activists denied the accusation. The public prosecutor indicated that he will press formal charges after the necessary inquiries are completed. The crackdown follows a rally last month to mourn Hizbollah military commander Imad Mughniyah, who was killed in a car bombing in Damascus.

On March 8, a Kuwait City criminal court withdrew the licenses of two weekly newspapers, al-Abraj and al-Shaab, in two separate cases. The court fined al-Abraj editor Mansour al-Hayni and al-Shaab editor Hamed Abu Yabes 9,000 Kuwaiti dinars (U.S. $33,785) each. Al-Hayni was convicted of "besmirching the prime minister's reputation" while Yabes was convicted of publishing political articles in a newspaper licensed only to cover arts and culture. Click here for more information.


Saudi Arabia: King Calls for Dialogue; New Fatwa Condemns Writers

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia called March 25 for a dialogue among monotheistic religions, including Judaism. The King said that Saudi Arabia’s top clerics have given him approval to pursue his idea. He declared plans to get the opinion of Muslim leaders from other countries and asked “representatives of all the monotheistic religions to meet with their brothers in faith.” The King added that he had discussed the project, which he has been mulling over for two years, with Pope Benedict XVI during his landmark visit to the Vatican late last year.

On March 14, Saudi cleric Abdul Rahman al-Barrak issued a fatwa calling for the trial of writers Yousef Aba al-Khail and Abdullah Bin Bejad for their "heretical articles" and their death if they do not repent. The fatwa came in response to recent articles in the Saudi daily al-Riyadh by the two writers challenging the view that adherents of other faiths are to be condemned as infidels. Click here for more information.


Bahrain: Minister Questioning Over Population Controversy

Parliament members from al-Wefaq, Bahrain’s largest Shi’i opposition group, presented on March 25 a request to question Minister of State for Cabinet Affairs Sheikh Ahmed Bin Ateyatallah al-Khalifa. Al-Wefaq accuses the minister of concealing information about the country’s population. Opposition groups have accused the Sunni-controlled government of secretly naturalizing non-Bahraini Sunnis in a bid to alter the demographic balance of the country, which has a Shi’i majority. The Bahraini government denies the accusation. Sunni Islamists and pro-government MPs, who hold twenty-two out of forty seats in parliament, have thus far blocked al-Wefaq’s attempts to question the minister.


Qatar: First Church

On March 14, Qatar inaugurated its first Christian church, with five additional churches under construction. Qatar's emir, Sheikh Khalifa al-Thani, donated the land to build the $15 million dollar church in the outskirts of the capital Doha. Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, and the United Arab Emirates host churches that cater to hundreds of thousands of expatriates and, in some cases, small local communities. Click here for more information.


UAE: First Female Judge; Labor Unrest

The United Arab Emirates named Kholoud Ahmed al-Dhaheri as its first woman judge on March 26. The move made the UAE the second Arab country in the Gulf (after Bahrain) to appoint a female judge. The UAE cabinet includes four women. Nine women also sit on the 40-member Federal National Council, an assembly that advises the government.

Some 1,500 foreign workers in Sharjah staged a violent protest for higher wages on March 19, setting dozens of vehicles on fire and damaging property. Asian workers have demonstrated several times in the past year to demand higher wages and better living conditions despite a ban on public protests in the UAE. Many construction workers earn less than $200 per month and are facing mounting inflation. Click here for more information.


Yemen: Publications Banned

On March 14, Yemeni authorities banned the distribution of the new current affairs monthly Abwab. The first issue of Abwab, which was printed in Dubai, was seized on arrival at Sanaa airport. The magazine's editor said the cover, which showed President Ali Abdullah Saleh, was deemed to be disrespectful to the president. On March 4, the Ministry of Information ordered a ban on the newspaper al-Sabah, known to be critical of the government. Authorities continued censoring news websites and blocked access to the website of the Yemeni Socialist Party without explanation. Yemen is on Reporters Without Border’s list of “Countries Under Surveillance” due to its internet censorship policies. Click here for more information.


Tunisia: Constitutional Amendment; Comedian Released

President Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali announced on March 21 that Tunisia will amend its constitution to allow more candidates to contest next year's presidential election. Leaders of any legal party, including those with no parliament seats, will be able to stand provided they were elected to the post and have held it for two consecutive years. Until now, only leaders of parties with parliamentary seats could run. Ben Ali has yet to confirm he will stand for re-election next year. Click here for more information.

Comedian Hedi Ould Baballah was released from prison on March 20, after a special pardon was issued on the occasion of Tunisia’s Independence Day. Baballah was sentenced on February 4 to one year in prison and a fine of 1,000 dinars (U.S. $800) for possession of narcotics. At the hearing, the comedian 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.


Libya: Political Prisoner Released to Hospital

Libyan authorities transferred political dissident Fathi al-Jahmi to a hospital March 11 due to his deteriorating health. Al-Jahmi reportedly is free to see his family but not to leave the hospital. Al-Jahmi has been detained since March 2004, when he was rearrested after making comments critical of Libyan leader Qaddafi upon release from a previous term in prison. Click here for a Human Rights Watch statement on the case.


Algeria: Churches Shut Down; Journalist Interrogated

On March 9, Algerian authorities ordered the closure of two Protestant churches in the Algerian city of Tizi Ouzou for alleged missionary work. Religious Affairs Minister Bu Abdullah Ghoulamullah told reporters that the churches were "trying to establish a minority, which might give foreign powers a pretext to intervene in Algeria's domestic affairs." Algerian law forbids attempts to convert Muslims to other religions and bans the production of media intended to “shake the faith of a Muslim.” Algeria has ordered thirteen Protestant churches to shut down since November. Click here for more information.


Morocco: Journalist Fined; “Online Prince” Pardoned

On March 25, a Rabat court convicted Rachid Nini, editor of the daily newspaper al-Massae, of libel and public insults, and ordered him to pay 6 million Moroccan dirhams (U.S. $825,400) in damages and a fine of 120,000 dirhams (U.S. $16,500) in a case brought by four deputy public prosecutors. The four deputy prosecutors sued Nini in early February, claiming they had been defamed by a November 18 report published in his newspaper. The report claimed that four unnamed officials had attended a homosexual marriage ceremony in the northern town of al-Qasr al-Kabir. Click here for more information.

On March 18, Morocco’s King Mohammed issued a royal pardon releasing Fouad Mourtada, an IT engineer who had been serving a three-year jail sentence for creating a false profile on Facebook in the name of the King’s brother, Moulay Rachid. Mourtada was convicted on February 22 of “modifying and falsifying information technology data and usurping an official’s identity.” Click here for more information.


Mauritania: Journalists Arrested

On March 25, Mauritanian authorities arrested two journalists, Muhammad Salim Ould Muhammad and Sidi Ould Abdelkader, from the pro-Islamist Assiraj newspaper. Abdelkader was released the same day, while Muhammad remains in custody without charge. The two journalists have written articles criticizing the Mauritanian economic and political situation as well as government restrictions on the media. Click here for more information.




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