5.26.2008

News Concerning Middle East Reform

This is the news section of May issue of Arab Reform Bulletin Published by Carnegie Endowment for International Peace:

- Egypt: Salary and Price Increases; Local Elections; Brothers Sentenced
- Kuwait: Elections; Tribal Demonstration; Anti-demonstration Law Revoked
- Bahrain: New Press Bill; Minister Questioned on Naturalization
- Yemen: Qatari Mediation; MP Killed; Newspaper License Revoked
- Saudi Arabia: Blogger Released
- Iraq: Journalists Released
- Jordan: Political Party Law; Brotherhood Selects Leaders; Prison Demonstrations
- Syria: Economic Initiatives; Activist Sentenced
- Lebanon: Political Deadlock Continues; Worker Protests
- Tunisia: Opposition Newspaper Seized; Appeals Court Upholds Journalist Sentence
- Algeria: Ban on Passport Photos with Veil and Beard Contested
- Morocco: Criminalizing Violence against Women; Demonstrators Pardoned
- Sudan: Efforts to End Censorship


Egypt: Salary and Price Increases; Local Elections; Brothers Sentenced

The Egyptian parliament rushed through a package of increases in the price of fuel, cigarettes, and vehicle licenses on May 5 in order to pay for a 30 percent increase in public sector salaries proposed by President Hosni Mubarak on April 30. Several cabinet members and National Democratic Party (NDP) parliamentarians reportedly opposed the price increases, which passed in the People’s Assembly by a vote of 297 to 76 (the NDP holds 366 of the Assembly’s 454 seats). The steep increases—roughly 40 per cent for gasoline, for example—were implemented May 6. Click here for more information.

The government’s moves followed strikes on April 6 and May 4 to protest inflation, low wages, and poor worker conditions. The April 6 strike was not widely observed, but there were protests in several cities and some industrial workers, particularly in the Nile Delta town of al-Mahalla al-Kubra, took to the streets and defaced pictures of President Mubarak. Security forces clashed with protesters in al-Mahalla, leading to one reported death. Authorities arrested several well-known opposition figures, including Kifaya activists George Ishaq and Mohammed Abdel Quddus, on suspicion of instigating the April 6 protests; they were released a few days later. Facebook organizer Isra Abdel Fattah was arrested and held until April 23. The May 4 strike, called to mark Mubarak’s eightieth birthday, drew weak participation although the Muslim Brotherhood called on its members to participate. Click here for more information.

On April 8, the National Democratic Party won over 95 percent of the 53,000 seats in local council elections. The Muslim Brotherhood announced a last-minute boycott of the elections after nearly all of its candidates—as well as most candidates from legal opposition parties—were prevented from registering. Independent civil society monitors were denied permission to observe elections, but informal reports suggest that voter turnout was extremely low.

On April 15, an Egyptian military court convicted twenty-five members of the Muslim Brotherhood (five in absentia) for membership in an illegal organization and attempting to revive its military wing. Fifteen were acquitted, but the rest received unusually harsh sentences ranging from three to ten years in prison. Those tried in absentia in particular received 10 year sentences. Deputy Supreme Guide Khayrat al-Shatir, the third highest-ranking Brotherhood leader, was sentenced to seven years in prison. Amnesty International issued a statement condemning the trial.


Kuwait: Elections; Tribal Demonstration; Anti-demonstration Law Revoked

On May 17, Kuwait will hold general elections for fifty parliamentary seats; an additional fifteen ministers sit in the assembly as ex officio members. The parliament was dissolved March 19 following resignation of the cabinet. Some 360,000 Kuwaitis over age 21 are eligible to vote. This will be the second general election in which women will participate, and the first since electoral districts were reduced from twenty-five to five. Non governmental organizations such as the Kuwaiti Association for Developing Democracy and Kuwait Transparency Association plan to monitor the elections. The main political blocks include the Islamic Constitutional Movement, the Salafi Movement, the National Islamic Alliance, and the liberal National Democratic Movement.

On May 4, thousands of Kuwaitis protested in front of a government security building demanding the release of members of the Mateer tribe arrested for carrying out unauthorized tribal primaries. Click here for more details in Arabic.

On April 14, the Kuwaiti government reversed a recent law banning public assembly and peaceful demonstrations. The law contradicted a prior ruling of Kuwait’s Constitutional Court granting Kuwaitis the right to demonstrate peacefully and was passed by decree on April 7 after the parliament had been dissolved. The government withdrew the new law after much public criticism and demonstrations. Click here for more details in Arabic.


Bahrain: New Press Bill; Minister Questioned on Naturalization

On May 6, Bahraini Information Minister Jihad Bin Hassan Bukamal proposed a new press law. The bill reportedly will abrogate jail sentences for journalists but imprisonment will still be possible in cases of insulting religion or the ruler or compromising national unity. The bill was passed to the parliament for review and approval. Click here for additional details.

On April 29, Bahraini opposition MPs prevented pro-government legislators from excluding the prime minister and his deputies from recently-passed legislation that requires financial disclosure from top government officials. The new law requires financial statements and asserts the right to investigate any suspicious accumulation of wealth by ministers and members of parliament and their spouses. Click here for additional information.

On April 24, the parliament questioned Minister of State for Cabinet Affairs Sheikh Ahmed bin Attiyatallah al-Khalifain about accusations of tampering with national statistics and willfully providing incorrect data. The minister was accused of doing so as part of an effort to naturalize large numbers of Sunnis in order to tip the demographic balance. Al-Khalifain refuted all allegations but Shi’i opposition deputies said they intend to call him for more questioning. Click here for more information in Arabic.


Yemen: Qatari Mediation; MP Killed; Newspaper License Revoked

Qatar has launched a mediation process between the Yemeni government and Abdel Malik al-Houthi, leader of a Zaidi rebellion in the north. The first meeting among Qatari mediators, Yemeni government officials, and representatives of al-Houthi took place on May 4. Click here for more information in Arabic.

Yemeni MP Saleh Hendi was killed on April 18 near Saada governorate, where government forces have been fighting with rebels.

On April 5, the Yemeni government revoked the license of al-Wasat newspaper on accusations of harming relations with Saudi Arabia. The newspaper published an article alleging that Saudi Arabia was responsible for smuggling and abusing Yemeni children. The Committee to Protect Journalists issued a statement on April 7 condemning the Yemeni government’s decision.


Saudi Arabia: Blogger Released

Saudi blogger Fouad al-Farhan, detained since December 2007, was released on April 27. Various international organizations and other Saudi bloggers have been calling for his release. Click here for more information.


Iraq: Journalists Released

Iraqi forces freed CBS news journalist Richard Butler on April 14. He had been abducted, along with his interpreter, two months earlier in Basra. The interpreter was released a few days after the abduction.

U.S. forces freed Associated Press photographer Bilal Hussein on April 16, after a two-year detention. Hussein was accused of cooperating with insurgents but no evidence against him was ever disclosed. The Committee to Protect Journalists has documented several cases in which the U.S. military detained journalists without charges or evidence. Click here for additional information.


Jordan: Political Party Law; Brotherhood Selects Leaders; Prison Demonstrations

On April 16 a new Jordanian political party law went into effect. Parliament passed the law in 2007 but the government agreed to give parties a grace period to organize themselves. Newspapers have reported that only fourteen of Jordan’s thirty-six political parties have been able to comply with the new regulations, which include obtaining a certificate of government support and an increase in minimum party membership from 50 to 500. Parties unable to comply, including eight of the fourteen-party opposition coalition, were forced to dissolve and are calling the new law unconstitutional. The Islamic Action Front (IAF), the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood and Jordan’s largest opposition party, was able to comply with the new law. Click here for more information in Arabic.

The Jordanian Muslim Brotherhood selected a new governing body at its third national council meeting on May 1, after a postponement caused by disagreement between conservative and liberal members. After long discussions, the members reportedly agreed to appoint a predominantly liberal group to balance recently elected General Guide Humam Sa’id, who is considered a conservative. Click here for more information in Arabic.

On April 14, revolts broke out in at al-Muwaqar prison in southwestern Amman, reportedly due to the inhumane treatment of inmates. The violence initially left three prisoners dead and led to additional protests leaving thirty injured. The protest has garnered support from Jordanian opposition parties with the IAF being the most vocal.


Syria: Economic Initiatives; Activist Sentenced

As part of a package of economic reform initiatives, President Bashar al-Assad on April 15 issued a presidential decree that increased the sentence for stealing public funds from five to ten years. The Syrian Finance Minister indicated that the measure was part of an effort to overhaul the public sector and promote transparency and accountability.

On April 23, a Syrian military court sentenced political activist Kamal Labwani to a three-year prison term, in addition to the twelve year sentence he is currently serving. The government claims that Labwani insulted the president while in prison. Human rights groups called the charge unjust and politically motivated. The U.S. State Department and the European Union called for Labwani’s release.


Lebanon: Political Deadlock Continues; Worker Protests

On April 22, the Lebanese parliament postponed a session to elect a new president until May 13. This is the eighteenth postponement since President Lahud left office in November 2007.

On May 7, worker strikes turned into clashes between government and opposition supporters in Beirut, leading to the closure of many roads and the airport. The cabinet agreed on May 6 to raise monthly minimum wages from approximately $200 to $330, but Hizbollah-backed activists are demanding a raise to $600 per month. Government supporters are accusing Hizbollah of using economic grievances to destabilize the government; click here for more information.


Tunisia: Opposition Newspaper Seized; Appeal Court Upholds Journalist Sentence

Tunisia’s highest court upheld journalist Salim Boukhdir’s one year jail sentence on April 3. Boukhdir, correspondent for al-Quds al-’arabi,was convicted in December 2007 for “insulting behavior toward an official” after an incident in which he refused to produce identity papers. The April 3 ruling was Boukhdir’s final chance for appeal. Click here for more information.

Reporters Without Borders issued a statement on April 18 condemning the Tunisian government’s harassment of the weekly newspaper al-Mawaqif, published by the opposition Progressive Democratic Party. Since March 14, the government has seized issues of the weekly and has brought a libel suit against editor Rachid Khechana, who is due to appear in court on May 10.


Algeria: Ban on Passport Photos with Veil and Beard Contested

The Society of Algerian Muslim Scholars issued a fatwa on April 23 against the government ban on passport pictures of veiled women and bearded men. The fatwa claims that the ban infringes upon Islamic law and that both the veil and beard are integral to the Muslim tradition. Click here for more information.


Morocco: Criminalizing Violence against Women; Demonstrators Pardoned

King Muhammad pardoned on April 4 eight demonstrators convicted in 2007 on charges of undermining the monarchy. The eight men, all members of the Moroccan Association for Human Rights, were detained after chanting slogans critical of the monarchy. Click here for additional information.

The Moroccan government continues its effort to curb violence against women. The Ministry of Social Development, Family, and Solidarity announced it is drafting a bill that would criminalize domestic violence. The law is part of a broader plan that also involves setting up treatment centers for victims of domestic violence. Click here for more details.


Sudan: Efforts to End Censorship

On April 16, the Sudanese government reportedly agreed with the Sudanese Journalists’ Union to end government censorship of journalism. Reporters will no longer submit stories and reports to government censors prior to publishing. Click here for more information.





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