On Tuesday, May 21, the House Committee on Foreign Affairs held a hearing titled “The Call for Economic Liberty in the Arab World.” Mr. Hernando de Soto, President of the Institute for Liberty and Democracy, and the Honorable Madeleine K. Albright, Chair of the Albright Stonebridge Group, testified. The committee’s chairman, Rep. Ed Royce (R-CA), presided.
At a meeting of the International Press Institute, Jordan’s Prime Minister Abdullah Ensour discussed Jordanians’ increased demand for freedoms of expression and press. Ensour stated that “the Arab Spring has opened new horizons and created more demands” for broadening these freedoms. He added, “Obviously, we’re not yet where we want to be, but we are determined to continue.” Ensour promised further liberalization and cited statistics of Jordanians’ internet use as evidence of increasing freedom. According to the prime minister, Jordan ranks third in active social network use in the Arab World and two-thirds of the population has access to the internet.
Participants in the meeting complained that Jordan’s reforms have been insufficient in addressing these demands. Nidal Mansour, head of the Amman-based Center for Defending Freedom of Journalists, said, “The Press and Publication Law has been and continues to be a sword on the necks of all journalists in Jordan.” The law requires websites dealing with “press materials” to register with the Department of Press and Publication, pay a fee, and appoint an editor who is accountable for all content, including reader comments. It also allows the department to block websites deemed to be in violation of the law. Although some limits on expression have loosened since the uprisings began, restrictions remain, including a ban on publicly criticizing the king, surveillance of journalists by intelligence agencies, and arrest of journalists and bloggers.
Last week, Congressman Gregory Meeks introduced a resolution recognizing the partnership and friendship between Jordan and the United States. The resolution praises Jordan’s cooperation in counterterrorism efforts and assistance with Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations and its maintenance of open borders with Syria. The resolution also notes that “Jordan is a leader for progress and tolerance in the Arab world and recently held parliamentary elections, as part of a political reform movement.” A bipartisan group comprised of Reps. Boustany, Deutch, Engel, Faleomavaega, Cleaver, Fortenberry, Grimm, Hastings, Lowey, Moran, Schiff, and Weber co-sponsored the resolution.
Following clashes last week in Tunisia between security forces and supporters of the radical Islamist group Ansar al-Sharia, violence flared again over the weekend in Kairouan and Tunis leaving several injured and one dead. Police arrested 200 members of the al-Qaeda affiliated group Sunday, including its spokesman, after the government earlier banned its annual congress scheduled to be held in Kairouan that day. Prime Minister Ali Larayedh accused the group of being involved in terrorism, warning, “We will deal with extremism firmly, we will be rigid.” Police also prevented the group from holding a smaller meeting in the Ettadamen district in Tunis later in the day, prompting clashes with Salafis who chanted “the rule of the tyrant should fall.” The Interior Ministry announced that Ansar al-Sharia is an illegal organization “that does not abide by the law.”
The Tunisian government, led by the moderate Islamist Ennahda party, has taken a firmer stance against the Salafis’ puritanical strain of Islam in recent weeks, a marked change in course from its previously non-confrontational approach that allowed Salafist groups to operate freely in Tunisia. But after largely neglecting repeated attacks and harassment of journalists and artists by hard-line Salafis, the government now fears the influence of some Salafist groups is undermining the authority of the state and poses a threat to public safety. Clashes along the Algerian border between Tunisian troops and members of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, which is supported by Ansar al-Sharia, and the Islamist insurgency in nearby Mali have exacerbated the threat.
Also in Tunisia, the country’s main political parties reached consensus on a series of contentious issues at a national dialogue conference meeting over the weekend. Among the points agreed upon are the date for new elections, a new electoral law and a system to balance the powers of the president and prime minster, respectively.
Egypt’s National Salvation Front (NSF) criticized a draft NGO law over the weekend, saying the Muslim Brotherhood-backed bill is more restrictive than laws under former President Hosni Mubarak. The opposition bloc said the law “seeks to reproduce a police state by putting into law the role of security bodies in overseeing the work of civil society groups.” The bill stipulates that NGOs be vetted by a committee comprised in part of members of the security services and get official permission to receive foreign funding. According to the NSF’s statement, “This can allow these entities to refuse funding for rights groups that monitor elections or work to fight torture.” The NSF announced it would support an alternate bill drafted by a group of 50 civil society organizations.
The NSF has also formed an alliance with the Islamist, Salafist-dominated Al Nour party in an effort to limit the increasing power of the Muslim Brotherhood. According to Tamara Wittes, director of the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, the Salafists stand to gain most in the partnership; they may appeal to voters since they are untested in Egyptian politics. Al Nour may pull votes from the Brotherhood’s “less-loyal constituents,” particularly in conservative rural areas. Analysts say that if the parties are successful in the elections, they could form a coalition government or achieve a majority in parliament, giving them the power to choose the prime minister.
Also in Egypt, two journalists at a newspaper critical of President Mohammed Morsi are facing criminal charges of defamation. Public Prosecutor Talaat Ibrahim, a Morsi appointee, ordered an expedited trial for Magdy El Gilad, editor in chief of El-Watan newspaper, and Alaa El-Ghatrify, the paper’s managing editor, on Sunday. These charges are based on claims that the paper defamed the head of a “local public opinion research center.”
From May 21 to May 27, Secretary of State John Kerry will travel to the Middle East. His visit will begin in Oman, and then he will move to Jordan, Israel, the West Bank. In Jordan, Kerry will meet with international partners to discuss solutions for the conflict in Syria. While in Jerusalem and Ramallah, Kerry will meet with Israeli and Palestinian leadership, respectively, to discuss how the United States can support the two countries in returning to peace negotiations. After a two-day visit to Ethiopia, Kerry will return to Jordan to participate in the World Economic Forum on the 26th.
Secretary Kerry’s first stop in Jordan will include a meeting with the Friends of Syria. The foreign ministers of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Britain, France, Germany, Turkey, and Italy will attend. The discussions of Syria planned for the trip are part of the United States’ ongoing efforts to find a solution to the conflict in the country. Kerry recently visited Russia to discuss the conflict and announced an international conference co-sponsored by Russia after talks with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. President Barack Obama also discussed the conflict this week with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan during the minister’s visit to Washington.
On Friday, May 17, Freedom House hosted a panel discussion titled “Building a Brighter Future in Syria.” Panelists included Kinda Kanbar, a Syrian journalist; Mohammed Aly Sergie, Senior Editor at Syria Deeply; Omar Hossino, a Syria analyst; and Oubab Khalil, Chief of Staff for the National Coalition of Syrian Opposition Forces. Daniel Calingaert, Freedom House Executive Vice President, moderated the discussion.
Bahraini authorities raided the home of a prominent Shia cleric, Ayatollah Sheikh Isa Qassim on Friday. Opposition group al-Wefaq said Qassim was not home at the time of the raid but there were women and children present. A leading human rights activist believes the house was raided in pursuit of fugitives who had fled from a neighboring house. Mohammed al-Maskati, president of the Bahrain Youth Society for Human Rights, said this was the first time Qassim’s house has been raided and that it is “hugely offensive” for many in Bahrain. He added, ”People see him as a red line. I expect that this will cause a big reaction.”
Amnesty International called on the government of Bahrain to “immediately release five men sentenced to a year imprisonment for allegedly insulting the King of Bahrain in messages posted on Twitter.” Five men were tried separately and sentenced on March 15 to one year imprisonment. “The authorities in Bahrain seem to be using every trick in the book to stop people from expressing their views,” said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Middle East and North Africa Deputy Director at Amnesty International.
Writing for Foreign Policy, Marc Lynch discusses the lack of international attention to Saudi Arabia’s protest movement, specifically the stories of imprisoned activists Mohammed Fahd al-Qahtani and Abdullah al-Hamed, and their lawyer Abd al-Aziz al-Hussan. He points to “generic concern” from the U.S. government in response to crackdowns and a government “offensive against human rights activists and Sunni protesters.” Lynch argues, “Even if a revolution isn’t on the immediate horizon, it would be dangerous to assume that Saudi Arabia will forever be a ‘Kingdom of No Surprises.’” He says the Saudi government should be reaching out to reformists and ”Washington should more effectively support the opening of political space for reformist voices in Saudi Arabia and all of its regional allies.”
In a White House press briefing Thursday with visiting Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, President Barack Obama reiterated his calls for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down but offered no new details on the administration’s approach to hastening a transition of power to the opposition. Erdoğan has indicated he would like to see the U.S. “assume more responsibilities and take further steps” in supporting anti-Assad forces, including a no-fly zone, and is expected to urge Obama to escalate America’s role in the conflict behind closed doors. At the press briefing, Obama avoided discussion of a unilateral military option and repeated his call for mobilizing the international community to push Assad out. “There’s no magic formula for dealing with a extraordinarily violent and difficult situation like Syria’s…what we have to do is apply steady international pressure, strengthen the opposition,” Obama said, adding, “I don’t think anybody in the region, including the prime minister, would think that U.S. unilateral actions in and of themselves would bring about a better outcome inside of Syria.” Absent from his remarks was talk of the U.S.- and Russia-backed peace conference between Assad’s government and the opposition, simply saying that it “may yield results.”
The White House released an op-ed to the Turkish Daily Sabah Thursday before Erdoğan’s visit in which President Obama expressed interest in working closely with Turkey, and in particular finding a solution to the conflict in Syria. “Most urgently, we need to keep working together to end the Assad regime’s horrific slaughter of the Syrian people. Prime Minister Erdoğan and I will discuss how we can keep increasing the pressure on the Assad regime, strengthening the moderate opposition, and preparing for a transition to a democratic Syria without Bashar Assad.”
Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov expressed optimism Wednesday that the peace talks on the Syrian conflict they’re organizing will be successful. After a meeting with Lavrov in Sweden, Kerry said, “Both of us are … very, very hopeful that within a short period of time, pieces will come together so that the world, hopefully, will be given an alternative to the violence and destruction that is taking place in Syria at this moment.” Discussing the conference, British Prime Minister David Cameron said, “What is important here is to make sure we really put pressure on the participants to bring forward the necessary names for a transitional government and that we start proper detailed negotiations.” According to Kerry, the peace effort is based on the June 2012 Geneva communique, which advocated establishing a transitional government in Syria ”with full executive authority by mutual consent.”
Meanwhile, the United Nations passed a non-binding resolution urging a political transition to end the conflict in Syria. The resolution placed the onus of bringing an end to the civil war on President Bashar al-Assad‘s government. The resolution passed 107-12 with 59 abstentions, a drop in support compared to a similar resolution passed in August 2012 with only 31 abstentions. Some analysts say the number of abstentions indicate concerns in the international community about extremism among the Syrian rebels. Before voting began on the resolution, the U.N. raised the official death toll to Syria to 80,000, an increase of 20,000 since the beginning of the year. Vuk Jeremic, the president of the General Assembly, said, “most of these casualties [are] believed to be civilians.”
Join POMED for our upcoming event, “Iran’s Presidential Election and U.S. Policy,” on Friday, May 24 from 10-11:30am at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace’s Choate Room.
The panel will include Nazila Fathi, former NYT Tehran correspondent; Ambassador John Limbert, former Deputy Secretary of State for Iran; Mariam Memarsadeghi of Tavaana E-Learning Institute for Iranian Civil Society; and Stephen McInerney, executive director of POMED. Click here to RSVP, and see below for panel details.
On June 14, the Iranian people will participate in an election to elect the Islamic Republic’s next President. While most observers do not expect the election to be free and fair, Iran’s political scene remains lively and competitive, within rigid ideological confines. The announcement of candidates by the Guardian Council and the subsequent campaign period could provide Iranians the opportunity to debate and challenge alternative approaches to the country’s future. Despite these openings, U.S. policy has focused primarily on nuclear negotiations and economic sanctions, while largely ignoring domestic politics or internal dynamics within Iran.
What events or issues are likely to define the campaign period in the weeks leading up to the election? What differences exist between the candidates, and what do these differences mean for U.S.-Iran relations? What policies and political forces have driven restrictions on reform initiatives, civil society organizations, and political activists? What opportunities might these elections present for U.S. policy regarding Iran? How can U.S. policymakers use the election to bring attention to issues beyond Iran’s nuclear program?
The Kuwaiti government should scrap a controversial media reform law, Human Rights Watch (HRW) says. Following news that the Ministry of Information suspended a popular television program, “Talk Shawk”, presented by opposition journalist Mohammad al-Washeehi late Wednesday, HRW is renewing its call for Prime Minister Sheikh Jaber al-Mubarak to abandon a punishing proposed United Media Law that would severely curtail free speech and impose stiff fines for “disrespecting” the constitution and “offending the emir.” The Prime Minister delayed the enactment of the new law, expected to pass parliament this month, in April after intense criticism forced him to consult editors and journalists first. Sarah Leah Whitson, the Middle East director at HRW, said of the proposed law: “As currently drafted, it would create new red lines for the media and close down the space for public debate, reversing the trend toward greater openness.” Jason Stern at the Committee to Protect Journalists warned that “The choice confronting the Kuwaiti government isn’t between passing a bad media law and freedom of the press. In fact, the choice so far has been between keeping bad media laws on the books or passing an even worse law,” adding that the government should strive to uphold freedom of the press in a new enlightened reform bill.
Also in the Gulf, The U.S. ambassador to Yemen revealed talks between the USA and Saudi Arabia to accelerate measures to establish a fund to support Yemen’s democratic transition. Ambassador Gerald Feierstein, accompanied by Treasury Deputy Assistant Secretary for Africa and the Middle East Andrew Baukol, expressed American interest in continuing to support Yemen any way it could, including providing technical and logistical aid to the government and urging the International Monetary Fund to provide the largest amount of financial assistance in its Yemen support program’s first year of implementation.
On Wednesday, May 15, the Hudson Institute’s Center for Religious Freedom held a panel titled, “The Rise of Islamism: Its Impact on Religious Minorities” to discuss Islamist radicalization in the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa. Panelists included former Pakistani parliamentarian Farahnaz Ispahi; Professor of Iranian, Central Eurasian, and Islamic Studies at Indiana University Jamsheed Choksy; and Executive Director of the Center for Islamic Pluralism Stephen Schwartz. Nina Shea, Hudson Senior Fellow and Director of the Center for Religious Freedom, moderated the session.
On Wednesday, May 15, 2013, the United States Senate Committee on Foreign Relations held a hearing titled “U.S. Policy Toward Iran.” Wendy Sherman, State Department Under Secretary for Political Affairs, and David Cohen, Treasury Department Under Secretary for Terrorism and Financial Intelligence, testified. Chairman Robert Menendez (D-NJ) presided.
Egypt’s top jurists suspended participation today in a government-backed conference to move forward on judicial reform, reigniting a political showdown with the country’s judges. Lawmakers in the Muslim Brotherhood dominated Shura Council announced it would reexamine a contentious proposal opposed by the judicial establishment that sparked a political crisis last month and forced President Mohamed Morsi to intervene after opposition leaders claimed it would “purge the judiciary” and offer an alternative bill. Members of President Morsi’s party in parliament are threatening that compromise now by taking up the tabled bill in a parliamentary session next week, effectively negating the judges conference. “We’ve stopped work on the conference until the presidency clarifies its position on this issue,” senior judge Abdel Rahman Behloul said. The Judges Club, an informal union of Egypt’s judges, said it had agreed to participate in the government conference if the contentious proposal was dropped. If approved, the bill would forcibly retire nearly a quarter of the country’s judges.
Also on Egypt, Thomas Carothers, in a new piece for the Carnegie Endowment, urges the West to abandon imagined comparisons between opposition party quality and behavior in Egypt and attempt to understand the country’s political life and possible political futures more realistically. For commentators early on making overly simplistic comparisons to post-war Central and Eastern Europe, they now subscribe to the notion of Arab political exceptionalism - “that democracy just won’t work in the Arab world” – after discouraging challenges to democratic transitions in Egypt, Tunisia and Libya. The shortcomings of Egypt’s political opposition – elitism, fractiousness, a tendency to squabble rather than unite and put forward concrete proposals – is the primary criticism of its weakness, he writes, but western observes need to approach the new political landscape in Egypt with an open mind. “Overly harsh views of the Egyptian opposition—combined with a lack of recognition that many once-weak opposition actors in countries emerging from authoritarian rule have gone on to win elections—fuel the unhelpful idea that the Muslim Brotherhood is the only political force likely to hold power in Egypt for the foreseeable future.”
During a visit to Russia last week Secretary of State John Kerry announced that Russia would participate in a conference dedicated to the issue of Syria. Russia is among Syrian President Bashar al-Assad‘s staunchest international allies and has regularly vetoed UN resolutions against the regime while also supplying them with arms. Russia’s involvement in the conference opens a narrow window for providing a diplomatic solution to end the increasingly bloody conflict. Britain and Israel, among others, have also welcomed Russia’s participation in the conference.
The details surrounding the conference remain unclear. While initially the conference was expected to take place before the end of the month a spokeswoman for Kerry said it would more likely occur in June. Today the Syrian government demanded details on the peace conference before it would agree to attend. According to Reuters, Syrian Information Minister Omran Zoabi welcomed news of the conference but warned against any infringement of “national sovereignty.” The Syrian opposition, who is also expected to send representatives, has yet to confirm their participation. The announcement of Russia’s participation in the conference has moderated debates through the West on whether or not to supply arms to the opposition. Many Western governments, including the U.S., have been hesitant to provide arms to the rebels. However, Western calls to arm the opposition have escalated recently amid reports that chemical weapons have been used in the conflict.
Fighting around Damascus between the government forces and the opposition continued this week. In a rare display of unity, 23 brigades from the opposition united in their efforts to take the town of Otaiba near the Damascus airport. These 23 brigades came from both the Western backed General Command and Islamist groups. They joined together this past weekend under an agreement to share both weapons and fighters. According to Reuters, this unified segment of the opposition hopes to take Damascus airport in order to disrupt the regime’s supply lines.
Bahraini blogger and free-speech advocate Ali Abdulemam recently escaped from the Kingdom of Bahrain after more than two years in hiding. A team of people and outside supporters, including artist Tyler Ramsey and human rights groups Amnesty International and the American Islamic Congress, planned “to sneak Abdulemam out of the country in plain view and with the cooperation of his would-be captors.” After a successful escape, Abdulemam has been granted asylum in the U.K. and awaits his wife and children, who are still in Bahrain. In response to the escape, the Bahraini government released a statement to CNN describing Abdulemam as “the founder of Bahrain Online, a website that has repeatedly been used to incite hatred, including through the spreading of false and inflammatory rumors.” The statement added, “The government of Bahrain respects the right of its citizens to express their opinion…However, free speech does not equate to engaging in, or actively encouraging, violence.”
In other news, Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Issa al-Khalifa granted citizenship to 240 British expats living in the Kingdom. In a recent speech, the King stated, “I am proud to say that, by due legal process, we have granted Bahraini nationality to 240 British citizens as they themselves had requested and whose loyal service more than justified it.”
Human Rights Watch researcher Nicholas McGeehan argues that “Britain’s lack of support for freedom of expression in Bahrain is a flawed and self-defeating policy.” McGeehan points at two articles posted to the website of the British Embassy in Bahrain on World Press Freedom Day “that argued against freedom of expression, denigrated Bahraini rights groups and justified government repression of sections of society.” He argues, “The embassy in Manama leaves itself open to the criticism that it cares less about promoting freedom of expression in Bahrain than cosying up to the country’s repressive government.”
The Brookings Institution held a discussion titled “American Foreign Policy in Retreat? A Discussion with Vali Nasr” to explore the future of American power and foreign policy engagement. Brookings Nonresident Senior Fellow Vali Nasr contributed thoughts from his new book. Robert Kagan, Brookings Senior Fellow, contributed to the discussion and Martin Indyk, Vice President and Director for Foreign Policy at Brookings, moderated.
For full event notes continue reading or click here for the PDF.
The U.S. State Department has called last week’s arrest of April 6 co-founder Ahmed Maher a “step backward” for Egypt’s democratic transition. The U.S. has expressed concern about what it sees as a growing trend of arrests against political dissent. Maher was arrested in the Cairo airport last Friday after returning from a visit to the United States. He was later released, but charges against him remain pending. The Washington Post writes that Maher’s arrest is a “new cause for concern about a government that repeatedly has proclaimed its commitment to both democracy and compromise with its opponents,” adding that, “[Maher] warns that the United States is repeating past mistakes in Egypt by appearing to tolerate Mr. Morsi’s consolidation of power.” Maher is quoted as saying, “If you want to support democracy, say we are here in Egypt to support democracy, not whoever is in office.”
Meanwhile, Egyptian opposition advocates have begun gathering petition signatures to force holding early presidential elections. The “Tamarod’ or ‘Rebel’ campaign aims to force President Morsi to hold early elections and has reportedly already garnered 2 million signatures. The effort has been endorsed by several groups, including the April 6 Youth Movement, liberal Constitution Party, Socialist Popular Alliance Party and Strong Egypt Party.
In recent analysis, Shaimaa Khalil reports on Egypt’s ongoing police reform, writing, “I hear this phrase ‘human rights’ from many ranking officers all through the day at the academy. It is an interesting new emphasis, given the police’s reputation for human rights violations.” She calls it a “tacit recognition of the need to restore the credibility of an organisation with a notoriously bad reputation.”
The Atlantic Council hosted an event for the release of their new issue brief titled “Egypt’s Litigious Transition.” The event featured Mahmoud Hamad, author of the issue brief and Assistant Professor at Drake University, and Yussef Auf, a nonresident fellow at The Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East. The event was moderated by Dr. Michele Dunne, Director of The Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East.
Tunisian authorities over the weekend dispersed the public gathering of Salafists in a number of cities in an apparent push to tamp down on extremist groups in the country. Clashes erupted Saturday in southern Tunis after security forces, using tear gas, attempted to displace 200-300 people setting up tents for public preaching without permits. Protesters responded by throwing petrol bombs and rocks. Police similarly dispersed groups of Salafists in Medenine, Tataouine, Sfax and Sidi Bouzid in southern Tunisia, and the Tunisian government is accusing militant Islamists for a recent spat of violence on the border with Algeria where security forces are tracking a number of militants aligned with al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb.
After largely neglecting to confront hard-line Muslims and members of a puritanical Salafi strain of Islam known as Ansar al-Sharia since the country’s revolution in 2011 the Tunisian government is now challenging the freewheeling activities of Salafists to perpetrate violence and preach strict interpretations of Islam. Interior Minister Lotfi Ben Jeddou warned that he will bring to justice anyone inciting violence or hatred. “We’re not going to allow the raising of any flag other than the Tunisian,” he said, referencing the trademark black flag attributed to al-Qaeda affiliated groups. Seif Allah Hassine, also known as Abou Iyadh, the leader of Ansar al-Shaira, accused the Tunisian government Sunday of ”calling for a war” and threatened to “bring the battle closer” to Tunisia if the government, led by the moderate Islamist party Ennahda, continued to intensify its hunt for jihadists.
Writing for The Atlantic, Steven A. Cook argues that Egypt, Turkey and Tunisia are all leaning toward greater institutionalized Islamism in civil and political life. He explains, “It is hard at this point to imagine anything other than a future in which religion plays a broad and decisive role in Egyptian, Turkish, and Tunisian societies…By grounding certain institutions in Islamic tenets, Islamist elites create an environment in which religion plays a greater role in society, including in areas that have not been directly Islamized.”