ISIS seizes control of Iraq’s entire western frontier

The New York Times reports: The Sunni militant extremists who have seized a broad area of Iraq extended their control on Monday to the country’s entire western frontier, having secured nearly all official border crossings with Syria and the only one with Jordan, giving them the semblance of the new independent state that they say they intend to create in the region.

With the seizure of the Jordan crossing, which militants from the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria first assaulted late Sunday night, the Iraqi military defenses crumpled, as they have in other battlegrounds in the western and northern parts of the country over the past two weeks. ISIS control of the Jordan border raised the risks that its insurgency could menace not just Syria and Iraq, but Jordan and Saudi Arabia, two important American allies.

The border seizure came as Secretary of State John Kerry made an emergency visit to Baghdad for consultations with Iraqi leaders on the need to bridge the country’s deepening sectarian splits and form a new unity government that can halt the ISIS insurgency. That is an enormous challenge, given the polarizing effects of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, a Shiite whose autocratic tendencies have increasingly been a worry for American officials. [Continue reading...]

BBC News reports: Sunni rebels in Iraq say they have fully captured the country’s main oil refinery at Baiji, north of Baghdad.

The refinery had been under siege for 10 days with the militant offensive being repulsed several times.

The complex supplies a third of Iraq’s refined fuel and the battle has already led to petrol rationing.


Netanyahu orders strengthened barriers to protect Greater Israel

Al Jazeera reports: Israeli government has decided to build a security fence on the the border with Jordan, a report said, angering Palestinians ahead of talks with US Secretary of State.

The report published on Sunday by Israeli newspaper Maariv said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will have the construction started “immediately upon the completion of the fence on the Egyptian border”.

A spokesman for Netanyahu refused to provide details on the plan to “strengthen barriers” or comment on the Maariv report, which was picked up by the official Palestinian Wafa news agency.

The spokesman of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas denounced the reported plans.

“The Israeli premier’s statements on building a wall in the Jordan Valley is only a proactive step to foil (US State) Secretary (John) Kerry’s visit,” Nabil Abu Rudeina told Wafa.

Israel also issued tenders on Sunday to build 1,859 more settlers’ homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, settlement watchdog Peace Now told AFP news agency.

The organisation said that 1,031 plots were offered by Israel’s housing and construction ministry in the occupied West Bank and 828 in annexed East Jerusalem.


Riots erupt in Jordan: The end of absolute monarchy

Christopher Dickey reports: The blue-eyed king and beautiful queen of Jordan are facing the biggest crisis of their reign. On Tuesday night, riots and protests broke out in many of the country’s cities. Some in the crowd shouted “the people want the fall of the regime.” Others burned the monarch’s portrait. One longtime supporter of the royals even suggested privately “it’s not a question of if, but when” King Abdullah’s rule will end. That may well be an overstatement. The protests only included a few thousand people all told. But the pressures for truly major political reforms are mounting.

“I think this ushers in the beginning of the end of absolute monarchy, not themonarchy,” says Labib Kamhawi, 61, a former political science professor at Jordan University who is now a spokesman for an umbrella group of opposition parties and movements. (Kamhawi is facing sedition charges from the nervous regime for, as he puts it, “saying what I am saying to you.”)

Monarchies traditionally rely on a mystique that blends bloodlines with patriotism, and throughout history the wisest royals have been those who managed to remain above the fray of day to day politics. The latest riots, which started over a hike in fuel prices, show that the 50-year-old Abdullah is finding that game increasingly hard to play.

One buffer after another between Abdullah and popular anger has fallen away: He has named four prime ministers in the last year alone. His powerful intelligence chiefs have toppled repeatedly since he succeeded to the throne in 1999, as he first relied on them for his survival, then fired them and threw them in prison. 
[Continue reading...]


Video: Jordan claims to have foiled al Qaeda terror plot

If the Arab Spring had for some time appeared to bypass Jordan there are now indications that it is about to erupt and shake the Hashemite Kingdom. Rulers in peril have an uncanny ability to foil terrorist plots.

Last week, Ruba al-Husayni wrote in As-Safir: Jordan was not spared from the repercussions of the Arab revolutions. Despite a few, benign protests — in comparison to the million-man demonstrations in Tunisia and Egypt, and the use of weapons in Libya and Syria — the Kingdom had to deal with an escalation of demands from political movements on the one hand, and popular demonstrations on the other.

Furthermore, there are those who are calling for curtailing the powers of King Abdullah II, while others are calling for the fall of the monarchy altogether.

Similar to the Arab Spring countries, political Islam groups in Jordan — namely the Muslim Brotherhood — enjoy prominent support in society, and are known for negotiating with the regime.

The fact that the Brotherhood is adamant about boycotting the legislative elections, and called a few months ago for staging weekly demonstrations to demand political reforms, is seen as an attempt to drag the regime to the dialogue table once again. This will lead to the participation of the Brotherhood in the elections, and as a result political representation, which will pave the way for the group to control the regime in the future.

On another note, there are demands calling for the fall of the regime by other forces, which were accused of crossing red lines. These forces have been active over the past month, in which they organized protests in the al-Tafilah neighborhood, one of the largest neighborhoods in Amman.

Activists in the Ahrar Movement from al-Tafilah neighborhood issued a strongly worded statement following the arrest of its members, warning those “in the palaces” that “you are not safe from the Arab Spring.”

The activists said that the Jordanian king is “hiding under the cloak of democracy and freedom,” adding, “You are attempting to conceal the fact that you adopt fascism, and control the fate of the country and the livelihood of the citizens.”

Jordanian political Islam forces have acknowledged the presence of the aforementioned calls — even though they are very few — however, Brotherhood Deputy Comptroller General Zaki Bani Arshid told As-Safir that the Brotherhood “has not and will not adopt such calls.” [Continue reading...]


The Jordanian spring has begun

Zaki Bani Rashid writes: The call for reform started in Jordan well before the Arab spring. However, it has intensified since – not only because of the Arab revolutions, but also in response to widespread state corruption. Jordan’s reformers are demanding constitutional changes; in particular, changes to our election law so that a truly representative parliament is possible, together with an elected prime minister who is accountable to parliament.

The national demonstrations that took place earlier this month exposed the attitude of Jordanian officials toward reform. The demonstration was organised by the Muslim Brotherhood together with more than 70 independent initiatives. The announcement that the opposition was to hold a peaceful demonstration was met with a concerted campaign to disrupt it. The media even reported that radioactive pollution was present in the area of the demonstration. Various officials prepared a counter demonstration under the title “Loyalty to the King” in the same place, and at the same time.

However, the demonstration went ahead – the largest in the country’s history – putting Jordan on the path of true reform. What is most striking is that this large attendance was drawn from all parts of the country – cities, villages, Bedouin centres and refugee camps – and included many women. The official response had been designed to instil fear; it failed. Many in Jordan now speak of this demonstration as the beginning of the Jordanian spring. [Continue reading...]


Video — Jordan: A kingdom divided?


Jordan seeks Palestinian respect by offering Hamas a new home

Zvi Bar’el reports: Jordan’s King Abdullah is not an innovative leader. But last week he surprised Arab leaders and the whole world by becoming the first Arab ruler to call on Syrian President Bashar Assad to resign. “If I were in his shoes, I’d step down,” he told the BBC.

This declaration set off a storm. The king’s advisers warned him that the statement was likely to damage Jordan’s interests – and the kingdom’s relations with Syria even more. Right after the interview, representatives of the Jordanian royal court called Fahad Khitan, the editor of the Jordanian newspaper Al-Arab Al-Yawm, to ask him to delay the next edition so they could insert a few corrections.

So when the paper came out, the king said “Jordan holds that removing Assad would not change the situation and would not solve the problem.” According to an editorial, “the king has not officially adopted the position that Assad should step down; his answer in the BBC interview was made to a hypothetical question, and Jordan does not have an official stance on the question of Assad’s removal.”

But the correction arrived too late. In Damascus enraged supporters of the regime attacked the Jordanian Embassy, though Syria apologized the next day. Within a few days British newspaper The Guardian published a report saying the Jordanian king had offered his services as a mediator between the West’s position on Syria and the Arab League’s, because Abdullah believed that Europe could help reach a solution faster than the Americans.

It’s doubtful whether the Jordanian initiative could change the stance of the Arab League, which is dominated by the Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia and Qatar. They threatened that if a Syrian was invited to the foreign ministers conference in Rabat, Morocco, they wouldn’t attend.

A political and legal error

Despite his change of nuance, King Abdullah has not been able to escape his troubles at home. Two weeks after new Prime Minister Awn al-Khasawneh was appointed to calm Jordan’s streets, which had begun to show signs of rebellion, Khasawneh made a startling announcement: “The expulsion of Hamas from Jordan in 1999 was a political and legal error. I will tell you openly, when the expulsion took place, I opposed it.”

The statement was made – not by accident – after a phone call to Khasawneh from Hamas leader Khaled Meshal, congratulating him on his appointment as prime minister. According to reports from Jordan, Meshal is expected to make an official visit to Jordan after meeting in Cairo with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to conclude a rapprochement between Fatah and Hamas to establish a unity government.

Khasawneh, a 61-year-old judge who has served on the International Court of Justice, has been absent from the Jordanian political scene for 12 years and did not forge the new approach to Hamas on his own. There have been whispers in Jordan for several weeks now about the forthcoming reconciliation between Fatah and Hamas.

A no less important question is the thinking of Khasawneh, who was once part of a team negotiating with Israel and took part in the reconciliation with Jordan’s Islamic bloc, to which the Muslim Brotherhood belongs. This is part of the change in atmosphere required for the regime to prove its intention to “bridge between the public and the government.”

The thinking in Jordan is that when Assad’s regime falls, Hamas will need a new home – this is likely to be an excellent chance for Jordan to return to the center of Palestinian politics, from which it has been excluded for a decade. In recent years Egypt held a virtual monopoly; only Syria managed to place obstacles in its path and manipulate Hamas.

Wild card Qatar

The factor apparently stirring the cauldron between Jordan and Hamas is Qatar, which recently held intensive talks with Abdullah in a bid to advance Hamas’ return to Jordan. Jordanian sources say Meshal was to visit Jordan last week, accompanied by Qatar’s crown prince, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, but the visit was postponed without explanation.

It appears that Hamas, which has been silent about the brutal repression in Syria, has still not decided which way to go. If Assad falls, and even if Hamas is not asked to leave Syria, the new regime is likely to stop giving it the generous services supplied by Assad.

Qatar could be a comfortable base, but it’s far from the territories, while Jordan is conveniently near the West Bank and Gaza, even if it isn’t offering patronage on the order of Syria or Qatar. On the other hand, Hamas has had no guarantee that Jordan will agree to the opening of Hamas offices, including a communications network and perhaps logistics bases. Hamas also has a problem with Jordanian public opinion; the Jordanian elite, for example, doesn’t understand why Jordan has to reconcile with Hamas after its leadership joined the Syrian-Iranian axis.

A return of the Hamas leadership to Jordan would mark a significant political change in the organization’s position. The establishment of a base in a country that has signed a peace agreement with Israel and is committed to Israel’s security is not something even Israel can object to.


Jordan starts to shake

Nicolas Pelham writes: To measure the sturdiness of King Abdullah of Jordan against the tide of upheaval sweeping the Arab world, go to Tafila, an impoverished town tucked into a sandy bowl encircled by the Moabite Mountains 110 miles south of the royal seat of Amman. Outside the courthouse where four youths recently awaited trial on charges of cursing the king, a crime punishable in this hitherto deferential kingdom by up to three years in jail, one hundred protesters continue cussing the king, until the order comes from on high to let the four go.

Such protests are growing in intensity and geographic reach, degrading the royal stature with every chant. Last season’s innuendo against his courtiers and queen has become this season’s naked repudiation of the King. In September, demonstrators chanted S-S-S, a deliberately ambiguous call for both the regime’s islah, Arabic for reform, and isqat, overthrow. The protesters outside Tafila’s courthouse dispense with such niceties, spicing the crude one-liners with which Egypt’s revolutionaries toppled Hosni Mubarak with cheeky Bedouin rhyming couplets: “O Abdullah son of Hussein/Qadaffi’s a goner, whither your reign?”

Among the flashy young men who staff the royal court, it is common to dismiss the protests as coming from unruly poor peasants after money and jobs. But in the more sober milieux of their parents where much of Jordan’s business is conducted, the King’s inability to impose his will on the south is a cause of greater unease. For though peripheral and small in number, comprising 10 percent of the kingdom’s six million subjects, the tribesmen dominate the ranks of his security apparatus. If their dissatisfaction grows, some might be tempted, as in Egypt, to jettison their leader in order to preserve their power. Doomsday may yet be far off, but, a former senior Jordanian intelligence official tells me, each month seems worse than the last. By way of comparison he cites Black September of 1970, when an armed force rose up against the King, only this time the forces challenging his rule are those already running the country, not Palestinians opposing it.


Israeli diplomats leave Jordan ahead of protest

The New York Times reports:

Israel nearly emptied its embassy here of staff members on Thursday ahead of a planned pro-Palestinian rally outside the gates. But officials denied Israeli press reports that the diplomats had been completely evacuated over fear that the building could be ransacked, in an echo of the attack on the Israeli Embassy in Cairo last week.

Paul Hirschson, a deputy spokesman at the Israeli Foreign Ministry, said that most of the diplomats in Jordan, including the ambassador, had been due to spend the weekend in Israel anyway, and that they had left Jordan a few hours earlier than they normally would have.

“Nothing has been evacuated,” Mr. Hirschson said. “We are watching what is going on.”

The weekend staff remains in Jordan, though Israeli officials would not comment on specifics — who was staying or whether they remained inside the embassy or not.

The embassy would normally close on Thursday after office hours and reopen on Sunday. Mr. Hirschson said he expected the ambassador and all staff members to be back by Sunday.

The demonstration has been called for 6.30 p.m., when the building would be mostly empty.

Earlier, Israel’s Haaretz newspaper and other Israeli news media had reported that a convoy carrying the Israeli diplomats had left Jordan overnight for Israel.


Jordan king: Palestinians have more secure future than Israel

Haaretz reports:

Jordanian King Abdullah II said Monday that Israel’s position in the Middle East has deteriorated in the wake of the recent wave of Arab uprisings, telling a group of intellectuals that the Palestinians now have a “more secure future” than Israel.

Israel’s position is “more problematic than it has been in the past”, Abdullah told the group of authors and academics gathered at the royal palace in Amman, according to Army Radio.

The Jordanian king told the group that he had expressed these views on a recent visit to the United States. An Israeli intellectual told the king that he believed that the Arab Spring would serve Israeli interests, whereupon Abdullah answered he felt that the opposite would be true.

King Abdallah also related to proposals advocated by some Israeli rightists that his country fulfill the national aspirations of the Palestinian people. Abdallah called this so-called “Jordanian option” an unacceptable fantasy plan. He said that Jordan can never take the place of a substitute Palestinian homeland.

The king added that no American or European official has ever pressured him to support a solution to the Palestinian refugee problem that would come at the expense of the kingdom, according to Israel Radio.


Jordanians ‘welcome’ King Abdullah by pelting his car with rocks and bottles

BBC News reports:

A group of young men in the Jordanian city of Tafileh have pelted the motorcade of King Abdullah II with stones and bottles, officials say.

The king is unharmed, they add.

The attack comes a day after King Abdullah announced major reforms, promising to relinquish his right to appoint prime ministers and cabinets.

The Jordanian government spokesman later denied that such an attack had taken place.

“The motorcade of his majesty the king was not attacked,” Taher Adwan told Agence France Presse.

A Royal Palace official who accompanied the king said that he had been enthusiastically greeted, not attacked.

“It was a gesture of welcome, not an attack,” he said, according to AP.


Intifada update

Hundreds of thousands protest across Mideast
Hundreds of thousands of protesters turned out in cities across the Middle East on Friday to protest the unaccountability of their leaders and express solidarity with the uprising in Libya that Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi is trying to suppress with force.

The worst violence of the day appeared to be in Libya, where security forces shot at protesters as they left Friday prayers to try to launch the first major anti-government demonstration in the capital. Demonstrations in recent days have been in other cities, and several of those have fallen to armed rebels determined to oust Colonel Qaddafi.

Protests in Iraq also took a violent turn, with security forces firing on crowds in Baghdad, Mosul, Ramadi and in Salahuddin Province, killing at least ten people. Unlike in other Middle Eastern countries, the protesters in Iraq are not seeking to topple their leaders, but are demanding better government services after years of war and deprivation.

Religious leaders and the prime minister had pleaded with people not to take to the streets, with Moktada al-Sadr saying the new government needed a chance to improve services and Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki warning that insurgents could target the gatherings. But on Friday, the deaths came at the hands of government forces.

Demonstrations elsewhere — in Bahrain, Yemen, Jordan, Egypt and Tunisia — were almost exclusively peaceful. (New York Times)

Tahrir protesters call on old guard to go

Thousands of workers strike in Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia is now being rocked by strikes as the mood of resistance spreads across the region. A socialist in Saudi Arabia reports on how struggles in the Middle East are even spreading to the most vicious dictatorship, which is sponsored by the US

‘I went to my workplace on Thursday of last week, and I found out that there were over 3,000 workers demanding their rights before they called a general strike in the construction site in Saudi Binladin Group. The workers were very angry. Their workplace is one of the largest construction projects in the country, which is worth SR.100 billion.

However, they live in a terrible conditions. One of the workers told me, “I live in a room four metres by three metres with eight people, and for every ten people there is only one toilet.” Another Egyptian worker told me about the working conditions and the restriction of religious freedom: “They are Zionists, they don’t even allow me to pray on time!” (Socialist Worker)

Egyptian workers strike for minimum wage and independent unions

Britain’s two-faced relationship with Middle-Eastern tyranny has to end
Have you been invited to Kate’s and Wills’s wedding at Westminster Abbey on 29 April? No? I didn’t think so. Nor have I.

But Hamad Bin Isa al-Khalifa has. He happens to be the king of Bahrain, where thousands of people have been peacefully protesting against his unelected royal regime since 14 February. His Majesty’s response? On 16 February, shortly before dawn, he ordered his security forces to storm Pearl Square in the heart of Bahrain’s capital, Manama, where the protesters – emulating those who had gathered in Cairo’s Liberation Square – were camping out. The police fired rubber bullets and tear gas at the king’s sleeping subjects, killing at least four, including a two-year-old girl, and injuring hundreds of others. The next day, they switched to live ammunition.

Nonetheless, the king of Bahrain has received his gilded invitation from Buckingham Palace, embossed with the Queen’s EIIR royal cypher. The Bahraini monarch is not the only Middle East tyrant to have made the cut. Invitations are reported to have gone out to King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and King Abdullah of Jordan. Then again, given the pace of events in Tunisia and Egypt and the ongoing unrest in Libya, it is a matter of debate as to whether the two Abdullahs or Hamad will still be in power come 29 April. (Mehdi Hasan)

No real freedom without dismantling the secret political police
President Zine el Abbidin of Tunisia and President Mubarak of Egypt may have been ousted, but the terror and control of the secret political police continues unchecked and invisible to the eyes of the international community. Unless the domestic intelligence agencies: the state security investigations apparatus (SSI) in Egypt and its counterpart in Tunisia are immediately dismantled, not only will repression continue, but an underground witch-hunt against citizens who continue to press for genuine democracy will follow. There are signs that this is already happening in Tunisia where politically active citizens have once again felt the secret police force breathing down their necks.

Sihem Bensedrine, a prominent activist who was harassed under Ben Ali’s rule over attempts to set up an independent Internet newspaper and a satellite television channel, said that recently she has been again subject to surveillance by the secret police. Prior to the Jasmine revolution in Tunisia, the president’s party established a very complex and pervasive regime for monitoring ordinary citizens through the secret [political] police. According to Nadia Marzouki, a citizen had to avoid entanglements with the authorities, otherwise officials may “interfere with her enrolment at a university, her exams, her wedding or her desire to open a restaurant or shop, buy property, give birth in a hospital, obtain a passport or even buy a cellular phone: After 23 years of internalizing fear, Tunisians became their own censors.”

In post-Mubarak Egypt, the fear barrier over mentioning the SSI is now almost fully breached, but activists affirm that the officers are still in full force. The state security investigations apparatus has, since its establishment under British colonial rule, systematically served to protect the ruling regime by collecting intelligence information and using soft and brutal power against real, virtual or potential sources of dissidence. Since former Minister of Interior Habib al Adly came to power in 1997, he has worked to transform the apparatus into a parallel governance structure that uses repression, coercion and control mechanisms to remind citizens that the big SSI brother is always watching. When Mubarak announced the resignation of the government on the night of the January 28, Habib al Adly was removed from power. Technically, the SSI is supposed to be answerable to the Minister of Interior and it was assumed that the SSI would become redundant once Habib el Adly resigned. Yet what happened next suggested otherwise. Wael Saeed Abbas Ghoneim, one of the youth bloggers, was kidnapped by the State Security Investigations apparatus on January 27 and detained blindfolded for 12 days while everyone was oblivious to his whereabouts. It was assumed that he would be released shortly after January 28; but this was not the case. (Mariz Tadros)

Hamas: The US and Israel are the biggest losers in the Arab uprising
Member of Hamas’s political bureau Dr. Mahmoud Al-Zahhar said that the US and Israel are both the biggest losers in the changes taking place in the Arab world as a result of the popular revolutions.

In a press statement to Safa news agency on Saturday, Dr. Zahhar ruled out that the Egyptian revolution could immediately impact the situation in the besieged Gaza Strip due to the ruling military council’s preoccupation with its numerous and complex internal affairs.

Gaza police order male hairdressers to quit working
Hatem Ghoul was on his way to work at his hairdressing salon in Gaza City earlier this week when he got word that his employees had been paid a visit by the police.

They had left a message for Ghoul: could he drop by the police station; there was something they wanted to discuss. And, it turned out, not just him. The other four male hairdressers in the city had similar requests.

Ghoul had been expecting this for almost a year, since reports that Hamas was cracking down on men cutting and styling women’s hair. But Ghoul and his male colleagues in Gaza City continued to work, and no one stopped them.

This week he was left in no doubt. One by one, he told me, the men were called into a room where an unrelated detainee was chained to a wall by his wrists, and told to sign a pledge to give up their profession or face arrest and a 20,000 shekel (£3,400) fine. (The Guardian)


A great change is sweeping Arab political culture

Issa Khalaf writes:

As soon as news emerged that the Libyan protestors were also planning to take to the streets, I was horror-struck. This wasn’t going to be Egypt or Tunisia, or even frightened emirs, sultans, and monarchs. Libya has neither Egypt’s vibrant civil society nor developed institutions, nor a military that can easily challenge Qadhafi’s rule. Colonel Mu’ammar al-Qadhafi – variously, Guide of the First of September Great Revolution of the Socialist People’s Arab Republic, great leader of the al-Jumhuriyya al-‘Arabiyya al-Libiyya, the General Commander of Libya’s Armed Forces, the Head of [every] Council of State and of the Arab Socialist Union, the learned author of the al-kitab al-akhdar (Green Book), the Brotherly leader and Guide of the Revolution, Africa’s King of Kings, Supreme Leader regally surveying his kingdom or majestically visiting abroad accompanied by an elite, armed female bodyguard corps, ubiquitously, honorifically titled leader without official state title – was not about to take rejection lightly. Nor is this eccentric megalomaniac, a caricature of himself, about to let go of power after four decades, his son essentially in the same breath raising the spectre of social disintegration without the Leader and unleashing the full, bloody fury of the state.

True, permanent rulers everywhere don’t easily let go of one of life’s foremost aphrodisiacs, power, and can’t conceive that anyone else can rule their subjects like them, with their benevolent patriarchy. They all crave the attention and revel in the whimsical arbitrariness that accompany being number one, including hobnobbing with world leaders. Qadhafi’s flamboyance, including his romanticized ‘tent’ outings and a costume for every occasion and genre, was once curious, with an air of populism about it. But his African-style personal rule has not been a laughing matter for decades, and his endless speeches on TV and lectures to foreign audiences, including western women on converting to Islam, have nauseated his people. This ageing, narcissistic, deluded man, ruling over merely 5-6 million people in a petroleum-rich country the size of Alaska, cannot possibly accept the reality of letting go of all this, or that his people don’t want him, hence his rage and violence against them.

Qadhafi, like his now absent Egyptian counterpart, is symptomatic of Arab rulers’ stunning, unenlightened failure to pay any regard to placing their people’s future and well-being, much less encourage institutional inter-Arab cooperation for the sake of social and economic development, over their own immediate self-interest. (Whatever criticism one reserves for Egypt’s Jamal ‘abd al-Nasir, his attempt to live by principle, humbly refusing to enrich himself or his family, is admirable by today’s kleptocratic standards.) The Libyan dictator is what old Arab nationalism-turned-authoritarianism – including its ‘radical’ versions found in the regimes of Algeria, Syria, Iraq and the now hapless PLO, or ‘socialist republics’ such as Tunisia or Egypt – has wrought. This amounts to bureaucratic or tyrannical one party or no party states, violently crushing civil society, suffocating public space, privately owning and enriching themselves on state resources.

That insistent, ancient character of élite Arab political culture – the reliance on narrow social groups and classes, those with wealth and economic power to sustain an unwritten contract maintaining the dictator’s rule and circulating power within the state – has not yet disappeared. If anything, it has been supplemented in the last fifty years by secretive, shadowy, Qadhafi- and Saddam-like personality cults and intelligence services. All Arab regimes, regardless of regime type, have essentially behaved like dynasties.


Intifada update

Mubarak given up, wants to die in Sharm says Saudi official
Egypt’s ousted president has given up and wants to die in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh where he has been living since a popular uprising ended his rule, a Saudi official said on Wednesday.

Hosni Mubarak, 82, has suffered from health problems in recent years and travelled to Germany for gall bladder surgery in March last year. Reports of a further decline have increased since he stepped down on Friday after three decades in power.

An official in Saudi Arabia said the kingdom had offered to host Mubarak but he was determined to see out his days in Egypt. Official confirmation could not immediately be obtained from the Saudi government. (Reuters)

Ex-judge to head Egypt reform panel
Egypt’s new army rulers have appointed Tareq al-Bishry, a retired judge, to head a committee set up to suggest constitutional changes.

Al-Bishry was a strong supporter of an independent judiciary during Hosni Mubarak’s rule and is respected in legal circles for his independent views.

“I have been chosen by the Higher Military Council to head the committee for constitutional amendments,” al-Bishry said on Tuesday.

The Higher Military Council had earlier vowed to rewrite the constitution within 10 days and put it to a referendum within two months. (Al Jazeera)

Protests continue in Egypt despite army admonitions
Despite calls from the Supreme Armed Forces Council to end labor protests, small demonstrations continued on Wednesday.

Central Auditing Organization employees staged a sit-in Wednesday demanding that the organization be given total independence from the government. Employees also called for amending regulations, promotions and a bonus increase, among other demands.

Meanwhile, about 2000 Manpower Ministry employees protested against corruption within a group of investors who were appointed by Minister Aisha Abdel Hadi. Protesters called for bonus pay and a monthly travel allowance of LE 200. (Al-Masry Al-Youm)

After 25 Bahman’s success, the challenges for Iran’s Green Movement
The Iranian regime’s response to the street protests of Monday was predictable. Rather than realising that a sizeable proportion of its people were maintaining serious and justifiable grievances about the ruling elite, institutions of the Islamic Republic have put up a preposterous show of defiance. A large group of Parliamentary deputies openly agitated for violence and asked for Mir Hossein Mousavi and Mehdi Karroubi to be killed.

The classic line of UK-US-Israel-”terrorist” MKO (Mujahedin-e-Khalq) involvement patterns were put out in full force. The Secretary of the Expediency Council and 2009 Presidential candidate Mohsen Rezaei, a man routinely praised by pundits as a voice of balance and reason on the current Iranian political battleground, called both Mousavi and Karroubi “servants of the Americans” and laid out an ultimatum for the two former Presidential candidates: disown the protests by Tuesday night or face the “fully justifiable” response of the “people”.

The two Green leaders did nothing of that sort. In communiques published on their official website (over which there are some doubts of legitimacy, given that Mousavi has supposedly been cut off from contact since Sunday), both Mousavi and Karroubi praised the behaviour of the people on Monday and stated their determination to persist with their struggle.

Both messages fell short, however, of taking stock of the mood on the streets of Tehran and other cities on 25 Bahman. As relayed by the considerable YouTube footage, the bulk of the slogans shouted by the protestors were directed straight at the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who is now considered the main “culprit” of the current predicament. But no mention of Khamenei is made by either Mousavi or Karroubi, despite the ringing chant on YouTube associating the Supreme Leader’s fate with that of former Egyptian President Mubarak and Tunisian leader Ben Ali. Both Mousavi and Karroubi have also decided to maintain the controversial theme of “loyalty to the Late Imam’s [Ayatollah Khomeini] Values”. Mousavi’s alleged communique even said that such loyalty is the sole desire of the protestors, a comment which completely discounts the frequent and clear calls for the termination of the velayat-e faqih doctrine — introduced and brought forward by Khomeini — as principal element in the leadership of the Islamic Republic. (Enduring America)

U.S. follows two paths on unrest in Iran and Bahrain
The Obama administration has responded quite differently to two embattled governments that have beaten protesters and blocked the Internet in recent days to fend off the kind of popular revolt that brought down Egypt’s government.

With Iran — a country under sanctions pursuing a nuclear program that has put it at odds with the West — the administration has all but encouraged protesters to take to the streets. With Bahrain, a strategically important ally across the Persian Gulf from Iran, it has urged its king to address the grievances of his people.

Those two approaches were on vivid display at a news conference on Tuesday.

President Obama accused Iran’s leaders of hypocrisy for first encouraging the protests in Egypt, which they described as a continuation of Iran’s own revolution, and then cracking down on Iranians who used the pretext to come out on the streets. He then urged protesters to muster “the courage to be able to express their yearning for greater freedoms and a more representative government.”

But speaking to other restive countries, including Bahrain, Mr. Obama directed his advice to governments, not protesters, illustrating just how tricky diplomacy in the region has become. He said his administration, in talking to Arab allies, was sending the message that “you have a young, vibrant generation within the Middle East that is looking for greater opportunity; and that if you are governing these countries, you’ve got to get out ahead of change. You can’t be behind the curve.”

Mr. Obama’s words on Iran, on the other hand, were among the strongest he has ever voiced in encouraging a street revolt, something his administration initially shied away from doing in June 2009, after a disputed presidential election provoked an uprising that was crushed by the government. Later, the administration embraced the protests, but by then the “Green Movement” in Iran had been crushed. (New York Times)

From Tunis to Cairo to Riyadh?
In any authoritarian regime, instability seems unthinkable up to the moment of upheaval, and that is true now for Saudi Arabia. But even as American influence recedes across the Middle East, the U.S. soon may face the staggering consequences of instability here, in its most important remaining Arab ally. While a radical regime in Egypt would threaten Israel directly but not America, a radical anti-Western regime in Saudi Arabia—which produces one of every four barrels of oil world-wide—clearly would endanger America as leader of the world economy. (Wall Street Journal — subscription required)

Teen killed as Iraq guards fire into demo
A teenager was killed Wednesday when private guards shot at protesters who set fire to several Iraqi government offices, in the country’s most violent demonstrations since uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia.
The protests, which also left 27 people wounded, took place in the southern city of Kut, capital of Wasit province, with more than 2,000 demonstrators calling for the provincial governor to resign over poor basic services.

The demonstration began at 9:00 am (0600 GMT) and saw protesters set fire to three buildings — the offices of Wasit provincial council, the governorate’s main administrative building and the governor’s official residence.
Policemen and soldiers fired their weapons into the air in a bid to dissuade protesters, while private security guards employed by Wasit council opened fire directly into the crowd, for which a senior policeman pledged punishment.

Majid Mohammed Hassan from Kut hospital’s administrative unit put the toll at one dead and 27 wounded. He said the fatality had been a 16-year-old boy who suffered a bullet to the chest. (AFP)

Libya: Protests ‘rock city of Benghazi’
Hundreds of people have clashed with police and pro-government supporters in the Libyan city of Benghazi, reports say.

Eyewitnesses told the BBC the overnight unrest followed the arrest of an outspoken critic of the government.

The lawyer was later said to have been released but the protests continued. (BBC)

What the hell is happening in Yemen?
Tuesday, Feb. 15: Al-Jazeera again reports 3,000 anti-government protesters. I think they’re mainly pulling this from the AFP (I can’t find their article from Tuesday) at this point. That is definitely untrue. About 500 pro and 500 anti-government demonstrators were at the old campus of Sana’a University. Police were keeping them apart as a few of them threw rocks at each other. They filed out around 1 PM, which is lunch/qat time. The giant police force in the central of the city AJE mentions, again, is the group of Saleh supporters that are camping out in Tahrir, enjoying the complimentary vittles.

Wednesday, Feb. 16: A few colleagues went to both old and new campuses of Sana’a University today and all of them said there were nothing but pro-government demos. Somehow, we end up with this gem form the AP. They claim that THOUSANDS of policemen blocked THOUSANDS of student protesters from Sana’a University from joining THOUSANDS of OTHER student protesters somewhere else in Sana’a. That’s rich…and impossible. This AP article firmly establishes the Yemeni alternate universe, somewhere in a galaxy far, far away. Maybe in that Yemen the Russian Club has reasonably priced drinks? No, impossible.

Keep in mind that this is only in Sana’a. I can confidently say that demonstrations in Taiz and Aden are quite large and the government is probably trying to contain them more violently. What is actually going on in Taiz is a mystery, I don’t know of any journalists at all working in that city. From the pictures I’ve seen and the things I’ve read earlier in the week, I can confidently say that if a revolution is going to take place in Yemen (its still probably won’t) its going to start in Taiz. By all (credible) accounts, the protests in Sana’a are winding down. There are plans for more protests next week. Look to those demonstrations to see if the grassroots movement is really going to take hold in Sana’a. (Jeb Boone)

Yemen, UK discuss security cooperation
Yemen and Britain discussed here on Wednesday aspects of security cooperation and means of boosting them, especially areas of training and combating terrorism and enhancing the coastguard abilities.

This came during a meeting brought together Interior Minister Mutahar al-Masri and British ambassador to Yemen Jonathan Wilks, who touched on arrangements for holding the meeting of Friends of Yemen and the possibility of supporting security aspects .

The British ambassador hailed the performance of the Yemeni security services , especially in the counter-terrorism unity and the coastguard authority. (Saba Net)

Jordan revokes restrictions on public gatherings
Protest marches in Jordan will no longer need government permission, Jordan’s interior minister said Tuesday, bowing to growing pressure to allow wider freedoms.

In street protests in the past five weeks, Muslim opposition groups, their leftist allies and independent rights activists demanded that the government remove restrictions on free speech and assembly.
Jordan’s King Abdullah II responded by promising changes to pertinent laws, including a controversial election law which critics say allows the king’s loyalists to dominate the legislature, the only elected national decision-making body.

Srour said Tuesday that protesters would still have to inform authorities of any gathering two days in advance to “ensure public safety” and that they would have to observe public order. However, he stressed that the government would no longer interfere in such matters. (AP)


Intifada update

Now Iran feels the heat
On Monday, as Tehran once again became the scene of clashes between the security forces and demonstrators defying the government’s ban on street rallies, the paradoxical impact of the Arab world’s democratic awakening on Iran became glaringly obvious.

External, that is, geopolitical gains, may go hand-in-hand with political losses at home, and much depends on the government’s political savvy to close a credibility gap, as reflected in its open embrace of Egypt’s revolution while, simultaneously, trying to shut down the opposition movement on its streets known as the Green movement.

Thousands of protesters took to the streets in answer to calls from opposition parties in support of the uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt that have led to the leaders in those countries stepping down. They met strong resistance from the security forces, who fired into the air and used tear gas in the streets near Azadi (Freedom) Square, the announced site of the rally. At least one person was reported killed and many injured.

The rally soon turned into an anti-government demonstration, as happened in the 2009 street protests following disputed elections that saw President Mahmud Ahmadinejad earn a second term.

Notably on Monday, though, rather than anger being directed at Ahmadinejad and his administration, sections of the crowd were heard shouting against Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the heart of power in the Islamic Republic. This is an unusual development.

In contrast to muted comments on the weeks-long street unrest in Egypt, United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed support for “the aspirations of the people” who took to the streets in Iran on Monday. (Asia Times)

Bahrain: ‘day of rage’ simmers
Jasmine may be the scent sweeping across parts of the Arab world, but tear gas was the smell that permeated parts of Bahrain today.

A “day of rage” planned by Bahraini youths has resulted in clashes between demonstrators and security forces. As the day went on, the confrontations grew increasingly frequent and violent, with groups of as many as hundreds seen challenging lines of riot police. Despite a government promise to allow peaceful protests, riot police have used rubber bullets and tear gas to break up demonstrators.

It is the first significant public protest in the oil-rich Gulf since Tunisia and Egypt ousted their presidents through widespread revolt.

The Gulf Cooperation Council, a loose bloc of Arab peninsula states, is arguably the world’s richest country club, with over a trillion dollars stashed away in foreign reserves and almost half the planet’s proven oil reserves still underground. This wealth has bought autocratic rulers domestic support and helped insulate the bloc from the current wave of Arab unrest.

However, Bahrain, the smallest of the GCC countries, is starting to look like the odd one out, due to its strained government finances and unique demographic makeup.

Unlike the rest of the Gulf, Bahrain is a Shia-majority country ruled by a Sunni royal family. The Shia, and some Sunni liberals, have for decades complained about limited rights, discrimination and heavy-handed rule. (Financial Times)

Unrest in Bahrain could threaten key U.S. military outpost
The tiny oil-producing state just off the east coast of Saudi Arabia is home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, headquarters for a U.S. Marine Corps amphibious unit and a crucial base for U.S. Air Force jet fighter interceptors and spy planes.

Bahrain gives Washington a base in the very heart of the Gulf from which it can protect and monitor the movement of 40% of the world’s oil through the Strait of Hormuz, spy on Iran and support pro-Western Gulf states from potential threats.

The United States has had a naval presence in Bahrain since 1947, but that waned in 1977 when an agreement to allow Washington to dock its Middle East Fleet in Bahrain was terminated following unsuccessful Shiite attempts to end the Khalifa monarchy and expel the U.S. Navy.

In the 1990s, the U.S. naval presence was renewed and expanded as a result of the First Gulf War, when Bahrain became a primary coalition naval base and the centre of air operations against Iraqi targets.

The Fifth Fleet, with 15 warships and an aircraft carrier battle group, has made Bahrain its headquarters since 1991.

Still, the U.S. military presence has always been a sore point in the emirate’s tumultuous politics and Washington has been sensitive to the impact its bases might have on the Muslim state.

Iran, which has frequently threatened to choke off oil shipments through the Strait of Hormuz if attacked, would love to see the U.S. Navy expelled from Bahrain and can be expected to encourage the Shiite opposition. (National Post)

Thousands rally across Yemen
Thousands of protesters have taken to the streets across Yemen for the fourth straight day, demanding political reforms and the downfall of Ali Abdullah Saleh, the country’s long-serving president.

The 3,000-strong throng of demonstrators in the capital, Sanaa, comprising students, human rights activists and lawyers clad in black robes, clashed with police and pro-government supporters on Monday.

Rival groups, armed with clubs and rocks, were seen facing off after supporters of Saleh reportedly confronted the protesters.

At least three people were injured, including one stabbed with a traditional Yemeni dagger, in fighting outside Sanaa’s university where protesters chanted: “A revolution of free opinion … A revolution of freedom … We should be allowed to decide.”

Further chants of “After Mubarak, Ali” and “No corruption after today” reverberated around the city. (Al Jazeera)

Syria jails schoolgirl blogger for 5 years
A special Syrian security court sentenced a teenaged blogger on Monday to five years in jail on charges of revealing information to a foreign country, despite U.S. calls to release her, rights defenders said.

The long jail term for high school student Tal al-Molouhi, under arrest since 2009 and now 19 years old, is another sign of an intensifying crackdown on opposition in Syria in the wake of the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions, they said.

Molouhi had written articles on the Internet saying she yearned for a role in shaping the future of Syria, which has been under the control of the Baath Party for the last 50 years.

She also asked U.S. President Barack Obama to do more to support the Palestinian cause. A security court charged her several months ago with “revealing information that should remain hushed to a foreign country”.

Wearing trousers and a cream coloured wool hat, Molouhi was brought chained and blindfolded under heavy security on Monday to the court, which convenes at a cordoned section of the Palace of Justice in the centre of the Syrian capital.

Molouhi was motionless after hearing the sentence and said nothing. Her mother, who was waiting in the courtyard, burst out crying after being told the sentence.

Lawyers, the only ones allowed in the closed session, said the judge — there are no prosecutors in the special court — did not give evidence or details as to why Molouhi was charged. (Reuters)

Thousands of community leaders sign allegiance letter to Jordan’s King Abdullah
More than 3,000 tribal leaders and key figures on Monday signed a letter addressed to His Majesty King Abdullah in which they pledged loyalty to the Hashemite Throne and expressed faith in the King’s reform efforts.

The letter, a copy of which was made available to The Jordan Times, included former prime ministers, former ministers, ex-senior military officers, current and former MPs, tribal leaders as well as academicians from different tribal affiliations and walks of life.

“At a time when the country is witnessing openness to the media and freedom of expression, some groups have started to raise their voices taking advantage of the regional turbulence seeking publicity,” veteran MP Abdul Karim Dughmi (Mafraq) told The Jordan Times yesterday.

Recently, Dughmi said, some individuals who claimed to be “defenders of the country’s interests” started to raise their voices but in a wrong manner, adding that freedom of expression is a right guaranteed by the Constitution as long as it does not undermine security and stability of the country. (Jordan Times)


Uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt reveal potent challenge to Middle East seats of power

The New York Times reports:

As protesters in Tahrir Square faced off against pro-government forces, they drew a lesson from their counterparts in Tunisia: “Advice to the youth of Egypt: Put vinegar or onion under your scarf for tear gas.”

The exchange on Facebook was part of a remarkable two-year collaboration that has given birth to a new force in the Arab world — a pan-Arab youth movement dedicated to spreading democracy in a region without it. Young Egyptian and Tunisian activists brainstormed on the use of technology to evade surveillance, commiserated about torture and traded practical tips on how to stand up to rubber bullets and organize barricades.

They fused their secular expertise in social networks with a discipline culled from religious movements and combined the energy of soccer fans with the sophistication of surgeons. Breaking free from older veterans of the Arab political opposition, they relied on tactics of nonviolent resistance channeled from an American scholar through a Serbian youth brigade — but also on marketing tactics borrowed from Silicon Valley.

As their swelling protests shook the Egyptian state, they were locked in a virtual tug of war with a leader with a very different vision — Gamal Mubarak, the son of President Hosni Mubarak, a wealthy investment banker and ruling-party power broker. Considered the heir apparent to his father until the youth revolt eliminated any thought of dynastic succession, the younger Mubarak pushed his father to hold on to power even after his top generals and the prime minister were urging an exit, according to American officials who tracked Hosni Mubarak’s final days.

The defiant tone of the president’s speech on Thursday, the officials said, was largely his son’s work.

“He was probably more strident than his father was,” said one American official, who characterized Gamal’s role as “sugarcoating what was for Mubarak a disastrous situation.” But the speech backfired, prompting Egypt’s military to force the president out and assert control of what they promise will be a transition to civilian government.

Now the young leaders are looking beyond Egypt. “Tunis is the force that pushed Egypt, but what Egypt did will be the force that will push the world,” said Walid Rachid, one of the members of the April 6 Youth Movement, which helped organize the Jan. 25 protests that set off the uprising. He spoke at a meeting on Sunday night where the members discussed sharing their experiences with similar youth movements in Libya, Algeria, Morocco and Iran.