Saturday, July 28, 2012

Protesters Attacked in Saudi Arabia

Saudi Police Fire on Qatif Protesters

Al-Akhbar English
Friday, July 27 2012

Saudi security forces opened fire on protesters in the tense Qatif district of the Eastern Province on Friday, wounding several as hundreds marched to demand political reform and the release of detainees, witnesses said.

Live rounds fired by anti-riot police wounded a number of protesters who took to the streets in the early hours, the witnesses said, without specifying a figure.

The interior ministry said security forces dealt with "rioters who burned tires" in parts of Qatif, arresting several people, including Mohammed al-Shakhuri, whose name figures on a list of 23 wanted people.

"There were no casualties," the ministry said in a statement carried by the official SPA news agency.

Witnesses said that Shakhuri had been taken to the military hospital in nearby Dhahran with bullet wounds to his back and neck.

The demonstrators carried posters of detainees, including prominent cleric Nimr al-Nimr who was violently arrested earlier this month, witnesses said.

In recent days, confrontations have intensified between police and protesters from the kingdom's marginalized Shia minority – estimated at around two million and mostly concentrated in the oil-rich Eastern Province.

Two protesters were killed earlier this month, triggering protests at government buildings in Qatif.

The district witnessed a spate of protests after an outbreak of violence between Shia pilgrims and religious police in the Muslim holy city of Medina in February last year.

The protests escalated when the kingdom led a force of Gulf troops into neighboring Bahrain the following month to help crush a pro-democracy uprising against the hardline Sunni monarchy.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Renewing the Palestinian Brotherhood?

Egypt's Morsi Meets Hamas Chief

Agence France Presse
19 July 2012

Cairo — Egypt's President Mohamed Morsi met Palestinian Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal on Thursday, a day after hosting his rival Mahmud Abbas amid scrutiny over how Cairo's policy on the Palestinians might change.

The Islamist Morsi affirmed his support for the Palestinians in the Gaza Strip which is ruled by Hamas, Meshaal said after the meeting.

"Morsi affirmed Egypt's support for Palestinians in Gaza, which confirms a new era in relations between Egypt and the Palestinian cause," said Meshaal, in comments published by the Egyptian state news agency MENA.

Hamas hailed the "historic" meeting, the first between a delegation from the Palestinian movement and an Egyptian head of state.

Hamas leader Ismail Haniya will meet Morsi, for the first time, in Cairo next week, Haniya's office said.

Israel and Egypt have partly blockaded Gaza, which neighbours both nations, since 2007, when Hamas violently routed Abbas's Fatah from the coastal enclave.

Egypt's ousted dictator Hosni Mubarak eased the blockade in 2010, but did not allow commercial traffic through the Rafah border crossing as Hamas had hoped.

Morsi, in the past an outspoken backer of the Palestinians who pledged during his campaign for the presidency to support their "right of resistance" against Israel, has adopted a more subdued tone since his election.

Under Mubarak, Egypt had tried to broker a reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah, which foundered amid accusations between the rivals.

Meshaal said Morsi would soon schedule a meeting with him and Abbas to push the unity deal.

Fatah, which governs the West Bank, and Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, signed a national reconciliation agreement in April 2011 in Cairo under Egyptian mediation.

Under this deal the two governments should make way for a non-partisan transitional executive charged with organising elections within a year. However the text remains a dead letter.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

The American Spring in Yemen

US Ambassador in Yemen: The New Dictator

The American ambassador increasingly casts himself in the guise of leader, with the acquiescence of bickering Yemeni politicians and military chiefs.

By Jamal Jubran
Al-Akhbar English
Tuesday, July 10 2012

Sanaa - His Excellency the Ambassador of the United States, Gerald Feierstein, arrives at the Italian ambassador’s residence to attend an Italian national day reception. He walks in with a frown, disregarding the other guests, and makes for a far corner of the garden with a glass of red wine in hand. Within moments, a gaggle of senior Yemeni officials rush towards him, each wanting to discuss a problem he is facing in running his respective department.

The scene is a microcosm of how Yemen has become under the trusteeship imposed on the country since a “consensual solution” to its political crisis was reached. This led both to the departure of President Ali Abdallah Saleh under the terms of the so-called Gulf Initiative, and to a firm line being drawn under Yemen’s youth-led revolution.

The same American ambassador appeared on Yemeni TV screens in an interview with the state channel and declared “we will not allow” the release of imprisoned journalist Abdel Ilah Shaeh, who was sentenced to five years in jail after exposing the killing of 35 women and children in a US drone strike in December 2009. Feierstein explained that Shaeh had extensive links with al-Qaeda and posed a threat to the security of the US.

He thus overruled for a second time the presidential pardon that the respected journalist obtained from Saleh before the outbreak of the revolution last year. The first time, a quick phone call from President Barack Obama was enough for Saleh to shelve the pardon and keep Shaeh behind bars.

The US and its envoy do not stop at that. When Yemeni journalists held a protest march to the American embassy to protest against what the ambassador said about their detained colleague, they saw vehicles used for transferring prisoners entering the embassy compound. It was learned that these vehicles convey terrorism suspects from the nearby central jail for interrogation inside the compound under the supervision of FBI terrorism experts.

The extent of American meddling was further highlighted by the publication on local and foreign websites of leaked letters from the US ambassador to Yemeni Interior Minister Abdul Qadir Qahtan, instructing him to make certain security personnel changes, which he described as necessary to helping bring civil peace to the country. This leaves no room for doubt that Feierstein has assumed a de facto governing role in Yemen, pushing for progress but only in the manner that he deems appropriate, and which does not, of course, conflict with broader US policy in Yemen.

The US ambassador had no qualms about paying a visit last week to Zinjibar in the province of Abyan, accompanied by the administrator of USAID, to inspect conditions in the town after the Yemeni army’s successful expulsion of the forces of Ansar al-Sharia. The group, affiliated with al-Qaeda, had controlled the region for nearly a year, imposing its brand of Islamic sharia and penalties. There were muted protests about the un-diplomatic nature of the visit from some of the country’s political groups, but no outright condemnation.

Nobody is objecting. All the officials concerned have come to treat Feierstein’s interferences, and Yemen’s indubitably subject status, as a fact of life.

Analyst Qaderi Ahmad Haidar says the country has indeed fallen under effective US trusteeship, and blames the Gulf Initiative and the mechanisms that were agreed to implement it. “It is a deplorable and lamentable picture we see today,” he told Al-Akhbar. “We didn’t expect the pure revolution of the Yemeni youth to end in this.”

The US ambassador’s pronouncements are incessant, and oblivious to the basic diplomatic norms that govern relations between two states. He is constantly making media appearances to discuss, explain and clarify aspects of Yemen’s daily affairs, as though he were the country’s undeclared president.

During the course of one recent appearance he said: “We are now in the second phase of the Gulf Initiative... I met with the president yesterday... We believe everyone should take part in the National Dialogue... President Obama has issued an executive order which enables us to punish individuals or groups who obstruct the implementation of the agreement (the Gulf Initiative)... We are working to restructure the army and security forces... We are pleased with what has been achieved so far... We are on the right track.”

The ambassador’s use of the first person when discussing Yemeni affairs strikes Muhammad Ayesh, editor of the independent newspaper al-Awwali, as telling. It serves to cast him not just as Yemen’s “governor,” but as a leader propelled by a transformative revolution into the country’s top position. “The political and military classes surrendered the country’s affairs completely to the world powers, and then preoccupied themselves with their internecine struggles,” Ayesh remarks. He notes that the country’s factions were incapable of reaching agreement on clearing barricades and evacuating armed forces from the major cities without the intercession of the US ambassador.

Journalist and political analyst Mansour Hael agrees that it is the weakness and fragmentation of the country’s political groups that is most to blame for turning the US ambassador into “the chief of country’s political and security operations room,” and effectively giving him the final say on a host of domestic issues.

“Yemenis have come to be governed by a state of division, horizontal and vertical. The national unity government is split, and there’s a split between civil society organizations and the political parties,” says Hael, who edits the newspaper Al-Tajammu. “That’s what allows the American ambassador to hold the all the political strings in Yemen.”

Sunday, July 8, 2012

A Divided Libya Votes

Libya Elections: Polling Station Raids Mar First Vote Since Gaddafi's Death

Libyans turn out in their millions for first national ballot since 1964 despite efforts by federalists to disrupt polls.

By Luke Harding in Tripoli
The Guardian
Saturday, 7 July 2012

Federalists in eastern Libya attacked several polling stations on Saturday as the country voted in the historic first election since last year's revolution and the death of Muammar Gaddafi.

Although voting took place peacefully across much of the country, armed gangs in Benghazi stormed a polling station and burned ballot papers. Two other polling stations were attacked, with one man shot in the arm. There were similar incidents in the eastern coastal towns of Guba and Suluq, where fighters stopped ballot papers being delivered.

However, in the capital, Tripoli, and other cities thousands queued from 8am to vote, the overwhelming majority for the first time.

Libya's last election took place in 1964 under King Idris al-Senussi, the monarch Gaddafi ousted five years later.

Many residents were overwhelmed at the opportunity to vote. "I'm so excited. I woke up at six this morning, before my daughters," said Mabroka Amar, 69, at a polling station in Tripoli. She said that she dimly remembered last voting almost half a century ago, adding: "A new country has been born. God willing, I will be alive to vote again and again."

The mood across the capital was festive. Residents waved the red, black and green revolutionary colours and honked their car horns. Several hundred gathered at Martyrs' Square, in the centre of the city, and kissed the ground. Others posted photographs of their fingers – dyed purple by officials after voting – on Facebook. One jokey doctored version showed the late Gaddafi also voting.

Many said that the idea of taking part in an election had previously been little more than fantasy, with Gaddafi a vehement opponent of parliamentary democracy. "I'm 35 years old. I've never voted. The devil was with us from 1969. This is like the first man on the moon," said Ali Ilhouri at Tripoli's Allassma high school, which was serving as a polling station.

He dismissed the federalist protesters in Benghazi and eastern Libya as a relatively small group of "mad fanatics". He said: "I was born in Benghazi. There are lots of other peaceful ways to protest in this election. It isn't civilised."

The federalists are deeply unhappy at the distribution of seats in the new national congress. The outgoing National Transitional Council allocated seats on the basis of population numbers, with 100 going to the west, 60 to the east and 40 to the south. The federalists say that the regions should have a third each.

The revolution has reignited Benghazi's long-standing feelings of marginalisation and injustice, fuelled by the city being the first to rise up against Gaddafi on 17 February last year.

On Friday, armed groups shut several important eastern oil terminals in protest. They also used anti-aircraft guns to fire on a helicopter carrying election materials, forcing it to land and killing a 22-year-old election volunteer.

"The country will be in a state of paralysis from now on because no one in the government is listening to us," Hamed al-Hassi, a defiant former rebel who now heads the high military council of Cyrenaica, the name for the eastern region, told Reuters.

The national election commission in Tripoli admitted that some election material had been "destroyed" in Benghazi. But it said that polling had gone ahead in 94% of voting centres – 1,453 out of 1,554 – with officials trying to deliver new ballot papers where the security situation allowed.

Against expectations, voting was a success across the south, it said, including in the remote south-eastern town of Kufra, the scene of vicious fighting between Arab Zuwayy and black Toubou forces. Two polling stations for Toubou were functioning, although two in Kufra had not functioned, he said, after local Toubou leaders "refused to receive" elections materials.

Libya's election commission chairman, Nuri al-Abbar, said all but seven polling stations had managed to open, despite sporadic federalist violence in the east of the country.

"The election has gone on in a very positive manner, much more than we expected," he said, adding that around 1.2 million out of 2.8 million registered voters had cast their ballot by mid-afternoon.

A spokesman for the interior ministry, Araaf al-Hoja, admitted that it was hard to stop federalist gunmen from "violating" polling stations. "Unfortunately we know many people have weapons," he said. "But overall the security situation is very good."

Western leaders praised the election, with the US senator John McCain on a visit to Tripoli, and British foreign secretary William Hague tweeting enthusiastically that the vote was a "historic moment and achievement after much suffering".

Results will not be known for several days. The Muslim Brotherhood's Justice and Development party is expected to do well, with some predicting that Islamists will sweep to power, as they have done in post-Arab spring elections in neighbouring Tunisia and Egypt.

On Saturday, however, many voters said that they had instead supported Mahmoud Jibril, a pragmatic moderate and Libya's former interim prime minister until his resignation in October. His National Forces Alliance appears to enjoy broad appeal.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

Economic Insecurity in the West Bank

West Bank High Life Masks Deepening Economic Crisis

By Noah Browning
Wednesday, July 4 2012

RAMALLAH, West Bank - Past the Israeli sentry towers blackened by firebombs and the entrance to a refugee camp emblazoned with posters of rifle-clenching militants, downtown Ramallah sparkles.

The scars of an intractable conflict and occupation melt away: cafes bustle with smartly dressed patrons, water-pipe smoke perfumes the air and basslines from trendy clubs shake the night. New model BMWs ply leafy avenues beneath villas and tall apartment blocks sprout from the West Bank hills.

But it's more mirage than miracle.

"Thank God for loans," said Ibrahim el-Far, owner of the newly-opened branch of the upscale Italian cafe chain Segafredo Zanetti in Ramallah, the Palestinians' commercial capital and headquarters of their government in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Growth in the West Bank is concentrated in Ramallah and in real estate and services even as many sectors like agriculture and construction languish.

Government spending and living on credit at all levels of Palestinian society is rampant and, as the euro zone crisis has shown, may prove to be the economy's undoing.

Bank lending for personal consumption in the Palestinian territories has risen five-fold in the last two years to $417 million. Total credit for cars alone accounts for a further $119 million, according to the Palestinian Monetary Authority.

"If you're immersed in troubles, why not try to live well, have night life and good coffee? If we've been slapped once by occupation, the slap from the credit bill won't hurt as much," El-Far said.

Aid for the donor-dependent Palestinian Authority (PA), which exercises limited self-rule in the West Bank under interim peace deals with Israel, has slowed to a trickle.

Salaries for a swollen public sector again cannot be paid in full this month. The productive base for the economy is shrivelling while unemployment climbs along with poverty.

An economic crisis has deepened - growth is down from a peak of 9 percent in 2010 after the lows of the Intifada to 5.4 percent in the first quarter of 2012 from the same 2011 period.

The Palestinian Authority accounts for almost a third of the $3.5 billion in credit given by banks in the Palestinian territories but, with donor aid flagging and revenues down, it is not clear how much longer that can last.

A Palestinian request for a $1 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund was turned down, officials said this week. And foreign aid is waning partly because of global economic conditions and partly in a backlash to the Palestinians' abortive bid for statehood at the United Nations last fall.

Israeli-Palestinian violence has dropped off dramatically since the end of a 2000-2005 Palestinian uprising. But peace and coveted statehood remain elusive. Negotiations with Israel have been frozen since 2010 amidst bitter misgivings among Palestinians over Jewish settlement building in the West Bank.


The appeal of property becomes clear by looking out the windows of the stately 10th-floor office of Kareem Abdul Hadi, a manager in Palestine Development and Investment Inc., or PADICO, the biggest privately-owned enterprise in the Palestinian territories and a holding company for everything from swish eateries and luxury hotels to real estate and construction.

Cement highrises surge from the ground in the middle of verdant patches of nothing - "bald spots", Abdul Hadi dubs them - rendered largely out of bounds to Palestinian administration and construction as per the 1994 Oslo agreements setting out different zones of control in the West Bank.

The wall built by Israel winds across the landscape - part of a barrier Israel says ensures its security against suicide bombers but the international court of justice says is illegal and Palestinians decry as a land grab. While Israel's controls hamstring commerce, they are a boon to the property market.

"Land in Palestine is one of the only safe investments, both because the Oslo agreements made it more scarce and because it has historically never gone down in value," Abdul Hadi said.

"The same doesn't apply for real estate, and while value hasn't dropped, some housing projects are sitting empty, and people haven't bought them up yet."

Abdul Hadi's firm is investing in a members-only executive club and spa with views of the sweeping Mediterranean littoral below, and importing a luxury restaurant from Jordan, but prospects for undertakings that would create a substantial number of jobs and spur growth have dimmed.

Sectors like agriculture, manufacturing, and construction actually contracted in the first quarter of this year, according to preliminary figures from the World Bank.

"The problem is an unfriendly investment environment, caused by the Israeli occupation's wall and restricted access. It makes investors unsure about putting money into Palestine," said Mohammed Shtayyeh, a minister in charge of the Palestinian Economic Council for Development and Reconstruction.

Around two-thirds of the West Bank is policed and administered exclusively by Israel, and the Palestinian-run cantons float precariously in an interstice of Israeli settlements, military bases and roads.

But Shtayyeh admits his government also deserves blame.

"The PA is not the owner of the means of production, but it should have encouraged more interest by the private sector and foreign direct investment in developing the productive base here," he said.


Beyond occupied land and limited water, even the air waves in the West Bank offer no safe outlet for economic growth.

Israeli authorities deny the Palestinian Authority and therefore Palestinian mobile phone providers access to the high-tech 3G frequency, while granting it even to Jewish settlements.

Sam Bahour, a telecoms entrepreneur-turned-business consultant, said any potential for a high-tech industry had been stymied by that move.

"Israel is in total control of the assets that could make for a real economy, and we've been left to manage the crumbs," he said. "It's a donor-driven economy and will remain one until the occupation ends."

International organizations and the public sector concentrate in Ramallah, where 75,000 people live, pulling jobs and wealth from the rest of the West Bank into its orbit and leaving other towns and cities in its shadow.

Poverty and joblessness have increased in the West Bank in 2012, both hovering at around a fifth of the population of 2.6 million.

"The government focuses on growth regardless of how it is achieved so that it will get some compliments abroad," Nasser Abdul Kareem, an economic analyst, told Reuters.

"Unfortunately, too much of it depends on government spending, which is neutral, and doesn't distribute wealth among people and geography," he said.

As division festers between the Gaza Strip, which is run by Hamas Islamists, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's dominant Fatah party in the West Bank, wealth disparities and the preoccupation with making ends meet are breeding alienation among a people already in no short supply of it.

"Indebtedness and financial problems are taking a toll on society, and making people 'Americanized' in a way," noted Bahour, the consultant.

"The focus on the individual and his ownership is increasing, and the sense of community and the collective fades."