Archive for November 22nd, 2011

Qatar breaks Arab ranks over Syria

Thursday 21 July 2011
Ian Black

Ian Black: While most Arab states sit on the fence, Qatar is standing up to Damascus over an attack on its embassy.

Qatar lived up to its reputation as a maverick in Middle Eastern politics this week by suspending the operations of its embassy in Damascus. The emir of the small but fabulously wealthy Gulf state has already gone far beyond the Arab consensus by supporting the Libyan rebels, sending cash and weapons to help them in their fight against Muammar Gaddafi. The United Arab Emirates is doing the same, but in a lower profile way.

Qatari investments in Syria have also reportedly been frozen, but the emirate was not reacting directly to Syrian repression. The measures were taken in response to attacks on its diplomatic mission in the leafy Damascus suburb of Ein Rummaneh, which was pelted with stones, eggs and tomatoes in protest at coverage of the unrest by al-Jazeera TV. The satellite channel is owned by Qatar, based in Doha and watched by millions of Arabs.

Qatar’s moves, in the words of analyst Karim Sader, were “more like a shrewdly calculated divorce from the Syrian regime than a fleeting spat”.

Other, more discreet action, is afoot. Arab media circles are rife with rumors of financial support from Qatar, the UAE and the Saudis for Syrian opposition groups— paying for conferences, communications and perhaps more.

Crucially though, there is no sign that Arab leaders are ready to publicly abandon Bashar al-Assad, five months into one of the bloodiest and most unpredictable episodes of the Arab uprising.

Nabil Elaraby, the new secretary general of the Arab League, certainly stuck to the non-interference script when he criticized Barack Obama for saying that Assad had “lost legitimacy”. That was an issue that could be decided only by Syrians, he insisted – a diplomatic disappointment for some critics – after visiting the Syrian president and sounding supportive about his belated, half-hearted attempts at reform.

It was easier for Elaraby’s predecessor, Amr Moussa, speaking just before stepping down and launching his bid for the Egyptian presidency. Moussa first criticized NATO’s bombing of Libya – despite having being instrumental in providing cover for UN-sanctioned action against Gaddafi – and then spoke of Arab “anger” about the violence in Syria, winning a rebuke from Damascus that he was “unbalanced and politically motivated”.

The turmoil in Syria has paralyzed other Arab regimes. The country that describes itself as the “beating heart of Arabism” may not be popular, but it is a powerful regional player with strategic ties to Iran and important relationships with Hizbullah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories – and it craves a better relationship with the US.

Saudi Arabia, Syria’s bitter rival, especially in Lebanon, does not want to see chaos if Assad is forced from power or uses overwhelming violence and repression to hold on. Saudi officials have said nothing in public about the Syrian crisis and have no sympathy for the Arab spring. But they would doubtless like to see Assad cut down to size as a regional actor.

Post-revolution uncertainty in Egypt is a powerful reminder to the conservative Gulf states of the potential risks if “stable” dictators like Hosni Mubarak are abandoned by the US and forced from office. And their fear of fitna, which translates as sedition or sectarianism, look not entirely unjustified – as the ugly events in Homs have shown in recent days.

Syria’s neighbors Iraq and Jordan are watching anxiously, but keeping quiet. Their assumption is that the cohesion of the Damascus regime, opposition divisions and above all the near impossibility of Libyan-style foreign intervention all mean that Assad is not about to fall.

Israel is also monitoring the Syrian crisis but keeping uncharacteristically quiet. Its listening posts on the occupied Golan Heights, less than an hour from Damascus, must be picking up some unusual intelligence from Syria’s telephone and radio networks – and YouTube is a handy source for tracking defections by army officers refusing to kill their own people. As Binyamin Netanyahu acknowledged in an interview with the Saudi-owned al-Arabiya TV – which, like its rival al-Jazeera is covering the Syrian uprising closely – anything Israel says will be counterproductive.

But Syria’s crisis is mainly a problem for Arabs. This week the Arab Writers Union, meeting in Cairo, held heated discussions about the situation in Syria, Yemen and elsewhere in the region, but its final communique managed only to condemn the crushing of peaceful protests “in more than one country” – without daring to name which ones.

As Ahmed Asfahani, commentator for the pan-Arab daily al-Hayat, put it: “If even Arab writers can’t protest about what’s happening in Syria, what hope is there that their governments will do anything?”

Source: The Guardian.

Jordan king urges media protection after assault

Friday 22/07/2011

AMMAN (AFP) — Jordan’s King Abdullah II called on Thursday for protecting journalists after several reporters were beaten up as they covered a demonstration in Amman last week.

“The king rejects what the journalists were subjected to last Friday, stressing that it was unjustified,” the state-run Petra news agency reported after the monarch met with Jordan Press Association President Tareq Momani.

“He also rejects any practices and restrictions that would obstruct the work of media, which have an important role in accurately and independently delivering information to citizens and addressing their issues.”

At least 17 people, including journalists and policemen, were injured when police tried to stop clashes between pro-reform demonstrators and government supporters in central Amman.

Police used batons and other instruments, including a barbecue grill and a ladder, to break up the clashes outside city hall, beating and injuring at least nine journalists wearing orange vests marked “Press.”

“The king said he will instruct the government and security services to ensure the protection of journalists as they cover political, social and other activities,” Petra said.

“We want active and effective media to help carry our reform vision,” he was quoted as saying.

A police report released on Wednesday blamed the demonstrators and the media for Friday’s violence, but said “more time is needed for further investigation and determining those who beat the demonstrators and journalists.”

“Suspects must be put on trial in line with penal and public security laws,” it added.

The Committee to Protect Journalists and Reporters Without Borders have condemned the attacks on journalists and called for protecting the media.

Source: Ma’an News Agency.

Jordan Feature: “Some Kind of Silence Has Broken”

Thursday, July 21, 2011
Scott Lucas in EA Middle East and Turkey, Middle East and Iran

Since January, when Jordan’s protest movement started holding regular demonstrations, the marches have grown, and persisted, but have never reached a critical mass. Hobbled by infighting and outflanked by King Abdullah II and his security forces, the protesters keep calling for greater freedoms and an end to corruption, but remain frustrated that their regular gatherings — sometimes only two-hour affairs — have hastened no real change.

Their quandary was illustrated in the demonstrations this past weekend here in Amman. On Friday, riot police officers beat demonstrators trying to stage a sit-in during clashes that spilled into a busy market district.

On Saturday, a smaller group of protesters shut down traffic in another part of the city. The police did not interfere, and the gathering dispersed after a few hours. Afterward, opposition leaders were unsure what, if anything, had been accomplished.

The protesters’ demands seem modest compared with their counterparts in Egypt and Tunisia: a reform of the system, not its downfall. And yet, as those countries have evolved to the next stages of their revolutions, Jordanians still seem stuck deciding when, and how hard, to push.

The anger fueling the protests has not dissipated, and if anything, it has grown into broader doubts about the king’s intentions. Those doubts are carefully expressed, since direct criticisms of the king, a close American ally, are banned.

“He does not want to be reformed,” said Labib Kamhawi, a political analyst. “He wants people to accept his definition of reform. During the past six years, corruption was so rampant.” As a result, Jordan almost went bankrupt, he said. The king, he added, “is not accepting that this issue needs to be addressed.”

Zaid el-Fayez, a businessman who attended the demonstration on Friday and who belongs to a tribe considered fiercely loyal to ruling Hashemite family, said: “He can’t see us. He can’t hear us. He’s acting like nothing is happening. Most of the Jordanian people are angry.”

Government officials argue that the king has already responded, promising to amend the Constitution and election and party laws, and move to a system where political parties and not the king appoint the prime minister. They say there is no easy fix to the country’s dire economic problems, and that corruption accusations are convenient scapegoating.

The prime minister, Marouf al-Bakhit, acknowledged the frustrations of the protesters, but said some of the demands, especially regarding corruption, reflected impatience. “They want me to hang someone, and later, look at his case,” he said.

The genesis of the protests in Jordan included a worker’s strike in the port city of Aqaba in 2009 and dissent from retired army officers last year. They started in earnest six months ago, when Mohamed al-Snaid, a water pump operator dismissed from a government job, gathered laborers in Dhiban, south of Amman, to protest poor working conditions. Hundreds of others joined, and a week later demonstrations spread to other cities.

The authorities have occasionally intervened to forcibly contain the dissent. In March, riot police officers and government loyalists injured scores of protesters who had pitched a tent camp intended to imitate Cairo’s Tahrir Square.

The foreign minister, Nasser Judeh, argued that Jordan’s reaction to the protests was mild compared with those of other Arab countries. “It’s very difficult to forget that not a single bullet was fired,” he said. “We deal with things in a civilized way. The system is listening and the system is responding. In Jordan, reform is led by the king.”

But some protest leaders, deeply skeptical, say they plan to escalate both their statements and their activism. Their attempt at a sit-in on Friday seemed to reflect a new approach.

Other activists said that slogans shouted at marches already make more direct references to the king — tying him, for example, to the cheap sale of public land to private companies. “Abdullah, son of Hussein,” goes one chant, heard at protests recently outside of Amman. “Where is the land, where?”

Kamal Khoury, a 25-year-old protester allied with a leftist movement, said: “Something has broken — some kind of silence. More and more people are speaking about the king.”

But the protesters face long odds. Many of their problems are self-inflicted, by a fractured movement that has argued about ideology and tactics. A coalition that includes young people, leftists and workers stopped marching with the Muslim Brotherhood, accusing it of trying to hijack the movement and secretly collaborating with the government.

Jordan’s foreign allies have provided the king valuable cover, including Saudi Arabia, the kingdom’s most generous financial benefactor, and the United States, which provides political and military support. An invitation to Jordan to join a regional grouping of Arab states — also extended to Morocco — is seen as another attempt to strengthen a friendly monarchy in a turbulent times.

The authorities have also undermined the opposition by exploiting Jordan’s deep schism, between so-called East Bank Jordanians and citizens of Palestinian origin, over fears that the Palestinians are trying to take over the country.

And online activists say dissent has brought government hackers to their Web sites or led to arrests. Alaa Fazzaa, a journalist, was arrested in May for linking to a page that advocated naming King Abdullah’s half brother, Prince Hamzah, as crown prince…

Source: Enduring America.