Don’t expect sweeping reforms in Jordan, former ambassador cautions

The tremors of Egypt’s popular uprising continued to ripple across the Arab world Thursday as King Abdullah II of Jordan met with leaders of the opposition there to discuss possible political reforms, two days after dismissing his cabinet and promising to “bolster democracy.”

Some observers, however, have warned not to expect wide-ranging reforms to Jordan’s political process, which disenfranchises large swaths of the population and acts mostly at the discretion of the king. Edward Gnehm, the former U.S. ambassador to Jordan from 2001 to 2003, warned in an interview this week that Jordan’s deep ethnic divisions and traditional power structure augured against the kinds of sweeping changes being demanded in the streets of nearby Arab capitals.

“The problem is, it’s really difficult for the king to agree to what they’re asking for,” said Gnehm, now a faculty member at George Washington University’s Elliott School of International Affairs. “I think there’s likely to be some change and some movement, but I don’t think there’s going to be any massive shift, at least not right away.”

Read All »

Is Jordan next? Pro-democracy activists in Amman think so

Thousands of Jordanian opposition supporters took to the streets of the country's capital Friday, Jan. 21, 2011. Photo: AP/Nader Daoud

In December 2009, a civil servant in Jordan’s ministry of justice did something remarkable: He turned in a bribe.

A private company seeking favors had offered the official 50,000 Dinar, which he then turned over to the minister of justice. The justice minister, in turn, offered him a 200 Dinar reward.

The media, online commentators and even some of the official’s coworkers, however, were less impressed by his honesty. “He would have done better to keep the 50,000,” U.S. officials wrote in a diplomatic memo summing up the common reaction among bloggers and television commentators. The cable was obtained by the anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks.

The incident highlighted the deep cynicism among Jordanians toward the pervasive corruption in their country’s government. As U.S. diplomats noted in the January 2010 cable, bribery and favor-trading were so rampant that most Jordanians found “acts of whistle-blowing laughable.”

Read All »

Who will lead Egypt after Mubarak?

Demonstrators burn a photo of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's son and heir apparent, Gamal Mubarak, during a protest last year. Photo: Flickr.

Demonstrators pouring into the streets of Cairo and other Egyptian cities today are posing the greatest challenge to President Hosni Mubarak’s authoritarian rule in decades. If they get their way, Mubarak will stand down and allow free and fair elections to take place later this year. And if that happens, Egypt’s favorite parlor game — guessing who will succeed the 82-year-old autocrat — will suddenly get a lot more complex.

As new diplomatic cables released this week by the anti-secrecy organization WikiLeaks show, speculation about who might succeed Mubarak has swirled for years, and will only grow more intense as opposition groups call for him to step down. On Friday, Mubarak ordered his entire cabinet to resign, a move that may further complicate the guessing game, given that several members of Mubarak’s government were seen as possible presidential contenders.

Read All »

WikiLeaks cables: Political protests are not part of the ‘Egyptian mentality’

Egyptian activists burn a poster showing Gamal Mubarak, the son of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, during a protest in Cairo back in 2010. Photo: AP

The anti-secrecy group WikiLeaks posted a batch of diplomatic cables on Friday detailing Egypt’s use of a decades-old “emergency law” to restrict freedom of expression, the regime’s efforts to portray itself as America’s “indispensable Arab ally” and President Hosni Mubarak’s plan to position his son, Gamal, as his eventual successor. The dispatches were released as massive protests rocked the country and set up violent clashes with Egypt’s state police.

The cables also contained some striking details regarding the regime’s view of Egypt’s opposition parties, the role of the military in securing a peaceful transfer of power and the eventual prospects for long-sought democratic reforms. A former official of the ruling National Democratic Party and minister in Mubarak’s cabinet, for example, called the country’s opposition movement “weak” and described democracy as a “long term goal” in one diplomatic memo from 2009.

Read All »

What should we take away from the ‘Palestine Papers’?

Protesters step on an Al Jazeera sign as they gather outside the TV channel's office during a rally in Ramallah Tuesday. Photo: AP/Majdi Mohammed

In recent months, peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians have been fitful, to say the least. There was reason for hope when President Obama took office two years ago promising a recalculation of American foreign policy. By the time his administration restarted the negotiations in September, however, veterans of the peace process were skeptical that progress could be made.

Now, just four months later, even the most optimistic observers have reason to be despondent.

Internal documents leaked to Al Jazeera and published this week reveal an unvarnished look at the last decade of the negotiations, including a number of unprecedented concessions offered by the Palestinians that seem to undermine the Palestinian Authority’s public posture. Longtime Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat, for example, promised publicly in 2009 that “there will be no peace whatsoever unless East Jerusalem — with every single stone in it — becomes the capital of Palestine,” even though he had already privately offered to cede all but one of East Jerusalem’s Jewish settlement to the Israelis, according to the memos.

Read All »

Owner of Tunisian TV station released from jail after arrest sparks free speech concerns

Photo: Nasser Nouri

The owner of one of Tunisia’s most influential television networks was released from jail on Monday after authorities briefly shut down the channel and arrested the owner and his son for “high treason.” The arrest had sparked concern among Tunisian activists that the interim unity government was violating its pledge to protect freedom of speech, after the fall of that country’s authoritarian regime earlier this month.

France 24 reported on Monday that the television network, Hannibal TV, said its owner, Larbia Nasra, had been released after Tunisia’s interim government imprisoned him for allegedly stirring unrest and working to restore Tunisia’s ousted autocratic president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. “There is no longer an accusation against me,” Nasra told journalists on Monday, according to Agence France-Presse. “I was accused of charges that are punishable by the death sentence but I forgive everyone.”

Read All »

Palestinians insist leaked memos from peace process reveal nothing new

Palestinian police officers block the entrance to the Al-Jazeera TV office after about 250 protesters smashed windows and sprayed graffiti on the headquarters walls. Photo: AP/Majdi Mohammed

Leaked memos from a decade of negotiations between Israeli and Palestinian officials roiled the Mideast peace process on Monday and put the embattled Palestinian Authority on the defensive. But moderate Palestinian observers and officials close to the government of President Mahmoud Abbas insisted that the documents reveal relatively little about the negotiations that isn’t already known. If anything, they say, the records expose how uncooperative the Israeli and American governments have been throughout the talks.

Palestinian officials and observers close to the Abbas government, meanwhile, began to confirm the veracity of the documents, which were published by Al Jazeera on Monday. Ghaith al-Omari, a former Palestinian negotiator and aide to Abbas who left the government in 2006, said in an interview that, “In general, they seem authentic.” The Arabic-language Al-Arabiya news network also published what it described as “the full copy of the confidential” memos, and people familiar with the documents said that Al-Arabiya’s source was the Palestinian Authority itself.

Read All »

Octavia Nasr: U.S. media missed ‘the anatomy’ of Tunisia’s revolution

Protests in Tunisia were largely overlooked by U.S. media, said CNN's former senior editor for the Middle East. Photo: Nasser Nouri

In December of last year, a 26-year-old Tunisian street vendor named Mohamed Bouazizi was stopped by a police officer in the town of Sidi Bouzid — population 39,915 — and stripped of his license to sell fruits and vegetables, which he had been doing to support his family. Frustrated by the lack of work in his hometown, and resentful of the endemic corruption among Tunisia’s police officers and politicians, Bouazizi set himself on fire.

The young man’s shocking act touched off a wave of protests among Tunisian youth in Sidi Bouzid. The demonstrations were soon quashed by state police, however, and the incident gained little notice outside Tunisia, historically one of the most stable countries in the Arab world.

Most Western journalists shrugged off the protests — except for Octavia Nasr. The former senior editor for Middle East affairs at CNN, Nasr was born and raised in Lebanon, and spent the early part of her career as a correspondent for the Lebanese Broadcasting Corporation. Two weeks after Bouazizi set himself on fire, Nasr asked on her blog, “Can Tunisia become the story of December 2010?”

Read All »

Magical thinking in Sudan

By Skye Wheeler

Southern Sudanese voters are given the choice of the open palm for separation of the south or the clasped hands for unity with northern Sudan in the referendum vote which will end on Saturday. Photo: Skye Wheeler

Spirits are still high in Juba, the capital of southern Sudan, even as last week’s referendum polling takes on the dreamlike quality of the important past.

Nothing compares to the sheer joy that filled the air as chattering, laughing, singing southern Sudanese lined up to vote for their independence, arriving even before the characteristic red sunrise. Big groups, including usually gruff senior civil servants, waved small paper secession flags like children.

I couldn’t believe it. I was so excited,” 20-year-old journalist Mary Achai said, showing off her fingertip still inked purple following her vote for her “own country.” Waking in the middle of the night in the darkness of her electricity-free neighborhood, she imagined the north dropping bombs on the polling stations, but heard only silence.

Read All »