August 31, 2005

new fault lines

"A Warning Against Unbridled Evil".

That was the unusual headline of a half page ad we were treated to in two local newspapers this morning. The signatories were 22 political, religious and charitable societies, all of the "Islamist" Sunni persuasion. The joint statement used strong language to denounce the London seminar, nay, the whole protest movement. It urged the authorities to act forcefully against those " who resort to mischief when no retribution is feared". The tortured and the exiled of recent past were called conspiring killers and saboteurs, said the statement by this lot of perrenial ruler boot and 3uqal lickers .

There wasn't the slightest aknowledgment of other dissenting views of their compatriots. It was a good example of a complete cycle of supply chain. The medium, the message, the target audience were all of the same bent. No one else mattered.

In Iraq meanwhile, mortars shells were fired at crowds of Shia mourners in Baghdad, killing 7 and injuring 36. Close to 30 others were also killed as a result of deliberately tainted food. And later, a stampede fueled by rumours of a car bomb on a bridge caused the death of a thousand, all of the Shia faith. The same day, the Association of Muslim Scholars in Iraq held a press conference, in which it accused the Shia-led government of perpetrating massacres against the Sunni community. No one else mattered.

August 29, 2005

it's not over until it's over

It seems the saga of proposals and counter proposals for drafting Iraq's constitution will be dragging along for sometime. The ink of their signatures may not have dried yet, but already some of the "framers" of the document are clamouring for yet more changes. This time from ranking members of the Shia Alliance who wanted more emphasis added on the Arab identity of Iraq. As well as the ongoing demands by the Sunni delegation for an end to their "marginalisation" amply coveredfrom the broadcast of of Al-Jazeera to editorials of NYT.

The document, so far, is a classic. The Kurds got the hard binding clauses of the constitution while the Shia got the preamble. ( some Kurds were going to protest the overtly religious tone of the preamble, but realising what they gained elsewhere they desisted, so far). The Sunnis haven't done badly, they managed to cut their -feared- losses to a minimum.

For their effort, the Americans secured a clause prohibiting seeking WMD and any technology leading to them, plus a commitment to fight terrorism and deny it haven or safe passage. They, along with other near and not so near neighbours of Iraq, got alegal blueprint for a federated, loosely-tied regions of Iraq.

Substance aside, it is striking how poorly the draft was worded. Especially the preamble. A constitutional text demands a refined, elegant language. The draft's Arabic is demeaning for a country that boasts of al-Mutanabbi and al-Jawahiri. Iraq is not lacking, but the parties in power clearly are. For the sake of language, and for the sake of the victims the scorch years, the draft got to be changed.

August 27, 2005

better late than never

From 22 October 1974 until 18 February 2001 is the period collectively known as the era of the State Security Law. Anyone could be arbitrarily consigned to prison for up to 3 years without charge or trial, subject only to the satisfaction of the Interior Ministry. Thousands did, some perished, and hundreds were forced into exile. A nation was scarred. Indelibly.

A public outing about that period by an ex-official is a rare occurrence indeed. But that’s what Dr. Hussain Al-Baharnah, a former Minister of State for Legal Affairs, did when he chose to break from the norm and speak to a newspaper about his tenure during those dark years. Startling revelation it was not, but coming from someone who came as close to the centre of power as an appointed official could ever be , it was a welcome if overdue correction to the historical record. He proved the sceptics right and confirmed that the Council of Ministers is just not where the real power resides, and that the SSL was never brought to a discussion by the cabinet.

Perhaps it was the weight of history, or the need to clear his name (did he ever consider resigning?), that brought us this rare public testimony by this ex-official. Here are some excerpts from Al-Wasat of yesterday:

"Journalist: Were you part of the government effort to push through the SSL?

Al-Baharnah: I was the head of Legal Affairs department at the time, but I hade no prior knowledge of the State Security Law. I was surprised by it as much as anyone else.

J: Are you blameless as far as the SSL is concerned?

HB: I certainly didn’t see it coming, I was not asked to review it, and it has never reached my desk. And do you conceive that our Council of Ministers is like the British cabinet, where a minister could voice an objection? I tried to check with a colleague if the draft law was ever brought for discussion before us at the Council of Ministers. He did not recall it happening, nor did I.

J: Had the state ever come to reconsider the wisdom of relying heavily on security measures?

HB: The state is not the Council of Ministers. The focus on security was overwhelming, and a person like Mr. Henderson was a man of considerable influence. Those plans are all of his conception. I saw how he was given complete freedom to do all that he thought fit.

J: Have you seen anything worse than SSL?

HB: No, I don’t think I did".

August 21, 2005

media scene

Not that it matters, but yesterday, Al-Meethaq announced the depart of its editor, the Lebanese Aref Al-Abed, who said he was resigning to join the media staff of the new Lebanese Prime Minister. Al-Abed was with the paper since its inception 20 months ago, but failed to put any professional touch or feel to it, and the paper just lurked at the bottom of the heap, editorially and circulation wise. It was widely known that his contract, which was up next October, will not be renewed. The paper is said to be considering a local journalist as a replacement. Some of the names circulating include Mohamed Fadhel and Saeed Mohamed amngst others.

Saturday also saw the debut of Abbas Abu Safwan with Alayam, as a Deputy Editor for local affairs. A significant loss to his previous employer Al-Wasat, where he built a name for himself but recently resigned following some acrimonious months. He ended his term with a bitter, open resignation letter to his boss.

That letter circulated on the very same day Batool Al-Sayed, one of the better journalists of Al-Wasat was writing her last columnn, in which she managed to slip in a resignation notice. Titled "Divorce", she started incospiciously enough with citing and discussing a Saudi divorce rate and what would drive people to seek divorce, and midway through she shifted to talk in the first person singular. And lest any of her colleauges missed it, she sent them a note along with the paper saying essentially "please read AlWasat, from it and in it is my resignation".

August 20, 2005

you can swear by them

It is ironic that the region which gave the world the concept of monotheism, remains today the world's last bastion of absolute, overarching authoritarianim. (Some argue it might be because of it, but that's another debate). Muslims attribute 99 good names to God, but their ruler - who obviously enjoy 99% popular support, significantly above what God would claim- have done even better.

The ruler has long become the exalted one, the everlasting, the all seeing, the all hearing, the giver, the withholder, the raiser, the abaser, the giver of life, the bringer of death, the visible, the hidden, the vast, the rich, the judge, the guide, the light.

If he dropped few ( the merciful, the compassionate, the friend), it's only to make space for more:

The detainer, the releaser, the exiler, the reuniter, the reformer, the first court, the last resort, the newsmaker, the rainmaker, the smiler, the frowner, the doctor, the teacher, the opener, the closer, the all builder, the shareholder, the buyer, the seller, the market.

August 19, 2005

the danger of talking to strangers

Recently, a bill was enacted governing the activities of political societies, ( parties are not allowed and the word is still a taboo). It was left to the honourable Minister of Justice to issue the detailed regulations. Last Wednesday he did, in a string of 4 orders. Order 4 lists 7 conditions for the authorities to approve a contact between a local political society and a foreign political party. Some excerpts .

Order No 4/ 2005 Governing Contacts between Political Societies and Foreign Political Paties or Organisations

Article 2

Without prejudice to relevant laws, a contact between a political society and a foreign political party or organization may be established in accordance with the following rules:

1. The foreign political party or organization must not hold objectives hostile or opposing to the principles and provisions of the Constitution and the Charter of National Action of the
Kingdom of Bahrain.

4. The contact must not infringe upon the independence and security of the Kingdom of Bahrain, its national unity, confidence in its economic standing, or lead to interference in its internal affairs.

6. The contact must not lead to interference by the political society in the internal affairs of another country or harm that country’s relations with the Kingdom of Bahrain.

Article 3

The political society shall give an advance notice to the Minister of Justice, advising him of the name and nationality of the foreign political party or organization to be contacted, at least three working days prior to such contact.

August 17, 2005

Dubai's Gulf News coming to town?

Rumour has it that Dubai’s Gulf News (not to be confused with Bahrain’s Gulf Daily News) will be taking over Bahrain Tribune, the country's distant second English daily which has always suffered from negligible readership, dearth of content, and financial losses.

The move, if true, is bound to shake the locally dominant Gulf Daily News, which never faced any real challenge so far. Gulf News ( again not to be confused with GDN) is considered one of the better English newspapers in the Gulf.

On the Arabic side, two new Arabic dailies are slated to appear in the coming months:
Al- Waqt – published by Ibrahim Bashmi, and Alwatan – under Ghassan
Al-Shehabi and Mohamed Al-Banki. These will bring to 7, the no of dailies on this island. But:

سبع جرايد والخبر ضايع؟

August 16, 2005

7 More Days for Iraq's Constitution

And so, in the eleventh hour, a week deferral was granted for the Iraqi constitution writing committe to come up with an agreed draft. The major sticking points are a mix of the hereafter and the here & now: Islam, oil and political power.

The Kurdish side, which all along demonstrated better negotiations strategy , PR , and legal edge ( thanks perhaps to the likes of Peter Galbraith) has obviously little time or patience for discussing the first. Their strategy is focused instead on securing the oil-rich areas around Kirkuk – what’s an elite without an oil well, and total political and military control over Kurdistan, sort of a state of undeclared independence. That’s on top of whatever handsome share of power they can bargain for in Baghdad. Their negotiators have so far managed to obtain further gains in the new constitution (including the right to contract international agreements and have bi-lateral relations with other countries).

The folks in the Shiite Alliance –as expected- are preoccupied with ensuring a prominent role for Islam – and thus for the turbaned class- in political life. But the stunner was the proposal made by Al-Hakim calling for a Shiite autonomous region comprising 9 provinces, extending from the border with Kuwait all the way up to the gates of Baghdad, a move that is bound to provoke anger anddisquiet within Sunni community in Iraq.

But it is also a move that seems to enjoy far less unanimous support amongst the Shiites themselves. Is it, as it has been touted- the best defence against a return of a Saddam–style genocidal era? Or merely, the path of least resistance for politicians overly eager for power and wealth? Why bother to persuade, cajole and engage others in Baghdad, when you can have the oil fields of Basra for yourself?

More significantly, this is a move that signals a marked departure from the long-held Shiite world-view. Shiites do not traditionally look upon themselves as a school of thought running in parallel (or in competition with) the Sunni or other streams. Rather as an inner circle within the outer circle of other Muslims. So I feel some sympathy with the enlightened Laith Kubba (the spokesman for PM Al-Jaafari) when he was quick to point out that this move would run against strong national -and not solely Sunni- concerns.

August 14, 2005

Independence Day

On a mid summer day (14 August 1971), this island was declared independent. The news fast breezed upon the palm trees, which swayed with jubilation. Resolution UNSC 278 of a year earlier has finally come to fruition, and they felt flattered. The timing must have been picked to coincide with the peak of the dates harvest season, they resoned. Some palm trees whispered to the sea that they will soon be on the flag, but unlike that of a neighbouring country, they will figure all alone, unaccompanied by their arch foe, the sword.

They had the wind in their branches. A million proud palm trees stood high for what this land is all about. They even harboured ambitious schemes to make home out of the 80% of available public land for them and their kinfolk.

But the wind blew otherwise. In the ensuing years, their loyalty was cast under suspicion. Their nightly chatter with the sea was deemed subversive. Plans were devised to bring them further apart. People who come into regular contact with them would be selected from those unfamiliar with their tongue and ways. At a later, more critical stage, it was decided, in the best interest of good governance, that their unruly, dense and over-populated presence be re-landscaped and brought into line with accepted regional standards.

The plan proved to be a roaring success. Today, there are only about 200,000 palm trees (by FAO estimates), in a perfectly safe and fenced state, with the rest of all public land diverted to private development.

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