Times and Times again

Here we go again. Another attempt at local English-language news reporting, this time in Palestine, according to AP.

The Palestine Times, available on the internet in crude but workable PDF format, is on issue no. 4 as of today.

If, as the editor claims, the Palestine Times isn’t going to be beholden to any particular political or commercial interest, then this could a good thing. Palestine, as much as Egypt, needs a way of laying out local events from a local perspective in a way that is comprehensible and credible to a western audience.

Jamai on the PJD polls

Abou Bakr Jamai, editor of Morocco’s only truly independent publication, Le Journal Hebdo, has an interesting post on his WaPo blog about the biggest political controversy of the moment in Morocco: polls that indicate the Islamist PJD party is set to come about 30% ahead of the next party in next year’s parliamentary election.

When first asked about the party they would vote for, Moroccans chose the socialist party with 13% in support. The Islamist PJD party ranked third with 9%. But more than 55% of the citizens polled claimed to be undecided. When those 55% were asked to make up their mind one way or the other, more than 66% chose the Islamist party. That gives the PJD a tremendous lead over the other parties.

These figures are interesting in that they show that the portion of the electorate that gives the PJD such overwhelming support are not diehard PJD followers. When asked about what qualities a political party should have to be effective, Moroccans cite honesty, fighting corruption, and responsiveness to citizens’ needs as the main attributes. These are attributes that a secular party could perfectly claim.

So true of many other Arab countries.

There was a profile of Bou Bakr in the New Yorker [scanned 7.2MB PDF, it’s not available online] in October, and I highly recommend it. It captures Bou Bakr quite well, including the incredible stubbornness that is his greatest strength and greatest flaw. The Arab world needs more people like him.

Slaughter House Iraq

Trust Patrick Cockburn to see the big pictures that papers like the Post and the Times don’t seem to want to admit.

Civil war is raging across central Iraq, home to a third of the country’s 27 million people. As Shia and Sunni flee each other’s neighbourhoods, Iraq is turning into a country of refugees.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees says that 1.6 million are displaced within the country and a further 1.8 million have fled abroad. In Baghdad, neighbouring Sunni and Shia districts have started to fire mortars at each other. On the day Saddam Hussein was sentenced to death, I phoned a friend in a Sunni area of the capital to ask what he thought of the verdict. He answered impatiently that “I was woken up this morning by the explosion of a mortar bomb on the roof of my next-door neighbour’s house. I am more worried about staying alive myself than what happens to Saddam.”

Iraqi friends used to reassure me that there would be no civil war because so many Shia and Sunni were married to each other. These mixed couples are now being compelled to divorce by their families. “I love my husband but my family has forced me to divorce him because we are Shia and he is Sunni,” said Hiba Sami, a mother, to a UN official. “My family say they [the husband’s family] are insurgents … and that living with him is an offence to God.” Members of mixed marriages had set up an association to protect each other called the Union for Peace in Iraq but they were soon compelled to dissolve it when several founding members were murdered.

Saudis want to ‘protect’ Iraqi Sunnis

The craziest and most dangerous article I have seen in a long time. If the Saudis really started massively arming and financing Sunni insurgent groups in Iraq, we’d probably have a 20-year Persian Gulf war.

Over the past year, a chorus of voices has called for Saudi Arabia to protect the Sunni community in Iraq and thwart Iranian influence there. Senior Iraqi tribal and religious figures, along with the leaders of Egypt, Jordan and other Arab and Muslim countries, have petitioned the Saudi leadership to provide Iraqi Sunnis with weapons and financial support. Moreover, domestic pressure to intervene is intense. Major Saudi tribal confederations, which have extremely close historical and communal ties with their counterparts in Iraq, are demanding action. They are supported by a new generation of Saudi royals in strategic government positions who are eager to see the kingdom play a more muscular role in the region.

Because King Abdullah has been working to minimize sectarian tensions in Iraq and reconcile Sunni and Shiite communities, because he gave President Bush his word that he wouldn’t meddle in Iraq (and because it would be impossible to ensure that Saudi-funded militias wouldn’t attack U.S. troops), these requests have all been refused. They will, however, be heeded if American troops begin a phased withdrawal from Iraq. As the economic powerhouse of the Middle East, the birthplace of Islam and the de facto leader of the world’s Sunni community (which comprises 85 percent of all Muslims), Saudi Arabia has both the means and the religious responsibility to intervene.

On the upside, this would probably bring down the al-Sauds in the long term. But probably even then, it’s not worth it. One also wonders whether its publication (alongside with that leaked Hadley memo) isn’t meant to scare Maliki for his meeting with Bush.

Nutjob on al-Jazeera English

Always good to be reminded that there are many anti-free speech idiots writing libelous stuff out there:

If Al-Jazeera English had wanted to impress people with its first week or so of programming, including a David Frost interview with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, it failed. The channel was very quick out of the chute in airing a terrorist video, featuring an “inside” look at the Islamic Army of Iraq, and it misrepresented the Blair interview in order to create the impression that U.S. policy in Iraq—and not Al-Jazeera’s terrorist friends—was producing a bloodbath. Simply stated, Al-Jazeera English looks a lot like Al-Jazeera Arabic, known for its pro-terrorist and anti-American programming. Frankly, we thought that it would keep the radical stories in the closet for weeks or months until the channel got carriage in the U.S. media market. Those U.S. cable and satellite systems which decided not to air the channel have been vindicated. The American people thank them.

My note on al-Jazeera English: more news, less soft-focus featurettes please. In other words, more like al-Jazeera Arabic.

Gang of beggars kills homeless children

Very disturbing:

Cairo – Egyptian police have uncovered a gang of beggars that raped and killed several homeless children, the official al- Akhbar newspaper reported on Tuesday.

The suspects have admitted to murders in several governorates.

So far the police have found two bodies and are looking for more.

The investigation began when a group of homeless children filed a complaint that one of their colleagues, a 15-year-old, had disappeared. A search team was formed and his body was found in a desolate area in Tanta, north of Cairo. One suspect was arrested.

The suspect admitted that he was a member of a gang of beggars who lured homeless children, raped them and then killed them. Four members of the gang were subsequently arrested.

The gang confessed that one year ago they lured a child on the Alexandria train to a tunnel in the suburb of Shoubra al-Kheima, raped him and then killed him. Police checked the tunnel and found the remains of a boy.

The gang also confessed to throwing a teenager in front of a train.

The number of victims remains unclear and police are still searching for other suspects.

While this kind of stuff probably happens everywhere, I’m always surprised when it happens in Egypt.

EIU democracy index

The Economist Intelligence Unit has released an index of democracies [PDF] in which it ranks full democracies, flawed democracies, “hybrid systems” and authoritarian regimes. Egypt and Morocco are both at the same rank (115) in the last category — here’s Moroccan blogger Larbi‘s take on it — while the US, UK, France or Japan don’t even make it to the top 10 or top 15.

As a Moroccan who lives in Egypt, I’m often interested in comparing the two countries. I am generally speaking more optimistic about Morocco than I am about Egypt, but then again I am also harsher on Morocco because I don’t think it can afford not to move forward. Politically, it is a much more unstable place than Egypt and some of the social problems there are much more acute than those here. My overall impression, though, is that Morocco would deserve to be further up ahead than Egypt if it wasn’t for the fact that King Muhammad VI continues to retain political, constitutional, moral and economic power over Moroccans than Hosni Mubarak could only dream of.

The budget

Yesterday Hossam quoted al-Destour for some interesting figures about how much the interior ministry is spending. It’s worth highlighting that, in fact, a lot more than that is available. For several years now the Egyptian government has been improving its statistics gathering and dissemination, and a lot of these figures come from what is probably the most complete, transparent budget published in the history of Egypt, or at least in the history of Republican Egypt. It’s been done with USAID and other donor money and under guidance from the IMF, with the support, obviously, of the economic reformist in the cabinet. All of these people deserve kudos because this move towards transparency is part of democratic accountability.

In this budget, which is available here, lists all kinds of goodies. I didn’t get time to get to the nitty-gritty, but just on the first few pages you get some interesting figures about the presidency. On page two, it says the presidency got LE98m in FY04/05, LE121m in 05/06, and LE140m in 06/07. Considering how much traveling gets done by the president, these figures — around $22-25m — seem quite small. Maybe there’s another budget elsewhere, but it seems to me there are going to be some figures that are simply not reliable. Probably because the Ministry of Finance itself doesn’t have access to the real data.

There’s a lot of interest statistics in there, and someone savvy could really do something interesting with them. Let us know if you spot any other dodgy figure.

Dear America..

Ahmadinejad writes another letter. This time, he writes directly to the American people. I’m sure this will make the rounds of late-night comedy shows, but however much you may mistrust the Iranian regime, the letter’s interesting to read and hardly insane (the only quirky touch is calling us “Noble Americans”).

(P.S. I posted this and then found, through wonkette,  that Fox viewers have already been writing Ahmadinejad lots of replies.)