Middle East’s Fragile Democracy in Danger

By Ramesh Jaura – Berlin

If the year 2011 appeared to be a beacon of hope for freedom and democracy in the Middle East and North Africa, indications are that 2012 will be marked by rough battles to protect the fruits of valiant revolts across Europe’s Mediterranean frontiers.
In fact, the conflict brewing over the Strait of Hormuz bodes ill for peace – the spinal cord of freedom and democracy – in the region and beyond, unless it is prevented from turning violent and gory.

The curtain on the impending battles was raised on December 29 when the Egyptian security forces raided the offices of civil society and human rights organizations in Cairo. The aim, according to the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (ANHRI), was "to intimidate activists and rights advocates, gag their mouths, and freeze their activities in support of human rights and against repression and torture."
ANHRI said: "Some police officers in military uniforms bearing the emblem of Commandos and men who claimed to be public prosecution personnel stormed the Arab Center for the Independence of the Judiciary and the Legal Profession (ACIJLP). All people present were held inside the center and prevented from exiting. Moreover, the files, documents, and computers were seized. There are even scattered news and talk about raiding 18 other organizations. . . (including) rights centers and international organizations."
Explaining the perturbing dimensions of the attack which it said was part of a "systematic campaign" against civil society organizations, ANHRI averred: "(President Hosni) Mubarak’s regime did not dare to undertake such practices prior to the uprising."
The U.S.-based International Freedom of Expression eXchange network (IFEX) said the offices raided by security offices included those of Freedom House, the International Republican Institute (IRI), the National Democratic Institute (NDI), and at least two Egyptian organizations, the ACIJLP and the Budgetary and Human Rights Observatory (BAHRO). German media reported that the office of Konrad Adenauer Foundation (KAS), named after the first West German chancellor, was also raided.
"Staff members present at the Freedom House offices during the raids were held incommunicado; cell phones, laptops, funds and documents found during the raids were confiscated; and the office was closed. The raid on Freedom House comes just three days after it formally submitted papers to register its offices in accordance with Egyptian law," IFEX informed.
Freedom House president David J. Kramer agreed with ANHRI that the raids "represent an escalation of repression unheard of even during the Mubarak regime." These come, he alleged, "in the context of an intensive campaign by the Egyptian Government to dismantle civil society through a politically-motivated legal campaign aimed at preventing ‘illegal foreign funding’ of civil society operations in Egypt."
Freedom House was founded in 1941 and had as its first chairperson Eleanor Roosevelt, wife of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR), a central figure in world events during the mid-20th century, leading the United States in times of worldwide economic crisis and world war.
The profound significance of the raid in the view of Freedom House’s current president is that it is "the clearest indication" yet that the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the military chiefs now ruling Egypt, "has no intention of permitting the establishment of genuine democracy and is attempting to scapegoat civil society for its own abysmal failure to manage Egypt’s transition effectively."
Freedom House calls on the Egyptian government to return confiscated property; permit the re-opening of all offices of non-governmental organizations closed in the recent raids; and allow the free and unfettered operation of local and international NGOs in Egypt as they work to expand respect for human rights and help the Egyptian people in their efforts to form a more just, open and democratic political system.
It also urges the Obama Administration to scrutinize the $1.3 billion that the United States annually provides the Egyptian military to fund arms purchases and training.
"In the current fiscal environment, the United States must not subsidize authoritarianism in Egypt while the Egyptian government is preventing NGOs from implementing democracy and human rights projects subsidized by the US taxpayer," said Charles Dunne, director of Middle East and North Africa programs.
Journalists Jailed
In advance of the Cairo raids, ANHRI drew attention to the "arbitrary and degrading expulsion" of journalist Radwan Hifani from his office at the ‘Assabah’ newspaper on December 21, due to his public and continuing solidarity with Rachid Nini, the imprisoned editor-in-chief of ‘el-Masaa’ newspaper.
Despite being one of the founding members of the newspaper and having spent over 11 years working for it, ANHRI said, Hifani was denied access to his office after he returned from his annual leave. He was denied access on the grounds that he had been absent without prior permission.
"The real reason, however, relates to the strained relations between Hifani and Khaled al-Herry, the editor-in-chief of the newspaper, due to Hifani’s solidarity with Nini, who has served six months of his one year sentence in the Okasha Central Prison in Casablanca," ANHRI said.
In addition to being the editor-in-chief of ‘el-Masaa’, 41-year old Nini is also the writer of a well-known column entitled "Look and Reflect". In June, the Court of First Instance in Casablanca convicted and upheld a one-year prison sentence and 1000 Dirham fine (approx. US$115) against him, for "contempt of a judicial entity" and "reporting false criminal circumstances". There have been calls for the release of Nini, especially after the drafting of the new constitution that was approved in July.
"Such arbitrary practices by the ‘Assabah’ newspaper’s administrative board are unacceptable and antithetical to professional standards. They should have allowed room for negotiations and discussion if they truly found the matter to be purely administrative in nature and nothing to do with freedom of expression or Hifani’s solidarity with Nini," said ANHRI.
Detailed descriptions of harassment highlight the manner in which normal life is made impossible for journalists who hardly have a room for manoeuvre.
The Committee to Protect Journalists reported that as of December 1, 2011 the number of journalists imprisoned worldwide shot up more than 20 percent to its highest level since the mid-1990s, an increase driven largely by widespread jailings across the Middle East and North Africa.
CPJ and IFEX condemned on December 28 the attacks on at least eight journalists on December 24-25 by armed forces loyal to outgoing President Ali Abdullah Saleh. "The clashes between pro-Saleh forces and protesters left nine people dead," a news agency reported.
"These attacks indicate how tenuous the situation remains for journalists to work in Yemen," said Mohamed Abdel Dayem, CPJ’s Middle East and North Africa program coordinator. "Despite the political solutions being offered to address the crisis, journalists are still being attacked. We call on Yemeni authorities to allow journalists to carry out their work unharmed and without threat."
News reports stated that Ahmed al-Musebli, a presenter for the pro-opposition broadcaster Suhail TV, was beaten and arrested by security forces on December 24 at a protest in the neighborhood of Dar Slim in Sana’a, the capital. He was detained in an unknown location, but released the next day.
Ahmed al-Jabr, a journalist with the official Saba news agency, was attacked by pro-Saleh forces while covering the protests in Dar Slim on December 24, according to news reports. The journalist was injured under one eye, and his car windows were smashed, news reports said. Another freelance journalist, Walid Ablan, was also assaulted by pro-Saleh armed factions at the same protest, reports said.
On December 24, Suhail TV cameraman Kamal al-Mahfady was reporting on protests in Taiz, the country’s third largest city, when he was attacked by a group of pro-Saleh armed forces, according to news reports. He sustained a head injury, news reports said. Another journalist, BBC reporter Abdallah Ghoraib, was also attacked by pro-Saleh forces.
Three journalists – Samia al-Aghraby, a reporter for the opposition weekly Al-Thawry, Marwan Ismail, with the news website Yemenat, and freelancer Arwa Abdo Othman – were attacked by Republican Guards at a protest in Sana’a on December 24. In a statement, the Yemeni Journalists Syndicate said the soldiers pulled at al-Aghraby’s clothes, threatened to beat Othman, and confiscated three cameras.
CPJ has documented the ongoing stream of protest-related attacks against journalists in Yemen, including deaths, physical assaults, detentions, harassments, and attacks on news outlets. Suhail TV in particular has been targeted before, and the BBC’s Abdallah Ghoraib was beaten while covering a protest in September.
"Yemeni troops appear to have unlawfully killed as many as 35 civilians in the city of Taizz since a United Nations Security Council resolution demanded on October 21, 2011 that Yemen stop attacks on civilians, Human Rights Watch said on November 25. Most of these civilians were killed in artillery shelling by the Yemeni army that indiscriminately struck homes, a hospital, and a public square filled with protesters, witnesses told Human Rights Watch.

– This article was provided by IDN-InDepthNews, Analysis That Matters. Visit: www.indepthnews.info.

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