Archive for October 10, 2016

September 19, 2016

AMMAN, Jordan (AP) — Jordan’s parliament election on Tuesday is being touted as proof that the pro-Western monarchy is moving forward with democratic reforms despite regional turmoil and security threats.

Officials point to new rules of voting and the participation of the opposition Muslim Brotherhood for the first time in almost a decade. But critics argue that this year’s electoral reform — ostensibly meant to strengthen political parties — has fallen short and that the revised system continues to favor King Abdullah II’s traditional tribal supporters.

They expect the parliament being chosen Tuesday to be similar to the outgoing one — largely an assembly of individuals with competing narrow interests, widely dismissed by Jordanians as ineffective in dealing with endemic unemployment and other crises.

Such a legislature is still a long way from what Jordanians have long been told would be the goal of gradual reform — a strong parliament with a say in choosing the government, now the exclusive domain of the king.

The new election rules are “a step forward, but it is not yet enough to create a serious breakthrough on the reform track,” said analyst Oraib al-Rantawi. The rules replace the “one man, one vote” system that was introduced in 1993 and weakened political parties.

In Tuesday’s election, Jordanians will choose 130 members of parliament, with 15 seats reserved for women, nine for Christians and three for minority Chechens and Circassians. More than 4 million Jordanians over the age of 17 are eligible to vote, more than twice the number in the 2013 election, when voters had to pre-register.

Under the new rules, the country is divided into 23 districts, and voters choose candidates from competing lists in their district. In all, 1,252 candidates are running on 226 district lists. Voters can select one or more candidates on a list.

Only six percent of the lists are affiliated with a specific political party, 11 percent have some party representatives, 39 percent are independent and 43 percent are based on tribal affiliations, according to the International Republican Institute, a U.S.-based non-partisan group that seeks to promote democracy.

“The majority of voters base their voting habits on tribal affiliations, community roots and identity rather than approaches to policy,” the group said. The most organized party is the Islamic Action Front, the political arm of the Muslim Brotherhood, a veteran opposition movement linked to the regional organization of the same name. The IAF competed in 2007, but boycotted parliament elections in 2010 and 2013, arguing the electoral system was unfair.

The Brotherhood has suffered setbacks in the region and in Jordan in recent years, in part because of a backlash of various governments to the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings. In Jordan, ideological arguments split the group into rival factions, with one recognized by the government as the official Brotherhood.

The original group has been outlawed in Jordan, but its political arm, the IAF, remains legal. Al-Rantawi said he believes the IAF is running in this election — despite misgivings about the system — to avoid becoming irrelevant.

The mood among supporters was subdued at an IAF election rally over the weekend in Sweileh, a neighborhood in the capital, Amman. The outdoor gathering on a sandy lot drew a few hundred people, but several back rows of plastic chairs remained empty.

IAF spokesman Murad Adayleh said his party would push for economic and educational reform. “Our role will be to uncover the government’s wrong policies and address any mistakes,” he said, dismissing suggestions that a vocal, but small IAF faction could inadvertently serve as democratic window dressing.

Adayleh, who is also a candidate, said he expects his party will win between one-fourth and one-third of the seats. Al-Rantawi said he believes about 30 seats are in play for political parties, including about 20 for the IAF, and that the remaining 100 seats would be split among individuals. Other parties are less well known nationally, including leftists, centrists and conservatives.

A debate among candidates from nine parties, held over the weekend at a hotel in Amman, rarely got beyond generalities, such as calls for lowering unemployment. One of the newcomers on the scene, the Maan List, campaigned for separation of religion and state, still a relatively provocative idea in the conservative, overwhelmingly Muslim kingdom. Candidate Mohammed Numan, a pediatrician, called for ending what he described as a culture of shaming those not considered devout enough.

Growing voter apathy may be a key factor this year. In an IRI poll in April, 87 percent of 1,000 respondents said the outgoing parliament didn’t accomplish anything worthwhile and more than half said they were somewhat or very unlikely to vote. The survey had an error margin of 3.5 percentage points.

Voter turnout in 2013 was 56 percent, said analyst Ayoub Al-Nmour of Al-Hayat, a civil society group that monitors elections. This year, the percentage of those casting ballots will likely be lower because the pool of eligible voters nearly doubled, though turnout could be higher in absolute terms, he said.

Some voters are discouraged by unequal representation. For example, the urban district of Zarqa, with 1.8 million people, including large numbers of Jordanians of Palestinian origin, gets 11 seats in parliament, the same number as the tribal Karak district, with just 300,000 residents, said Al-Nmour.

Mohammed Momani, the government spokesman, said the new voting system is a significant step toward political reform. “The fact that Jordan is actually holding elections …in a region that is full of blood and fight and weapons — that in itself is important,” he said. “It shows the strength of this country, and the credibility of its institutions and the reform process.”

U.S.-based analyst David Schenker said Jordan invests in regular elections in part to polish its image in the eyes of Western military and financial backers. “We know that the West has a special regard for Jordan, and we know that Jordan, because of this high regard … is able to charge very high rent,” said Schenker, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy think tank.

“It costs money to do these elections and there are some risks involved, but for Jordan it’s important to display that the kingdom is different from other Arab states,” he said.

Associated Press writers Khetam Malkawi and Sam McNeil in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.

October 09, 2016

RABAT, Morocco (AP) — Morocco’s national election observer body says voting last week was largely free and fair, though it is investigating sporadic cases of vote-buying and expressed concern about low turnout.

The moderate Islamist Party of Justice and Development won Friday’s legislative election, beating out a party with close ties to the royal palace. The PJD, which first won elections in 2011 after Arab Spring protests, is now working on building a coalition government.

The National Council of Human Rights, which oversees election monitoring, released a preliminary report Sunday noting sporadic irregularities. Council president Driss El Yazami told reporters the elections took place in a “serene and transparent climate.”

However, he expressed concern about the 43 percent turnout rate. Some Moroccans see voting as futile because ultimate power rests with the king.

October 07, 2016

RABAT, Morocco (AP) — Millions of Moroccans hit the voting booths on Friday, with worries about joblessness and extremism on many minds as they choose which party will lead their next government. Adultery scandals and thwarted election-day attacks have marked the unusually venomous campaign in this country, which is allied with the U.S and seen as a model of stability and relative prosperity in the region.

Top contenders are a moderate Islamist party and an up-and-coming rival party seen as close to the royal palace. The palace pledged to loosen control over Moroccan politics after Arab Spring protests five years ago, but retains control over major policy decisions.

Since the last legislative elections in 2011, the Islamist Party of Justice and Development (PJD) has dominated parliament and led a government coalition comprised of several parties with differing ideologies.

The PJD faces tough competition from the Party of Authenticity and Modernity (PAM), widely regarded as close to the palace. It was founded in 2008 by Fouad Ali El Himma, childhood friend of King Mohammed VI and a current royal adviser.

Abdelilah Benkirane, current prime minister and head of the PJD, has come head-to-head with Ilyas El-Omari, head of the PAM, in a number of public spats ahead of elections. “He is a liar,” Benkirane told The Associated Press this week. “I don’t consider them (PAM) a political party.”

Benkirane slammed El-Omari for comments he made to the AP suggesting that state-funded associations were among groups involved in radicalizing Moroccan youth. With high unemployment rates coupled with relatively low literacy, Morocco has been fertile recruiting ground for extremists, with as many as 1,000 Moroccans joining the ranks of the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria.

On Monday, authorities dismantled a 10-member terror cell comprised entirely of women with alleged ties to IS. Abdelhak Khiame, head of Morocco’s Central Bureau of Judicial Investigations, said that the cell planned to carry out attacks on election day, Friday, according to Morocco’s state news agency MAP. Seven of the 10 members were under age, Khiame said.

In addition to security, voters will be deciding on which political party’s program is most suited to address Morocco’s economic ills, marred by youth joblessness and record high foreign debt. For some parties, like the Federation of the Democratic Left, the choice between the PJD and the PAM is like choosing between a rock and a hard place.

“Our vision represents a third way,” says Nabila Mounib, secretary general of the Federation, comprised of three leftist parties. Their message resonates with many voters, who have expressed frustration with the status quo, especially throughout rural areas where Mounib has been campaigning.

Imad Agrili, 31, a painter from the rural town of Skoura, is voting for the first time and has opted for the federation. “They seem clean and transparent,” he says. For others, like the banned Islamist Adl wal Ihsan (Justice and Charity) movement, elections in Morocco are futile. The movement has repeatedly denounced the centralization of power and decision-making by the monarchy.

“The person who governs is the king and his entourage and they have deeply-rooted powers,” says Hassan Bennajeh, spokesperson for Adl wal Ihsan, which is boycotting the elections. The movement is able to mobilize thousands for its causes.

Low turnout may prove a problem. More than 15.7 million Moroccans have registered to vote out of some 20 million eligible voters. Last time, voter turnout was only around 5 million, says Abdul-Wahab Kayyali, doctoral candidate in political science at George Washington University.

“These elections, specifically, matter a lot,” Kayyali said. According to him, the elections “will show whether 2011 was just a blip on the radar screen,” in terms of gauging Morocco’s path toward reform. The 2011 Arab Spring uprisings have left a mixed legacy in North Africa — Tunisia built a fragile democracy, Egypt elected Islamists who were then ousted by the military, Libya descended into deadly chaos.

This year’s election in Morocco has also been clouded by sex scandals. Two high-ranking members of the PJD party’s ideological arm are currently facing charges for engaging in relations outside of marriage. Their charges are punishable by up to six months to three years in prison if found guilty, according to Morocco’s penal code.

While many observers will be monitoring the elections, not all have been welcome, with a drop in foreign accredited observers, including the rejection of the Atlanta-based Carter Center’s request to observe.

Friday’s election will determine the makeup of the upper chamber of parliament, comprised of 395 seats, 90 of which are reserved for the women and youth quota. Nearly 7,000 candidates are running with 28 different parties in 92 voting districts throughout the country. Definitive results are expected Saturday.

September 17, 2016

RABAT, Morocco (AP) — Morocco’s elections next month will draw attention from around the region and beyond — but not all eyes will be welcome. Election authorities approved 4,000 national and international observers for the Oct. 7 legislative elections, rejecting requests for about 1,000 others, as new regulations on vote monitors are being put to the test. Among those rejected were observers from the U.S.-based Carter Center.

More than 30 political parties are running in the elections, which will determine the makeup of the government and political direction of the kingdom, a U.S. ally and important regional economy. It’s only the second time Moroccans are voting for parliament since thousands took to the streets in 2011 demanding reform through the February 20th Movement. Since then, a coalition of several parties led by the Islamist Party of Justice and Development (PJD) has governed, coming to power alongside a new constitution and new laws intended to meet the demands for reform.

One law passed in 2011 dictated the terms and conditions for national and international election observation in Morocco. Civil society groups had wanted a law spelling out the rules, but some now fear it could be used to stifle criticism of the election process.

“Election observation in Morocco has been taking place since 1997, but it was only in 2011 that the Moroccan government instituted a clear, legal framework,” said Nadir Elmoumni, director of studies at the National Council of Human Rights.

The council is charged with overseeing the observation process, including reviewing requests to observe from both international and national organizations. Requests must also be approved by a commission including representatives from the Interior Ministry, the Justice Ministry, the Foreign Ministry and the Communication Ministry.

The council told The Associated Press that it has accredited 92 foreign observers affiliated with five international organizations. The council did not explain why the numbers are lower this year. The council received requests to accredit some 5,000 Moroccan observers — from political parties and local non-governmental groups — but approved only 4,000, according to state news agency MAP.

The Moroccan government denied accreditation to at least one international organization, the Atlanta-based Carter Center. “We’re disappointed by that,” said David Carroll, director of the Carter Center’s Democracy Program. “The Carter Center has a long history of impartial election observation, having monitored 103 elections in 39 countries, and we hope our observers might be welcome in Morocco’s future elections.”

The National Council of Human Rights said the organization submitted its request directly to the Moroccan government, not to the council. “I suspect it had to do with the wording of their request,” says Ahmed Taoufik Zainabi, the council’s director of human rights promotion.

Moroccan government spokesperson Mustapha El Khalfi did not respond to requests for comment. A U.S. group, the National Democratic Institute, was accredited but says it won’t send an observation mission due to funding constraints. NDI’s report after observing the 2011 legislative elections describing the voting process then as “by and large, procedurally sound and transparent” but “not without flaws.”

Eric Goldstein, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa division of Human Rights Watch, says the rebuff to the Carter Center “could well be part of the trend since 2015 of expelling international NGOs that monitor freedoms in Morocco.”

“It’s a shame to see Morocco destroy its standing among countries in the Middle East and North Africa that are most transparent with respect to international NGOs,” said Goldstein, whose group was long active in Morocco but came under pressure from the Moroccan government last year.

Many of these NGOs monitor human rights in the contested Western Sahara territory, which Morocco annexed in 1975. Within the past year, the Moroccan government has dealt harshly with those it perceives as undermining its claims on the territory, including the European Union and the United Nations.

Official campaigning for the elections begins Sept. 23, with the Islamist PJD and rival Party of Authenticity and Modernity among the top contenders. A law bans political polling in the weeks ahead of the elections, in an effort to avoid swaying voters.

September 28, 2016

A private British school in Qatar has come under fire after putting up a display of the Israeli flag this week.

The flag was erected in the main hall of Doha College West Bay where it was spotted by parents.

Qatar’s Ministry of Education and Higher Education tweeted about the incident on Monday, saying the school had “apologized for any distress caused.”

The ministry then explained that the flag was put up to display member nations of the UN and that Israel’s flag was displayed in error and was taken down.

The school’s headmaster Dr. Steffen Sommer told the Doha News the incident involved “an error of judgement.”

Source: Middle East Monitor.