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Progressive Democrats seek to block US security pacts with Saudi Arabia and UAE

Thu, 07/07/2022 - 19:23
Progressive Democrats seek to block US security pacts with Saudi Arabia and UAE
Proposed legislation comes as US and Israel are seeking to lay the groundwork for a security alliance with Arab states
MEE staff Thu, 07/07/2022 - 20:23
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman offering condolences to Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, UAE president, in Abu Dhabi on 16 May 2022.
Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman meets with UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed in Abu Dhabi, on 16 May 2022 (AFP)

Two progressive US lawmakers have introduced legislation that would seek to block or slow down any new defence agreements with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates.

Congressman Ro Khanna and Congresswoman Ilhan Omar put forward the legislation through several amendments to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), the annual defence budget for the Pentagon.

The amendments would require any new defence pact to be approved by a congressional vote - a situation that would likely lead to a massive debate in Congress.

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The total of three amendments put forward would require that any written US commitment to provide military security guarantees be considered a treaty; mandate congressional approval before any American funds are used for such an agreement; and require Congress to report on the potential downsides of increased air defence coordination between the US, Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE.

The amendments come after reports surfaced earlier this year that Riyadh and Abu Dhabi were seeking a formal security agreement with the US to counter Iran.

Last month, Axios reported that Biden administration officials were in discussions with their Emirati counterparts over what such a security arrangement would look like.

The report said that the Biden administration had already sent a draft agreement to the UAE, which includes a defence and security component but also covers economic, trade, science and technology issues.

Establishing a new treaty with the US would require support from two-thirds of the Senate, which would be a difficult task with the 100-person legislative body split evenly between the two major American political parties.

Reprioritise US-Saudi relationship

On Thursday, sources told Reuters that the US and Israel are seeking to lay the groundwork for a security alliance with Arab states that would connect air defence systems using Israeli technology to combat Iranian drone and missile attacks in the Middle East.

The proposed amendments are the latest attempts by lawmakers to call for a reevaluation of US-Gulf ties that would favour Washington, not the other way around.

For months, Congress has been calling for a recalibration of the US relationship with countries in the Gulf, most recently in the wake of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the spike in global oil prices.

In April, more than two dozen members of Congress called on Biden to undertake a thorough review of its relationship with Saudi Arabia. 

"The United States can continue our status-quo of seemingly unconditional support for an autocratic partner, or we can stand for human rights and rebalance our relationship to reflect our values and interests," the lawmakers wrote in a letter.

Then, on Wednesday, a group of six House Democrats made a similar call, urging the White House to prioritise getting Saudi Arabia to boost oil production, and "ending the kingdom's arbitrary detention of human rights defenders, as well as other human rights abuses".


Probe into Egyptian economist's death was severely flawed, rights groups say

Thu, 07/07/2022 - 18:38
Probe into Egyptian economist's death was severely flawed, rights groups say
Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International accuse Egyptian prosecutors of failing to conduct an 'independent, effective, and transparent investigation'
MEE staff Thu, 07/07/2022 - 19:38
Egyptian economist Ayman Hadhoud
Egyptian economist Ayman Hadhoud was arrested on 5 February and subsequently went missing. On 9 April his family was asked to collect his dead body from the Abbasiya Mental Health Hospital in Cairo (AFP/File photo)

Egyptian authorities have been accused by two leading human rights groups of failing to conduct an "independent, effective, and transparent investigation" into the death of an economic researcher in custody.

In a joint statement on Thursday, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International accused Egyptian prosecutors of ignoring "mounting evidence" that 48-year-old Ayman Hadhoud was tortured, and was denied access to timely healthcare.

"The severely flawed investigation into the causes and circumstances of Ayman Hadhoud's death in custody is another stark reminder of the impunity crisis in Egypt," said Philip Luther, Middle East and North Africa research and advocacy director at Amnesty International. 

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Hadhoud, a senior economic adviser to Egypt's liberal Reform and Development Party, was arrested on 5 February on charges of alleged theft, and went missing. Then, on 9 April, his family was asked to collect his dead body from the Abbasiya Mental Health Hospital in Cairo.

The Egyptian Prosecutor's Office repeatedly denied playing a role in his death, emphasising "his body was examined and found to be free of injuries" and that he died as a result of a "drop in blood pressure".

The office added that he suffered from "mental disorders, dizziness, imbalance and high temperature", was suspected to have contracted Covid-19, and "died during his transfer to a hospital for treatment".

Several Egyptian and international rights groups, however, described the death as "suspicious" and accused Cairo of "hiding the truth".

His suspicious death had raised alarm among local and international rights groups, especially after his family alleged that his body had facial bruises and a cracked skull.

'Systematic negligence'

Last month, an Egyptian court rejected an appeal filed by Hadhoud's family to reinvestigate the evidence and the circumstances of his death. The court upheld the prosecutors' decision to close the case and to rule out any criminal suspicion.

Earlier, prosecutors had refused demands to allow independent observers to attend the autopsy of Hadhoud's body, and ultimately concluded that he had died of chronic heart disease, leading to a cardiac and respiratory arrest.

"Prosecutors have systematically neglected to investigate allegations of enforced disappearance and torture, and have admitted confessions extracted under torture as evidence in trials," read the statement.

Both advocacy groups cited what they claimed to be leaked documents from the hospital showing that Hadhoud's health was deteriorating while in custody and that authorities failed to transfer him promptly to a better-equipped medical facility, despite "imminent danger to his life". 

Hadhoud's case is not the first time detainees have died under mysterious circumstances in Egypt. 

In 2016, Giulio Regeni, an Italian doctoral student, was found dead on the side of a Cairo road. Signs of torture on his body raised suspicions of police involvement. Italy accused police officers of killing him, a charge that Egypt denied.

US nationals urge Biden to help free relatives detained in Egypt and Saudi Arabia

Thu, 07/07/2022 - 16:48
US nationals urge Biden to help free relatives detained in Egypt and Saudi Arabia
In a letter to the White House, families of people held by Cairo and Riyadh call on US president to raise the issue ahead of trip to the Middle East
MEE staff Thu, 07/07/2022 - 17:48
More than half of all prisoners in Egypt are political, according to the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information (AFP/File photo)

A group of US nationals and residents whose relatives are detained in Saudi Arabia and Egypt are urging President Joe Biden to help secure their freedom as he prepares to travel to the Middle East this month to meet with the leaders of both countries.

In a letter sent to the White House on Wednesday, the group made the appeal on behalf of more than 30 people detained by Riyadh and Cairo, including a journalist, rights activists and dissidents.

Some have officially been released but are subject to travel bans, while others have received harsh sentences for their public criticism of authorities.

"Like you, we have spent many holidays, the births of children and grandchildren, and other important family events with empty seats at our tables," the families said in a letter delivered to the White House, as quoted by The Wall Street Journal.

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"We appeal to your sense of compassion and commitment to justice to alleviate our suffering."

The longest-serving detainee mentioned in the letter is Salah Soltan, a US permanent resident who served in the government of deposed Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi.

He was sentenced to life in prison in a 2017 mass trial that rights groups criticised as unfair. Soltan's son Mohamed is an American citizen who was himself imprisoned for nearly two years before being stripped of his Egyptian citizenship and extradited to the US.

The most prominent US citizen on the list is Walid al-Fitaihi, a Saudi doctor who has been released from detention - but cannot leave the country.

Other individuals either detained or barred from travel include journalist Salah al-Haidar and his mother Aziza al-Yousef, Abdulrahman al-Sadhan, women's rights activist Loujain al-Hathloul, scholar Salman al-Awdah, and the children of Saudi Arabia's former spy chief Saad al-Jabri: Sarah and Omar al-Jabri.

The letter comes a week before Biden travels to Saudi Arabia for a summit of regional leaders, including countries from the Gulf Cooperation Council, Egypt, Jordan, and Iraq.

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is expected to attend, and Biden will meet for the first time as president with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the de facto leader of Saudi Arabia.

Hopes of Biden's human rights commitments 'fading'

The relatives said in their letter to Biden that the hope they held in his promises regarding human rights was fading as Washington pursues a diplomatic reset after its relationship with Riyadh hit its lowest point in decades.

"We worry that these warmer relations will only eclipse the plight of our loved ones, and we at least expect closer ties be utilized to insist on their release and our reunification," they wrote.

Earlier this week, a number of families of detainees in Saudi Arabia and Egypt voiced anger after they were left out of a call held by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken with a number of relatives of US nationals who are hostages or otherwise wrongfully detained abroad.

Being left out of the call raised concerns they were being sidelined ahead of Biden's trip to the Middle East.

Saudi activists have said they felt betrayed by Biden's visit, who vowed as a candidate to put human rights at the centre of his administration's foreign policy and treat Saudi Arabia as a "pariah" over the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi.

Sisi, meanwhile, has jailed tens of thousands of people since deposing Egypt's democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi, in 2013.

More than half of all prisoners in Egypt are political, according to the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information.

The administration also deepened cooperation with Egypt last year on security, economics and climate change in a step towards closer ties - despite rights groups having raised concerns over the deteriorating rights sitiation in the country.

While Biden on the campaign trail said there would be no more "blank cheques" for Sisi, the administration has approved billions of dollars of arms deals to Cairo.

The White House and the embassies of Saudi Arabia and Egypt in the US did not respond to Middle East Eye's request for comment by time of publication.


UK court dismisses challenge to government schools guidance on Palestine

Thu, 07/07/2022 - 15:30
UK court dismisses challenge to government schools guidance on Palestine
Advocacy group had argued education minister's letter, which led to censure of dozens of schoolchildren showing support for Palestine, was discriminatory
Areeb Ullah Thu, 07/07/2022 - 16:30
Williamson sent his letter at the height of Israel's bombardment of Gaza in 2021 as schools across Britain grapple with growing student activism for Palestine (AFP)

The High Court in London has dismissed a legal challenge brought against the British Department for Education over the issuing of "discriminatory" guidance to teachers that led to dozens of schoolchildren being censured for showing support for Palestine during the Israeli bombing of Gaza last year.

Cage, a human rights advocacy group in London, launched judicial review proceedings last year after the letter, written in May 2021 by then-education minister Gavin Williamson, urged teachers to "act appropriately" when expressing views on Israel and Palestine.

'It validates the Department of Education's attempts to police the Palestine debate at our schools in favour of the pro-Israel narrative'

- Muhammad Rabbani, Cage

Described as a response to an "increase in antisemitic incidents in some schools" caused by "an increased focus on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict", the letter also advised schools not to work with organisations questioning Israel's "right to exist".

"I am aware that many young people will have a strong personal interest in these issues, and I am aware that in some schools, this has led to political activity by older pupils," Williamson, who was dismissed from his role in September 2021, wrote.

"It is unacceptable to allow some pupils to create an atmosphere of intimidation or fear for other students and teachers," the letter continued, warning headteachers of "legal duties regarding political impartiality" and urging administrations to favour a "balanced presentation of opposing views" on the Israel-Palestine conflict.  

I have written to headteachers today, following the concerning increase in antisemitic incidents in schools.

Discrimination and racism in any form should never be tolerated in education or in wider society. pic.twitter.com/bGz7a9PXqe

— Gavin Williamson (@GavinWilliamson) May 28, 2021

The review proposed by Cage and its lawyers called for the Department for Education to publicly withdraw the letter on grounds including that it was discriminatory against Muslim schoolchildren, that it reflected pro-Israel bias on Williamson's part, and that proper consultation had not been conducted before it was issued.

Speaking after Thursday's hearing, Muhammad Rabbani, the organisation's managing director, said the dismissal of the case was "disappointing but unsurprising" and a "blow to free speech".

"It validates the Department of Education's attempts to police the Palestine debate at our schools in favour of the pro-Israel narrative," said Rabbani. 

"The choreographing of political discussions in this way within schools is akin to the manner of autocratic regimes and seriously curtails freedom of speech."

'Partisan view'

On Thursday, Cage also published results of a survey of school events promoting support for Ukraine in its war with Russia, which it said contrasted with the "securitisation" of schoolchildren expressing support for Palestinians.

Fahad Ansari, a solicitor and director of Riverway Law, which represented Cage, said the High Court had "failed to protect the freedom of expression of pupils" who supported Palestinian rights.


Ansari said: "The Court has essentially enabled the government to compel head teachers and school leaders to adopt a partisan view on the Israeli-Palestinian issue thereby shifting their role from education to indoctrination."

"Equating the rejection of the State of Israel's 'right to exist' with antisemitism is not only factually wrong but undermines the fight against genuine antisemitism," he added.

Williamson's intervention came days after MEE reported that schools across Britain were clamping down on pro-Palestine activism on school premises. Some students said they were disciplined for wearing keffiyehs and holding Palestine flags. 

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Several students who spoke to MEE said they were threatened with detention, expulsion, and being blocked from taking their exams if they continued protesting for Palestinian rights on school premises. 

Cage said it had handled at least 47 cases of students and teachers who said they were censored for expressing their support for Palestine.  

Mend, a not-for-profit company that supports British Muslims, also recorded 146 statements from students detailing how schools attempted to shut down support for Palestine. 

One student was reprimanded for wearing a "Free Palestine" badge. In another school, teachers claimed it was Palestine's fault that it was being bombed.


Saudi Arabia's oil policy bankrolls Russian war crimes in Ukraine, US Democrats say

Thu, 07/07/2022 - 15:14
Saudi Arabia's oil policy bankrolls Russian war crimes in Ukraine, US Democrats say
A group of senior House Democrats call on US President Joe Biden to 'recalibrate' US ties with Saudi Arabia ahead of his trip to the Middle East
MEE staff Thu, 07/07/2022 - 16:14
A demonstrator dressed as Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman holds 'the royal bone saw' outside the White House, on 19 October 2018 (AFP)

A group of senior House Democrats have criticised Saudi Arabia's "refusal to stabilize global energy markets", claiming it is helping bankroll Russian President Vladimir Putin's "war crimes in Ukraine".

In a letter sent to the White House on Wednesday, six House Democrats, including House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Gregory Meeks and House Intelligence chairman Adam Schiff, called on Biden to "further recalibrate the relationship between the United States and Saudi Arabia".

"The Kingdom has long been an important US partner, and we seek to further cooperate with it on regional, counterterrorism, energy and other priorities," they wrote. "However, since 2015, its leadership has repeatedly acted in ways at odds with US policy and values.

"Of most immediate relevance, Saudi Arabia's refusal to stabilize global energy markets is helping bankroll [Russian President] Vladimir Putin’s war crimes in Ukraine, while inflicting economic pain on everyday Americans," they added.

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The lawmakers urged Biden to prioritise securing further Saudi commitments to stabilise global energy markets "and definitively abandon its Trump-era oil production deal with Russia".

Oil prices have remained consistently above $100 a barrel since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in February, with Brent crude trading at $101.36 per barrel on Thursday.

High energy prices have supported Russia's military campaign, with Moscow generating about $20bn per month in oil sales this year. Rising gasoline prices have also become a hot-button political issue in the West, helping to fuel historic inflation.

Until recently, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, two swing producers within Opec, rebuffed calls from the US to break from their agreement with Moscow, frustrating US attempts to isolate Russia on the global stage.

Last week, Biden told reporters that he would not directly ask Saudi Arabia to increase oil output when he visits the kingdom and that he had instead made the case that all Gulf countries increase production.

The average price per gallon for gasoline in the US was $4.78 on Thursday, down from the record $5.02 that Americans were paying last month.

'Unprecedented humanitarian disaster'

Also in Wednesday's letter, the lawmakers asked for continuing the suspension of offensive US military support to the Saudi-led coalition at war in Yemen.

Shortly after taking office last year, Biden declared in a speech - largely met with praise from many Democrats - that he would end "American support for offensive operations in the war".

But more than a year into his presidency, it remains unclear as to what ending "offensive support" entails. For months, questions have lingered regarding the details of the decision, such as what constitutes an offensive operation versus a defensive one, and what weapons systems would fall under such categories.

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According to Vox, the "defensive" support the US provides the kingdom also includes greenlighting the servicing of Saudi aircraft through defence contractors.

In February 2021, 41 members of Congress asked Biden to clarify what forms of military aid the US was providing to Saudi Arabia under Trump, what aid would continue, and how his administration would define "offensive operations".

Saudi Arabia and its allies intervened in Yemen's civil war in March 2015, and have since carried out more than 20,000 air strikes in an effort to roll back territorial gains made by Houthi rebels, with one-third striking non-military sites - including schools, factories and hospitals, according to the war monitor the Yemen Data Project.

The United Nations has described Yemen as the world's worst humanitarian catastrophe, with an estimated 377,000 people killed by direct fighting as well as from hunger and disease.

"The prolonged Saudi-led war in Yemen has not reduced Iran's malign influence but instead created an unprecedented humanitarian disaster that will fuel regional instability," the lawmakers said in Wednesday's letter.

'End arbitrary detentions'

In the letter, the lawmakers also urged Biden to prioritise "ending the kingdom's arbitrary detention of human rights defenders, as well as other human rights abuses".

"Recent mass executions and Saudi pressure on Turkey to cease the trial for Jamal Khashoggi's brutal murder bely claims that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is pursuing genuine reforms," the lawmakers said.

Until Saudi Arabia "shows signs of charting a different course, and in light of deliberations regarding a potential visit to the Kingdom during which you may have an opportunity to meet with King Salman and other regional heads of state, we encourage you to redouble your efforts to recalibrate the US-Saudi relationship".

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Biden will embark on a four-day trip to the Middle East next Wednesday. He will first visit Israel and the occupied West Bank. The visit will then culminate with a major gathering of regional leaders in the Saudi port city of Jeddah.

Biden has said the agenda includes much more than energy policy and stressed that the meetings will include leaders from many Gulf nations.

"I guess I will see the king and the crown prince, but that's not the meeting I'm going to. They'll be a part of a much larger meeting," he said. "It's in Saudi Arabia, but it's not about Saudi Arabia."

Several lawmakers have publicly advised Biden against meeting Saudi Arabia's powerful crown prince during his stay in the kingdom.

"Until Saudi Arabia makes a radical change in terms of its human rights, I wouldn't want anything to do with him," Congressman Schiff said, referring to the crown prince during an appearance on CBS' "Face the Nation" on Sunday.

Biden's visit marks a reversal for the US president, who on the campaign trail promised to make a "pariah" out of the kingdom. Soon after entering office Biden released the intelligence report that implicated the Saudi crown prince in the 2018 murder of Khashoggi.

Ons Jabeur: Tunisian tennis star reaches Wimbledon final

Thu, 07/07/2022 - 14:12
Ons Jabeur: Tunisian tennis star reaches Wimbledon final
Number two defeats Germany's Tatjana Maria to become first Arab in Grand Slam final
MEE staff Thu, 07/07/2022 - 15:12
Tunisia's Ons Jabeur hugs Germany's Tatjana Maria after beating her during their women's singles semi final tennis match at Wimbledon, southwest London on 7 July 2022 (AFP)

Tunisian tennis star Ons Jabeur is through to the Wimbledon final, marking yet another groundbreaking moment for Arab tennis. 

Having already become the first Arab or North African tennis player to make it to a Grand Slam semi-final, she beat Germany's Tatjana Maria 6-2 3-6 6-1 on centre court on Thursday to reach the final of the storied tennis championships. 

Jabeur will meet the winner of the other women's singles semi-final, which is being contested by Simona Halep of Romania and Elena Rybakina of Kazakhstan. The Tunisian is ranked second in the world, and will be the favourite in Saturday’s final. 

“I really don't know what to say, it’s a dream come true,” Jabeur said following the victory. “I'm a proud Tunisian woman standing here today. I know in Tunisia they’re going crazy right now.”

She added that she wanted to continue to inspire not just Tunisians, Arabs and Africans, but all young players. 

Jabeur is the first Arab - man or woman - to reach a Grand Slam final, and the first African woman to reach the final. 


She is often described as a trailblazer: breaking new ground for Tunisians, Arabs and Africans alike with every new advancement and achievement in her career. 

In 2020, her run to the quarter-final of the Australian Open was the furthest a North African and Arab woman had ever reached in a Grand Slam, which she matched again at last year’s Wimbledon. 

In June last year, she won the 2021 Birmingham Classic, making her the first Arab woman to win a WTA Tour title. 

Jabeur was born in Ksar Hellal, a small town in northeastern Tunisia, and grew up in the nearby larger coastal city of Sousse. 

At the age of three, she was introduced to tennis by her mother. She started out by training in hotels and tourist resorts, owing to the lack of courts at local tennis clubs.  

Jabeur began competing in national tournaments aged six, and internationally four years later. 

Aged 12, she moved 90 miles to the capital Tunis where she trained at Lycee Sportif El Menzah, a multi-sport national academy for emerging Tunisian talents.

Egyptians prevented from answering questions on democracy in Arab World Survey

Thu, 07/07/2022 - 14:01
Egyptians prevented from answering questions on democracy in Arab World Survey
Major new survey finds declining faith in democracy, but critics say poll is 'skewed' and citizens of authoritarian countries not allowed to answer all questions
Rayhan Uddin Thu, 07/07/2022 - 15:01
Egyptian pro-democracy protesters celebrate at Cairo's Tahrir Square after president Hosni Mubarak stepped down on 11 February 2011 (AFP)

A major new survey has claimed that Arabs are losing faith in the effectiveness of democracy, despite respondents in autocratic Egypt being denied the chance to answer questions on that very topic.

Citizens of several authoritarian countries in the Middle East did not also participate. 

The Arab World Survey, commissioned by BBC News Arabic and conducted by the Arab Barometer network based at Princeton University, interviewed 23,000 people across Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Libya, Mauritania, Morocco, Sudan, Tunisia and Palestine.

It was carried out between October 2021 and April 2022, and asked questions on a range of subjects including democracy, foreign leaders, religiosity, women’s rights and racism. 

The survey, published on Wednesday, found that the vast majority of respondents believed that “under a democratic system, the country’s economic performance is weak”. 

It also found that most people agree with the statements: “Democratic regimes are indecisive and full of problems,” “democratic systems are not effective at maintaining order and stability”, and “this country needs a leader who can bend the rules to get things done”. 

Egypt and Mauritania evade questions

These statements on democracy were answered by people from nine of the participating ten states, with the notable exception of Egypt. 

Egyptians also did not participate in questions on whether people prayed Fajr morning prayers on time, and whether they read the Quran daily.

A question asking respondents about their views on various world leaders’ foreign policy towards the Middle East and Africa region was also not answered in Egypt because “authorities would not allow these questions to be asked”. 

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Elsewhere, there are no results from Mauritania on the topic of racial discrimination because Mauritanian authorities asked for questions to be “modified or removed”.

The report notes that the country is going through a national dialogue to formally address racial issues. 

Michael Robbins, director of Arab Barometer, told Middle East Eye that apart from Lebanon and Tunisia, the researchers needed some form of state approval to carry out questionnaires in the surveyed countries. 

“Generally, locals have an idea of what is legal and what isn’t. We don’t want to put our teams in danger. I don’t think any survey is worth a human life or having someone jailed,” he said. 

He said that authorities had sensitivities on certain topics, and did not usually provide a reason as to why some questions were not allowed to be answered by citizens. 

“Egyptian authorities were very sensitive about international relations questions. That may be related to current negotiations with different powers.” 

'Skewed and manipulative'

Analysts have expressed doubt over the findings, citing the omission of some countries and the framing of the questions.

“We have to interpret these results cautiously. A number of countries are excluded, the sampling methodology is imperfect, and some questions could not be asked in some of the surveyed countries,” Mohamad Elmasry, chair of the media studies programme at the Doha Institute for Graduate Studies, told Middle East Eye. 

'[It was] engineered to elicit negative responses on democracy, while offering respondents no opportunity to give their opinions on the problems with undemocratic governance'

-Sarah Leah Whitson, Dawn

Elmasry said that it was fair to ask how democratic governments were likely to perform economically, particularly if the same questions are asked over time.

“However, I would prefer that mirroring questions be asked for other forms of government, most notably authoritarianism,” he noted.

“This is important, especially since authoritarianism is more common in the region.”

Asked by MEE why questions were not asked about the impact of authoritarianism, Robbins said it was something “we want to do and will do in future surveys”. 

“It’s unfortunate that the Arab Barometer’s questions on governance were so skewed and manipulative,” Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now (Dawn), told Middle East Eye. 

“[It was] engineered to elicit negative responses on democracy, while offering respondents no opportunity to give their opinions on the problems with undemocratic, unrepresentative governance.”

Whitson took issue with the wording of the questions, noting that only negative options were given in relation to democracy, with “nothing positive”. 

“The survey provides a distorted image of Arab public opinion, entirely excluding respondents from some of the region’s most abusive governments, while omitting political questions in countries like Egypt,” she said. 

Erdogan rated most popular leader 

Gulf countries, which are among the most autocratic in the region, were not involved in the survey. 

Robbins said that the Gulf was a “much more restrictive environment” than other parts of the Middle East, but that the Arab Barometer is trying to push for more access in those countries. 

He added that the survey’s funding often fluctuated, and it currently only had funding to research 12 countries. The results for Kuwait and Algeria were received too late to be included in the study.

The Arab Barometer’s major funders include two US government agencies, the Middle East Partnership Initiative and the Agency for International Development. Among other funders are BBC Arabic, the National Endowment for Democracy, the UN Development Programme and Princeton and Michigan universities. 

While the findings indicated a decline in faith in democracy to provide stability and economic strength, overall most respondents still believed it to be the best form of government. 

Elsewhere in the survey, there was widespread acknowledgement of racial discrimination, except in Egypt, where only eight percent of people said it was a problem. Eighty-six percent of Egyptians said there was no racial discrimination “at all” against dark skinned individuals. 

It found that a majority of people surveyed said that men are better at political leadership than women, though support for this view had declined since 2018. 

Lebanon and Tunisia had seen the biggest decline in this view, where less than half of respondents believe men to be better leaders. 

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While the 2018 survey found that some in the region were turning their backs on religion, most countries have seen a decline in the number of people describing themselves as “not religious”. 

The analysis on global leaders compared the popularity of the MENA policies of presidents in the US, China, Russia, Turkey, the United Arab Emirates and Syria, as well as Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Iran Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. 

Six of the nine countries (Egypt did not partake) favoured Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s foreign policy the most, while Syria’s Bashar al-Assad was the least popular. 

Burying bad news: US condemned over report on Shireen Abu Akleh's killing

Thu, 07/07/2022 - 13:42
Burying bad news: US condemned over report on Shireen Abu Akleh's killing
Palestinian activists express outrage over 'inconclusive' assessment on Abu Akleh's killing, saying it adds to history of impunity for Israel's targeting of civilians
Umar A Farooq Thu, 07/07/2022 - 14:42
People in the occupied West Bank city of Bethlehem light candles during a vigil in memory of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, on 16 May 2022.
People in the occupied West Bank city of Bethlehem light candles during a vigil in memory of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, on 16 May 2022 (Reuters)

The United States has been accused of burying its findings in the killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu-Akleh, and is facing criticism for issuing statements that appeared to absolve Israel of all responsibility over the killing.

The State Department announced earlier this week that gunfire from Israeli positions "was likely responsible for the death of Shireen Abu Akleh” but dismissed the incident as the unintentional "result of tragic circumstances".

Abu Akhleh, a veteran journalist with Al Jazeera Arabic, was killed by Israeli forces on 11 May during an Israeli military raid in the Jenin refugee camp, several eyewitnesses, including Middle East Eye contributor Shatha Hanaysha, have said.

The Israeli military denied responsibility for the killing but in the days and weeks after the incident, several publications including The Washington Post, The New York Times, as well as international bodies including the United Nations, concluded that Israeli forces had in fact killed Abu Akleh.

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Since the State Department's announcement, Palestinian activists have taken issue with the vague and inconsequential statement and criticised the decision to make it public on 4 July – US Independence Day – a major national holiday when many people are spending time with their families and not focusing on the news.

"Of course it was done on July 4th, at a time when nobody's really going to be paying attention to the outcome," Diana Buttu, a Palestinian human rights lawyer and former legal advisor to the negotiating team of the Palestinian Liberation Organisation, told Middle East Eye.

"It was on a long weekend where people are away and that's the point. Since Shireen was murdered by Israel, the US administration has gone out of its way to try to crush this."

Buttu said the statement was carefully crafted to avoid any tensions ahead of US President Joe Biden's scheduled visit to Israel next week. 

Last month, the administration reportedly asked Israel to halt home demolitions, evictions of Palestinians and any decisions on settlement building "until after Biden's visit", saying they want "quiet and calm" for Biden's visit.

"It is not surprising in the least to see this buried announcement of a supposedly inconclusive verdict about just who murdered Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh issued by the State Department," Omar Zahzah, an organiser with the Palestinian Youth Movement, told MEE.

"The imperialist capitalist US government has long made it clear that Palestinian life, dignity and freedom is worthless to its oppressive interests and investment in the subjugation of the Global South."

US nationals killed by Israel

In its statement, the State Department said its investigation found "no reason to believe that this was intentional but rather the result of tragic circumstances". It said that the incident had taken place "during an IDF-led military operation against factions of Palestinian Islamic Jihad on May 11, 2022, in Jenin, which followed a series of terrorist attacks in Israel".

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In response, Abu Akleh's family released a scathing rebuke. In a statement released on Monday evening, the family described Washington's assessment as "frankly insulting to Shireen's memory".

The family, as well as activists who spoke to MEE, noted that the focus on the bullet that killed Abu Akleh was an attempt to spin the narrative around what happened, rather than seek actual accountability.

"The focus became on the bullet and which gun fired the bullet and all of these sorts of stupid things, rather than on what we know to be true," Buttu said.

"It's because she was reporting on [Israel's] military occupation that she was killed."

Buttu said that given Israel's advanced military capabilities and sophisticated technologies, she has doubts Israel does not know the identity of the killer.

In 2018, the Israeli forces posted a now-deleted tweet in which they said, "We know where every bullet has landed" after 773 Palestinians in Gaza were shot with live ammunition from Israeli forces during mass demonstrations

'It's because she was reporting on [Israel's] military occupation that she was killed'

- Diana Buttu, Palestinian human rights lawyer

"They have the system of being able to know where their soldiers are and who's doing the firing. They know the person who shot Shireen. For sure they do. This isn't a question in the dark," Buttu said.

Ramzy Baroud, a Palestinian-American journalist and author, told MEE that he believes it was a mistake to even allow the US to take part in the investigation, to begin with.

"Giving the State Department the opportunity to opine on the subject has both validated the US view on the matter and greatly confused the existing body of evidence, which seemed conclusive in asserting that Shireen was murdered by Israel," Baroud said.

In a news conference on Tuesday following the release of its assessment, State Department spokesperson Ned Price doubled down and said that "they found no reason to believe that it was an intentional killing, but rather the result of tragic circumstances in the course of a raid".

Price added that Washington would continue to call for accountability, saying "this clearly was the case of a wrongful death".

"Our goal – and what we believe is the collective goal of the parties – is to see to it that something akin to this, the killing of a journalist in a conflict zone, can’t happen again, must not happen again," Price said.

Yet just several weeks after Abu Akleh's death, another Palestinian journalist, 31-year-old Ghufran Harun Warasneh, was shot and killed by Israeli fire in the occupied West Bank city of Hebron. It was her third day of work at her new job at a local media network.

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What should accountability look like?

Palestinian advocates say Washington's assessment of the killing is another attempt to sweep the killing of a Palestinian and US national at the hands of Israel under the rug.

In January, Omar Asaad, an 80-year-old Palestinian American, died of a heart attack after he was violently detained by Israeli soldiers during a raid on Jaljulia village, north of Ramallah in the occupied West Bank.

An Israeli army probe led to the dismissal of two officers, something the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem described as a "slight rebuke".

Shireen Abu Akleh killing: The legal mechanisms available for justice
Read More »

Still, Noura Erakat, a Palestinian-American human rights lawyer and professor at Rutgers University, told MEE that now is the time for the international community, and especially journalists, to increase their scrutiny over the probe into the killing.

"If we now know that Israel lies blatantly and can kill and get away with it, it should be imperative for journalists to now shift the way that they actually cover this issue with greater scrutiny," Erakat said.

"That's what accountability would look like, in my opinion. We're not going to get accountability for shootings and murder, but there should be a shift of how we interpret and understand information as a result of these findings."

On Tuesday evening, following the State Department's statement, a group of 11 Democratic lawmakers introduced legislation that would force the US government to investigate the killing and also investigate whether American weapons were used.

The legislation, spearheaded by Congressman Andre Carson, was submitted as an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), which authorises the Pentagon's annual budget.

Ayah Ziyadeh, advocacy director at American Muslims for Palestine, said that accountability would begin with a suspension of "all military funding for Israel" and would end with those responsible for Abu Akleh's killing being brought to justice.

"In the meantime, it is simply unacceptable for the President of the United States to conduct an ordinary diplomatic visit to a state that practices apartheid, and this is especially the case on the heels of the killing of an American journalist by this apartheid government," Ziyadeh said.

How the US tried to bury the report on Shireen Abu Akleh's killing

Hajj: The Palestinians deprived of pilgrimage under Israeli travel bans

Thu, 07/07/2022 - 11:48
Hajj: The Palestinians deprived of pilgrimage under Israeli travel bans
Palestinian activists describe the pain of missing out on the holy ritual due to 'confidential' reasons they are not allowed to hear
Aseel Jundi Thu, 07/07/2022 - 12:48
A Muslim pilgrim prays on the Mount Al-Noor in holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia on 4 July 2022. (Reuters)
A Muslim pilgrim prays on the Mount Al-Noor in holy city of Mecca, Saudi Arabia on 4 July 2022 (Reuters)

After three years in an Israeli jail and then two years locked out due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Nihad Zughair had been eagerly waiting for this year's Hajj

But as the Palestinian pilgrimage group tour administrator was finalising preparations last month, he was surprised by the extension of an Israeli travel ban against him. 

The Jerusalem native will now have to watch the holy ritual on a screen, having bitterly bid pilgrims on his tour farewell before they set off for Saudi Arabia's Mecca, where Hajj is set to commence on Thursday. 

"The ban has had a heavy toll on me," he told Middle East Eye. "My heart is attached to the sacred house of God, and I find my comfort only in that part of the world."

Zughair, a well-known activist in Jerusalem, was handed a three-month travel ban in April that was extended for another four months in June.

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The notice given to him cited "security reasons," Zughair said, without elaborating further.  

"No one knows what the deprivation of Hajj means except those who tasted the sweetness of Hajj," he wrote in a Facebook post after he learned about the ban.

"Every year people say goodbye to us as [we leave to Mecca], and this year I say goodbye to the pilgrims with tears."

Nihad Zughair (L) pictured in the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia's holy city of Mecca during his last trip in 2017. (Provided)
Nihad Zughair (L) pictured in the Grand Mosque in Saudi Arabia's holy city of Mecca during his last trip there in 2017. (Provided)

Zughair said that since he turned 18 he has been targeted by Israeli authorities for his activism and banned from entering al-Aqsa Mosque repeatedly over the years.

Upon returning from an Umrah trip to Mecca in 2017, he was arrested by Israeli police and sentenced to three years in prison.

He was accused of supporting an organisation called "the youth of al-Aqsa," a name he said he had never heard in his life.

After his release, Zughair's travel was widely restricted and he was not allowed to leave with a youth football team he coached for a tournament in Europe. 

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Since then, he has vowed not to leave Jerusalem unless it's for Mecca, a destination that he now also can't reach. 

'Tight prison'

Israeli authorities routinely issue travel bans against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem based on unspecified security reasons. 

In 2017, Israel listed almost 13,937 Palestinians on a travel ban for "security reasons" - the figure dropped to 10,594 in 2021, according to Israeli rights group HaMoked.

Often the bans target human rights defenders, activities and their relatives. 

'I have not been able to travel to the two Holy Mosques my whole life, although it's my only wish'

- Nasser al-Hadmi, Palestinian researcher 

Nasser al-Hadmi, a Palestinian researcher and head of the Jerusalem committee against Judaisation, has been a victim of this practice almost all his adult life.

On top of renewed travel bans against him, he is also repeatedly barred from entering al-Aqsa Mosque and any neighbourhood in East Jerusalem aside from the one he resides in.

"I live in a tight prison," Hadmi told MEE, describing life in al-Suwaneh neighbourhood, where he is confined. 

The travel ban order against him, usually signed by the Israeli minister of interior, accuses him of being a "leading figure in Hamas." 

Every time he files an appeal against the order, which has been extended regularly since 2017, it gets rejected, he said. 

"I have not been able to travel to the two Holy Mosques [Mecca and Medina] my whole life, although it's my only wish," said Hadmi.

"Whenever I hear from my friends about registering their names for the upcoming Hajj season, I feel deeply saddened."

Movement restrictions

Israel has been accused for decades of imposing discriminatory restrictions on the movement of Palestinians in occupied East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the Gaza Strip.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch both cite "draconian" movement restrictions as one of the measures imposed by Israel that contribute to a "system of apartheid," a charge Israel vehemently denies.

Palestinians decry new West Bank restrictions on movement in wake of protests
Read More »

In East Jerusalem, where Israel applies civil law unlike in the West Bank, Palestinians are still disproportionately handed travel bans over political activity compared to Israelis, lawyer Khaled Zabarqa said in an interview with MEE. 

The reasons behind such bans are often concealed and neither the lawyer nor the defendants can have access to them. 

When cases are appealed and reach the high courts, they are presented to judges without the presence of defendants or their lawyers due to the "confidential" nature of the information discussed, according to Zabarqa. 

The lawyer, who is based in Lydd (Lod) and has spent his career defending Palestinian activists in Jerusalem and Israel, says the practice and the legal process both reflect a "racist" Israeli policy.

"The travel ban is not practised to preserve the law or public security, as the Israeli authorities claim," Zabarqa said. 

"It is to subjugate Jerusalemites and suppress their freedoms." 

'This is my only wish': The Palestinians deprived of Hajj under Israeli travel bans

Iranian press review: Raisi further militarises his administration

Thu, 07/07/2022 - 11:21
Iranian press review: Raisi further militarises his administration
Meanwhile, Tehran blames US over deadlock in nuclear talks, late president’s daughter charged with 'insulting the sacred' and thugs recruited in Tehran’s housing market
MEE correspondent Thu, 07/07/2022 - 12:21
Gholam Reza was a member of the Quds Force, the international branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (AFP)

Raisi appoints former Soleimani ally as deputy

The appointment of a high-ranking intelligence officer as a deputy interior minister has fuelled concerns over the increasing presence of military and intelligence officers in Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi’s administration.

Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi appointed Mohammad Reza Gholam Reza as his political deputy on Sunday, Ensaf News reported.

Little is known of Gholam Reza, although local media reported he had served as deputy intelligence minister and head of Tehran’s provincial intelligence organisation.

The state-owned Iran Newspaper wrote that Gholam Reza was also a deputy of Qassem Soleimani, the late commander of the Quds Force, the international branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC).

The newspaper said that Gholam Reza had fought alongside Soleimani, without elaborating where or when.

Ahead of the new appointment, a reshuffle was reported last week at the highest level of the IRGC, with two of the force’s most influential intelligence commanders being dismissed.

The men who lost their positions were Hossein Taeb, the IRGC spy chief, and his close partner Brigadier General Ebrahim Jabbari, commander of the IRGC's Hefazat-e Vali-e Amr forces.

The Hefazat-e Vali-e Amr is responsible for the security of Iran’s supreme leader.

Nuclear deal 'will fail' unless US addresses Iran’s demands

Mohammad Marandi, the media adviser to Iran’s nuclear negotiating team, has said that attempts to revive the 2015 nuclear deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), will fail if the West does not guarantee Iran’s economic gains from the deal.

“The two topics related to receiving a guarantee [from the West] and the removal of sanctions have been very crucial for Iran, and the implementation of the JCPOA will fail again unless these are solved,” Marandi said in an interview with the hardline Jam-e Jam daily.

Grim assessment of Doha talks adds fresh uncertainty to Iran deal
Read More »

Iran agreed to curb its nuclear programme in 2015 in return for the lifting of international sanctions against its economy, however, the US unilaterally left the deal in 2018, subsequently imposing more than 1,000 new sanctions against the Islamic Republic.

During negotiations to revive the deal which began in April 2021, Iran urged Washington to guarantee it would not leave the deal again.

Marandi said that Iran’s three leading concerns regarding any new deal were: the removal of sanctions; a guarantee from the US over its commitments to the agreement; and an initial verification period for the US commitments.
“We should wait and see what the US will do. We will see if the US has finally decided to reach a good agreement or will continue procrastinating,” said Marandi.

Rafsanjani's daughter charged

A branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Court in Tehran has charged Faezeh Hashemi Rafsanjani, the daughter of former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, of “carrying out propaganda against the Islamic Republic” and “insulting the sacred,” the pro-conservative Javan daily reported.

Hashemi, a women’s rights activist, is known for her stand against the wearing of the obligatory hijab, defending religious minorities, and opposing the IRGC’s role in Iran’s foreign policy and economy.

According to the Javan daily, the charges against Hashemi were issued following comments she made about what she said was the Prophet Muhammad’s failure in managing financial affairs.

In a video that went viral on Farsi social media, Hashemi said: “The Prophet Muhammad wasted Khadija’s money... The Prophet Muhammad didn’t [know how to] do financial activities; he did prophecy,” referring to the Muhammad’s wife, Khadija bint Khuwaylid.

Hashemi, who was elected to Iran’s parliament in 1996 for one term, opposed the conservative politics of her father, who had assisted Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in becoming Iran’s supreme leader.

In 2012, she was imprisoned for six months over similar charges of “propaganda against the Islamic system”.

Property developers recruit gangs

Property developers in Tehran are employing thugs to terrorise municipal officials reporting building code violations on new constructions in the capital, a report in the Shahrvand newspaper has revealed.

In line with the increasing cost of living in Tehran, accommodation prices have risen sharply, benefitting those in the construction industry.

How four years of US sanctions have devastated Iran's economy
Read More »

According to official data, flats in Tehran sold for an average of 400m Iranian rials ($9,500) per square metre in June.

The Shahrvand said recruitment of thugs had occurred most in Tehran’s 18 and 19 districts, two of the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods in the south of the capital.

One of the most common code violations in Iran takes place when constructors build more storeys than they have been given permission to from the municipality.

In May, such violations led to the collapse of a 10-storey building in the southwestern city of Abadan, which left 37 people dead.

The Shahrvand said that in some southern districts of Tehran, thugs had prevented municipality officials from sealing off buildings constructed higher than the permit allows.

On other occasions, the newspaper said, owners of buildings with irregularities had let them to low-income families for free in order to prevent their demolition.

Boris Johnson and the Middle East: Gaffes, talking Turkey and pro-Israel pressure

Thu, 07/07/2022 - 11:01
Boris Johnson and the Middle East: Gaffes, talking Turkey and pro-Israel pressure
With the UK prime minister's resignation, MEE looks at issues that defined his service, including the arrest of Zaghari-Ratcliffe and backing the Yemen war
Alex MacDonald Thu, 07/07/2022 - 12:01
Boris Johnson arrives for a media interview at the Emirates Palace hotel in Abu Dhabi during his visit to the United Arab Emirates in March 2022 (AFP)

After just under three years in office and following a slew of scandals and resignations, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Thursday finally announced he was going to resign.

During his tenure he has overseen some of the biggest crises to face the country in recent years: primarily the Covid-19 pandemic and the process of removing the UK from the European Union.

Johnson, like Nixon, will fall due to his vanity
Peter Oborne
Read More »

In foreign policy terms, he has made much of his involvement in the war in Ukraine and his support for resistance to Russia's invasion.

But in the Middle East, Johnson's legacy is a mixed. Having taken up the premiership following two years as foreign secretary, he largely bolstered the UK's traditional relationships in the region, but his career has also been marked by what have been seen as a number of unforced errors.

With Boris Johnson's days in Downing Street now numbered, Middle East Eye takes a look at some of his most notorious Middle East-related moments.

1. The fate of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe

Boris Johnson's involvement with the Middle East is likely to be defined - in the minds of most British people - by the Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe affair.

British-Iranian aid worker Zaghari-Ratcliffe was arrested in Iran in 2016 while on holiday with her family, accused of conspiring to otherthrow the Tehran government and sentenced to five years in jail.

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe with her daughter (AFP)
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe with her daughter (AFP)

Her imprisonment, which was later extended, became a highly publicised running scandal in the UK until she was finally released in March 2022 and returned to Britain.

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While foreign secretary, Boris Johnson was heavily criticised when, in 2017, he claimed at a meeting of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee that Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been "teaching people journalism" in Iran.

His comments, which he admitted later were a "mistake", led to the Iranian-British citizen being brought before a court once more and accused of "spreading propaganda against the regime". 

The threat that her sentence would be extended hung over her, though in the end no extra charges were brought.

It is generally accepted that Zaghari-Ratcliffe was used as a bargaining tool by Tehran to force the UK government to pay a £600m ($719m) debt owed to Iran over an order of armoured vehicles that was cancelled following the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

On 16 March 2022, Boris Johnson's government announced it had paid the debt owed to Iran and on that same day Zaghari-Ratcliffe returned to the UK.

Upon returning she was highly critical of Johnson's handling of the affair.

"I don't agree with Richard [her husband] on thanking the foreign secretary, because I have seen five foreign secretaries over the course of the six years… how many foreign secretaries does it take for someone to come home, five?" she said.

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“I think the answer is clear. I cannot be happier than this that I’m here. But also, this should have happened six years ago.”

2. Talking Turkey

Boris Johnson has regularly made reference to his Turkish heritage. His great-grandfather, Ali Kemal, was a liberal reformer turned unpopular and short-lived interior minister for the Ottoman Empire.

Kemal was murdered during the Turkish War of Independence and in practice, his great-grandson's relationship with Turkey has often been fairly bumpy.

Campaign material from the Vote Leave campaign in the EU referendum (Vote Leave)
Campaign material from the Vote Leave campaign in the EU referendum (Vote Leave)

In 2016, as a leader of the campaign to leave the European Union, the spectre of Turkey joining the EU and millions of Turks having access to freedom of movement was a regularly touted scare story that may have helped swing the vote.

That same year, Johnson won a competition in the Spectator magazine for an offensive poem about Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, in which he described him as a "wankerer from Ankara" and implied he had sex with goats.

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Later, he was able to put relations back on a more steady footing, not least as both countries' relations with their neighbours in the EU began to deteriorate.

According to a report by MEE in 2018, the UK sold Turkey more than $1bn worth of weapons after the poem incident, while both countries have been heavily reliant on one another for trade and tourism.

In one of his last foreign engagements before resigning, Johnson met with Erdogan at a Nato summit.

video released from the summit shows Erdogan jokingly addressing Johnson and saying "this one is a disgrace to us", apparently in reference to his Turkish heritage. Johnson responds with "very nice, very nice" in Turkish.

3. Rwanda and the refugee 'crisis'

For many years, there has been discussion in the British media and political class about how to deal with people seeking refuge in the UK by crossing the English Channel from France.

As someone who came to power partly on the basis of xeonophobic rhetoric linked to the anti-EU campaign, Johnson has tried to make much political capital out of the issue.

Migrants disembark from a UK Border Force rubber dinghy, after they were picked up at sea while attempting to cross the English Channel, and brought to the Marina in Dover, in June 2022 (AFP)
Migrants disembark from a UK Border Force dinghy, after trying to cross the English Channel in June 2022 (AFP)

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In 2022, Johnson's government unveiled its plan: asylum seekers arriving through "illegal" means would be put on a one-way charter plane to Rwanda, where they would expected to seek asylum.

The policy horrified human rights campaigners and has, so far, been blocked by court appeals, including one to the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR).

While Johnson has claimed the policy is aimed at deterring people smugglers, others claim its sole purpose is to dissuade refugees from attempting to come to the UK.

Those who made the crossing to the UK - many Syrians, Iraqis and Iranians - and who are still being held in detention and threatened with transport to Rwanda, were dismayed at their treatment in what they thought was a welcoming country.

"If I knew there was such a policy, I wouldn't come to UK," one Iranian Kurdish refugee told MEE last month.

"At the same time, I wouldn't be staying in Iran... my life would be worse there."

//--> //--> //-->

4. Clampdown on Palestinian movements

In their resignation letters, Tory ministers have made much of Johnson's "success" in seeing off then Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn at the 2019 general election.

Corbyn's reputation as a staunch supporter of the Palestinians and a long-running crisis over allegations of antisemitism in the party have provided ample opportunities for Johnson's government to show its pro-Israel credentials.

Pro-Palestinian activists and supporters wave flags and carry placards during a demonstration in support of the Palestinian cause outside the Israeli Embassy in central London on May 15, 2021 (AFP)
Pro-Palestinian activists and supporters outside the Israeli Embassy in central London on May 15, 2021 (AFP)

In November 2021, Johnson's government announced that it would be listing the Palestinian organisation Hamas as a terrorist group in its entirety in the UK, having previously only done so for its military wing.

The new law meant that "members of Hamas or those who invite support for the group could be jailed for up to 14 years", with Home Secretary Priti Patel saying it was crucial for fighting antisemitism in the UK.

Another piece of legislation promised by Johnson - though not yet actually implemented - is a ban on the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement that aims to apply non-violent pressure on Israel to follow its obligations in international law.

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The new policy was promised in the Queen's Speech in May and has been criticised as an "attack on democracy" by pro-Palestinian campaigners.

5. The Gulf states and the Yemen war

As both foreign secretary and prime minister, Johnson has largely maintained the UK's traditional relationships with the Gulf states.

During the 2017 boycott of Qatar by its neighbours, Johnson - while stressing that the country should tackle "extremists" - called for the boycott to end and later attempted to mediate between the different sides.

A handout picture released by Kuwait's news agency KUNA on July 8, 2017, shows the Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah al-Khaled al-Sabah (C-R) meeting his British counterpart Boris Johnson (AFP)
Kuwaiti Foreign Minister Sheikh Sabah al-Khaled al-Sabah (C-R) meets UK counterpart Boris Johnson in 2017 (AFP/KUNA)

His cordial relations with the Gulf states have come in for criticism from human rights groups, particularly over his government's continuing support for the Saudi-led coalition's war in Yemen.

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Billions of pounds worth of equipment was reportedly sold to the coalition by the UK, even as the war turned Yemen into what the UN has described as the world's worst humanitarian disaster.

A temporary halt was placed on the UK's arms sales to the coalition in 2019 after the Court of Appeal ruled there had not been adequate assessment of the risks to civilians from the sales - but less than a year later sales resumed after it was deemed that only "isolated incidents" of civilian deaths had occured.

In what was Johnson's last trip to the region prior to announcing his resignation, he touched down in Saudi Arabia on the same day that the kingdom executed more than 80 prisoners.

“It is not acceptable to cite Russia’s war crimes to try to justify trading blood for oil elsewhere," said Reprieve director Maya Foa, at the time.

"It shows the world we will apply double standards for our convenience and embolden countries like Saudi Arabia into further atrocities, just as Putin was emboldened by our willingness to take his cronies' cash for decades."


Shireen Abu Akleh: Lawyers request bullet be examined by independent expert

Thu, 07/07/2022 - 10:31
Shireen Abu Akleh: Lawyers request bullet be examined by independent expert
A London-based legal team wants access to US and Israeli investigations and interviews with soldiers present during the shooting
MEE staff Thu, 07/07/2022 - 11:31
Parish priest of the Melkite Greek Catholic church in Ramallah speaks during a memorial service for the late Palestinian and veteran Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in Jerusalem on 18 June 2022 (AFP)

British lawyers on Wednesday said they have requested access to the bullet and firearm that killed the Al Jazeera Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in May.

In a statement sent to Middle East Eye, lawyers from leading London law firm Bindmans LLP and Doughty Street Chambers, who are acting on behalf of Abu Akleh's family, said they have sent the request to the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the Israeli army.

'The forensic analysis of the firearm forms a small but important part of the evidence in this case'

- Tayab Ali, Bindmans LLP

They have also requested the PA, Israeli army and the US embassy in London to provide access to their respective investigations, evidence and findings, including a copy of the recent forensic ballistic analysis conducted on the bullet referred to in the US State Department’s press statement of 4 July. 

The lawyers have also requested the opportunity to interview the soldiers that the Israeli army has identified as having been present during the shooting.

Abu Akleh, a veteran Palestinian-American journalist for Al Jazeera Arabic, was killed on 11 May while covering an Israeli military raid in the Palestinian city of Jenin in the occupied West Bank. Her death sparked Palestinian outrage and widespread international condemnation. Her colleague Ali al-Samoudi was also shot and wounded in the same attack.

"The forensic analysis of the firearm forms a small but important part of the evidence in this case. It is crucial that we, as the lawyers representing the victims in this case, are able to independently assess the evidence and are not prevented or hampered in our investigations," said Tayab Ali, partner at Bindmans.

"The evidence that we have seen so far provides a strong case that Israel has a policy of targeting journalists in the Occupied Palestinian Territory. Evidence is mounting that the killing of Shireen and shooting of Ali was part of that purposeful policy."

Shot by Israeli snipers

Multiple eyewitnesses, including Middle East Eye contributor Shatha Hanaysha, said the 51-year-old journalist was shot dead by Israeli snipers while reporting on the raid.

Investigations by the PA and the United Nations, as well as several journalistic probes, also found that the shot that killed Abu Akleh was fired by Israeli forces.

The PA on Saturday handed over the bullet that killed Abu Akleh to US authorities for forensic examination.

On Monday, the US Security Coordinator for Israel and the Palestinian Authority (USSC) said that gunfire from the positions of Israeli forces was likely responsible for the death of Shireen Abu Akleh but there was no definitive conclusion on the origin of the bullet.

The assessment, which found no reason to believe the killing was intentional, was based on investigations by both Israel and the PA.

The USSC statement said that independent third-party examiners could not reach a definitive conclusion regarding the origin of the bullet that killed the journalist despite an "extremely detailed forensic analysis".

Israel said on Monday that its own forensic investigation could not determine from which weapon the bullet was fired.

"The physical condition of the bullet and the quality of the characteristics on it do not enable a ballistic examination to conclusively determine whether or not the bullet was fired from the weapon which was examined," the Israeli army said.

Rights groups have said that it's unlikely Israel would conduct a proper investigation into the killing, adding that the country has a poor record of probing the conduct of its forces in relation to the deaths of Palestinians.

Legal paths for justice

In the early aftermath of the killing, legal experts told MEE that there were a number of legal mechanisms that Abu Akleh's family could use in order to seek justice, given the journalist's American citizenship.

Her family said in its statement that it would continue to advocate for justice, hold Israel accountable, and call on the US to conduct its own probe into the killing.

Al Jazeera has already referred the case to the International Criminal Court in the Hague and vowed to bring the killers to justice through all international legal platforms.

Shireen Abu Akleh killing: The legal mechanisms available for justice
Read More »

However, Israel maintains that it is not subject to the court's mandate because it is not a signatory to the Rome Statute that established the tribunal, and that the ICC cannot investigate abuses in the Palestinian territories because Palestine is not a state.

The British lawyers said their requests for access to the bullet and other evidence are part of an investigation into the alleged Israeli policy of targeting Palestinian journalists.

The legal team has been instructed to submit a new complaint to the ICC by Abu Akleh's family, the International Federation of Journalists, the Palestinian Journalists Syndicate, and the International Centre of Justice for Palestinians. The complaint asks the ICC prosecutor to launch an investigation into the circumstances surrounding Abu Akleh's death and Samoudi's shooting.

The lawyers said the new complaint follows an April submission to the court that requested the ICC prosecutor launch an investigation into the systematic targeting, maiming and killing of journalists and destruction of media infrastructure in Palestine. Abu Akleh was killed only days after the ICC prosecutor acknowledged receipt of the first complaint.

On 5 February 2021, the ICC ruled that its criminal jurisdiction extended to "the situation in Palestine," and that its territorial scope covered allegations that occurred in Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, the lawyers said.

"This presents for the first time a real opportunity for the accountability of Israel’s alleged policy of targeting journalists and could lead to a formal investigation by the ICC prosecutor and potential prosecutions," the lawyers' statement said.

Lawyers ask bullet that killed Shireen Abu Akleh be independently examined

Turkey releases Russian ship carrying 'Ukrainian grain'

Thu, 07/07/2022 - 09:22
Turkey releases Russian ship carrying 'Ukrainian grain'
Ukraine summons Turkish ambassador over release of the Zhibek Zholy, the Russian ship allegedly carrying stolen Ukrainian grain from occupied Berdyansk
Ragip Soylu Thu, 07/07/2022 - 10:22
The Zhibek Zholy ship was detained by Turkish authorities over the weekend and has since been released (Reuters)

Turkey has released a Russian-flagged cargo ship that was thought to be carrying stolen Ukrainian grain, the Ukrainian ministry of foreign affairs announced in a statement. 

The Zhibek Zholy, which was detained by Turkish authorities over the weekend, left the Black Sea port of Karasu in northwest Turkey on Wednesday, according to Refinitiv ship tracking data. 

Ukrainian officials, speaking to Middle East Eye, said they believed the ship was likely to have sailed for Russia or to the occupied Ukrainian port city of Berdyansk, which is where it came from. 

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“Ignoring the appeal of the Ukrainian side, the ship was released on the evening of 6 July,” the Ukrainian foreign ministry said. 

“The Ukrainian side received the mentioned information with deep disappointment and appeals to the Turkish side with an urgent request to conduct an investigation into the mentioned situation and provide a comprehensive answer to the requests of the relevant authorities of Ukraine, as well as to prevent similar cases in the future by all means.” 

Ukrainian authorities have also summoned the Turkish ambassador in Kyiv to provide an explanation, the statement said. 

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu discussed the issue with his Ukrainian counterpart on Thursday morning, according to a Turkish readout. 

On Wednesday, Russia's foreign ministry dismissed what it said were false reports of the ship's detention by authorities. 

Kyiv has accused Moscow of stealing grain from territories seized by Russian forces since the invasion began in late February.

The Kremlin, which calls the invasion of Ukraine a "special military operation", has previously denied that Russia has stolen any Ukrainian grain.


Israel and Turkey to expand mutual flights in their first aviation deal since 1951

Thu, 07/07/2022 - 07:16
Israel and Turkey to expand mutual flights in their first aviation deal since 1951
Move is latest agreement aimed at cementing the countries' rapprochement after years of strained relations
MEE and agencies Thu, 07/07/2022 - 08:16
The agreement is expected to result in the resumption of flights by Israeli companies to a variety of destinations in Turkey, alongside flights by Turkish companies to Israel (AFP)

Israel and Turkey will expand bilateral airline traffic under a new aviation deal to be signed on Thursday, their first since 1951, Israel's transportation ministry said.

"The agreement is expected to result in the resumption of flights by Israeli companies to a variety of destinations in Turkey, alongside flights by Turkish companies to Israel," the ministry said in a statement.

Last month Yair Lapid, the Israeli prime minister who was at the time foreign minister, hailed security cooperation with Turkey in helping foil an alleged Iranian plot to kidnap or kill Israeli nationals in Istanbul, as he met his counterpart in Ankara for high-level talks aimed at cementing the countries’ rapprochement.

In March, Israeli President Isaac Herzog met with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Ankara, the first visit by an Israeli head of state to Turkey since 2008.

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Herzog's visit came after more than a decade of strained relations between the two countries during which Turkey gave vocal support for the Palestinian cause and criticised Israeli policies.

Relations between Turkey and Israel nosedived after Israeli commandos raided a Gaza-bound flotilla carrying aid in 2010 and killed 10 Turkish civilians in international waters.

The flotilla, led by the Mavi Marmara ship, was an attempt to bring urgently needed humanitarian supplies to the besieged people of Gaza and shine a spotlight on the Israeli-imposed blockade of Gaza.

Ties were fractured again in 2018, when Israeli forces killed dozens of Palestinians taking part in the Great March of Return protests in Gaza, as the protesters demanded the implementation of refugees’ right of return and an end to the 15-year crippling blockade.

Turkey recalled all of its diplomats and ordered Israel’s envoy out of the country.

Experts believe Turkey and Israel began to move closer and cooperate following events in Nagorno-Karabakh in 2020 and then in Afghanistan in 2021.

However, the Hamas movement, which governs Gaza and maintains strong relations with Ankara, condemned Herzog's visit, and reiterated its policy of rejecting “any form of communication with our enemy”.

British foreign office denies UK diplomat detained in Iran

Wed, 07/06/2022 - 19:28
British foreign office denies UK diplomat detained in Iran
Video footage released by the IRGC claimed to show Giles Whitaker, the UK's deputy ambassador, near a site where Iran was conducting missile exercises
MEE staff Wed, 07/06/2022 - 20:28
Iranian state TV showed footage of Giles Whitaker and his family in central Iran where the British diplomat appeared to be taking ground samples (AFP/File photo)

The UK Foreign Office late on Wednesday denied Iranian state TV reports that Iran's Revolutionary Guards had detained the UK's deputy ambassador and several foreigners on claims of spying, calling the reports "completely false", Reuters has reported.

State TV aired footage that it claimed was of Giles Whitaker and his family in central Iran, with the British diplomat appearing to be taking ground samples. 

"These spies were taking earth samples in Iran's central desert where the Revolutionary Guards' aerospace missile exercises were conducted," state TV said.

"Whitaker was expelled from [the area] after apologising," the report added.

One of those reportedly detained was identified by state TV as the husband of Austria's cultural attache in Iran. It also showed a picture of a third foreigner, identifying him as Maciej Walczak, a university professor in Poland whom it said was visiting Iran as a tourist.

The TV report ran footage allegedly showing Walczak and three colleagues collecting earth samples in another area after visiting Iran on a scientific exchange programme. It said their sample collection also coincided with a missile test in Iran's southern Kerman province.

The report claimed Israel had sent the trio to Iran in order to "steal" information from the Islamic Republic.

The IRGC has arrested dozens of dual nationals and foreigners in recent years, mostly on espionage and security-related charges.

Earlier this year, British-Iranian charity worker Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was released after spending nearly six years in detention after being convicted of plotting to overthrow the government.

Zaghari-Ratcliffe finally returned home in March along with a fellow dual national, after the UK agreed to pay a longstanding debt to Iran.

Shortly before the 1979 Iranian revolution that overthrew Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the British government agreed to sell more than 1,500 Chieftain battle tanks and 250 repair vehicles to Iran.

Iran paid £600m ($795m) for the tanks in advance, but having delivered only 185 tanks, Britain refused to deliver the remaining equipment when the shah was deposed.

The international court of arbitration in The Hague ordered Britain to pay the debt in 2001, a ruling upheld in 2009.

However, the two governments were locked in a prolonged legal battle in the British courts over the exact sum owed and whether or not the UK should pay interest on it.

Rights groups have repeatedly accused the Islamic Republic of trying to win concessions from other countries through arrests on trumped up security charges. Tehran denies arresting people for political reasons.

Biden administration ramps up Iran sanctions as nuclear talks falter

Wed, 07/06/2022 - 17:57
Biden administration ramps up Iran sanctions as nuclear talks falter
Treasury Department imposes fresh sanctions on Gulf-based network which it claims helps facilitate trade of Iranian petroleum and petrochemicals
MEE staff Wed, 07/06/2022 - 18:57
An Iranian technician stands at an oil facility in the Khark Island, on the shore of the Gulf, on 23 February 2016.
An Iranian technician stands at an oil facility in the Khark Island, on the shore of the Gulf, on 23 February 2016 (AFP/File photo)

The United States on Wednesday imposed sanctions on a network of people and entities it accused of helping to deliver and sell Iranian petroleum and petrochemical products to East Asia, as negotiations between Washington and Tehran over reviving the 2015 nuclear deal have hit a stalemate.

The Treasury Department said in a statement that the network used a web of front companies based in the Gulf to facilitate the delivery and sale of hundreds of millions of dollars worth of products from Iranian companies to East Asia.

Among those designated was Iran-based Jam Petrochemical Company, which the Treasury accused of exporting petrochemical products worth hundreds of millions of dollars to companies throughout East Asia, many of which the Treasury said were sold to Iran Petrochemical Commercial Company for shipment to China.

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It also included a number of entities from the United Arab Emirates, including Petrokick LLC based out of Sharjah.

"While the United States is committed to achieving an agreement with Iran that seeks a mutual return to compliance with the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, we will continue to use all our authorities to enforce sanctions on the sale of Iranian petroleum and petrochemicals," Brian Nelson, the Treasury's undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, said in the statement.

Last month, the US similarly imposed sanctions on a number of Chinese and Emirati companies for helping Iran sell petrochemical products.

Iran's deputy foreign minister for economic diplomacy, however, dismissed those sanctions as ineffective.

"Our petrochemical industry and its products have long been under sanctions, but our sales have continued through various channels and shall continue to do so," Mehdi Safari told Iranian state television in June.

Despite being under US sanctions, Iran's oil prices shot up earlier this year, following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. During the first three months of 2022, Iran's exports rose to 870,000 barrels a day, up 30 percent from an average of 668,000 barrels a day in all of 2021. 

Nuclear negotiations at an impasse

The new sanctions come amid what appears to be a continued stall in progress between Iran and the US over the return to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

In Qatar last week, indirect talks between Tehran and Washington ended without a breakthrough over how to salvage the accord.

The push in Doha came as US officials indicated they are preparing a "no-deal scenario". The US envoy for Iran, Robert Malley, cautioned in May that the odds of striking a nuclear deal with Tehran were "at best, tenuous".

Sources told Middle East Eye last month that Iran had dropped one of its last sticking points in the negotiations - the delisting of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps. Instead, it has called for the lifting of sanctions imposed by the US against Khatam-al Anbiya Construction Headquarters, an economic arm of the IRGC, and a few other entities.

However, the new proposal has yet to result in any breakthrough in negotiations.


Father of slain US Muslim soldier who taunted Trump to receive highest civilian honour

Wed, 07/06/2022 - 16:18
Father of slain US Muslim soldier who taunted Trump to receive highest civilian honour
Khizr Khan made headlines in 2016, asking Donald Trump if he had read the Constitution. 'I will gladly lend you my copy,' he said
MEE staff Wed, 07/06/2022 - 17:18
Khizr Khan, accompanied by his wife Ghazala Khan, holds up a copy of the US Constitution at the Democratic National Convention on 28 July, 2016 (AFP)

Khizr Khan, the father of a fallen soldier who admonished Donald Trump in 2016, is set to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Thursday, alongside several other recipients. 

The Presidential Medal of Freedom is the highest civilian honour in the United States, and is presented to people who have made "exemplary contributions to the prosperity, values, or security of the United States, world peace, or other significant societal, public or private endeavours".

"These seventeen Americans demonstrate the power of possibilities and embody the soul of the nation - hard work, perseverance, and faith," the White House wrote. 

"They have overcome significant obstacles to achieve impressive accomplishments in the arts and sciences, dedicated their lives to advocating for the most vulnerable among us, and acted with bravery to drive change in their communities - and across the world - while blazing trails for generations to come."

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Khan, who is Pakistani-American and Muslim, will be presented with the medal by President Joe Biden on Thursday 7 July. His son, US Army Captain Humayun Khan, was killed in 2004 during the Iraq War. 

In 2021, Khan senior served on the US Commission on International Religious Freedom under Biden. He is also the founder of the Constitution Literacy and National Unity Center.

Khan made headlines at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia in 2016 when he called out Trump - then the Republican presidential candidate - for supporting the Muslim Ban.

"Tonight we are honoured to stand here as parents of Captain Humayun Khan and as patriotic American Muslims with undivided loyalty to the country," he said in front of the world's cameras. "If it was up to Donald Trump, he never would have been in America. Donald Trump consistently smears the character of Muslims.

"You," he said, addressing Trump directly, "have sacrificed nothing and no one."

Khan didn't stop there in his infamous remarks. "Donald Trump, you are asking Americans to trust you with their future. Let me ask you - have you even read the United States Constitution?" he said, brandishing a copy to loud cheers. "I will gladly lend you my copy!" Khan said.

Trump later responded, saying: "I work very, very hard. I've created thousands and thousands of jobs, tens of thousands of jobs, built great structures. I've had tremendous success. I think I've done a lot."

Tunisia: Court freezes bank accounts of Ghannouchi and eight other Saied opponents

Wed, 07/06/2022 - 14:59
Tunisia: Court freezes bank accounts of Ghannouchi and eight other Saied opponents
Critics accuse the Tunisian president of going after dissenting voices in a bid to consolidate his 'authoritarian system'
MEE correspondent Wed, 07/06/2022 - 15:59
Rached Ghannouchi is a leading critic of President Kais Saied's move towards a one-man rule (AFP)

Tunisian court has frozen the financial assets of several opponents of President Kais Saied, including the former speaker of the dissolved parliament, Rached Ghannouchi, and nine others.

The order issued on Wednesday also listed Ghannouchi's son, Moadh, former prime minister Hamadi Jebali and former foreign minister Rafik Abdessalem, all leading figures in the Ennahda party.

"There is an order from the anti-terrorism judge to freeze the bank accounts of those people and the Financial Analysis Committee asked the banks to implement the judicial decision," said an official on the Financial Analysis Committee, which is headed by the central bank governor.

Ghannouchi, who is Tunisia's main opposition leader, has become an outspoken critic of Saied since his power grab last year, in which he dismissed parliament and gave himself wide-ranging powers. 

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Last month there were reports that Ghannouchi was "officially charged with belonging to a terrorist organisation".

Ennahda confirmed that a judge has summoned their leader to answer questions about the allegations, which they have described as "distortion and fabrications".

Legal experts have raised questions about the independence of Tunisia's judiciary under Saied. Said Benarbia, director at the Geneva-based International Commission of Jurists, told Middle East Eye that Saied has "subordinated the judiciary to his political will" in a series of measures enacted since last summer, including the dissolution of the Supreme Judicial Council and a purge on judges. Last month, Saied fired 57 judges to "purify" the judiciary, accusing them of protecting "terrorists".

"By purging the judiciary from some of the very judges and prosecutors who refused to comply with his unlawful decrees and orders, President Saied has sent a chilling message to other judges who should act as a check on his abuses of power," said Benarbia.

"Under the current framework, the public will have little confidence that the judicial decisions targeting the president's opponents are based on the law and evidence, instead of political considerations," Benarbia added. 

'Autocratic project'

In June, the former prime minister Hamadi Jebali, another of Saied's key rivals, was arrested on suspicion of money laundering and held for four days. Ennahda said his arrest was part of a campaign targeting government opponents.

It came just weeks before the Saied-endorsed constitution referendum, slated for 25 July, the first anniversary of Saied's power grab manoeuvres. The new constitution is seen as an attempt to reshape and consolidate the country under the "one-man rule". 

"Only a small proportion of the society is supportive of the constitution," said Mohamed-Dhia Hammami, a Tunisian doctoral student in political science at the Maxwell School, Syracuse University.

"Saied is overselling it by claiming that it will fix all kinds of problems. Most people don't buy into his narrative," Hammami told MEE. 

He added that the Tunisian president had embarked on an "autocratic project, with an unconventional form of popular representation he calls 'construction from the bottom'," which wouldn't succeed.

The country's powerful labour union, the UGTT, also recently warned that the draft constitution could threaten democracy, although it said its one million members can vote as they see fit. 

'Saied knows that his proposed referendum and new constitution are very unpopular, so he's trying to divert attention and pretend he's fighting corruption'

- Radwan Masmoudi, Tunisia analyst

Saied's latest move against what was the largest party in parliament may also distract people from increasing economic woes and the lack of appetite for a new constitution, said Radwan Masmoudi, president of the Center for the Study of Islam & Democracy in Washington DC.

"Kais Saied knows that his proposed referendum and new constitution are very unpopular, so he's trying to divert attention and pretend he's fighting corruption, while at the same time going after the biggest opposition party in the country," Masmoudi told MEE. 

"It is clear that Kais Saied is destroying the democratic experiment and institutions in Tunisia," said Masmoudi, adding that he wants to build an "authoritarian system where the president holds 80 to 90 percent of the levers of power.

"If he succeeds, Tunisia will see some very difficult and dark days, months and perhaps years ahead, especially in terms of human rights and freedom of expression and freedom of organisation," said Masmoudi.

This article is available in French on Middle East Eye French edition.

Tunisian court freezes bank accounts of Ghannouchi and eight other Saied opponents

Egypt: Army-owned company asking government for $212m to rent offices

Wed, 07/06/2022 - 14:58
Egypt: Army-owned company asking government for $212m to rent offices
Sisi approves payment to ACUD, on basis it is not the only business to rent properties to the Egyptian government
MEE staff Wed, 07/06/2022 - 15:58
A workman at a building site at Egypt's New Administrative Capital project, on 7 March 2021 (AFP)

Egypt's President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi said on Wednesday that the military-owned company building the country's new administrative capital wants to rent the government a district which would house the ministerial offices, for $212m a year.

Sisi said during the inauguration of the Digital Egypt national project that "People ask us 'From where are you getting these monies?', while the new capital is from the government's funds.

"We are transparent and honest, our resources were only the idea, and the capital company did the building and is asking us a yearly money as a rent, as it did pay its own money in the project," Sisi said.

Sisi also told the minister of finance to pay the money, explaining that the military-owned Administrative Capital for Urban Development (ACUD) is not the only entity to rent properties to the Egyptian government. He added that the company had more than 40 billion Egyptian pounds in the banks.

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The ACUD was founded in 2016 to embark on a large-scale project of building neighbourhoods and government districts housing the parliament and all the ministerial offices, almost 45 km east of the current capital, Cairo.

However, the new capital is yet to be completed, with a price tag exceeding $50bn and suffering from funding shortfalls.

Sisi had also said that Egypt is planning to transform its bureaucratic system into a paperless, digital one.

"We are working on it now, and part of the work will be carried through artificial intelligence," he said.

Firms owned by the Egyptian army have flourished since Sisi rose to power in 2014. Almost 51 percent of ACUD is owned by the military, which also owns the country's biggest cement plant, besides fish farms, holiday resorts and other projects.

Army-owned company asks Egyptian government for $212m to rent offices

Egypt uses ‘life-destroying’ travel bans to silence peaceful activism

Wed, 07/06/2022 - 11:38
Egypt uses ‘life-destroying’ travel bans to silence peaceful activism
Authorities use legal vacuum to enforce the arbitrary bans against civil society workers, leaving a huge social and psychological toll on those targeted
MEE staff Wed, 07/06/2022 - 12:38
Karim Ennarah, a researcher at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights, has been banned from travel and unable to be reunited with his British wife since 2020 (Twitter)

Egypt is imposing travel bans against civil society workers without a legal basis, shattering the lives of those affected, according to two reports by human rights watchdogs.

A joint report by FairSquare and Human Rights Watch published on Wednesday investigated the cases of 15 Egyptians who have been banned from travel for periods of up to six years. 

The bans are usually arbitrary and are imposed without prior notification and are only discovered when  individuals subject to the ban attempt to travel abroad. 

'Travel bans enable authorities to impose a life-altering system of punishment that is barely visible to anyone except those whose lives they are destroying'

- James Lynch, FairSquare

Another report by the Freedom Initiative and the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy published on Tuesday found that there are no laws currently regulating the enforcement of travel bans, creating a legal vacuum that is exploited by judicial and security services.

They also found that a Ministry of Interior decree, No. 2214 of 1994, and its 2012, 2013, and 2014 amendments, empowers judicial and security authorities to request the imposition of three-year travel bans from the Passport Authority, and gives them the discretion to extend the ban indefinitely. Meanwhile, attempts to overturn the ban usually fail due to the absence of legal means to challenge them in courts. 

“Arbitrary and open-ended travel bans enable the Egyptian authorities to impose a life-altering system of punishment that is barely visible to anyone except those whose lives they are destroying,” said James Lynch, director of FairSquare.

“The bans have allowed Egypt to silently pummel its critics without fear of attracting the ire of its donors and supporters in London, Paris, and Washington, DC. Egypt needs to end these arbitrary abusive practices immediately.”

Nasser Amin was unable to represent Darfur victims at the ICC, a "lifelong dream", in April this year because of his ban. He and his wife Hoda Abdelwahab, of the Arab Center for the Independence of the Judiciary and Legal Profession, are both barred from travel. (7/) pic.twitter.com/MKIQQPGnl2

— FairSquare (@fairsqprojects) July 6, 2022

The travel ban is in many cases accompanied by asset freezes that lock the victims out of the banking system, HRW and FairSquare said.

“The long-term personal toll of these travel bans and asset freezes has been devastating. Nearly everyone interviewed described losing work opportunities and income.

Many said the psychological impact of not knowing when these arbitrary restrictions would end has taken a serious toll on their mental health,” the groups reported, adding that the bans have a “chilling effect” on human rights advocacy as they serve as a deterrent against criticising the government.

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The reports come as President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi declared 2022 as the “Year of Civil Society,” with his government due to host COP27, the global climate summit, in November.

HRW said in a previous report that the choice of Egypt as the host was unwise due to the restrictions on civil society in the country and the laws criminalising peaceful assembly, a crucial part of the summit.

Sisi's administration, in power since he ousted his democratically elected predecessor Mohamed Morsi in a coup in 2013, has been accused by HRW of overseeing “the worst human rights crisis in the country's modern history”.

An estimated 65,000 Sisi critics languish in Egyptian jails, while many have died in custody due to medical negligence, including Morsi. 

'Depressed and isolated'

The rights groups said the travel bans have hindered the work of civil society workers whose jobs involve travel abroad and contact with US, EU and UN officials.

They cited the case of Mohamed Zaree, the Egypt director for the Cairo Institute for Human Rights Studies, who has been banned from travel since 2016, as well as human rights lawyer Mahienour el-Masry, whose passport was confiscated in 2018.

Since November 2020, staff at the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR), including then-director Gasser Abdel Razek, and his colleagues Karim Ennarah and Mohammed Basheer, have been banned from travel even after their release from brief detention. None of them have been able to appeal the travel bans.

EIPR’s founder and current director Hossam Bahgat has also been subject to a travel ban and asset freezes since 2016.

'It doesn’t generate headlines like photographs of people in handcuffs and in cages and there’s no outrage after a travel ban'

- Hossam Bahgat, EIPR

“It doesn’t generate headlines like photographs of people in handcuffs and in cages and there’s no outrage after a travel ban,” Bahgat told FairSquare and HRW. 

Ennarah’s personal life has been deeply affected by the ban because he had been planning to move to London to join his British wife, filmmaker Jess Kelly, prior to the ban. They have been forced to live in a long-distance relationship since the ban.

He said the restrictions have left him feeling “lonely because of the separation but also guilty most of the time”.

The asset freeze against him has also meant he is blocked from accessing the banking system.

“There are periods when I feel really depressed and isolated. Being unable to work is completely debilitating. It’s a perpetual state of legal and financial limbo.

"I’ve been approached for a few jobs but they always withdraw the offer when they find out I’ve got a bank freeze,” he said.

Gamal Eid, the award-winning activist and founder of the Arabic Network for Human Rights Information, is among those banned from travel since 2016. He announced in January that the group was shutting down its operations due to the impossibility of carrying out human rights work under the country’s restrictive NGO laws.

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Similar to Ennarah, the ban has shattered Eid’s personal life. His wife is a US citizen and she moved with his daughter to New York in 2017. Due to the ban, he has not been able to visit them since then.

His US green card has also expired and he lost much of his income due to an asset freeze against him.

“There’s been a lot of opportunities, but I can’t work,” he said.

Likewise, Azza Soliman, the prominent lawyer and founder of the Centre for Egyptian Women’s Legal Assistance, has been banned from travel and her assets have been frozen since 2016.

Her financial circumstances have since been severely affected as she could no longer work for the United Nations after losing her access to the banking system, and could not even sell her car that was part of the asset freeze.

Six years after the ban, Soliman's ban was finally lifted and she has been able to travel since February 2022. But her assets remain frozen, according to the Freedom Initiative.