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Middle East and North Africa (MENA): News from Syria, Morocco, Yemen, Senegal

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  • Zafar Khan
    SYRIA Aleppo: Syria s sleeping giant stirs As the uprising enters its fourth month, Syria s second city is becoming increasingly unsettled. Hugh Macleod and
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 26, 2011

      Aleppo: Syria's sleeping giant stirs
      As the uprising enters its fourth month, Syria's second city is becoming increasingly unsettled.
      Hugh Macleod and Annasofie Flamand Last Modified: 23 Jun 2011 20:50


      On the surface, all seems calm in Syria's second city.

      Traffic and tourists might not be bustling along Aleppo's ancient thoroughfares in the abundance they once did, but to a casual observer there appears little sign that the turmoil of Syria's four-month old uprising has made much of an impact on its largest city.

      But talk to shopkeepers, hotel managers and traders in Aleppo's famous covered souk and one soon finds grumblings of dissent.

      For in the Syrian capital of commerce, no one is making money anymore, threatening to undermine the key pillar of a long established pact between Aleppo's Sunni merchant class and the imposed stability of the Alawite-led regime.

      "Where are you, Halab?" chanted thousands of protestors, using the city's Arabic name, exasperated by Aleppo's conspicuous quiet while streets in towns and cities across the country filled with demonstrators every Friday since mid-March.

      The answer is an interlocking mix of political, religious and economic interests which the regime has been largely successful in co-opting and which have kept Aleppo quiet, but which appear, as the uprising enters its fourth month, to be coming increasingly unstuck, threatening what analysts describe as the regime's Achilles heel.

      "If Aleppo were to rise up, it would mean that one of the metrics by which the West is charting the fall of the Assad regime would have been met," said Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

      A student at Aleppo University was beaten to death by security forces during a pro-democracy demonstration on June 17, activists said - the first death of a protester there since the uprising began and a grim example of the length the regime will go to impose its stability on the country's largest city.

      Mohammed el-Ektaa was among a small group of students who held protests on the university campus before being attacked by secret police and pro-Assad thugs, known as shabiha, said a member of the Syrian
      Revolution Co-ordinators' Union (SRCU), an activist network in the city.

      Mohammed's body was returned to his family by secret police shortly after the attack. Another student was also beaten and arrested during the protests, said the SRCU, while secret police broke into student dormitories making arbitrary arrests. The SRCU member said he had seen one student jump from his third floor room to avoid being arrested.

      Students have been at the vanguard of attempts to bring Syria's nationwide protests against the Assad family's 41-year-dictatorship to Aleppo, a city of some four million, one of the largest in the Levant.

      'Security touring the mosques'

      Though predominantly Sunni Muslim, increasingly religiously conservative and - during the bloodiest days of Iraq’s civil war - a producer of the murky jihadist preacher known as Abu Qaqa, who called for the slaughter of Americans in Iraq, Aleppo's mosques have long been controlled by the secret police of the Alawite-led regime, an offshoot of Shia Islam.

      Since its military crushed an armed rebellion in Aleppo led by the Muslim Brotherhood in 1980, the regime uses the state-run ministry of religious endowments to appoint Aleppo's preachers, ensuring worshippers at Friday prayers never again hear the call to turn against their own rulers.

      Though an advocate of violent jihad in the name of Islam, Abu Qaqa, a Kurd, was allowed to preach in his Aleppo mosque unhindered by the secret police, until he was gunned down in September 2007 after reports surfaced he had delivered a list of Sunni extremists to state intelligence.

      Today, however, the murky relationship between the regime and Aleppo's preachers is being challenged by a message less easily drowned out in violence.

      "The people are becoming angrier every week and the government is not giving much, just some promises. Every Friday I feel some worshippers want to demonstrate but I call on them to be quiet," said a prominent Muslim scholar who preaches at one of Aleppo's largest mosques, asking to remain anonymous fearing regime reprisals.

      "To see hundreds of students demonstrating, even if they are small demonstrations, is symbolic: They are the young and educated. Some sheikhs [preachers] told me they cannot control their people any more and security men are touring around the mosques every Friday. It's only a matter of weeks and Aleppo will see big demonstrations."

      A second, even more significant pillar of the regime's control over Aleppo now also appears to be beginning to crumble as well: the economy.

      Sitting at the end of the Silk Road, the ancient trading route between Asia and the Mediterranean, Aleppo is one of the oldest centres of commerce in the world.

      Specialising in textiles and industry, modern Aleppo's economy is largely shaped by its access to, and competition with, the vast market of Turkey, just 50km north.

      Flood of Turkish imports

      For decades Aleppo's original Sunnis merchant families did very well trading with their co-religionists in Turkey while maintaining stability in the city as part of a deal with the Alawite-led regime of Damascus.

      But from 2004, Aleppo's industries have been hit hard by a flood of imports from Turkey following a free-trade agreement between the two nations, built on Bashar al-Assad's personal friendship with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish prime minister.

      Today, however, Erdogan accuses President Assad's regime of "savagery" against its own people, leading regional calls for the regime to end its brutal crackdown.

      "The regime has bribed a lot of Sunni business interests, leaving them to do business while being protected by the security apparatus," said Imad Salamey, assistant professor of political science at the Lebanese American University (LAU) and an expert on Syrian affairs.

      "But eventually the bourgeois will come to feel the regime can no longer provide them with economic stability and that business as usual is no longer viable. They will no longer feel committed to the existing system. I think it’s a matter of time."

      In a speech at Damascus University on June 20, Assad acknowledged that the greatest challenge facing his regime as it attempts to crush the uprising "is the weakness or collapse of the Syrian economy."

      "Aleppo was one of the areas that suffered extensively from the regime's bloody crackdown on the Muslim Brotherhood, so the fear factor still remains," Tabler, of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, said.

      "When added to the interests of the city's merchants and traders, it's not surprising protestors have not come out in force. But as the protests have moved into Aleppo's hinterland, this will put the fear factor to the test."

      As well as protests in Aleppo University, June 17 also saw pro-democracy protests in the Aleppo neighbourhoods of Salahedeen and Seif al-Dawali. It was the second Friday of protests in Seif al-Dawali.
      "Although it is slowly, it is very important to see Aleppo joining the uprising," an opposition leader in the city said.

      In the villages north of Aleppo, a witness estimated around 5,000 protesters had turned out across Tal Rifaat, Hreitan, Mareaa and Aazaz. In Hreitan protesters called on local residents to join them in the streets, chanting: "The one who not participate has no conscience."

      A week before, on June 10, the first protests had spread from Hreitan, 10km north of Aleppo, to Akhtareen, 13km northeast of the city, where several thousand gathered to call for freedom and support Jisr al-Shughour, which is less than 100km west of Aleppo.

      Massive layoffs imminent

      Sitting behind his desk in a lavishly decorated office, a photograph of President Assad hanging on the wall, a 45-year-old Sunni businessman from Aleppo's Old City cautioned that the economic consequences of the crisis in Syria could soon fuel further protests.

      "Today I am losing money as no one wants to buy garments and textile. Syrians are buying bread and food stuffs as they are worried about the future. I am seriously considering having to sack or give unpaid vacation to a third of my workforce," he said.

      Late last month Assad had met a delegation of Aleppo business leaders, said the textile factory owner. The businessmen had urged Assad to end the crisis in Syria swiftly to avoid massive layoffs.

      "The government promised to decrease fuel and electricity prices, but this is not enough for us," said the textile factory owner.

      "The government looks to us as their partners who should help them in this crisis. But if the situation continues, Aleppo will feel the economic consequences and we will see demonstrations in the city."

      In April, the International Monetary Fund lowered Syria's economic growth rate this year from 5.5 per cent to three per cent. The International Institute of Finance, an association of major global banks, paints an even bleaker picture, projecting Syria's GDP could contract by as much as three per cent in fiscal 2011.

      Finally, the political pact that kept Aleppo, and much of Syria's population, bound to the regime for decades appears also to be coming unstuck in the demands and protests of the students who have led the opposition in the city.

      Abdul Qader, 22, a student at Aleppo University's Faculty of Arts is one of those.

      "During the last four decades, the Baathists were telling us that the government gives us, the citizens, everything for free or with a subsidised price and for that reason we should be silent," he said. "But now we get no free services and no bread so we want freedom."

      Mourners 'shot dead' at Syria funeral
      Rights group say five civilians killed as security forces open fire at funeral and raid homes.
      Last Modified: 26 Jun 2011 05:59


      Syrian security forces have killed five civilians during house searches and funerals held for anti-government protesters, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says.

      Two of the victims were killed in Kiswah, a suburb of Damascus, during funerals which turned into protests against President Bashar al-Assad, the London-based rights group said on Saturday.

      Thousands of people had been gathering to bury some of the six demonstrators activists said had been killed in the area on Friday.

      The Observatory said three civilians were also killed on Saturday during house-to-house raids in the Barzeh district of Damascus and in the town of Quseir, close to the Lebanon border.

      "These regions have been seeing growing protests and the regime is using force to prevent them from spreading," Rami Abdel Rahman, the director of the group, told Reuters.

      Witnesses said at least 200 people were arrested in raids on homes in Barzeh following Friday's protests, when tens of thousands of people took to the streets around the country.

      'Gross rights violations'

      Opposition activists said 20 people were killed and many more injured when tens of thousands of people took to the streets across the country following Friday prayers.

      Al Jazeera is unable to verify reports from Syria because of restrictions on reporting in the country.

      The crackdown on protests, which activists say has left more than 1,300 people dead, has failed to silence the uprising that has now lasted more than 100 days.

      Amnesty International chief Salil Shetty on Saturday urged Arab states to act to help end the violence in Syria.

      "I urged the League of Arab states to take far stronger action on the gross human rights violations taking place in Syria," Shetty said after meeting outgoing Arab League chief Amr Moussa in Egypt.

      "In contrast to their vocal stance on Libya and support for international action, Arab countries have stayed largely muted on Syria."

      The authorities blame "terrorist armed groups" for the unrest that has gripped Syria, and say the military has been tasked with rooting them out.

      A prominent Syrian opposition figure, meanwhile, said about 200 regime critics and intellectuals will meet in Damascus on Monday to discuss strategies for a peaceful transition to democracy.

      The one-day gathering will be the first such meeting of Damascus-based opponents figures, many of whom have long been persecuted by the Assad government.

      Dissident Louay Hussein said Syrian authorities had not objected to the meeting. It will come one week after Assad, in a nationally televised speech, spoke of convening his own national dialogue to discuss political reforms.

      Syrians pour into Lebanon after Friday protest killings
      Shot people taken to hospital across border after crackdown on demonstrations in Damascus, Homs and Aleppo


      Hundreds of Syrians flee to Lebanon
      Exodus from Syria continues a day after 20 people are reportedly killed in anti-government protests.
      Last Modified: 26 Jun 2011 05:09


      Number of Syrians sheltering in Turkey rising
      English.news.cn 2011-06-24 16:22:25


      US 'concerned' at Syria border move
      US secretary of state says reports of Syrian troops entering a village adjoining Turkey mark "worrying new phase".
      Last Modified: 24 Jun 2011 06:00


      Syrian embassy accused of threatening protesters in UK
      UK activists say Assad agents have visited and intimidated them at home as campaigners fear for their Syrian families' safety


      Turkey reacts to Assad's speech
      Turkish officials have been cautious in their reactions to developments in neighbouring Syria.
      Last Modified: 22 Jun 2011 18:45


      Syrians flee as troops mass on Turkish border
      Hundreds of Syrian refugees reportedly crossing the border as troops and tanks approach their makeshift camps.
      Last Modified: 23 Jun 2011 12:17


      Assad orders new Syrian amnesty
      President announces general amnesty for crimes committed up until June 20, as his supporters rally in major cities.
      Last Modified: 21 Jun 2011 14:47


      Syrian protests follow Assad's speech
      Rallies held across the country as activists and world leaders say reforms pledged by president are not enough.
      Last Modified: 20 Jun 2011 21:48


      Syria: They came at dawn, and killed in cold blood
      As Syrians flee, conditions worsen in Turkey's border camps
      By Kim Sengupta in Idlib province
      Sunday, 19 June 2011


      The houses looked abandoned, windows and doors locked, a broken shutter clattering in the wind. Then, one by one, they began to appear from their hiding places, mainly women and children, a few elderly people. The residents of this village had learned to their cost that being caught unawares in this violent conflict could have lethal consequences.

      The raid by the secret police – the Mukhabarat – and the Shabbiha militia had come at dawn. The killings had been cold-blooded and quick, three men shot dead as, barely awake, they tried desperately to get away. A search for others had proved fruitless; they had fled the day before. The damage to homes vented the frustration of the gunmen at missing their quarries.

      "They were working from a list. But they made mistakes. One of them was the wrong person. They did not even have the right name of the man they killed," said Qais al-Baidi, gesturing towards the graves on a sloping hillside. "But none of them deserved this. They were not terrorists. They had just taken part in some demonstrations. These Assad people are vicious. They have no pity. They like killing."

      The three killings were among the many that had followed the ferocious onslaught launched by Bashar al-Assad against the uprising. Two centres of opposition in the north of the country had been taken after bloody clashes, Jisr al-Shughour early in the week, Maaret al-Numan falling on Friday. This village was among a cluster that had been subjected, according to a regime commander, to a "cleaning-up" operation.

      The offensive had led to a terrified exodus of much of the local population, with 12,000 huddled in squalid conditions on the Syrian side of the border. Another 10,000 had made it across to Turkey, only to be herded into holding centres, locked away from the outside world, the government in Ankara making it clear that these people will be sent back at an opportune time.

      The locals in the Turkish province of Hatay and the international media have been kept away from the dispossessed families. The Turkish government insists they are "guests", as accepting they are refugees could lead to legal obligations towards them. But Angelina Jolie, Hollywood actress and UN goodwill ambassador, was taken to see one of the centres after expressing a wish to help to alleviate the suffering of Syria. A banner put up by the Turkish authorities at the entrance to the camp read "Goodness Angel of the World, Welcome".

      Away from the focus of celebrity attention, there is little help for those stuck at the frontier. The vast majority sleep under trees; a few have managed to drive pick-up trucks cross-country and use the trailer to sleep; others have built makeshift tents out of rags and plastic sheeting. A pond with floating rubbish and the waters of the river were being used for washing and drinking. Some of the injured had failed to survive without adequate medical help, and their funerals were held where they had died.

      The only "aid" for a humanitarian crisis worsening by the day had been meagre supplies, bottles of water and loaves of bread smuggled in by groups of young men on foot across steep ridges, along the same path taken by The Independent on Sunday. Relief organisations have not been allowed access by either the Syrians or the Turks. But for those remaining in the village, the camps at the border, despite the desperate straits they are in, are the goals to reach. They offer relative safety from the savagery of a state waging war on its own people.

      Hania Um Jaffar, whose 22-year-old nephew, Khalid Abdullah, was one of those killed, was convinced that the journey there was the only choice. "We had hidden in the fields the day before when we saw helicopters flying over us. But they went away and we thought it had passed. But then they came later on foot. They did not come into our home, but went to others, to the one where Khalid was staying. He was shot many times.

      "I don't want anyone else in my family to die. Surely that is what will happen if we stay here. My sons have gone to the mountains, and another nephew has done the same. They cannot come back to take us to Turkey. That is too dangerous for them. We have to make our own way there."

      The tiny community remaining in the dozen houses were running out of food. Bassem Mohammed Ibrahim, a 68-year-old farmer, spread his hands. "[The regime forces] did not burn the crops here like they have done in other places. But the only men left here now are old ones like me. We cannot work the fields by ourselves. Our farms will be ruined. But if we stay here, I don't think we will survive."

      The journey to the border, however, is fraught with risk. The secret police and the Shabbiha, drawn from the community to which President Assad and the Syrian elite belong, had ambushed families, forcing some to turn back. A small group of opposition fighters provide protection along the route. "But we only have a few of these," said Habib Ali Hussein, holding up his Kalashnikov assault rifle. "Assad has tanks, artillery, helicopters."

      Until two weeks ago Mr Hussein was part of those forces as a lieutenant in the army. He deserted, he claimed, sickened by the violence meted out to unarmed civilians. "They were shooting people who were refusing to follow orders. That is what happened at Jisr al-Shughour. I am from that area, and my people were being attacked. So I got my family away from our home and then I left. We haven't got the weapons to go forward. All we are doing is defending."

      At the border camp, Isha al-Diri, a medical assistant at a clinic in Jisr al-Shugour, had been administering treatment as best he could. "The seriously injured have been taken to Turkey. But some died before that could happen. The problem here is that we haven't got enough medicine."

      Rawat Khalifa had come seeking cough medicine for his six-year-old daughter. "It is the damp; a lot of the young ones are ill. We shall have to go to Turkey if they get any worse. We cannot take risks with their lives.

      "We have not crossed over so far because we are Syrians. We want to stay in our own country. But we are afraid to go back home. We are afraid that our own leaders will try to kill us."

      Yesterday, Syrian troops arrived with tanks at Bdama, only 12 miles from the Turkish border. Dozens were arrested and houses were burned, according to eyewitnesses. The area had been considered a key region for passing food and supplies to people who have fled the violence in their villages but have yet to cross the border into Turkey.

      Foreign Office advice: Britons warned to leave Syria

      British nationals were urged yesterday to leave Syria immediately, as the situation in the country deteriorated further. Updating its travel advice, the Foreign Office warned Britons to use "commercial means" to leave while they were still available. It reissued an urgent warning against all travel to the country, adding it was "highly unlikely" the embassy in the country's capital, Damascus, would be able to assist if the situation worsened.

      A Foreign Office spokesman said: "Because of the current situation, we advise against all travel to Syria. We ask British nationals to heed this advice and leave the country now." He urged Britons to "take responsibility for their own safety and security".

      Cousin of Syrian president 'quits business'
      Tycoon Rami Makhlouf, under sanctions for corruption, moves to charity in apparent concession to protesters.
      Last Modified: 17 Jun 2011 08:19


      Rami Makhlouf, a cousin of President Bashar al-Assad and focus of anti-corruption protests, is quitting business and moving to charity works, state media says.

      The announcement by the Syrian business tycoon was seen as a concession to anti-government protesters, who were expected to take to the streets again on Friday.

      In a statement, Makhlouf said he took the decision to quit because he no longer wants "to be a burden on Syria, its people and its president".

      Makhlouf will channel his wealth into charity and development projects, according to Syrian television.

      "As for his businesses, they will be directed so that they ... create jobs and support the national economy. He will not enter into any new project that [brings] him personal gain," the report said on Thursday.

      Deaths as fresh protests rock Syria
      At least 17 killed as security forces open fire on anti-government protesters across the country.
      Last Modified: 18 Jun 2011 09:47


      UN Rights Commissioner Calls for Syria Probe


      Syria army 'takes control' of Jisr al-Shughur
      Residents who fled assault in northern state speak of infighting among troops, as state TV shows alleged "mass graves".
      Last Modified: 13 Jun 2011 11:41


      US: Syria creating humanitarian crisis
      Global community calls on Damascus to grant relief agencies access to civilians caught up in security crackdown.
      Last Modified: 12 Jun 2011 06:17


      Witness describes scene in Jisr al-Shughur
      Activist gives Al Jazeera first eyewitness account of deadly clashes in northern Syrian town, before fleeing to Turkey.
      Last Modified: 11 Jun 2011 12:53


      Syrians decry 'torture' of teenage protester
      Video emerges appearing to show body of Syrian boy killed in crackdown, as Russia rejects Security Council resolution.
      Last Modified: 09 Jun 2011 09:24


      Robert Fisk: The people vs the president
      Syria in turmoil as resistance turns to insurrection
      Wednesday, 8 June 2011


      Syria's revolt against the rule of President Bashar al-Assad is turning into an armed insurrection, with previously peaceful demonstrators taking up arms to fight their own army and the "shabiha" – meaning "the ghosts", in English – of Alawi militiamen who have been killing and torturing those resisting the regime's rule.

      Even more serious for Assad's still-powerful supporters, there is growing evidence that individual Syrian soldiers are revolting against his forces. The whole edifice of Assad's Alawi dictatorship is now in the gravest of danger.

      In 1980, Assad's father, Hafez, faced an armed uprising in the central city of Hama, which was put down by the Special Forces of Hafez's brother Rifaat – who is currently living, for the benefit of war crimes investigators, in central London – at a cost of up to 20,000 lives. But the armed revolt today is now spreading across all of Syria, a far-mightier crisis and one infinitely more difficult to suppress. No wonder Syrian state television has been showing the funerals of up to 120 members of the security services from just one location, the northern town of Jisr al-Shughour.

      The first evidence of civilians turning to weapons to defend their families came from Deraa, the city where the bloody story of the Syrian uprising first began after intelligence officers arrested and tortured to death a 13-year-old boy. Syrians arriving in Beirut told me the male citizens of Deraa had grown tired of following the example of peaceful Tunisian and Egyptian protesters – an understandable emotion since people in those countries suffered nothing like the brutal suppression meted out by Assad's soldiers and militiamen – and were now sometimes "shooting back" for the sake of "dignity" and to protect their wives and children.

      Bashar and his cynical brother Maher – the present-day equivalent of the outrageous Rifaat – may now be gambling on the old dictator's saw that their regime must be defended against armed Islamists supported by al-Qa'ida, a lie which was perpetrated by Muammar Gaddafi and the now-exiled leaders Ali Abdullah Saleh of Yemen and Ben Ali of Tunisia and Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and the still-on-the-throne al-Khalifas of Bahrain.

      The few al-Qa'ida cells in the Arab world may wish this to be true, but the Arab revolt is about the one phenomenon in the Middle East uncontaminated by "Islamism". Only the Israelis and the Americans may be tempted to believe otherwise.

      Al Jazeera television yesterday aired extraordinary footage of a junior Syrian officer calling upon his comrades to refuse to continue massacring civilians in Syria. Identified as Lt Abdul-Razak Tlas, from the town of Rastan, he said he had joined the army "to fight the Israeli enemy", but found himself witnessing a massacre of his own people in the town of Sanamein. "After what we've seen from crimes in Deraa and all over Syria, I am unable to continue with the Syrian Arab army," he announced. "I urge the army, and I say: 'Is the army here to steal and protect the Assad family?' I call upon all honourable officers to tell their soldiers about the real picture, use your conscience... if you are not honourable, stay with Assad."

      Differentiating rumour from fact in Syria is getting easier by the week. More Syrians are reaching the safety of Lebanon and Turkey to tell their individual stories of torture and cruelty in security police barracks and in plain-clothes police cells. Some are still using the telephone from Syria itself – one to describe explosions in Jisr al-Shughour and of bodies being tossed into the river from which the town takes its name.

      For well over a month, I have been watching Syrian television's nightly news and at least half the broadcasts have included funerals of dead soldiers. Now Syria itself declares that 120 have been killed in one incident, an incredible loss for an army that was supposed to instill horror into the minds of the country's protesters. But then the supposedly invincible Syrian army often showed itself woefully unable to suppress Lebanese militias during the country's 1975-90 civil war. An entire battalion of Syrian Special Forces troops was driven out of east Beirut, for example, by a ragtag group of Christian militias who would have been crushed by any serious professional army.

      If you wish to destroy unarmed civilians, you shoot them down in the street and then shoot down the funeral mourners and then shoot down the mourners of the dead mourners – which is exactly what Assad's gunmen have been doing – but when the resistors shoot back, the Syrian army has shown a quite different response: torture for their prisoners and fear in the face of the enemy.

      But if the armed insurrection takes hold, then it is also the 11 per cent Alawi community – once the frontier force of the French mandate against the Sunnis and now the prop of Assad against the poorer Sunnis – which is at threat. So appalled is the Assad regime at its enemies that it has been encouraging Palestinians to try to cross the frontier wire on Israeli-occupied Golan. The Israelis say this is to divert world attention from the massacres in Syria – and they are absolutely right.

      The Damascus government's Tishrin newspaper has been suggesting that 600,000 Palestinians may soon try to "go home" to the lands of Palestine from which the Israelis drove them in 1948, a nightmare the Israelis would prefer not to think about – but not as great a nightmare as that now facing the people and their oppressors in Syria itself.

      The Hezbollah-Assad connection
      Shia leader Hassan Nasrallah's recent outspoken support of Assad is rooted in Syrian material and political support.
      Ahmed Moor Last Modified: 05 Jun 2011 10:59


      Hamza al-Khateeb was kidnapped from the streets of Saida in Syria on April 29th. The boy was attending an anti-regime demonstration when he was seized by members of Bashar al-Assad's secret terror squad. Nearly a month later, on May 24, his family received his mutilated corpse. He was tortured to death.

      Here is how Al Jazeera English described the child's brutalised body:

      [He had] lacerations, bruises and burns to his feet, elbows, face and knees, consistent with the use of electric shock devices and of being whipped with cable [...] Hamza's eyes were swollen and black and there were identical bullet wounds where he had apparently been shot through both arms, the bullets tearing a hole in his sides and lodging in his belly. On Hamza's chest was a deep, dark burn mark. His neck was broken and his penis cut off.
      I read the above lines and failed to comprehend the totality of the horror and violence perpetrated against Hamza. Gradually, a picture began to form in my mind. Here was a child, torn from his family and plunged into the darkest recesses of Assad's despotic state. Grown men - adults - separated him from everything sacred to him; his mother, his father, his home and routine.

      I try to imagine his blinding terror - the kind that arrests your heart and mind - at the first jolting blows to his face. I picture his savage beating and the implements of violence burning into his flesh. Can a child understand the blackness that infests the hearts of men? Was Hamza aware he could die? I pray he lost consciousness.

      Ulterior motives

      But this article is not about the murder of a child. Nor is it about Bashar al-Assad and the International Criminal Court or a hangman's noose.

      On May 25 - one day after Hamza's body was released - Hassan Nasrallah, the leader of the Lebanese Hezbollah movement, delivered an address to commemorate Israel's withdrawal from most of southern Lebanon eleven years ago. During the programme, he called on the Syrian people to support their merciless dictator and to enter into dialogue with their illegitimate government.

      The move was a surprising blunder on the part of the savviest and most popular Arab leader today.

      Hezbollah receives material and political support from both Iran and Syria. The Shia movement - which operates democratically in a democratic Lebanon - employs as much realpolitik as anyone else in its domestic and foreign affairs. Oftentimes that means staying quiet and withholding public support when allies behave brutally.

      When Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian president, unleashed the forces of state repression against unarmed protesters in 2009, Hassan Nasrallah kept his distance. A Hezbollah spokesman perfunctorily announced that the Green Revolution was a product of Western meddling.

      But more significantly, he stated that: "Hezbollah has nothing to do with Iran's internal affairs … We don't side with anyone. This is an internal Iranian issue."

      "What is happening there has nothing to do with our situation," the spokesman continued. "We have our own Lebanese identity and popularity, and these events don't concern us."

      Indeed, Hassan Nasrallah has managed to avoid direct confrontation with, or co-option by, Arab leaders for most of his political career - although he did make his antipathy for Hosni Mubarak known. His genius as a political leader grows directly from his uncanny ability to guide, or follow, Arab public opinion at every stage.


      Democracy protesters face violence in Morocco
      Despite promising constitutional reforms, protesters in Rabat were prevented from gathering by supporters of the king.
      Sarah Lazare Last Modified: 21 Jun 2011 10:01


      Police and pro-monarchy demonstrators violently snuffed out a February 20 Movement protest in Rabat on Sunday evening, chasing protesters from the Hay Taqqadum neighbourhood where the mobilisation had begun to gather. This came just days after King Muhammad VI heralded his proposed constitutional reforms as a "watershed event" for building a more open and democratic society.

      The February 20 movement called for nationwide protests in response to the king's proposed constitutional changes, unveiled Friday night, which critics charge do not meaningfully loosen his grip on power. Recent weeks have seen mass protests throughout Morocco in response to escalating repression of demonstrations and the death of protester Kamel Amari at police hands earlier this month.

      Shortly before the Rabat protests were set to begin, monarchists paraded through the Hay Taqqadum district, with hundreds waving Moroccan flags, holding portraits of the king, while chanting: "The people say 'Yes' to the constitution." Scores of people piled onto trucks bearing large sound systems as they drove in circles, chanting and cheering.

      'We are with the king'

      When February 20 movement protesters showed up at the scheduled time, police forcibly blocked them from amassing, swiftly forming lines to cut them off from each other and chasing them through the streets. A flurry of activity broke out, as the king's supporters began attacking protesters, in some cases throwing eggs and rocks as they pursued them.

      Protesters say that people were paid to come out and rally in support of the constitutional changes. "These people are like the Egyptian baltagiya," said Mehdi, a member of the February 20 Movement, in reference to those paid by the former Egyptian government who infamously beat participants in Cairo's recent uprising.

      At times, the police appeared to attempt to restrain the king's supporters from attacking protesters. At others, however, the police played a direct role in beating protesters and chasing them from the scene. While journalists were allowed by police to roam freely within the monarchists' rally, they were violently dispersed when documenting the February 20 Movement presence. "We are here because we are with the king," said a man rallying with the king's supporters, identifying himself as Yusef. "The king has always been in favour of reforms. Now those reforms will be more clear and democracy will be stronger. It is also significant that he plans to make Amazigh an official language." Amazigh is the language of Morocco's Berber population, estimated to comprise 60 per cent of Morocco's population

      The king's power

      Yet February 20 Movement protesters say the reforms are superficial, leaving true power consolidated in the hands of the king. "Where is democracy, when the king tells you to vote yes to the constitution and won't even let you assemble to express your concerns?" asked Abdilah, a protester and Rabat resident. "We want real freedom and real democracy."

      Muhammad VI, who has ruled since 1999, keeps a tight grip on power, maintaining the right to appoint the prime minister and cabinet members, dissolve parliament, and levy emergency powers. He also sits at the head of the country's religious institutions. The proposed constitution keeps the king firmly in control of Morocco's military and security organisations, while declaring that his person shall be "inviolable" and "respect and reverence shall be due to him as King, Commander of the Faithful and Head of State". Under the proposed changes, the king is declared supreme religious authority in the country, although he claimed in his Friday speech that he will embrace freedom of religion.

      The changes expand the power of the prime minister, allowing him to appoint and dismiss cabinet members. Yet the king maintains the power to appoint the prime minister, although he must now select from the party that gets the most votes.

      The changes also require the king to confer with the prime minister and constitutional court before dissolving parliament and stipulates that the prime minister also holds that right. Yet, given his role in appointing the prime minister and half of the constitutional court, this stipulation will do little to limit his actual powers to dissolve parliament.

      Furthermore, the king declared that the new constitution would create an autonomous judiciary branch. In the same breath, he declared that he remains the guarantor of all sentences.

      New constitution and reforms

      The king has been reviewing the constitution for months behind closed doors, as protests swept the country. While the new charter committee consulted with some unions and political parties, the text itself was not drafted by democratically elected officials, and the Moroccan public had been left in the dark about what the changes would actually be.

      The proposed reforms were a concession to the protest movement who took to the streets on February 20th, as uprisings and revolts spread through North Africa and the Middle East. The protesters - comprising a broad coalition calling for reform, democracy, and an end to poverty and unemployment - have taken to the streets regularly and do not seem to be losing steam. "Thousands marched in Casablanca," said protester Brahim. "First there was a February 20 Movement protest to say that this constitution was not enough for us. There is some change but it is not what we hope to achieve. After we started to protest, the king's supporters showed up and attempted to bother us. But we outnumbered them, and eventually they went away."

      "Bin Ali spoke of reform. So did Mubarak. And today Assad joined the chorus," says Larbi Sadiki, senior lecturer in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter.

      Sadiki continued:

      It is not a failure to promise reform. It is a failure to do so for the wrong reason: absorbing public dissent, co-opting soft liberalisers who favour gradual reform no matter how patchy or superficial, and, obviously, buying time. Moreover, kings and presidents now are no longer in a position to dictate the substance or timetable for reform. The give-away mentality of absolute rulers no longer con the Arab masses. The people and democratic and representative channels and forums must be the ones entrusted with reform.
      "The king's supporters say that the people want the new constitution," said Abdollah, another February 20th Movement protester. "But where are the people? Are they letting the people speak?"

      King of Morocco unveils constitutional reforms
      Press Association
      Saturday, 18 June 2011


      Moroccan King Mohammed VI announced a series of constitutional reforms in a speech that he said will turn the North African country into a constitutional monarchy, though pro-democracy activists remain sceptical.

      Under the new constitution, the king will remain the supreme commander of the army and a new article formalised him as the highest religious authority in the country.

      The speech marked the culmination of a three-month review of the constitution at the order of the king after protests calling for reform swept the North African monarchy in February.

      Immediately after the speech ended, cars flying Moroccan flags drove through the streets of the capital honking their horns, and young people marched along the wide boulevards banging drums and cheering.

      Morocco has long had a parliamentary system with dozens of parties, but they remain weak and many are beholden to the king and his advisers.

      While the king himself remains popular, there is deep dissatisfaction over the government and the advisers around the monarchy whom are believed to be corrupt and rapacious.

      The reform of the 15-year-old constitution represents the king's response to the wave of pro-democracy fervour sweeping the Middle East and North Africa that has toppled governments.

      The new constitution will be put to a referendum on July 1.

      The king said the constitutional reform "confirms the features and mechanisms of the parliamentary nature of the Moroccan political system" and laid the basis for an "efficient, rational constitutional system whose core elements are the balance, independence and separation of powers, and whose foremost goal is the freedom and dignity of citizens".

      The new constitution elevates the prime minister to the "head of government" and ensures he is selected from the party that received the most votes in election, rather than just chosen by the king.

      The prime minister also will have the new powers of choosing and dismissing Cabinet members and will be able to fill a number of other government positions, though the selection of the powerful regional governors will remain the king's prerogative.

      The king also will continue to chair two key councils - the Council of Ministers and the Supreme Security Council - which make security policy. The prime minister can chair these councils, but only using an agenda set by the king.

      Activists from the pro-democracy February 20 movement dismissed many of the changes, describing them as cosmetic.

      "Before we had an absolute monarch, now we have an absolute monarch that is a pope as well," said Elaabadila Chbihna, an activist with the February 20 movement that has been carrying out weekly pro-democracy marches around the country.

      The reforms also strengthen parliament, allowing it to launch investigations into officials with the support of just one-fifth of its members or to begin a censure motion against a minister with the backing of a third, rather than needing the unanimous approval demanded by the current constitution.

      The judiciary, which has long been criticised for lacking independence, would be governed by a supreme council composed of judges and the head of the national human rights council. The justice minister would not be on the council.

      Morocco reforms to cut monarch's powers
      King Mohammed VI proposes constitutional changes that will whittle down his powers, but keep his role as power-broker.
      Last Modified: 17 Jun 2011 18:00


      Casablanca police break up democracy rally
      Police used batons to break up a pro-democracy demonstration in the Moroccan city, injuring dozens
      Barry Neild and agencies
      The Guardian, Monday 30 May 2011


      Police broke up a demonstration in the city of Casablanca, injuring dozens of people, while armoured cars blocked streets to stop groups gathering.

      The protest was one of a series across Morocco since February to demand freedoms, jobs and better conditions.

      A similar event in the city of Sale was also hit by violence. There were no official reports of injured.

      Authorities have shown little tolerance for the demonstrations, which come as King Mohammed VI announced a reform process in March, and a minister said there were counter-protests in Casablanca, the capital Rabat, and Fez by citizens angry at damage to the economy caused by unrest.

      Morocco's uprisings and all the king's men
      Defiant demonstrators seeking democracy send a clear message against state repression and police violence.
      Emma Rosen Last Modified: 05 Jun 2011 15:45



      UN voices 'grave concern' about Yemen
      Security Council statement comes ahead of Monday UN visit, while violence claims at least four lives in city of Aden.
      Last Modified: 24 Jun 2011 21:43


      The United Nations Security Council has said it is gravely concerned about the violence in Yemen, two days ahead of a visit to the country by the international body's human rights watchdog.

      A statement issued by the Council after a special briefing on Friday said member states "expressed grave concern on the deteriorating security and humanitarian situation in Yemen" and "urged all parties to show maximum restraint and to engage in an inclusive political dialogue."

      The statement reflected a shift within the Council's politics: Until Friday, veto-wielding permanent members Russia and China were believed to oppose any statement that either urged restraint or condemned the government's violence against protesters. Western nations who support the negotiations led by the Gulf Cooperation Council to ease President Ali Abdullah Saleh from power wanted such a statement.

      Council members issued the statement after listening to a briefing from Jamal Ben Omar, the UN's special advisor on Yemen. It came days ahead of a 10-day visit by representatives from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, who will arrive in Yemen on Monday for the first time since protests against Saleh's rule began in January.

      Deaths in Aden

      Meanwhile, unrest and violence continued in the southern Gulf nation. At least four people, including three soldiers, were killed in violence in the southern port city of Aden, according to officials and medics.

      A bomb-laden car exploded at an army post, killing the soldiers, a security official told the AFP news agency.

      The officials did not blame the attack on any party and no side has yet claimed responsibility.

      This attack came after Yemeni security forces opened fire on protesters at a funeral in the city, killing at least one demonstrator and injuring six others, medics and witnesses said.

      Thousands of anti-government protesters used the funeral to call on Saleh to step down. Since suffering injuries in an bomb attack earlier this month in Sanaa, he has been undergoing treatment in neighbouring Saudi Arabia.

      The funeral was being held for a man identified as Ahmed Darwish, a 25-year-old who local rights groups say died in custody last June after being arrested in connection with a suspected al-Qaeda attack on an intelligence office in Aden in which 11 people were killed.

      Darwish's family had refused to bury him since his death, demanding an investigation, and his body had been stored at a government hospital in the port city until Friday.

      After the shooting, the funeral procession proceeded towards the cemetery, witnesses said.

      Meanwhile, rival crowds of pro-Saleh supporters and those opposed to his return gathered once again in Sanaa, the capital, with anti-government protesters also staging demonstrations in 16 other cities and towns.

      Ameen al Himyari, a Yemeni academic, told Al Jazeera that Saleh had left Yemen in political limbo by failing to transfer power to his vice-president when he left to undergo medical treatment in Saudi Arabia.

      Himyari said Yemen was currently being run by Saleh's sons, the security forces and tribal elements still loyal to the government. While Saleh had lost the support of the crucial Hashed tribe, some elements within the tribe still supported him, he said.

      Yemen's opposition in power-transfer talks
      Opposition tells Al Jazeera that they have met the country's vice-president to discuss a transitional period.
      Last Modified: 13 Jun 2011 11:04


      Opposition sources in Yemen say that they have met Abd Rabbu Mansour Hadi, the vice-president, to discuss a transfer of power within a transitional period.

      The sources said they were worried that President Ali Abdullah Saleh's son and relatives retained too much power.

      In Monday's meeting, they discussed the transfer of power and the need to expand the truce negotiated by Saudi Arabia in Sanaa to the rest of Yemen.

      They also discussed ways to ensure that people continue to receive food supplies and basic services.

      But ruling party members and Saleh's relatives dismissed any deal on the future of the country in the absence of the president.

      It was the first meeting between the vice president and the opposition since Saleh left the country for medical treatment in Saudi Arabia, after an attack on his compound earlier this month.

      Saleh, who had faced four months of protests calling for his ousting, flew to Riyadh, the Saudi capital, for treatment a day after the attack.

      Meanwhile, Yemen's defence ministry's website has reported on Monday that the president is to address his people "very soon".

      Abdul Karim Rasei, Yemen's health minister, who visited Saleh on Saturday, said the president would "very soon speak directly through the media to the Yemeni people," the website 26sep.net reported.

      The president is "improving each day and is in good health," said the minister.

      The 26sep.net website said that Saleh and other senior officials wounded in the attack were all out of danger.

      On Saturday, an informed Yemeni source in Riyadh said that the 69-year-old leader was in poor condition and suffering breathing problems.

      Meanwhile, Al Jazeera has received reports that there have been fresh clashes between pro-Saleh forces and anti-government protesters, in the city of Taiz.

      A number of people have been killed and others injured in Monday's clashes.


      Senegal president in U-turn after protests
      President Abdoulaye Wade had proposed constitution change that would have allowed his son Karim to succeed him
      Associated Press
      guardian.co.uk, Friday 24 June 2011 08.30 BST


      Senegal's president has agreed to cancel a proposed change to the constitution that would have paved the way for his son to take power, amid massive street protests that marked the biggest challenge to his 11-year rule and threatened to derail a country known as one of the most stable in the region.

      Anger boiled over Thursday as thousands of protesters attempted to rush the gates of parliament, where lawmakers were meeting to debate the law.

      Clouds of teargas enveloped the square, as police fought back the demonstrators with gas, rubber bullets and fire hoses. The demonstrations quickly spread from central Dakar to the suburbs and on to three major towns in the interior. There were also protests abroad in Paris and Montreal.

      The controversial amendment would have created the post of vice-president, a departure from Senegal's European-style government, which has a president and a prime minister. The opposition charged that the position was being created so that President Abdoulaye Wade could nominate his unpopular son. If the two were to win next year's election, it would put in place a mechanism for the son's succession.

      The 85-year-old Wade has already faced stinging criticism for his decision to run for a third term, meaning the frail leader could rule into his 90s and raises the spectre that he could die in office. Under the current constitution, if that were to happen, the head of the national assembly would become president for a brief period before new elections are organised. If the vice-president post is instituted, the number two would automatically assume power without a need for new elections.

      As the protests intensified, the 150 members of parliament called for a recess. The ruling party controls all but 19 seats in the national assembly, so the law should have been a shoo-in.

      By Thurday afternoon, Senegal's capital was covered in a haze from the burning tyres and houses, including the home of one of Wade's former ministers, which was attacked by protesters and set alight, according to private radio station RFM. At least 107 people were injured in the day-long clash, the station reported.

      Lawmakers began to prevaricate by evening and Doudou Wade, the head of the majority in parliament, indicated the deputies were not willing to sign off. "Senegal's peace is worth more than the text of this law," he said, addressing the floor. The justice minister telephoned Wade and soon after re-emerged to announce the president had changed his mind.

      "I informed the president of the republic, and I shared with him your debate," Cheikh Tidiane Sy told the parliamentarians. "He took into consideration all of your concerns, especially those of the majority party. He took note. The president has received messages from all over and especially from the religious chiefs, and in light of all this, the president of the republic asks that you cancel this proposed law," he said.

      The parliament hall erupted in cheers, and as the news spread to the street cars drove by honking loudly and demonstrators cried out in victory.

      "Back in the old days, we had kings and kingdoms, but we're supposed to be a democracy now," said 55-year-old Gallo Diene, a factory worker who took the day off work to join the protest. "I voted for Wade in 2000 and again in 2007. But I'm done voting for him. What he's doing is trying to install a monarchy."

      Once a symbol of the opposition, Wade became president 11 years ago in a landmark election hailed for being one of the first peaceful transfers of power on the continent. Outgoing president Abdou Diouf is held up throughout Africa for stepping down without a fight, and for telephoning Wade on the night of his defeat to congratulate his opponent.

      Since then, Wade has strayed from his roots, going the way of other entrenched African leaders who have used control of state institutions to prolong their stay in office.

      He set off a wave of criticism in 2009 when he announced he planned to run for a third term in 2012, using a loophole in the electoral law to circumvent the two-term maximum set out in the constitution.

      "There is a sense that Senegal has led the way in terms of democracy – and has been a shining light for others to follow," said Richard Downie, deputy director of the Africa Program at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. "But this whole episode shows that he is making a habit of tinkering with the constitution ... There are worries about the country's future."

      Although Wade has not announced whom he would choose as his running mate, critics say the post of vice-president is being created for his eldest child, Karim Wade, who has already been appointed minister of state and minister of energy.

      "We're not against Karim Wade," said protester Assane Ndiaye, a university student. "Karim can be a candidate like any other, but he shouldn't be carried into office on his father's shoulders."

      London-based writer and critic Mbaye Sanou, a former senior official at the Africa Development Bank, said the protests were the biggest he had seen in his native country. He said Wade had walked too close to the edge this time, and that if he had not pulled back, Senegal could have gone the way of Tunisia.

      "People are not dumb," he said, speaking to reporters inside the garage of a private building near the parliament where dozens of protesters were taking cover from the teargas. "We were just waiting for a detonator. Everywhere else in the world people are rising up – Tunisia, Egypt. But nothing was happening here. This is the drop of water that made the vase run over."
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