Middle East Stories To Watch In 2011

As the region's perennial conflicts burn on, other emerging trends and turns of events will grab our attention this year

King Abdullah of Saudia Arabia (Mohammad Bahareth)


The US-Iran showdown, the terminally unresolved Palestinian question, Egyptian elections and the ongoing fallout from the Wikileaks cables are sure to generate many of the headlines coming out of the Middle East this year. But here are five other stories buzzing just below the radar that you ought to look out for:

1. Saudi succession: With more than 20,000 male members of the Saudi royal family, there is no shortage of potential pretenders to the throne. As King Abdullah, 86, undergoes a lengthy treatment and rehabilitation in New York for herniated disks in his lower back, the royal palace issues regular health bulletins about the monarch. But the more palace statements seek to reassure the public that the king will recover, the more intense the speculation becomes about who will replace him.

Crown Prince Sultan himself is ailing from a long battle with an unknown illness believed to be cancer. Many observers seem to agree that Interior Minister Prince Nayef, a hardline conservative and one of the most feared and powerful men in Saudi Arabia, will likely take the throne. Among other indications of his worldview, the prince, 76, once charged that "Zionists' were behind the 9/11 attacks. In March 2009, he also stated that he saw no need for elections in Saudi Arabia or female members of Parliament. He believes in ruling by fiat, with all government officials appointed by the royal family. With Prince Nayef on the throne, look for a country already struggling with the modern age to go back even further in time.

2. Hariri indictments: Arabic papers this week arereporting high-level Lebanese sources as saying that the UN-backed Special Tribunal for Lebanon will issue indictments very soon, perhaps as early as this month for the February 2005 murder of former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. Members of the heavily armed militia and powerful opposition party Hezbollah are expected to be convicted for carrying out the bombing in downtown Beirut that killed 22 people.

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has been issuing contradictory statements, stoking and then calming fears of civil war in Lebanon. But he has consistently denounced the tribunal as a stooge of Israel and Western powers. Prime Minister Saad Hariri, son of Rafiq, has repeatedly said he will stand by the tribunal's findings. Ultimately, there are two key unknowns in play: how far Hezbollah will go to prevent its members from being hauled before an international criminal court, and how far Hariri's government will go to try to arrest them.

3. Qatar's ascendance: Sitting on the Arab side of the Persian Gulf, the emirate of Qatar is using its seemingly bottomless natural-gas revenues to raise its profile around the world. Last month, Qatar was awarded the 2022 World Cup, the first Arab country to host the tournament, but it was just one of many achievements in 2010. Leaked Wikileaks cables sent from the American embassy in Doha reveal Qatar to be stubbornly independent in pursuing its national interests, even at the expense of relations with its Arab neighbors. Whether its courting Iran, setting up a financial hub designed to surpass Dubai, mediating in Yemen and Lebanon or cleaning out the international Islamic art market for its new museum, Qatar appears poised in 2011 to break out as a regional powerhouse.

4. Jordanians targeting Americans: The Associated Press reported last month on a growingJordanian presence in Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, with eight Jordanians killed or arrested in recent weeks in Iraq, Yemen (for throwing a small bomb at a U.S. embassy vehicle) and Afghanistan. All had attacked or were planning to kill American diplomats or soldiers. In the most recent incident, medical school dropout Haitham al-Khayat, 26, who ran an online jihadi forum, was reportedly killed in an American airstrike in Afghanistan before Christmas. At the end of December 2009, a double-agent recruited by Jordanian intelligence to inform on Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan detonated himself after entering Camp Chapman in Khost, killing his Jordanian handler and seven CIA agents. While Jordan remains a vocal American ally, certain Jordanians seem to have a different opinion.

5. Growing Sectarian hostility in Egypt: Last weekend's bombing of a church in Alexandria, Egypt just 15 minutes into 2011 was an inauspicious beginning of the year for Muslim-Christian relations in Egypt. Last year began with a drive-by shooting of a church during the Coptic Christian celebrations in early January. Six people were killed, and the accused, three young Muslim men, are standing trial in security court. Other instances of sectarian tension marred the year, including riots in a village following rumors of a young Christian-Muslim couple meeting secretly at night in the local cemetery. Christians scuffled recently with authorities when the government stopped the building of a church, and controversy ensued after a court ruled that Christian couples could divorce, a ruling expressly forbidden by the Church. With Al-Qaeda now involved in targeting Christians, things might get even worse, fast.

Kristen Gillespie


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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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