The Middle East Channel

Turkey’s Central Bank Hikes Rates Stemming Lira Drop

At an emergency midnight meeting, Turkey's central bank surprised investors with a huge interest rate hike causing the biggest jump for the lira since 2008. The move was prompted by the lira's 9 percent drop against the U.S. dollar and recent flight from emerging markets. The Turkish currency increased up to 4 percent to 2.1626 per U.S. dollar from Monday's historic low of 2.39. On Tuesday, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan addressed expectations of an imminent interest rate rise, saying the economy would continue to grow despite attempts by enemies seeking to "sabotage" the economy in order to weaken the government. Erdogan is caught in a corruption scandal involving several ministers and the chief executive officer of a state-owned bank. Neil Shearing, chief emerging-markets economist at Capital Economics in London, said the central bank has "put the emphasis squarely on preserving market stability and tackling inflation, and at the same time it's faced down the government." However, the impacts of the rate increase faded fast Wednesday as investors were concerned that the move did not do much for emerging markets as a whole, and that they remained vulnerable.

Syria

Syrian peace talks have continued after being cut short Tuesday over a U.S. decision to resume aid to the opposition. The Syrian government blasted the United States for supporting the rebels, with Omran al-Zoubi, Syria's information minister, saying the move contradicts the United States' role as a sponsor of the peace conference. Zoubi said, "Do they want to destroy Geneva?" U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi decided to cancel afternoon discussions, but said, "Nobody is walking out, nobody is running away." As conditions in Syria continue to deteriorate, Britain has made a deal with the United Nations to take in up to 500 of the most vulnerable Syrian refugees. According to British Prime Minister David Cameron and Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg priority would be given to victims of sexual violence or torture, as well as elderly and disabled people. Meanwhile, according to U.S. officials, Islamist groups in Syria, particularly the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and al-Nusra Front, have seized control of most of Syria's oil and gas resources, and are using profits to fund the conflict against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and other rebel factions.

Headlines  

  • Libya's Deputy Prime Minister Sadiq Abdulkarim has reportedly survived an assassination attempt outside the Interior Ministry in the capital of Tripoli Wednesday.
  • U.N. inspectors are visiting a uranium mine in southern Iran in part of an interim agreement aimed at curbing the country's disputed nuclear program.
  • An Israeli court has sentenced a man belonging to an anti-Zionist, ultra-Orthodox Jewish sect to four and a half years in prison for offering to spy for Iran.
  • Tunisia's Parliament has approved a new technocratic caretaker cabinet.
  • The U.N. Security Council president said it would begin drafting a resolution to help stop people trying to obstruct Yemen's transition, a move that may include sanctions against former President Ali Abdullah Saleh.
  • Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas said he could accept an Israeli military presence in the West Bank for a transition period of up to 3 years. 

Arguments and Analysis

'Egypt's Descent in Media Freedoms: How Far Can it Go?' (Miriam Berger, Atlantic Council - MENA Source)

"Indeed, after the revolution, many Egyptian journalists were empowered to break old boundaries and demand their rights to freedom in the newsroom. Alongside the horizontal rise in new outlets and media spaces, however, journalists have struggled to change the shape of ownership and business models on top. Now, as support for Minister of Defense Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's presidency intensifies, opponents are imprisoned, new heads of state media are in place, and more Mubarak-era men are acquitted of charges, the old order of media business seems to be regaining more and more power.

Politicized media configurations have long come at the expense of independent and sustainable coverage that empowers local journalism and responsible governance. Egyptian media has never been structured as profit-generating enterprises determined by free or fair competition. Rather, media outlets rely largely on political and business write-offs from the state and wealthy financiers. This propaganda-skewed model leaves consumer numbers and demands second tier to the proclivities of the ruling men on top, stifles a culture of innovation and transparency, and crowds out alternative voices and outlets."   

'Netanyahu's maneuvers, feints and deceptions' (Haaretz)

"It came as no surprise that Economy Minister Naftali Bennett so harshly attacked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for the latter's remark that settlers should be allowed to remain in their homes under Palestinian rule. Bennett, who is also the chairman of Habayit Hayehudi, is the emissary of the settlers in the government and as such he must protect those who sent him, who see any agreement to be signed with the Palestinians as a 'irrationality of values.'

What is more worrisome is the statement released by the prime minister's bureau that Bennett is 'impeding the prime minister's effort to show that the real obstacle to peace is the Palestinian Authority.' There is no other way to understand this statement than as Netanyahu's official admission that his actions and statements are an ongoing attempt to sabotage negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians brokered by U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry.

Netanyahu was not angry about the fact that Bennett's hysterical statements harmed the negotiations to which the Israeli government is committed, but that Bennett is thwarting a tactical move whose purpose is to present the Palestinians as 'obstacles to peace.' In fact, the prime minister is complaining about the fact that officials at home are not allowing him to carry out maneuvers, feints and deceptions of the international community with the goal of sinking any future agreement."

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber

GURCAN OZTURK/AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

The Deafening U.S. Silence on Saudi Rights

In Saudi Arabia, 2013 was another bad year for human rights, marred by executions and repression of women and activists. Unfortunately, outside of annual human rights reports, U.S. public criticism of Saudi Arabia's human rights record has been limited for many years.

Saudi activists, many who have been imprisoned, often ask me why representatives of the U.S. government, who have good relations with members of the Saudi ruling elite, don't publically raise their cases and press Saudi authorities to respect the human rights of Saudi citizens. As National Security Advisor Susan Rice admitted in a December speech: "Let's be honest: At times, as a result, we do business with governments that do not respect the rights we hold most dear. We make tough choices." It appears U.S. officials have weighed the economic and geostrategic aspects of the relationship with the kingdom, and effectively told Saudi activists to go to the back of the line.

Saudi Arabia carried out dozens of executions in 2013. The vast majority were public beheadings, including the gruesome beheading of five Yemeni men for murder and armed robbery in May and public display of their decapitated bodies in the southern town of Jizan.

Authorities continued to treat women as legal minors, preventing them from making important life decisions -- such as leaving the country, undertaking higher education, or undergoing certain medical procedures -- without the approval of a male guardian. When dozens of Saudi women got behind the wheel to assert their right to drive cars on October 26, authorities pulled some of them over and forced them to sign pledges not to do it again. Two women in the Eastern Province were convicted by a Saudi court of "inciting a woman against her husband" for trying to help a woman who said she had been locked in her home without adequate food.

In November, Saudi Arabia resumed a campaign to detain and expel hundreds of thousands of undocumented foreign workers. Many expelled workers reported terrible prison conditions while awaiting deportation, including overcrowding, beatings, and lack of food and water. Ethiopian workers in Riyadh told me stories of physical assaults by Saudi citizens, which police failed to stop, or in which they actively participated.

Independent activists have felt the repressive weight of the unfair justice system and harsh policies of the Saudi Interior Ministry in 2013. The kingdom persecuted activists in an attempt to stem criticism in social media and on news and analysis websites. In addition to convicting eight prominent human rights defenders, many of them in unfair trials, the authorities have attempted to silence and intimidate dozens of others with travel bans, smear campaigns, and threats to investigate and prosecute them for peaceful activities. In the absence of a written penal code or of narrowly worded criminal regulations, judges and prosecutors can criminalize a wide range of offenses under broad, catch-all categories such as "breaking allegiance with the ruler" or "trying to distort the reputation of the kingdom."

One prominent activist, Waleed Abu al-Khair, is on trial before the Specialized Criminal Court, Saudi Arabia's terrorism tribunal, on a host of vague charges such as "breaking allegiance with the ruler" and "inciting international organizations against the kingdom" for his role in publicizing information on human rights abuses and criticizing government policies. If convicted, he could face years in prison. He faces a separate criminal proceeding for hosting a weekly discussion group about prospects for political and social reform in Saudi Arabia.

Another human rights activist, Fadhel al-Manasif, played a leading role in documenting abuses against demonstrators in the Eastern Province in 2011. He organized educational workshops on human rights in Qatif and acted as an interlocutor between the families of detainees and authorities, on several occasions approaching police officials on behalf of families to ask the whereabouts of missing family members. Detained in October 2011, al-Manasif is currently on trial before the Specialized Criminal Court on charges that include "sowing discord," "inciting public opinion against the state," and "communicating with foreign news agencies to exaggerate news and harm the reputation of the kingdom."

No independent group in Saudi Arabia has faced greater levels of repression in 2013 than the Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA). A Riyadh court in March convicted Abdullah al-Hamid and Mohammed al-Qahtani, ACPRA members and human rights veterans, on charges such as "harming public order" and "setting up an unlicensed organization." The court sentenced them to long prison terms -- 11 and 10 years respectively -- after which they face long bans on foreign travel. A court in the central town of Buriada convicted and imprisoned ACPRA members Omar al-Saeed and Abd al-Kareem al-Khodr on similar charges, and Fowzan al-Harbi remains on trial in Riyadh.

The United States claims that human rights issues are important to it. Rice said, in the same speech to the Human Rights First Summit, "We've employed a variety of means to spur governments to respect the universal rights of their people -- and to hold them accountable when they do not ... we are navigating the security challenges of the Arab Spring and helping partners lay the foundations for a future rooted in greater peace, opportunity, democracy and respect for human rights."

But there's little sign that the United States is raising these issues with the Saudi government. Saudi activists believe that this silence grossly misreads the Saudi ruling structure, which depends on a dynamic tug-of-war between reformist and conservative factions. U.S. officials certainly can't dictate Saudi government actions, but strategic pressure can bolster the reformists' position in the ruling elite. Fighting for human rights reforms can be a risky business in Saudi Arabia, and the absence of public support from the United States and others makes it even more difficult for those considering taking a stand.

When asked about their silence on these issues, U.S. officials often shrug off the question, or suggest that public criticism would do no good. But without any sign that the issue is being raised in private -- and that private expressions of concern are having an impact -- it may well be time to turn toward the public sphere.

In a positive development, after long refusing to monitor trials of political dissidents and human rights defenders, a U.S. official attended the trial session of activist Fowzan al-Harbi in Riyadh in January. This is a positive step, but more action is needed to show a serious U.S. commitment to hold the Saudi government to account for its human rights record.

The United States nominated army official Joseph William Westphal as the new ambassador to Riyadh in November, and, once he's confirmed, he will have an opportunity to break the silence on Saudi human rights issues. If the United States wants to strengthen its commitment to promoting human rights reform in Saudi Arabia, it should make a habit of sending embassy representatives to observe activists' trials and publicly call for the immediate release of Saudi human rights activists jailed over the past year and a half on account of their peaceful activism.

Adam Coogle is a Middle East researcher at Human Rights Watch who follows events in Saudi Arabia.

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