A STROLL along the streets of central Amman, Jordan's capital, presents no indication that this is an ancient city, whose continuous existence spans three millennia. Over a fifth of Jordan's population live here: 1.2 million people, from the very rich, whose expensive cars line the sides of the wealthier residential suburbs, to the very poor whose battered old cars compete with donkey carts for space on the squalid streets of the city's Palestinian refugee camps.

This has been an Arab country since the Nabataeans arrived in the sixth century BCE. After Greek, Roman, Byzantine and Persian rulers, the Muslim Arab armies conquered it, along with the rest of the Levant, a thousand years later. Subsequent centuries saw it slide into the oblivion of a remote provincial backwater, whose administrative status was often vague, whichever empire counted it as part of its dominions - its past glories forgotten, its mostly Bedouin inhabitants left largely alone.

Photo: Giacomo Pirozzi / Panos

Not until April 1949 did the name 'Jordan' mean anything other than the river which the British had determined should be its western frontier. Britain's formal control over the territory of the modern state began in July 1922 with the establishment of the League of Nations Mandate for Palestine. The territory east of the River Jordan was designated 'Transjordan', and administered separately with a king under British tutelage. In fact, Britain and France had decided on a dispensation for the Levant by 1916, when the Sykes- Picot agreement split the former Ottoman territories into two spheres of interest.

Having been elevated from the status of a neglected district of a remote Ottoman province into a fledgling sovereign state, Jordan, and Jordanians, have had something of an identity crisis ever since, tending to define themselves largely by what they were not - particularly not Palestinians. The picture has been rather confused from the outset.

The war after the establishment of Israel in 1948 left Jordan, as it was soon to become, in control of the West Bank (of the River Jordan, that is), whose population counted themselves very firmly as Palestinian. Furthermore, a large number of Palestinians who were dispossessed in the war fled to the East Bank, so that even after Israel conquered the West Bank in 1967, at least a third of Jordanians considered themselves Palestinians. The Gulf crisis of 1991 saw hundreds of thousands of Palestinians forced out of Kuwait, most of whom settled in Jordan, increasing their share of the population even more.

But it is the East Bank Jordanians who run the show. King Hussein was a boy when he succeeded his father in 1951. For the next 48 years he ruled the country with a firm grip, winning the loyalty of the largely tribal Jordanian population and laying down a clever and adaptable pro-Western framework for foreign policy while developing working relations with his largely hostile neighbours. He set clear guidelines for domestic policy, as well. There was never much in the way of representative politics to start with, but the imposition of Martial Law in 1967 and the dissolution of the National Assembly in 1974 left control firmly in the hands of the Palace, supported by an intelligence service which became a byword for ruthlessness even in the Arab world. Not until 1989 did democratic parliamentary elections take place. Political parties were legalized the following year.

In truth, that is about as far as democratization has got here. The King (Abdullah II succeeded his father in 1999) remains in charge, regularly exercising his right to dissolve the government, which he appoints, and effectively setting its legislative agenda.

At the centre of political debate is the peace treaty Jordan signed with Israel in 1994. Never popular, it has served as a rallying point for the political opposition ever since. But it is the issue about which the regime is most sensitive to criticism. Politics, as a result, has been almost stagnant since the treaty was signed.

Steve Sherman

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People, it seems, are everywhere. The narrow streets of Sana’a teem with them – mostly men, of course. Nearly all the men carry a janbiya, a large curved dagger in their belt. And almost all of them either owns or has ready access to a gun in this, the capital of the Arab world’s second-poorest country.

A short distance away, President Ali Abdullah Saleh addresses delegates at an Arab democracy conference. ‘Democracy is the choice of the age for all peoples, and it is the lifeboat for political regimes, especially in the Third World,’ he tells them.

Indeed, ‘democracy’, or at least the widespread perception of it, has served the former soldier, who has ruled in Sana’a since 1978, well. When he took his Yemen Arab Republic (commonly known as North Yemen) into a unification process with the People’s Democratic Republic (South Yemen) in 1990, it must have seemed to many in the country that the new state was set to enjoy a rosy future: peaceful integration, political pluralism, press freedom, guarantees of local autonomy, nearly all political prisoners freed, swiftly improving relations with many of its Arab neighbours and the West, and the prospect of prosperity from newly discovered oilfields.

By the time the first multiparty elections took place in April 1993, however, the country had already begun to fall apart. Exactly one year later, civil war began. The Socialist Party which had ruled South Yemen until reunification took up arms in a bid to secede and restore the old two-state set-up.

The rebels were easily crushed in the end when Washington intervened to dissuade the Gulf Co-operation Council states from continuing their support. President Saleh’s regime – once in America’s bad books for failing to back the first military operation in Iraq in 1991 – has been seen on Capitol Hill as a trusted ally ever since.

John Miles / Panos /

As Sana’a has grown closer to Washington, so has the prospect of a rosy future. The Socialist Party’s defeat in the civil war soon led to its decline and the erosion of many of the social and civil liberties the southern provinces were promised would be maintained after unification. The rise in importance of Islah, an Islamist party which is now the principal opposition to Saleh’s General People’s Congress, saw Shari’a become the ‘only source’ of the country’s legislation. As the 1990s progressed, press freedom was reduced, the conduct of subsequent elections was characterized as ‘pork-barrel politics’ by an American NGO, the country’s jails again filled up with political prisoners and, as the IMF took hold of the country’s economic management, prices rose and people got poorer.

Two other developments characterized the 1990s: the increased kidnapping of foreigners, usually by people using them as bargaining chips to get what they wanted from the Government; and the presence of ever-larger numbers of men who had either fought in Afghanistan against Soviet forces or who came to study at one of the country’s many Islamic schools. The Yemeni countryside, over much of which central government held little control, proved an attractive venue for jihadis (holy warriors) from all over the Muslim world.

By 11 September 2001 the jihadis, in co-operation with local extremist groups, who had begun to use the kidnapping tactic themselves to further political demands, were reportedly using Yemen as a major base of operations, resulting most spectacularly in the sinking of an American warship in Aden harbour. But the events of that day brought a sharp increase in American pressure on the Government to crack down on their presence. A long-threatened measure to shut down the Qur’anic schools, a stronghold of Islah, began to be carried out, and security co-operation with Washington grew to the extent that Yemen is now described as a principal ally in the ‘war on terror’. US security advisers and intelligence agents are allowed to operate in the country and Yemen boasts one of the Majority World’s most sophisticated (and expensive) electronic surveillance networks at its ports and key installations. More sinister was the assassination by US undercover forces of six suspected al-Qa’ida fugitives in Marib in October 2002.

But there is a danger all this could backfire on the Government. Despite its oil, Yemen remains a poor country, with one of the fastest-growing populations, and fastest depletion of water reserves, in the world. And there are believed to be three guns for every one of its 19 million inhabitants.


Like all the little monarchies scattered along the coast of the Gulf, Kuwait used to be a sleepy little backwater, getting by on pearl fishing and trade. Like all the others, it was founded by a tribal chieftain in the 18th century, paid tribute to the Ottoman Empire but was paid little attention by it, and came eventually under the umbrella of British imperial protection in the late 19th century. By the time of independence in June 1961 (some 10 years before its Gulf counterparts) Kuwait had begun to exploit its oil reserves, the mainstay of its economy. In very marked contrast to the other Gulf statelets, however, in August 1990 Kuwait effectively ceased to exist.

The invasion and rapid conquest of the emirate by 100,000 Iraqi troops was the defining moment in the state’s short history. From a little-known land of legendary opulence, it was transformed in much of the world’s conscience into a cause célèbre, a tiny, defenceless innocent party savaged by the forces of a brutal, expansionist dictator.

Kuwait’s demotion in status to a province of Iraq was famously traumatic and short-lived – the Iraqis had been driven out by the end of the following February and the emirate restored by US-led forces. But what is most remarkable about the invasion and the war that followed it is perhaps just how little changed Kuwait is.

Physically, the place even looks the same. What the Iraqis destroyed has been largely rebuilt as near as possible to its pre-invasion state. Demographically, some of the numbers may be different – spectacularly so in the case of the Palestinians, whose number has declined from 400,000 to around 80,000 – but the overall balance is very similar. A minority (45 per cent) of the country’s 2.25 million inhabitants are Kuwaiti nationals; most of the rest come from other Arab countries and from the Indian subcontinent. And the politics is pretty much the same as well.

Photo: Guy Mansfield / Panos Pictures

The ruler – Shaykh Jaber, who is over 80 and has been the Emir since 1977 – is in charge. The Emir designates a successor, the Crown Prince, who is also the prime minister and selects the government. Ministers are answerable to (and may be members of) the Majlis al-Umma, the National Assembly, whose 50 members are elected for four-year terms.

This may look on paper a lot like the set-up elsewhere in the Gulf. But in Kuwait politics is a rather more interesting affair. The Majlis actually has power. The Emir rules by decree but MPs must debate all decrees and frequently do overturn them. They can also legislate, although the Emir can overrule their bills. Of course the Emir can also dissolve the Majlis. But perhaps the biggest change since the invasion is that he has not done so, except to call elections.

Political life centres on the relationship between the Majlis and the ruling family, the al-Sabah, members of which can be summoned to explain their conduct. While this often focuses on issues such as corruption and mismanagement, the tone is not always so healthy.

When Kuwaitis went to the polls in early July to elect a new Majlis, only 15 per cent of citizens were actually able to cast a vote. Women are excluded: in 1999 the Majlis overturned a decree from the Emir which would have allowed female suffrage. Members of the police and armed forces are also excluded. And there are no political parties, although many MPs are members of informal blocs, of which various Islamist groups are best represented.

And then there are the 55 per cent of inhabitants who have no political rights at all. While many are short-term foreign workers, many others have lived in Kuwait all their lives. Some, the 120,000 or so Kuwaitis labelled Bidoon (from the Arabic word for ‘without’), have no other nationality to claim, yet the state denies them citizenship rights on the grounds that neither they nor their ancestors were registered in the 1965 census.

Steve Sherman


On 23 February this year the Egyptian Government renewed the State of Emergency which has been in place since the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in September 1981. The same thing happens routinely every three years. Routinely, too, the prime minister assures the nation that, as present incumbent Atef Ubayd put it this year, emergency law ‘will not be used against freedom of expression but to ensure the safety of citizens’. Almost as routinely, what passes for the opposition in this sham of a democracy once again planned to challenge the renewal of emergency law, only for their campaign to fall flat on its face.

The State of Emergency has dominated Egyptian life since Muhammad Hosni Mubarak succeeded Sadat over 21 years ago. Its provisions have enabled the Government to stifle, if not outlaw completely, political opposition, to censor the press, to try civilians before military courts, to ban public assembly, all in the name of national security. Throughout the 1990s it was also used to crush the Islamist insurgency led by the Gama’at al-Islamiya, sweeping up and imprisoning thousands of suspected sympathizers with little regard for due process of law. In the course of the same campaign, the security forces have frequently targeted members of the largest opposition group, the Muslim Brotherhood, which continues to be denied parliamentary representation despite its disavowal of violence.

Photo: Caroline Penn / Panos Pictures

In recent years, emergency law has also been brought to bear against foreign-exchange dealers, gay men and human-rights advocates.

Even without the sweeping provisions conferred by the State of Emergency, Egypt would hardly be a democracy. Mubarak inherited the revolutionary regime brought to power by the Free Officers’ coup of July 1952, which overthrew the monarchy installed by Britain in the 19th century and eventually made Gamal Abd al-Nasser the country’s first president. There have been many changes of direction since then, in terms of ideological affiliation, economic policy and international orientation. The ‘state socialism’ and aggressively pan-Arabist, broadly pro-Soviet posture of the Nasser years was completely overhauled by his successor, Sadat, who in the late 1970s deserted Moscow for Washington, invited foreign investors with generous concessions and made peace with Israel. As a result, Egypt – the largest Arab state, the cultural and, under Nasser, political centre of the Arab world – was expelled from the League of Arab States.

Mubarak’s Egypt is back in the Arab fold. But the peace treaty with Israel remains intact, as does an alliance with Washington on which Egypt has become increasingly dependent for economic assistance. Central control of the economy has been relinquished very slowly and with little benefit to most Egyptians.

One consistent feature of the reigns of all three presidents has been the Government’s attitude to opposition and freedom of expression. The press is heavily controlled and intimidated into self-censorship. Where that fails, press laws allow journalists to be imprisoned for ‘slander’. Under Mubarak the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP) has completely dominated parliament and the political life of the country. Registration of political parties is subject to seemingly arbitrary criteria, legal opposition parties are subjected to interference by the state and their supporters intimidated. Elections are rigged as a matter of course to ensure a huge majority for the NDP. Almost every aspect of public life, from religion to trade unions, is heavily controlled. As a result, a culture of political apathy predominates.

At the head of the regime stands President Mubarak, automatically re-elected every four years since he came to power. But he is now 74, has no vice-president, no designated successor and, it seems, no plans to retire in the near future.

Steve Sherman.


Map of Sudan

The broad, sleepy, tree-lined colonial avenues along the bank of the Nile are redolent of long decay. The bustling centre of Khartoum, a sprawling city of close to two million people, is barely a kilometre away but the distance between the modern capital of Sudan and its colonial legacy – encompassing a timespan of 46 years since independence – is vast. In 1956 Africa’s largest country was released from the curious condominium status it had enjoyed under joint British and Egyptian rule. Old hands from the Colonial Office recall with regret how ‘the natives weren’t ready’ to run the show on their own. But if events since have done little to prove them wrong, as elsewhere on the continent the colonial administration itself must share a hefty slice of the blame. The government elected at independence was overthrown by a military junta in 1958. The second democratic government lasted from 1966 till only 1968. Ja’far Numeiri’s military government ruled from then until 1985. The third democratic regime lasted only until the coup of 1989. The military government of General Bashir has ruled the country ever since. The one dominant theme throughout this period, and the factor which lies at the heart of the country’s predicament, is the relationship of the country’s southern provinces to the northern heartland. The north, while ethnically diverse, is predominantly Muslim and Arab (at least in culture), aligned with the wider Arab world; the south is home to a myriad of ethnic groups with an educated Christian élite. The south owed its incorporation into the country to a process of conquest initiated by Egypt’s 19th-century ruler Muhammad Ali Pasha, the principal dynamic behind which was slavery. When Britain conquered the country at the end of the century, the south came with the rest. Apparently unable to figure out quite what to do about the region, the colonial administration actively discouraged its integration with the north but otherwise largely neglected it. As a result, by the time of independence, southern leaders had amply demonstrated a deep unease, at best, on behalf of the population over the prospect of being ruled by Khartoum. Discontent had turned to violence even before independence. By 1963 it had turned to civil war. The Addis Ababa Agreement signed by Numeiri with southern rebel leader Joseph Lagu in 1972 stopped the fighting but did little to address the grievances which had caused it. And when the civil war resumed in 1983 it was to continue to the present day, leaving over a million dead and many millions more displaced. The leaders and the circumstances may be different – an Islamist government in Khartoum now confronts a huge array of opposition groups, with northern factions in alliance with John Garang’s southern-based Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) – but the basic issues, although complicated since the mid-1990s by the extraction of oil, remain the same: at root, the question of self-determination for the peoples of the south, which is where the oilfields are. It is probably the oil which has kept the present regime in power for so long, bringing in both revenue and a degree of foreign support. But it has resulted in a vicious circle. A large proportion of the revenue earned from oil exports is spent on arms, which are the more easily acquired as a result of the foreign support the presence of oil has fostered. The arms are used to continue the war, which is the only means the Government (and therefore the foreign oil companies involved) have of keeping the oil flowing, given the strength of rebel forces in the oil-producing areas.


The death of President Hafez al-Asad in June 2000 was a watershed in modern Middle Eastern history. The region’s second longest-serving head of state (only Libya’s Qadhafi has been in power longer) had managed not only to avoid signing a unilateral peace treaty with Israel but he had also mended fences with Washington after the collapse of the USSR, Syria’s chief foreign protector. Most important of all, he had managed to survive.

Indeed, having come to power by military coup in November 1970, much of Hafez al-Asad’s energy in the course of the next 30 years was expended on staying there. Survival was his principal achievement.

In order to ensure his regime might live on beyond him, one of the major preoccupations of his last few months was to ensure the succession of his second son, Bashar, to the presidency, for which role he had been earmarked since the death of his elder brother in 1994.

Hafez’s legacy is sure to dominate Syria long after his death. Despite the loss of its Soviet sponsor, Syria’s principal regional alliance – with Iran – survives intact. Its close ties with Egypt and Saudi Arabia and the conservative Gulf monarchies, cemented during the Gulf crisis in 1989-90, are another pillar of foreign policy. Internally, his achievement was the creation of a stable (at least by Syrian standards – military coups were a frequent occurrence before Asad came to power) regime with no credible challengers.

But in truth his son Bashar, one of the much-vaunted new generation of Arab leaders to have come to power recently, has been left with a tangled mass of difficulties.

First and foremost, Syria is broke. The centrally controlled, bureaucratically top-heavy economy is effectively stagnant. Underdevelopment of infrastructure and the agricultural sector and an outdated technological base are compounded by a desperate shortage of hard currency. A number of economic reform initiatives launched since Bashar assumed power are intended to rectify this situation, first by making Syria attractive to foreign investors. But the programme has a number of serious shortcomings.


Not least among these is the resistance of a powerful section of society to serious economic reform. To ensure the survival of a regime based narrowly on his own Alawite minority community, Hafez al-Asad effectively bought the loyalty of potential opponents. As a result a small number of well-connected people constitute an almost immovable object in the way of serious reform.

The average Syrian, meanwhile, struggles just to get by. With unemployment conservatively estimated at 30 per cent, few families have any disposable income at all.

Also promised, at least in the public perception, by Bashar’s government has been political reform. The early months of the new president’s tenure saw a gradual blossoming of ‘civil society’. Writers and intellectuals of various political hues began to set up salons (basically, using their front rooms to hold meetings and discussion groups), independent publications were allowed to appear and there was even talk of forming political parties. But the phenomenon was short-lived. Although things have not gone right back to the dissent-smothering, initiative-crushing heavy-handedness of Hafez’s reign (at least not yet), there has been an abrupt reduction in free speech since the turn of the year.

It is difficult to gauge what the short-term future holds for Syria. The state has long been virtually as synonymous with opacity as it has with repression. While Bashar appears to have a genuine desire to reform the country, there are clearly limits beyond which the regime itself might not be sustainable. But without serious measures to tackle the country’s basic problems, Syria can only get poorer and weaker.

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