During a ceremony on Monday, the presidents of Iran and Pakistan marked the start of construction on a natural gas pipeline, despite warnings by the U.S. that the project could incur sanctions. Iranian President Mahmoud Amadinejad said that the West has no right to block the project. Pakistan has recently faced increased blackouts and energy shortages. In efforts to further pressure the Iranian regime over its nuclear development program, the United States has opposed the project, instead proposing an alternate pipeline. This pipeline would run from gas fields in Turkmenistan to Afghanistan, Pakistan, and then to India. The United States has also promoted several electricity-generation projects inside Pakistan including assisting in renovating hydropower dams. On March 7, U.S. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said, "If this deal is finalized, it would raise serious concerns under our Iran Sanctions Act." Pakistan Foreign Office spokesman Moazzam Ahmad Khan stated, "all our friends including the U.S." should show understanding of the country's energy needs.
After days of intense negotiations, 21 Filipino U.N. peacekeepers held by the opposition "Martyrs of Yarmouk" brigade were released Saturday and arrived in Jordan unharmed. According to opposition fighters, negotiations took place between rebel fighters and the United Nations, but did not involve the Syrian regime or military. Syria's U.N. envoy, Bashar al-Jaafari, denied the government was shelling the town of Jamlah, were the peacekeepers were being held. Shelling prevented the U.N. team from picking up the hostages, and fighting erupted as the rebel brigade moved to bring them to the Jordanian border. Meanwhile, government warplanes reportedly bombed the Baba Amr district of Homs on Monday a day after a surprise opposition advance on the central city. Meanwhile, at least 20 bodies of young men believed to have been shot by Syrian forces were found on Sunday in the River Queiq in the opposition held Bustan al-Qasr district of Aleppo.
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When Saudi activists Abdullah al-Hamed and Mohammed Fahad al-Qahtani headed to the Criminal Court in Riyadh on Saturday morning, they knew what was waiting for them. The two founding members of the banned Saudi Civil and Political Rights Association (ACPRA) have been on trial since June 2012, and the judge was expected to hand down his ruling at the session scheduled on Saturday. As the defendants arrived to the court, they were received by more than 100 activists who came to show their support and attend the hearing which was also marked by a heavy presence of security officers with truncheons hanging from their belts.
The government has been accusing al-Hamed and al-Qahtani with a series of charges that include founding an unlicensed human rights organization, seeking to disrupt security and inciting disorder, undermining national unity, breaking allegiance to the ruler, disobeying the ruler, and questioning the integrity of officials. These are considered serious charges in Saudi Arabia, an absolute monarchy where political dissent in not usually tolerated. It does not allow protests, political parties, or unions. Saudi Arabia is also a main ally of the United States in the Middle East.
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I walk through a Tunisian market around midday, at the entrance to the fortress of Sousse, a town about 90 minutes southeast of the capital Tunis on the coast. A man is selling Salafi books and copies of the Quran from a maple wood table, 12 feet long, in front of a small masjid inside the old fortress walls, which were built in the ninth century by the Aghlabid caliph Ziyadat Allah I.
Two men are sitting nearby, at the edge of a dry, broken-down fountain, enjoying the sunny and mild weather. I approach them, along with three Tunisian friends, to ask for an interview. One dismisses me outright, gets up and leaves. He thinks I am in the American mukhabarat (intelligence). The other accepts. I sit next to him, shake his hand, and we both exchange salam alaykum pleasantries.
"Are You Muslim or a non-Muslim?" he asks.
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The United States has arrested Sulaiman Abu Ghaith, a son-in-law of Osama Bin Laden and an al Qaeda "spokesman." He will appear before a federal court in New York on Friday. Abu Ghaith was arrested in Jordan and will be arraigned by the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York on charges of conspiring to kill Americans. He could face a life sentence. He is one of the first and most high profile al Qaeda suspects to be tried on U.S. soil. The FBI says Abu Ghaith held a "key position in al-Qaeda, comparable to the consigliere in a mob family or propaganda minister in a totalitarian regime." He first drew attention when he appeared in a video alongside Bin Laden as he claimed responsibility for the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. He isn't believed to have been involved in plotting any attacks, but has been considered a voice of al Qaeda, often threatening Americans. The case has reignited debates on whether terror suspects should be tried in civilian or military courts. The Obama administration attempted to try Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, in a federal court in New York. But after unrelenting criticism from congress, the trial was moved to a military court at Guantánamo. Some U.S. lawmakers have also called for Abu Ghaith to be tried in a military court. However, an administration official responded, "The administration is seeking to close Guantánamo, not add to its population."
An opposition group in Syria, the "Martyrs of Yarmouk" brigade, has refused to release 21 Filipino U.N. peacekeepers who captured on Wednesday until Syrian troops reposition themselves. Raul Hernandez, the spokesman for the Filipino Foreign Ministry, said negotiations are continuing. However, Abu Essam Taseel, the spokesman for the rebel brigade, said on Friday that talks are not taking place. The observers are being held in the village of Jamlah, about a mile from the ceasefire line that they were monitoring between Israel and Syria in the Golan Heights. Jamlah has been under constant bombardment by government forces for the past week, and the rebel brigade has demanded that the troops move out with their heavy weaponry. Meanwhile, in an interview with the BBC, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said there is "absolutely" no chance that Moscow will press Syrian President Bashar al-Assad to step down. He said Russia is not in the "regime-change game." He added that Assad "is not bluffing" about his determination to remain in power. Lavrov is set to travel to London next week for talks with British Foreign Secretary William Hague, during which they expect the Syrian conflict to top the agenda.
A top Egyptian court Wednesday suspended parliamentary elections scheduled to begin on April 22. The Cairo Administrative Court said the electoral law must be reviewed by the Supreme Constitutional Court. Egypt's main opposition group, the National Salvation Front, had planned to boycott the elections, claiming the electoral law favored Islamists and demanding an overhaul to the Islamist-backed constitution. President Mohamed Morsi said it would respect the court's decision, which was another instance of confrontation between Egypt's prerevolutionary judiciary and the Islamist ruling party. The announcement came amid continued violence and turmoil in Port Said over death sentences issued over the 2012 football riots that killed 74 people. On Wednesday, Egypt's interior minister dismissed Port Said's security chief. Meanwhile, Egypt has backed away from making economic policy changes necessary to negotiate a $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund. The delays have come just days after a visit from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry during which he committed $250 million in assistance but urged political collaboration on economic reform.
The United Nations has begun talks with a group of Syrian opposition fighters in efforts to negotiate the release of 21 peacekeepers from the Philippines. The observers were captured Wednesday in the Golan Heights where they were monitoring the ceasefire line between Israel and Syria. They are being held by the "Martyrs of Yarmouk" rebel brigade in the nearby village of Jamla. The rebel group said Syrian government forces must leave the area before they will release their "guests." They initially claimed they took the U.N. observers to get the Syrian army to stop firing on them and civilians in the area. On Thursday, they said that they had actually rescued the observers from fighting in the area. The British based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported clashes on Thursday in the northern outskirts of the village. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) has condemned the capture of the peacekeepers, and the Philippines has demanded their release. Meanwhile, the humanitarian aid organization Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) released a report on Thursday saying Syria's healthcare system has collapsed. The charity has over 200 staff members working in opposition held territory in Syria. President of Doctors Without Borders Marie-Pierre Allie said, "Medical aid is being targeted, hospitals destroyed, and medical personnel captured." The report said that medical facilities have become tools "in the military strategies of the parties to the conflict." Trained medical staff have fled the war torn country and a large number of hospitals have been closed forcing healthcare work underground, with treatments conducted in caves, basements, and farms.
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The United Nations has reported that at least one million Syrian refugees, about five percent of Syria's population, have fled the two-year long conflict. The figure includes people who have registered, or are waiting to register; the total is much higher. About half of the refugees are children. Most have entered Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, and Egypt. According to U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres, the number of people fleeing Syria has dramatically increased since the beginning of the year. About 400,000 people have left the country since January 1. He said, "Syria is spiraling towards full-scale disaster." Additionally, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) released a report Tuesday depicting the collapse of Syria's education system. About one-fifth of the country's schools have been damaged from fighting, while others are being used as shelters for civilians who have been displaced by the conflict. About 2 million people are estimated to be internally displaced. Schools holding classes are severely overcrowded, and many teachers have not been reporting to work. The study was conducted in December 2012, and with the increase in violence over recent months, the conditions are likely to be much more severe. Meanwhile, fighting has continued in the northern city of Raqqa, where opposition fighters reportedly control most of the city. Syrian warplanes have bombarded the city, according to activists, and the government has sent in reinforcements attempting to regain control.
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Syrian opposition forces have reportedly overtaken most of Raqqa, a northern province. They have captured Hassan Jalili, Raqqa's governor and Baath party secretary general and toppled a statue of the late former President Hafez al-Assad. If verified, this would be a major gain for the opposition, and Governor Jalili would be one of the highest regime official captured since the beginning of the conflict nearly two years ago. However, fighting has continued between opposition fighters and pro-regime forces in some areas in Raqqa as well as at the provincial airport, about 40 miles from the city. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported government airstrikes on two targets in Raqqa. Meanwhile, about 39 Syrian soldiers and eight Iraqis were killed Monday in Iraq in an attack by unidentified gunmen in the western Anbar province, in the most serious spillover yet of the Syrian conflict into a neighboring country. The soldiers were among 65 Syrians who had crossed into Iraq after opposition fighters captured the Yaaroubiyah border post. Iraqi soldiers were transporting them to another border crossing when they were ambushed. Also on Monday, a group of Syrians announced the formation of a provincial council for Aleppo after elections were held on Sunday in Gaziantep, a Turkish city. While small governing bodies have been organized in opposition held territories before, this is the first attempt at establishing a province-wide civilian authority. The first priority for the 29-member Aleppo council will be to restore services such as water, utilities, healthcare, and bread.
U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi on Sunday in Cairo, promising $250 million in U.S. aid. The commitment came after Morsi pledged to reach an agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on economic reform requirements for a $4.8 billion loan deal. The assistance consists of two parts: $190 million towards Egypt's budget to address the country's "extreme needs," according to Kerry and $60 million in grants to support small and midsize businesses. Kerry told Morsi the United States could provide additional funds if Egypt's reaches a deal with the IMF. Leading Egyptian opposition figures criticized the United States for the assistance saying it is supporting a power grab by Morsi and the ruling Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. Kerry's visit came amid protests and violence across Egypt. Demonstrators clashed with police Sunday morning in Cairo's Tahrir Square. Additionally, two security forces and three civilians were killed and at least 400 people injured in clashes in Port Said, where hundreds have been protesting the death sentences of 21 people in connection with the 2012 football riots that killed 74 people.
Opposition forces overtook most of a police academy in Khan al-Asal, near the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on Sunday. After eight days of fierce fighting, over 200 people were killed, including opposition fighters and government forces, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. According to the pro-government media outlet Al-Watan, 115 policemen were killed and 50 wounded. On Monday, government forces, backed by pro-regime militiamen, launched a major offensive on opposition held areas in the central city of Homs. The Observatory said, "this is the worst fighting in months." Meanwhile, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and British Foreign Secretary William Hague have been trading blows after the Sunday Times of London conducted an interview with Assad. Assad called the British government "naïve, confused, unrealistic" and accused it of working to militarize the Syrian conflict. Hague called Assad "delusional" and said that while Britain will not yet send arms to the Syrian opposition, it is not ruling anything out for the future. Additionally, during the interview, Assad said he was "ready to negotiate with anyone, including militants, who surrender their arms." But, he would not "deal with terrorists who are determined to carry weapons."
The Egyptian opposition's decision to boycott parliamentary elections looks familiar to those of us who study Latin America, where high profile boycotts have periodically been used by parties who distrust the government in charge of administering those elections. Unfortunately for the Egyptian opposition, the Latin American experience should be seen as a cautionary tale, since boycotts have too often turned into self-inflicted political wounds. The opposition is choosing not to act as a legislative brake on the executive, thereby reducing its own political influence.
Whether in the Middle East, Latin America, or elsewhere, this is the basic scenario. A controversial regime in a politically divided country holds elections and opposition parties must decide whether to participate or withdraw. Both choices require a difficult cost-benefit calculation.
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Two years after the Police Day demonstrations that forced former President Hosni Mubarak from office, Egypt's political transformation has only just begun. The uncertainty that necessarily accompanies this change presents particular dilemmas for the United States, for whom partnership with Egypt has been a bedrock of regional policy for decades. Bedeviled by uncertainty and mutual mistrust, U.S.-Egyptian ties have been fraught since the revolution -- and on both sides there are those who say it's time to cut the cord. Yet these two countries still have many core interests in common and, as the November 2012 Gaza crisis proved, they can work together effectively to advance them.
For the United States, Egypt's revolution presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to build a more robust and reliable strategic partnership than was ever possible before, based on mutual interests with a government rooted in the consent of the Egyptian people and accountable to them. But realizing this opportunity will require an adroit, long-term approach, one that eschews transactional bargains with specific Egyptian actors in favor of a consistent commitment to supporting the emergence of a pluralistic Egyptian political system.
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U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is visiting Turkey on Friday for talks on the conflict in Syria. The meeting comes a day after the United States committed $60 million in direct, non-lethal aid to the Syrian opposition during the "Friends of Syria" conference in Rome. The Syrian opposition responded to the announcement by Kerry, and the expectation that Britain will provide combat gear, as insufficient; they have been appealing for weapons supplies. In recent months, senior U.S. officials have advised President Barack Obama to send arms to moderate factions within the Syrian opposition. However, the White House continues to refuse over fears that the weapons will end up in the hands of Islamist radicals. Head of the opposition coalition, Sheik Moaz al-Khatib stated, "The media pays more attention to the length of the beards of the fighters than the massacres." He said the opposition is working to appoint the head of an interim government that will operate inside Syria, and attempted to quell fears that an Islamist government will take power. A meeting on the transitional government was scheduled for March 2 in Istanbul, but has been delayed for "logistical reason." Meanwhile, over 200,000 Syrian refugees have fled to Turkey.
At the "Friends of Syria" meeting in Rome on Thursday, Western and Arab countries pledged greater assistance to the Syrian National Coalition. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who said earlier that the U.S. wants to "accelerate the political transition in Syria," announced that for the first time, the United States will provide non-lethal aid directly to opposition fighters. The U.S. will provide food rations and medical supplies and will give an additional $60 million to the civilian opposition in security assistance. The United States will help train rebel fighters at a base in the region, but still refuses to send arms to rebel forces over concerns that they will end up in the hands of radical Islamist fighters, who have been making significant gains on the battlefield. Meanwhile, Jordan has reported a new surge in refugees entering the country as violence intensifies in southern Syria. Recently, an average of 3,000 Syrians have crossed into Jordan each night; the total number of refugees in the country has surpassed 418,000. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Guterres, told the U.N. Security Council on Wednesday that the number of Syrian refugees in the region could surpass one million by next month. He said, "The humanitarian situation is dramatic beyond description. The refugee crisis is accelerating at a staggering pace."
Officials expressed cautious optimism at the end of two days of talks between six world powers and Iran over its disputed nuclear program. Iran and the U.N. Security Council's permanent five members, the United States, Britain, France, China, and Russia, plus Germany, agreed for technical experts to meet in Istanbul on March 18, and to reconvene full negotiations in Kazakhstan on April 5 and 6. The P5 +1 offered to reduce some sanctions on Iran if the country scales back its nuclear program, which the West fears is intended for weapons development. European Union foreign policy chief and the P5 +1 lead negotiator Catherine Ashton said, "The proposals we put forward are designed to build in confidence and enable us to move forward." Iran's lead negotiator, Saeed Jalili said there was a long way to go, but this was a "positive step" and stated, "Some of the points raised were more realistic compared to what they [P5 +1] said in the past." The six world powers want Iran to stop enriching uranium to 20 percent, which can more easily be turned into weapons grade material, and export its current stockpiles of highly enriched uranium. Additionally, they want Iran to shut down its underground Fordo enrichment plant. Western diplomats cautioned that there was no substantive progress, but some analysts say there was an important development, and a major breakthrough was not expected in this round of talks. Meanwhile, the U.S. lawmakers will introduce a bill on Wednesday that will expand sanctions on Iran, and images released Wednesday raised suspicions that Iran is working toward producing plutonium at its Arak facility.
The United States is considering a shift in policy on Syria as Russia looks to the United States to urge the Syrian opposition to participate in peace talks. According to U.S. officials, the administration is considering sending opposition fighters body armor and armed vehicles, and additionally might provide military training. The United States has avoided sending weapons to the rebels, but has provided communications equipment to the opposition and given millions of dollars in humanitarian assistance. In a meeting in Berlin between U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Russia called for the United States to urge for the Syrian opposition to drop President Bashar al-Assad's resignation as a precondition for direct talks with the Syrian regime. Meanwhile, according to a Human Rights Watch report released Tuesday, the Syrian government fired at least four ballistic missiles last week, hitting civilian neighborhoods in the northern city of Aleppo. Human Rights Watch estimated that more than 141 people were killed in the strikes including 71 children. This is the first time in the two-year conflict that the regime has fired as many missiles into residential areas.
During its erratic and tumultuous transition Egypt has lurched from crisis to crisis, muddling its way through to a series of sub-optimal resolutions. Throughout this uncertain period, the United States has sought to maintain a low-key engagement, cognizant of its longstanding association with the autocratic regime of deposed leader Hosni Mubarak, its eroded regional prestige, and its inability to dictate domestic political outcomes in another country. As President Barack Obama recently stated, "We are not going to be able to control every aspect of every transition and transformation." Following the misguided bluster and hubris of recent years, this humility is a laudable and needed corrective.
However, in post-Mubarak Egypt, entreaties to restraint now mask a more enduring reality: in dealing with the country's newly-empowered Islamists, U.S. policy in Egypt remains trapped in the old ways of thinking that produced a bet on authoritarian stability.
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A new round of talks began on Tuesday in Kazakhstan between Iran and world powers. Negotiators from Iran are meeting with the U.N. Security Council's permanent five members -- the United States, Britain, France, China, and Russia -- in addition to Germany. International powers suspect Iran of working to develop nuclear weapons, but Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes. There is little optimism that this round of talks will yield a breakthrough. However, both sides have recently offered concessions. The spokesman for European Union foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton, who is leading the dialogue, said "We have prepared a good and updated offer for the talks, which we believe is balanced and a fair basis for constructive talks." The United States proposed limited sanctions relief, and Iran said it was prepared to make an offer. Sanctions have taken a severe toll on Iran's economy, but they have not succeeded in pressuring Iran to temper its nuclear ambitions. In fact, Tehran announced technological advances just this week.
Opposition forces in Syria see a week of significant gains
The Syrian opposition has abandoned its boycott of talks in Rome on Syria. Head of the Syrian National Coalition Moaz al-Khatib said he would lead a delegation to the "Friends of Syria" meeting in Rome this week. However, the largest faction within the coalition maintained it would not participate, saying opposition forces have waited long enough for Western assistance. On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, said the Obama administration is considering new options to increase support to the Syrian opposition, and insisted that the United States would not leave them "dangling in the wind wondering where the support is or if it's coming." Saudi Arabia has been financing the purchase of Croatian arms which it has been reportedly funneling to opposition fighters since December. Meanwhile, a deadly explosion and heavy clashes were reported in Damascus, Syria's capital. Additionally, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, clashes between opposition fighters and government forces are endangering the historic Umayyad Mosque in the northern city of Aleppo.
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After 23 months of fighting, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad's grip on power is increasingly tenuous. Fearing its greatest ally could be ousted, Iran has reportedly begun forming large sectarian militias in Syria to bolster the regime in the short term, and also to preserve its influence should Assad be overthrown. With so much at stake, Iran will only continue to increase such efforts as the regime's position becomes more vulnerable. These militias pose a huge threat -- it is imperative that the United States and the international community try to prevent the formation of a Syrian style-Hezbollah by bringing Iran into peace mediations led by the U.N. Special Envoy Lakhdar Brahimi.
The United States has been understandably reluctant to agree to the idea of including Iran which was initially advocated by Brahimi's predecessor Kofi Annan. Washington believes Iran has played a destructive role in Syria and expects it to only pursue its own interests in negotiations, even if it comes at the expense of the Syrian people. However, continuing to exclude Iran is highly imprudent. The United States must consider whether it is better to try and incentivise Iran to use its influence productively in concert with international efforts to stabilize Syria, or exclude it from the peace process and risk a perpetuation of the current chaos.
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Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has finally issued dates for the new parliamentary elections, due now to begin April, and end in July, over staggered rounds. Voices within the opposition have begun to splinter apart over participation; the presidential candidate that never was, Nobel Prize winner Mohammed ElBaradei, has already called for a boycott. Looming in the distance, however, is the key reality around what the country is going to look like in a few months time -- and if a civilian led Egypt is still a reality. Indeed, ElBaradei recently reminded the international community of the stakes in this regard, explicitly indicating that holding elections in April would risk placing the country into a state of "total chaos and instability," resulting in a military intervention. He said, "If Egypt is on the brink of default, if law and order is absent, [the army] have a national duty to intervene."
ElBaradei was not advocating the intervention of the military -- he was simply pointing that it may happen as a natural consequence. Nevertheless, a certain scenario has been making the rounds around some elements within the political elite in Egypt's opposition -- some, it should be noted, rather than all or most. It goes something like this:
Morsi has made a mess of the transition to democracy, and even though he was elected, he has failed in his duty. The political turmoil and polarization are proof enough of that -- the economic disaster that is about to fall upon Egypt will simply be the logical consequence of all of that, and will ensure that the military intervenes to save the country. When the military does so, the Muslim Brotherhood might put up a little bit of a struggle, but they'll fold pretty quickly in order to assure themselves a political future in Egypt. Alternatively, they might fight a little bit, but the military will make short shrift of them, and they will then be shunted underground, ending for once and for all this abysmal experiment of Islamist rule in Egypt. The military, having understood the mistakes it made during Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi's reign, will be far more suave this time around, and will set the stage for a new constitution, and a new presidential election, before it departs the scene. The international community will cluck, cluck, perhaps, but will quietly be satisfied, as they also never wanted an Islamist regime to emerge. The opposition will then provide an alternative leadership that can lead Egypt forward.
It is an interesting scenario, to say the least -- but it is not terribly realistic, let alone ethical. The military may indeed intervene, as it might under any regime that contributes to the instability of Egypt -- it did so under Mubarak, and it may do so again. However, Morsi is not Mubarak. The military intervened when it was clear the overwhelming majority of the country wanted Mubarak to go -- demonstrating in massive protests, in which millions of people over several weeks showed that they would not accept anything less than his departure. The same cannot be said for Morsi. He is certainly unpopular -- and with very good reason -- but the vast majority of Egyptians haven't shown they want him to have the same fate as Mubarak.
If the military were to intervene, moreover, no one should expect it to be a walk in the park. When Mubarak was forced to resign by the military, his own establishment, including those who had the arms, turned against him. The police force would not fight against the military, and that was that. In a scenario in which the Muslim Brotherhood is forced from power -- a movement, living in an existential moment, that already feels the world is out to get it -- it is hard to see the MB not reacting with force. It would eventually lose against the combined forces of the military and the police -- but it would not be pretty. It would be a betrayal of the revolution of Tahrir forever, if any "revolutionaries" wanted such a bloodbath in order to put aside their political opponents.
If the military then takes control, the assumption that this leadership would be that much different from the previous Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) is not certain, to say the least. The former SCAF under Tantawi, regardless of the media assertions to the contrary, was incredibly popular in Egypt. Among the political elite, whether opposition or MB, it had a varied reputation -- but across the country, the military's standing was solid. It may thus believe that there are actually not many errors to correct for, and another transitional phase may not prove to be all that much better than the last one. Of course, no one knows how it will behave -- only that in general, the military will look out for it's own interests, which include the stability of Egypt, as well as the fortification of military independence and autonomy.
To assume that the opposition leadership has the ability to provide a genuine alternative that can steer the country better may turn out to be wishful thinking -- in general, political leadership in Egypt has been indescribably lacking for the masses of Egyptians. This goes just as much for the opposition, which does not enjoy as much blame as the MB for the political turmoil, as it is not in power -- but is still hardly stellar by comparison.
What is generally true is that the international community would, in all likelihood, cluck, cluck, and let things unfold as it will -- as long as Egypt remains stable. The failure of Egypt is simply not an option, for broader political, economic, and security considerations.
All of this should not come as a surprise to any political force within Egypt -- whether the opposition or the MB. However, the uncomfortable truth is that the way to avoid this outcome is not in the opposition's court. Even if it were to disavow, and actively be against any military involvement in politics, its weight is negligible in that regard -- the military will come or not come according to its own calculus, not that of the opposition. The Egyptian presidency is what makes the difference in Egypt in terms of averting the realization of this scenario. The presidency must be aware that within the opposition, the broad majority would want to avoid any further turmoil in Egypt. They no longer need political allies who are simply willing to back up the government -- the presidency need partners who are willing to serve in a genuine national salvation government that resolves the political turmoil on the one hand, and sets into motion an economic recovery immediately. As the days go on, that all becomes more and more difficult -- and the likely scenarios become less and less palatable, for everyone.
Dr. H. A. Hellyer, a non-resident fellow at the Project on U.S.-Islamic World Relations at the Brookings Institution, and ISPU, is a Cairo-based specialist on Arab affairs and West-Muslim world relations. Follow him on Twitter@hahellyer.
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On Friday, February 22, I flew from London to Dubai to participate in a conference jointly organized by the Middle East Centre of the London School of Economics (LSE) -- where I work -- and the American University of Sharjah (AUS). The theme of the conference was "The New Middle East: Transition in the Arab World," and my paper was entitled "Bahrain's Uprising: Domestic Implications and Regional and International Perspectives." The one-day event was scheduled to take place on Sunday, February 24 at the AUS campus. However, the LSE abruptly pulled out of the conference on Thursday after the United Arab Emirates (UAE) government intervened to inform AUS that no discussion of Bahrain would be permitted. By leaving their decision until the very last minute -- the weekend immediately prior to the conference -- the authorities may have hoped that AUS and the LSE would accept it as a "fait accompli" and proceed. To their credit, the LSE immediately withdrew from the event, citing "restrictions imposed on the intellectual control of the event that threatened academic freedom." With many of the U.S.-based workshop speakers already in Dubai or in the air, we took the decision to continue with our trip; for me it was the first leg of a three-country visit in the Gulf, and I also had been invited to lecture at Zayed University on February 25.
On arrival at Dubai International Airport, I was stopped by immigration officials and separated from the two LSE colleagues with whom I had been traveling. My passport clearly had triggered a red flag in the system and the official called over his supervisor. I was separated from my colleagues and taken to a backroom where security personnel examined each page of my passport in minute detail. An official then disappeared with my passport for 45 minutes before returning with a representative from Emirates Airline who informed me that I was being denied entry to the UAE and sent back to London. I had to purchase my own ticket to fly back to Gatwick -- but not before randomly being approached by an airport staffer who asked if I would complete a customer satisfaction survey.
Violence has escalated in the West Bank as over 10,000 Palestinians gathered on Monday for the funeral of Arafat Jaradat, 30, who died in Israeli custody on Saturday. The Israeli Defense Forces detained Jaradat for allegedly throwing stones and maintained that the cause of death is unclear. The investigation is ongoing, but Israel had initially cited cardiac arrest. According to the Palestinian minister of prisoner affairs, "The signs that appeared during the autopsy show clearly that he was subjected to sever torture that led immediately to his death." Jaradat's death came after days of protest in the West Bank over Israel's treatment of Palestinian prisoners. Four prisoners who have been undergoing a hunger strike were joined on Sunday by the 4,500 Palestinians in Israeli jails and Palestinians have continued protests across the West Bank. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made "an unequivocal demand" to the Palestinian Authority to calm protests and transferred $100 million in tax revenue it had been withholding to the Palestinian Authority.
Foreign Minister Walid Moallem said Syria is ready to hold talks with the armed opposition, speaking from Russia on Monday, in the clearest yet offer for negotiations. The regime and the opposition in recent weeks have softened their positions and said they are prepared for some sort of contact. Moaz al-Khatib, head of the opposition Syrian National Coalition said he had not yet been in contact with the Syrian government about talks, and is waiting for communication. However, spokesman for the coalition, Khalid Saleh, told the Guardian that the opposition rejects the offer as "empty" and "deceitful." U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is hoping to meet on Thursday in Rome with the Syrian opposition, along with foreign ministers from Europe and the Middle East. However, the Syrian National Coalition said it would boycott the "Friends of Syria" meeting. The coalition said it is also turning down talks in Washington and Moscow, protesting the international community's "shameful" failure to stop violence in Syria. Last week was particularly bloody for Syria with a series of bombings in the capital Damascus and three missile strikes in the northern city Aleppo.
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Facing perhaps its biggest crisis yet, Yemen's ruling party of over three decades, the General People's Congress (GPC), is in desperate need of reform. As one of the only ruling parties to have survived a widespread Arab Spring uprising, it is now navigating uncharted territory. While the party and its leader, former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, are doing infinitely better than their imprisoned, exiled, dead, or dismantled counterparts across the Middle East and North Africa, the party's continued relevance and prosperity is by no means guaranteed, a reality to which it is struggling to adjust.
Formed in 1982 by Saleh, then president of the northern Yemen Arab Republic (YAR), the GPC was created to counter the rise of dissident leftist groups, like the National Democratic Front. Over time, the GPC grew into the country's dominant political force, winning the most seats in the first national elections held after the unification of the YAR and the southern People's Democratic Republic of Yemen in 1990. In the last parliamentary elections held in Yemen, in 2003, the party won 76 percent of seats. But, by the time the Arab Spring broke out the GPC was more a collection of powerful elites living off access to government coffers than a political party in the democratic sense of the term. Hardly bound to public opinion, the GPC ruled with relative impunity and only occasional resistance from the country's pseudo opposition coalition (the Joint Meeting Parties, or JMP). In hindsight, it is not surprising that the party became a primary target of revolutionaries.
Yemen's joint Nobel Peace Prize winner Tawakkol Karman might serve well as a poster child of the Arab Spring, but the outcome of the Yemeni transition does not make a good model -- if there is one at all. Events throughout 2012 certainly did not fulfill the expectations of the revolutionary youth who have consistently returned to the streets of Sanaa, Taizz, and Aden. Former President Ali Abdullah Saleh has continued to exert some influence in Yemeni politics: as head of the former regime party General People's Congress (GPC); through his connections in the military and bureaucratic apparatus; by maintaining healthy ties in the main tribal confederation, the Hashid, that has dominated Yemeni politics since the 1970s; and in being propped up by Saudi support. Yet, with President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi and Saleh-rival Ali Mohsen increasingly consolidating their position, the end game might just have begun for the Saleh connection. As stated by Saleh, politics in Yemen is like dancing on the heads of snakes. With Saleh out of office, his former vice president on the verge of consolidating his grip on the presidency, and military strongmen as power brokers in a volatile security framework, the lead dancer is gone, but the snakes are still there.
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Arriving in the Libyan capital Tripoli, it is immediately (and dispiritingly) clear just how much needs to be done before the country can experience any sort of secure and just order. During my January research trip to Libya, the city seemed to have been overtaken by a paramilitary culture. The streets of Tripoli are thronged with Libyans in military uniform; not members of a national army, but rather of an expanding constellation of independent revolutionary and military councils. The city regularly rings out with automatic gunfire, particularly at night. Its walls, meanwhile, are papered with posters of the 2011 revolution's "martyrs," some of which couple a professional studio portrait with a later, amateur picture of the same man's corpse. Surrounded on all sides by headshots of the Libyan revolution's dead, it can sometimes be difficult to imagine how Libya can achieve national reconciliation and become a stable, functioning country.
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Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has called for parliamentary elections to begin April 27, eliciting concerns from opposition parties. According to the presidential decree issued Thursday, the elections for parliament's lower house will take place over four stages through the end of June. The new People's Assembly will then be expected to convene on July 6. The previous body was dissolved in June 2012 after the January elections for the lower house were deemed unconstitutional. Morsi's Islamist Freedom and Justice Party, which took around 40 percent of the vote in the initial elections, expressed satisfaction with the decision while opposition parties have shown alarm. Head of the main opposition bloc, the National Salvation Front (NSF), Mohamed ElBaradei said, "Morsi's decision to go for parliamentary elections amid severe societal polarisation and the eroding state authority is a recipe for disaster." The NSF called for opposition parties to meet on Friday to discuss Morsi's announcement.
Syrian warplanes targeted Damascus International Airport a day after attacks killed an estimated 90 people across the capital. There have been no immediate reports of casualties from Friday's attacks, which hit the towns of Beit Sahm and Shebaa near the main airport road south of Damascus. According to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, there was also fighting in the opposition held areas of Daraya and Moadamiyeh, south of Damascus. No one has taken responsibility for Thursday's car bombing that hit near the offices of the ruling Baath Party as well as the Russian embassy and killed at least 53 people and injured over 200. The government has blamed "terrorists;" the opposition has claimed the regime is responsible. Russia has accused the United States of applying a double standard for blocking a U.N. Security Council statement condemning the car bombing.
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A car bomb hit central Damascus near the headquarters of the ruling Baath Party and the Russian embassy on Thursday, killing several people. Eyewitnesses said the car exploded at a security checkpoint in the Mazraa district of the Syrian capital. According to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least 31 people were killed, most of whom were civilians but also some Syrian security services members. Syrian state news agency, SANA, reported that 16 civilians have been killed and 208 people wounded. A Russian diplomat reported damage to the embassy compound, but said no employees were injured. Shortly after the car bombing, a security official reported a second explosion in Damascus's northeastern Barzeh neighborhood, and two other blasts were reported elsewhere in the capital. Damascus has so far largely escaped the violence seen over the past two years in much of the rest of the country. However, there has been an escalation over the past three days with mortar attacks on a soccer stadium and one of President Bashar al-Assad's palaces. Meanwhile, the opposition Syrian National Coalition has begun a two-day meeting in Cairo, where it will address the proposal by its leader, Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib, to hold direct talks with the Syrian regime. The coalition said it is willing to negotiate a deal, but Assad cannot be a party to any settlement.
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Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali resigned Tuesday after failing to push through his plan for a new technocrat government. Jebali dissolved the government as political tensions heightened after the February 6 assassination of opposition leader Chokri Belaid. Jebali had said he would step down if his ruling Islamist Ennahda Party rejected his proposal. After a meeting with President Moncef Marzouki on Tuesday he said, "I vowed that if my initiative did not succeed, I would resign and I have done so." He did not rule out returning to the government, but insisted it be inclusive and free from political infighting. On Monday, head of Ennahda Rachid Ghannouchi put forward an alternative proposal for a government mixed with politicians and technocrats and said that there was consensus that Jebali remain as prime minister. The continued political instability in Tunisia has further jeopardized the country's fragile economy. On Tuesday, Standard and Poor's downgraded Tunisia's credit rating, citing "a risk that the political situation could deteriorate further amid a worsening fiscal, external and economic outlook."
According to Syrian state media, a football player was killed after two mortar shells hit the Tishreen stadium in Damascus's al-Baramkeh district. The attack came a day after two mortars reportedly exploded outside one of President Bashar al-Assad's palaces in the capital's northwestern district of Muhajireen. Opposition activists said that the Free Syrian Army fired up to seven mortar rounds at the Tishreen Palace. No casualties have been reported. Assad has two other palaces in the city. Opposition fighters previously claimed to have fired rockets at the presidential palaces, but the attack on Tuesday was confirmed by the Syrian government. Meanwhile, the death toll from Monday's rocket attack on Aleppo has risen to an estimated 31 people. According to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, it was "likely a surface-to-surface missile" that had been fired into the opposition held Jabal Badro district of the northern city. On Wednesday, Russia reported that one of two planes of humanitarian assistance it is sending to Syria has landed in the port of Latakia. On their return to Russia, the planes are expected to be filled by Russia citizens wishing to evacuate from Syria.
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A Yemeni fighter plane crashed in the capital Sanaa on Tuesday, killing an estimated 12 people, and injuring at least 11 others. The aircraft, a Russian SU-22, was on a training mission, according to Yemeni officials. It crashed into a residential area near Change Square, the site of anti-government protests during the regime of former President Ali Abdullah Saleh. According to one security official, the pilot ejected from the plane. Rescue efforts are ongoing and Yemen's interior minister said the cause of the crash is under investigation.
A rocket attack hit an opposition held district of Syria's northern city of Aleppo on Tuesday, killing at least 20 people, according to activists. The missile was reportedly a Scud-type rocket increasingly used by the Syrian government. The blast hit three adjacent buildings. An estimated 25 people remain missing and are expected to be under the rubble. On Monday, United Nations investigators called for Syria to be referred the International Criminal Court (ICC). The panel released a 131-page report which finds that the two year conflict in Syria has become "increasingly sectarian," militarized, and radicalized by the growing presence of foreign fighters. Human rights investigator Carla del Ponte said, "We are pressuring the international community to act because it's time to act." Although all sides in the conflict are accused of committing war crimes, the report lays heavy blame on the Assad regime for perpetrating war crimes. Earlier calls for referring Syria to the Hague were ignored because five members of the U.N. Security Council were split on the issue. Meanwhile, the European Union renewed sanctions on Syria, including a blanket arms embargo, but agreed to provide additional non-lethal aid for the opposition "for the protection of civilians."
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Opposition forces have claimed control of the northeast province of Hasaka which produces most of the country's oil. Opposition fighters have reportedly captured the town of Shadadah, near the province's capital, seizing state security and military intelligence compounds as well as the Jbeysa oil fields. The attack was led by the Islamist opposition group al-Nusra front. In three days of fighting, an estimated 100 government soldiers were killed, as well as 30 al-Nusra fighters and dozens of civilian employees of the Syrian Petroleum Company. An estimated 40,000 people have fled the town. This attack has not yet been verified, but if true, it comes amid other recent strategic gains for opposition fighters. Opposition forces captured Syria's largest hydropower dam and a military airbase in the north, along with undamaged aircrafts. Additionally, rebel fighters reported shooting down three government air force warplanes on Thursday. If verified, it could be the largest one-day loss of warplanes for the regime since the beginning of the conflict nearly two years ago. Meanwhile, government forces and opposition fighters have continued battling for Aleppo's international airport, where over 150 regime troops and rebels have been killed.
Tensions in Bahrain have increased after the death of a teenage boy during protests marking the second anniversary of Bahrain's uprising. According to the main opposition group, al-Wefaq, the 16-year-old boy was killed by injuries sustained from close range birdshot. The Bahraini government has announced an investigation into the boy's death. Rioters have blocked roads and clashed with security forces, while opposition groups have called for a general strike. The protests could jeopardize reconciliation talks that began Sunday between opposition groups and the government. Meanwhile, Amnesty International has called for the release of 22 activists, including human rights activist Nabeel Rajab, who were detained by the government. A government spokesperson responded to Amnesty International's allegations saying "The Government has reiterated several times that there [are] no political prisoners currently in Bahrain. The Government supports the right to express oneself freely, as long as the mode of expression does not violate the freedoms of others as stipulated in Article 29 of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights."
Fierce clashes have been reported as opposition forces work to overtake Aleppo international airport. Fighting has been occurring at the airfield for weeks and on Wednesday opposition fighters took control of most of the "Brigade 80" military base protecting it. According to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, regime warplanes have bombarded rebel positions near the airport with airstrikes. If opposition fighters overtake the airport, it will be a major setback for the regime, cutting off supply lines to Aleppo. Beginning his term as U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry said he will utilize his past relationship with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a strategy to get the ruler to leave power. Kerry said he understands the "calculations" that drive Assad and believes there are methods that can change them. He said, "Right now President Assad doesn't think he's losing -- and the opposition thinks it's winning." Additionally he reaffirmed that the U.S. administration is seeking a political solution to the Syrian conflict rather than arming opposition forces. Meanwhile, U.N. special envoy to Syria Lakhdar Brahimi's deputy Mokhtar Lamani traveled to the country for the first visit of the team in months, meeting with the leader of the opposition Revolutionary Military Council as well as civilian and Christian leaders. They all expressed support for the recent initiative by the head of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, Moaz al-Khatib, to hold direct talks with the government.
Australian Foreign Minister Bob Carr has ordered a review of his ministry's handling of a 2010 case in which an Australian man, allegedly a Mossad agent, reportedly hanged himself in a secret Israeli jail. On Wednesday, Carr admitted that the Department of Foreign Affairs knew about the detention of the man referred to as Prisoner X, who the report revealed is likely Ben Zygier. He changed his name to Ben Alon in Israel. Initial reports of his death were leaked in 2010, but the story was highly censored by Israel. On Tuesday, Israeli news organizations were forced to remove content concerning the case, but the ban was partially lifted on Wednesday after Knesset members raised questions. Israel's prime minister's office has declined to comment. According to ABC, Zygier was 34 when he died, and was married to an Israeli woman with two young children. It is unclear why he was incarcerated. He was held at the Ayalon high security prison in central Israel, in a wing constructed to hold Yigal Amir, the Israeli who assassinated former Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, with a surveillance system installed to prevent suicide.
United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay addressed the U.N. Security Council Tuesday calling for action to resolve the conflict in Syria, saying the death toll is approaching 70,000. Severe fighting has continued in Damascus. The government has targeted opposition positions in the neighborhood of Jobar as well as the suburb of Daraya. Russia said it will continue its weapons supplies to the Syrian regime, saying "in the absence of sanctions" it will fulfill its "obligations on contracts for the delivery of military hardware" which it maintains are not offensive weapons, but mainly air defense systems. Meanwhile, Qatar has decided to hand over the Syrian embassy in its capital Doha to the opposition Syrian National Coalition.
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Egypt watchers were briefly all a-twitter yesterday about the appointment of the country's first post-revolutionary mufti. With rumors widespread that a prominent Muslim Brotherhood leader, Abd al-Rahman al-Barr, would get the nod, concerns that the "Brotherhoodization" of the Egyptian state was soon to spread to the official religious establishment. In the end, al-Barr was passed over, but the brief kerfuffle obscures the real long-term struggle likely to take place over Egyptian religious institutions.
Instead of al-Barr, the designee is Shawqi Ibrahim ‘Abd al-Karim, a scholar of Islamic law teaching in Tanta. ‘Abd al-Karim is a figure known to his colleagues but with a low public profile. He has written widely on subjects ranging from the narrowly technical (a comparison between Islamic and civil law on the right to cancel a sale while the contracting parties are still in each other's presence), to the broadly social ("Women and Globalization in the Arabian Peninsula" in which he praises the spread of education among women but decries homosexuality), and to the esoteric (a book on sex selection and sex changes, a surprisingly lively topic among Islamic legal specialists in part because laws governing the family and even prayer are highly gendered, so that it becomes important to know whether one is dealing with a male or a female).
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