The Middle East Channel

Egypt delays the trial of NGO workers to April 10

Egypt has delayed the trial of 43 NGO workers charged for using illegal foreign funds and fomenting unrest. Only one U.S. defendant out of the 16 accused, and 14 of the 16 Egyptians, appeared in court. Nine of the Americans were outside of Egypt when the trial began on February 26, and six others departed when the United States posted nearly $300,000 bail each after a travel ban was lifted. The lifting of the travel ban was met with a political backlash from Egyptians who said the government succumbed to foreign pressure. Judge Makram Awad issued arrest warrants for those who did not appear in court and ordered the prosecutors to make sure all defendants are present when the trial resumes on April 10. However, the Americans are unlikely to return, and will be tried in absentia. Robert Becker, a U.S. citizen working for the National Democratic Institute, remained in Egypt to stand trial. His supporters said, "He taught us how to campaign during elections and what democratic governance means. He is a good man and respects Egyptians."

Syria

In a video posted on YouTube, Syria's deputy oil and mineral wealth minister, Abdo Hussameldin, announced his defection, becoming the first high-ranking civilian official to leave the government in the year-long uprisings. In the video, Hussameldin said to the regime, "You have inflicted on those who you claim are your people a whole year of sorrow and sadness, denying them basic life and humanity and driving Syria to the edge of the abyss." He continued that he "preferred to do what is right although I know that this regime will burn my house and persecute my family." The authenticity of the video has not yet been confirmed. The opposition Syrian National Council head, Burhan Ghalioun, applauded the defection, and said he expects more officials to follow suit. The announcement came ahead of Kofi Annan's, the United Nations and Arab League envoy, scheduled arrival on Sunday in Damascus. Annan said he would urge for a cessation of hostilities and a political solution to the conflict. He warned against a military intervention, saying it could make matters worse. Meanwhile, U.S. Senator John McCain continued to push for U.S. airstrikes despite U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta's assertions that a unilateral military action would be a mistake.

Headlines  

  • Satellite images delivered to the IAEA suggest Iran may be attempting to clean up radioactive traces at a suspected nuclear weapons development site ahead of inspectors' visit.
  • Conservative Salafist students clashed with leftists members of the national students' union at Manouba University near Tunisia's capital.
  • The U.N. envoy to Yemen condemned recent al Qaeda attacks and warned of an escalating humanitarian crisis.
  • French President Nicholas Sarkozy said he is committed to securing the adoption of a law making it illegal to deny the Armenian "genocide," even though the bill was found unconstitutional.

Arguments & Analysis

'Syria's Alawaite activists stuck in the middle' (Nir Rosen, Al Jazeera English)

"In the city of Homs, where sectarian tensions have increased during the uprising, I met Ahmed, an Alawite political science professor. He is an open critic of the regime and has participated in many locally driven dialogue sessions between leaders of the Alawite, Christian and Sunni communities in order to prevent communal violence. His Sunni students who were opposition activists spoke highly of him. One night as we sat on a roof top in the Akrama neighbourhood we came under very close sniper fire and had to duck down and run into the stairwell. The fire originated in an Alawite area. He blamed pro-regime extremists who were against his calls for moderation. "This regime is expired," he often told me, and talked about the need for political reform. "We have to create a new mechanism to make a new Syria, free parties, free elections, but no religious parties." But like many Alawites, he viewed the majority of the opposition as Sunni extremists. "Who leads the street? Mosque sheikhs without degrees. If the leaders were doctors and engineers, I would be very calm, but they are not.""

'Gauging Arab public opinion' (Marwan Bishara, Al Jazeera English)

"The majority doesn't approach democracy as merely a Western notion. Rather, it provides a clear definition of a democratic system that includes political plurality, freedom of expression, rule of law, et cetera. When it comes to specifics, a rather slim majority of 57 per cent supports the rule of a political party they disagree with. While people are generally supportive of democracy, a minority doesn't truly understand or accept its main tenets. A relatively high 36 per cent wouldn't support those they disagree with in their political platform to take power, a percentage that doesn't bode well for democracy. This shows that while there is an intention to move towards pluralism among most people, there is resistance to pluralism and diversity among a certain minority."

'Will nonviolent protest spark a 'Palestinian Spring'?' (Khaled Elgindy, Brookings)

"But just as it is clear that Adnan is not Bouazizi, it is also true that Palestine -- where the Arab Spring has seemingly gone unfelt -- is not Tunisia. It must be recalled that Palestinians are triply cursed: by an Israeli occupation that deprives them of freedom and dignity in the most fundamental ways; by ossified political leaders who, due to a combination of circumstance, incompetence, and corruption have repeatedly failed their people; and by the chronic failure of a two decades-long peace process that, with international support, has not lead to peace but instead has allowed the further entrenchment of Israeli occupation and of Palestinian political dysfunction. And, of course, Palestinians have already waged two rebellions in as many decades, with depressing results." 

--Tom Kutsch & Mary Casey

AFP/Getty images

The Middle East Channel

Obama and Netanyahu stave off another 11th hour moment…for now

Even before the looming confrontation with Iran, Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu have been engaged in their own related tussle -- more civilized and subdued no doubt, but arguably no less consequential. Their dueling speeches this week were striking in the degree to which they simultaneously mirrored and defied each other. It was no coincidence.

The U.S. president lavished praise on the one Israeli in the audience who most accurately reflects his own pragmatic views (Israeli President Shimon Peres) while bringing up Netanyahu only fleetingly. The Israeli prime minister enthusiastically applauded the many Americans in the room who share his more belligerent stance (members of Congress) while politely referring to Obama. Each paid lip service to his counterpart's central claim -- Obama, by acknowledging that Israel was entitled to its own sovereign security decisions; Netanyahu by conceding that the nuclear standoff would be best resolved by diplomacy. Both then proceeded to ruthlessly tear it apart: the president, by underscoring the imprudence of precipitous military action and the need to give negotiations time; the prime minister by stating flatly that Israel had waited long enough. Finally, the two leaders took aim at statements they argued were either dead wrong, or deadly dangerous -- Obama decried careless talk of war; Netanyahu mocked the endless recitation of war's perils. Neither bothered mentioning to whom they were referring, but there was no need. Not a day goes by without Israeli officials raising the specter of military action; meanwhile, a succession of U.S. officials have warned about the catastrophe such action might provoke.

For now at least, most commentators in the United States and in Israel have handed this round to Obama. He had two overriding objectives: to deflect Israeli pressure to conduct, or acquiesce in, a premature war; and to neutralize Republican criticism that he is too soft on Iran and too hard on Israel. On those fronts, one might say, mission accomplished.

But victory came at a price. In the longer run, Obama's nuanced view and the arguments he marshaled on behalf of diplomacy may be less significant than the broader narrative in which, in order to prevail, he felt compelled to embed them. More openly than in the past, he took containment of a nuclear-armed Iran off the table -- even before any serious discussion of this option has taken place and just as influential U.S. voices had begun making the case for it. More clearly than previously, he recognized Israel's right to its own decisions; Netanyahu took the bait -- or rather, grabbed it with enthusiasm, turning a banal acknowledgment of reality into an implicit license for Israel to unilaterally initiate action that will have broad and possibly dire consequences for all. And, more forcefully than before, Obama committed America to military action to halt Iran if other means fail to do so.  

That day of reckoning may have been delayed. But short of a fundamental shift in U.S.-Iranian relations, it looks as though it will yet come. Israelis, not for the first time, likely are exaggerating the Iranian threat and its imminence. Yet they almost certainly are right in one respect: that sanctions could work and nonetheless fail, inflicting harsh economic pain yet incapable of producing a genuine change in Tehran's calculus. There is no evidence that Iran's leadership will yield to economic hardship; the outlook of its Supreme Leader rests on the core principle that the only thing more dangerous than experiencing pressure is surrendering to it. Seen through the regime's eyes, such stubbornness is easy to understand. From its perspective, measures taken by its foes, including attacks on its territory, bolstering the arsenal of its Gulf enemies, and economic warfare, have a single purpose: namely, to topple the Islamic Republic. Under such conditions, why would the regime volunteer a concession that arguably would leave it weaker in a hostile environment? Even as he fought off the prospect of an imminent confrontation, Obama might therefore have bought himself -- or his eventual successor -- one down the road. For if and when sanctions fail, what alternative will there be to turn to? 

Obama paid a price in other currencies, too. Virtually the entire international security conversation has become monopolized by Iran, turning Netanyahu's 15-year obsession into a global one. That is an added benefit for the prime minister: for as long as that remains the case, there will be little space left for that other irksome Middle Eastern conflict -- the Israeli-Palestinian dispute -- and even less American appetite to pressure Israel on it.

It will be tempting to think of March 2012 as the month when the U.S. president stood his ground. Obama gave the better speech. He has by far the better of the argument. He almost certainly won this battle. But who will have ultimately won the war?

Robert Malley is the Middle East and North Africa Program Director at the International Crisis Group. He served as President Clinton's special assistant for Arab-Israeli Affairs between 1998 and 2001.

AFP/Getty images