The Middle East Channel

Middle East tops Amnesty International’s annual capital punishment report

The human rights organization Amnesty International released its annual report on the death penalty, finding a surge in executions carried out worldwide in 2011, rising by 78 percent. The sharp rise was mainly attributed to the Middle East, which saw a 50 percent increase in confirmed executions at 558 for the year. Most of the executions took place in Yemen, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and Iran. Iraq saw an increase from at least one in 2010, to an estimated 68 executions in 2011. Saudi Arabia's executions rose from 27 to 82. Iran however was responsible for the majority of executions with 360 killings, many due to recent anti-drug legislation. With 43 executions, the United States ranked fifth worldwide for capital punishment according to Amnesty's report. China is believed to carry out the greatest number of executions, numbering in the thousands, however the organization no longer publishes figures for the country, which considers the data a state secret. 

Syria

The Syrian government has agreed to a peace plan proposed by United Nations and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan aimed at ending the violence in Syria. The six-point peace plan includes "political discussions, withdrawal of heavy weapons and troops from population centers, humanitarian assistance being allowed in unimpeded, release of prisoners, freedom of movement, and access for journalists to go in and out." Annan responded to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad appealing to the government to "put its commitments into immediate effect." Annan is in China requesting support for his efforts to broker peace. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao told Annan that the crisis was "at a critical juncture," and "your mediation efforts will lead to progress." China has previously blocked United Nations resolutions addressing violence in Syria along with Russia, however Russia has also offered support for Annan's plan. Nonetheless, there was no immediate end to violence, as activists and Lebanese military officials reported fighting between Syrian government troops and opposition forces in northeast Lebanon along the border with Syria. However, according to two Lebanese security officials, fighting was restricted to the Mashareaa al-Qaa area of Syria with no physical fighting in Lebanon, though a mortar shell fell around 30 meters across the border.

Headlines  

  • The Arab League began its three-day summit in Iraq's capital of Baghdad with economic talks, though Syria is still expected to top the agenda.
  • The U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a lower court must decide on whether Congress has the authority to allow Jerusalem to be claimed as a birthplace for U.S. citizens in a long running debate over executive control over foreign policy.
  • Israel severed ties with the U.N. Human Rights Council and will block entry into Israel and the West Bank for a team of investigators looking into Jewish settlements.
  • Turkey's former armed forces chief General Ilker Basbug, accused of involvement in a coup plot, has refused to defend himself in trial calling the charges a "comedy."

Arguments & Analysis

‘One year later, can Syria ‘reset' it rebellion' (Tony Karon, Time)

"Embracing the Annan plan poses a massive problem for Assad, because it means accepting the right of citizens to protest peacefully - which might, indeed, create a Tahrir Square type situation in more than one city. But Russian and Chinese support for the plan may leave him no choice. More likely, perhaps, is that each side declares support for the plan, but focuses on those aspects they deem most favorable, and hope the adversary is blamed when things break down. (These two sides are not likely ever to establish a consensus on a democratic transition -- Assad's actions over the past year suggest he has no intention of ceding power.)"

‘Enabling Egypt's military rulers' (New York Times editorial)

"The United States has built its relationship with Egypt around the Army, which it has supported with more than $39 billion in military aid over the last three decades. Egypt's year-old, pro-democracy revolution gave Washington a chance - and a reason - to alter that relationship to support civil society. The Obama administration made a serious error in choosing not to do so. Even worse, the purpose was largely to protect American arms manufacturers who produce the weapons sent to Egypt. On Friday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton approved the resumption of military aid, which totals $1.3 billion annually... Mrs. Clinton did not certify that Egypt had met the democratic standards that Congress set. Instead, she waived that requirement. That move allowed money for F-16 fighters and Abrams M1A1 tanks to flow again."

‘Understanding the Sanusi of Cyrenaica: How to avoid a civil war in Libya' (Akbar Ahmed & Frankie Martin, Al Jazeera English)

"Dangerous cracks have begun to show in Libya. The announcement earlier this month by a Benghazi conference of 3,000 tribal and political leaders from Eastern Libya that they intended to push for greater autonomy for their region was greeted with surprise, confusion, and even dismay. The call was cited by many commentators as a setback for democracy and an ominous beginning to the new dispensation. The chairman of the National Transitional Council (NTC) dismissed the voices from the eastern region and accused them of hatching foreign plots and the designs of Gaddafi's supporters; he even threatened to deploy "force" to "deter" them. Yet those who discount calls for greater autonomy in the eastern region, known as Cyrenaica - or Barqa to the Arabs - as agitators are making a profound error. They are overlooking the strong sense of identity of the eastern peoples and the many years of suffering and struggle they have endured to preserve and regain their freedom."

‘Why the ‘dual track' strategy derailed' (Loren White, Huffington Post)

"Recent events warrant cautious optimism. It has been reported that Iran may provide IAEA inspectors with access to the controversial and previously off-limits Parchin site. Additionally, Iran and the P5+1 are in the final stages of an agreement to return to negotiations next month. Even Supreme Leader Khamenei publically offered moderate but rare praise to Obama for his comments about a "window for diplomacy" existing with Iran. Do these indicators point to a new desire by Iran to compromise on its nuclear program, or is this an attempt to buy time and undermine its international isolation? Given that the pressure track has been exhausted, it is time to test Iran's seriousness and give diplomacy the sustained effort that it needs in order to succeed."

--Tom Kutsch & Mary Casey

AFP/Getty images

The Middle East Channel

Egyptian liberal bloc walks out of Islamist-dominated parliament

Lawmakers from the liberal bloc walked out of an Egyptian parliamentary vote deciding on the composition of a 100-person panel tasked with drafting Egypt's new constitution. The bloc, which includes three liberal parties that hold nine percent of seats in Egypt's lower house of parliament, cited differences with the Islamist parties, which hold a majority in both houses of the legislature. The constituent assembly will be comprised of 50 sitting politicians and 50 members of trade unions and civil society. Forty of the 50 parliamentarians are expected to come from the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood Freedom and Justice Party or Salifist al-Nour party. Naguib Sawiris, founder of the liberal Free Egyptians Party, said: "It's ridiculous: A constitution being written by one force and one force alone." While determining the constituent assembly is a step toward bringing forth a democratic transition after the ouster of former President Hosni Mubarak, some are concerned about future legislation moving away from its historic secular nature toward a stronger Islamist bent. Meanwhile, Egypt's ruling military council lashed out at the Muslim Brotherhood after a statement made on Saturday which claimed the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces was trying to "abort the revolution" and "commit fraud in the presidential election."

Syria

Turkey, a previous ally of Syria, has recalled its ambassador to Syria and closed the embassy in Damascus amid a continued military campaign in the northern city of Homs. The move came after deteriorating security conditions caused the United States, European Union countries, and six Gulf states to pull out their missions. Syrian opposition groups, including representatives from the Syrian National Council, are set to meet in Istanbul on Monday ahead of next week's "Friends of Syria" meeting which will bring together 50 countries to discuss appropriate actions on Syria and formulate plans to increase pressure on the Syrian regime to end violence. The opposition groups are looking for unification in drafting a "national pact" of common objectives. Meanwhile, activists in Syria's third largest city of Homs have accused Syrian forces of indiscriminate shelling. According to Waleed Faris, an activist who resides in the city: "Every day the shelling goes on. The regime is wiping out the city."

Headlines  

  • As economic conditions deteriorate amid growing sanctions and isolation, Iran's labor news agency reported that the country will increase cash payments to citizens by over 50 percent.
  • Israel's supreme court ordered the dismantling of the unsanctioned West Bank settlement of Migron by August 1.
  • After considerable debate, Tunisia's Ennahda party, which leads the government, says it will not write sharia, or Islamic law, into the new constitution as the main source of legislation.

Arguments & Analysis

'Maliki brings the Arab League to town' (Reidar Visser, Foreign Affairs)

"At issue during the summit is the extent to which Iraq is reclaiming an active role in the Arab state system. In large part, that depends on what participants decide to do about Syria. Since 2011 (when Iraq was largely supportive of Assad), Baghdad has come a long way toward officially accepting the idea of change in Syria, albeit in a gradual fashion, with a focus on elections, constitutional reform, and a power-sharing government. That position leaves a big gap between Baghdad and Saudi Arabia and Qatar, which openly favor providing weapons to the Free Syrian Army and regime change in Damascus. Any attempt to push a summit decision in this direction will probably leave Iraq on the sidelines. Yet there are non-Gulf Cooperation Council states that remain skeptical about Saudi Arabia's hard-line policy and supportive of the more careful approach of the latest Arab-Russian initiative, which focuses on a gradual transition with international monitoring."

'The seductions of violence in Iraq' (Charles Tripp, Open Democracy)

"Violence in Iraq has thus become integral to the political order.  It has been reinforced and locked into the maintenance of that order not simply by the violence of the insurgency, powerful as that may be, but also by the resources it seems to place in the hands of the government.  In doing so, its forms, functions and meanings have structural and imaginative effects on the political order and the emerging state.  Some of these are open and deliberately visible, such as the punitive military operations, the battles of insurgency and counter-insurgency, as well as the assassinations and bombs in the towns and villages of Iraq."

'Erdogan's decade' (Hugh Pope, Cairo Review for Global Affairs)

"Middle Easterners are finding Turkey more attractive for many reasons. The AKP's victory had buried the image of a country long seen as having turned its back on Islam to act as a treacherous cat's paw for Western imperialism in the region. Some prized Turkey's readiness to challenge Israel openly, arguably the main reason for Turkey's appeal on Arab streets when it became a pronounced Turkish trait after 2009. Turkey also appears to have made peace between its Muslim soul and secular political pragmatism. Some Middle Easterners respect its status as the only Muslim country to be accepted as a potential equal by rich, powerful Europe, as shown by the hundreds of journalists from the region who attended key EU meetings on Turkey's future membership. Some like its success in moving from authoritarianism to democracy. Some simply admire the pure electoral legitimacy of Turkish leaders-and readiness to step down from power at the end of their terms." 

--Tom Kutsch & Mary Casey

AFP/Getty images