The Middle East Channel

Progress slowed in second day of Baghdad talks with Iran

Progress has slowed during talks in Baghdad between six world powers and Iran over the country's nuclear development program. On Thursday, Iran's lead negotiator, Saeed Jalili, met with Catherine Ashton, the European Union's foreign affairs chief, but Iran rejected the offer. Iranian media stated that Ashton did not have anything new to offer in her proposals. The package was criticized by Iran's Islamic Republic News Agency as "outdated, not comprehensive and unbalanced." The P5+1 (the United States, Britain, China, France, Russia, plus Germany) want Iran to halt weapons grade nuclear enrichment, while Iran is pushing for the easing of sanctions, particularly new U.S. and EU sanctions on oil exports and banking set to take effect on July 1. This was the second round of the latest series of talks. The P5+1 would like a commitment from Iran for regular meetings. However an Iranian official said there is no point for continued negotiations without the two sides reaching an agreement.

Syria

The U.N. Human Rights Council's Independent Commission of Inquiry on Syria released a report finding the government responsible for the majority of the latest human rights abuses in Syria. The report covers March through the beginning of May including violent incidents perpetrated by both the Syrian regime and the opposition, saying the conflict has become increasingly militarized. However, it stated the most serious acts were committed by "the Syrian army and security services" using a "wide range of military means, including heavy shelling of civilian areas." It claimed Syrian forces continue to use deadly force against anti-government protesters across the country. The report came as regime forces continue to bombard the opposition stronghold of Rastan. Meanwhile, the opposition Syrian National Council has accepted the resignation of its president, Burhan Ghalioun. The general secretariat will meet to elect a replacement on June 11 and 12. At the same time, Syria's new parliament held its opening session after a controversial and largely boycotted election. In a rare announcement, Syria's oil minister, Sufian Allaw, admitted that European and U.S. sanctions are taking a toll,  costing the government $4 billion.

Headlines  

  • Egyptians go to the polls for the second day of presidential elections after a calm start to voting.
  • Israeli protesters in Tel Aviv attacked two African migrants in a demonstration following a statement by Prime Minister Netanyahu that "illegal infiltrators [were] flooding the country."
  • A Tunisian prosecutor has appealed for the death penalty for ousted dictator Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali who is being tried in absentia. 

Arguments and Analysis

‘Washington's Bahrain in the Levant' (Pete Moore, Middle East Research Blog)

"Despite sharing some of the socio-economic and political problems that propelled uprisings in other Arab countries, Jordan remains an exception to the trend. And if it can be kept that way, much of the world inside the Beltway will celebrate. In that respect, Jordan is like Bahrain. A serious threat to regime stability in either country is seen to endanger core US and allied interests. So, as Jordan enters its second summer since the start of the regional uprisings, now under a caretaker government struggling with a moribund economy, there are expectations of change. There are parallels, of course, to the atmosphere during the summer of 1989, following mass demonstrations and violence in the south, and the summer of 2003, after the US invasion of Iraq. But there are some intriguing differences this time."

‘The Syrian Crisis Turns Uglier' (Patrick Seale, Middle East Online)

"The Syrian crisis has moved in recent weeks one dangerous step closer to civil war. The ceasefire which Kofi Annan, the UN and Arab League envoy, proudly engineered on April 12 is now barely alive. The presence of some 200 UN monitors, due to be increased to 300 by the end of the month, has somewhat reduced the violence, but has by no means put an end to it. While there are fewer large-scale battles, such as the one which destroyed whole quarters of the central city of Homs in March, clashes continue daily right across the country. If the violence is unchecked, the battle for Homs -- with its tit-for-tat massacres -- could come to seem a mere foretaste of the horrors to come. Sectarian passions are being fuelled and, for the moment at least, neither side is ready to put up its guns. On the contrary, rebel fighters, increasingly well armed and funded from abroad, and more than ever determined to topple President Bashar al-Assad, have launched what amounts to an urban guerrilla war. They reject any negotiation that might leave him in place. In recent weeks they have been joined by dozens, possibly hundreds, of Islamist extremists, flowing into Syria across the Lebanese, Iraqi and Jordanian borders."

'The Struggle to Succeed Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani' (Paul McGeough, Foreign Affairs)

"As Sistani ages, a struggle to succeed him has begun, putting the spiritual leadership of one of the world's foremost faiths in play. But with neighboring Iran moving to install its preferred candidate in the position, the secular political foundations of Iraq's fledgling democracy are at risk. Consequently, what amounts to a spiritual showdown could pose a challenge to Washington's hope for postwar Iraq to serve as a Western-allied, moderate, secular state in the heart of the Middle East."

--By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey 

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The Middle East Channel

Contesting Egypt's future

In Egypt, on every street and in every alleyway, there has been one topic of serious debate over the past few weeks: today's presidential elections, the country's first of any suspense or consequence. Figures from Egypt's formerly quasi-underground opposition stare down from billboards blanketing the country. Leading civilian candidates debate on television for the first time in Egypt and the Arab world. It is not quite a democracy -- Egypt remains a military dictatorship, albeit one in flux -- but it is a bumptious mirage of what Egyptian democracy might look like in 2016 or 2017, if there are free, peaceful elections at the end of this next president's term. Charges and recriminations will begin soon enough, and everything will look inevitable in hindsight. But the days ahead of the polls were memorable for their mix of resurgent hope, pride, and the anxiety of real suspense. 

To be sure, some election results would be more polarizing, and therefore more dangerous, than others. The military has often publicly insisted it is not backing any candidate. But Ahmed Shafiq -- the man whom Hosni Mubarak reportedly called his "third son," and who served under the former president as head of the air force, as civil aviation minister, and, briefly, as prime minister -- has quietly presented himself as the military's candidate and as the face of stability. Officers privately bristle at the notion of taking orders from or entrusting the country to any of the civilian politicians, whom they view with scorn. Amid the noise and fatal violence that followed last month's exclusion of other leading candidates (spy chief Omar Suleiman, Muslim Brotherhood powerbroker Khairat el-Shater, and avuncular televangelist Hazem Saleh Abou-Ismail), Shafiq, who had methodically campaigned for a year, slipped quietly back into the race after the law passed in part to exclude him was tied up in legal challenges. When the furor had died, he topped a government-commissioned poll. Blue billboards across the country that had previously read only, "The President", were replaced with his image and the slogan, "Deeds, not words." Suddenly he seemed a more plausible candidate, and protesters began dogging his campaign events. At a rally in southern Egypt last week, one man in the audience threw his shoe at the candidate (police and soldiers looked on idly as pro-Shafiq partisans dragged him out of sight).

Yet the military probably does not need to engage in widespread rigging or fraud on voting day to remain autonomous and immune from civilian prosecution. The most unacceptable candidates have been removed. Mubarak-era judges have defined the contours of the competition, and an unreformed, influential state media machine has tilted the field. A large segment of the population was never sold on the "revolution" -- as it is almost universally called here -- in the first place. Afraid of chaos, economic hardship, bloodshed, and religious zealotry, they sat out the 18-day uprising, watching state television. They have found little in the events of the past year to allay their fears. A few had a stake in the status quo. Far more, raised in an educational system that rewards verbatim regurgitation of authoritative sources, take their opinions from the broadcasts and pages of the state media. Moreover, as one senior Egyptian politician recently observed, an overlapping segment of the population can easily support the Islamists and the military. That was an easy stance in the parliamentary elections, when the two were aligned. But now that the two are in conflict, their greater loyalty is to the military, to the state, and to stability.

Shafiq's nearest non-Islamist, civilian rival, former foreign minister and Arab League secretary-general Amr Moussa, is also a creature of the old regime and has a realist diplomat's record of compromise. Egypt's current military leader, Field Marshall Mohammed al-Tantawi, reputedly bears an old grudge against Moussa. Mourad Mouwafi, the head of intelligence and a self-seen contender to replace Tantawi eventually, would likely view Moussa suspiciously as well, fearing he might try to take Egypt's most vital foreign-policy portfolios away from Intelligence and give them to the ministry of foreign affairs. The military meanwhile can likely count on Moussa to strike an acceptable deal on civilian oversight of the military.

The "pro-revolution" camp will likely boycott or divide their votes between Moussa, Brotherhood-defector Abdel-Menem Aboul Fotouh, Nasserist Hamdeen Sabbahi, and human-rights activist Khaled Ali, more or less neutralizing themselves as a unified electoral force.

Better still for the military, the Muslim Brotherhood enters these elections divided and isolated. An unknown number of their cadres will break for the defector Aboul-Fotouh. Ultraconservative Salafi voters who might otherwise have backed the Brotherhood's candidate, Mohamed Morsi, as the nearest-best-thing to a Salafi candidate, will likewise split between Aboul Fotouh and Morsi. Cairo and Giza -- the country's biggest electoral prizes, but not necessarily a barometer for the rest of the country -- are in the midst of a strong anti-Brotherhood backlash, following their premature and failed bid to control the parliament, the cabinet, the constitutional assembly, and the presidency.

This election will test the effectiveness of the political machines of the regime and the Islamists, the same two forces that have defined Egyptian political life for decades. Though the Brotherhood will probably lose votes to Aboul Fotouh, it can likely count on the support of much of its base, especially in the Nile Delta. If the non-Islamist vote splits between abstention, Shafiq, Moussa, and the handful of former opposition figures, that base might still be enough to propel Morsi to the run-off. But it would likely not be enough to carry him to the presidential palace.

Those who fear the destabilizing effects of a sustained Islamist-military confrontation can take some comfort from the fact that, current bluster notwithstanding, neither side has an interest in such a prolonged fight. And, following the exclusion of former spy chief Suleiman and Shater, the man most often identified by members as "the most powerful in the Muslim Brotherhood," both the regime and the Brotherhood are fielding their "B teams" (the Brotherhood initially proposed the relatively unknown Morsi as a "backup" candidate in case Shatir was disqualified for the multiple verdicts against him from Mubarak's military tribunals, as he was). This protects both institutions to a degree and may make an eventual compromise easier to strike.

Moreover, few Egyptians I met in the weeks running up to the polls seemed to support any candidate very strongly. The overwhelming sentiment was a desire for calm, consensus, better economic conditions, and for a regular rotation of power. The current mood is of optimism and anxiety. But it will not last. Whoever is so unfortunate as to become president of Egypt during these difficult times will have a very brief honeymoon indeed. Soon he will have to deal with the thorny economic and institutional problems that contributed to the uprising in the first place, plus new ones created by the uprising. Unrest will likely continue so long as Egyptians do not feel an improvement in their daily lives.

The real test for Egyptian democracy will be the government and the people's success in addressing those problems -- in reversing the economy's slow-motion collapse, in carrying out sweeping reforms of a host of institutions while preserving their institutional integrity, and in addressing thousands of local complaints -- while ensuring that the next presidential elections are peaceful, fair, and truly competitive. As veteran Egyptian commentator Mohammed Hassanein Heikal recently said, the next president "will need a miracle". For the moment, the open, lively, and serious electoral debate on the streets of Egypt these last weeks has been such a miracle, one to be savored and celebrated.

Elijah Zarwan is a senior policy fellow for the European Council on Foreign Relations.

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