The Middle East Channel

Egypt’s new president challenges the military by reconvening parliament

Security forces allowed members of parliament (MPs) to enter Egypt's parliament building on Monday after they had been blocked for nearly a month. MPs are set to convene for a general session on Tuesday after newly elected President Mohamed Morsi called for parliament to be reinstated. This move directly challenges a ruling made just before presidential elections by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) to dissolve the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Parliament, deeming it unconstitutional. Morsi's provocation of the ruling military council was surprising. He said, "The military wants to create a state within a state, keep legislative power and include articles in the future constitution that protects it. That won't do: either we confront it now or we've failed." However, it is unclear if Morsi has the power to overturn the SCAF ruling. The Supreme Constitutional Court called for an emergency meeting and the military council met immediately after Sunday's announcement.


International envoy Kofi Annan has met in Damascus with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in efforts to restart his unsuccessful peace process. Annan said the talks with Assad were "very candid and constructive." Annan told reporters the two had agreed on an approach that he plans to discuss with the armed opposition. Syria's foreign ministry spokesman Jihad Makdissi "reassured Annan of Syria's commitment to implement the 6-point peace plan." About the plan, Assad said, "The main obstacle (is) that many countries don't want (it) to succeed. So they offer political support and they still send armaments and send money to terrorists in Syria." In an interview on German television, Assad said he would remain in office insisting he maintained public support. He continued, claiming deaths of government supporters and the military exceeds that of civilians. Conversely, United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon estimated the death toll to have reached 17,000 in a report released last week.


  • Former National Transitional Council head Mahmoud Jibril called for a grand coalition government after his National Forces Alliance took an early lead in Libya's elections.  
  • South Sudan marks its first anniversary of independence, but the young country continues to face serious challenges as the conflict with Sudan persists.
  • Gamal and Alaa Mubarak, sons of overthrown leader Hosni Mubarak, face new graft charges after previous corruption charges were thrown out by an Egyptian court.
  • Saudi Arabian security forces shot and killed at least two protesters in the country's largest demonstration in months.

Arguments & Analysis

'Islamists in a Changing Middle East' (Marc Lynch, Project on Middle East Political Science and Foreign Policy)

"The election of the Muslim Brotherhood's Mohamed Morsi as president of Egypt has sharpened the focus on the role of Islamist movements in a rapidly changing Arab world. Social and political movements based on a political reading of Islam have for decades been among the largest, best organized and most effective forces in many Arab countries. Since the Arab uprisings, they have faced new opportunities and challenges -- from elections in Tunisia and Egypt to fighting in Syria and Libya. Who are these Islamists? What do they want? How do they fit within the political arenas in which they operate?"

Creating lasting security in Sudan' (Moez Ali, OpenDemocracy)

"Some sceptics have claimed that it is necessary for the current regime to be in power because of the security situation on the ground. They claim that if the regime falls there would be no guarantee that the rebels from the aforementioned areas wouldn't march into Khartoum and claim the throne. Another security issue is the proliferation of arms around the country. However rather than guaranteeing security, the current regime has long been the cause of the country's insecurity."

Top Ten Surprises on Libya's Election Day' (Juan Cole, Informed Comment)

"Most Western reporting on Libya is colored by what is in my view a combination of extreme pessimism and sensationalism. It has been suggested that because most reporters don't stay there for that long, many don't have a sense of proportion. It is frustrating to have faction-fighting in distant Kufra in the far south color our image of the whole country. Tripoli, a major city of over 2.2 million (think Houston), is not like little distant Kufra, population 60,000 (think Broken Arrow, OK)!In the run-up to the elections held on Saturday, a lot of the headlines read ‘Libya votes, on the brink' or had ‘Chaos' in the title. But actually, as the Libya Herald reports, the election went very, very well (which did not surprise me after my visit to three major cities there in May-June). The NYT post-election headline of ‘Libyans risk violence to vote' is frankly ridiculous; in most of the country that simply was not true, though it was true in parts of Benghazi...In Tripoli, the election was described as a big family wedding, with lots of loud celebration and tears of joy."

--By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey 

The Middle East Channel

What Netanyahu learned from Shamir (and others didn't)

Last week Yitzhak Shamir, Israel's seventh Prime Minister, passed away. Israel's current premier, Benjamin Netanyahu, will shortly overtake Shamir as the second longest serving PM in the state's history. At first glance Shamir and Netanyahu strike two very contrasting profiles: Shamir was modest and private; Netanyahu is the in-your-face, cigar-smoking friend to billionaires -- "King Bibi."

Yet in terms of ideology and its political application, they are probably the two most kindred spirits to have ever held Israel's highest elected office. A week of remembering, commentary, and eulogies of Shamir are a timely portal into understanding both the current PM's policies and the journey Israeli politics has taken in reaching an era of almost unchallenged dominance for the politics of intolerant, ethnocentric nationalism.

On entering the PM's office Shamir was only the second Likud leader (or Herut, the political party forerunner to Likud) to break the near 30-year stranglehold on power of the state-founding Labor Zionist movement. Labor was first booted out of office in 1977. Since then (now the majority of Israel's time in existence), Yitzhak Rabin has been Israel's only leader who either did not hail from the Likud or who did not end up leaving Labor for a more center-right or Likud-inspired political home.

So, while the recollections of Shamir this week often had a nostalgic, bygone era feel to them, the real story is of just how faithfully the Shamir path is currently being pursued.

As Prime Minister Shamir oversaw much of the Lebanon War and first intifada, rejected the 1987 Peres-Hussein deal, the so-called "London Agreement" for the occupied Palestinian territories to revert to Jordanian control, held Israeli fire in response to Scud missiles during the first Iraq Gulf War, and attended the Madrid Peace Conference that followed. He was also at the helm for the massive initial wave of post-Soviet immigration to Israel and fought to deny their admittance to the U.S. (making Israel their only escape option), fell out with the George H. W. Bush Administration over the use of loan guarantees for settling those immigrants over the green line, and faced growing discontent over corruption in the ruling Likud party and general economic mismanagement. He even abstained in the Knesset vote on approving the peace treaty with Egypt.

As Chemi Shalev, who covered Shamir extensively during his tenure, put it: "Yitzhak Shamir was a true zealot...a fanatic devotee of his vision of the Jewish people and the Greater Land of Israel...He kept his eye on the only ball that mattered to him -- the preservation of the Greater Land of Israel -- and viewed everything else as subservient diversions."

And ex-Haaretz editor David Landau reminded his readership: "'For Eretz Yisrael it is permissible to lie,' Shamir coined his own criteria of honesty...He had negotiated endlessly about negotiating, he said, and had intended the peace negotiations to go on endlessly, while he meanwhile went on building the settlements that made peace impossible...Every day of non-progress that passed was a victory for him."

For Shamir, the Madrid peace process was translated into avenue to buy time, non-involvement in the Iraq war was a way to avoid potential pressure regarding a quid pro quo on the Palestinian territories, and the ingathering of ex-Soviet Jews was both part of the Jewish state mission and a way of securing demographic advantages and of encouraging the populating of Greater Israel by Jews. The Israeli daily Maariv's lead analyst, Ben Caspit, noted that "he believed the goal was clear and simple: for nothing to happen...He believed that time was working in our favor."

Netanyahu's own eulogies to Shamir, both at the weekly Cabinet meeting and at the funeral ceremony, were revealing. Netanyahu first acknowledged that it was Shamir who gave him a crucial leg-up on the political ladder, appointing Bibi to the post of Ambassador to the U.N. -- "one of his many appointments of young people whom he advanced" Netanyahu re-called. His graveside farewell never mentioned the existence of the Palestinians by name (something Netanyahu avoids acknowledging whenever possible, similar to Shamir himself) but he did say this (one assumes approvingly) about Shamir and land: "He was stubborn and suspicious when faced with any idea that meant a reduction in the borders of the homeland."

Netanyahu's Cabinet meeting comments went further. A memorable Shamir saying was that "the sea is the same sea and the Arabs are the same Arabs" -- a rhetorical flourish suggesting that Arab "rejectionism" is insurmountable, but also one laced with racism. In referencing this Shamir quote, Bibi commented that  "it could be that these remarks, which invoked strong criticism, even contempt -- today, there are certainly many more people who understand that this man saw and understood fundamental and genuine things and never bent either himself or the truth to fit the fashion of the time." Netanyahu is in effect embracing a most notorious and controversial "Shamirism".

Netanyahu's endorsement of the words "two states" at a Bar Ilan University speech in 2009, when set against his policies and actions on the ground, resembles Shamir's acceptance of the "land for peace" formula as part of the Madrid Conference letter of invitation. Meaningless.

Netanyahu learnt the lessons of tactical and minor rhetorical retreat (as long as nothing real was derailed on the ground -- the had-no-effect "settlement moratorium" being a case in point), of utilizing distractions but not allowing them to be used to generate pressure regarding the core goal of settling Greater Israel (Iraq for Shamir, Iran for Bibi), and of playing for time in the hope of unanticipated developments (the Soviet immigration wave for Shamir; perhaps opportunities for re-shaping the region created by the "Arab uprisings" is viewed similarly by Netanyahu).

Neither Shamir nor Netanyahu act in a vacuum. Those around Shamir and impacted by his policies responded, whether that was his domestic opposition, the U.S. or the Palestinians themselves. But while Netanyahu seems to have learnt from this history, the same can hardly be said for those other actors.

Israel's then Labor opposition seized on Shamir's foot-dragging in peace talks and in particular his choosing of settlements over Israel's most important strategic relationship with the U.S. to attack Shamir and call for a re-prioritization of resource allocation. A popular slogan in the 1992 election was "money for poor neighborhoods, not settlements." Rabin's Labor, and their Meretz allies, won that election of course. The situation is different today -- the center-left Zionist opposition being a shadow of its former self (with 46 seats on the eve of the ‘92 elections, going up to 56 after the vote, compared with 11 today). But Labor (unlike Meretz) now avoids campaigning on the settlements issue or even Netanyahu's antediluvian foreign policy.

Washington, too, has changed in the intervening two decades. The first Bush administration threw down a challenge to Shamir's settlement policy and backed that up with action, impacting the debate inside Israel in a calculated fashion. Obama also identified the settlements as a fault line, but then caved when Netanyahu said "boo". Sure, current realities in Jerusalem and Washington (and notably on the Republican side) mean that similar options are not available to the Obama administration. Yet the Obama team has singularly failed to develop any tools for impacting Israel's calculations or even the public debate there.

Finally, the Palestinian leadership. Their response to the current Shamir-redux Israeli policy is the hardest to fathom. Palestinian leaders, both under occupation and in exile, developed strategic challenges to the Shamir approach of the late 80s and early 90s. They launched the largely unarmed civilian uprising of the first intifada, adopted a two-state platform at the Algiers Palestine National Council meeting in 1988, and joined the 1991 Madrid talks as part of a Jordanian-Palestinian delegation. At times, the Israeli government was diplomatically wrong-footed, with the Palestinians accumulating leverage and political support.

Today's initiatives -- abortive appeals at the U.N., pursuing recognition of heritage sites at UNESCO, enhanced security cooperation with Israel and prioritizing PA-funding -- seem by comparison marginal, irrelevant, or even co-opted. Perhaps, though, Palestinians are also playing the long game, now convinced that from Shamir to Netanyahu, division of the land has been rendered inoperable.

Daniel Levy is a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, senior fellow and director of the Middle East and North Africa program at the European Council on Foreign Relations, and co-editor of the Middle East Channel.

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