The Middle East Channel

Gunmen attack opposition camp as Egypt braces for rival protests

Egyptian security officials have reported that masked gunmen attacked a camp of opposition protesters in Cairo's Tahrir Square before dawn Tuesday ahead of scheduled rival protests. Officials are unsure who was behind the assault in which nine people were injured from birdshot. Opponents of President Mohamed Morsi hope mass demonstrations, to be held outside the presidential palace, pressure Morsi to cancel a referendum set for December 15 on a disputed draft constitution. If held, opposition groups are undecided on whether to boycott the referendum, or campaign for a "no" vote. They oppose the constitution saying the Islamist-dominated Constituent Assembly was not representative of the Egyptian people and the document restricts freedoms. Several hundred Islamist Morsi supporters have camped out in front of a media complex in Cairo, accusing several independent television networks there of being critical of Moris and the Muslim Brotherhood. Morsi has ignited fears that Egypt is returning to martial law with an announcement Sunday that the Egyptian army is responsible for the security of state facilities, and is entitled to arrest civilians. A spokesman for Morsi tried to clarify the order on Monday, saying the president has empowered the military only to secure polling stations on Saturday, and that all civilians arrested by the military will be referred to a civilian court rather than military tribunals for trial.

Syria

After weeks of fighting, Syrian opposition forces reportedly overtook large parts of the military base, Base 111, at Sheikh Suleiman about 15 miles form Aleppo on Sunday. According to the BBC, the base was the last remaining government installation in the countryside west of Aleppo. The attack was believed to have been led by Islamist militants, and according to the British based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the Free Syrian Army was not involved. The United States has formally designated the Syrian militant group Al Nusra Front as a foreign terrorist organization. The move has come due to concerns that arms and funding to the Syrian opposition is in part going to militant Islamist groups. The decision was made prior to a meeting scheduled for Wednesday in Morocco on options for a political transition from Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, during which the United States is expected to formally recognize the new Syrian opposition council. United Nations and Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi said he had "constructive" talks with U.S. and Russian officials over the weekend on avenues toward attaining a political solution to the Syrian conflict, however there was no major breakthrough. Meanwhile, U.S. Defense Secretary Leon Panetta told reporters the Syrian government seems to have slowed preparations for the use of chemical weapons, after concerns were heightened last week by reports from U.S. officials. The Syrian opposition is hoping to receive greater support from the Gulf states after forming a new command structure over the weekend in Turkey. The Islamist dominated group brings together most opposition entities including Islamist brigades and "provincial military councils" fighting under the umbrella of the Free Syrian Army. The body has excluded Al Nusra Front.

Headlines  

  • Israeli soldiers raided three Palestinian NGOs in the West Bank city of Ramallah on Tuesday nearly two weeks after Palestine won de facto statehood from the U.N. General Assembly.
  • A Bahraini court reduced the sentence of imprisoned activist Nabeel Rajab a day after sentencing pro-democracy activist Zainab al-Khawaja for entering a "prohibited area" and inciting hatred against the government.
  • British-based HSBC, one of the world's largest banks, has agreed to pay $1.92 billion to settle a U.S. money laundering case accusing it of transferring funds for Iran and Mexican drug cartels.

Arguments and Analysis

Al Qaeda in Syria (The New York Times)

The presence of rebel fighters in Syria that were trained and supported by Al Qaeda poses a serious problem for the United States and Western allies. The Nusra Front, an offshoot of Al Qaeda in Iraq, has become one of the most effective forces fighting against President Bashar al-Assad. The fear is that the group could hijack the revolution and emerge as the dominant force in Syria after Mr. Assad is ousted from power. Obama administration officials have been increasingly frank about this threat, along with the possibility that sectarian conflicts among the country's Sunni, Alawite, Christian and other groups may well rage on after Assad.

Egypt's Constitution Conundrum (Nathan Brown, Foreign Affairs)

"The final draft of Egypt's proposed new constitution, completed in late November, was produced in such a flurry of political maneuvering, threats, and shrill rhetoric that commentators and citizens alike are still trying to understand its implications. From a liberal democratic perspective, there is much to like in the document, especially compared with the one it is replacing. For example, the drafters not only specified a long list of freedoms, as their predecessors did, but also made the wording more difficult for officials to wiggle around. But the document includes just as much that causes concern. It postpones answering the question of civilian oversight of the military until the next constitution is written, years from now. And there are gaping holes and ambiguities that only politics can fill in.

And that is the critical point so often missed: political context always shapes the meaning of constitutional texts. The Arab world's experience with apparently democratic constitutional provisions confirms the rule. Democracy has failed in the Arab world not because governments have routinely violated their countries' highest laws (although they have occasionally cheated) but, rather, because their constitutions' democratic promises have generally been as vague as possible and were left to parliaments to flesh out through regular statutes. European countries first developed that system to ensure that popularly elected bodies, not kings, would define basic rights. When Arab regimes copied the practice -- for example, many of them proclaimed freedom of the press but explained that the freedom would be "defined by law" -- the effect was that rulers could pledge all kinds of rights and let rubber-stamp parliaments rob them of all meaning."

--By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey

AFP/Getty Images/MARCO LONGARI

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