The Middle East Channel

Egyptians rally, marking second anniversary of revolution

Clashes have been reported in Cairo as crowds have begun massing for rallies marking January 25, the second anniversary of Egypt's revolution. Opponents of President Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood have begun gathering for protests in Tahrir Square, accusing the Islamists of betraying the revolution and blaming the government for declining economic conditions. Police have clashed with some protesters who were throwing Molotov cocktails and firecrackers approaching walls protecting government buildings. Additional clashes have been reported outside the interior ministry. According to the health ministry 25 people have been injured since Thursday. Other small demonstrations are taking place across Egypt, and clashes have been reported in Alexandria. The Muslim Brotherhood has said it will not participate in rallies on Friday, but instead is holding a day of community service dubbed, "Together we build Egypt."

Syria

According to Syrian state media, SANA, Syria's interior minister has called for all citizens who have fled the country "because of events" to return home for a national dialogue. In an interview with CNN on Thursday, U.S. Ambassador to Syria Robert Ford said President Bashar al-Assad's mother, Anisa Makhlouf, has left the country for the United Arab Emirates, while his sister Burha has been living in Dubai. Ford said the core of Assad's regime is gradually weakening. The U.N. refugee agency UNHCR reported the number of refugees from the Syrian conflict has exceeded 678,000. Jordan's government has said there has been a dramatic spike in refugees crossing into Jordan. The UNHCR said they are seeing refugee numbers quadruple those from two weeks ago. Meanwhile, Syrian ground troops have moved into the central city of Homs, stepping up an offensive against opposition strongholds in the majority Sunni city, according to opposition activists. An estimated 15,000 civilians were reportedly trapped on Friday on the southern and western edges of Homs, near the strategic intersection of Syria's north to south and east to west highways. According to activists, rockets and bombings have killed at least 120 civilians and 30 opposition forces since Sunday. Additionally, two car bombs reportedly exploded on Friday near a military intelligence building in the Syrian-controlled region of the Golan Heights, killing an estimated eight people, mostly Syrian soldiers. 

Headlines  

  • Several European governments have urged their citizens to immediately evacuate the Libyan city of Benghazi citing "a specific and imminent threat to Westerns."
  • According to the Yemeni government, al Qaeda's number two leader in Yemen, Said Ali al-Shihri, has died from wounds sustained in a security operation last November.
  • Iraqi troops opened fire on an anti-Maliki protest killing at least three people in the predominately Sunni city of Falluja.

Arguments and Analysis

America's Saudi Problem (Marc Lynch, Foreign Policy)

"In Riyadh last week, where I was speaking to a small private workshop, Prince Turki al-Faisal, a former head of Saudi intelligence and ambassador to the United States, introduced me by reading several excerpts from my recent FP column: "Bahrain crushed its opposition with impunity," he read. And then: "Obama chose to rely on the Gulf monarchies against Iran, which made it exceptionally difficult for him to meaningfully pressure them to reform or to block their counterrevolutionary intervention in Bahrain." His polite but pointed comment: "These words are not accepted in the Gulf."

That was putting it mildly. For much of the week, I heard sharp disagreements from Saudis on Bahrain, which they for the most part saw not as a peaceful uprising but as an Iranian-backed campaign of violent subversion that had to be put down to restore order. Perhaps a few agreed, at least privately, on the unjustifiable nature of the campaign of repression that followed -- even if the protesters had sympathies with Iran, could that justify their torture and indefinite detention? -- and the dim prospects for stability without a serious new political initiative. But that rarely extended to an acceptance of the authenticity or legitimacy of the Bahraini protest movement."

Algeria's secrets obscure the 'war on terror' in the Sahara (Alan Philps, The National)

"The closed nature of Algerian power has made it harder for outsiders to understand the bigger picture of the crisis in Mali, the neighbouring state to the south. French troops have rushed in to stop rebels, armed with weapons looted from Libya, who were advancing on Mali's capital, Bamako.

There is a simple - but incomplete - explanation for the outside world's failure to see Libya, Algeria and Mali as part of the same jigsaw. All over the world, governments tend to deal with Algeria as part of the Middle East and North Africa, while Mali is considered part of a separate region, sub-Saharan Africa. The real world is not so neatly divided, particularly as the inhabitants of northern Mali and southern Algeria, mainly Tuaregs, a Berber people, have always lived off the trans-Saharan trade.

Now western politicians are standing up to proclaim that they will join the dots across the Sahara. David Cameron, the British prime minister, has proclaimed a decades-long fight against Al Qaeda in the region. Hillary Clinton, the outgoing US secretary of state, called for a "better strategy" and said the US should be prepared for a "necessary struggle" to stop northern Mali from becoming a haven for terrorists.

A sceptical note needs to be struck here. Since 2001, the US has been actively involved, first with the Pan-Sahel Initiative and, since 2007, with the Trans-Saharan Counterterrorism Initiative that covers Algeria, Mali and neighbouring states. The US also trained units of the Malian army, some of which instantly defected when faced with the combined forces of the Tuareg nationalists and Al Qaeda-linked jihadists last year. So there has been no lack of US activity on the counterterrorism front, althought there seems to have been a serious lack of understanding."

--By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey

MOHAMMED ABED/AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Bahrain's closed doors

After nearly two years of political unrest, this week Bahrain's King Hamad called for renewed national dialogue. And while it appears some groups have agreed to talks, the major sticking point remains: the state will merely serve as the "moderator," and not participate directly, according to official statements. Although the crisis in Bahrain did result in a deepening sectarian conflict that requires national reconciliation, the demands of the Sunnis and Shiites are for social and political reforms, which can only be enacted by the government.

Al-Wefaq, the main Shiite political society, accepted the king's call on Wednesday. But its leaders remain deeply skeptical over whether the government is serious this time around.

Sheikh Ali Salman, the secretary-general of the main Shiite political society al-Wefaq, said in a recent interview with me that the government's idea of "dialogue" is for Shiite and Sunni opposition groups to talk behind closed doors without the government's participation, an approach he believes is futile. "Certain factions within the state don't want reform. They need to understand this is something that we need," said Salman, who does favor talks that would include the state.

King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa's announcement appeared to be a follow up to a call in December from the crown prince for national dialogue. But it remains to be seen if the king and the crown prince are speaking for other state leaders, such as the prime minister, or merely on behalf of the faction that has been open to reform. In the past, when efforts were taken to address the grievances of the opposition, the talks broke down in part because the hard line faction within the government, under the influence of some Saudi Arabia leaders, did not believe in making concessions to the opposition.

Since that time, Bahraini society has become more polarized and radicalized. Bahrainis tell stories of self-imposed segregation in restaurants, university classrooms, and other public venues. Online Shiite and Sunni commentators have stepped up their sectarian animosity toward each other since the prince's call. One Sunni commentator wrote on the Bahrain Forum: "Without the wisdom of his highness, the King, and his patience, you traitors (Shia) would have long been killed and forgotten ... we urge our lions and eagles to kill, shoot, and crush any person that throws Molotov's on you (Sunni) or tries to attack you with a weapon ... an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth."

Even among the more measured Sunni voices, there is fear that any reconciliation effort would hand over a measure of political power to the Shiites. If there are any compromises, one Sunni human rights activist said, a confessional system could develop which reserves a place for Shiites and Sunni in particular government posts. "We could reach a situation as it exists in Lebanon, where the prime minister has to be a Sunni and the parliamentary speaker has to be Shiite," he said.

At this point, there is widespread suspicion whether any attempt at national dialogue that does not explicitly include the state would succeed. And, Bahrain's Information Minister Samira Rajab told Reuters that the government will ask all parties to nominate representatives, but the government would serve only as the moderator.

The government apparently believes that moderating the dialogue -- without directly participating -- creates the appearance that the conflict is between the Shiites and Sunnis and has little to do with state politics. "The sectarian cause is being used by the government to make sure our democratic demands will not be met," Salman said.

In an ideal world, if al-Wefaq and Sunni groups, including the anti-Shiite National Unity Gathering, were to negotiate among themselves, they might find there is more to unite than divide them. Both Shiites and Sunnis want a more democratic form of governance and the economy to improve to provide well-paying jobs. Both wonder why Bahrain is the poor cousin in the Persian Gulf. Such a dialogue would deprive the government of one of its strongest arguments -- that the problem in Bahrain is not about a lack of reform, but primarily about Shiite and Sunni animosity.

But this scenario is unlikely. As a result, the United States should use the opportunity for renewed talks to pressure those important factions within the Bahraini government who are too comfortable with the status quo: occasional low-level protests, nightly battles between Shiite youth and the police, but for the most part a functioning society.

And the Bahraini government should not sit on the sidelines. The state needs to become intimately involved. In addition, the state should take concrete steps from the outset as a goodwill gesture, such as implementing more of the recommendations in the Bahrain International Commission of Inquiry (BICI), to address the human rights violations against the Shiites. The BICI report, commissioned by the king, was published in November 2011. Overall, the report called upon the government to take sweeping steps within the security forces to curb the violent treatment of protesters and prisoners. So far, however, only three of 24 recommendations have been fully implemented. 

The time for a theoretical approach to ending the stalemate is over. As the two-year anniversary of the Bahraini uprising approaches, it is becoming increasingly more likely that the status quo is not sustainable in the long term. If the government is calling for dialogue merely to head off protests expected to mark the two-year anniversary, this would be a serious miscalculation of events on the ground. 

Geneive Abdo is a fellow in the Middle East program at the Stimson Center and the author of a forthcoming monograph on sectarianism to be published by the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.

MOHAMMED AL-SHAIKH/AFP/Getty Images