The Middle East Channel

Killing of opposition leader sparks protests in Tunisia

Tunisian opposition politician, Chokri Belaid, was shot in the neck and head and killed Wednesday outside his home in Tunis. Belaid, a prominent secular opponent to the Ennahda-led Islamist government, was one of the leaders of the opposition Popular Front and the general secretary of the Democratic Patriotic Party. No one has taken responsibility for the shooting. Tunisia's Interior Ministry has not yet released any details. News of Belaid's death have sparked large protests outside the interior ministry and in Sid Bouzi, the 2010 epicenter of the Arab uprisings. Tunisian Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali said, "The murder of Belaid is a political assassination and the assassination of the Tunisian revolution."

Syria

Damascus, the capital of Syria, has seen the worst violence in weeks as opposition fighters launched a major offensive. According to an activist, clashes erupted in the districts of Jobar, Zamalka, al-Zablatani, and parts of Qaboun, as well as the ring road. Damascus authorities have closed down the main Abbasid Square and the Fares al-Khoury thoroughfare. Fighting was also reported in the central province of Homs. Blasts in the city of Palmyra drew conflicting reports. According to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, two car bombs exploded near a compound hosing a military intelligence facility and a state security agency. The Observatory reported at least 12 Syrian security forces killed and 20 people wounded, including eight children. Conversely, Syrian state news, SANA, said two suicide car bombings killed and injured an unknown number of people and caused significant damage. The blasts sparked clashes between Syrian government and opposition forces.

Headlines

  • A secret U.S. CIA drone base in Saudi Arabia has been revealed, which was established two years ago for operations against al Qaeda members in Yemen.
  • Bulgaria's interior minister said two of the people behind the July 18 bombing of an Israeli tourist bus were members of Hezbollah, which may prompt the EU to designate the group as a terrorist organization.
  • While visiting Egypt, a man threw a shew at Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was also warned not to interfere with the Gulf states by head Sunni cleric, Grand Sheikh Ahmed al-Tayeb.
  • U.S. President Barack Obama plans to travel to Israel to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the spring and will also stop in the West Bank and Jordan.

Arguments and Analysis

Back Street's Back (Elijah Zarwan, Foreign Affairs)

"But it would be a mistake to dismiss the protesters as paid thugs, or to blame the unrest on revolutionary anniversary pangs, Muslim Brotherhood misrule, or a court's verdict -- although those are all elements of it. True, it is difficult to systematically track the demographics of a stampede, but what most of those rushing to escape birdshot and tear gas canisters have in common is that they are male, urban, young, and unemployed; they have very little to lose, and even less confidence in a political class that does not represent them. For them, the mantra of the uprising that began two Januarys ago -- "Bread, freedom, social justice" -- remains an urgent and unanswered demand.

If anyone doubted that Egypt's unrest would continue until the urban poor saw a concrete improvement in their daily lives, the events of the last few weeks should have convinced them otherwise. For the majority of the Egyptian population that grew up poor and has known no president other than Mubarak, life has been hard and has only gotten harder. The narrow streets of the urban slums admit little air. Decent work, already scarce, has become scarcer. Prices have continued to rise. Prospects for a dignified life -- a steady job, marriage, and escape from the family home -- have grown steadily more remote."

Syria's Fate Hinges on Whom It Hates Most, U.S. or Iran? (Karim Sadjadpour and Firas Maksad, Bloomberg)

"Iran has done its utmost to keep Assad afloat, providing billions of dollars of support as well as strategic aid to crush dissent....

This support can only delay, not prevent, Assad's demise. Thereafter Iran will face a strategic decision: whether to continue supporting a predominantly Alawite militia that represents only a small fraction of Syrian society, or to engage the Sunni Islamists who are poised to wield power in Damascus once Assad falls. Iran's leaders will try to embrace the Sunni radicals, and if that fails they will work with the Shabiha to prevent the formation of a stable, anti-Iranian order in Syria.

What's most important for Iran is not the sectarian makeup of Syria's future rulers, but a like-minded ideological worldview premised on resistance to the U.S. and Israel. As Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei once said, "We will support and help any nations, any groups fighting against the Zionist regime across the world." Iran's Sunni allies Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad are cases in point."

--By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey

AFP/Getty Images/FETHI BELAID

The Middle East Channel

Iranian police arrest ex-prosecutor and Ahmadinejad ally

Iranian police have arrested former Tehran prosecutor and ally of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Saeed Mortazavi. Mortazavi was the head of Iran's Social Welfare Organization until he was removed in January due to pressure from Iran's parliament, the Majlis. In a controversial move, Ahmadinejad rehired Mortazavi as the official caretaker of the organization. No official reason was given for Motazavi's arrest. Iran's semi-official news agency, Fars, said Mortazavi may have been arrested due to accusations of torture and murder of anti-government protesters after the controversial 2009 reelection of Ahmadinejad. Mortazavi was placed under sanctions by the United States in 2010, and has been described by Human Rights Watch as a "serial human rights abuser." However, analysts say the arrest was likely tied to the escalating feud between Ahmadinejad and the parliament. The arrest came a day after Ahmadinejad released a secret video in parliament where Mortazavi allegedly discussed a fraudulent business deal, implicating Iran's highly influential Larijani family. The move was unprecedented, as allegations of corruption are not often aired in a public forum. The parliament became chaotic and protested of the video. Ahmadinejad was kicked out by Ali Larijani, the parliament speaker. Before his arrest on Monday, Mortazavi said, "A person was attempting to do trades that seem illegal. I merely reported this case to the government."

Syria

The National Coalition of Revolutionary and Opposition Forces gave support Monday to last week's surprise offer by its leader for talks with President Bashar al-Assad, and added that the president could avoid trial by resigning and leaving Syria. To step up pressure on Assad, al-Khatib said he was willing to meet with Vice President Farouq al-Shara. In the offer, Sheik Ahmad Moaz al-Khatib said he would engage in dialogue with Assad if the government released 160,000 political prisoners and renewed all expired passports of Syrian diaspora members. The statement was initially met by criticism within the coalition, which had maintained that Assad step down as a precondition for talks. Assad has yet to officially respond to the invitation, but on Sunday, an aide to the president, Ali Haidar, said the government is open to talks with opposition members who reject violence. He added that the government was open to address the passport issue, but not necessarily the release of prisoners. Syria's pro-government newspaper Al-Watan said the statements from the opposition are "two years late." A prominent lawmaker from Assad's ruling party, Fayez Sayegh, said that the opposition should enter into dialogue with the government without preconditions. The United States has expressed strong backing of talks between the opposition and Assad in hopes of ending the nearly two year conflict that has killed over 60,000 people and displaced hundreds of thousands.

Headlines

  • Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has arrived in Egypt in the first trip by an Iranian president to the country since the 1979 revolution.
  • Iran and world powers reached an agreement announcing talks on Iran's disputed nuclear program. The dialogue will resume on February 26 in Kazakhstan.
  • Kuwait's Information Ministry announced three arrests Tuesday of former opposition lawmakers who insulted the emir, in an escalating crackdown on political dissent.

Arguments and Analysis

Egypt Conflict Alert (International Crisis Group)

"It is difficult to know which is most dangerous: the serious uptick in street violence; President Morsi's and the Muslim Brotherhood's serial inability to reach out to the rest of the political class inclusively; or the opposition clinging to the hope of some extraneous event (demonstrations, foreign pressure, judicial rulings or military intervention) allowing it to gain power while bypassing arduous compromise and politics. They are tied of course: the president's cavalier treatment of the constitution-writing process and the judiciary and the opposition's lethargic approach to politics and rejection of Islamist legitimacy alike have eroded the authority of state institutions. This encourages in turn unrest and contributes to the economic slide. Together, these heighten risks of a complete breakdown of law and order. For two years, political factions repeatedly have failed to reach consensus on basic rules of the game, producing a transition persistently threatening to veer off the road. It is past time for the president and opposition to reach an accommodation to restore and preserve the state's integrity.  

Since President Mubarak's ouster, the level of violence has ebbed and flowed, yet each new wave brings the country closer to tipping point. Already, some police officers, beleaguered by attacks on their headquarters, are considering removing their uniforms and going home; there is talk of brewing discontent among Central Security Forces, the riot control police; and criminal gangs along with looters profit from the chaos. There are new shocking images of police brutality. Many young Egyptians increasingly appear disillusioned with electoral politics, and some are drawn to anarchical violence."

Kuwait, 'the back office of logistical support' for Syria's rebels (Elizabeth Dickinson, The National)

"Ten days before sitting down for a leisurely evening tea recently on the outskirts of Kuwait City, Jamaan Al Harbash was in Aleppo talking with rebels fighting to oust Syrian President Bashar Al Assad from power.

It was the third trip to the war zones of Syria by the former Kuwaiti MP, who no longer escapes the Syrian regime's notice. Following a journey to the front in October, Syria's state news agency condemned him for "attempts to spread sedition among the united Syrian people".

The regime's censure has not deterred Mr Harbash, who scrolls through his iPhone to show recent pictures of shattered neighbourhoods and a hospital he said was rebuilt with the help of Kuwaiti funds. Amid the scenes of war is a photo of Mr Al Harbash standing with a half dozen fighters of the rebel Free Syrian Army (FSA)."

--By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey

AFP/Getty Images