The Middle East Channel

Tunisians gather for the funeral of slain opposition leader amid a general strike

Tens of thousands of people have gathered in the Tunisian capital of Tunis for the funeral of opposition leader Chokri Belaid who was killed on Wednesday outside his home by an unknown gunman. Belaid was a popular human rights activist and a staunch critic of the government which is led by the Islamist Ennahda party. Tunisia's unions have blamed the government, but Ennahda has denied accusations and condemned the killing. Protests and clashes have broken out across Tunisia. One police officer has been killed and another is in a coma. According to Tunisian media, over a dozen Ennahda offices were attacked overnight. Unions have called a general strike  to coincide with Belaid's burial. A number of flights have been canceled, and some universities and schools will be closed through the weekend. Adding to tensions and highlighting divisions within the ruling party, Ennahda rejected a proposal on Thursday by Prime Minister Hamadi Jebali to form a national unity government, saying the prime minister had not consulted with the party prior to making the announcement.


U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta acknowledged for the first time he backed arming the Syrian opposition. His remarks while testifying before the U.S. Senate Armed Services Committed showed divisions within the U.S. administration over Syria policy. Panetta, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton supported the plan developed by former C.I.A director David Petraeus to arm carefully vetted Syrian opposition fighters. However, the White House vetoed it. The U.S. officials who supported the plan have either left the administration or are about to depart, other than General Dempsey. Meanwhile, clashes have continued on Friday in the Syrian capital of Damascus. Heavy clashes were reported at the Hermalleh junction of the ring road south of Jobar as government forces are fighting for areas overtaken by opposition fighters. Government air strikes were reported around the districts of Jobar, Qaboun, and Barzeh. According to activists, 46 people were killed on Thursday. Additionally, after 16 days of fighting, regime forces took back the town of Karnaz, on the strategic highway connecting Damascus with Aleppo.


  • Four car bombings in two outdoor markets in Shiite regions of Iraq have killed an estimated 31 people and wounded dozens more amid rising sectarian tensions.
  • Yemeni President Hadi called on Iran to stop arming militant groups in Yemen and requested that the U.N. Security Council investigate a ship seized by authorities with alleged Iranian-made weapons.
  • The International Criminal Court has ordered Libya to hand over former Qaddafi spy chief Abdullah Senussi for trial at The Hague.

Arguments and Analysis

Soviet lessons for the Arab world (Anne Applebaum, The National Post)

"Much has changed in North Africa since the winter of 2011. But a lot more has not. To understand this, it's worth looking at other countries that have undergone similarly radical changes. In post-communist Europe, for example, countries that faced similar problems took very different paths after they elected democratic governments in 1990. Yet some fell into economic stagnation or political turmoil while others thrived.

Neither politics nor economics alone explains the differences. On the contrary, the factor most closely linked to stability and growth is human: Those countries that had an "alternative elite" - a cadre of people who had worked together in the past, who had thought about government and who were at some level prepared to take it over - were far more likely both to carry out radical reforms and to persuade the population to accept them. Hungary, Poland - and, to a lesser extent, the Czech Republic, Slovakia and the Baltic states - all benefited from the presence of people who had been thinking about change, and organizing to carry it out, for a long time. The Polish opposition had created the Solidarity trade union in the early 1980s. In Czechoslovakia, Vaclav Havel had been advocating and promoting democratic values since the '70s. Hungarian and Polish economists had spent a decade discussing how it might be possible to decentralize a centrally planned economy."

Egypt's incompetent politics turn citizens against the state (Issandr El Amrani, The National)

"By focusing so much on tactical advantages and deal-making, Egypt's politicians forgot about the revolutionaries. The Brotherhood only cares about securing its recently acquired power, and is willing to give up almost everything to do so: give the army autonomy (even though the Brotherhood joined forces with others against this in 2011), reconcile with a police force that continues to act with total impunity (even though the primary victim of this unreformed force under Mubarak was the Brotherhood), negotiate deals for corrupt businessmen to return to the country (even though fighting corruption was the Brotherhood's battle cry for years), and so on.

The opposition, rather than positioning itself against the Brotherhood's dealmaking and providing leadership to the many Egyptians who feel they are unrepresented, pushes the military to rein in the Brotherhood and focuses on narrow gains: a chance to rewrite the constitution and a place in a national-unity government. What is worse, some of these demands are completely out of touch with reality: some speak of early presidential elections, others of banning the Brotherhood. Yet no one has proposed a comprehensive plan for transitional justice, or reform of the security services, or a policy to address the needs of the majority of Egyptians that live under or barely above the poverty line.

The disconnect between Egypt's political class and ordinary people is staggering. This is not just the protesters who, fed up with two years of broken promises and self-interested leaders, are turning increasingly militant and unruly. It is also the ordinary citizen who, while often opposing the disruptive protests, has lost all confidence in the political class's ability to manage the country and rise to the historic challenge of the 2011 uprising."

---By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey


The Middle East Channel

Iran’s Supreme Leader rejects direct talks as the U.S. increases sanctions

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei strongly rejected an offer by U.S. Vice President Joe Biden for direct talks over the country's nuclear development program in remarks posted on his website on Thursday. Biden made the offer on Saturday saying the U.S. was ready to hold one-on-one talks with Iran "when the Iranian leadership, supreme leader, is serious." However, Khamenei maintained that talks would not solve the problem. He wrote, "You take up arms against the nation of Iran and say: ‘negotiate or we fire.' But you should know that pressure and negotiations are not compatible and our nation will not be intimidated into actions." The statement came after the U.S. Treasury Department announced new economic sanctions on Wednesday as sanctions that were enacted in August 2012 took effect. The new sanctions target companies involved in inhibiting the flow of information and cracking down on dissent such as the Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting and its director, the Iran Cyber Police, the Communications Regulatory Authority, and Iran Electronics Industries which makes equipment used for jamming and monitoring. The sanctions from last summer will target companies connected with Iran's energy, petrochemical, insurance, financial, and shipping sectors. While one senior U.S. official said the move is "a significant turning of the screw" others are more skeptical. According to another senior U.S. official, "The people may be suffering in Iran, but the supreme leader isn't, and he's the only one who counts."


Heavy fighting has continued for the second day in Damascus, Syria's capital. Violence has mostly been focused on the highly contested eastern district of Jobar and the southern ring road, but other clashes were reported in Zamalka, Hajar al-Aswad, and Qaboun. According to one opposition activist, the aim for the rebel offensive is not to overtake central Damascus, but rather to take out regime sniper positions and fortifications and cut off President Bashar al-Assad's control lines from the center of the city to its outskirts. The Syrian army also said it had launched a "co-ordinated all-out offensive." Both the government and opposition forces reported making gains, and it is unclear if either side had pushed forward as of Thursday. Meanwhile, the head of the Syrian National Coalition, Moaz al-Khatib, said he would rescind his offer of talks with the Syrian government if women prisoners were not released by Sunday. Islamic leaders urged the Assad regime and opposition forces to enter into negotiations in efforts to resolve the war at a meeting of the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Cairo on Thursday.


  • Political unrest sparked by the assassination of an opposition politician continues in Tunisia. Several groups are planning strikes, and the ruling Ennahda party rejected the announcement by Prime Minister Jebali to dissolve the cabinet.
  • Hamas and Fatah are currently holding unity talks and are planning for presidential and parliamentary elections.

Arguments and Analysis

Syria Is Not Iraq (Shadi Hamid, The Atlantic)

If I sound defeatist, then it is likely because I am. It is worth speaking frankly, and, unfortunately, this probably requires speaking in the past tense. For Syria, it is likely too late. Notwithstanding something sudden and entirely unexpected, the international community will not intervene. That does not mean that the Syrian people are doomed. They will likely "win" in the end, but their victory, if we can even call it that, will have come at a much greater cost - in the sheer number killed - than was necessary. It will have come at the cost of a country destroyed, of sects polarized beyond any hope of reconciliation, of Salafis and Jihadists ascendant, of a state too torn and divided for real governance. As has been reported elsewhere, the Syrian opposition feels that it has been not just forgotten, but, worse, betrayed. They are unlikely to forget this anytime soon. Anti-Americanism, a given among regime supporters, has slowly taken root among the opposition as well. The Syrian protest movement's Friday theme for October 19, 2012 was"America, has your spite not been sated by our blood?" In due time, the Obama administration's inability or unwillingness to act may be remembered as one of the great strategic and moral blunders of recent decades. Hoping to atone for our sins in Iraq, we have overlearned the lessons of the last war. I only wish it wasn't too late.

Moving towards Political Participation: The Moderation of Moroccan Salafis since the Beginning of the Arab Spring (Mohammed Masbah, German Institute for International and Security Affairs)

"Salafis, including former "Salafi-Jihadis", have become a presence in the public sphere through their participation in the protests - side-by-side with secular forces - of the so called 20 February Movement. There are also numerous indications that Salafis will play a role in shaping Morocco's future political landscape, albeit while proposing less radical objectives than what they used to profess. The trend is leading towards greater acceptance of political plurality, more cooperation with moderate Islamists, and less aggressive attitudes towards seculars and Western governments. Most importantly, they are explicitly renouncing violent means in the domestic power struggle. Moroccan Salafis have begun aiming at assuming a political role, attempting to influence policy-making, and are increasingly prepared to play by the rules of the democratic game - thus following the example set by their peers in other Arab countries such as Egypt."

--By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey