The Middle East Channel

The U.S. pledges $250 million in aid to Egypt amid Port Said clashes

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi on Sunday in Cairo, promising $250 million in U.S. aid. The commitment came after Morsi pledged to reach an agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on economic reform requirements for a $4.8 billion loan deal. The assistance consists of two parts: $190 million towards Egypt's budget to address the country's "extreme needs," according to Kerry and $60 million in grants to support small and midsize businesses. Kerry told Morsi the United States could provide additional funds if Egypt's reaches a deal with the IMF. Leading Egyptian opposition figures criticized the United States for the assistance saying it is supporting a power grab by Morsi and the ruling Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. Kerry's visit came amid protests and violence across Egypt. Demonstrators clashed with police Sunday morning in Cairo's Tahrir Square. Additionally, two security forces and three civilians were killed and at least 400 people injured in clashes in Port Said, where hundreds have been protesting the death sentences of 21 people in connection with the 2012 football riots that killed 74 people. 

Syria

Opposition forces overtook most of a police academy in Khan al-Asal, near the northern Syrian city of Aleppo on Sunday. After eight days of fierce fighting, over 200 people were killed, including opposition fighters and government forces, according to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights. According to the pro-government media outlet Al-Watan, 115 policemen were killed and 50 wounded. On Monday, government forces, backed by pro-regime militiamen, launched a major offensive on opposition held areas in the central city of Homs. The Observatory said, "this is the worst fighting in months." Meanwhile, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and British Foreign Secretary William Hague have been trading blows after the Sunday Times of London conducted an interview with Assad. Assad called the British government "naïve, confused, unrealistic" and accused it of working to militarize the Syrian conflict. Hague called Assad "delusional" and said that while Britain will not yet send arms to the Syrian opposition, it is not ruling anything out for the future. Additionally, during the interview, Assad said he was "ready to negotiate with anyone, including militants, who surrender their arms." But, he would not "deal with terrorists who are determined to carry weapons."

Headlines

Arguments and Analysis

Syria's Crisis of Transition (Chester Crocker, The National Interest)

 "...Viewed in this light, a negotiated transition settlement is not an alternative to battlefield victory. It is the way to exploit and follow up on military success and the creation of a coherent political opposition. To be sure, negotiations do not always succeed, and their successes are often short-lived. It will be difficult to integrate the various neighbors, the UN-Arab League process and the U.S.-Russian track into a framework that supports talks between the Syrian National Coalition leaders and elements of the state administration. It will be ambitious to devise credible external guarantees or peacekeeping monitors to provide necessary assurances as the transition unfolds.

Clearly, we are not there yet. This is a time for pre-negotiation and ripening the situation diplomatically-through assistance and sanctions pressures, by investing in our knowledge of the parties and by keeping alive a possible framework for negotiation when the time comes. Both the regime and the opposition have serious problems, and neither is in a position to deliver a knockout punch. But things could change quite suddenly. Finding the right moment to accept or solicit Russian support for a transition package will call for skilled statecraft. Such diplomacy entails risks. But diplomatic experience suggests that this way of thinking is more realistic, in the best sense of the term, than the alternatives: letting nature take its course or trying to pick a winner from within the sectarian bouillabaisse and hoping for the best."

To Achieve Mideast Peace, Suspend Disbelief (Dennis Ross, The New York Times)

"THESE are hard times for trying to promote, much less make, peace between Palestinians and Israelis. The rise of political Islam, Syria's civil war and looming implosion, and the Iranian nuclear imbroglio not only dominate the environment, but they also render it forbidding for peacemaking. And while all these factors make Israelis and Palestinians reluctant to take risks for peace, they do not represent the biggest hurdle for ending the conflict. The most fundamental problem between Israelis and Palestinians is the problem of disbelief.

Most Israelis and Palestinians today simply don't believe that peace is possible. I won't rehearse all the reasons both sides have lost faith. Suffice it to say that Israelis feel that their withdrawal from territory (like southern Lebanon and the Gaza Strip) has not brought peace or security; instead, it has produced only violence. Why, then, should they repeat the same mistake and subject themselves to far greater, even existential, risk in the West Bank? Meanwhile, Palestinians believe that negotiations from 1993 onward failed to produce independence but instead yielded a huge Israeli settler presence in their midst.

Put simply, neither side believes that the other is committed to a two-state outcome: leaving aside Hamas's explicit rejection of the principle, Israelis are generally convinced that when the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, and his Fatah Party speak of two states, they do not mean Palestine and a Jewish state called Israel; they mean a Palestinian state and a binational state."

--By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey

AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

A cautionary tale for election boycotts

The Egyptian opposition's decision to boycott parliamentary elections looks familiar to those of us who study Latin America, where high profile boycotts have periodically been used by parties who distrust the government in charge of administering those elections. Unfortunately for the Egyptian opposition, the Latin American experience should be seen as a cautionary tale, since boycotts have too often turned into self-inflicted political wounds. The opposition is choosing not to act as a legislative brake on the executive, thereby reducing its own political influence.

Whether in the Middle East, Latin America, or elsewhere, this is the basic scenario. A controversial regime in a politically divided country holds elections and opposition parties must decide whether to participate or withdraw. Both choices require a difficult cost-benefit calculation. 

Participation entails giving some measure of legitimacy to the government's electoral process. The potential payoff -- such as winning a plebiscite or gaining a large number of legislative seats -- can be significant. A key risk, however, is losing the election while simultaneously giving the regime its desired aura of legitimacy. That risk may be mitigated if the regime clearly employs fraud.

Withdrawing is intended to delegitimize the government internationally, thus forcing it to compromise in some manner that bolsters democracy. In legislative elections it also necessarily involves losing any legislative counterweight to executive power, and for presidential elections it means ceding the presidency to the regime.

There is a useful parallel between the current Egyptian case and the Venezuelan legislative elections of 2005. President Hugo Chávez took office in 1999, and in 2002 was overthrown briefly, then returned to power. The country was deeply polarized, and the opposition bickered with the government about the fairness of the electoral process. Just a few days before the election, a majority of opposition parties withdrew.

The result was that Chavista parties won an overwhelming majority of seats, and so for the next five years Chávez passed virtually anything he wanted. Since constitutional reform requires a two-thirds vote, the boycott also eventually helped pave the way for Chávez to remove term limits. The traditional parties that spearheaded the boycotting debacle, such as Democratic Action and COPEI (Political Electoral Independent Organization Committee), saw their political fortunes continue on their steep downward trajectory. The European Union's electoral observer mission noted dryly that "a more constructive and mature effort is required by all political forces."

In sum, Venezuela is not a constructive model to be followed in terms of achieving political goals in a polarized election. There are other prominent Latin American cases, involving various types of elections, which should also give parties pause before committing to non-participation.

In 1988, the Chilean dictatorship held a referendum on Augusto Pinochet's continuation in power. After internal debate about how fair it would be, most of the opposition decided to participate, with the Communist Party rejecting elections and calling for armed uprising. At the time, Socialist leader Heraldo Muñoz (later cabinet minister and ambassador to the United Nations) published an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times. He laid out all the options and concluded that the "preferred alternative for those who want a return to democracy is to mobilize actively in order to defeat Pinochet at his own game."

He was right. Pinochet ultimately lost the referendum. A presidential election was held the following year and the opposition won. Meanwhile, the Communist Party struggled for years to win seats and never regained the political influence it once enjoyed. A broader boycott would have guaranteed that Pinochet remain in the presidency until 1997.

In 1984, the Nicaraguan opposition did not participate in the presidential and legislative elections that kept Sandinista Daniel Ortega in office. In that instance, the U.S. government pressured the conservative parties to avoid any legitimation of a "Soviet-style sham election." When the dust settled, Ortega was president for another six years and the opposition had no role in governing or writing the new constitution (which is still in place today). Its influence instead came in the form of covert operations.

There is one Latin American case of a successful boycott, but it tends to prove the rule. In 2000, Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori had been in power 10 years and his approval rating was slipping under the weight of corruption and abuse of power charges. Alejandro Toledo ran against Fujimori, and many polling agencies predicted his victory. When the results showed neither had received a majority amidst widespread perception of fraud, Toledo refused to participate in a second round and called for Peruvians not to vote. That gave Fujimori the presidency, but it was short-lived. After massive demonstrations and revelations about more corruption, Fujimori fled the country four months later. The boycott was thus just one part of a much broader political strategy.

In Egypt, the National Salvation Front is taking an understandable but risky stand. Telling President Mohamed Morsi to "dialogue with himself" carries with it the real possibility of fostering political self-isolation. If the coalition chooses not to run any candidates, then the government will win a large majority of seats, Morsi will have free rein to quickly pass legislation as he sees fit, and the Muslim Brotherhood will consolidate power even more. If it participates, it will be in a much better position as a legislative opposition to prevent reforms it deems undesirable.

Gregory Weeks is professor and chair of the department of political science & public administration at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. He blogs about Latin American politics at Two Weeks Notice.

GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images