The Middle East Channel

Egyptian court suspends elections planned for April

A top Egyptian court Wednesday suspended parliamentary elections scheduled to begin on April 22. The Cairo Administrative Court said the electoral law must be reviewed by the Supreme Constitutional Court. Egypt's main opposition group, the National Salvation Front, had planned to boycott the elections, claiming the electoral law favored Islamists and demanding an overhaul to the Islamist-backed constitution. President Mohamed Morsi said it would respect the court's decision, which was another instance of confrontation between Egypt's prerevolutionary judiciary and the Islamist ruling party. The announcement came amid continued violence and turmoil in Port Said over death sentences issued over the 2012 football riots that killed 74 people. On Wednesday, Egypt's interior minister dismissed Port Said's security chief. Meanwhile, Egypt has backed away from making economic policy changes necessary to negotiate a $4.8 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund. The delays have come just days after a visit from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry during which he committed $250 million in assistance but urged political collaboration on economic reform.

Syria

The United Nations has begun talks with a group of Syrian opposition fighters in efforts to negotiate the release of 21 peacekeepers from the Philippines. The observers were captured Wednesday in the Golan Heights where they were monitoring the ceasefire line between Israel and Syria. They are being held by the "Martyrs of Yarmouk" rebel brigade in the nearby village of Jamla. The rebel group said Syrian government forces must leave the area before they will release their "guests." They initially claimed they took the U.N. observers to get the Syrian army to stop firing on them and civilians in the area. On Thursday, they said that they had actually rescued the observers from fighting in the area. The British based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported clashes on Thursday in the northern outskirts of the village. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) has condemned the capture of the peacekeepers, and the Philippines has demanded their release. Meanwhile, the humanitarian aid organization Medecins Sans Frontieres (Doctors Without Borders) released a report on Thursday saying Syria's healthcare system has collapsed. The charity has over 200 staff members working in opposition held territory in Syria. President of Doctors Without Borders Marie-Pierre Allie said, "Medical aid is being targeted, hospitals destroyed, and medical personnel captured." The report said that medical facilities have become tools "in the military strategies of the parties to the conflict." Trained medical staff have fled the war torn country and a large number of hospitals have been closed forcing healthcare work underground, with treatments conducted in caves, basements, and farms.

Headlines

  • An investigation by Guardian and BBC Arabic has found Pentagon ties to Shiite police units in Iraq that set up secret detention and torture centers.
  • Clashes between anti-government protesters and police on Wednesday night in Tahrir Square sparked the arrests of 160 people.
  • Jordan is working to commission two nuclear reactors which it says are necessary to meet energy needs. But the announcement has increased concerns over the risk of regional nuclear proliferation. 

Arguments and Analysis

How Syrian Women Are Fueling the Resistance: And Why Washington Should Support Them (Fotini Christia, Foreign Affairs)

his is a good start, but in order to prevent further human catastrophe and the spread of Islamist extremism in Syria, Washington needs to do more. Specifically, the United States should aid opposition women's organizations. This strategy would help address the current humanitarian crisis and ensure that aid reaches its intended receipts, in addition to elevating the status of women in Syria.

... Al Kisar's actions exemplify how Syrian women are not only better at identifying and supporting vulnerable communities; they are also more effective than male-led rebel factions in preventing the mismanagement of aid. Women have repeatedly identified men in the opposition who have tried to misallocate vital resources in hospitals and camps for the internally displaced. They have held them accountable in Syrian Facebook groups, Skype chat rooms, and in the field. Alhaji, who is establishing a school for children in the Atmeh camp, has personally secured and overseen the provision of school supplies to ensure that they don't end up being sold on the black market."

End the Arab Boycott of Israel (Ed Husain, The New York Times)

"Many people condemn Israeli settlements and call for an economic boycott of their produce, but I saw that it was Arab builders, plumbers, taxi drivers and other workers who maintained Israeli lifestyles. Separatism in the Holy Land has not worked and it is time to end it. How much longer will we punish Palestinians to create a free Palestine?

I abandoned Muslim groupthink and went to Israel because there is a new momentum in the region. Egypt's former grand mufti, Ali Gomaa, and the prominent scholar Habib Ali al-Jifri, broke ranks with Qaradawi and went to Jerusalem last April. They justified their visit on scriptural grounds, citing the Prophet Muhammad's encouragement for believers to visit the Holy Land. Their trip was facilitated by Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal of Jordan, the principal religious adviser to King Abdullah II."

Egypt's Coming Constitutional Crisis? (Michael Wahid Hanna, Tahrir Squared)

"In November 2011, a judge from Egypt's Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) remarked to me in passing that the parliamentary electoral law codified and promulgated by Egypt's interim military leaders was unconstitutional. At the time, it was impossible to imagine that only a few months later Egypt's first democratically elected parliament would be ruled unconstitutional by the SCC and dissolved by order of the SCAF on the basis of that judgment.

As Nathan Brown has noted, however, the SCC has "struck down the country's parliamentary election law four times. Three of these times that led directly to a dissolution of the parliament. On the other occasion, the parliament had already been dissolved." Yet, despite this past history and jurisprudential background, the Morsi government and its allies are heedlessly courting a similar disaster yet again. And this time the forewarnings are plentiful, including today's administrative court ruling suspending the elections and referring the electoral law back to the SCC for further consideration. 

Egypt's transition has squandered much of the early promise that was evident in the aftermath of Mubarak's fall. With the country suffering deeply-rooted and interlinked political, economic, and social crises, Egypt can ill afford a constitutional crisis that once again raises questions about the fundamental sources of political legitimacy. Still, whether or not the amended parliamentary electoral law is constitutional remains a serious issue, particularly in the context of the fraught post-Mubarak relationship between the judiciary and the Muslim Brotherhood."

--By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey

AFP/Getty Images/KHALED DESOUKI

The Middle East Channel

Syrian refugees top one million according to the United Nations

The United Nations has reported that at least one million Syrian refugees, about five percent of Syria's population, have fled the two-year long conflict. The figure includes people who have registered, or are waiting to register; the total is much higher. About half of the refugees are children. Most have entered Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, and Egypt. According to U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres, the number of people fleeing Syria has dramatically increased since the beginning of the year. About 400,000 people have left the country since January 1. He said, "Syria is spiraling towards full-scale disaster." Additionally, the United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) released a report Tuesday depicting the collapse of Syria's education system. About one-fifth of the country's schools have been damaged from fighting, while others are being used as shelters for civilians who have been displaced by the conflict. About 2 million people are estimated to be internally displaced. Schools holding classes are severely overcrowded, and many teachers have not been reporting to work. The study was conducted in December 2012, and with the increase in violence over recent months, the conditions are likely to be much more severe. Meanwhile, fighting has continued in the northern city of Raqqa, where opposition fighters reportedly control most of the city. Syrian warplanes have bombarded the city, according to activists, and the government has sent in reinforcements attempting to regain control.

Headlines  

  • A Kurdish commander said the PKK will release around a dozen Turkish soldiers and police officials, forwarding a peace process aimed to end the 28-year insurgency.
  • A UNICEF report released Wednesday concluded that Palestinian minors in Israeli custody have been subjected to widespread and systematic mistreatment and has called for reform of detention policies
  • The United States and European Union have warned Iran that it faces further isolation if it continues blocking an IAEA investigation into its nuclear activities.
  • A report commissioned by the U.S. Congress, "Learning From Iraq," to be released Wednesday, highlights mistakes made by the United States in Iraqi reconstruction projects.
  • Australia confirmed "Prisoner X," Australian-Israeli national Ben Zygier, worked for Israel in a report released Wednesday. 

Arguments and Analysis

A Blank Check for Israel? Bad Idea (Matthew Duss, The American Prospect)

"Meanwhile, some in Congress seem determined to play an unconstructive role in the negotiations. One particular measure, co-sponsored by Senators Robert Menendez and Lindsey Graham-and backed by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee coming out of its big annual policy conference last weekend, as reported by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency's Ron Kampeas- could both undermine diplomacy and green-light an attack by Israel.

The resolution, after listing in some detail the Islamic Republic's offenses (which, let's be clear, are quite serious), "Urges that, if the Government of Israel is compelled to take military action in self-defense, the United States Government should stand with Israel and provide diplomatic, military, and economic support to the Government of Israel in its defense of its territory, people, and existence."

In an interview with The Washington Post's neoconservative blogger Jennifer Rubin, Graham explained the resolution in layman's terms: "If Israel acts in its own defense-even preemptively-we will support Israel economically, diplomatically, and politically."

While it's true that the resolution is non-binding and does not create policy, it's important to recognize the ratcheting effect these sorts of measures have in terms of framing the debate, and slowly acclimating Americans to the idea that war is inevitable. The American Conservative's Daniel Larison recently addressed this dynamic in a piece looking back at the run-up to the Iraq war. "The poor, limited quality of debate over Iraq policy from the '90s is happening all over again with Iran, as the ‘debate' tends to focus on whether U.S. policy should give priority to impoverishing Iranians or to killing them more quickly," Larison wrote. "The foundations for terrible policy decisions are often laid years before the final decision is taken, and if we don't pay attention to how those foundations are laid we won't be prepared to stop the next awful policy in the future."

As we approach the tenth anniversary of the Iraq invasion, we should keep that in mind."

A veteran's remorse: what have we done to Iraq? (James Jeffrey, The Guardian)

"I don't think many of us ever understood how bad it actually was - or still is - with the sectarian strife that continues in the wake of our failed intervention. Was it a social experiment on an international scale? Or an adventure of the romantic, imperial kind, to see if we still had it in us? Really, could someone explain that to me, please? More importantly, though, explain it to the Iraqis.

All of which makes our present conduct even more intolerable. Past failures are being compounded by what may be the UK's biggest crime: doing its best impression of Pontius Pilate and having little if nothing to do with rebuilding the country it helped dismember. The British consulate in Basra, scene of my futile 2006 tour and the British Army's ignominious withdrawal in 2007, closed at the end of 2012. We're not exactly going out of our ways to make amends.

Add to that how talk of a 10th anniversary is somewhat disingenuous, really, considering the creation of Iraq as a British mandate in 1920. That's a long period of British meddling and bungling. Though the funny thing, and possibly the only funny thing left, is that the Iraqis probably wouldn't begrudge working with the likes of UK business interests, for example, in going forward. It's that hospitable streak of theirs."

--By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey

AFP/Getty Images/ KHALIL MAZRAAWI