The Middle East Channel

Aftershocks hit southeastern Iran after earthquake kills 37 people

Aftershocks have continued in southwest Iran after a 6.3 magnitude earthquake on Tuesday killed an estimated 37 people and injured over 850. There were over 80 aftershocks reported into Wednesday morning and the largest reached a magnitude of 5.4. According to Iran's Fars news agency, over 700 homes were destroyed, and two villages were devastated. Rescue efforts ended Wednesday, and Iran has declared a three-day mourning period. The epicenter of the earthquake was near the town of Kaki and it was felt in Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Bahrain. It hit just south of the Persian Gulf city of Bushehr, where Iran's only nuclear power plant is located. According to Iranian officials as well as the Russian company that built facility, it has not sustained any damage and "is operating as usual." Iran sits on major faultlines and has been hit by several devastating earthquakes, including a 6.6 magnitude quake in 2003 in the southeastern city of Bam that killed over 25,000 people. After Tuesday's quake, Iranian media reported Wednesday that Iran is planning to build additional nuclear power reactors in the southeastern Gulf region.

Syria

Syria's opposition Islamist militant group al-Nusra Front has formally pledged allegiance to al Qaeda, a day after the Iraqi al Qaeda wing announced the merger of the two groups. The leader of al-Nusra Front, Abu Mohammad al-Golani, said in an audio tape posted online Wednesday, "The sons of Nusra Front renew their pledge (of allegiance) to the Sheikh of Jihad Ayman al-Zawahri and declare obedience." Golani, however said he was not consulted prior to the announcement by the head of Iraq's Islamic State of Iraq, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, who said the two groups were joining under the name the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant. It is unclear, however, if Golani is denying the merger. Meanwhile, British Foreign Secretary William Hague has said that Syria will be on the top of the agenda when the G8 foreign ministers gather today in Britain. He said he is pushing for "the urgent need for a political and diplomatic breakthrough on Syria." Hague will additionally hold a lunch meeting with representatives from the Syrian opposition. On the eve of the meeting, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said that the United States is weighing "stepped-up" efforts to aid the opposition forces. 

Headlines

  • Qatar has offered to buy $3 billion worth of Egyptian bonds, in efforts to help stimulate the country's plunging economy, adding to a $18 billion investment commitment to Egypt by 2018.
  • U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry tied up a three-day trip to the Middle East saying separate talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders were "very constructive" in his efforts toward a peace deal.
  • Jordan has opened a second camp to accommodate an increasing influx of Syrian refugees, which the United Nations said is expected to triple by the end of 2013.
  • Saudi Arabia is building a 1,100-mile fence along its border with Yemen in efforts to ramp up security and stem migration. 

Arguments and Analysis

Now is Not the Time for an Independent Kurdistan (Ranj Alaaldin, Asharq Al-Awsat)

"But whilst turmoil in Iraq (which includes the Anbar protests and Sunni demands for federalism) as well as the regional changes taking place might undermine national unity and undermine the stability of Iraq, an independent Kurdistan is still not a viable outcome. Kurdish autonomy in recent years has increased, thanks to its oil wealth and effective management of Kurdistan's oil and gas resources. Kurdistan is now considered the oil exploration capital of the world.

Geostrategically, it has and will continue to play an important role in the Syria conflict, where the KRG has assisted Syrian Kurds and could soon be playing a role in developing an autonomous Syrian Kurdistan. As a result of the Syrian conflict, Turkey too has had to modify its policies toward its Kurdish population, who number more than 14 million. Domestic politics, along with Prime Minister Erdo?an's ambitions to become president and exercise effective power, require Kurdish support.

The Kurds, therefore, have lots to gain. But, at the same time, they may have a lot more to lose.

Fundamentally, an independent Kurdistan is not a likely possibility in the near or distant future because it lacks sufficient resources and allies."

"Syria Behind The Lines" (PBS, Frontline Documentary)

"An unprecedented film documents the new and perilous reality of everyday life for both Syria's rebels and its regime."

--By Jennifer Parker and Mary Casey

AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Egypt’s NGO funding crackdown

Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are essential to democracy and a key way for people of all political views to band together to influence public debate. But once more, the Egyptian government is threatening to restrict NGOs that receive foreign funds. Exercised about criticism from some of these groups, the ruling party is pushing a bill that would empower the government to decide which groups are allowed to receive foreign funding. That would invite the government to pick favorites, approving foreign funds for lapdogs while rejecting them for critics, particularly human rights groups.

But why are foreign funds so nefarious when received by NGOs yet apparently uncontroversial when received by others? The Egyptian military receives billions of dollars in aid from the United States; does that make it a subversive organization? The Egyptian government is desperately seeking foreign funds from the International Monetary Fund (IMF); is that an act of treason? Egyptian businesses are clamoring for foreign direct investment and the spending of foreign tourists; are these acts of disloyalty? 

Of course not. So why is it any more wrongful for NGOs to solicit financial support from foreign friends? Bolstered by foreign funds, the army, the government, and the business community all seek to advance their political agendas; why should only NGOs be singled out for restriction? It leaves the impression that their real sin is not accepting foreign contributions but criticizing the government and ruling party.

For decades under former President Hosni Mubarak and his predecessors, the Muslim Brotherhood, the movement behind the ruling Freedom and Justice Party (FJP), faced severe persecution. The human rights groups that came to their defense were almost all foreign funded, given the reluctance of Egyptians to risk government retaliation by donating funds themselves.

Today, with the tables turned, the newly empowered Brotherhood is the subject of much human rights scrutiny. Because it has not yet shown itself willing to tolerate criticism, would-be local funders of human rights work still fear retaliation, so external funding remains an essential source. But seemingly inspired by the likes of Ethiopia and Russia, the ruling party would like to turn off the spigot.

Beyond the ruling party's remarkable lack of memory and principle lies a misconception about the role of NGOs in a democratic society. Victory at the polls does not entitle President Mohamed Morsi or the ruling party to sideline these groups because even elected governments must abide by international human rights law. Just as majority endorsement is no justification for, say, torturing a suspect, that a government is elected is no justification for restricting the right to freedom of association.

Moreover, like an independent press, a vigorous NGO sector is an indispensable part of democracy. That is because elections alone provide insufficient opportunity for the public to influence the decisions of government. The mere act of voting, important as it is, is too blunt an instrument for citizens to express their views. At best people vote for a political party -- a tendency or orientation -- but that periodic vote does not mean uncritical endorsement of every decision the party might make about the broad range of issues, some foreseeable some not, that arise in day-to-day governance.

That's where the rights of free speech and association come in. People need the freedom to speak out on issues whenever they arise, not only on election day. And the way to increase the reach of each person's voice is through such megaphones as social media, the press, and the ability to join together with like-minded people through an NGO.

It should be no surprise that NGOs -- like the media -- sometimes criticize government decisions. That is not subversion. It is the essence of democracy. Government and ruling-party officials should not see it as a threat. Any government effort to steer funding only to groups that parrot official views undermines this essential democratic role.

That is not to say that anything goes for NGOs. Like everyone else, they should be transparent about their funding and activities and refrain from criminality. If an NGO worker really is plotting to violently overthrow the state or to commit some other legitimately proscribed act, he or she should be prosecuted under the regular criminal code. There is no need for new prohibitions under the NGO law.

Any regulation of NGOs should focus on their conduct, not their source of funds. So long as an organization is engaged in peaceful advocacy, even if that is critical dissent, it should be entitled to do so as a matter of right, regardless of who funds it. Otherwise the Muslim Brotherhood will only fuel the view that little has changed since Mubarak's fall.

Kenneth Roth is executive director of Human Rights Watch. Follow him on Twitter @KenRoth.

KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images