The Middle East Channel

Kerry returns to the Middle East in efforts to rekindle peace talks

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, on his fifth recent visit to the Middle East, is set to meet with Israeli and Palestinian officials this week in efforts to renew peace talks. Speaking from Kuwait Wednesday, Kerry warned that prospects for peace talks could be lost if there is no progress by the U.N. General Assembly in September. He said he was not setting a deadline for resuming negotiations, however maintained that time is an enemy. He stated, "The passage of time allows a vacuum to be filled by people who don't want things to happen." However, recent reports have shown that there may be possible concessions from the parties. Israeli media reported this week that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may be willing to make gestures such as freeing more than 100 Palestinian prisoners and freezing new construction outside the Jewish settlement blocs in the West Bank. Israeli media also reported that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had dropped a settlement freeze and the 1967 borders as requirements for resuming talks. Palestinian officials, however, have dismissed the reports. Additionally, on Wednesday, Israel approved the construction of 69 new homes in a Jewish settlement in East Jerusalem. Israeli officials stressed that the apartments had been approved years prior, and building permits had only been issued on Wednesday. Kerry will meet separately with Abbas and Jordan's King Abdullah in Amman and Netanyahu in Jerusalem in the next three days. 


According to U.S. officials and diplomats, the CIA has begun moving weapons for delivery to Syrian opposition fighters within a month. The weapons, suspected to be light arms and possibly anti-tank missiles, are being moved to Jordan from a network of secret warehouses. They will be supplied to small groups of vetted and trained Syrian rebels. The supplies are to be coordinated with a "parallel push" by European and Arab states to provide training and weapons deliveries. Meanwhile, a team of U.N. inspectors that has been blocked from Syria has arrived in Turkey to investigate alleged chemical weapons use in the war. From Turkey, the investigators will not be able to gather soil samples or other scientific evidence of chemical weapons use, but will be able to conduct interviews and collect blood samples from possible witnesses or victims of attacks.


  • Reviewing his first year in office, Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi admitted mistakes but warned of risks from unrest, ahead of massive protests set for June 30, and blamed "enemies of Egypt" for sabotaging democracy.
  • Clashes between rival militias killed five people and injured 97 others in a second day of violence in the Libyan capital of Tripoli.
  • A Sunni list has won the largest bloc of seats in Iraq's provincial elections in the province of Anbar, which delayed elections along with Ninevah province over security concerns.
  • U.S. General Martin Dempsey has recommend bolstering Lebanese and Jordanian forces to deal with the escalating conflict in Syria, and Iraqi forces to counter the reemergence of al Qaeda. 

Arguments and Analysis

Behind the Abdication of Qatar's Emir' (Shibley Telhami, Reuters)

"Nothing was trivial about the moment: Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani gave up his post as emir of Qatar to his son at the pinnacle of his influence, in an act as rare and surprising as his ascending to power through a bloodless coup against his own father in 1995.

The very brevity of the emir's abdication speech and the remarkable absence of boasting about his transformation of Qatar was itself a rarity in an Arab world accustomed to long, windy addresses on even trivial matters.

What drove the policies of the outgoing emir? What will come next?

The fact that the world is paying attention is a testament to the central role that this small, previously sleepy nation now plays on the world stage. The story of what drove the outgoing emir -- and his key partner, Foreign and Prime Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani (HBJ) -- tells much about the driving forces in the Arab world. One hint appeared in the announcement's sparse wording: ‘We believe that the Arab world is one human body, one coherent structure, that draws its strength from all its constituent parts.'"

Egyptians must not let their country descend into chaos' (Wadah Khanfar, The Guardian)

"On Sunday, Egypt's President Mohamed Morsi will complete his first year in office. Instead of being an occasion to celebrate -- he is the first elected president -- many fear the anniversary will mark the beginning of the collapse of Egypt's political system.

The opposition has called for mass protests against Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood to take place on the day. Although dissent and protest is a political right in a democracy, these protests could result in a coup against the democratic process, and could plunge Egypt into a cycle of violence and chaos.

Many criticisms can be made about Morsi's performance and the Brotherhood's behaviour since the fall of Hosni Mubarak. Their inability to conduct a serious dialogue with, and facilitate real participation by, opposing political forces has been conspicuous. They took unilateral decisions on a number of issues on which a national consensus was needed. The opposition is not above reproach either. In its attempts over the past year to block the president and the Islamists, and its de facto rejection of the results of the free election, it is trying to change the rules of the democratic game."

The Bane of Palestinian Infighting' (Kimberly Marten, The New York Times)

"Despite massive international assistance, including over $500 million from the U.S. State Department in recent years, reform of the West Bank security forces has frayed. No prime minister can pull it back together alone.

As the Palestinian Authority prime minister from 2007 until he stepped down earlier this month, Salam Fayyad was hailed as the leader of a technocratic revolution in the West Bank, and he made security-sector reform a priority. Fayyad strove to replace the corrupt and intimidating militias of the Arafat era with professional security forces who earned the respect of the population. His efforts won broad international support.

The hope was that Israel would find a reliable security partner in this rebooted version of the Palestinian Authority, smoothing the way to a two-state solution. Indeed the security situation for Israel improved markedly. The P.A. kept its end of the bargain, working with the Israel Defense Forces to contain radical Hamas activity in the West Bank and prevent attacks against Israel. With new training, the security forces also brought street crime in the West Bank under control.

But old patronage networks ultimately proved stronger than the technocrats. Fayyad never managed to control the rat's nest of overlapping Palestinian security agencies, whose constant infighting was encouraged by struggles within President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah party."

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber


The Middle East Channel

The scourge of sectarianism in Egypt

On Sunday evening, June 23, it was the middle of the Muslim month of "Sha'aban." In Muslim communities around the world, this night has been given the name "Laylat-l-Bara,'' or the "Night of Innocence" -- a night during which the faithful exert themselves particularly in prayer and supplication. But in Giza, a small village outside of Cairo, where some gathered to do precisely that, it was hardly a night of innocence. A mob of hundreds of people, instigated and led by extreme Salafi preachers, descended upon Shiite Muslim residents and killed four Shiite Egyptians. It was a night of death -- and evidence that indeed, hatred begets barbarism.

June 23 was not the first time that Egyptians have witnessed the scourge of sectarianism. Sectarianism is not a definitive element in Egyptian society -- but it is part of it. Many Egyptians will deny it, which perhaps in itself is somewhat encouraging, as people often deny things they would prefer to believe are not true. But it cannot be denied. A latent sectarianism has existed vis-à-vis the Coptic Christian community (a demographic minority in Egypt, although intrinsically Egyptian) for many years, and has aggravated many a dispute between Copts and Muslims. In recent years, it has often been not simply a feature, but far more of a critical, even instigating, factor. 

Sunday night was not an example of a latent sectarianism, or even an aggravation. It was the direct result of a sectarian discourse, perpetrated for solely sectarian reasons -- a drumming up of hatred and bigotry, aiming at exacting blood. The Shiite families in that village, so close to the capital city of Cairo, were not involved in some sort of a more mundane dispute, in which sectarian strife was used to cover up other motives. The four people who were killed were the victims of a mob; a mob driven by the homilies of radicalism, expressing extreme identity politics, dressed up in a heterodox religious vocabulary, led by radical Salafi preachers.

There were condemnations of the violence in the aftermath, as one might expect -- from Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, senior members of the Muslim Brotherhood, across the political spectrum, and indeed, the official Muslim religious establishment. Al-Azhar released an official statement condemning the violence, while the Grand Mufti of Egypt warned Egyptians of being "dragged into attempts to ignite sectarian strife," saying that "Islam does not accept such acts of slaughter and murder." One of the more famed and respected non-Egyptian religious scholars, al-Habib Ali al-Jifri of the Tabah Foundation in Abu Dhabi said, "Whatever our [Sunni] differences with the Shi'is ... what took place in the village of Abu al-Nimras is a heinous crime."

But if what happened on Sunday night is to be taken seriously, then condemnations are increasingly irrelevant. There are five points that must be addressed, that go beyond Sunday night's tragedy. Indeed, with June 30 fast approaching, when large scale protests against the Muslim Brotherhood and the presidency are likely to result in some sort of conflict (and probably violence), one cannot underestimate their importance. Even beyond June 30, however, these issues will not soon go away.

The first is the issue of the police -- who were present during the lynching, and did not intervene. It's highly unlikely that they did so out of complicity -- but the reality is that the police force is in dire need of extreme reform in order to perform its duties appropriately in a post January 25 uprising Egypt. That was clear on Sunday night. It has also been shown in other incidents around the country. The "pillar of fear" that was present during ousted President Hosni Mubarak's era has been removed -- but nothing has replaced it, and the police, knowing that the populace no longer fears it in the way it used to (and rightly so), is reluctant to put itself in harm's way. That kind of security force cannot do its job. But security reform will require wide-ranging political consensus, far beyond that of the Muslim Brotherhood, in order to apply appropriate pressure on the institutions involved.

The second point relates to the wider political notion of minority-majority relations in the context of Egyptian society. The Egyptian presidency has been reluctant, almost to the point of obstinacy, to use language that admits and recognizes minorities as minorities in Egypt. The point, as Morsi has elaborated upon in interviews, is to insist on the Egyptian nature of demographic minorities in Egypt -- including Shiites, Coptic Christians, and others. The thinking within the presidency seems to be that if it were to mention "Shiite" or "Coptic" as a qualifier of "Egyptian," it would recognize such communities as being less Egyptian than the Sunni Muslim majority. While that sort of thinking might be laudable from one perspective, it fails to acknowledge that, indeed, for many in the majority, these communities are not part of the majority. There are many ways to publicly recognize them as specific, distinct communities, while insisting on their intrinsic attachment to Egypt -- and it is time to do that now, in order to ensure respect for them in the public sphere.

Thirdly, the night of June 23 was a barbaric one -- but the barbarism was instigated and driven by hatred and bigotry. The barbarism needn't be condemned -- those that committed the barbarism need to be arrested, not condemned. But the hatred and bigotry -- that needs to be condemned, and taken on directly in public and civic discourse. The strife in Syria cannot be used as an excuse to ignore, or minimize, the danger of such a discourse. When Morsi appeared recently on the same platform as radical Salafi preachers in a Syrian solidarity rally, it was incumbent upon him and his office to distance himself from and denounce the deeply sectarian speeches that took place. Ignoring such speech cannot be tolerated -- not with regards to any community in Egypt, whether Muslim or Christian.

Moreover, that discourse needs to be challenged directly, and not simply deplored, at its root. Azhar has announced that its senior scholars will meet to consider the ramifications of Sunday's tragedy; its scholars, and the religious establishment at large, must be clear and transparent about not only the results of this discourse, but the unacceptability of it at its core. The normative Muslim religious establishment cannot simply continue promoting its own religious approach -- it must be very clear that approaches that go outside of the norm will be challenged on the level of ideas. Azhar was famous for its ecumenical approach, and as the Sunni institution worldwide that was most engaging with the Shiite religious establishment. Indeed, its scholars were some of the most prominent within the "Amman Message'" of 2005, which brought together hundreds of noted authorities from across the Muslim world, and from all religious denominations within it, to promote an anti-sectarian message -- that message, and others like it, must be built upon.

Finally, the people who incite violence, whether using the language of religion or not, should be charged and prosecuted with the full force of the law. It is absurd indeed that activists and commentators are charged with "insulting the president," while radical preachers are permitted to continue encouraging civil strife in Egypt -- the results are clear for everyone to see.

No one should have had to wait for this tragedy to take critical steps -- the signs were there before -- and no one should have to wait for yet another one to take them now. Egypt's social fabric can withstand these challenges, and overcome them -- but only if the challenges are taken seriously. Now.

H.A. Hellyer, a nonresident fellow at the Project on U.S.-Islamic World Relations at the Brookings Institution, and ISPU, is a Cairo-based specialist on Arab affairs and West-Muslim world relations. Follow him on Twitter: @hahellyer.