The Middle East Channel

Gunmen attack Russian Embassy in Libya

Unidentified gunmen in Libya attacked the Russian Embassy in the capital of Tripoli Wednesday. About 60 protesters reportedly stormed the compound and some climbed walls attempting to force entry. Gunmen shot at the embassy. One of the attackers was reportedly killed by random gunfire and four others were wounded. According to the Russian Foreign Ministry the compound was secured by guards and none of the embassy's staff was injured. The attack came after reports that a Russian woman had killed a Libyan Air Force pilot and then sought refuge in the Russian Embassy. Libyan officials say they believe the attack was in response, and that the crowd was looking for the woman. Libyan authorities have detained the Russian woman, claiming she killed the pilot.


A team of chemical weapons inspectors has begun its second day of work leaving from a hotel in central Damascus toward an undisclosed location. The inspectors aim to end the Syrian regime's ability to manufacture chemical weapons by November 1, and destroy Syria's chemical weapons arsenal by mid-2014. Syrian government forces have surrounded the town of Moadhamiya, one of the Damascus suburbs hit by a chemical weapons attack in August, seemingly to block travel and cut off access to food for about 12,000 people, mostly civilians, but including some rebel fighters. In a statement Wednesday, the U.N. Security Council expressed alarm over the "rapid deterioration" of the humanitarian conditions in Syria and demanded access to the nearly six million people displaced and trapped by the "unacceptable and escalating level of violence." Meanwhile, Six rebel groups released a statement late Wednesday calling for a cease-fire between two major rebel factions in the northern town of Azaz, near the border with Turkey. The statement urged for the al Qaeda affiliate the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant and the Free Syrian Army's Northern Storm Brigade to settle their differences in an Islamic court.


  • U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said the United States hopes to engage with Iran, but is not taking anything at face value as Tehran must take actions to prove it is willing to negotiate on its nuclear development program.
  • EU Foreign Policy Chief Catherine Ashton is meeting with Muslim Brotherhood leaders in Egypt in part of a three-day visit pushing for reconciliation and an end to the political crisis.
  • In a meeting this week, FIFA's executive committee is slated to debate a contentious proposal to move the Qatar 2022 World Cup to avoid extreme heat, but will not likely come to a final decision.
  • According to a rights group, prominent Saudi activist and lawyer Waleed Abu al-Khair has been arrested after holding political meetings and discussion forums on Saudi affairs.
  • Egypt's cabinet approved a draft law Wednesday that would make insulting the flag and refusing to stand for the national anthem illegal offenses.

Arguments and Analysis

'What Happened to Egypt's Liberals after the Coup?' (Sharif Abdel Kouddous, The Nation)

"Opposition to Morsi grew throughout his time in office, eventually stretching across nearly every sector of Egyptian society. It also had grassroots support, manifested in more than 9,000 protests and strikes during his year-long rule that culminated in calls for early presidential elections and the unprecedented June 30 mobilization.

His opponents included a broad swath of political and social movements, often characterized by conflicting ideologies and grievances. It included revolutionary activists, labor unions, human rights advocates, the Coptic Church, intransigent state institutions, former Mubarak regime members and sidelined business elites as well as the formal opposition -- the flock of non-Islamist political parties and figures routinely lumped together as 'liberals,' despite the fact that many of them have rejected any notion of political pluralism, a defining characteristic of liberalism.

The result has been a confusing, and increasingly atomized, political landscape. Of the disparate groups opposed to Morsi, some actively sought military intervention, fewer opposed any military role, while others -- like Dawoud -- stood by the military as it ousted the president, but eventually broke away in the face of mounting state violence and mass arrests of Islamists under the guise of a ‘war on terror.' "

'Netanyahu's Iran Obsession a Diversion from Palestine' (Daoud Kuttab, Al-Monitor)

"On the surface, Israeli apologists might argue that the heightened emphasis on Iran is an existential issue due to the fear that Iran is on the verge of developing a nuclear bomb, an assertion the Iranians flatly reject. The new Iranian foreign minister, Mohammad Javad Zarifmocked Netanyahu, noting that Israelis have been claiming for 22 years that Iran is six months away from developing nuclear military capabilities.

A more logical explanation is that the obsession of Israeli leaders with Iran is a clever attempt at diverting attention from the Palestinian issue, where negotiations are not moving and where his right-wing government is reluctant to make any serious concessions.

Despite Netanyahu's claim that all six prime ministers since the Oslo Accords as well as himself are willing to make 'painful concessions,' the reality on the ground is quite different. The fact that the number of settlers has doubled since the Oslo Accords were signed is the most obvious sign that Israeli leaders actions speak much louder than their own words."

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber


The Middle East Channel

Tunisia: politics as usual

It may be tempting to situate news that Tunisia's Islamist-led government is preparing to stand down as part of the demise of moderate Islamism across the Middle East and North Africa. This would be a mistake. As for the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, this is about politics: the politics, that is, of who controls what within the narrow confines of a political elite, now at risk of sinking together unless they wake up to the demands of governing rather than squabbling.

Tunisia's seemingly endless rows about the role of Islam in politics have, in reality, been a side-show to old-fashioned power struggles. The anti-Islamist secularists who regularly accuse the leading party of the "troika" (three-party coalition) government, Ennahda, of having stolen "their" revolution, of allying with Salafist radicals to place Tunisia under sharia law, and of placing party allegiance above national interest seem blissfully unaware that a full 88 percent of Tunisians polled in March support some degree of reference to the Quran in Tunisian law. In focusing all their energies on vilifying Ennahda and its Islamist agenda, the opposition has failed to channel public debate toward the key demands of the 2011 protesters -- namely reform of the economy and state institutions, the implementation of a much-needed media law, and a root-and-branch clean-up of the discredited judiciary and security services. 

Encouraged by Egypt's recent experience, opposition parties may, in fact, be seeking to outplay Ennahda at its own game of trying to co-opt the state and bring key institutions under the control of party leaders. By placing its members in senior positions of state, Ennahda has failed to distance itself from the corrupt and clientalist practices of the old regime. Rather than addressing the root causes of clientalism and the pervasive influence it still exerts over due process and the professionalization of public services (and the media), the debate has focused instead on the role and intentions of personalities -- above all on Ennahda's leader, Rachid Ghannouchi.

Following the nearly disastrous attack on the U.S. Embassy by Salafist protesters in September 2012, the local head of police reportedly refrained from restoring order because the (Ennahda-appointed) minister of interior had not provided him with the relevant instructions. In a functioning democratic state, this would not be the minister's call. Yet rather than pointing this out, opposition leaders seized on the incident as proof of the duplicity of Ennahda and its Salafist "allies."

Ennahda, in turn, has acted defensively, and slowly, to counter accusations of its hidden agendas and incompetence in government. With hindsight, Rachid Ghannouchi's prominent role in politics was a serious error, especially following his choice not to run for public office in the 2011 elections.  Not only have Ghannouchi and the party apparatus exposed themselves to accusations of nepotism and extra-constitutional meddling, but their appearance of running a parallel government undermined the efforts of Ennahda's first prime minister, Hamadi Jebali, to include technocrats in government. Indeed, a technocratic government would have fared better at reforming the judiciary, expanding press freedoms, and bringing in the necessary experience to jumpstart the economy.

Now that Ennahda is facing a similar eventuality from a position of weakness, the party leadership should recall that Jebali (who resigned over the issue in February) emerged as the most trusted politician in the eyes of Tunisians polled by Pew Research this year, with a 58 percent approval rating.

The main jolt to Ennahda's "political placement" strategy, however, has been the rapid dismantling of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood's "parallel state" over the past few months. This demonstrated that the appearance of top-down control, illusory in the case of the Egypt's Brotherhood-led government, failed to engender any real change in the distribution of state power.

Under the intensified pressure following the second assassination of a high level opposition figure in July, the Tunisian government also moved belatedly to outlaw the Salafist Ansar al-Sharia movement -- which has nevertheless remained entrenched in a number of Tunisian cities and neglected hinterland regions. A summer of intense unrest, heightened by recurrent security scares and the still unresolved battles against al Qaeda-linked jihadists on the Algerian border, has slowed economic recovery and halted the constitutional reform process.

Meanwhile, an unprecedented alliance over economic objectives between the main employers' federation, UTICA, and national trade union, UGTT, has provided the UGTT with a leading role in bringing the different political forces together. If Ennahda and its allies in government now cede ground to finalize the constitution on a more consensual basis and set dates for the election of a more permanent government, they might see their slipping fortunes reversed. According to the Pew Research poll, Ghannouchi's approval rating has fallen by half in 2013 from 2012, when he commanded a 66 percent approval rating, and Ennahda, while still ahead of other parties, has lost 25 percent of its "favorable" rating in 2012. More respondents now view the party unfavorably (50 percent) than favorably (40 percent).

The rest of the political establishment, however, fares even worse. This suggests that in making the secular-religious divide central to what has defined them over the past two years, all political parties, including newer ones, have lost popular support. According to the Pew data, the most popular institution in Tunisia is still the army (with 90 percent support, down from 97 percent last year) -- but not for the same reasons it has been in Egypt. In contrast to the Egyptian armed forces, the Tunisian army is small and plays no political role.

Just as in 2011, Tunisians seek a national debate focused on economic and institutional reform -- not a discussion about civil liberties and democratic principles pitched against political interpretations of Islam, both sides of which they agree with in principle but consider irrelevant if their standards of living do not improve.

For the outside world, the lesson should be one of sustained support for a process of transition that has still not completely derailed, even though the economic and security challenges facing Tunisia are pressing. In the wake of two political assassinations this year, Tunisia's political classes deserve praise for having collectively recognized the urgency of combating the jihadist threat lest it engulf them all. Distracted by Syria, and now Iran, the United States and Europe may well have their sights set elsewhere in the region. Yet it is precisely because Tunisia is still intact that timely investments in jobs and infrastructure are now needed, above all in the neglected areas of the country where jihadists thrive.

Dr. Claire Spencer is the Head of the Middle East and North Africa Program at Chatham House, based in London.