The Middle East Channel

Syria Presents Aleppo Cease-Fire Plan Ahead of Peace Talks

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem presented a cease-fire plan for Aleppo to Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov Friday, and said he is ready to exchange lists for a possible prisoner exchange with opposition forces. The United States and Russia have been working to negotiate confidence-building measures between Syria's warring parties and to allow greater humanitarian assistance into the country, especially the areas long under siege by government forces. However, some Syrian residents and opposition officials expressed concern that the regime uses cease-fires as covers to gain victories where it could not otherwise achieve it. Additionally, in recent weeks Russia has increased its deliveries of military supplies to Syria, including armored vehicles, drones, and guided bombs. Nonetheless, Western-backed rebel fighters have agreed to adhere to a partial cease-fire if the Syrian government commits to one. The meeting between the Syrian and Russian officials came as the main Western-backed opposition Syrian National Coalition decides whether to attend a peace conference set to convene in Switzerland on January 22. The United States has been putting pressure on the coalition to participate in the peace talks, and on Thursday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry offered assurances to the opposition group that the Obama administration will continue to push for a transitional government that does not include President Bashar al-Assad. Meanwhile, at least 20 rockets fired from Syria hit the Lebanese border town of Arsal on Friday, killing an estimated seven people and injuring 15 others. 

Headlines

  • Prosecutors have released a statement on charges for three Al Jazeera journalists held in Egypt amid a crackdown that challenges proposed freedoms included in a new constitution headed to ratification.
  • The White House has released technical details of the recent Iran nuclear deal as it continues efforts to delay new sanctions.
  • The Special Tribunal for Lebanon began its second day of deliberations Friday in a trial over the assassination of former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri that the chief prosecutor said is likely to continue "for years."
  • The bodies of 14 Sunni Muslim tribesmen who were kidnapped by suspected militants in military uniforms were found with gunshot wounds in an orchard north of the Iraqi capital of Baghdad.
  • An Israeli draft law that would criminalize the use of the word "Nazi" in certain circumstances, sparking debate over freedom of speech, received preliminary approval from the Knesset.

Arguments and Analysis

'Does Egypt's Vote Matter?' (Ursula Lindsey, New York Times)

"This is the third constitutional referendum since Mr. Mubarak was forced out. Security conditions have deteriorated and political divisions deepened. Instead of real conversation about policies and politics, the debate has been reduced to slogans: vote for Islam, vote to protect Egypt from terrorism and foreign plots.

This constitution promises, on paper, a way forward. But the onslaught against the Brotherhood risks creating more religious extremism, and a long cycle of violence and repression. Drafted by an appointed assembly with only two Islamists among its 50 members, the constitution in theory would enshrine many crucial rights and freedoms. But these ideals are completely at odds with the politicized trials and human rights violations in the name of fighting 'terrorism.'

The result of the vote is not in question. But it is unlikely that even resounding approval will bring to Egypt the stability, democracy and development that the interim government and its military backers are promising."

'Boxed In' (Sarah Carr, Mada Masr)

"Voters repeatedly linked a 'yes' to the constitution with a ‘yes to Sisi' yesterday. His picture was everywhere, and in some quarters he is regarded as the second coming. One man actually said this, that Sisi was 'sent' to protect Egypt. I remembered 2011, and the Islamists and their rhetoric, a 'yes' vote is a vote for Islam. It's still all about interchangeable deities in the end.

One interesting aspect of all this is that Mubarak was noticeably absent from the military effigies (Nasser, Sadat, Sisi) plastered everywhere, but his spirit permeated everything. He bequeathed the current situation to Egypt, after all, the us vs. them mindset, the suspicion of political or cultural otherness, that idea that Egypt, and Egyptian identity, must be a fortress against interlopers and the ease with which the threat of such interlopers, real or imagined, can steer the country's course.

This referendum is part of that legacy. It is another brick in the wall of the security state and its relentless homogeneity. In January 2011, there was a small crack put in that wall and we were given a glimpse of a new possibility, of new faces, and new political forces. But through a tragic and increasingly inevitable combination of their own inexperience, blind trust and the public's unwillingness to back an unknown entity, they were eventually shut out of the public space and we were reduced to the same old tired binary of Islamists and the old state -- just like Mubarak promised us."

'Letter from Lebanon: A Bookshop Burns' (Elias Muhanna, The New Yorker)

"The Lebanese have absorbed the blows of the Syrian proxy war by desensitizing themselves, an old habit born from years of muddling forward through violence, decaying infrastructure, and communal strife. When Father Sarrouj's books went up in flames, though, a nerve was apparently struck. Within hours, civil-society groups set up a barn-raising effort to secure and catalogue the undamaged books, clean up the shop, and build new shelving. Someone launched a fundraising initiative. Book drives were organized around the country. An international courier announced that it would ship books from anywhere in the world to Lebanon to replenish Father Sarrouj's collection. I asked a student activist organizing one such drive in Michigan about the kinds of books they were receiving. 'All kinds of things. Lots of history,' she said, then added, 'Actually, lots of books about J.F.K., for some weird reason.'

Suddenly, this became a feel-good story, a triumph of convivencia over sectarianism. The bookshop fire set the stage for a moment of national catharsis; it was a small problem that could be fixed in a world of intractable conflicts. Every trope sacred to Lebanon's self-fashioning -- religious harmony, enlightened cosmopolitanism, civic-minded entrepreneurship -- came together in a metaphor that had the side benefit of being true. A Christian priest living among Muslims whose bookstore is saved by a grateful community? If a publisher has not yet optioned Father Sarrouj's biography, I imagine it's only a matter of time."

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber

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