The Middle East Channel

Morsi Stands Trial as Egyptian Army Backs Sisi Presidential Bid

Former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi has remained defiant as the trial over his jailbreak during the 2011 uprising opened Tuesday. The ousted president is being charged with collaborating with Hamas and Hezbollah to lead a mass escape from the Wadi al-Natrun prison and for killing prison officers. Morsi and several other defendants are being held in a soundproofed glass box for the trial. Nonetheless, the ousted leader shouted, "I am the president of the republic" and told the court "this trial is not legal." Though Morsi has refused to recognize the court, in a surprise move, he appointed a defense lawyer. Morsi is facing four criminal trials on separate charges, including inciting the killing of protesters during a December 2012 demonstration outside the presidential palace. Meanwhile, the Egyptian army has backed a presidential bid by Defense Minister Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. In a statement broadcast on state television Monday, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) called a presidential run by Sisi a "mandate and an obligation" requested by the "masses of honorable Egyptian people." The SCAF did not officially announce Sisi's candidacy, saying he would make the final decision "according to his conscience." According to a government source, Sisi will attend his last cabinet meeting Wednesday before resigning and announcing his presidential bid.

Syria

Syrian peace talks have resumed for a fourth day in Geneva despite a deadlock over the formation of a transitional administration and access for U.N. humanitarian aid convoys to besieged areas, specifically the city of Homs. Negotiations reportedly ended on Monday after the government delegation presented a "declaration of basic principles" that did not include a political transition. U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi admitted negotiations "hadn't produced much" to this point, and said that Tuesday's talks would focus on the Geneva communiqué that calls for a transitional administration. Brahimi also mentioned he hoped the parties would agree on concrete steps on humanitarian aid. According to the World Food Programme, the United Nations is prepared to deliver a month's worth of food to the Old City of Homs, where 2,500 people are reportedly trapped. The United States has accused the Syrian government of harming the negotiations by denying the delivery of aid to besieged areas of the country. Meanwhile, a second shipment of Syria's most toxic chemical weapons was exported on Monday from the port of Latakia, according to the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons and the United Nations. The removal operation is behind schedule with a low estimate of five percent of the 600 tons of the most lethal chemical agents so far exported.

Headlines

  • Gunmen on a motorbike shot and killed senior Egyptian interior ministry official General Mohammad Saeed outside his home in Cairo Tuesday.
  • Kofi Annan's group of "Elders" met with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani Tuesday discussing the Syrian civil war and Tehran's contested nuclear program.
  • The Pentagon announced plans to sell 24 Apache attack helicopters to Iraq after a congressional hurdle was removed Monday.
  • Talks between the Libyan government and a federalist protest movement that has seized three major oil ports have reportedly advanced so that exports may be resumed within two weeks.

Arguments and Analysis

'Egypt Has Replaced a Single Dictator With a Slew of Dictatorial Institutions: The sad story of Amr Hamzawy and Emad Shahin' (Nathan Brown, The New Republic)

"Both Hamzawy and Shahin are academics, but they have also been critical of the emerging political order in Egypt. Neither is a much of a firebrand. While different in their politics -- Hamzawy closer to the liberal end of the spectrum; Shahin more respectful of political Islam -- they also stand out for their ability to talk across Egypt's great divide. Indeed, beneath all their erudition and complicated syntax, both seem ultimately simply nerdier versions of Rodney King: their message to their fellow citizens can be summed up as 'People, I want to say -- can we all get along?'

That message had kept both Hamzawy and Shahin on the right side of the law under Egypt's previous rulers -- Husni Mubarak, the military, and Muhammad Morsi -- even though they were capable of criticizing all three. The conclusion from their recent troubles might seem to be clear: Egypt has entered an even harsher period in which centralized totalitarianism brooks no dissent from a terrorized society.

But actually, the problem may be a bit different -- and perhaps more difficult to resolve. Egypt's political affliction is not one dictatorial person but a host of dictatorial institutions, and much of Egyptian society is a happy participant rather than cowering victim in the wave of repression."

'Don't Undermine the Iran Deal' (Carl Levin and Angus King, New York Times)

"The potential upside of legislating further sanctions is the hope that increased pressure might elicit more concessions or push Iran to conclude a more favorable deal. But this is unlikely. The potential downside is more likely and more dangerous: Iran's decision makers could conclude that the United States government was not negotiating in good faith -- a view that Iranian hard-liners already espouse. This could prompt Iran to walk away from the negotiations or counter with a new set of unrealistic demands while redoubling its efforts to produce nuclear weapons.

Instead of slowing Iran's nuclear program, such legislation could actually accelerate its quest for atomic weapons, leaving a stark choice: Either accept the possibility of a nuclear-armed Iran, or use military force to stop it.

Worse still, it could alienate our international partners. The sanctions have been effective largely because of the active participation of many countries, including China and Russia. When the United States alone doesn't buy Iranian oil, it has little effect on Iran's economy, but when the European Union stops, and other major oil customers of Iran such as China, Japan, South Korea, India and Turkey significantly reduce their purchases (which they have), Iran is in trouble (which it is).

The countries that have joined America in ratcheting up the economic pressure on Iran all support the interim agreement that went into effect on Jan. 20. Legislation to impose additional sanctions by the United States could be interpreted by our partners as undermining the negotiations. This could have the adverse effect of lessening the international community's economic pressure on Iran, spooking our partners and diminishing their commitment to the cause."

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber

Ed Giles/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

The 'Non-Conclusion' of Yemen’s National Dialogue

Yemen held the closing ceremony of its National Dialogue Conference (NDC) on Saturday, January 25. This followed 10 months of talks among more than 500 delegates from all parts of the country. Delegates met to decide the outcome of Yemen's political transition after mass protests forced former President Ali Abdullah Saleh to resign in November 2011. While the conference has been hailed a success by its internal leadership and some external financial sponsors, it concludes without firm plans for a future government beyond general ideas of federalized parliamentary rule. As a result, there is good reason to view the NDC's closing ceremony as a non-conclusion, or at best, only a partial conclusion.

The poor result in the Yemeni capital Sanaa is unsurprising given the large number of problems facing the country over the past two decades, since its national unification in 1990 and first elections in 1993 resulted in a civil war in 1994. Yemenis are the poorest people in the Arab world, enduring severe economic hardship over the past three years, including unemployment, poverty, and malnutrition levels over 50 percent. Yemen has also been experiencing severe environmental crisis, water shortages, and political violence now dividing the country along multiple regional lines. On Saturday, transitional President Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi told the NDC, "I did not take over a nation. I took over a capital where gunshots are continuous day and night, where roadblocks fill the streets. I took over an empty bank that has no wages and a divided security apparatus and army." 

In order to understand Yemen's current predicament at the "non-conclusion" of its NDC, it is necessary to grasp three related points. First, unlike Arab states that were surprised by the outbreak of mass street protests in 2011, Yemen had already experienced years of open rebellion prior to 2011. In fact, between 2008 and 2010, the international community warily viewed Yemen as a potential failed state, quite unlike circumstances in Tunisia, Egypt, and other "Arab Spring" states. For this reason, when the first waves of dramatic history-making events reached the shores of Yemen in 2011, they arrived not as a potential new beginning, as elsewhere in the Arab world. Instead, they arrived as a potential conclusion to an old set of problems stretching back at least to 1990, or even earlier to the 1960s.

Second, Yemen's NDC had to wrestle with a set of unresolved conflicts, which had badly weakened the government prior to 2011. These conflicts existed in multiple regions of the country, creating rival authorities to the state. In order to succeed, the NDC needed to attract participants who could legitimately represent all groups in the country. This delayed the start of the NDC for an entire year. The old regime's strongest and best organized rival, the Houthi movement located north of Sanaa among followers of a martyred Zaidi Shiite leader, agreed to participate from the beginning. However, the Houthis occasionally suspended attendance due to a variety of grievances. Meanwhile, south of Sanaa, the main leaders of Hirak, the southern protest movement, decided to boycott the NDC, while seeking full independence from the north. The NDC managed to recruit a few dozen southerners who presumed to act in the name of Hirak. But this remained the major weakness of the national dialogue. Other regional protest groups east and west of Sanaa were not even considered for admission to the NDC.

Third, after the NDC commenced, participants served on one of nine subcommittees designed to reach consensus on an equal number of future government concerns, including economic development and civil rights. Two subcommittees, state foundations and the southern issue, were arguably more important than others because they would co-determine basic structures of government, which would necessarily influence every other NDC outcome. For example, if settlement of the southern issue led to new state foundations similar to Yemen's pre-1990 division along north-south lines, then it would alter the range of possible outcomes in the fields of economics and civil rights. This dilemma slowed the work of the entire conference, resulting in still more delays beyond its originally scheduled conclusion in late September 2013. The NDC risked complete failure without consensus on the southern issue. Thus, conference leaders appealed to international donors to fund an extension for an additional four months. Yet even this extension only produced the NDC's eventual "non-conclusion."

The underlying importance of these three points is obvious -- namely, there is a direct line running between them, indicating a fundamental problem from the outset of the NDC due to its failure to include all regional groups in conflict with the regime prior to 2011. This fact is easy to ignore when the NDC is celebrated as a success. Those responsible for organizing it often want to compare favorably the country's political transition, since 2011, with what happened in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, and Syria, across the same time period. They claim Yemen's transition is better because it relied on peaceful dialogue, instead of disputed elections and armed conflict. Yet this mistakenly assumes the moment of transition in Yemen was the same as the other Arab states. And it overlooks that the NDC was less a new start, afforded by an unexpected moment of crisis, than it was an opportunity to conclude an old set of problems, which had generated permanent crisis for years.

To grasp the full implications of the NDC's "non-conclusion," it is necessary to review what happened after September 2013, when international donors agreed to fund an extension until January 2014. Once donors were on board, a small group of 16 people (called "the 8+8 subcommittee of the southern issue," consisting of eight northerners and eight southerners) was selected to decide the outcome of the southern issue. The chair of this "8+8" subcommittee, Muhammad Ali Ahmed, had headed the southern issue subcommittee as a southern ally of Hadi, who comes from the same southern province. Hadi originally recruited Ahmed to replace the previous head of the southern issue subcommittee, a very influential tribal sheikh who resigned in April 2013 due to grievances about the NDC's poor representation of southern interests, particularly the interests of Hirak. In the meantime, Ahmed and other southern representatives felt compelled to adopt a strong bargaining position in favor of Hirak's demand for southern independence.

In the "8+8" subcommittee, Ahmed and his allies continued pushing for a unitary southern region equal in power to northern areas. (Southern lands are wealthier, and more than twice the size of northern lands; yet the northern population is more than four times the southern population). Leading northern members of the "8+8" subcommittee countered with a proposal to form a new federal state consisting of two regions in the south and four regions in the north. Unable to break this impasse, Ahmed and his allies began boycotting the NDC. Eventually Hadi and the conference leadership replaced Ahmed as head of the "8+8" subcommittee, while recruiting yet another new group of southerners who expressed willingness to accept the six-region federal proposal. Nonetheless, the "8+8" subcommittee never made a final recommendation. Instead, it papered over the disagreement by suggesting Hadi form a technical committee to choose between the last two options under consideration: either a federal state of two regions (north and south), or six regions.

It was only by postponing the decision about how many federal regions would exist in the new Yemen that Hadi was able to conduct the closing ceremony of the NDC. Each subcommittee of the national dialogue had been able to complete its work, and file a definitive final report, except the subcommittee on the southern issue. Even the subcommittee on state foundations accepted the idea of Yemen adopting federalism under some form to be determined at a later date. Prior to the NDC's closing ceremony, Hadi extended his own term as transitional president for one year, in order to appoint and monitor two new committees. One, a committee of technical experts, will choose between a federal state of two or six regions; and the other, a committee of legal experts, will draft a new constitution based on recommendations of the NDC. Once these two committees finish their work, a referendum will be held to seek public approval of the result. And finally, voters will elect a new president.

The timeline to complete all of the above steps is one year, or any time prior to the end of January 2015. This would be a reasonable timeline, if the NDC had concluded with consensus about the country's future direction. Yet there was never consensus at Yemen's national dialogue. As a result, it remains an open question whether or not the country can accomplish everything on its agenda for the coming year. There is still a great deal riding on a difficult decision about the number of federal regions, and the inherent trouble of drawing boundary lines between the regions. This is bound to upset more than one constituency in the country. In truth, the outcome of Yemen's political transition now depends on the decision of a technical committee working under Hadi's supervision. Hadi has recently been quoted saying "all of Yemen's problems can be resolved through a federal design" if the number and location of federal regions are determined "with the aim of getting rid of regionalism and sectarianism."

Don't bet on it. Around the country, there are disgruntled members of various regional groups that did not participate in the NDC. These groups continue to rebel in a variety of ways. This is true in the eastern Hadhramaut province, where a tribal alliance recently launched an armed campaign to liberate its territory; and in the western region of Tihama, where civil disobedience is being used to assert local self-rule for the first time in nearly a century. South of Sanaa, Hirak is mobilizing stronger resistance, while north of Sanaa, sectarian warfare continues to spread, as Houthi supporters expand territory under their control. Meanwhile, inside the capital, remnants of the old regime still exist. They denounce the outcome of the NDC, accusing foreign powers of taking over the country and running it as a trusteeship. They have also resorted to increasingly fiery, religious rhetoric, which will aggravate sectarian tensions. By this time next year, it is hard to predict the shape of the new Yemen because current trends are headed in the opposite direction, away from the future and toward the past. By 2015, political conditions are perhaps as likely to resemble the 1950s, a period of rule by imams and sultans prior to Yemen's modern revolutions, as the 1980s, preceding national unification of its north and south republics.

Stephen W. Day is an adjunct professor of international affairs at Rollins College in Florida and author of Regionalism and Rebellion in Yemen: A Troubled National Union (Cambridge University Press, 2012.)

MOHAMMED HUWAIS/AFP/Getty Images