The Middle East Channel

Putin Backs Sisi’s Bid for Egypt’s Presidency

Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday conveyed his support for Egyptian Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi's bid for Egypt's presidency, wishing him "luck" in the upcoming contest. Meeting with Egyptian authorities in Moscow, Putin told Sisi, "I know that you have decided to run for president of Egypt. This is a very responsible decision, to take upon yourself responsibility for the fate of the Egyptian people." Though Sisi has not officially announced his candidacy for the presidency, his visit to Moscow is another sign that such announcement is imminent. Sisi's meeting with Russian officials aimed at finalizing a $2 billion arms agreement between Egypt and Russia. "Our visit offers a new start to the development of military and technological co-operation between Egypt and Russia. We hope to speed up this co-operation," Sisi remarked on the meeting.

Syria

The Syrian National Coalition on Wednesday presented a 24-point plan consisting of "basic principles" to end the Syrian conflict. Surprisingly, the document makes no mention of Assad, and includes plans for the formation of a transitional authority and the eviction of all foreign fighters from Syria. The Syrian government delegation at Geneva has not yet responded to the proposal. In Homs, the humanitarian ceasefire has been extended for three more days to allow for the evacuation of remaining civilians. The city's governor, Talal al-Barazi, claims that 1,400 people have been evacuated from Homs since last Friday, but nearly 220 of those rescued are facing background checks by Syrian authorities. Meanwhile, fighting between Syrian government and opposition forces persists across the country. On Wednesday, Syrian government forces conducted airstrikes in Aleppo, killing at least 51 people, and resumed military operations against Yabroud, the last remaining rebel stronghold in the Qalamoun mountains. Fighting in the Qalamoun area has forced many local Syrians to flee their homes for neighboring Lebanon. According to the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 236 people on average have been killed daily since the beginning of the Geneva 2 peace talks in late January.   

Headlines

  • Fighting between Iraqi authorities and Sunni militants in Iraq's Anbar province has displaced up to 300,000 people since late December according to the UN.
  • Islamist militants seized part of the northern Iraqi town of Sulaiman Bek and surrounding villages on Thursday, marking the Iraqi government's latest loss of territory to militants.
  • Israel is proceeding with plans to construct a nine-story Jewish seminary in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Arab East Jerusalem.

Arguments and Analysis

'Worse Than Mubarak: Egypt's New Constitution and the Police State' (Mara Revkin, Foreign Affairs)

"Egypt is not the first country in the world to declare a 'war on terror,' but it is one of the only nations to have written counterterrorism into its constitution. Last month, an overwhelming 98.1 percent of voters approved Egypt's new charter in a referendum marred by a heavy-handed military campaign to stifle dissent. The new constitution further marginalizes Islamists from political life and enhances the powers of the military and security services by, among other things, banning all political activity based on religion and giving the military veto authority over the president's choice of defense minister for the next eight years. But as problematic as those measures are, one of the constitution's most alarming sections has been overlooked: an unprecedented counterterrorism clause that lays the legal foundation for a police state that is a military dictatorship in all but name. 

Buried on page 62 of a rambling document that most Egyptians admit they have not even read is Article 237, the most sweeping counterterrorism mandate in any Egyptian constitution. It obligates the state to ‘fight all types and forms of terrorism and track its sources of funding within a specific time frame in recognition of the threat it represents to the nation and citizens.' Article 237 doesn't define 'terrorism' or the scope of the powers it grants the government, deferring them to future legislation. But for now, Egypt has no parliament. The military dissolved it last summer as part of its overthrow of former President Mohammed Morsi. With new parliamentary elections not expected until later this year, legislative authority rests solely in the hands of the military-appointed interim president, Adly Mansour."

'The Tunisian Constitution: The Process and the Outcome' (Mohamed-Salah Omri, Jadaliyya)

"The Tunisian constitution is the outcome of a process of a struggle over what the post-revolution society is going to be like. The deadlock did not lead to open conflict, but instead, to negotiation and tradeoffs. The development of the constitution over the last three years is organically linked to the dynamics in the country over the same period. Its final version bears the traces of mutual distrust among the two main political poles. And just like any compromise, it opens room for interpretation. One thing is certain: the turn towards a religious state in Tunisia has been aborted. Now begins the work to consolidate and enshrine into laws the foundations of a democratic, civil, and just state. For this reason, the next elections are absolutely crucial to the future of Tunisia, to the role of political Islam, and to the region as a whole.

On a more prospective level, this process is ingenious. I am not sure how it came about or whether it had a precedent elsewhere. But it is certainly worth studying, and perhaps even emulating in similar situations, since it has been the determining factor in bringing about a decisive turn to democratic and civil rule in Tunisia. One further issue is worth bearing in mind. The national dialogue in Tunisia resulted in three simultaneous outcomes: an independent government whose members are not allowed to run for office in the next elections, a consensual constitution, and an independent election commission. All three have been designed to remove political parties from government until next elections. This has evened out the playing field and changed the rules of the game for the next elections. Ennahda is no longer driving the agenda, and its opponents can no longer continue capitalizing on opposing its policies. The outcome of this unprecedented situation is anyone's guess."

'No Stability in Syria Without Political Change' (Thomas Pierret, Carnegie Endowment)

"Many point to regional influence over the actors on both sides of the conflict as a reason for this blockage and, consequently, as the key to ending the deadlock. If Iran, which supports Assad, and Saudi Arabia, which supports the opposition, could be drawn into direct talks over Syria, so the argument goes, these regional powers might be able to balance their interests among themselves. They could then agree to symmetrically scale down their support to the warring sides, thereby dampening the conflict and creating the conditions for a settlement in Syria.

But the role of regional state players in the exacerbation of the conflict should not be exaggerated. Neither Iran nor Saudi Arabia is primarily responsible for the conflict's sectarian turn. Rather, they have been dragged into a sectarian conflictthat long predates their rivalry. The conflict's transformation into an all-out war -- which dates to early February 2012, when the regime began using heavy artillery against Homs -- occurred before there had been any significant Saudi involvement on the rebel side, although Iran was already funding and supporting Assad's government at that time.

The Syrian conflict is first and foremost about sectarian power sharing inside Syria. It cannot be solved while Assad and his fellow members of a small religious minority, the Alawites, exert total control over the military-security apparatus. For as long as this fundamental internal imbalance remains, Syria will remain a black hole irresistibly attracting external players -- and attempts to resolve the conflict by focusing only on its regional dimension will be doomed to fail. Any credible peace effort requires negotiations that deal with the root problem and the demand for real political transition."

-- Joshua Haber

MIKHAIL METZEL/AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Algerian Military Plane Crashes Killing 77 People

An Algerian military transport plane crashed into a mountain in the eastern Oum al-Bouaghi province Tuesday killing 77 people and leaving one survivor. The passengers were mainly military personnel and their families. Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has praised the soldiers who were killed as "martyrs" and declared three days of mourning for the victims. The defense ministry said "very bad weather conditions, involving a storm and heavy snowfall" caused the crash, but it has established a commission to investigate the incident. It was the country's worst plane crash since 2003 when a civilian airliner crashed at the end of a runway in Tamanrasset killing 102 people.

Syria

The U.N. mission to evacuate civilians from the besieged Old City of Homs and deliver aid resumed Wednesday after being suspended for a day. Talal Barzai, the governor of Homs, said operations had been suspended due to "logistical difficulties." The temporary cease-fire is set to expire Wednesday, but Barzai said it could be extended if more people wish to leave the area. The United Nations expressed concern over men and boys who have been detained after being evacuated. According to the United Nations, about 400 men between the ages of 15 and 54 have been detained, while the governor put the number at 330. The disparity in counts has raised concerns that 70 men have been transferred to the custody of security agencies. U.N. mediator Lakhdar Brahimi said peace talks between the Syrian government and opposition are not making much progress. Brahimi has moved up a meeting to Thursday with U.S. and Russian officials, hoping they can put pressure on their respective allies. On Wednesday, Russia said it would veto a U.N. resolution on humanitarian aid access in Syria if it remains in its current form. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Gennady Gatilov said of the draft that its "aim is to create grounds for future military action against the Syrian government." Meeting in Washington, U.S. President Barack Obama and French President Francois Hollande criticized Russian aims to block the resolution. Hollande said, "Why would you prevent the vote of a resolution if, in good faith, it is all about saving human lives?" Meanwhile, Syrian warplanes pounded the strategic rebel-held town of Yabroud near Lebanon Wednesday. Syrian government forces backed by Hezbollah fighters have stepped up an offensive in apparent efforts to consolidate control over the border region.

Headlines

  • Egypt's army chief and defense minister, Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, made a rare visit to Russia to discuss bilateral cooperation and, according to anonymous military sources, finalize an arms deal.
  • Security forces have detained an Egyptian employee of the U.S. Embassy who served as a liaison to the Muslim Brotherhood, and have held him without charge since January 25.
  • The Lebanese army has arrested a leader of the al Qaeda linked Abdullah Azzam Brigades for suspected involvement in a series of car bombings.
  • The United Nations has reported that up to 300,000 people have been displaced by fighting over the past six weeks in the cities of Fallujah and Ramadi in Iraq's Anbar province.

Arguments and Analysis

'Use Force to Save Starving Syrians' (Danny Postel and Nader Hashemi, New York Times)

"We should invoke the Responsibility to Protect, the principle that if a state fails to protect its populations from mass atrocities -- or is in fact the perpetrator of such crimes -- the international community must step in to protect the victims, with the collective use of force authorized by the Security Council. And if a multinational force cannot be assembled, then at least some countries should step up and organize Syria's democratically oriented rebel groups to provide the necessary force on the ground, with air cover from participating nations.

There are precedents to follow. The American-led and United Nations-approved multinational effort in Somalia between December 1992 and May 1993 was authorized to use ‘all necessary measures' to guarantee the delivery of humanitarian aid. In retrospect, this all-but-forgotten operation was largely successful in humanitarian terms. While public attention has focused on the 'Black Hawk Down' battle of October 1993, a military failure, the strictly humanitarian goal of getting food to starving Somalis was in fact a success.

Before any such operation begins, however, Mr. Assad and the rebel groups should be put on notice that they have 48 hours to lift the sieges. There are reasons to believe that the mere threat of coercive action would produce results."

'Lessons From a Lost Revolution: Egypt's Fate Still Hangs in the Balance' (H.A. Hellyer, Salon)

"All over the world, and throughout history, politics has divided families. Egypt is no exception. Wives and husbands; brothers and sisters; parents and children. Some side with the bad, others with the really ugly -- but few, it seems, find themselves aligned with an uncomplicated good. If, in London and Washington, I've disagreed with a few former confederates on Egypt, I've been repelled on another level entirely by many in Cairo, due to their uniquely distasteful viewpoints.

I've known those who claimed during Morsi's presidency that they were for the advancement of human rights, and then turn a blind eye to human rights violations after Morsi's removal from power. Some of these people still, without irony, claim to be ‘liberal.' Many of them would have been dismayed at the killings of protesters under Mubarak or Morsi. But their fury was mute after the 'most serious incident of mass unlawful killings' of Egyptian civilians in modern history, as state forces killed hundreds of people in the aftermath of sit-ins and protests against the current military-backed interim government. These people rightly mourn the many who have been killed by Islamist militants, yet they see little wrong in the many thousands detained under dubious justifications. They say little or nothing about the new restrictions against assembly and the press. Without evidence, they willfully accept the arguments of fringe American conservatives who would associate the Brotherhood with al-Qaeda. And it is rare indeed to see them criticize any excess by the state.

On the other side of this divide, there are those delivering apologia for the Brotherhood, arguing Morsi was at worst guilty of understandable mismanagement. In this parallel narrative, opposition against him was minimal, and were he to run in presidential elections, he might even win."

--Mary Casey & Joshua Haber

FAROUK BATICHE/AFP/Getty Images