The Middle East Channel

Egyptian Court Sentences 529 Muslim Brotherhood Supporters to Death

A court in southern Egyptian city of Minya on Monday sentenced 529 Muslim Brotherhood supporters to death on charges including murdering a policeman and attacking other officers in riots after security forces broke up two protest camps on August 14, 2013. The group is among more than 1,200 supporters of Mohamed Morsi on trial since a crackdown on Islamists after the military removed the president in July. In December, the government declared the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organization. Only about 147 defendants were present at the unprecedentedly rushed hearings, which began Saturday. Others were released or are on the run being tried in absentia. Sixteen defendants were acquitted. The verdict, the largest capital punishment verdict in the history of the Egyptian judiciary, and the sentences are subject to appeal, and are likely to be overturned, according to lawyers.  

Syria

Turkish fighter jets shot down a Syrian warplane Sunday after it breached Turkish airspace, according to Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Speaking at a campaign rally ahead of March 30 local elections, Erdogan congratulated the air force on its actions, saying, "If you violate our border, our slap will be hard." Syria condemned the strike as an act of "blatant aggression" saying the jet had been over Syrian territory targeting rebel fighters. According to Turkish sources, a control center detected two Syrian jets and warned them four times as they approached the Turkish border. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said initial reports indicated that the plane caught fire and crashed in Syrian territory. Rebel fighters, from mainly Islamist factions, seized the small predominantly Armenian Christian town of Kasab Sunday in northwestern Syrian, near the Turkish border, as well as a border crossing. The advances have come as part of an offensive along the coastal region of Latakia province traditionally a stronghold of support for Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Syria's state news agency and opposition activists reported that President Assad's cousin, Hilal al-Assad, head of the National Defense paramilitary forces in Latakia, was killed in the fighting.

Headlines

  • Suspected al Qaeda linked militants attacked a military checkpoint in Yemen's eastern Hadramout province Monday killing 20 soldiers.
  • The Lebanese army broke up clashes Sunday in south Beirut that killed at least one person, following a week of violence in the northern city of Tripoli that killed 27 people.
  • Six candidates have begun campaigning ahead of Algeria's April 17 presidential election, after protests opposing President Bouteflika's running for a fourth five-year term.

Arguments and Analysis

'Is Hezbollah Confronting a Crisis of Popular Legitimacy?' (Eric Lob, Middle East Brief)

"In addition, Hezbollah distributed basic services to thousands of Lebanese Shiites, along with Lebanese of other sects, in the form of housing, water, electricity, education, health, vocational training, and agricultural extension; it also repaired infrastructure damaged by Israeli attacks and by warring domestic factions. In sum, Hezbollah filled the void of a Lebanese state mired in internal factionalism and external meddling, and helped to deliver Lebanese Shiites from disenfranchisement and destitution to military empowerment, political relevance, and economic prosperity.

And yet, regardless of all its achievements -- or perhaps because of them -- Hezbollah has recently faced growing discontent and mounting criticism, not only from other Lebanese factions but from its own Shiite constituents. What are the sources of this discontent and criticism? Some experts believe that Hezbollah's erosion of domestic support originated with its recent intervention in Syria. This Brief argues, however, that Hezbollah's involvement in Syria only exacerbated a crisis of popular legitimacy that began in the mid-2000s. In the years since, Hezbollah, in its dual status as both a militia and a political party, both engaged in military confrontation with Israel and entered the Lebanese cabinet."

'65 Experts Call on Secretary Kerry to Bolster U.S. Support for Tunisia' (Project on Middle East Democracy)

"In January 2014, Tunisia passed a landmark constitution and undertook the first peaceful transfer of power in an Arab democracy. Successful consolidation of Tunisia's democratic gains will set an important example in the region, but recent successes will remain at risk unless the country's transition maintains momentum. You recently said, 'We're hopeful that Tunisia is going to succeed, and we're going to help... We're going to try to do all we can in this age of constrained budgets and difficult choices.' As you prepare to launch the Strategic Dialogue with Tunisia, we urge you to follow through on and deepen U.S. commitments to help build an enduring Tunisian democracy by bolstering support for its economic, political, and security needs.

Tunisia faces serious obstacles despite recent successes. Its struggling economy -- a root cause of the revolution -- remains unable to generate jobs for its well-educated population. The country's weak security apparatus has failed to address burgeoning extremist threats and has increasingly targeted human rights and political activists critical of its conduct. To maintain momentum, Tunisian leadership must make important decisions to avoid exacerbating political polarization."

-- Mary Casey & Cortni Kerr

-/AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Turkey Blocks Twitter Ahead of Local Elections

Turkey's courts have blocked Twitter ahead of local elections set to begin on March 30. The move came just hours after Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan said at a rally on the campaign trail, "Twitter and the rest, we will root out all of them. I don't care what the international community says, they will see the power of the Republic of Turkey." When trying to access the site, users have reported being redirected to a message by Turkey's telecommunications regulator citing a court order to apply "protection measures" on the website. Turkey is within the top ten countries for number of Twitter users in the world, but it is being criticized as joining the ranks of North Korea, Iran, and Syria in repression of social-media. However, Turkish residents are still able to access Twitter through the site's SMS service. Twitter played a major role in Turkey's protests in the summer of 2013 and has been a vehicle for the release of wire tapping recordings in a recent corruption scandal. Turkish President Abdullah Gul said complete social media bans are unacceptable, and circumvented the block tweeting "I hope this implementation won't last long." Turkey's opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) said it will file a legal challenge on Friday to the court decision to block Twitter access, and is additionally planning to file a criminal complaint against Erdogan for violating personal freedoms.  

Syria

The Syrian army seized a historic Crusader castle Thursday. The Crac des Chevaliers, a UNESCO World Heritage site that dates to the 12th century, had been a symbolic rebel stronghold. The victory came as part of a string of battlefield gains in a regime offensive to reclaim rebel held territory along the Lebanese border and sever opposition supply lines. Government forces have overtaken at least four towns and villages in the region in the past two weeks including Yabroud and al-Hosn. With three years of fierce fighting sparking mass refugee flows, Syrians topped the world's list of asylum seekers for the first time in 2013. According to a UNHCR report released Friday, in 2013, 56,351 Syrians sought asylum, more than double the number in 2012. Most have been turning to Europe, and U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Anotonio Guterres said, "There is clear evidence in these numbers of how the Syria crisis in particular is affecting countries and regions of the world far removed from the Middle East."

Headlines  

  • The United States has canceled a summit planned this month between President Obama and Gulf leaders over splits with allies in the region, however he will still meet with Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah in Riyadh.
  • Lebanon's parliament has approved a newly-formed cabinet breaking a political deadlock and giving the country a fully empowered government for the first time in over a year.
  • The Israeli army has discovered what it has described as one of the longest and most advanced tunnels running from the southern Gaza Strip into Israel found to date.
  • As Iranians celebrate the New Year, price increases for energy and commodities are overshadowing festivities and hopes for President Rouhani's promised economic recovery fade.

Arguments and Analysis

'Saudi Arabia's Muslim Brotherhood predicament' (Stéphane Lacroix, Washington Post)

"Although this isn't the first strain in the Saudi-Muslim Brotherhood relationship, the kingdom is unlikely to backtrack on its anti-Islamist stance -- at least anytime soon. The royal family is now convinced by the argument, often made by UAE officials, that the Muslim Brotherhood and all similar groups represent an existential threat for Gulf monarchies. Seen from Riyadh, the solution is to turn the clock back to the pre-1970s era, when the official religious establishment's quietist brand of Salafism had a monopoly over Saudi Islam. In a globalized kingdom with the largest proportion of social media users in the world, this will not easily succeed."

'Iraq's Do-Nothing Legacy' (Gayle Tzemach Lemmon, Defense One)

"'We may think Iraq is done, but Iraq isn't,' says former U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, who served in Baghdad from 2007 to 2009. 'Once you are in, you are in. You can have a great philosophical debate about whether it was wise or not, but it doesn't affect the reality; you are there.'

Only America isn't there. Iraq is largely on its own -- and largely by its own request -- to build institutions, battle an insurgency and fight back against sectarian violence taking hold across the region fueled by Syria's chaos."

-- Mary Casey & Cortni Kerr

BULENT KILIC/AFP/Getty Images