The Middle East Channel

Obama Seeks to Repair Ties in Visit to Saudi Arabia

U.S. President Barack Obama will visit Saudi Arabia Friday seeking to repair fractured relations with the kingdom. The United States and Saudi Arabia have forged a strategic alliance over the last seven decades, but have seen increased divisions since the uprisings that ousted former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. Relations have particularly soured as the United States has worked to negotiate a nuclear deal with Iran and failed to initiate a military intervention in Syria, where the Saudis are supporting the mainly Sunni opposition to President Bashar al-Assad. A goal of Obama's visit is to convince Saudi Arabia that U.S. relations with Iran will not compromise Washington's commitment to Saudi security. However, Saudi Arabia may not be persuaded, according to one Saudi official "The U.S. has underwritten the regional security order for the past 70 years and it sees now as a good time to disengage. We will have to do it all ourselves."

Syria

The United Nations on Thursday warned of increasing militant links between Iraq and Syria. U.N. Special Envoy to Iraq Nickolay Mladenov told the U.N. Security Council, "The ongoing conflict in Syria has added a regional dimension to sectarian tensions and is affording terrorist networks the occasion to forge links across the border and expand their support base." In addition to security challenges, the World Health Organization has described the polio outbreak in Syria as "arguably the most challenging outbreak in the history of polio eradication" as there have been 38 cases reported in Syria, and one confirmed case in Iraq. Ninette Kelley, regional representative for Lebanon for the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees warned of the threat posed to Lebanon from the almost one million refugees that have poured into the country from Syria. She noted, "If this country is not bolstered, then the very real prospect of it collapsing and the conflict of Syria spreading full force to Lebanon becomes much more likely."

Headlines  

  • Turkey has blocked YouTube after the release of leaked audio recordings purportedly of officials discussing a possible military operation in Syria and a day after a court ordered the suspension of a ban on Twitter. 
  • Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah has named Prince Muqrin bin Abdulaziz, currently second deputy prime minister, as second-in-line to the throne.
  • A series of bombings hit the Iraqi capital of Baghdad Thursday killing up to 33 people, with three of the explosions hitting the primarily Sunni neighborhood of Adhamiya.
  • Gunmen killed a policeman in the northern Lebanese city of Tripoli Friday, the second officer to be killed in two days, a day after the country's new cabinet approved a security plan for the city.
  • General Sedki Sobhi, former chief-of-staff, has been sworn in as Egypt's new defense minister a day after Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi stepped down in order to run for the presidency.

Arguments and Analysis

529 Reasons to Doubt Egyptian Justice' (Louisa Loveluck, New York Times)

"Regardless of the outcome for the 529 condemned to death, for many the sentences confirm the belief that the Brotherhood is to be shunned, and certainly not defended. "We are tired of your violence," said the television anchor Rania Badawi on Monday night, addressing the Brotherhood during a segment on the privately owned Tahrir Channel in which she interviewed the wife of the policeman killed in Minya. "We will build the country despite your war."

As polarization leads to dehumanization on both sides, the potential builds for further flare-ups. On Wednesday, hundreds were involved in an enraged protest at Cairo University over the Minya verdict in which the crowd was tear-gassed and one person was killed.

In portraying ordinary citizens as enemies of the state, the government risks alienating the public. When each side means very different things by responsibility and accountability, this civil conflict cannot be won with violent acts - by the isolated judiciary, an increasingly angry Islamist movement, or the police. Unless a reinvigorated center emerges to steer Egypt toward a more inclusive political process, extremists both within the state and on the fringes will continue to lash out with gestures ever more violent, ever more empty."

Tunisia's golden age of crony capitalism' (Bob Rijkers, Caroline Freund, and Antonio Nucifora, Washington Post)

"It would be a mistake to assume that cronyism is no longer an issue now that Ben Ali has departed and his assets (including his wife's shoe collection) are being auctioned off. The system of laws and regulations that allowed the family to capture such a large share of the country's wealth remains largely in place. Entry authorizations and restrictions to domestic and foreign investors remain the prevalent feature of the investment climate in Tunisia. Today, nearly 60 percent of Tunisia's economy is in sectors subject to authorizations and barriers to entry for domestic and foreign investors. These regulations continue to enable the capture of the country's wealth by a few privileged Tunisians at the expense of the majority, hampering investment and the creation of the well-paying jobs that Tunisians deserve.

Meanwhile, new entrepreneurs and unconnected firms struggle to compete, stymied under existing regulation. Perhaps more importantly, polls show that Tunisians see corruption to have increased since the revolution, with the private sector often considered to be the domain of those with connections to power. Legitimate businesses that should be the engines of growth and job creation in Tunisia remain trapped between a mistrustful public and a rigged system."

Turkey Votes on Sunday With Democracy and Stability at Stake' (Sabine Freizer, Atlantic Council)

"Voters in Turkey will elect mayors and local councils Sunday in an act that will resonate far beyond the local issues that typically dominate municipal elections. They will deliver a referendum on the 11-year rule of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. And the balloting will open a cycle of three elections in coming months that may determine how this regional power of 74 million people will be governed until 2023, and whether it still can be a rare model of democracy and stability in the Middle East and Eurasia. 

Erdogan's responses to rising challenges to his rule - most recently to the prominent corruption charges issued in December that led to the resignation of three of his cabinet ministers - have damaged Turkey's democracy. His government has imprisoned large numbers of journalists, undermined the independence of the judiciary, re-assigned thousands of police officers connected to the corruption investigation, and blocked access to Twitter and YouTube. Under the pressures, tear gas has become a weekly nuisance on Istanbul's main shopping street and TV channels have stopped reporting breaking news.

The elections will be a test for Turkey's role as a key European and US ally. Until recently Erdogan's government was seen as a potential model for political development in the Islamic and Turkic worlds, especially as a candidate for European Union membership since 1999. In the past two years Turkey's democratic credentials have weakened, EU negotiations have stalled and interest among Turks in joining the European bloc has decreased. Erdogan's government has taken positions, especially vis-à-vis Israel and in Syria (where it has given free passage to jihadist groups), that have eroded US trust in Ankara. If there is fraud on election day, it will further undermine what has become a fragile alliance between Turkey and the transatlantic community."

-- Mary Casey

Ernesto Ruscio/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

General Sisi Announces Egyptian Presidential Bid

Egypt's Defense Minister and army chief Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi announced Wednesday that he had resigned from the military to run for the presidency. The announcement from Sisi, who led the takeover of President Mohamed Morsi's elected government in July 2013, was widely anticipated. In an address broadcast on state television, Sisi said he was answering "the demand of a wide range of Egyptians who have called on me to run for this honorable office." He spoke of goals including creating a "better Egypt" and a mission to regain the country's "posture and power" and noted the challenges in the "economic, social, political, and security realities." However, Sisi said he would not release a formal political platform until Egypt's electoral commission finalizes the election registration process. No date has been set for the election, however Sisi is expected to easily win.

Syria

The Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) said 53.6 percent of Syria's chemical weapons have either been removed or destroyed within the country. In a report to the United Nations, the OPCW said Syria vowed to remove all chemicals by April 13, except for those in areas "that are presently inaccessible." Syria has pledged to transport or destroy all of its chemical weapons materials by April 27. Meanwhile, some U.S. lawmakers lashed out at the Obama administration Wednesday over its Syria policy. Members of the Foreign Relations Committee demanded a stronger U.S. response to the Syrian conflict and greater transparency on the status of the destruction of the Syrian regime's chemical weapons arsenal, as well as what military action the White House is considering. 

Headlines  

Arguments and Analysis

Saudi Arabia: A kingdom on guard' (Roula Khalaf, Financial Times)

"People close to the Riyadh government say Saudi Arabia is assuming regional responsibility and will no longer tolerate those who spread chaos across the region. "We are becoming an initiator of policy and defining our interests," says one.

Others, however, say the moves are a sign of growing insecurity at a time when an ageing leadership is desperate to return the Arab world to a more comfortable pre-Arab awakening status quo, however intolerant that might seem.

This apparent nervousness has been accentuated by the suspicion among Saudi officials that the US is abandoning the Kingdom while seeking better relations with Iran, Riyadh's regional rival. President Barack Obama will seek to assuage these fears when he visits Saudi Arabia this week.

‘Saudi Arabia has changed. Before it was more cautious, more diplomatic. Now it's more assertive and more paranoid,' says a Saudi political analyst who asked to remain anonymous."

Sisi runs for president in Nasser's shadow' (Wael Nawara, Al-Monitor)

"If Sisi wins, does this mean a revival of Arab nationalism? Arabs have so much in common; language, religion, cultural proximity, a seamless territorial connectivity and strong emotional bonds. But Arab nationalism based on old-style chants cannot work. Arabs need to work hard on economic integration to shift their trade relations' focus inward. Sisi expresses a commitment to social justice, "that it is not acceptable for sick Egyptians to be unable to find affordable medical care." But he also made so many hints at having to face harsh economic realities and work hard to save the country's economy as a first priority.

So, before Nasserist enthusiasts prematurely celebrate a return to the 1960s, they should read more carefully into Sisi's messages. It would be foolish for Sisi or anyone else to repeat mistakes that proved disastrous and policies that could never be sustained. 

Perhaps what Sisi has most in common with Nasser is a confessed vision to building a strong and independent Egypt. And in light of the hardships now and those expected ahead, no one can envy the coming president of Egypt, whoever he may be."

-- Mary Casey

VASILY MAXIMOV/AFP/Getty Images