The Middle East Channel

Erdogan Declares AKP Victory in Local Elections

Turkey's Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has declared victory for his Justice and Development Party (AKP) in local elections. Preliminary results Monday showed the AKP receiving about 45.6 percent of the vote while the main opposition Republican People's Party (CHP) held around 28 percent. Facing a graft scandal and criticism for bans on social media, the election was projected as a referendum on Erdogan's 11-year rule. The strong showing of support for his ruling party could embolden Erdogan to act against his opponents, whom he labeled "terrorists" from the campaign trail. Addressing supporters at the AKP headquarters, Erdogan said of his enemies, "They will pay the price, they will be brought to account. How can you threaten national security?" An AKP win may prompt the prime minister to run for the presidency in August, the first time voters in Turkey will directly elect the president.

Syria

Two Spanish journalists have arrived in Madrid after being held for over six months in Syria by militants from the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL). Javier Espinosa, Middle East correspondent for El Mundo, and photojournalist Ricardo García Vilanova, were kidnapped in September when they were trying to cross into Turkey after a two-week reporting mission in Syria. They were reportedly released and handed over to Turkish soldiers on Sunday. Meanwhile, Syrian Information Minister Omran al-Zoubi has accused Turkey of sending foreign fighters across the border to fight government troops in Latakia province, traditionally a regime stronghold.

Headlines

  • An Israeli court convicted former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of bribery on charges related to a property deal while he was mayor of Jerusalem.
  • Egypt's presidential elections have been set for the end of May as a hashtag mocking Field Marshal Abdel Fattah al-Sisi translated as "vote for the pimp" is sweeping Twitter.
  • U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is returning to the Middle East in efforts to salvage Israeli-Palestinian peace talks as Israel delays the release of a final group of Palestinian prisoners.
  • Thirteen Bahrainis have been sentenced to life in prison, and another man to a10-year jail term, after being convicted of trying to kill two policemen during a March 2012 protest.
  • A suicide car bomber Saturday killed three soldiers and wounded four others at a Lebanese army checkpoint close to the town of Arsal near the Syrian border.

Arguments and Analysis

'Sisi's presidential bid doesn't unravel the mystery' (H.A. Hellyer, Al Arabiya)

"Some may implore Sisi, once he becomes president, to take a more inclusive and rights-based approach. But given the record of the past nine months, where more civilians have died at the hands of state forces than any other time in Egyptian history, with little accountability imposed by the authorities, and a crackdown against dissent from various quarters, there are few who appear optimistic at present. His opponents are unlikely to view him as legitimate - for the long-term - and his speech will not have swayed them in that regard.

But that does not mean Sisi's speech was not a success last week. He wouldn't have drawn new support from his critics - but then, it is hard to see what he could possibly do in order to get that after so much blood has been split. On the other hand, his supporters would have been deeply satisfied by the speech, as well as that small section of the population still sitting on the fence about a presidential run by the military officer. The speech delivery was effective - on a superficial level; it was humble, if determined, particularly against "foreign interference." The tone was soft, but it left no room for doubt in that Sisi would continue to "confront terrorism" - including, somewhat disconcertingly, beyond Egypt in the region.

If one examines the substantial components of the speech, there are a few key points to be extracted. The first is that Sisi seems to have sent a message to the sprawling bureaucracy - an establishment infested with corruption, composed of bodies that have become more akin to cliquey silos than actual state institutions."

'Turkish "prohibition" culture explained' (Pinar Tremblay, Al-Monitor)

"Indeed, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has achieved world notoriety by first banning Twitter, then YouTube. (Oddly, even some of his party members defy the ban.) This is just the latest in Erdogan's long list of "prohibited" acts. From alcohol sales to cesarean operations to co-ed housing for college students, Erdogan has been awfully eager to generate bans. More perplexing to many Turks - especially the younger generation - is how he gets away with arbitrary legislation. There are several interrelated factors that adequately answer this question, but a partial reason is Turkish political culture. This, of course, predates the Justice and Development Party (AKP) administration of the last decade.

Consecutive Turkish governments have ruled with "bans" of one sort or another. When an administration fails to provide solutions to collective problems, its propensity to introduce "new and improved" prohibitions increases. The struggles of nascent Turkish democracy can be told as a history of complicated bans, whether economic, social, cultural or political. What cannot be controlled smoothly has been banned legally. Yet, bans have rarely helped resolve collective dilemmas."

-- Mary Casey

ADEM ALTAN/AFP/Getty Images

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