The Middle East Channel

Insecurity Threatens Iraqi Parliamentary Elections

Iraq faces increased security concerns as violence threatens the first countrywide elections since the 2011 withdrawal of U.S. forces. Several bombings targeted poling stations killing at least 62 people on Monday as army and security personnel cast early votes ahead of parliamentary elections scheduled to begin Wednesday. On Tuesday, two bombings at a market northeast of Baghdad killed at least 10 people. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been expected to win a third term. However, the rising level of violence, the worst seen since 2008, is undermining Maliki's reputation as the man who restored a degree of normality to Baghdad. The prime minister will face several key competitors including Osama al-Nujaifi, Ali al-Sistani, Moqtada al-Sadr, and Massud Barzani.

Syria

Mortar strikes hit a school in the mainly Shiite district of Shaghour in Damascus Tuesday, killing at least 14 people and wounding dozens of others. Syrian state news agency SANA reported four strikes killed 14 people and injured 86 others, while the British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 17 people died. In the city of Homs, explosions, including at least one car bomb, killed at least 37 people and wounded more than 80 others. Meanwhile, 35 international legal experts sent a letter to the United Nations urging humanitarian agencies to ignore "arbitrary" government restrictions and deliver aid to Syrians with or without the government's consent. The group said hundreds of thousands of lives are at risk because of the United Nations' "overly cautious legal interpretation" on the relief operation.

Headlines

  • U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry backed off remarks that Israel risked becoming an "apartheid state" meanwhile the deadline for Israeli-Palestinian peace talks expired with no agreement.
  • Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan is seeking the extradition from the United States of rival Fethullah Gulen, accusing him of plotting to topple the government.
  • A suicide car bomber killed at least two soldiers at an army barracks in Libya's eastern city of Benghazi Tuesday.
  • Qatari-owned broadcaster Al Jazeera is suing Egypt for $150 million claiming its investments have been damaged in a crackdown on journalists.
  • Yemen is calling for international assistance in tackling economic and political crises meanwhile the army launched an offensive against al Qaeda fighters in the south.

Arguments and Analysis

'Iraq's New Politics' (Reidar Visser, Foreign Affairs)

"As Iraq readies for general elections at the end of this month, sectarian tensions hang over the country, just as in elections past. But this time, there is a twist: despite the population's deep divides, Iraqi politics have refused to play by the old sectarian rules. In fact, most long-standing ethno-sectarian parties have fractured and, in some cases, key political issues are starting to cut across religious identities. As a result, the election will likely have no clear winner, and only the subsequent struggle to form a new cabinet will reveal which way Iraq is really headed in the coming years."

'Tensions in the Saudi-American Relationship' (F. Gregory Gause, III, Brookings)

"President Obama's visit to Saudi Arabia in March 2014 seems to have alleviated, at least for the time being, the sense that the relationship was 'in crisis.' And that sense of crisis, fostered more by the Saudis than the Americans, was always overblown. Riyadh and Washington have survived far worse periods of friction in their relationship, such as during the 1973-74 oil embargo and in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. All sorts of interests continue to tie the two unlikely allies together, from counterterrorism cooperation to containing Iranian regional influence. Most importantly, there is a strong sense on both sides that, no matter how uncomfortable each is with the other, neither has a better alternative partner."

'Political Executions in Egypt' (The Editorial Board, The New York Times)

"An out-of-control government in Egypt has now sentenced more than 680 people to death in a mass trial that lasted a few minutes and is part of an organized effort not just to crush its political opponents but to eliminate them. Last month, a court delivered a similar sentence on 529 others. The sentences further demonstrate that the military-led government's ruthless disregard for the law and its contrary political views go far beyond anything that former President Mohamed Morsi was accused of doing when he was deposed by the army in July.

And what did the Obama administration have to say about this travesty, which will further fuel hostility and division in one of the Arab world's most important countries? 'The United States is deeply troubled,' the office of the press secretary said in a shockingly weak statement. There was no indication that the administration would reconsider last week's decision to provide the Egyptians with 10 Apache helicopters and more than $650 million in aid."

-- Mary Casey

AHMAD AL-RUBAYE/AFP/Getty Images

The Middle East Channel

Egypt Issues Death Penalty to 683 More Muslim Brotherhood Supporters

An Egyptian judge issued death sentences to 683 Muslim Brotherhood supporters Monday, including the group's spiritual guide Mohamed Badie, on charges over an attack on a police station, in which a policeman was killed, in the town of Minya. In a separate case, the judge also commuted to life terms 492 death sentences that had been imposed on Muslim Brotherhood supporters in March. However, 37 of the people tried in March will still face the death penalty. Additionally on Monday, a Cairo court banned the April 6 movement, which helped spark the uprising that ousted Hosni Mubarak in 2011, on allegations including "tarnishing the image of the state."

Syria

In a statement on Monday, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad announced his candidacy for the June 3 presidential elections, seeking a third seven-year term in office. Assad joined six other candidates, though he is widely expected to win the election. Opposition leaders who live in exile have been barred from running due to a clause in the constitution requiring candidates to have lived in Syria for 10 consecutive years. It is unclear how the vote will be conducted amidst the violent conflict, which has displaced an estimated 9.5 million people from their homes. Meanwhile, Syria missed an April 27 deadline for the removal or destruction of its chemical weapons arsenal. While the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons said Syria had made significant progress with just 7.5 percent of its stockpile remaining, it stated the government must "take the final step very soon."

Headlines

  • Saudi Arabia has announced eight new deaths from the Mers virus, with the number of cases reaching 339 and deaths surpassing 100.
  • Attacks in Iraq targeted polling stations killing at least 21 people as police and soldiers turned out to vote two days ahead of parliamentary elections.
  • Russia has held talks with Iran over $10 billion in power deals in efforts to develop stronger economic ties with Tehran as Western states work to negotiate a nuclear deal.
  • A senior U.S. official said Washington is discussing the development of a coordinated missile defense system for the Gulf Arab states.
  • Algeria's ailing 77-year-old President Abdelaziz Bouteflika was sworn in for a fourth term on Monday.

Arguments and Analysis

'Egypt: Revise Terrorism Laws to Safeguard Rights' (Human Rights Watch)

"The draft amendments to 17 articles of the penal code define terrorism to include actions - potentially such as labor strikes or peaceful protests - that could ‘obstruct' the work of public officials, or universities, mosques, embassies, or international institutions. Article 86 of the penal code, as amended, would criminalize any "intimidation' that could ‘harm national unity,' prevent the application of the country's constitution or laws, or ‘damage the economy.'

‘By these definitions, anyone who participated in the popular uprisings of 2011 or 2013 could be branded a terrorist,' Stork said. 'Peaceful protest should not be criminalized as terrorism.'"

'In Iraq, female candidates still held back by old paradigms' (Diana Moukalled, Al Arabiya)

"What's frustrating about this election is that there will be no substantial changes from the previous elections in which only four females won and the 25% of quota for women was filled by assigning women from the winning parties.

Such a scenario is expected during these elections as well. Unless Iraqi voters take a significant turn, the female winning parliamentarians will only be an extension of the authority of conservative, religious and sectarian parties in the country.

Experience from recent years have shown this as female parliamentarians did not display any sort of independence and did not succeed at passing a single law in favor of Iraqi women's interests."

'Raging with the Machine: Robert Fisk, Seymour Hersh and Syria' (Yassin al-Haj Saleh, Pulse)

"In the West, Robert Fisk and Seymour Hersh are considered critical journalists. They occupy dissident positions in the English-speaking press. Among Syrians, however, they are viewed very differently.

The problem with their writings on Syria is that it is deeply centered on the West. The purported focus of their analysis - Syria, its people and the current conflict - serves only as backdrop to their commentary where ordinary Syrians are often invisible. For Fisk and Hersh the struggle in Syria is about ancient sects engaged in primordial battle. What really matters for them are the geopolitics of the conflict, specifically where the US fits into this picture."

-- Mary Casey

KHALED DESOUKI/AFP/Getty Images