Robert M. Danin

Middle East Matters

Danin analyzes critical developments and U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East.

Could the ICC Be Assad’s Way Out?

by Robert M. Danin Friday, October 28, 2011

A large banner of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad hangs from the central bank during a rally of his supporters at al-Sabaa Bahrat square in Damascus on October 12, 2011 (Khaled al-Hariri/Courtesy Reuters).

Reports emerged on Wednesday that Saif al-Islam, the son of Libya’s former strongman Muammar Qaddafi, is seeking surrender to the ICC. Saif, one of the former regime’s most wanted men, was charged by the ICC with crimes against humanity in June. A source tied to the National Transitional Council reports that Saif “believes handing himself over is the best option for him.”

Following the onset of NATO’s intervention in Libya, while Qaddafi still firmly controlled Tripoli, many, including me, questioned the wisdom of charging the Libyan leader at the ICC at that point in time. It was not that he wasn’t worthy of such an indictment. Rather, the concern was that taking Qaddafi to the ICC before he had stepped down would only make it less likely for him to seek a safe haven abroad. Since the Rome Statute, which established the ICC, entered into force in 2002, 116 countries have become party to it thereby significantly constricting the number of countries to which dictators can flee without fear of prosecution. Thus, ICC indictments could have the unintended consequence of prolonging conflicts by encouraging dictators to hang on since they have fewer places to flee. That still may be true. Read more »

Egypt’s Troubling Road to the Ballot Box

by Robert M. Danin Thursday, October 27, 2011

An Egyptian security official carries ballot boxes to a counting center after polls closed in Cairo March 19, 2011 (Mohamed Abd El-Ghany/Courtesy Reuters).

Just as Egypt’s revolution followed Tunisia’s, so too will its election to pick a new parliament that will write a constitution. Egyptians go to the polls for the first round of parliamentary elections November 28. But recent developments reinforce the fears held by many Tahrir Square activists that Egypt’s elections under the watch of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) will not match internationally recognized standards for elections as just met in Tunisia.

NGOs in Egypt are facing what POMED’s Stephen McInerney calls the “SCAF’s assault on civil society.” To be sure, NGOs during the Mubarak era faced strong repression. However, such harsh repression was supposed to improve after January 25, not worsen. As McInerney points out, Mubarak’s government never declared dozens of NGOs to be illegal nor did his government threaten to charge them with crimes based on their registration status—both of which have recently been reported under the stewardship of the SCAF. Well-established nonpartisan American organizations such as Freedom House report that it has experienced “pressure and harassment” by the government since it opened its office in post-revolutionary Egypt. Freedom House now fears that a harsh media campaign—it has been judged illegal by the government owned Al Ahram–presages a possible government shutdown or physical assault against its offices or staff. Read more »

Tunisia’s Democratic Test Still Awaits

by Robert M. Danin Monday, October 24, 2011

A vendor sits in his shop in Sidi Bou Sai, a popular tourist district, north of Tunisia on October 22, 2011 (Jamal Saidi/Courtesy Reuters).

Tunisia’s first truly free elections also mark the first elections of the Arab uprisings. The vote appears to have been largely free and fair. With only a few reports of fraud, the turnout was even larger than expected, with some seven out of ten eligible voters casting ballots. Though a small country, events in Tunisia will resonate disproportionately beyond its borders, with the entire Arab world watching. This is all the more so with Qaddafi’s overthrow last week and Egypt’s parliamentary vote slated to begin in a month.

With the Islamist al-Nahda party claiming victory, Tunisia will be an important test case of how Islamist parties govern. Al-Nahda’s leader Rachid Ghannouchi has stressed that his party will not try to impose morality onto Tunisia’s society. He is trying to project the party as progressive and tolerant. Al-Nahda will have to be pragmatic, at least at the onset, since it will likely win a plurality at best in the 217 seat Constituent Assembly, requiring it to govern in coalition with non-Islamist parties. Moreover, the majority of Tunisians recently polled claim to want a secular government (though some 77 percent of those polled professed not to know the difference between a secular and non-secular government). Against this backdrop, it is still too early to say if a modern and liberal form of political Islam will emerge from this. Read more »

Libya and the International Community After Qaddafi

by Robert M. Danin Thursday, October 20, 2011

A staff member of the Libyan embassy steps on a portrait of Muammar Qaddafi in front of the embassy building in Sofia July 25, 2011 (Stoyan Nenov/Courtesy Reuters). just posted a short video interview I did on what Qaddafi’s death means for Libya and beyond. To watch this video on YouTube, please click here. Several points I would highlight:

Qaddafi’s death is a mixed blessing for Libyans. It conclusively ends his more than forty year rule and opens up a new chapter for Libya. But it also robs the country of the opportunity of having him stand before his accusers, either in Tripoli or at the International Criminal Court, for the myriad crimes he committed. His bloody death could also make him a martyr down the road, particularly if Libya fails to make the transition to a better country for its people. Read more »

New Dangers and Challenges After Shalit

by Robert M. Danin Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Freed Palestinian prisoners wave to people during a rally celebrating their release in Gaza City October 18, 2011 (Mohammed Salem/Courtesy Reuters).

PLO chairman Mahmoud Abbas returned to Ramallah last month from New York triumphant, having defiantly stood up to the United States and others by submitting Palestine’s application for statehood to the United Nations Security Council. Yesterday, in contrast, Abbas doubtlessly felt politically deflated as he welcomed newly freed prisoners whose release was engineered by his two political adversaries–Hamas and Israel.

Such are the vagaries of rapidly shifting Israeli-Palestinian politics. One moment Abbas is up, the next he feels compelled to host his rivals’ supporters whose violent actions ran precisely contrary to his own political approach. Last week I provided a first look at the immediate implications of the Shalit exchange. Now, as the dust settles further from the drama of the prisoner exchange, certain realities come into clearer focus:

First, despite the increased flexibility just demonstrated by both Israel and Hamas in closing the deal, the prisoner exchange does not presage a new peace opening between the two bitter foes as some suggest. The Gaza-Israel border just became even more dangerous. Hamas and other radical groups have called for additional kidnappings of Israeli soldiers and settlers to serve as bargaining chips. And senior Israeli military officers have begun ordering their soldiers not to be taken captive alive, even if that means injuring or killing their fellow comrades in arms to thwart a Palestinian abduction operation. Read more »

Jordan’s Government Shaken Up, Not Stirred

by Robert M. Danin Monday, October 17, 2011

Awn Khasawneh (pictured on left) accompanies Jordan's late king Hussein in Amman in this photo taken in 1993 (Ali Jarekji/Courtesy Reuters).

On Friday, I suggested that a key indicator of Jordan’s future tranquility, in light of recent countrywide demonstrations, will be how King Abdullah addresses the issue of corruption. Today we saw decisive action: Abdullah sacked his prime minister, Marouf Bakhit, and replaced him with Awn Khasawneh, a venerated legal jurist.

General Bakhit was not the right man for the job when he was appointed in February of this year, and the chattering classes in Amman immediately recognized it. At the time, Jordanians were clamoring for a new government to tackle the country’s rising commodity prices, political stagnation, and corruption. The appointment of a military man with strong security credentials was not what was needed, and suggested that the King’s priorities were domestic stability, not change. In the subsequent eight months, Bakhit was a reluctant reformer, and his government never gained traction. That was made abundantly clear by the resumption of widespread demonstrations. Read more »

Striking Findings in Jordan

by Robert M. Danin Friday, October 14, 2011

A member of the Daaja Jordanian Bedouin tribe holds a poster of Jordanian king Abdullah as he performs during a rally to celebrate the king's birthday in Amman (Ali Jarekji/Courtesy Reuters).

With thousands of Jordanians taking to the streets in many parts of the country over the past few Fridays, one must ask if the Hashemite Kingdom is next in line for a serious uprising. Indeed, the most recent protests have brought together a new partnership of Islamists, leftists, trade unions and independents that recall the coalitions formed in Tunisia late last year that led to the overthrow of the Ben Ali regime.

Yet a new poll, just released by the International Republican Institute, paints a picture of discontent calling for greater reform, not revolution, in Jordan. Some of the poll’s findings are striking. For example, some 60 percent of Jordanians believe that their country is going in the right direction, while only a quarter believe that things are moving in the wrong one. The poll suggests that Jordanians have become more optimistic that the economy will improve over the next twelve months. This is rather remarkable, when surveying overall trends in Jordan’s neighbors, be it Syria, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, or the West Bank.

The poll also indicates that popular movements in Jordan, though active, have not captured the imaginations of ordinary Jordanians in the way they have in neighboring Syria or had in the waning days of Mubarak’s Egypt. Only one in five Jordanians aware of the popular youth movements supported their taking to the streets. Read more »

Implications of a Shalit Deal

by Robert M. Danin Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Aviva Shalit, the mother of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, attends a news conference at a protest tent outside the residence of Israel's prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem June 26, 2011 (Ronen Zvulun/Courtesy Reuters).

As of this posting, the Israeli cabinet is still meeting in an emergency session to discuss a deal aimed at securing the release of Gilad Shalit, abducted by Hamas in June of 2006 on the Israeli-Gaza border. Details remain scant. Initial reports suggest more than 1,000 Palestinians, currently held by Israel, would be exchanged in return for Corporal Shalit. While it is early to speculate too widely with so little still known, I will nonetheless venture a few initial conclusions on what such a deal would mean.

First, Shalit’s release would lift an enormous burden for Shalit, his family, and indeed, Israel. For all walks of Israelis, Shalit has been everybody’s son, the regular conscript brutally held hostage in isolation, without even Red Cross access. On my daily commute to the Quartet Mission which I headed in Jerusalem, I would pass the round-the-clock protest tent pitched outside Prime Minister Netanyahu’s residence. This nonstop demonstration was manned by Israelis from throughout the country, intent on pressing Netanyahu to bring Shalit home. This tent was, presumably, the first thing the prime minister would see on his way to work, and the last thing he would see as he returned home.

For Israelis, the overriding message is that their government will go to extraordinary lengths to bring the country’s soldiers back home. This is critical to maintaining the morale of an army manned by conscripts and reservists drawn from most segments of the nation’s population, other than Arab Israelis. It is even more essential if the army is to remain one of the few venerated institutions in Israeli society. Read more »

Welcome to “Middle East Matters”

by Robert M. Danin Tuesday, October 11, 2011

President Roosevelt meets with King Ibn Saud, Colonel William A. Eddy, and Admiral William Leahy aboard the USS Quincy, February 14, 1945 (U.S. Army Signal Corps/Courtesy Franklin D. Roosevelt Library and Museum).

“Middle East Matters” (MEM) is a new blog devoted to the Middle East, U.S. foreign policy, and how they interact. Those who have followed my writing since I joined CFR last year know that I have focused on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Arab uprisings, and the Levant. I will continue to write about these issues and more on this blog (and on twitter @robertdanin).

I first visited the region in 1977. Jimmy Carter was president, the Shah ruled Iran, and the region was still reeling from the 1973 Yom Kippur/Ramadan War. Since then, I have worked and lived in the Middle East as a journalist, academic researcher, and mainly as a diplomat. You can see my full bio here.

I returned to Washington in 2010 after nearly three years living in Jerusalem heading the Quartet’s diplomatic mission, working to forge cooperation between Palestinians and Israelis. The work was fascinating and challenging. Based abroad, one often sees the world through the eyes of one’s hosts and interlocutors. Focusing on a specific part of the world such as the Middle East, one sometimes loses sight of why a given issue really matters back home. Yet diplomats and policymakers must always ask the question: how should developments in the region be seen in light of the United States’ policy priorities and interests? Read more »