Robert M. Danin

Middle East Matters

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

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Egypt’s Historic Elections, Violent Eruptions in Lebanon and Yemen

by Robert M. Danin
May 24, 2012

A man holds his ballot sheet as he prepares to vote during Egypt's presidential elections in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria on May 23, 2012 (Mohamed Abd El-Ghany/Courtesy Reuters). A man holds his ballot sheet as he prepares to vote during Egypt's presidential elections in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria on May 23, 2012 (Mohamed Abd El-Ghany/Courtesy Reuters).

Significant Middle East Developments

Egypt. Egyptians went to the polls for a second consecutive day today for the first free presidential elections in Egypt’s history. The turnout was particularly strong on Wednesday, and election monitors hailed the day as mostly free of fraud and violence. Vote tallying will be completed on Saturday, May 26, with the results announced next Tuesday, May 29. After yesteday’s vote, the Muslim Brotherhood claimed their candidate, Mohammed Morsi, was ahead of the twelve others; Amr Moussa’s staff concurred. Estimates put Morsi ahead with 25 percent of the vote with Moussa closely trailing with 23 percent based on exit polls. Today’s turnout was reportedly much lower than Wednesday’s. The elections are expected to go to a run-off on June 16-17 between the two leading vote-getters, with a winner to be announced June 21. Mohamed ElBaradei, Nobel laureate and former presidential candidate, welcomed the elections and remarked, “The fact that we have an election today of which we do not know the outcome is the first ever in the Arab world I can recall.”

Lebanon. Violence erupted in Beirut and other parts of Lebanon this week, the result of Syria-related sectarian clashes. Lebanese Army troops shot dead a Sunni cleric and a member of his convoy when they failed to stop at a checkpoint in Northern Lebanon, triggering demonstrations in Beirut and beyond. Nine people were killed after days of fighting in the northern city of Tripoli, and two more pople were killed in Beirut street battles sparked by the cleric’s killing. Observers called the Beirut clashes the worst in over a decade. The fighting exacerbated deep political and sectarian divisions, as fears mounted that the conflict in neighbouring Syria was spilling across the border. Highlighting the potential for sectarian violence spilling over into Lebanon, a group of Lebanese Shiite pilgrims were kidnapped near Aleppo. The kidnappings spurred the families of the abducted men to block roads and burn tires in Beirut, which only abated when Hassan Nasrallah, head of Hezbollah, called for calm in a television address. UN secretary general Ban Ki-Moon expressed worry on Monday that the violence in Syria would embroil the region in a civil war, saying it was “a pivotal moment in the search for a peaceful settlement to the crisis.” Saudi king Abdullah said on Tuesday that he was “deeply concerned” about the sectarian violence in Lebanon.

Yemen. In the country’s deadliest such attack in years, a suicide bombing in Yemen killed over one hundred people and left hundreds more wounded in Sana’a on Monday. Militants linked to Al Qaeda’s Yemen branch claimed responsibility for the suicide bomber who infiltrated a military parade. One day later, Yemen commemorated its unification in 1990 with a somber military parade for National Day. President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi observed the events from behind a bullet-proof shield. Meanwhile Saudi Arabia, Gulf states, and Western nations pledged more than $4 billion in aid to Yemen at a conference on Wednesday. Just before the conference, a group of seven aid organizations released a joint statement calling for urgent aid to stave off a humanitarian disaster in the country.

Noteworthy U.S. Foreign Policy Developments

Iran. Iranian and P5+1 negotiators wrapped up two days of talks in Baghdad today over Iran’s controversial nuclear program. The five permanent members of the UN Security Council, plus Germany, reportedly presented a proposal to Iran on Wednesday containing confidence-building measures including a reduction in enriching uranium from 20 percent to 5 percent. Iranian negotiators countered with their own five-point proposal that included demanding significant economic relief from sanctions and broadening the talks to deal with the conflict in Syria. On Wednesday, White House spokesman Jay Carney said that “the fact that they [the talks] are taking place as a continuance of the initial round is a sign of progress.” Iranian diplomats complained that their counterparts failed to provide Iran substantive inducements to compromise on its nuclear program. The parties agreed to hold a third round of talks in Moscow on June 18-19.

Quotes of the Week

  • “Today does mark the start of a first round of Egypt’s historic presidential elections. It’s a very important milestone for Egypt’s transition. Egyptians are voting. And we look forward to the outcome.” – State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland said on Wednesday
  • “Based on Islamic teachings and the clear fatwa of the supreme leader, the production and use of weapons of mass destruction is haram and have no place in the Islamic Republic of Iran’s defence doctrine.” – Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in a statement on Wednesday commemorating Iranian victims of chemical weapons during a 1980-1988 war against Iraq
  • “Whoever proposes we take the heart of Jerusalem, the Temple Mount, and take it out of our hands, and that this would bring about peace, I say not only is this a mistake but a fatal mistake.” – Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday evening at a special Knesset session honoring Jerusalem Day
  • “The war on terror will continue until it is completely destroyed regardless of the sacrifices.” – Yemen’s president Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi after the attack on Monday
  • “Based on Islamic teachings and the clear fatwa of the supreme leader, the production and use of weapons of mass destruction is haram and have no place in the Islamic Republic of Iran’s defence doctrine.” – Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said in a statement on Wednesday commemorating Iranian victims of chemical weapons during a 1980-1988 war against Iraq

While We Were Looking Elsewhere

Palestinians. Top Hamas and Fatah officials reached agreement late Sunday in Cairo on a new timetable for reconciliation and the implementation of the Doha unity agreement signed last February. The new agreement, signed by senior Fatah official Azzam al-Ahmed and Mussa Abu Marzuk, the Hamas deputy Khaled Meshaal, stipulates that the Palestinian Elections Commission will begin work in Gaza on May 27 while Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, will begin consultations to form an interim government of independents the same day. The interim government will serve for six months and oversee new general elections.

Iraq. Tensions between Iraq’s central government and the semi-autonomous Kurdish region escalated this week when Ashti Hawrami, the Kurdish oil minister, announced a deal on Sunday to export oil directly to Turkey. The deal entails bypassing Baghdad via a pipeline to be built directly from Kurdish fields to Turkey. Baghdad says the Kurdish region has no right to sign deals unilaterally and considers all such deals illegal. A 2011 agreement calls for the Kurds to send oil directly to Baghdad, from where it would be sold, with both sides splitting the revenues 50-50. However, the Kurds halted oil exports to Baghdad in April over a payment dispute.

Syria. A group of Lebanese Shiite pilgrims returning home from a pilgrimage were kidnapped near Aleppo on Tuesday. The wives of the abducted men were released and reported that the kidnappers claimed to be members of the Free Syrian Army. Lebanese foreign minister Adnan Mansour also accused the abductors of being a splinter group of the FSA. The Syrian National Council condemned the kidnappings and called for those abducted to be released; the FSA denied any involvement. Meanwhile, a UN panel said today that the Syrian army is to blame for the majority of human rights abuses since March. The report coincided with the eleventh consecutive day of the government forces’ siege of Rastan.

Kuwait. The Kuwaiti cabinet walked out of a parliamentary session on Tuesday and boycotted a subsequent session on Wednesday over opposition plans to question Finance Minister Mustapha al-Shamali over alleged financial and administrative irregularities. The dispute centers around the opposition’s attempt to merge two separate requests to question Shamali, a plan that the cabinet says is unconstitutional. The boycott forced a cancellation of the session and spurred rumors that the government is preparing to dissolve parliament and hold snap elections, just over three months since the last elections inaugurated the fourth parliament in six years. Information Minister Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah Al-Sabah has denied that the government is planning to dissolve the house.

This Week in History

This week marks the seventy-third anniversary of the the 1939 White Paper, also known as the MacDonald White Paper, named after British colonial secretary Malcolm MacDonald who presided over it. On May 23, 1939, the British House of Commons’ approval the policy paper that abandoned the partitioning of Palestine, as called for in the Peel Commission Report of 1937. Rather than the creation of two independent states, one Jewish, one Arab, the 1939 White Paper called for the creation of an independent Palestine governed by Palestinian Arabs and Jews in proportion to their respective populations. It placed strict limitations on Jewish immigration to Palestine at precisely the same time that other possible havens were being closed for Jewish refugees from Hitler. The White Paper marked a dramatic reversal of Britain’s 1917 Balfour Declaration which called for the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people. Britain’s White Paper remained the basis of British policy in Palestine until the United Nations voted in 1947 to replace the British mandate by partitioning Palestine into two independent states, one Arab the other Jewish.

Statistic of the Week

According to a recent Gallup poll, 82 percent of Egyptians polled in April believe that this week’s presidential elections will be fair and honest. Eighty-six percent of the respondents said that they planned to vote. The survey also found that 73 percent believe that the military will hand over power to a civilian government after the election. While this marks a 9 percent decrease from February, it is still a significant majority.

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