Robert M. Danin

Middle East Matters

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

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Middle East Matters This Week: Egypt’s New President, Syria’s Bloodiest Week, and New Regional Diplomacy

by Robert M. Danin
June 28, 2012

President-elect Mohamed Morsi is seen on screens at the Egyptian Television headquarters control room during his first televised address to the nation in Cairo on June 24, 2012 (Courtesy Reuters). President-elect Mohamed Morsi is seen on screens at the Egyptian Television headquarters control room during his first televised address to the nation in Cairo on June 24, 2012 (Courtesy Reuters).

Significant Middle East Developments

Egypt. After days of delay, Egyptian election officials announced on Sunday that Mohamed Morsi had won 52 percent of the runoff vote and would become Egypt’s next president. Hours after being declared the winner, Morsi said that he would “be a president for all Egyptians” and called for national unity. Morsi, Egypt’s first Islamist and first fairly-elected president, resigned from the Muslim Brotherhood to take up the post. He moved into deposed president Mubarak’s old office on Monday to begin work on forming a new government. After Morsi’s meeting with the ruling military council on Monday, Field Marshal Tantawi announced that the military will “stand by the elected, legitimate president and will cooperate with him for the stability of the country.” A member of the military council today announced that seventy-six year-old Field Marshall Tantawi will remain defense minister in the new government. In another significant event on Tuesday, Egypt’s civilian judiciary suspended the military-led government’s decree that authorized soldiers to arrest civilians. The ruling marked the first time a civilian court has challenged the power of the military council.

Syria. The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights has called the period between June 20 and June 26 the “Bloodiest Week” of the Syrian uprising, claiming that over nine hundred people were killed. Observatory director Rami Abdel Rahmen said that of the more than 15,800 people killed since last March, more than four thousand had died following the UN-backed ceasefire that was slated to take effect on April 12. The pace of killing has rapidly escalated; at mid-day today, a bomb exploded at the Justice Palace, just outside the walls of the historic Old City in an usually crowded area. While no one was killed, the bombing underscores the extent to which violence has taken hold in the heart of the Syrian capital. Rebel gunmen yesterday attacked Al-Ikhbariya, a privately-owned pro-Assad TV station, killing over a half dozen employees and kidnapping many others. In response to the deteriorating situation, Peace Envoy Kofi Annan called for the international community to convene an “action group” in Geneva on Saturday. The meeting will include the permanent members of the UN Security Council, emissaries from the European Union, and from the Arab League. Significantly, both Iran and Saudi Arabia were not included, following a flurry of backroom diplomatic wrangling. At the meeting, Annan reportedly plans to put forward his proposal for a Syrian “interim government” that would include members from both sides of the country’s war. U.S. secretary of state Hillary Clinton said she had been in regular contact with Annan over his transition plan and claimed that the proposal “embodies the principles needed for any political transition in Syria that could lead to a peaceful, democratic and representative outcome reflecting the will of the Syrian people.”

Putin’s Middle East Tour. Russian president Vladimir Putin visited Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan this week. In a meeting with Israeli leaders, Putin acknowledged that Iran’s nuclear program poses a grave global threat. He nonetheless reaffirmed his opposition to further sanctions against Iran, insisting that there is no hard proof Tehran seeks to become a nuclear power. In the West Bank, Putin praised Mahmoud Abbas for his “responsible position” in negotiations with Israel and offered veiled criticism toward the latter saying “unilateral actions are not constructive.” Putin ended his trip with a meeting with King Abdullah II of Jordan, where officials said he discussed ways to end the uprising in Syria, restart Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, and address the threat of Iran’s nuclear program. Russia also offered to help Jordan build a nuclear reactor for peaceful purposes and modernize an oil terminal in the Gulf of Aqaba. The Russian leader’s 48-hour Middle East visit was seen by regional commentators as part of an effort to polish Russia’s tarnished reputation at a time when many Western and Arab countries have criticized Moscow’s steadfast support for Syria’s Bashar al-Assad. While Russia plans to participate in Saturday’s “action group” in Geneva, it continues to oppose any transition plan contingent on Mr. Assad’s departure. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov had called for Iran to participate in the talks, though appears to have relented when the United States threatened to skip any meeting with Iranian participation.

Turkey. Tensions between Ankara and Damascus continued to increase following Syria’s shoot-down of a Turkish Phantom 4 fighter jet last Friday. Turkish foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu said that pilots were testing the jet’s radar capabilities and that it “was shot down over international waters several minutes after it had left Syrian airspace.” The two pilots of the jet have not yet been found and search efforts continue. Damascus claimed the plane was shot down while flying one mile off of the Syrian coast. On Sunday, the Turkish Foreign Ministry dubbed the incident “a hostile act” and sent a diplomatic note to Syria saying that under international law, Turkey “reserves the right to respond.” NATO condemned the downing of the jet on Tuesday with NATO chief Anders Rasmussen saying “We consider this act to be unacceptable and condemn it in the strongest terms.” Rasmussen refused to suggest any possible NATO action, however. Syria’s information minister claimed on Wednesday that its country’s forces may have mistaken the Turkish plane for an Israeli aircraft and said that Syria does not want a crisis between Turkey and Syria. Turkish prime minister Erdogan said yesterday that “as Turkey, the Turkish nation, we have no intention of attacking.” Today, Turkish state television reported today that Turkey had deployed anti-aircraft guns and other weapons along its border with Syria.

Noteworthy U.S. Foreign Policy Developments

Egypt. Hours after Sunday’s announcement of Mohamed Morsi’s election victory, President Obama called the president-elect to congratulate him. According to a White House statement, “The president underscored that the United States will continue to support Egypt’s transition to democracy and stand by the Egyptian people as they fulfill the promise of their revolution.” In a somewhat unusual move, Obama also called the defeated candidate, Ahmed Shafik, to encourage him to stay involved in Egypt’s political scene. A separate White House statement reported, “The president emphasized his interest in working together with the new Egyptian president and all Egyptian political groups to advance the shared interests between the United States and Egypt.” On Wednesday, Secretary of State Clinton told reporters in Helsinki that the United States was pleased with the commitments Morsi had made so far though she would reserve judgment on his government until it was in place and governing the country. Clinton added, “We expect the transition to continue as has been promised by the (military) and we expect president-elect Morsi, as he forms a government, to demonstrate a commitment to inclusivity that is manifest by representatives of the women of Egypt, of the Coptic Christian community, of the secular non-religious community and, of course, young people.” Rumors continued to swirl around Washington about an impending high-level U.S. official visit to meet Morsi in Cairo.

Quotes of the Week

  • “We must restore normal relations with Iran based on shared interests, and expand areas of political coordination and economic cooperation because this will create a balance of pressure in the region.” – Egyptian president-elect Mohamed Morsi on Monday
  • “Even if the plane was in their airspace for a few seconds, that is no excuse to attack.” – Turkish prime minister Erdogan on Tuesday
  • “Where previously victims were targeted on the basis of their being pro- or anti-government, the Commission of Inquiry has recorded a growing number of incidents where victims appear to have been targeted because of their religious affiliation.” — UN commission report released on Wednesday
  • “Hezbollah congratulates the great people of Egypt for this historic election.” – statement by Hezbollah released on Monday

While We Were Looking Elsewhere

Iran. Iran’s official news agency IRNA reported Wednesday that Tehran will prepare a new road map for upcoming technical talks with other leading world powers in Istanbul next Tuesday. The last round of nuclear negotiations between Iran and the so-called P5+1 group–Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia, and the United States–were convened last week in Moscow, but ended without any results or firm agreement to a follow-on meeting.

Jordan. King Abdullah II called today for parliament to amend a controversial electoral law after opposition Islamists threatened to boycott general polls expected to be held by end of this year. The law, which requires the king’s approval to go into effect, raises the number of parliamentary seats to 140 from 120, and expands the quota for women to 15 from 12. The Muslim Brotherhood have said they plan to boycott the elections, describing the law as “provocative.” A palace statement released today said, “the king asked parliament today to hold an extraordinary session early next month to amend some articles in the electoral law to help ensure wider public participation in the process.”

Lebanon. Shiite  gunmen and supporters of Syria’s president Assad erected roadblocks, burned tires, and fired into the air indiscriminately early Tuesday morning in downtown Beirut.  The attacks were believed to be in retaliation for the arrest of a Shiite Lebanese man for firebombing and shooting into the offices of NewTV, a Lebanon station that has been critical of the Damascus government. Karma Khayat, the deputy head of news for New TV, said that political leaders from the Hezbollah and Amal parties visited the station after the attack to assure officials there that they had not approved of the attack. However, Khayat said those who took to the streets after the arrest were supporters of the Shiite parties, even if not officially connected to them, and alleged that their actions were coordinated. The incidents raised renewed concern that sectarian strife would spillover from Syria into Lebanon.

Bahrain. Bahraini security forces are searching for three suspects accused of harboring explosive materials for use in “terror” attacks in the kingdom. Two separate explosions in Shiite-populated areas left members of Bahraini police forces wounded  in April and May. Amidst clashes between Shiite protestors and Bahraini security forces, the Bahraini government pledged on Tuesday to  pay $2.6 million to seventeen unspecified families over deaths last year during the height of clashes that were ultimately ended by force.

This Week in History

This week marks the seventeenth anniversary of Qatar’s sheikh Hamid Bin Khalifa al-Thani’s bloodless coup d’etat and ascension to power. On June 27, 1995, Sheikh Hamad deposed his father, Sheikh Khalifa, who was vacationing in Switzerland with a telephone call and proclamation that he was now the new emir and prime minister of Qatar. Sheikh Hamid hired a U.S. law firm to freeze his father’s bank accounts abroad, thereby preventing a possible counter-coup. Sheikh Hamid’s “tele-coup” was widely supported by significant portions of the al-Thani family and the business community who found the former emir too slow to carry out economic reforms. Sheikh Hamid has since established himself as a prominent Gulf leader, initiating economic reforms and moving Qatar closer to the United States in the region.

Statistic of the Week

In light of the EU sanctions, Iranian officials acknowledged for the first time on Wednesday that the country’s oil exports have fallen sharply, down 20-30 percent from its normal 2.2 million barrels daily. A 20-30 percent fall would put Iranian exports at 1.54-1.76 million bpd, off 440-660,000 bpd.

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