Significant Middle East Developments
Egypt. The National Salvation Front, Egypt’s newly formed opposition group headed by prominent figures Mohammed El Baradei, Hamdeen Sabahi, and Amre Moussa, urged followers yesterday to vote “no” on Saturday’s referendum on the draft constitution. They conditioned the opposition’s participation in the vote on full judicial oversight at all polling places, independent and international monitors, and adequate security. The government’s failure to deliver any of these elements could trigger a last-minute boycott. Meanwhile, the referendum has split the judiciary, with many judges refusing to participate at all. Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi last Saturday rescinded many elements of his November 22 decree that had placed himself above judicial review. He refused to budge on the timing of the referendum, however, and then quickly added a second decree the next day giving the military the right to arrest civilians and protect vital state institutions until after the referendum’s results are announced.
Violent clashes between dueling protests of opponents and supporters of Morsi have left at least eight people dead and hundreds wounded so far. The referendum on the draft constitution began yesterday in Egyptian embassies and consulates abroad. Voting inside Egypt will begin Saturday, December 15, and conclude one week later on Saturday, December 22. On a separate front, after Morsi’s Sunday announcement of a new tax package prompted an outcry from opposition groups, Egyptian finance minister, Mumtaz el-Said, said on Tuesday that a crucial $4.8 billion International Monetary Fund loan would be delayed a month.
Syria. In a dramatic shift in Russia’s position, deputy foreign minister Mikhail Bogdanov said today that Syrian president Bashar al-Assad is losing control of the country and that the rebels may win. Bogdanov was quoted saying “one must look the facts in the face…Unfortunately, the victory of the Syrian opposition cannot be ruled out.” Meanwhile, NATO’s secretary general, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, echoed Bogdanov’s remarks by saying, “I think the regime in Damascus is approaching collapse…I think now it is only a question of time.”
These stark assessments follow Tuesday’s decision in Marakesh by the “Friends of Syria,” a group including the United States and 113 other countries, to recognize Syria’s new opposition coalition as the sole legitimate representative of the Syrian people. Meanwhile the Syrian military reportedly have used Scud ballistic missiles for the first time since the outbreak of the conflict, firing at least six missiles against an army base overrun by rebels over the past week. White House spokesman Jay Carney called the use of Scud missiles “stunning, desperate and a completely disproportionate military escalation.”
While We Were Looking Elsewhere
Iran. Inspectors from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) arrived in Tehran today for the first talks on Iran’s nuclear program since August. There are no current plans for the inspectors to access the Parchin military complex or any other nuclear facility in Iran.
Palestine. Hamas leader Khaled Meshal visited Gaza for the first time and pledged never to recognize Israel before a massive crowd in Gaza City on Saturday. Meshal defiantly said that “Israel has no right in Jerusalem” and that “Holy war and armed resistance are the real and right path to liberation and recovery of rights.” Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas rejected Meshal’s incendiary speech today, saying “We recognized Israel in 1993…There is an agreement between Fatah and Hamas that recognizes the two-state solution. Meshal approved this agreement.”
Lebanon. Violent clashes this week between Sunni Muslims and Alawites in the town of Tripoli left at least seventeen men dead. The current round of violence was sparked by video footage that reportedly showed the bodies of slain Lebanese Sunni fighters being defiled after they were ambushed last week just inside Syria where they were en route to fight with the opposition.
Morocco. Abdessalem Yassine, the founder of Al Adl wa Ihsan, one of the largest opposition groups in Morocco, died today. Al Adl wa Ihsan brought its hundreds of thousands of followers t Morocco’s pro-democracy demonstrations in 2011.
Bahrain. Salman bin Hamad al-Khalifa, Bahrain’s crown prince, renewed his call for national dialogue and an end to violent confrontations last Friday. Al-Wefaq, the main opposition group, welcomed the effort and said that it would participate, but that it wanted the results to be put to a referendum.
This Week in History
Friday, December 14, marks the twenty-fourth anniversary of Yasser Arafat’s historic statement in Geneva recognizing Israel’s right to exist and renouncing terrorism. On December 13, 1988, Arafat addressed the UN General Assembly to reaffirm his previous month’s Algiers declaration of independence wherein he declared Jerusalem the capital of Palestine proclaimed the “right of return” for Palestinian refugees, and the right to Palestinian self-determination. However, he failed to explicitly recognize Israel, leading the State Department to deem Arafat’s words insufficient for a bilateral dialogue. The next day, after heavy backchannel coaching, Arafat held a press conference in which he “clarified” his previous day’s statement. Arafat claimed that all states in the Middle East had the right to exist in peace, including the State of Israel, and he also renounced terrorism. On December 15, the UN General Assembly adopted resolution 43/177, which affirmed the right of the Palestinian people to exercise their sovereignty over their territory occupied since 1967, and decided that the designation “Palestine” be used instead of the “Palestine Liberation Organization.” The U.S. soon after entered into bilateral discussions with Arafat via the American ambassador in Tunis. That dialogue was subsequently terminated after a terrorist attack in Israel was traced back to the PLO.