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: Tunisia, Egypt, Iran, Syria, and More

by Robert M. Danin
February 7, 2013

A man cries next to a poster with an image of Chokri Belaid, a prominent Tunisian opposition politician who was shot dead, in Tunis February 7, 2013 (Souissi/Courtesy Reuters). A man cries next to a poster with an image of Chokri Belaid, a prominent Tunisian opposition politician who was shot dead, in Tunis February 7, 2013 (Souissi/Courtesy Reuters).

Significant Developments

Tunisia. Tunisia’s ruling Islamist party Ennahda rejected its own prime minister’s proposal today to form a new government of technocrats following the assassination yesterday of Chokri Belaid, a prominent opposition politician. Belaid was gunned down outside his Tunis home immediately sparking massive nationwide protests. Hundreds of protesters attacked a police station in Tunis today after policemen employed teargas to ward off some twenty thousand protesters marching towards the Interior Ministry. Further unrest is expected tomorrow as the main trade union has called a general strike to coincide with Belaid’s funeral.

Egypt. Egyptian police today beefed up security to leading liberal opposition figures Mohammed ElBaradei and Hamdeen Sabbahi after a hardline cleric called for their deaths yesterday. In an online clip of a religious television show, Al Azhar professor Mahmoud Shaaban declared that the leaders of the National Salvation Front would receive the death penalty under Islamic law. Egypt’s prime minister, Hesham Kandil, and spokesmen for the Muslim Brotherhood condemned the fatwa today, warning that such edicts could lead to sedition.

Iran-Egypt. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived in Cairo yesterday in the first visit to Egypt by an Iranian leader in over three decades. Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi greeted Ahmadinejad, visiting Egypt to participate in an Organization of Islamic Cooperation summit, at Cairo international airport. Meanwhile, Al Azhar’s grand imam, Ahmed al-Tayeb, denounced the “spread of Shiism in Sunni lands” and demanded that Iran not interfere in the Gulf states in a statement following his meeting with the Iranian president. Ahmadinejad was mobbed by protesters after his visit to Al Azhar and the Al Hussein mosque; one protester tried to hit the president with a shoe.

Syria. Syria’s rebels and regime forces continued today to engage in the most intense fighting Damascus has seen in weeks, exchanging gun and mortar fire in heavily populated neighborhoods. Meanwhile, the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) suggested that both sides begin a dialogue to end the civil war. The OIC stopped short of calling on Syrian president Bashar al-Assad to leave. Earlier this week, the Syrian opposition backed opposition leader Sheikh Ahmed Moaz al-Khatib’s previous call to open discussions with Assad’s regime. The opposition coalition also dropped its earlier demand that Assad stand trial, urging him instead to resign and leave the country.

U.S. Foreign Policy

Obama to Israel. The White House announced on Tuesday that President Obama will visit Israel this spring for the first time since taking office. In announcing the visit, White House spokesman Jay Carney said that the president will also travel to Jordan and the West Bank. Israeli media sources report that the president will arrive in Israel on March 20, but the White House refused to discuss dates. Click here to see my recent analysis of the prospects for the president’s upcoming visit.

Administration Syria Policy Divisions. The New York Times reported on Sunday that both former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and CIA Director David Petraeus recommended last summer that the United States arm and train the Syrian rebels but that the White House overruled them. The plan, reportedly developed by Petraeus and supported by Clinton, called for the United States to vet rebel groups and train fighters who would be supplies with guns. General Martin Dempsey testified today before the Senate Armed Services Committee that both he and Secretary of Defense Panetta also supported the plan.  

While We Were Looking Elsewhere

Israel. President Shimon Peres tapped Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu late Saturday night to form the next government. Netanyahu said he was looking to form the “widest possible national unity government.” He met today with Yair Lapid, the head of Yesh Atid and the surprise second-place finisher who won 19 of the Knesset’s 120 seats in Israel’s January 22 election. Netanyahu has twenty-eight days from last Saturday to form a coalition though he can request a fourteen day extension if necessary.

Iran. Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei today rejected an offer of direct talks with the United States made by Vice President Joe Biden earlier this week. Khamenei told members of Iran’s air force that “Some naive people like the idea of negotiating with America, however, negotiations will not solve the problem.”

Yemen. President Abdrabuh Mansur Hadi announced yesterday that the much anticipated national dialogue to begin drafting a new constitution will begin March 18. The dialogue is part of the Gulf-brokered agreement that averted civil war in 2011 and pushed former president Ali Abdullah Saleh from office. However, Saleh still heads the General People’s Congress party, which is slated to field more than 20 percent of the dialogues’ participants. Nobel Prize winner Tawakkul Karman called on Tuesday for Saleh to be banned from politics, alleging that his continued political involvement is the main obstacle to Yemen’s transition.

Kuwait. Three former members of the Kuwaiti parliament were sentenced to three years of hard labor on Tuesday for insulting the emir in public speeches in October 2012. The Public Prosecution Office has charged over twenty people with offending the emir since October; six of the defendants have thus far received prison terms.

Bahrain. Thousands of protesters demonstrated in Manama against the Bahraini royal family on Wednesday. The protest comes less than a week before the Sunday beginning of a planned dialogue between opposition groups and the monarchy.

This Week in History

Tomorrow marks the fiftieth anniversary of Ba’ath party coup that ousted Iraqi president Abd al-Karim Qasim. On February 8, 1963, Colonel Abdul Salam Arif led the Iraqi Ba’ath party and other military dissidents in a two day violent struggle against pro-Qasim forces that ended with Qasim holed up in the Ministry of Defense. The newly formed National Council of the Revolutionary Command rejected Qasim’s offer to surrender on February 9 and instead captured him by force and executed him the same day. The coup resulted in the formation of the country’s first Ba’ath government.

Post a Comment 1 Comment

  • Posted by Jason.H

    Khamenei’s rejection of talks doesn’t sound very new, it seems largely rhetorical in light of the upcoming P5+1 talks in Kazakhstan.

    My guess is that he is trying to maintain that Iran exists outside of the U.S. sphere of influence, that ” the problem” is of western influence over the Islamic Republic.

    From here, it seems like promoting any and all kinds of discourse are necessary when it comes to developing a relationship with Iran.

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