from Middle East Matters and Middle East Program

Middle East Matters This Week: Brahimi’s Cease-Fire, Libyan Fighting, Egyptian Constitution Struggles, and More Iran Sanctions

October 18, 2012

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Significant Middle East Developments

Syria. Iran and Turkey today endorsed UN-Arab League envoy Lakhdar Brahimi’s call for a cease-fire during the Eid al-Adha holiday that begins October 26. Brahimi proposed the cease-fire on Monday amidst ongoing violence throughout the country, and is scheduled to be in Damascus on Saturday. The Syrian regime has said it is ready to discuss the plan. Meanwhile, the EU passed a new set of sanctions on Monday including an assets freeze against twenty-eight Syrians and two companies. Turkey’s foreign minister Ahmet Davutoglu on Sunday announced a ban on all Syrian aircraft entering Turkish airspace, following last week’s incident in which a Syria-bound flight from Moscow suspected of carrying military equipment was forced to land in Turkey for inspection. More than forty people were killed this afternoon when Syrian military aircraft bombed a town held by insurgents along a vital north-south highway in northern Syria. The bombardment was called among the most intense since Syria’s military began deploying warplanes and helicopters against insurgents in the country.

Libya. Fighters belonging to a militia group associated with the Libyan army shelled the town of Bani Walid today, killing eleven people and wounding at least seventy-five more. The attack appears to be a response to the killing of Omar ben Shaaban, a former rebel from Misrata who allegedly had been kidnapped and tortured by men from Bani Walid. The militants, part of the Libya Shield militia from the Misrata area, claimed yesterday that they were acting under orders to advance into Bani Walid after Libya’s General National Congress authorized the defense and interior ministries to use “force if necessary” to find those responsible for Shaaban’s kidnapping. However, the army’s spokesman, Colonel Ali al-Sheikhi, denied giving such an order. Meanwhile, Libyan authorities have identified Ahmed Abu Khattala, the head of the Islamist group Ansar al-Shariah, as a leader of last month’s attack against the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. Abu Khattala remains at large.

Egypt. Judges from Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court (SCC) on Tuesday criticized the Constituent Assembly, the body drafting Egypt’s constitution, for not ensuring the court’s independence from the executive branch. One article of the draft constitution would remove the court’s current authority to rule on the constitutionality of laws after they had been passed by parliament. Tahani el-Gibaly, a member of the SCC, said that “The revolution was about ensuring a democratic system, with balanced powers to protect the rights of the Egyptian citizen, but these clauses violate these rights.” The assembly is set to vote on the final draft in the second week of November, which will be followed by a public referendum. Meanwhile, Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi faced a political setback when his attempt to remove Prosecutor-General Abdel Meguid Mahmoud backfired. Last week, after the acquittal of twenty-four Mubarak regime figures, Morsi attempted to force Mahmoud to submit a letter of resignation and accept the post of ambassador to the Vatican. However, Mahmoud refused and a group of judges and lawyers criticized Morsi for trying to tamper with the judiciary. On Saturday Mahmoud returned to his job as prosecutor-general.

Iran. The European Union invoked a new set of sanctions earlier this week against Iran’s banking and energy industries. More than thirty major Iranian state companies were designated by the EU for asset freezes, including the National Iranian Oil Company and the National Iranian Tanker Company. On Sunday, Iranian deputy industry minister Hamid Safdel announced that Iran will seek to cut its imports of nonessential goods. Safdel also said that Iran will provide subsidized rates to importers of basic goods. On Saturday, Industry Minister Mehdi Ghazanfari urged Iranians to buy items from domestic manufacturers to help the country contend with international sanctions.

U.S. Foreign Policy

Israel. The first of one thousand U.S. troops arrived in Israel today to take part in a joint missile-defense drill with their Israeli counterparts. U.S. Air Force General Craig Franklin, who planned the drill, described it as the largest joint exercise in the two countries’ history. Craig also noted that the drill had been planned for over two years and said that it was a purely defensive drill, unrelated to any specific developments in the region. However General Nitzan Nuriel, his Israeli counterpart, said that “anyone who wants can get any message he wants from this exercise.”

Jordan. U.S. and Jordanian diplomatic sources told Al-Hayat on Monday that there is joint U.S.-Jordanian contingency planning underway to deal with the war in Syria. U.S. embassy spokesman Silvio Gonzalez said that “U.S. troops are regularly and routinely present on Jordanian territory to support are common goals.” Jordanian government spokesman Samih Maaytah said “all that exists is cooperation and the exchange of expertise.” More than one hundred U.S. troops were reportedly deployed to Jordan to provide aid in securing the border and in dealing with the flow of Syrian refugees. The two countries are also believed to be monitoring Syria’s chemical and biological weapons stocks.

Libya. The New York Times reported on Monday that the Pentagon and State Department are speeding up plans to help create an elite counterterrorism Libyan commando force. The effort was already underway prior to last month’s attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi. Following the attack, Congress approved the shifting of approximately $8 million from Pentagon operations in Pakistan to Libya, although the program has not yet been officially announced.

While We Were Looking Elsewhere

Palestine. Palestinian officials are preparing for municipal elections throughout the West Bank on Saturday. Security forces and police were allowed to vote today so that they will be free to secure the voting process on Saturday. Hamas is boycotting the election and will not allow voting in the Gaza Strip. The last municipal election in 2005 resulted in a surge for Hamas, presaging its legislative victory in the 2006 parliamentary elections.

Egypt, Jordan, and Israel. Egypt’s new ambassador to Israel, Atef Mohamed Salem Sayed Elahl, presented his credentials to Israeli president Shimon Peres on Wednesday. Elahl declared that “I came with a message of peace and I came to confirm that we are working for mutual trust and transparency and we are committed to all the agreements we signed with Israel.” Jordan’s new ambassador, Walid Khalid Abdullah Obeidat, also took up his post officially on Wednesday. Obeidat’s tribe in Jordan has vowed to disown him for accepting his new appointment. Meanwhile, Israel’s parliament voted to dissolve itself on Monday following Prime Minister Netanyahu’s call for early elections last week. Early general elections will be held on January 22. On Tuesday, Jordan announced that it will hold its parliamentary elections on January 23.

Tunisia. The Tunisian government vowed on Wednesday to implement two decrees guaranteeing press freedom. The decrees were signed into law last November but have yet to be enacted.  The announcement came during a nation-wide strike of journalists to protest attempts to curb press freedom. On Monday, Human Rights Watch called on Tunisia to investigate a series of attacks by extremist Islamists over the past ten months, saying that the government’s failure to do so “may embolden them to commit more violence.”

Yemen. A drone strike killed Nader Al Shaddadi, one of the top leaders of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula. The strike targeted a group of militants preparing to attack the Yemeni troops, and killed at least eight other people.

This Week in History

Saturday marks the one year anniversary of the death of Muammar Qaddafi, the dictator who ruled Libya for more than forty-two years. On October 20, 2011, almost three months after the fall of Tripoli, rebels discovered Qaddafi hiding in a drainage pipe on the side of the road leading out of Sirte, his hometown. Qaddafi was still alive when apprehended but was killed within hours by a gun shot to the head.