from Middle East Matters and Middle East Program

Middle East Matters This Week: Egypt Clashes, Turkey-Syria Escalate, Israel Calls Elections

October 12, 2012

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Significant Middle East Developments

Egypt. Hundreds of people were injured today when supporters and opponents of Egyptian leader Mohammed Morsi clashed violently in Tahrir Square for the first time since the president took office in June. Morsi’s critics took to the streets primarily to demand a more representative Constituent Assembly, the body tasked with writing Egypt’s new constitution. They also protested the president’s performance to date. The Brotherhood supporters, in turn, protested Wednesday’s acquittal of twenty-four Mubarak regime figures accused of inciting the infamous camel attacks against protesters in Tahrir Square on February 2, 2011. Members of the Muslim Brotherhood-organized demonstration stormed a stage set-up by the liberal activists, while opposition supporters set fire to two empty buses belonging to the Muslim Brotherhood.

Turkey-Syria. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov stated today that the Syrian plane forced to land in Turkey while en route from Moscow to Damascus on Wednesday was legally carrying Russian duel use missile defense radar parts to Syria. Yesterday, Turkish prime minister Recep Erdogan claimed that the commercial jetliner carried Russian military tools, equipment, and ammunition in contravention of international law. Turkish war planes intercepted the Syrian aircraft on Wednesday and forced it to land in Ankara. Russia has demanded a detailed accounting of what Turkish officials found on the plane.

Meanwhile, Turkey scrambled two fighter jets to the border today after a Syrian helicopter bombed a Syrian border town. Syria’s ambassador to the UN, Bashar al-Ja’afari, sent a communique Thursday night to the UN Security Council calling for a halt to “Turkish violations and provocations” and “unjustifiable aggressive behavior” in responding to Syrian shells that had fallen in Turkey last week. Turkish military chief General Necdet Ozel, speaking to troops along the Syrian border on Wednesday, threatened a stronger Turkish response if Syria’s shelling continues. Syrian rebels have escalated their offensive inside Syria in the past two days, capturing an air defense base near Aleppo and killing over one hundred regime soldiers.

Israel. Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for early parliamentary elections on Tuesday after concluding that he could not pass the 2013 state budget. Two days later, Netanyahu proposed January 22, 2013 for Israel’s nineteenth general election. According to recent polls, the prime minister’s Likud party would increase the number of seats in parliament in the next vote. Legislation to dissolve the current parliament is expected to be put to a vote next week. Meanwhile, Israeli jets last Saturday shot down a drone flying over the southern part of the country.  Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah took credit for assembling and deploying the drone into Israel in a televised address on Thursday, calling it a milestone in the “history of the resistance.”

U.S. Foreign Policy

Libya. The House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held contentious hearings on Wednesday into the security situation at the U.S. consulate in Benghazi prior to the September 11 attack there that killed four American officials, including ambassador Chris Stevens. Eric Nordstrom, the former regional security officer at the U.S. embassy in Libya, told the hearing that he had been discouraged by officials at the State Department from requesting more military security support. Charlene Lamb, the deputy assistant secretary for international programs in the Bureau of Diplomatic Security, said that Nordstrom’s request would not have made a difference because it had asked to retain a special team that was stationed in Tripoli, not in Benghazi. Meanwhile, the new ambassador to Libya, Laurence Pope, arrived in Tripoli yesterday.

Yemen. Qassem Aqlan, a Yemeni native who worked as a senior security investigator for the U.S. embassy in Sanaa, was shot and killed by masked gunmen on a motorcycle yesterday. State Department spokesperson Victoria Nuland denied initial reports that Aqlan had been investigating last month’s security breach when protesters broke through the compound’s outer perimeter. Aqlan had worked for the embassy for eleven years.

Quotes of the Week

  • “We have all necessary plans in place to protect and defend Turkey if necessary.” NATO secretary general Anders Fogh Rasmussen told reporters in Brussels on Tuesday
  • “[Iran] is not seeking to invade anyone but will not succumb to any attack or act of aggression.” – Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said today
  • “We [vow] to take the battle in Syria to the heart of the [Beirut] southern suburbs if [Hezbollah] does not stop supporting the killer Syrian regime.” – Fahd al-Masri, an FSA spokesman, told Asharq al-Awsat in an interview published Tuesday
  • “If we leave Syria further, we will aggravate the situation more and more…Fanatics will emerge…We should not leave it until a stage where, God forbid, somebody calls for jihad, and then we cannot stop people coming from all directions.” – Khalid Bin Mohammad al-Attiyah, Qatar’s foreign minister said in an interview today

While We Were Looking Elsewhere

Libya. The International Criminal Court held its first public hearing in the case of Seif al-Islam, Moammar Qaddafi’s son, this week. The Libyan government argued before international judges in The Hague on Tuesday that Libya should be allowed to try Seif rather than hand him over to the ICC for prosecution. Ahmed Jihani, a Libyan lawyer, argued that it would be a “unique opportunity for national reconciliation.” Seif’s defense lawyers argued that he would not receive a fair trial in Libya.

Jordan. King Abdullah swore in a 21-member caretaker cabinet yesterday after appointing reformist Abdullah Ensour prime minister on Wednesday. The king dissolved parliament and called for early elections last week. Ensour met with members of the IAF, the Muslim Brotherhood’s political arm as well as trade union leaders yesterday after the Muslim Brotherhood threatened to boycott the upcoming elections.

Bahrain. Police fired teargas and stun grenades to break up hundreds of anti-government protesters in central Manama today. Ten people were reported arrested. A second protest of thousands, organized by the main opposition party al-Wefaq, unfolded outside the city without incident.

This Week in History

This week marks the thirty-ninth anniversary of the Yom Kippur/Ramadan War. On October 6, 1973, Egypt launched a coordinated surprise military attack with Syria against Israeli forces. In the initial phase, Egyptian forces breached the so-called Bar-Lev line and pushed Israeli forces back from the Suez Canal, recapturing parts of Sinai while Syrian forces broke through to the Golan Heights. After sustained fighting and heavy casulaties on both sides, Israel successfully turned the tide on the battlefield and rolled back Egypt and Syria’s initial gains. While Israel ultimately triumphed militarily, it was dealt a major psychological blow. The Israeli commission of inquiry set up to investigate Israel’s lack of preparedness for the war—the Agranat Commission—called for dismissal of a number of senior Israeli military officers, and helped precipitate the resignation of then prime minister Golda Minister. This past Saturday, current Egyptian president Mohammed Morsi used the occasion of the war’s anniversary to detail the purported successes of his first one hundred days in office to a crowd of sixty thousand assembled at the Cairo Stadium.