from Middle East Matters and Middle East Program

Middle East Matters This Week: Egyptian Elections and New Arab League Activism

December 2, 2011 6:30 pm (EST)

Blog Post
Blog posts represent the views of CFR fellows and staff and not those of CFR, which takes no institutional positions.

An electoral worker carries a ballot box at a center for vote counting during the second day of parliamentary elections in Alexandria, November 29, 2011 (Mohamed Abd El-Ghany/Courtesy Reuters).

Significant Middle East Developments

Egypt. The Middle East’s biggest news item this week was the first round of Egyptian parliamentary elections held on Monday and Tuesday. Following a tumultuous, violence-filled run-up to the ballot, the first two days of voting in the key locations of Cairo and Alexandria produced an extremely high turnout and were remarkably calm. While much of the country has yet to vote in a series of ten more voting days that extend through January, Islamist parties so far have dominated. The Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party took 40 percent of the first round vote, as expected. But the surprise was the large turnout for the ultraconservative Salafists’ party, which appears poised to secure at least 20 percent of the vote. It is unclear how the Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis will interact in parliament, and also to be seen is how the military will react to all this.

The Arab League and Syria. Also significant this week was the Arab League’s decision to levy strong sanctions on Syria, following up on its earlier decision to suspend Syria from the pan-Arab organization. As I discuss in a opinion piece published yesterday, this move may portend a fundamental shift toward an activist role for the historically moribund institution. Turkey followed suit on Wednesday with its own sanctions against Syria, cutting off all financial ties with its neighbor which totaled some $2.2 billion in trade last year. While the weight of the international sanctions will increase pressure on the Syrian business community and the regime, I remain skeptical that sanctions alone will bring the Assad regime to its knees.

Noteworthy U.S. Foreign Policy Developments

On Monday November 28, White House spokesperson Jay Carney said that the president would welcome whoever wins the Egyptian parliamentary elections, including the Muslim Brotherhood:

“The fact of the matter is the democratic process is what’s important. Principles matter to this president, not parties… it is in some ways unfair to assume that any party that has a religious affiliation cannot adhere to democratic principles. It’s simply not the case and hasn’t been borne out by the facts. So before we judge the disposition of a government--or a parliament that’s just beginning to take shape through elections that have started today, I think we need to let the process run its course, continue to espouse our firm support for democratic principles and for civilian control of the government, and then judge the outcome by the actions of those who prevail.”

These statements will likely reinforce the perception within the Middle East that Washington has turned a corner in its position towards Islamist parties. More likely, the Obama administration is struggling to produce a coherent policy line that addresses the advent of Islamist parties to power in Morocco, Tunisia, and now Egypt. I’m eager to hear from you concerning how Washington’s policy pronouncements are being interpreted within the region.

Quotes of the Week

  • “If the oppression continues, Turkey is ready for any scenario. We hope that a military intervention will never be necessary. The Syrian regime has to find a way of making peace with its own people." –Foreign Minister Ahmet Davutoglu in an interview with Kanal 24 on Tuesday

While We Were Looking Elsewhere

Saudi Arabia. The kingdom has seen disturbances in its Eastern Province over the course of the past few days. I offer my thoughts on what this could mean for Saudi stability both now and in the future in a previous blog post, available here.

Kuwait. In more news from the generally stable Gulf, the Kuwaiti prime minister resigned on Monday in response to corruption allegations following protests.

UAE. There were developments this week in the UAE as well. Just three days after five activists were convicted of insulting the UAE’s leadership, endangering national security, and inciting people to protests for the crime of signing an internet petition back in March, Sheikh Khalifa, president of the UAE, announced salary increases ranging from 35 percent to 45 percent for all Emirati government employees to mark the UAE’s 40th anniversary. The decision comes at the same time as announcements that women will now be able to pass their nationality onto their children and that two thousand five hundred plots of land are to be allocated to Abu Dhabi citizens in order to provide suitable housing in an effort to maintain social stability.

This Week in History

Sixty-four years ago this week, on November 29, 1947, the UN General Assembly adopted Resolution 181, the United Nations partition plan for Palestine. The resolution recommended the end of the British Mandate and the establishment of two independent Arab and Jewish states, and a special United Nations’ administered regime for Jerusalem. Resolution 181 is significant not only because it established the legal basis for Israel’s creation (as well as Palestine’s), but for its more than two dozen references to the notion of a “Jewish state” coming into being in Mandate Palestine. For years, both pro- and anti-Zionists regularly referred to “the Jewish state” or “the Jews” when referencing Israel. Anti-Zionists refused to utter the word Israel. Now, in recent years, the situation has become reversed as Israelis and Palestinians have engaged in earnest to resolve these issues. Anti-Zionists easily refer to Israel but now struggle with both the term and concept of a Jewish state. Hopefully, these issues of identity and self-definition can be overcome by practical leaders who are more focused on creating a better future than on rectifying all of the mistakes of the past.

Statistic of the Week

A report by a UN Human Rights Council panel found that Syrian government forces killed at least 256 children between mid-March and early November.