Middle East Matters This Week: Egypt’s Tumultuous Anniversary
from Middle East Matters and Middle East Program

Middle East Matters This Week: Egypt’s Tumultuous Anniversary

Significant Middle East Developments

Egypt. Hundreds of thousands of Egyptians returned to Tahrir Square on Friday chanting “down with military rule” in a day dubbed “The Friday of Pride and Dignity.” Friday’s protest came on the heels of the one-year anniversary of the revolution marked on Wednesday by thousands in Tahrir Square. The SCAF proclaimed Wednesday a national holiday, but many protesters saw the anniversary as an opportunity to rally against the military’s continued grasp on power. Tens of thousands remained in Tahrir on Thursday. Conscious of the January 25 anniversary, Egypt’s first post-Mubarak parliament held its inaugural session on Monday and later issued a statement supporting the completion of the revolution. Field Marshal Tantawi announced on Tuesday the end of the emergency law--one of the key demands of protesters. However, Tantawi said that the law would still apply in cases of “thuggery,” a term he refused to define. Tension between the SCAF and the United States increased after Egyptian authorities banned several U.S. citizens, most notably Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood’s son, Sam Lahood, from leaving the country. Sam LaHood is the director of the International Republican Institute’s Egypt program, one of the organizations that had been raided and closed down by Egyptian authorities just last month. LaHood attempted to board a plane with IRI colleagues on Saturday but the group was told that it was on a “no-fly list.”

Syria. Arab League foreign ministers proposed a new peace plan on Sunday, in which they called on Bashar al-Assad to hand over power to a deputy within two months and form a unity government (I responded to these calls in a CNN piece on how to help Syria without intervening militarily available here). The Syrian regime responded by condemning the Arab League’s proposal as a “violation of its sovereignty.” There appeared to be growing momentum within the UN Security Council to pass a strong resolution endorsing the Arab League’s proposal. Western nations are working closely with Qatar and Morocco to complete a new draft that will be similar to the one vetoed by Russia and China last October. The new draft reportedly also includes the Arab League’s proposal for a “transition” of power in Damascus. Arab League chief Nabil el-Araby and Qatari prime minister Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani are planned to brief the Security Council on Monday, and the draft could go to a vote soon after. Within Syria, the Arab League observer mission has continued to fracture, with the GCC withdrawing all its monitors and the remaining monitors returning to work after the Syrian regime granted them a month-long extension.

Iran. Following similar moves from Washington, the European Union agreed to impose an embargo on Iranian oil on Monday. European governments also agreed to freeze assets of the Iranian central bank. An unnamed EU diplomat was quoted in The Guardian on Monday saying that the “Iranian programs are proceeding apace and represent a strategic threat” and that the aim of their measures “is to have a big impact on the Iranian financial system, targeting the economic lifeline of the regime.” In the United States, the Obama administration has now shifted the focus of its efforts to convincing Asian countries to enact similar measures.

Noteworthy U.S. Foreign Policy Developments

State of the Union. President Obama gave his State of the Union address on Tuesday, making few references to the Middle East. My colleague Jim Lindsay provided extensive analysis of the president’s remarks. On the Middle East, President Obama noted the overthrow of Libya’s Muammar Qaddafi and said that “in Syria, I have no doubt that the Assad regime will soon discover that the forces of change can’t be reversed, and that human dignity can’t be denied.” Laying out a few principles for U.S. policy going forward, he noted that how “this incredible transformation will end remains uncertain. But we have a huge stake in the outcome. And while it is ultimately up to the people of the region to decide their fate, we will advocate for those values that have served our own country so well. We will stand against violence and intimidation. We will stand for the rights and dignity of all human beings–men and women; Christians, Muslims, and Jews. We will support policies that lead to strong and stable democracies and open markets, because tyranny is no match for liberty.”

Bahrain. The United States announced on Monday that it was relocating its embassy staff in Bahrain. Anti-government demonstrations have restricted movement to such a degree that it has become a safety and security concern for embassy employees. Tensions remain high in Bahrain following last spring’s bloody unrest and brutal crackdown. Bahraini activists claimed four protesters have died since Wednesday, with the Interior Ministry confirming the death of one protester who had been detained on Tuesday by police.

Quotes of the Week

While We Were Looking Elsewhere

Libya. A number of international human rights organizations are concerned over the use of torture in post-Qaddhafi Libya. Amnesty International claimed on Thursday that a number of people had been tortured to death by both “officially recognized military and security entities” of the interim government, as well as by militias in Tripoli, Gheryan, and Misrata. UN human rights chief Navi Pillay told the UN Security Council on Wednesday that she was concerned about the thousands of incarcerated prisoners accused of being Qaddafi loyalists: “The lack of oversight by the central authorities creates an environment conducive to torture and ill-treatment.” Doctors Without Borders has also suspended its operations in Misrata after treating a reported 115 patients with torture wounds.

Yemen. Yemeni president Ali Abdullah finally left Yemen on Sunday to pursue medical treatment in the United States. His departure marks an end to his thirty-three year dictatorial rule.

Kuwait. Kuwait has allowed Al-Jazeera to reopen its Kuwaiti office. The move comes more than a year after the pan-Arab news agency was ordered closed following its coverage of a police crackdown on members of parliament.

This Week in History

Wednesday marked the seven-year anniversary of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s meeting with Russian president Vladimir Putin in Moscow. Following the meeting, relations between Russia and Syria improved significantly. This relationship endures to this day as evidenced by Russia’s continued rejection of UN sanctions on Syria and its continued arms deals with the brutal Assad regime. On Monday, Russia signed a $550 million contract to sell 36 Yak-130 jets to the Syrian government. This follows a number of deals over the past few years. According to CAST, the Russian defense think tank, Syria bought $700 million worth of Russian weapons in 2010. The United States, Britain, and France have strongly criticized Russia’s attitude toward Syria. Moscow, in turn, claims that the United States deserves no explanations on Syrian arms: “We don’t consider it necessary to explain ourselves or justify ourselves, because we are not violating any international agreements or any Security Council resolutions,” Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov told a recent news conference.

Statistic of the Week

Syria, Bahrain, and Yemen received their worst ever press freedom ranking on Wednesday in Reporters Without Borders’ index for 2011: Syria fell to the 176th position in the index, Bahrain fell 29 places to 173rd, and Yemen came in at 171st.