from Middle East Matters and Middle East Program

Middle East Matters This Week: Turkey Broils, Egypt Prosecutes, and Syria Deteriorates

June 7, 2013

Blog Post

More on:

United States

Diplomacy and International Institutions




Significant Developments

Turkey. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan was welcomed home today from a four-day trip to Africa by thousands of supporters at the airport— the first major show of support by pro-government demonstrators in Turkey since unrest erupted last week. Erdogan defiantly told supporters that the “protests that are bordering on illegality must come to an end as of now.” Even as he spoke, thousands of people were massing in Istanbul’s Taksim Square for the eighth straight night after police used tear gas and water cannons last Friday against a peaceful demonstration against government plans to turn a park into a shopping mall. The confrontation sparked broad protests against Erdogan’s government across Turkey. Two protestors and a police officer have reportedly been killed in the ensuing clashes, with nearly five thousand people wounded.

Syria. George Sabra, acting leader of Syria’s main opposition group, said today that peace negotiations are not possible with Hezbollah and Iran fighting for the government of Syrian president Bashar al-Assad. Sabra said that Hezbollah’s involvement in Syria is turning the conflict into a sectarian battle between Sunnis and Shiites. Regime troops, aided by Hezbollah fighters, scored a major victory earlier this week by capturing the strategically valuable town of Qusair on Wednesday, quickly followed by two nearby villages in a new offensive against the rebels.

Meanwhile, French foreign minister Laurent Fabius said on Tuesday that there is “no doubt” that the Syrian government used sarin gas. Britain’s UN ambassador Mark Lyall-Grant also said on Tuesday that the British government has evidence that sarin gas has been used in Syria. The United Nations’ independent commission reported that it has “reasonable grounds” to believe chemical weapons have been used in Syria. The Obama administration struggled to react to these new reports. State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki said that the U.S. did not intend to “evaluate or litigate in public” the information it has received from Paris. For my take on the worst-case scenario for Syria and its impact on the Middle East, read this.

Egypt. An Egyptian court convicted forty-three NGO workers on Tuesday in a case against foreign-funded democracy promotion groups. The judge gave five year sentences to twenty-seven defendants tried in absentia, including a group of fifteen American defendants and the son of U.S. secretary of transportation Ray Lahood. The verdict also ordered the closure of the offices and seizure of assets belonging to the U.S. and German nonprofit organizations: the International Republican Institute, the National Democratic Institute, Freedom House, and the Konrad Adenauer Foundation. Secretary of State John Kerry said that the United States is “deeply concerned” and said the ordered closure of offices and seizure of assets “contradicts the government of Egypt’s commitments to support the role of civil society…especially at this critical stage in the Egyptian people’s democratic transition.”

Meanwhile Egypt’s supreme constitutional court ruled on Sunday that laws governing the election of members to the upper house, or Shura Council, and to the constitutional panel were illegal. It is unlikely that the court’s ruling will have any immediate effects because the Shura Council is immune from dissolution until a new house of representatives is elected.

U.S. Foreign Policy

Israel-Palestine. Secretary Kerry is set to return to Israel and Palestinian next week for the fifth time since becoming secretary of state in an attempt to restart direct peace talks. He will also visit Jordan.

Kerry addressed the American Jewish Committee (AJC) in Washington on Monday to stress the urgency of a two-state solution. Kerry warned the AJC that “Israel will be left to choose between being a Jewish state or a democratic state, but it will not be able to fulfill the founders’ visions of being both at once,” if a peace deal with the Palestinian is not struck soon.

While We Were Looking Elsewhere

Palestine. President Mahmoud Abbas swore in a new government yesterday headed by Rami Hamdallah, until now president of the West Bank university An-Najah. Prime Minster Hamdallah replaces Salam Fayyad, who had resigned in April but had stayed on as a caretaker since. Today, Abbas called for national reconciliation and blamed “Hamas’ refusal to hold elections” for the lack of progress towards a national unity government.

Iran. Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei addressed a crowd of thousands on Tuesday and denounced making concessions to the West. The televised speech comes on the eve of upcoming presidential elections scheduled for June 14. Meanwhile, Yukiya Amano, director general of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), said Monday that UN investigators may no longer be able to find anything even if granted access to Iran’s Parchin site, due to suspected Iranian efforts to cleanse the site of any illicit activity. Amano described the IAEA’s talks with Iran as “going around in circles.”

Jordan. The Jordanian government ordered nearly three hundred news websites shut down on Sunday under a law passed last September. The law requires a variety of restrictive steps including the registration of news sites with the government and licensing fees costing more than one thousand dollars. The law also makes editors legally responsible for the often anonymous comments posted by readers, in addition to actual articles published.

Lebanon. Citing political deadlock and the civil war in neighboring Syria, Lebanon’s Parliament voted last Friday to delay upcoming parliamentary elections by seventeen months until November 2014. The elections had been scheduled for June 16, but the Lebanese Parliament failed to agree on a new electoral law. It is the first such delay since the end of Lebanon’s civil war in 1990

Libya. NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen announced on Tuesday plans to send a team of experts to Libya to provide security assistance. The assistance will mostly consist of training with the primary aim of preventing Libya from turning into a safe haven for militants fleeing Mali.

This Week in History

This week marks the twenty-fourth anniversary of the death of Iran’s founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. On June 3, 1989, Khomeini died at the age of eighty-six, twelve days after undergoing surgery for bleeding in his digestive system. Khomeini led the revolution that overthrew the Shah of Iran, returning to Tehran in 1979 after fifteen years in exile and helping to transform Iran into an Islamic republic.