from Middle East Matters and Middle East Program

This Week: Saudi Pique, Syrian Politics, and Egyptian Paralysis

October 25, 2013

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Significant Developments

Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia’s intelligence chief, Bandar Bin Sultan, said on Tuesday that the kingdom will be making a “major shift” away from its close relationship with the United States. Bandar reportedly accused the United States of failing to act effectively on Syria, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, of growing closer to Tehran, and of failing to back the crushing of Bahrain’s an anti-government revolt in 2011. Following a Paris meeting between Secretary of State John Kerry and Saudi foreign minister Saud al-Faisal, U.S. officials said that while the two countries have similar goals in the region, they disagree on the appropriate methods for achieving them. Meanwhile on Monday, several GCC states and Egypt praised Saudi Arabia’s decision to decline a two year non-permanent membership on the United Nations Security Council. Saudi Arabia is the first country to flat out reject a Security Council seat, citing the inability of the United Nations to bring a peaceful end to the conflict in Syria as a principal motivator in its decision.

Syria. The Friends of Syria group met in London on Tuesday to discuss possible peace talks and agreed that Bashar Assad can have no rule in any future Syrian government. Participants urged the opposition to attend the talks, but Syrian Opposition Coalition president Ahmad al-Jarba said, “We cannot take part if it allows Assad to gain more time to spill the blood of our people while the world looks on.” The Syrian opposition is set to meet on November 9 in Istanbul to decide whether they will attend the Geneva II talks that are slated for a yet to be specified date sometime in November.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights announced today that the Assad government had released some sixty-four female prisoners. The release was part of a three-way negotiation brokered by the Palestinian Authority and Qatar that has also freed nine Lebanese Shiites held by Syrian rebels as well as two Turkish Airlines pilots held in Lebanon. A total of 128 female prisoners are expected to be released by the Syrian government. Meanwhile, rebels yesterday fired on a gas pipeline, near the Damascus airport, that supplied fuel to a power station causing a nationwide blackout on Wednesday.

Egypt. Amr Moussa, head of Egypt’s fifty-member constitution amendment committee met with interim president Adly Mansour yesterday to discuss proposed amendments to the constitution. Moussa has denied allegations that he was being pressured to grant Defense Minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi immunity, saying, “The word ‘pressure’ is misleading. There is, rather, what we call lobbying.” Other members of the committee, however, accused Moussa of dictatorial practices and of barring reserve members from meetings.

Meanwhile, supporters of ousted President Mohammed Morsi called for mass protests on November 4 to mark the beginning of his trial. Throughout the week, security forces clashed with student groups at al-Azhar in Cairo and campuses across the country demanding the reinstatement of Morsi. Violence also continued across the Sinai where several police officers were killed on Wednesday and Thursday. A fifth victim of Monday’s Warraq Coptic church shooting, in which gunmen opened fire on a wedding, passed away yesterday at a Cairo hospital. The brazen attack raised questions about the military’s ability and willingness to protect Egypt’s minorities. Egyptian officials announced Monday that the criminal trial of former president Hosni Mubarak has been postponed until November 16.

U.S. Foreign Policy

Israel-Palestine. Secretary of State John Kerry and Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu met in Rome on Wednesday for seven hours to discuss the Iranian nuclear program and Israeli peace talks with the Palestinians. Prime Minister Netanyahu told reporters at the beginning of his meeting with Kerry that the two officials speak nearly every other day about the peace process. On Monday, Secretary Kerry said that Israeli-Palestinian talks have “intensified” and that “all the core issues are on the table.” Speaking at the Arab Peace Initiative Follow-up meeting on Monday in Paris, Secretary Kerry lauded the participants’ “commitment to peace.” Kerry also announced a $150 million pledge for Palestinian debt relief from the government of Qatar, and expressed hope that other Arab governments would follow suit though while stressing the need for progress on the political track.

While We Were Looking Elsewhere

Tunisia. The offices of Tunisia’s ruling Islamist Ennahda party were burned on Thursday in the town of Kef while the country observed a day of mourning for six police officers slain by Islamist militants on Wednesday. Secular opposition parties called for the immediate resignation of the Ennahda-led government and protested in the capital citing the current government’s inability to bolster the economy or combat extremism. Prime Minister Ali Larayedh voiced his commitment to Tunisia’s proposed political roadmap which includes his party’s resignation but opposition members termed his statements as “ambiguous.” A national dialogue that would lead to the resignation of the current government, the adoption of a new constitution, new electoral laws and set new elections was expected to commence on Wednesday but was delayed. The country has been in a state of political gridlock since the assassination of parliamentarian Mohamed Brahmi on July 25.

Yemen. Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula warned Yemeni officials today that any punitive action against participants in a recent prison uprising would meet a violent response. Yemeni security forces regained full control of the prison in Sana’a yesterday after a three day standoff with prisoners, following an attempted jailbreak by three hundred al-Qaeda affiliates. The prisoners attacked guards and attempted to overtake the prison on Tuesday but were repelled by security officers at the prison’s second security perimeter. Citing the growing instability in Yemen, Prince Turki bin Faisal announced on Tuesday that Saudi aid would be “on hold, until the country settles down.”

Bahrain. On Wednesday, Bahraini police announced that a young man had been found dead in the predominately Shi’ite village of Bani Jamra. He was killed when a bomb he was transporting prematurely detonated. He was believed to be connected with the ongoing uprising against the government that began in March 2011.

Jordan. Human Rights Watch has called upon the UN Human Rights Council to pressure Jordan to reform parts of its penal code that “limit rights to free expression, assembly, and association.” Under the oft-cited 1961 Penal Code defendants can still be charged with “lengthening of the tongue,” a broad category of offenses including insulting the royal family.

Iraq. Another wave of violence swept across Iraq this week with attacks on Wednesday killing more than a dozen people and prompting Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to warn that the country faced a “war of genocide” from terrorist groups. Maliki expressed hope in the growing number of anti-al-Qaeda militias operating in the country. Other attacks late on Tuesday killed twenty-eight people, many of them members of the security forces. On Monday, gunmen and suicide bombers attacked a number of government buildings and police posts in Fallujah, killing two police officers and wounding four more.

This Week in History

This week marks the thirtieth anniversary of the bombings in Beirut that killed 299 American and French servicemen. On October 23, 1983, a suicide bomber drove a truck containing the equivalent of more than twelve thousand pounds of TNT into the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut and another into the barracks of French Paratroopers. Massive explosions killed 220 U.S. Marines, 21 U.S. servicemen, and 58 French Paratroopers. A multinational peacekeeping force had been sent to Lebanon the previous year to oversee the withdrawal of PLO fighters after the Israeli invasion of Lebanon and siege of Beirut. Though initially seen as impartial, the U.S. forces came to be perceived as tilted towards the Christian government, with violent attacks coming from a number of Lebanese militias. In April of 1983, a truck bomb was driven into the U.S. Embassy in Beirut killing dozens. Attacks against peacekeeping forces increased and came to a head with the Marine Corps barracks bombings. The subsequent chaos and violence resulted in the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Lebanon on February 26, 1984. In 2003, a U.S. federal judge ruled that the Lebanese militia, Hezbollah, was responsible for the attacks and been assisted by Iran.