Inter Press Service » Arabs Rise for Rights Turning the World Downside Up Thu, 18 Dec 2014 16:58:14 +0000 en-US hourly 1 Mubarak Acquitted as Egypt’s Counterrevolution Thrives Wed, 03 Dec 2014 17:27:45 +0000 Emile Nakhleh Egyptian army units block a road in Cairo, Feb. 6, 2011. Credit: IPS/Mohammed Omer

Egyptian army units block a road in Cairo, Feb. 6, 2011. Credit: IPS/Mohammed Omer

By Emile Nakhleh
WASHINGTON, Dec 3 2014 (IPS)

The acquittal of former Egyptian President Muhammad Hosni Mubarak is not a legal or political surprise. Yet it carries serious ramifications for Arab autocrats who are leading the counterrevolutionary charge, as well as the United States.

The court’s decision, announced Nov. 29 in Cairo, was the last nail in the coffin of the so-called Arab Spring and the Arab upheavals for justice, dignity, and freedom that rocked Egypt and other Arab countries in 2011.If the United States is interested in containing the growth of terrorism in the region, it must ultimately focus on the economic, political, and social root causes that push young Muslim Arabs towards violent extremism.

Chief Judge Mahmud Kamel al-Rashidi, who read the acquittal decision, and his fellow judges on the panel are holdover from the Mubarak era.

The Egyptian judiciary, the Sisi military junta, and the pliant Egyptian media provided the backdrop to the court’s ruling, which indicates how a popular revolution can topple a dictator but not the regime’s entrenched levers of power.

Indeed, no serious observer of Egypt would have been surprised by the decision to acquit Mubarak and his cronies of the charges of killing dozens of peaceful demonstrators at Tahrir Square in January 2011.

Arab autocrats in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and elsewhere have worked feverishly to stamp out all vestiges of the 2011 revolutions. They have used bloody sectarianism and the threat of terrorism to delegitimise popular protests and discredit demands for genuine political reform.

The acquittal put a legal imprimatur on the dictator of Egypt’s campaign to re-write history.

Following the 2013 coupe that toppled President Mohamed Morsi, who is still in jail facing various trumped up charges, Arab dictators cheered on former Field Marshall and current President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, lavishing him with billions of dollars. They parodied his narrative against the voices—secularists and Islamists alike—who cried out for good governance.

Regardless of how weak or solid the prosecution’s case against Mubarak was, the court’s ruling was not about law or legal arguments—from day one it was about politics and counter-revolution.

The unsurprising decision does, however, offer several critical lessons for the region and for the United States.

Removing a dictator is easier than dismantling his regime

Arab authoritarian regimes, whether dynasties or presidential republics, have perfected the art of survival, cronyism, systemic corruption, and control of potential opponents. They have used Islam for their cynical ends, urged the security service to silence the opposition, and encouraged the pliant media to articulate the regime’s narrative.

In order to control the “deep state” regime, Arab dictators in Egypt and elsewhere have created a pro-regime judiciary, dependable and well-financed military and security services, a compliant parliament, a responsive council of ministers, and supple and controlled media.

Autocrats have also ensured crucial loyalty through patronage and threats of retribution; influential elements within the regime see their power and influence as directly linked to the dictator.

The survival of both the dictator and the regime is predicated on the deeply held assumption that power-sharing with the public is detrimental to the regime and anathema to the country’s stability. This assumption has driven politics in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, and several other countries since the beginning of the Arab Spring.

In anticipating popular anger about the acquittal decision, Judge Rashidi had the temerity to publicly claim that the decision “had nothing to do with politics.” In reality, however, the decision had everything to do with a pre-ordained decision on the part of the Sisi regime to turn the page on the January 25 revolution.

Dictatorship is a risky form of governance

Authoritarian regimes across the Arab world are expected to welcome Mubarak’s acquittal and the Sisi regime’s decision to move away from the pro-democracy demands that rocked Egypt in January 2011.

Bahrain’s King Hamad, for example, called Mubarak the day the decision was announced to congratulate him, according to the official news agency of the Gulf Arab island nation.

The New York Times has also reported that the Sisi regime is confident that because of the growing disinterest in demonstrations and instability, absolving Mubarak would not rile up the Egyptian public.

If the Sisi regime’s reading of the public mood proves accurate, Arab autocrats would indeed welcome the Egyptian ruling with open arms, believing that popular protests on behalf of democracy and human rights would be, in the words of the Arabic proverb, like a “summer cloud that will soon dissipate.”

However, most students of the region believe Arab dictators’ support of the Sisi regime is shortsighted and devoid of any strategic assessment of the region.

Many regional experts also believe that popular frustration with regime intransigence and repression would lead to radicalisation and increased terrorism.

The rise of Islamic State (ISIS or IS) is the latest example of how popular frustration, especially among Sunni Muslims, could drive a terrorist organization.

This phenomenon sadly has become all too apparent in Egypt, Bahrain, Syria, Iraq, Yemen, Libya, Algeria, and elsewhere. In response to popular resistance, however, the regimes in these countries have simply applied more repression and destruction.

Indeed, Sisi and other Arab autocrats have yet to learn the crucial lesson of the Arab Spring: People cannot be forced to kneel forever.

Blowback from decades of misguided U.S. regional policies

Focused on Sisi’s policies toward his people, Arab autocrats seem less attentive to Washington’s policies in the region than they have been at any time in recent decades.

They judge American regional policies as rudderless and preoccupied with tactical developments.

Arab regimes and publics have heard lofty American speeches in support of democratic values and human rights, and then seen US politicians coddle dictators.

Time after time, autocrats in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, and Syria have also seen Washington’s tactical policies in the region trump American national values, resulting in less respect for the United States.

Yet while Mubarak’s acquittal might soon fade from the front pages of the Egyptian media, the Arab peoples’ struggle for human rights, bread, dignity, and democracy will continue.

Sisi believes the US still views his country as a critical ally in the region, especially because of its peace treaty with Israel, and therefore would not cut its military aid to Egypt despite its egregious human rights record. Based on this belief, Egypt continues to ignore the consequences of its own destructive policies.

Now might be the right time, however, for Washington to reexamine its own position toward Egypt and reassert its support for human rights and democratic transitions in the Arab world.

If the United States is interested in containing the growth of terrorism in the region, it must ultimately focus on the economic, political, and social root causes that push young Muslim Arabs towards violent extremism.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, IPS-Inter Press Service.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

]]> 0
OPINION: Israel’s Arabs – Marginalised, Angry and Defiant Thu, 20 Nov 2014 14:37:54 +0000 Emile Nakhleh Israeli soldiers and police block Palestinians from one of the entrances to the old city in Jerusalem. Credit: Mel Frykberg/IPS

Israeli soldiers and police block Palestinians from one of the entrances to the old city in Jerusalem. Credit: Mel Frykberg/IPS

By Emile Nakhleh
WASHINGTON, Nov 20 2014 (IPS)

The recent killing of an Arab youth by the police in the Israeli Arab village of Kufr Kanna, outside Nazareth, the ongoing bloody violence in Jerusalem, and the growing tensions between the Israeli security services and the Arab community in Israel could be a dangerous omen for Israeli domestic stability and for the region.

Should a third intifada or uprising erupt, it could easily spread to Arab towns and cities inside Israel.Recent events clearly demonstrate that the Arabs in Israel are no longer a quiescent, cultural minority but an “indigenous national” minority deserving full citizenship rights regarding resources, collective rights, and representation on formal state bodies.

Foreign media is asking whether Palestinians are on the verge of starting a new intifada in Jerusalem, the Occupied Territories, and perhaps in Israel. Ensuing instability would rattle the Israeli body politic, creating new calls from the right for the transfer of the Arab community from Israel.

As Israeli politics moves to the right and the state becomes more Jewish and less pluralistic and inclusive, the Palestinian community, which constitutes over one-fifth of the population, feels more marginalised and alienated.

In response to endemic budgetary, economic, political, and social discrimination, the Arab community is becoming assertive, more Palestinian, and more confrontational. Calls for equality, justice, and an end to systemic discrimination by “Israeli Arab” civil society activists are now more vocal and confrontational.

The Israeli military, police, and security services would find it difficult to contain a civil rights intifada across Israel because Arabs live all over the state, from Galilee in the north to the Negev in the south.

The majority of Arabs in Israel are Sunni Muslims, with a small Druze minority whose youth are conscripted into the Israeli army. The even smaller Christian minority is rapidly dwindling because of emigration.

The vast Muslim majority identifies closely with what is happening at the important religious site of al-Haram al-Sharif or Temple Mount in Jerusalem. The Islamic State’s territorial expansion in Iraq and Syria and the rise of Salafi groups in Sinai and Gaza will surely impact the Arabs in Israel.

In addition to Arabic, Palestinians in Israel speak Hebrew, travel throughout the country, and know Israel intimately. A potential bloody confrontation with Israeli security forces could wreak havoc on the country.

Israeli Arab Spring?

Based on conversations with “Israeli Arab” activists over the years, a possible “intifada” would be grounded in peaceful protests and non-violent civil rights struggle. The Israeli government, like Arab regimes during the Arab Spring, would attempt to delegitimise an “Israeli Arab Spring” by accusing the organisers of supporting terrorism and Islamic radicalism.

One Palestinian activist told me, however, “The protests are not about religion or radicalism; they are about equality, justice, dignity, and civil rights.”

Analysis of the economic, educational, political, and social status of the 1.6 million Arabs in Israel shows not much improvement has occurred since the bloody events of October 2000 in which 13 Arabs were killed during demonstrations in support of the al-Aqsa intifada. In fact, in welfare, health, employment, infrastructure, public services, and housing the situation of Israeli Arabs has retarded in the past decade.

For years, the Arab minority has been called “Israeli Arabs” because they carry the Israeli citizenship or the “’48 Arabs,” which refers to those who stayed in Israel after it came into being in 1948.

Although they have lived with multiple identities—Palestinian, Arab, Islamic, and Israeli—in the past half dozen years, they now reject the “Israeli Arab” moniker and have begun to identify themselves as an indigenous Palestinian community living in Israel.

Arab lawyers have gone to Israeli courts to challenge land confiscation, denial of building permits, refusal to expand the corporate limits of Arab towns and villages, meager budgets given to city and village councils, and limited employment opportunities, especially in state institutions.

In the Negev, or the southern part of Israel, thousands of Arabs live in “unrecognized” towns and villages. These towns often do not appear on Israeli maps! Growing calls by right-wing Zionist and settler politicians and their increasingly virulent “Death to Arabs” messages against the Arab minority have become more shrill and threaten to spark more communal violence between Jews and Arabs across Israel.

Deepening fissures in Israeli society between the Jewish majority and the Arab minority will have long-term implications for a viable future for Arabs and Jews in Palestine.

The Arab community expects tangible engagement initiatives from the government to include allowing Arab towns and villages to expand their corporate limits in order to ease crowding; grant the community more building permits for new houses; let Arabs buy and rent homes in Jewish towns and ethnically mixed cities, especially in Galilee; increase per capita student budgetary allocations to improve services and educational programmes in Arab schools; improve the physical infrastructure of Arab towns and villages; and recognise the “unrecognised” Arab towns in the Negev.

Depending on government policy and regional developments, Israeli Arabs could be either a bridge between Israel and its Arab neighbours or a potential domestic threat to Israel as a Jewish, democratic, or multicultural state. So far, the signs are not encouraging.

The Islamic Movement, which constitutes the vast majority of the Arab community, is also becoming more cognizant of its identity and more active in forging links with other Islamic groups in Gaza, the West Bank, and Jerusalem.

The growing sense of nationalism and Islamisation of the Arab community is directly related to Israel’s occupation policies in the West Bank, continued blockade of the Gaza Strip, and refusal to recognise the Palestinians’ right of self-determination. Long-term government-minority relations in Israel, whether accommodationist or confrontational, will also affect American standing and national interest in the region.

Although secular activists within the Arab community are wary of the Islamist agenda, they seem to collaborate closely with leaders of the Islamic Movement on the need to assert the political rights of Israeli Arabs as full citizens.

In 2006-07, Arab civil society institutions issued three important documents, known collectively as the “Future Vision,” expressing their vision for the future of the Palestinian community in Israel and its relations with the state.

The documents called for “self-reliance” and described the Arab minority as an “indigenous, Palestinian community with inalienable rights to the land on which it has lived for centuries.” The documents also assert the Arabs in Israel are the “original indigenous people of Palestine” and are “indivisible from the larger Palestinian, Arab, Islamic cultural heritage.”

Arab activists believe that recent Israeli policies toward the Palestinian minority and their representatives in the Knesset are undermining the integrationist effort, empowering the Islamist separatist argument, and deepening the feeling of alienation among the Arab minority.

Way forward

Recent events clearly demonstrate that the Arabs in Israel are no longer a quiescent, cultural minority but an “indigenous national” minority deserving full citizenship rights regarding resources, collective rights, and representation on formal state bodies.

Many of the conditions that gave rise to the bloody confrontation with the police on Temple Mount over a decade ago, including the demolition of housing, restrictions on Arab politicians and Knesset members, restrictive citizenship laws, and budgetary discriminatory laws remain in place.

A decade ago the International Crisis Group (ICG) anticipated the widespread negative consequences of discrimination against Israel’s Arab minority and its findings still stand. Perhaps most importantly, the organisation judged the probability of violence to remain high as long as “greater political polarization, frustration among Arab Israelis, deepening Arab alienation from the political system, and the deteriorating economic situation” are not addressed.

In order to avoid large-scale violence, the ICG recommended that the Israeli government invest in poor Arab areas, end all facets of economic, political, and social discrimination against the Arab community, increase Arab representation at all levels in the public sector, and implement racism awareness training in schools and in all branches of government, beginning with the police.

A poor, marginalised one-fifth of the Israeli population perceived as a demographic bomb and a threat to the Jewish identity of the state can only be defused by a serious engagement strategy—economically, educationally, culturally, and politically.

If violence and continued discrimination are part of Israel’s long-term strategy against its Arab minority to force Arab emigration, it is unlikely that the government would implement tangible initiatives to improve the condition of the Arab minority.

Accordingly, communal violence in Israel would increase, creating negative ramifications for regional peace and stability and for U.S. interests in the eastern Mediterranean.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, IPS-Inter Press Service.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

]]> 0
Cycle of Death, Destruction and Rebuilding Continues in Gaza Mon, 13 Oct 2014 21:28:50 +0000 Thalif Deen Displaced Palestinians gather at a United Nations school in Beit Lahiya in the northern Gaza Strip, Aug. 26, 2014. Families found refuge after fleeing their homes in an area under heavy aerial bombardment in the besieged Palestinian territory. Credit: UN Photo/Shareef Sarhan

Displaced Palestinians gather at a United Nations school in Beit Lahiya in the northern Gaza Strip, Aug. 26, 2014. Families found refuge after fleeing their homes in an area under heavy aerial bombardment in the besieged Palestinian territory. Credit: UN Photo/Shareef Sarhan

By Thalif Deen

When the international pledging conference to rebuild a devastated Gaza ended in Cairo over the weekend – the third such conference in less than six years – the lingering question among donors was: is this the last of it or are there more assaults to come?

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon implicitly warned of the futility of the continuing exercise when he said: “We cannot continue to build and destroy – and build and destroy – like this. This should be the last reconstruction conference”."Donors who keep footing the bill to rebuild Gaza should insist that Israel lift unjustified restrictions that are worsening a grim humanitarian situation and needlessly punishing civilians." -- Sarah Leah Whitson

But will it?

The total amount pledged at the Cairo conference was around 5.4 billion dollars.

The funds came mostly from the European Union (568 million dollars) and oil-blessed Gulf nations, including Qatar (1.0 billion dollars), Saudi Arabia (500 million dollars, pledged before the conference), United Arab Emirates and Kuwait (200 million dollars each) and the United States (212 million dollars).

Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director, Middle East & North Africa Division at Human Rights Watch (HRW), told IPS many of the participants in the Gaza reconstruction have proclaimed their understanding that money is not enough to Israel’s never-ending cycle of death and destruction in Gaza.

“What’s still missing is the international community’s commitment to opening the borders of Gaza so that people there can have a basis of normal life, develop their economy, and take one step away from poverty and handouts,” she added.

Nadia Hijab, executive director of Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network, told IPS Ban Ki-moon is right that reconstruction followed by destruction is an exercise in futility, but he appears to feel no responsibility in making sure the destruction doesn’t happen.

“The United Nations was set up to avoid the gross violation of rights that Israel has repeatedly visited upon Gaza – and upon the Palestinian people over nearly seven decades.”

Ban, in particular, is well-placed to hold Israel accountable under many legal instruments, she pointed out.

“But for decades the U.N. secretary-general has never acted until world powers asked him to do so. And world powers only act in their own interests,” she said.

Hijab also said the reconstruction conference on Gaza is an attempt by these same world powers to be seen to be dealing with the aftermath of an Israeli assault that provoked worldwide outrage. But if the “international community” really cared about the Palestinians of Gaza, they would order Israel to lift its blockade without delay, she declared.

“And follow that by cutting back on their trade and military ties with Israel until it quits the occupied Palestinian territory,” said Hijab.

When the 54-day conflict between Hamas and Israel ended last August, there were over 2,000 Palestinians, mostly civilians, and 73 Israelis killed.

The hostilities in July-August significantly worsened a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, according to HRW. They left 108,000 people homeless, completely destroyed 26 schools and four primary health centres, and destroyed or damaged 350 businesses and 17,000 hectares of agricultural land, according to a U.N. assessment.

Unemployment in Gaza, already at 45 percent, climbed even higher since the fighting, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) reported.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who participated in the pledging conference, was constrained to remark, “This is the third time in less than six years that together with the people of Gaza, we have been forced to confront a reconstruction effort.

“[And] this is the third time in less than six years that we’ve seen war break out and Gaza left in rubble. This is the third time in less than six years that we’ve had to rely on a ceasefire, a temporary measure, to halt the violence,” he said.

“Now, I don’t think there’s any person here who wants to come yet again to rebuild Gaza only to think that two years from now or less were going to be back at the same table talking about rebuilding Gaza again because the fundamental issues have not been dealt with,” Kerry declared, taking a passing shot at Israel.

Ban said “whatever we may reconstruct this may not be sustainable if it is not supported by political dialogue. That is why peace talks are the most important. There is no alternative to dialogue and resolving all these underlying issues through political negotiations,” he noted.

He said this must be the last Gaza reconstruction conference.

“The cycle of building and destroying must end. Donors may be fatigued but the people of Gaza are bruised and bloody. Enough is enough,” he added.

In a statement released here, HRW said blanket Israeli restrictions unconnected or disproportionate to security considerations unnecessarily harm people’s access to food, water, education, and other fundamental rights in Gaza.

Israel’s unwillingness to lift such restrictions will seriously hinder a sustainable recovery after a seven-year blockade and the July-August fighting that damaged much of Gaza.

“The U.N. Security Council should reinforce previous resolutions ignored by Israel calling for the removal of unjustified restrictions,” HRW said.

Meanwhile, Israel’s blockade of Gaza, reinforced by Egypt, has largely prevented the export and import of commercial and agricultural goods, crippling Gaza’s economy, as well as travel for personal, educational, and health reasons, according to HRW.

“Donors who keep footing the bill to rebuild Gaza should insist that Israel lift unjustified restrictions that are worsening a grim humanitarian situation and needlessly punishing civilians,” HRW’s Whitson said.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The writer can be contacted at

]]> 0
OPINION: Fighting ISIS and the Morning After Thu, 18 Sep 2014 13:14:53 +0000 Emile Nakhleh Protesters in Ahrar Square in the Iraqi city of Mosul, January 2013. Credit: Beriwan Welat/IPS

Protesters in Ahrar Square in the Iraqi city of Mosul, January 2013. Credit: Beriwan Welat/IPS

By Emile Nakhleh
WASHINGTON, Sep 18 2014 (IPS)

As the wobbly anti-ISIS coalition is being formed with American prodding, the Obama administration should take a strategic look at the future of the Arab world beyond the threat posed by the self-declared Islamic State. Otherwise, the United States would be unprepared to deal with the unintended chaos.

Driven by ideological hubris, the Bush administration on the eve of the Iraq war rejected any suggestions that the war could destabilise the whole region and rock the foundations of the Arab nation-state system.Invading Iraq was a “dumb” war. Chasing after ISIS in the Iraqi/Syrian desert without a clear vision of the endgame could result in something far worse.

That system, which was mostly created under the colonial Sykes-Picot treaty of 1916, is now being severely stressed. The Obama administration should avoid repeating the tragic mistake of its predecessor. While trying to halt the advance of ISIS by focused airstrikes, and regardless of the coalition’s effectiveness in “degrading” and “defeating” ISIS, President Obama should instruct his senior policymakers to explore possible architectures that could emerge from the ashes of Sykes-Picot.

The stresses and fault lines we are witnessing in the region today could easily lead to implosions tomorrow. Rightly or wrongly, Washington would be blamed for the ensuing mayhem.

As Secretary of State John Kerry shuttles between countries chasing the elusive coalition to fight ISIS, the administration seems to be unclear even about terminology. Is it a war or a multifaceted counter-terrorism strategy against ISIS? Whatever it’s called, if this strategy fails to eradicate the Islamic State and its Caliphate, is there a “Plan B” in the making?

Briefing senior policymakers on the eve of the Iraq war, I pointed out the possible unintended consequences of the invasion. George Tenet, former CIA director, alludes to several of these briefings in his book, “At the Center of the Storm.”

One of the briefings discussed the possibility that the Iraq invasion could fundamentally unsettle the 100-year old Arab nation-state system. National identity politics, which heretofore has been managed and manipulated by autocratic regimes—tribal, dynastic, monarchical, and presidential—could unravel if the Bush administration failed to anticipate what could happen following Saddam’s demise.

The artificiality of much of those states and their boundaries would come unhinged under the pressures of the invasion and the unleashing of internal forces that have been dormant. National loyalties would be replaced by religious and sectarian affiliations, and the Shia-Sunni disputes that go back to the 7th century would once again rise to the surface albeit with more violence and bloodshed.

The briefings also emphasised Iraq’s central Islamic dilemma. While for many Sunni Muslims Baghdad represents the golden age of Islam more than 1,200 years ago, Iraq is also the cradle of Shia Islam.

Najaf and Karbala in southern Iraq are sacred for the Shia world because it was there where the fourth Caliph Ali’s son Hussein was “martyred” and buried. Iran, as the self-proclaimed voice of Shia Islam all over the world, is deeply embedded in Iraq and will always demand a central role in the future of Iraq.

Bush administration senior policymakers ignored these warnings, arguing Iraqis and other Muslim Arabs would view American and coalition forces as “liberators” and, once the dictator fell, would work together in a spirit of tolerance, inclusion, and compromise. This view, unfortunately, was grounded in the neocons’ imagined ideological perception of the region. As we now know, it was utterly ignorant of ground truths and the social fabric of the different Arab Islamic societies.

Many Bush White House and Defense Department policymakers generally dismissed briefings that focused on the “morning after.” It’s safe to say they cared less about the post-Saddam Middle East than about toppling the dictator.

The region still suffers from those disastrous policies.

ISIS did not emerge in a vacuum, and its transnational ideology, warped as it may be, seems to appeal to Arabs and Muslims who have become disenchanted with the existing political order in Arab lands.

Many citizens view their states as fiefdoms of the ruling elites with no genuine respect for individual rights, personal freedoms, and human dignity. The “securitisation” of politics has alienated many young Arabs and is driving them toward extremism.

If the borders between Syria and Iraq are erased by the transnational “Caliphate,” what will become of the borders of Lebanon, Jordan, Syria, and Iraq? Is the Obama administration ready to pick up the pieces when these nation-states disintegrate?

These are the critical questions the Bush administration should have pondered and answered before they invaded Iraq. They are the same questions the Obama administration should ponder and answer before unleashing American air power over the skies of the Levant.

Invading Iraq was a “dumb” war. Chasing after ISIS in the Iraqi/Syrian desert without a clear vision of the endgame could result in something far worse.

Edited by Kitty Stapp

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, and should not be attributed to, IPS-Inter Press Service.

]]> 1
ISIS Carrying Out Ethnic Cleansing on “Historic Scale” Wed, 03 Sep 2014 00:27:56 +0000 Jim Lobe Journalist Steven Sotloff, moments before he was killed, in a screen capture from the video posted by ISIS. Credit: IPS

Journalist Steven Sotloff, moments before he was killed, in a screen capture from the video posted by ISIS. Credit: IPS

By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, Sep 3 2014 (IPS)

While the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama ponders broader actions against the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), Amnesty International Tuesday accused the group of carrying out ethnic cleansing in Iraq on a “historic scale.”

In a 26-page report, which was based on on-site investigations and interviews with victims and witnesses of mass executions and abductions, the London-based rights group said the threats to ethnic minorities in the areas under ISIS’s control “demand a swift and robust response … to ensure the protection of vulnerable communities who risk being wiped off the map of Iraq.”

“The group that calls itself the Islamic State (IS) has carried out ethnic cleansing on a historic scale in northern Iraq,” the report said. “Amnesty International has found that the IS has systematically targeted non-Arab and non-Sunni Muslim communities, killing or abducting hundreds, possibly thousands, and forcing more than 830,000 others to flee the areas it has captured since 10 June 2014.”

Amnesty’s report was released as another major international rights organisation, New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW), charged ISIS with executing between 560 and 770 men – all or most of them Iraqi army soldiers – in Tikrit after it took control of that city on June 11 as part of its stunning drive across northern and central Iraq. The following day, ISIS itself claimed to have executed 1,700 “Shi’a members of the army.”

The new HRW estimate, which was based on testimony from a survivor and analyses of videos and satellite imagery, was triple the death toll HRW had reported at the end of June. The group said the imagery confirmed the existence of three more mass execution sites in and around Tikrit in addition to the two it had reported earlier.

“Another piece of this gruesome puzzle has come into place, with many more executions now confirmed,” said Peter Bouckaert, HRW’s emergencies director. “The barbarity of the Islamic State violates the law and grossly offends the conscience.”

The United Nations Human Rights Council voted Monday to send a fact-finding team to Iraq to investigate possible war crimes by ISIS.

“The reports we have received reveal acts of inhumanity on an unimaginable scale,” Flavia Pansieri, the deputy high commissioner for human rights, told the Council.

The Amnesty and HRW reports came as ISIS posted a video purporting to show its beheading of a U.S. reporter, Steven Sotloff, who had been kidnapped in August 2013 while he was covering the civil war in Syria for Time magazine and the Christian Science Monitor, among other publications.’

The grisly video, which is certain to add pressure on the Obama administration to expand recent U.S. airstrikes against ISIS to include targets in Syria, as well as in Iraq, followed the release of a video of the beheading by ISIS two weeks ago of another U.S. reporter, James Foley. It also came after an emotional videotaped appeal aired last week by Sotloff’s mother to ISIS’ leader, Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, to spare her son.

Sotloff had appeared in the Foley video, with the purported executioner, who is believed to be a British national, warning that Sotloff would be next to be killed unless Obama ceased conducting air strikes against ISIS positions around Mt. Zinjar and convoys approaching Erbil, the capital of Kurdistan.

Obama, however, has since broadened the U.S. target list. Dozens of air strikes have been carried out in coordination with ground attacks by Iraqi special forces, Shi’a militias, and Kurdish peshmerga fighters in a counteroffensive that initially recaptured the giant Mosul dam from ISIS forces and, more recently, reportedly broke the group’s siege of the largely Shi’a Turkomen town of Amerli.

“I’m back, Obama,” the same masked executioner said on the latest video. “I’m back because of your arrogant foreign policy toward the Islamic State, because of your insistence on continuing your bombings.”

“We take this opportunity to warn those governments that enter this evil alliance of America against the Islamic State to back off and leave our people alone,” he added, while standing over yet another unidentified captive who is believed to be a British citizen.

For its part, the White House released a statement noting that it had seen the video and that the intelligence community was working to determine its authenticity. “If genuine, we are appalled by the brutal murder of an innocent American journalist and we express our deepest condolences to his family and friends.”

Obama, who left Tuesday for the NATO summit in Wales later this week, is expected to urge other members of the alliance to adopt a coordinated strategy of diplomatic, economic, and military pressure against ISIS, which spread from its base in eastern Syria into Iraq’s Al-Anbar province in early 2014 before its sweep down the Tigris and Euphrates river valleys into northern and central Iraq beginning in June.

Among other measures, Washington wants its European allies to adhere to U.S. and British policies against ransom payments to free citizens who are captured by ISIS – a practice that has reportedly become a major source of income for the group.

Secretary of State John Kerry and Pentagon chief Chuck Hagel are also scheduled to visit key allies in the Middle East next week, especially in the Sunni-led Gulf states, to persuade them to crack down harder against their citizens who fund or otherwise support ISIS, offer greater support to a new government in Baghdad, and possibly contribute direct support for expanded international military efforts against the group.

Like the administration itself, U.S. lawmakers, who return here from their summer recess next week, are divided on how aggressively Washington should take military action against ISIS.

While many Republicans are urging Obama to conduct air strikes – and even deploy ground forces – against the group in Syria, as well as Iraq, many Democrats are concerned that such an escalation could well lead to Washington’s becoming bogged down in yet more Middle Eastern conflicts.

Some key Democrats, however, are becoming more hawkish, a process that is likely to strengthen as a result of Sotloff’s execution.

“Let there be no doubt we must go after ISIS right away because the U.S. is the only one that can put together a coalition to stop this group that’s intent on barbaric cruelty,” said Florida Sen. Bill Nelson Tuesday in announcing legislation that would give Obama legal authority to strike ISIS in Syria.

In its report, Amnesty detailed mass killings last month by ISIS forces of hundreds of non-Sunni Muslim men and boys as young as 12 in the predominantly Yazidi regions in Nineveh Province, as well as the mass abductions of women and children, many of whom, according to the report, are being held in Mosul, Tal ‘Afar, and Bi’aj under pressure to convert to Sunni Islam. Many others remain unaccounted for.

“The Islamic State is carrying out despicable crimes and has transformed rural areas of Sinjar into blood-soaked killing fields in its brutal campaign to obliterate all trade of non-Arabs and non-Sunni Muslims,” said Donatella Rovera, Amnesty’s senior crisis response adviser currently based in northern Iraq.

In addition to Yezidis, targeted groups include Assyrian Christians, Turkmen Shi’a, Shabak Shi’a, Kakai and Sabean Manaeans, as well as many Arabs and Sunni Muslims who are believed to oppose ISIS, according to the report which also called for Iraq’s government to disband Shi’a militias, some of which are believed to have targeted Sunni communities in the region.

“Instead of aggravating the fighting by either turning a blind eye to sectarian militias or arming Shi’a militias against the Islamic State as the authorities have done so far, Iraq’s government should focus on protecting all civilians regardless of their ethnicity or religion,” according to Rovera.

Edited by Stephanie Wildes

]]> 1
Why No Vetoed Resolutions on Civilian Killings in Gaza? Fri, 18 Jul 2014 21:27:54 +0000 Thalif Deen Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (centre right) briefs the Security Council on Jul. 10 on the crisis in Israel and the Gaza Strip.  Credit: UN Photo/Evan Schneider

Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon (centre right) briefs the Security Council on Jul. 10 on the crisis in Israel and the Gaza Strip. Credit: UN Photo/Evan Schneider

By Thalif Deen

As the civil war in Syria continues into its fourth year, the Western nations sitting on the U.N. Security Council (UNSC) have unsuccessfully tried to condemn the killings of civilians, impose punitive sanctions and accuse the Syrian government of war crimes – in four vetoed and failed resolutions.

The United States, France and Britain forced a vote on all four resolutions despite implicit threats by China and Russia, allies of beleaguered Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, to exercise their vetoes. And they did.The question looming large over the United Nations is why China and Russia aren't initiating a new draft resolution condemning the aerial bombardments of civilians in Gaza, demanding a no-fly zone and accusing Israelis of war crimes.

All five countries are veto-wielding permanent members of the UNSC.

The vetoes drew strong condemnations from human rights groups, including a coalition of eight non-governmental organisations (NGOs) which described the last veto by Russia and China as “a shameful illustration of why voluntary restraint on the use of the veto in mass atrocity situations is essential to the Council’s ability to live up to the U.N. charter’s expectations.”

But the question now looming large over the United Nations is why China and Russia aren’t initiating a new draft resolution condemning the aerial bombardments of civilians in Gaza, demanding a no-fly zone and accusing Israelis of war crimes.

Such a resolution is certain to be vetoed by one, or all three, of the Western powers in the UNSC, as China and Russia did on the resolutions against Syria. But this time around, it will be the Western powers on the defensive, trying to protect the interests of a country accused of civilian killings and war crimes.

Still, an Asian diplomat told IPS that even if a draft resolution is doomed to be shot down during closed-door informals for lack of nine votes, an attempt could have been made to expose the mood of the UNSC  - just as Western nations keep piling up resolutions against Syria even when they are conscious of the fact they will be vetoed by Russia and China, embarrassing both countries.

Stephen Zunes, professor of politics and coordinator of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco, told IPS just as the Russians and Chinese have blocked Security Council action regarding Syria’s attacks on civilians in crowded urban areas, the United States has successfully blocked Security Council action regarding Israeli attacks on civilians in crowded urban areas.

Though both involve serious violations of international humanitarian law, precedent would dictate that U.N. action on Israel’s assault on Gaza would be even more appropriate because it is an international conflict rather than a civil war, said Zunes, who has written extensively on the politics of the Security Council.

“What is hard to explain is why the Security Council has not been willing to force the United States to take the embarrassing step of actually vetoing the measure, as it has on four occasions with Russia and China in regard to Syria,” he asked.

Ian Williams, a longstanding U.N. correspondent and senior analyst at Foreign Policy in Focus, told IPS the UNSC is determined to prove that governments do not have principles, only interests.

Since the end of the Cold War, the Palestinians have had no sponsors or patrons.

He said even the Russians and the Chinese weigh the strength of the Israel Lobby in the U.S., and increasingly in Europe, and calculate whether it is in their interests to alienate Washington even more.

Since they see few tangible diplomatic, economic or political benefits from backing the Palestinians, let alone Hamas, they allow atrocities to go unchecked in Gaza while raising their hands in horror about lesser, and less calculated, crimes elsewhere, said Williams.

“And the Russians would have to explain why they defend Assad for similar behaviour against his own people,” he added.

Only popular indignation will force the hand of governments – and the French government knows that, which is why they have banned pro-Palestinian demonstrations, he noted.

Addressing an emergency meeting of the UNSC Friday, Dr Riyad Mansour, the permanent observer of the State of Palestine, told delegates the 10-day death toll from heavy F-16 air strikes has been estimated at 274, mostly civilians, including 24 women and 62 children, and over 2,076 wounded and more thatn 38,000 displaced.

These are figures, he said, that could be corroborated by U.N. agencies on the ground.

Mansour accused Israel of war crimes, crimes against humanity, state terrorism and systematic violation of human rights.

But as of Friday, there were no indications of a hard-hitting resolution focusing on the plight of the 1.7 million residents under heavy fire and who are being defended by the militant group Hamas, accused of firing hundreds of rockets into Israel, with just one Israeli casualty.

Vijay Prashad, George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Professor of International Studies at Trinity College, told IPS that a declaration – adopted at a summit meeting of leaders of Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa (BRICS) in Brazil last week – mentions Palestine and Israel in terms of the Middle East peace process, but it does not take a direct position on the ongoing war on Gaza.

“It would have been an apposite place to have crafted a separate and pointed resolution in solidarity with the Palestinians alongside the stated claim to the celebration of the U.N. Year of Solidarity with the Palestinian People,” he said.

He added that it also says something about the lack of confidence by the BRICS members on the Security Council who felt betrayed by Resolution 1973 (on Libya) and did not draft a resolution to call for a No Fly Zone over Gaza based on the principles of Responsibility to Protect (R2P).

The West has drafted resolutions on Syria, knowing that Russia and China would veto them as a way to deliberately put their rivals in a poor light, he added.

He asked why the BRICS states on the Security Council (currently Russia and China) did not produce a resolution to show the world that the West (or at least the U.S.) is willing to allow the calculated slaughter of the Palestinians at the same time as they want to be the ones to arbiter who is a civilian and what it means to responsibly protect them.

This only shows the BRICS states are not willing to directly challenge the West not in a defensive way (by vetoing a Western resolution), but in an aggressive way (by making the West veto a resolution for ending the slaughter in Gaza), he added.

Brazil, the current chair of BRICS, said in a statement released Friday the Brazilian government rejects the current Israeli ground incursion into Gaza, which represents a serious setback to peace efforts.

“Such an offensive could have serious repercussions for the increased instability in the Middle East and exacerbate the already dramatic humanitarian situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory,” the statement said.

“We urge the Israeli forces to strictly respect their obligations under the International Humanitarian Law. Furthermore, we consider it necessary that Israel put an end to the blockade on Gaza immediately.”

]]> 4
Proposed Arms Embargo on Syria a Political Mockery Mon, 14 Jul 2014 17:48:33 +0000 Thalif Deen The Security Council votes unanimously earlier this year to maintain arms sanctions on Côte d’Ivoire until Apr. 30, 2015. Credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

The Security Council votes unanimously earlier this year to maintain arms sanctions on Côte d’Ivoire until Apr. 30, 2015. Credit: UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe

By Thalif Deen

When the 15-member Security Council, the most powerful body at the United Nations, fails to resolve a military conflict, it invariably exercises one of its tried, and mostly failed, options: punish the warring parties by imposing punitive sanctions.

Currently, there are 15 U.N. sanctions committees, supported by 65 “experts” overseeing 11 monitoring teams, groups and panels, at a cost of about 32 million dollars a year.There have been no takers so far in a sharply divided Security Council, mostly with vested political and military interests in the Syrian civil war.

The sanctions, imposed so far on about 25 countries, have included arms embargoes, travel bans and financial and diplomatic restrictions.

U.N. military sanctions go back to apartheid South Africa in 1977, and since then, have been imposed on several post-conflict countries, including Iraq, Iran, Somalia, Libya, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Liberia, the former Yugoslavia and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

Last month, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon publicly called on the Security Council (UNSC) to impose an arms embargo on Syria.

But there have been no takers so far in a sharply divided Security Council, mostly with vested political and military interests in the Syrian civil war.

Ban has persistently – and unyieldingly – maintained that the ongoing civil war in Syria, which has claimed over 150,000 lives since March 2011, could be resolved only politically, not by military force.

But his voice is lost in the political wilderness – with no diplomatic or moral support either from the United States, Western Europe, Russia, Qatar, Egypt, Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates (UAE) – all of them explicitly or implicitly providing military or financial support to the warring parties in Syria.

The United States, Britain and France could possibly opt for military sanctions – but only on Syrian military forces.

Russia and China, who are supportive of the Bashar al-Assad regime, want sanctions on Western-supported rebel forces.

As a result of the deadlock, the proposal for an arms embargo has remained grounded.

The secretary-general’s proposal took another beating late last month when the United States announced plans to spend about 500 million dollars to train and arm “moderate” Syrian rebels – making the proposed arms embargo a mockery.

“Considering the deadlock over Syria in the past few years, the call by the secretary-general is not likely to change anything,” Pieter Wezeman, a senior researcher at the Arms Transfers and Arms Production Programme at the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), told IPS.

Russia has been very outspoken about its opposition to an arms embargo, backed by China, both veto-wielding permanent members of the UNSC, he pointed out.

“This has been related to the widespread view in Russia that the end of the Syrian regime (of President Bashar al-Assad) will lead to chaos and fundamentalism in Syria,” Wezeman said.

On top of that, he said, Russia has repeatedly pointed at the experiences of the conflict in Libya, when several states provided weapons to Libyan rebels legitimising this, and using ambiguous language in UNSC resolutions, that Russia thought imposed a full arms embargo on Libya when it agreed with the resolutions.

Russia has stated repeatedly that an arms embargo is out of the question if there are no convincing guarantees that states will stop supplying weapons to the rebel forces opposing Assad’s regime, said Wezeman, who has been closely tracking military developments in Syria.

Currently, Russia is the major arms supplier to the Assad regime.

There is also the question of the effectiveness of sanctions, because the United Nations does not have the means to rigidly enforce any arms embargoes, according to U.N diplomats.

William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Project at the Centre for International Policy, told IPS the secretary-general’s call for an arms embargo on all sides of the Syrian war is a welcome effort to reduce the bloodshed there.

The biggest impact would be stopping the flow of Russian arms to the Assad regime, but unfortunately, Russia is also the country most likely to veto any embargo proposal that comes before the Security Council, he noted.

“So the question will be how to pressure Moscow to reverse course on its military support of the Syrian government, or whether an embargo by the U.S. and the European Union (EU) only would have the desired effect,” he said.

Still, U.N. Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson said the UNSC has been using both economic and military sanctions with increased regularity since the mid-1990s.

“We know that sanctions can work when they are designed and implemented well and when they enjoy the support of member states on and outside the Security Council,” Eliasson said.

Speaking at a high-level review on sanctions last month, he said in almost all of the 25 cases where sanctions have been used by the U.N., they have been part of an overarching strategy featuring peacekeeping, peacemaking and peacebuilding elements.

On another line of analysis, Eliasson said, “Let us also remember that sanctions are not only punitive.”

Some sanctions regimes are designed to support governments and regions working towards peaceful transition, he pointed out.

In Libya, sanctions continue to help transitional authorities recover state assets and prevent the proliferation of small arms and light weapons.

In Liberia, the arms embargo on non-state actors continues to provide the government with protective support.

In Guinea-Bissau, he said, the sanctions regime is acting as a deterrent against post-electoral violence by encouraging key local actors to respect the results.

“Steps are also being taken to assist peaceful and benign governments whose countries are still under sanctions,” Eliasson added.

Meanwhile, the secretary-general recently dispatched an assessment mission to Somalia to explore how the United Nations and others can help the federal government comply with the partial lifting of the arms embargo, he said.

Hartung told IPS past embargoes have been imperfect, but have been worthwhile nonetheless.

The embargo on the apartheid regime in South Africa was violated through third party transfers and undermined by sales of arms-making technologies to Pretoria, but it did reduce the flow of arms to South African forces and it made it more expensive for South Africa to maintain its war machine.

He said arms dealers like Viktor Bout, in collaboration with key governments, undermined embargoes on Sierra Leone and Angola, but a more forceful and coordinated effort to stem this trade could have made a difference.

“So it really comes down to the political will of key governments to make embargoes work,” he concluded.

Even when they aren’t perfect, he said, they can make it harder for parties to conflicts to arm themselves and therefore reduce levels of violence.

Since the early 1990s, Wezeman told IPS, there have been around 25 separate U.N. arms embargoes.

Quite certainly all of these have been violated to some extent. However that should be expected from any sanction imposed by the U.N., or even any sanction or law imposed in general.

“Still, most if not all of them have made it considerably more difficult for the targets of the embargoes to continue to acquire weapons,” he said.

Obviously more is needed to end wars, he said, as often large stocks of weapons will still be available to continue fighting. However, not imposing an arms embargo can be argued to make things even worse, Wezeman added.

]]> 0
Bahrain’s Expulsion of U.S. Official Sets Back Ties, Reform Hopes Tue, 08 Jul 2014 01:55:35 +0000 Jim Lobe By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, Jul 8 2014 (IPS)

Monday’s expulsion order by Bahrain against a visiting senior U.S. official has set back tentative hopes for internal reforms that could reconcile the kingdom’s Sunni-led government with its majority Shia community and drawn a sharp protest from Washington.

The surprise declaration that Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Tom Malinowski was persona non grata (PNG) was greeted with calls by rights groups here and in Bahrain for a strong reaction on Washington’s part.Preoccupied by more pressing crises elsewhere in the region, notably Syria, Egypt, Libya, and now Iraq, the administration has appeared to give Bahrain a lower priority.

For its part, the State Department said it was “deeply concerned” about the expulsion order and denounced the action as “not consistent with the strong partnership between the United States and Bahrain.”

Moreover, the fact that the expulsion order came just two weeks after the widely welcomed acquittal on terrorism charges of a top leader, Khalil al-Marzouq, of the Shi’ite-led al-Wefaq opposition party has created consternation among officials and other observers regarding the kingdom’s intentions.

“This is really an alarm that the U.S. should’ve been hearing for some time now — that it needs to reassess its relationship with the Bahrain government,” said Brian Dooley, a Gulf expert at Human Rights First (HRF).

“It’s an unreliable government with an increasingly erratic ruling family that, on the one hand, is quite happy with U.S. military support, but, on the other, also vilifies U.S. diplomats,” he told IPS in a telephone interview.

Malinowski, an outspoken critic of Bahrain as the Washington director of Human Rights Watch until his nomination as assistant secretary last year, was accused of having “intervened flagrantly in Bahrain’s internal affairs and held meetings with a particular party to the detriment of other interlocutors, thus discriminating between one people, contravening diplomatic norms, and flouting normal interstate relations.”

The charge was apparently related to his attendance without the presence of a Foreign Ministry official at a Sunday night Ramadan gathering hosted by al-Wefaq, according to Simon Henderson, a Gulf expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

While the declaration said Malinowski should leave the country “immediately”, State Department spokesperson Jan Psaki told reporters Monday afternoon that he “remains on the ground” in Bahrain and that U.S. officials were in “close touch” with their counterparts in Manama.

Some seven hours later, she issued a stronger written statement noting that Malinowski’s visit to the kingdom “had been coordinated far in advance and warmly welcomed and encouraged by the government of Bahrain, which is well-aware that U.S. government officials routinely meet with all officially-recognized political societies.”

As noted by Henderson, “Being PNG’ed is rare and typically seems to occur when an intelligence officer operating under diplomatic cover is discovered by the host government. For it to happen between allies – and to be publicly revealed – is quite unusual.”

Rarer still is the PNG’ing of a senior official who is not stationed in the host country, according to administration sources who noted that Malinowski’s immediate predecessor as assistant secretary, former HRF director Michael Posner, had visited Bahrain half a dozen times without incident despite well-publicised meetings with opposition and civil-society leaders.

Home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, Bahrain occupies a strategic position in the Gulf that the Pentagon. Tied to Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province by a causeway, it faces Iran across the Gulf.

Like the other Gulf monarchies, Bahrain’s royal family, the al-Khalifas, are Sunni. But, unlike other members of the Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC), they rule over a majority Shia population which has long pressed for democratic reform.

During the so-called “Arab Spring” of early 2011, popular pressure for reform featured major demonstrations by opposition and civil-society groups, both Shia and Sunni.

These protests, however, were met with a crackdown by the regime – reinforced by troops and police from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — in which several dozen people were killed, several thousand more arrested, hundreds tortured by security forces and in many cases forced to sign confessions, among other abuses, according to an exhaustive report released in November, 2011, by an independent international commission headed by an Egyptian-American jurist, Cherif Bassiouni.

While King Hamad pledged to implement reforms recommended by the commission, virtually no progress has been made to date, according to independent human-rights groups who have noted that, if anything, sectarian tensions have only become worse, often flaring into violence and street battles between Shia youths and security forces.

While Washington, including President Barack Obama himself, has admonished Manama about its human-rights record, called for full implementation of the Bassiouni recommendations, and encouraged reconciliation, it has taken no concrete actions against the government beyond suspending delivery of those parts of a 53-million-dollar arms deal that could be used against peaceful demonstrators.

Preoccupied by more pressing crises elsewhere in the region, notably Syria, Egypt, Libya, and now Iraq, the administration has appeared to give Bahrain a lower priority, although the charges against Marzouq came a day after Vice President Joseph Biden spoke by phone with King Hamad and assured him of “America’s enduring and overlapping interests in Bahrain’s security, stability, and reform.”

Malinowski’s visit was a follow-up to Posner’s periodic visits to demonstrate Washington’s continuing concerns.

“The Bahraini government’s decision to expel Mr. Malinowski for meeting with Al-Wefaq mainstream Shia opposition party belies the government’s recent public relations claims that it was encouraging the opposition to participate in the upcoming elections,” according to Emile Nakhleh, an expert on Bahrain and a former senior regional analyst at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) who was himself threatened with expulsion by the Bahraini government when he was a Fulbright Scholar there in 1972.

“Declaring Mr. Malinowski persona non grata should be viewed as part and parcel of Al Khalifa’s incendiary policy of continued massive human rights violations against the Shia majority and the stoking of sectarianism.”

Henderson also warned that Malinowski’s expulsion could derail plans to hold elections in Bahrain this fall, as well as other confidence-building measures “intended to encourage al-Wefaq’s participation.”

“If so, that could please some factions in Bahrain, including the minority Sunnis who regard their Shiite countrymen with suspicion.” The expulsion, he said, “represents a hugely convenient nadir in bilateral relations, which both countries will need to rebuild quickly before the negative consequences spread.”

Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at


]]> 0
Obama, Rights Groups Protest Egypt Sentencing Mon, 23 Jun 2014 23:47:15 +0000 Jim Lobe Rights groups say the sentences are evidence of the Egyptian regime’s increasingly totalitarian nature. Credit: Cam McGrath/IPS

Rights groups say the sentences are evidence of the Egyptian regime’s increasingly totalitarian nature. Credit: Cam McGrath/IPS

By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, Jun 23 2014 (IPS)

The administration of President Barack Obama joined international human rights groups around the world in “strongly condemn(ing)” Monday’s conviction and sentencing by an Egyptian court of three Al Jazeera journalists and 15 others for their alleged association with the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood.

The White House, however, did not indicate what actions it was prepared to take, if any, in response to the verdicts, which it said “flouts the most basic standards of media freedom and represents a blow to democratic progress in Egypt.”We all know that the judiciary in Egypt has been the arm of the state for years. I feel embarrassed for our secretary of state to have to sit there and listen while the foreign minister says the judiciary is independent.” -- Emile Nakhleh

In a statement, it appealed instead to the new government of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, the former general, Egypt’s strongman since the military coup that ousted President Mohamed Morsi almost exactly one year ago, to commute the sentences or pardon the defendants, as well as others who have been convicted for political reasons.

“Perhaps most disturbing is that this verdict comes as part of a succession of prosecutions and verdicts that are fundamentally incompatible with the basic precepts of human rights and democratic governance,” according to the White House statement.

“These include the prosecution of peaceful protesters and critics of the government, and a series of summary death sentences in trials that fail to achieve even a semblance of due process.”

Monday’s verdicts, which were also strongly denounced by a number of Western governments and press watchdog groups, immediately followed Sunday’s visit by Secretary of State John Kerry to Cairo where he met with both Sisi and Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry during which he reportedly appealed for a more conciliatory approach to the Muslim Brotherhood.

On the eve of his arrival, however, an Egyptian court confirmed death sentences against the Brotherhood’s spiritual leader, Mohamed Badie, and 182 supporters in a mass trial that has also been broadly condemned by rights groups and Western governments.

Kerry’s visit, which was billed as an attempt to rebuild ties after a partial freeze on U.S. military aid following the coup and the subsequent killings of hundreds of Brotherhood protestors in Cairo, marked the highest-level meeting Sisi has held with a U.S. official since his election to the presidency last month.

Officials accompanying Kerry on the trip told reporters before his arrival that Washington had quietly restored all but about 78 million dollars of the 650 million dollars earlier this month. It was the first of two tranches of military aid earmarked for Egypt this year.

Washington has provided Cairo with an average of about 1.3 billion dollars in military aid annually over the past two decades.

Despite the death sentences confirmed Saturday, Kerry told reporters in Cairo after meeting Sisi that he was “absolutely confident” that all of the aid would soon be restored, although the State Department said later Monday it was “constantly reviewing” what aid should be provided.

Analysts here said the timing of Kerry’s announcement – coming so soon after the latest death sentences and on the eve of the reporters’ sentencing — was particularly unfortunate and effectively reduced what leverage Washington enjoys over the new government.

“He should’ve at least waited to make the announcement until the verdict [in the reporters’ trial] came out, because he knew it was scheduled today,” said Emile Nakhleh, a former senior analyst on the Middle East and political Islam for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

“Frankly, it’s pathetic for the United States to be in the position where we see clear violations of human rights and the most elementary principles of judicial practice hiding under the pretence that this is an independent judiciary,” he told IPS.

“We all know that the judiciary in Egypt has been the arm of the state for years. I feel embarrassed for our secretary of state to have to sit there and listen while the foreign minister says the judiciary is independent.”

The three Al-Jazeera journalists, all of whom had previously worked for mainstream international news media, include Egyptian-Canadian Mohamed Fahmy, Australian Peter Greste; and Egyptian Baher Mohamed.

Detained since a raid on their studio in the Marriott Hotel in Cairo last December and charged with membership in the Brotherhood and fabricating video footage to “give the appearance Egypt is in a civil war,” the three were sentenced to seven years in a maximum-security prison, with an additional three years for Mohamed for possessing a spent shell he kept as a souvenir.

The other defendants, mostly students, were accused of aiding the reporters in allegedly fabricating the footage. While two were acquitted, most were sentenced to seven years in prison; those tried in absentia were sentenced to 10 years.

“The trial was a complete sham,” according to Philip Luther, director of the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International.

“This is a devastating verdict for the men and their families, and a dark day for media freedom in Egypt, when jouirnalists are being locked up and branded criminals or ‘terrorists’ simply for doing their job.”

He was joined by Joe Stork, the deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, who complained that the prosecution had offered “zero evidence of wrongdoing” and noted that current U.S. law requires that military aid be withheld pending real progress on the human rights situation in Egypt.

The New York-based Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) also denounced the verdicts as “shocking and an extremely disturbing sign for the future of the Egyptian press,” while Reporters Without Borders in Paris said they offered evidence of the “Egyptian regime’s increasingly totalitarian nature.”

Kerry issued his own condemnation of the verdicts in between urgent meetings with Iraqi political leaders in Baghdad Monday. He called the conviction and sentences “chilling” and “draconian” and “a deeply disturbing setback to Egypt’s transition.”

He said he had phoned Shoukry Monday “to make very clear our deep concerns” and appealed for Sisi’s government “to review all of the political sentences and verdicts pronounced during the last few years and consider all available remedies, including pardons.”

But Nakhleh said Washington’s appeals are unlikely to have the desired effect. “The appeal by the White House for clemency isn’t going to carry any weight with the Sisi government,” he told IPS. “We’ve really lost all credibility.” He called for Congress to re-impose the aid freeze.

Indeed, the powerful chairman Senate Foreign Operations Appropriations Committee, Sen. Patrick Leahy, suggested late Monday that he would work for such a freeze in light of the latest verdicts.

“The harsh actions taken today against journalists is the latest descent toward despotism,” he said in a statement. “Through discussions with Secretary Kerry and others over recent weeks, I agreed to the release of the bulk of these funds for sustainment purposes, but further aid should be withheld until they demonstrate a basic commitment to justice and human rights.”

CPJ’s director, Joel Simon, said the Al-Jazeera journalists have become “pawns” in a conflict between the Egypt and Qatar, which supported the Brotherhood and Morsi’s government, in particular. Since Morsi’s ouster, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Kuwait have replaced Doha has Cairo’s main financial supporter.

Riyadh has even vowed to provide the government with any military aid withheld by the U.S.

]]> 1
Arab Publics Prefer Light U.S. Footprint, Even in Syria Tue, 03 Jun 2014 23:47:05 +0000 Jim Lobe By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON , Jun 3 2014 (IPS)

In contrast to some of their leaders, people across the Arab world prefer President Barack Obama’s efforts to reduce Washington’s military footprint in the Middle East to the approach favoured by neo-conservatives and other U.S. hawks, according to the latest in a series of surveys of Arab public opinion released here Tuesday.

While the popular perception of U.S. policies in the region remains largely negative, the survey, which included six Arab countries and the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories, found a notable increase in Arab support for Obama compared to three years ago, as well as strong majorities who said that having “good relations with the United States” was important to their country.

Overall, Arab attitudes toward the U.S. are back roughly to where they were in 2009 shortly after Obama took office, according to James Zogby, president of the Arab-American Institute (AAI) and director of Zogby Research Services, which conducted the poll.

Obama’s accession ended the eight-year reign of President George W. Bush (2001-2009), whose military interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq and nearly unconditional support for Israel brought U.S. favourability ratings in the region down to the single digits in most countries.

Among other findings, the poll found that Bush evoked the most negative views by far of the last four U.S. presidents in six of the seven countries covered by the survey.

“Overall, my takeaway is an uptick [for Obama and the United States],” Zogby told a forum at the Middle East Institute (MEI) where the survey results and an accompanying analysis, ‘Five Years After the Cairo Speech: How Arabs View President Obama and America’, were released.

The main lesson to be learned from the increase in positive sentiment toward Obama and the U.S., he suggested, was “the less damage you do, the better off you are.”

He cited the fact that Washington’s withdrawal from Iraq and its negotiations to curb Iran’s nuclear programme were considered by respondents in all of the countries except Lebanon to be the two “most effective” efforts by the administration to address the challenges it faces in the Arab world.

The survey, which was based on interviews last month of representative samples (800-1,000 in each country) of respondents in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), as well as Palestine, produced a number of notable findings on a variety of other issues, several of which appeared to support Zogby’s observation.

Despite the repeated insistence by a number of Arab leaders – as well as Obama’s hawkish critics here – that the U.S. should do more militarily to oust Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad, significant majorities in all surveyed countries opposed any form of U.S. military engagement, including establishing “no-fly zones,” carrying out air strikes, or even supplying more advanced weapons to rebel forces.

Given a menu of six policy options for the U.S. to pursue in the three-year-old civil war in Syria from which they were asked to choose two, majorities ranging from 51 percent (UAE) to 82 percent (Morocco) in all seven countries opted for providing humanitarian relief to refugees.

Seven in ten Moroccan and Lebanese respondents chose “leave Syria alone”, as did 54 percent of Jordanians. The next most-popular option in the remaining countries – but most popular in Egypt – was “pressing the parties” to negotiate a transitional government.

The new survey found virtually no support for direct U.S. military intervention in any country, despite the fact that a just-released poll by the Pew Research Center showed that between six and seven out of ten respondents in Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, and Tunisia hold a “very negative view” of Assad.

Nonetheless, the anti-Assad sentiment “doesn’t translate into Arabs wanting the United States to intervene directly or even provide aid to [the rebels],” said Marwan Muasher, a former Jordanian foreign minister with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace here. “If I were an Obama adviser, I would use this poll to say that we [have been] right.”

In another blow to U.S. hawks, especially neo-conservatives who have urged a more muscular policy against Syria and Iran, the new poll found that the civil war in Syria has not displaced the Israel-Palestine conflict as the most pressing concern among Arab publics about U.S. policy.

Asked to choose from seven options that they considered the most important challenges for U.S.-Arab relations, pluralities and majorities ranging from 45 percent (Saudi Arabia) to 76 percent (Morocco) cited Israel-Palestine in six of the seven countries. Only in the UAE was the war in Syria considered by a plurality to be more important.

Remarkably, ending Iran’s nuclear programme was among the least-chosen options, even in Saudi Arabia and the UAE whose governments have been the most hawkish toward Tehran.

Similarly, asked to choose the single greatest obstacle to peace and stability in the Middle East among six options, pluralities and majorities in all but the UAE cited the “continuing occupation of Palestinian lands”.

The next most-frequently chosen option was “U.S. interference in the Arab world” – far ahead of the least-chosen option in six of the seven countries, “Iran’s interference in Arab affairs”. The UAE was again the only exception: 16 percent of respondents there cited Iran’s interference; that was still six percent fewer respondents than those who cited “U.S. interference”.

While Iran and its nuclear programme were not seen as particularly threatening by majorities in the seven Arab countries, Tehran’s favourability ratings continued their sharp decline since 2006, when its support for Hezbollah during the war with Israel and defiance of the U.S. gained it strong backing throughout the Arab world.

While a majority in Lebanon (81 percent) and a 50-percent plurality in Palestine view Iran favourably today, fewer than a quarter of respondents in the other five countries said they saw Iran in a generally positive light. Only one percent of Saudi respondents said so.

Muasher suggested two main factors appeared to contribute to the disillusionment; the repression that followed the disputed 2009 presidential elections and, more important, Iran’s backing for Assad in Syria.

One of the new survey’s most notable findings dealt with U.S. policy toward Egypt and the changes of government there over the past three years, according to Zogby. Asked whether the U.S. was “too supportive, not supportive enough, or just right” toward each government, majorities in all countries except Palestine said Washington was “too supportive” of Hosni Mubarak.

Perhaps more surprising, pluralities and majorities in five of the seven countries – including 61 percent in Egypt itself – said Washington was “not supportive enough” of Mohammed Morsi’s presidency.

The exceptions were Lebanon and UAE, which, along with Saudi Arabia, has been the interim government’s biggest financial supporter since the military coup that ousted Morsi. Even in Saudi Arabia, which has led the counter-revolution against Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood across the region, a 44-percent plurality said Washington had not given Morsi enough support.

While Arabs remain highly critical of U.S. policies in the region, there has been an increase in Arab support for Obama in all seven countries since 2011, the year when he ceased insisting on an Israeli settlement freeze in the West Bank and when the hopes raised by his inauguration and subsequent speech in Cairo in which he pledged improved relations with the Arab world collapsed across the region.

At that time, ten percent or fewer of respondents in each country said they supported Obama’s policies. In 2014, that support increased ten-fold in Egypt (to 34 percent), eight-fold in Jordan (to 25 percent), nearly five-fold in UAE (to 38 percent), about three-fold in Morocco and Saudi Arabia (to 28 percent and 34 percent, respectively).

Favourability ratings for the United States have also improved over the last three years, although they have lagged behind Obama’s, according to the survey.

]]> 0
More Than Generals and Troglodytes in Egypt Mon, 02 Jun 2014 15:24:10 +0000 Baher Kamal The Muslim Brotherhood has its own army of the young that will not easily be defeated. Credit: Hisham Allam/IPS

The Muslim Brotherhood has its own army of the young that will not easily be defeated. Credit: Hisham Allam/IPS

By Baher Kamal
CAIRO, Jun 2 2014 (IPS)

Unconsciously or not, most mainstream media and foreign correspondents here have been echoing Muslim Brotherhood voices by depicting Egypt’s new president, Abdel Fattah Al Sisi, as the general who led the July 2013 “military coup” against the “legitimately elected” Islamist leader Mohamed Morsi.
In doing so, they omit some key facts:

– that over 30 million Egyptians took to the streets exactly a year ago to press for the “impeachment” of Morsi. Morsi was elected by slightly more than 13 million voters. The Egyptian Constitution clearly states that sovereignty resides in the people.

– that Morsi’s rival in 2012 presidential elections was general Ahmad Shafik, a senior commander in the Egyptian Air Force who later served as Prime Minister from 31 January 2011 to 3 March 2011. Shafik was considered as former President Hosni Mubarak’s strong man.

– that the vast majority of political parties, including the Islamic radical Salafi Party Al Nour, and the former Vice-President responsible for International Relations, former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and Nobel laureate Mohamed ElBaradei, had held several meetings with the by then Defence Minister Al Sisi to agree on immediate action aimed at the impeachment of Morsi.“Regardless of who has now become the fifth top leader of Egypt in slightly more than three years, Egyptian citizens appear to have little hopes that their harsh daily living conditions will be alleviated”

The call for the impeachment of Morsi was motivated by widespread popular frustration: put simply, 13 million Egyptians elected Morsi in May 2012 as the representative of “charitable men of faith” – the Muslim Brotherhood – who would rescue millions of people from poverty, but who instead transformed his position into a platform for a systematic “Islamisation” of all state institutions while neglecting the pressing needs of the Egyptian population.

Another often neglected fact is that in Egypt there is much more than generals and “troglodytes” – as a number of local political analysts often call the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been banned for most of the time since it was created in 1928.

Field Marshal Abdel Fattah Al Sisi won the three-day presidential elections (May 26-28) with a majority close to 97 percent. His rival, socialist Hamedin Sabbahi, obtained a mere 3 percent of the vote.

However, and regardless of who has now become the fifth top leader of Egypt in slightly more than three years, Egyptian citizens appear to have little hopes that their harsh daily living conditions will be alleviated any time soon, or even in the medium term.

The five men who have led Egypt in the last three years are: Hosni Mubarak who was ousted in February 2011; Field Marshal Mohamed Al-Tantawi, who ruled as chair of the Supreme Military Council between February 2011 and June 2012; Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, who took office in June 2012 and was deposed in July 2013; provisional president Adly Mansour (July 2013-June 2014); and now the elected Al Sisi.

The widespread scepticism among Egyptian citizens is based on their own experience, which shows that none of the previous four mandatories and half a dozen of governments they have had since they launched their massive popular revolution in January 2011 has been able to deal with their urgent needs.

Moreover, the two candidates to Egyptian presidency in May this year delivered big promises that ordinary people doubted they could ever deliver. In this, both of them behaved in a “business as usual” manner, just like in most Western electoral campaigns.

Therefore, and again regardless of who won and now takes office, and independently of the outcome of the summer/autumn parliamentary elections, the daily life of most of Egypt’s 94 million people is anything but easy.

Some facts help put the situation in perspective:

– Nearly 40 percent of Egyptians live in poverty or extreme poverty.

– Unemployment has jumped to over 13 percent, according to official mid -2013 data, with more than 3.2 million Egyptians now out of the job market, compared with 2.5 million in the same period in 2010. Egypt’s economically active population amounts to 23.7 million workers.

– Domestic public debt amount to nearly 200 billion dollars, according to governmental figures for July 2013. Meanwhile, foreign public debt reached around 39 billion dollars last year.

– Egypt’s foreign currency reserves were estimated in mid-2013 at some 19 billion dollars, compared with 33 billion in January 2011, and national currency rates have fallen by about 20 percent, implying a growing devaluation of the national currency – the Egyptian pound.

– Inflation has been steadily increasing by a monthly average close to 1 percent, with an annual rate estimated at more than 11.5 percent.

– The national budget deficit now exceeds 280 billion dollars, compared with 194 billion dollars in 2013.

– Slum inhabitants are estimated at more than six million Egyptians, with garbage collection and drug trafficking among their major sources of income.

– The Sinai peninsula has become a “nerve centre” of terrorism, with militants and mercenaries, both Egyptians and foreigners, reportedly armed with weapons provided by the Hamas Islamic movement in Gaza, Libyan arms traffickers and Turkish organisations, according to the findings of the Egyptian judiciary system. Most terrorist organisations active in both Sinai and other regions are believed to be linked to Al Qaeda.

All this is compounded by a number of features of the daily lives of Egyptians – hundreds of civilians have been victims of terrorist attacks, brutal killings and explosions, university students have been abducted and young women have been raped.

Since its president Morsi was ousted on July 3 last year, the Muslim Brotherhood has launched a systematic series of attacks everywhere in Egypt, according to national security services.

Related terrorist organisations, such as Beit Al Maqdas and Ajnad Misr, have been perpetrating violent, deadly operations against both civilians and military forces.

Meanwhile, former influential figures of Mubarak’s regime (which ruled Egypt from October 1981-to February 2011) have systematically taken their fortunes abroad, and are said to have funded professional criminals to destabilise the country with the hope that major chaos will return them to power.

An estimated total of over 200 billion dollars (equivalent to the national domestic debt) is reported to be lying in bank accounts in “fiscal havens” around the world. Mubarak’s family fortune has been estimated to amount at over 70 billion dollars and Egypt has been trying to recover these funds.

The first wave of massive popular revolution in January 2011, which ousted Mubarak, paved the way for dozens and dozens of opposition newspapers and tens of national and satellite TV networks.

With the exception of just a half a dozen of them, most of them have fallen into gossip-oriented practices, often with improvised commentators, all leading to a deeper, insane public opinion confusion.

Parallel to all these national hurdles, Egypt also faces huge challenges abroad. One of these is the risk that vital water supplies will dramatically decrease due to Ethiopia’s ‘Grand Renaissance’ dam, currently under construction on the Blue Nile. Some Egyptian experts have already started warning against the risk of a “dangerous water hunger” one decade from now.

Another challenge is represented by the unlimited funds reportedly provided by Qatar to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, which has resulted in the freezing of relations between the two countries.

This also led three Gulf countries – Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates – to withdraw their ambassadors in Qatar on March 5, 2014, due to what they consider as flagrant intrusion in the internal affairs of another Arab state.

To complete the picture, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood has found a “safe haven” in Libya, according to both Egyptian and Libyan sources, who say that some of the weapons used by the Muslim Brotherhood for its terrorist attacks come from Libya, where there are up to 25 million weapons, according to authoritative Libyan politicians.

]]> 0
In Syria, Life Goes On Despite Everything Mon, 12 May 2014 15:24:22 +0000 Eva Bartlett A wall mural in Damascus "to send a message to the world that we Syrians love life," says the lead artist, Moaffak Makhoul. Credit: Eva Bartlett/IPS.

A wall mural in Damascus "to send a message to the world that we Syrians love life," says the lead artist, Moaffak Makhoul. Credit: Eva Bartlett/IPS.

By Eva Bartlett
DAMASCUS, May 12 2014 (IPS)

On a weekday afternoon, the Old City of Damascus heaves with people, cars, motorcycles, bikes. Markets are crowded with locals bartering with merchants for the heaps of spices, flowery perfumes, clothing, and most things one needs, abundant in the Hamidiyah market.

At the end of the historic Roman Via Recta (Straight Street), boys play football amidst ancient columns.

Syria, in its fourth year of a devastating foreign-backed armed attempt to overthrow the government, is somehow still pulsing with life and hope.

In the narrow back lanes of the Old City, couples walk hand in hand, older men greet each other with broad smiles and a kiss on each cheek. Music wafts from open doors of ancient homes, their courtyards bursting with greenery. A milkman delivers milk from large tins strapped to his bicycle.

But the spacious old homes converted into hotels or restaurants now have no tourists. Various shop owners highlight the same issue: they have goods, but no buyers.

Bassam runs his family’s antiques and jewellery store, Giovanni, near the East Gate entrance to the Old City, in an old Damascene home with vast arches and ornate wooden décor.

“Business is not very good, because of the situation. Many people used to come here.” He picks up a framed photo of himself and a woman in his store. “That’s Catherine Deneuve, a French actress. She’s very famous,” he says, reiterating that well-known people from around the world used to frequent his store.

Inside the Umayyad Mosque, worshipers pray and relax in the cool interior, a boy twirls Sufi-style through the mosque. Outside, women sit in the courtyard shade with their children, picnicking on sandwiches.

The vast square opposite the mosque is filled with food vendors, clothing vendors, families milling about, kids selling roses. Children gather around a hoard of pigeons, buying feed to toss to them.

A popcorn vendor in his 20s says things are improving in Syria. “Life here is good, things have gotten back to normal, the government supports us. But my house is in Babbila, just outside of Damascus. I can’t go back there, the ‘rebels’ have taken over.”

Almost daily, armed groups launch mortars on civilian areas in Damascus, from villages on the outskirts like Jobar, Mliha. On Apr. 15, mortars struck Manar elementary school, killing one child and injuring 62 others. A kindergarten was also shelled that morning, in the same densely-inhabited area of Damascus, injuring three more children.

On Apr. 29, the mortars struck Bader Eddin al-Hassni Institute for religious science, killing 14 students and injuring 86 others, according to SANA news.

As I sit outside the old city walls one afternoon, roughly one hundred metres from East Gate, bullets whiz closely past, coming from the direction of Jobar, an area controlled by armed groups.

Al-Midan, a district of Damascus known for its traditional Syrian sweets, still receives local business but faces the same loss of foreign customers as most in the tourism industry. “I used to bring delegations here specifically for the sweets,” says Anas, a journalist with Syrian television. “But as you see there are no tourists here now.”

Nagham, a university student, says even many local Syrians won’t go to Midan now. “People are afraid to come here now, because it’s so close to Yarmouk. Midan is safe, but people think that the ‘terrorists’ in Yarmouk will fire mortars here.”

Due to attacks on civilians, including car bombings, checkpoints are installed throughout Damascus and the countryside, causing long lines of traffic as soldiers check vehicles for explosives. But without the checkpoints, there would be more loss of civilian life.

Homs residents know all too well the deadly effects of the car bombings. On Apr. 9, for example, two car bombs detonated one after the other on the same residential street, killing 25 civilians and injuring at least 107, according to Syrian state media. On Apr. 29, two more car bombs and a rocket attack killed another 42 civilians in Homs.

But Homs is also a place where the reconciliation movement has taken flight, with fighters nearly daily laying down their weapons and opting for a political solution for Syria.

In Latakia, a coastal city roughly 350 km northwest of Damascus, near the Turkish border, internally displaced Syrians from the Armenian populated village of Kasab take refuge in an Armenian Orthodox Church.

On Mar. 21, armed groups began firing missiles from nearby Turkey upon the village, later entering and taking it over, committing atrocities against the civilians. Eighty people are reported to have been killed, and nearly 2000 villagers fled to Latakia and other areas to escape the attacks by a reported 1500 Chechnyan and other foreign, al-Qaeda-affiliated insurgents, backed by Turkish special forces.

“They can destroy our houses, but we’re going back. We believe in the Syrian Arab Army,” said Suzy, from Kasab, who described some of the atrocities committed. “They raped the older women, because they couldn’t find girls, so they raped the elderly. They destroyed everything, they robbed our houses, they broke the statue of the Virgin Mary.”

When asked her sentiments on Syria’s president, she replied without hesitation, like so many in Syria. “We have a leader, Dr. Bashar Al-Assad. We love him so much, we don’t want anything else. We want him, we want Syria back.”

Elsewhere in Latakia, a city secured by the Syrian army but attacked from a distance with missiles, children and teens play in a fountain in a large, clean park, and men and women sit smoking shisha or hookah and chatting.

Fadia, an unveiled Sunni Muslim, sitting with a group of veiled and unveiled women, says that internally Latakia does not have serious problems. “Life is good here, we’re living happily, the army have protected us here. We love our president, our army, our country, but the outside forces want to destroy the country. There is no problem between Christians, Muslims, Armenians, Alawites here. We are all one family, no one can split us apart.”

This is a point Lilly Martin, who is from California but has lived in Syria for the past 22 years, drives home.

“At the beginning, we had a surge of violence, protestors attacking Syrian police and security, but right away the Latakian people turned against it. The population here didn’t accept it. We have Christians, Muslims, and minorities here. There is very little support for the ‘rebels’ here, so it’s been a peaceful city,” she says.

In Homs, Latakia, Damascus, walls and shop doors are decorated with large, painted replicas of the Syrian flag and posters of President Assad. Syrian flags appeared at Easter celebrations, wedding receptions and engagement parties. And along with the flags, there are patriotic songs for Syria and President Assad, with a roomful of celebrants singing along, hooting and clapping.

On the Autostrad, the main street leading to the al-Mezze district of Damascus, a block-long mural brightens the otherwise standard wall surrounding a school. The colourful mosaic of scraps of tiles and recycled items is the project of six artists. Moaffak Makhoul, the lead artist, explains the concept.

“We did this for the children, to bring a smile to their faces. And we wanted to send a message to the world that we Syrians love life, and that we insist on living, on surviving,” he says.

His message also has an important political element to it. “To those who espouse the ideology that wants to eliminate others, the Takfiri ideology, we tell them ‘no’.”

Four youths in their late teens stop to talk. “We were living well, with security, before this happened. We were living in freedom. Now we’re not,” says Rehab, one of the girls. “Now you don’t know who is a terrorist. We just want our country to return to how it was.”

Ramez, another one of the teenagers, says things are better now, “life is improving.” Batoul, the other girl, adds “We love Bashar. He’s a good person. We know what he has done to improve the country. And before any of these things began, we were living well, safely.”

Bassam, in his lonely East Gate store, is also optimistic. “Peace is coming sooner or later – no, sooner. Damascus is a wonderful city. And the people are wonderful too.”

The call to prayer sounds, church bells ring out, in a city and country where life goes on despite it all.

]]> 0
New Gestures to Opposition Unlikely to Change U.S. Syria Policy Wed, 07 May 2014 23:51:39 +0000 Jim Lobe Women walk past destroyed shops in Al Qusayr, Syria. Credit: Sam Tarling/IPS

Women walk past destroyed shops in Al Qusayr, Syria. Credit: Sam Tarling/IPS

By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, May 7 2014 (IPS)

Despite new gestures of support for the Syrian opposition, the administration of President Barack Obama is unlikely to change its longstanding policy of restraining U.S. involvement in the country’s more than three-year-old civil war, according to experts here.

Instead, Obama appears determined to do the minimum necessary to reduce or co-opt pressure from neo-conservative and liberal hawks here, as well as Washington’s Gulf allies, notably Saudi Arabia, to substantially increase military assistance to the fractious rebel forces, let alone take direct military action against President Bashar Al-Assad’s war machine.“It’s clear that the administration wants to show it has a policy even though it doesn’t in the sense of anything comprehensive with well-defined goals." -- Wayne White

In particular, the administration remains strongly opposed to providing surface-to-air missiles (SAMs) to the rebels for fear that they could eventually fall into the wrong hands, most importantly radical Islamist forces aligned with or sympathetic to Al Qaeda.

SAMs, however, are at the top of the shopping list brought by the leader of the main external opposition coalition, Ahmad Al-Jarba, and the latest head of its military wing, Gen. Abdul-Ilah Al-Bashir, who are meeting with top administration officials, very possibly including Obama himself, key lawmakers, newspaper editorial boards, and think tanks over the next week.

“We do have a problem with the air forces, the air raids and the barrel bombs,” he told an audience at the U.S. Institute for Peace Wednesday. “(We) need efficient weapons to face these attacks, … so we can change the balance of power on the ground. This would allow for a political solution.”

Jarba’s trip here, coupled with the administration’s announcement Monday that it was according the Washington and New York offices of Jarba’s western-backed Syrian Opposition Council (SOC) official diplomatic status and asking Congress to approve 27 million dollars more in “non-lethal” assistance (bringing the total to 287 million dollars), marks a visible upgrade in U.S. support.

Both moves also followed the recently reported delivery of at least 20 U.S.-made TOW anti-tank missiles to “moderate” rebels who have been vetted, trained and partially equipped by the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) in collaboration with its allied intelligence agencies in the region.

More will follow if the rebels can show that they’re being used effectively and kept out of the hands of other factions, according to administration officials.

The latest developments have given heart to the opposition, its regional backers, and Obama’s critics on both the left and the right here who have long complained that he was doing far too little to support the rebels in a vicious and bloody civil war that is estimated to have killed more than 150,000 people and displaced as many as eight million others, about 2.5 million of whom have sought refuge in neighbouring countries, notably Jordan and Lebanon, whose own stability is increasingly threatened by the exodus.

They hope it presages a major shift in U.S. policy towards ensuring that the “moderates” among the dozens of rebel factions will receive enough assistance to halt, if not reverse, the momentum the regime has built on the battlefield over recent months and also protect them against assaults by jihadist factions, especially the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and the Al-Nusra Front with which the “moderates” have often joined forces, at least for tactical purposes.

But while the latest gestures clearly indicate greater support, such hopes are likely to be misplaced, according to most experts here.

“The opposition is going to be once again very disappointed that, after repeated testing, that you’re still taking only tentative steps rather than giving them a more robust capability, especially when SAMs are clearly not on the table,” according to Wayne White, a former senior Middle East intelligence analyst at the State Department.

“It’s clear that the administration wants to show it has a policy even though it doesn’t in the sense of anything comprehensive with well-defined goals that is in any way realistic in terms of giving the resistance a real leg up on governments,” he told IPS.

“So far as I can tell, Obama isn’t going to change his policy, and [the opposition] isn’t going to get lots of money or arms from Washington,” said Joshua Landis, a Syria expert at the University of Oklahoma and publisher of, a widely read blog.

“I think this is a way for [Secretary of State John] Kerry, who’s been much more aggressive on Syria than Obama, to show he has a policy after the failure of [the] Geneva II [peace talks between the regime and the opposition],” he told IPS.

“It’s possible that Obama has allowed three percent more aggressiveness in the policy to show Assad that he’s not going to reward him, show the opposition that he’s still on their side, and reassure the Saudis who threatened to ‘go it alone’ after September when Obama failed to attack” Syria after it crossed his “red line” by allegedly using chemical weapons.

According to Paul Pillar, a Georgetown University professor and retired career CIA veteran who served as Washington’s top Middle East intelligence analyst from 2000 to 2005, the latest steps by Obama are motivated by several considerations.

“(I)t is not an all-or-nothing proposition in the administration’s eyes, and there are several reasons to make at last modest gestures in the direction of greater involvement and support for the opposition,” he told IPS.

“One of the motives is the domestic political one of having to be seen to do something in response to the incessant charges of the administration being adrift or weak or feckless. Its relationship with its Gulf allies is another one, and this does figure into relations with the Saudis particularly.”

“In addition to that, the administration probably sees some advantage in not letting the Assad regime experience an increasingly one-sided battlefield victory. [Given] how the tide of battle on the ground has been mostly in the regime’s favour in the last few months, it makes policy sense to keep limited pressure on the regime …so it doesn’t get too comfortable and to thus continue to see some necessity for negotiation and political change in Syria that would take greater account of the interests represented by the opposition,” he said.

Both Landis and White agreed that the administration’s concerns about Saudi Arabia, which aggressively promoted Jarba’s candidacy for SOC chief last year and has repeatedly threatened to provide the rebels with SAMs and other advanced weaponry that Washington wanted to curb, have been a major consideration.

Growing tensions between the two nations over Syria and possible détente between the U.S. and Riyadh’s regional arch-rival, Iran, prompted a summit between Obama and King Abdullah in Riyadh at the end of March. Since then, it appears that the two sides have co-operated more closely in support of the opposition.

“In order to keep Saudi Arabia from giving too much to the rebels, we’re okaying the minimum,” according to Landis. “We can’t afford to let them go off the reservation.”

Saudi Arabia was not alone in pressing for stronger support to the rebels, noted White. “The Israelis, speaking more sotto voce, also considered our policy anaemic. And the Turks and Jordan are both beleaguered by the refugees, and we certainly don’t want Jordan destabilised. That is of great concern to both us and the Israelis,” he said.

Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at

]]> 1
OP-ED: The Two-State Option is Dead: Time for New Thinking Sat, 03 May 2014 12:53:31 +0000 Emile Nakhleh BDS and Rabbis For Palestine. Credit: Mike Gifford/cc by 2.0

BDS and Rabbis For Palestine. Credit: Mike Gifford/cc by 2.0

By Emile Nakhleh
WASHINGTON, May 3 2014 (IPS)

The recent suspension of the U.S. -engineered Israeli-Palestinian talks signals a much deeper reality than the immediate factors that caused it. The peace process and the two-state solution, which for years were on life support, are now dead.

It is time for the United States and the rest of the international community to stop the 20-year old quixotic effort to resurrect a dead “process” and to seriously begin exploring other avenues for Israeli-Palestinian coexistence between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.Perpetuating Israeli rule over half the population through military occupation and without granting them citizenship or equal rights would in the foreseeable future deprive Israel of its Jewish majority, negate its democratic political culture, and ultimately lead to apartheid-like conditions.

The two-state solution has been a convenient policy position that allowed negotiations to go on and on, prompted primarily by the argument that no credible alternatives existed. Many governments, diplomats, negotiators, politicians, academics, NGOs, and consultants on both sides of the Atlantic and in the region have staked their life-long careers on the two-state paradigm.

Dozens of international agreements and declarations and thousands of meetings have been held all around the globe on the so-called modalities of a two-state solution. Unfortunately, all have come to naught.

Whenever the two-state approach was questioned over the years, its defenders would quickly ask, “What’s the alternative?” and would dismiss the “one-state” suggestion and similar options as non-starters. The retort has always been that no Israeli government would dare contemplate any proposal that involves Israelis and Palestinians living together in one political entity.

Palestinian nationalists and ruling economic and political elites, who benefited from their association with the PLO power structure, whether in Ramallah or elsewhere, supported the two-state formula despite their belief that Oslo was a hollow victory that would never lead to statehood. They went along because in the view of one Palestinian at the time, “It was the only game in town.”

The Arab states that advocated this approach drew comfort from the rhetoric because it appealed to Western countries, especially the United States. Yet, these states have failed to commit the necessary resources and political capital and seriously pursue their “Arab Peace Initiative” to its intended conclusion.

Official Arab leaders’ rhetoric continued to extol their unwavering commitment to Palestine, but they gave priority to their separate national interests, which often included unofficial economic, political, and intelligence contacts with Israel.

Successive Israeli governments played a similar game. Whenever the discussions of establishing a Palestinian state got serious, they advanced new conditions and “redlines”, which made it more difficult for Palestinian leaders to accept. The entire negotiating enterprise was reduced to talks about talks, resulting in decoupling the negotiation “process” from the envisioned “peace”.

The pro-Israeli lobby in Washington has successfully erected a solid pro-Israeli stand in the United States Congress. Such support, which has always been identified with right-wing policies in Israel, has severely constrained the diplomatic flexibility of the Executive Branch of the U.S. government.

In lieu of a political settlement, Western countries and the United Nations provided massive aid programmes to Palestinians, and Palestinian leaders and ruling elites benefited disproportionately from the largesse, resulting in newfound wealth and rampant corruption. In the absence of government accountability and transparency, it’s not clear where the huge chunks of the money went.

While rhetorically committed to a two-state solution, high-level PA officials have not been uncomfortable with this arrangement of the political status quo under Israeli occupation. So much so, in fact, that a Palestinian intellectual has described the situation as “The National Sell-out of a Homeland.”

I have supported the two-state solution for almost five decades. Based on my field research in the Occupied Territories in the late 1970s, I published a short book titled “The West Bank and Gaza: Toward the Making of a Palestinian State,” which argued for the creation of a Palestinian state in those parts of Palestine.

In reaction, self-proclaimed Palestinian nationalists, including the current Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, attacked me publicly for “advocating an American position.” Some pro-Palestinian newspapers in the Gulf derisively described me as a “Palestinian American Sadatist”, a reference to Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s peace treaty with Israel.

Of course, 10 years later, the PLO formally supported the two-state approach and proceeded with the Oslo agreement.

Sadly, I have come to the conclusion that the two-state option is simply no longer viable. The two parties and the international community must search for other options that could accommodate the two peoples living together.

I reached this position fully cognizant of the realities on the ground – Israeli occupation, Palestinian factionalism, and rising poverty and frustration among Palestinians in Gaza, the West Bank and in Israel – and the lack of credible alternatives to the two-state approach.

As more and more Palestinians search for alternatives, they are transforming their confrontation with the Israeli occupation and anti-Arab discrimination in Israel to a peaceful struggle for human rights, justice, and economic self-sufficiency. BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions) has become the global rallying cry against Israeli occupation and continued settlement construction.

Some members of the Israeli cabinet, on the other hand, have begun talking publicly about taking “unilateral actions” on the West Bank, including annexing Area C and the major settlement blocs. Meanwhile, Israeli security forces continue to enter Area A, which is nominally ruled by the PA, at their whim.

In the absence of a Palestinian state, the Israeli government will be faced with a growing Palestinian population in Gaza, the West Bank, and in Israel, which, taken together, constitutes almost 50 percent of the total population between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River.

Perpetuating Israeli rule over half the population through military occupation and without granting them citizenship or equal rights would in the foreseeable future deprive Israel of its Jewish majority, negate its democratic political culture, and ultimately lead to apartheid-like conditions.

The international community and the two peoples should begin a serious exploration of new modalities based on justice, fairness, and equality. These could range from a unitary state to confederal arrangements that guarantee Palestinians equal rights, privileges and responsibilities. But all of them require an end to the occupation.

Some critics might consider this approach Pollyannaish, but it’s not unthinkable in light of the demonstrated failure of the two-state approach.

Emile Nakhleh is a former Senior Intelligence Service Officer in the Central Intelligence Agency, a Research Professor at the University of New Mexico, and author of ‘A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World’.

]]> 0
U.S. Calls Egypt’s Latest Mass Death Sentences “Unconscionable” Tue, 29 Apr 2014 00:05:09 +0000 Jim Lobe Violent demonstrations have followed branding of the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation. Credit: Hisham Allam/IPS

Violent demonstrations have followed branding of the Muslim Brotherhood a terrorist organisation. Credit: Hisham Allam/IPS

By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, Apr 29 2014 (IPS)

Five days after approving the transfer of 10 Apache helicopters to aid Egypt’s “counter-terrorism” campaign in Sinai, the administration of President Barack Obama denounced as “unconscionable” the latest round of mass death sentences against members of the Muslim Brotherhood handed down by an Egyptian court Monday.

Warning that the decisions “foster the instability, extremism, and radicalization that Egypt’s Interim Government says it seeks to resolve”, the State Department also complained that a ruling by yet another court to ban the April 6 Youth Movement was “troubling.”“This perceived non-action will empower the junta in its bloody crackdown on all kinds of opposition and its continuing massive human rights violations." -- Emile Nakhleh

“Supporters of the movement were at the forefront of the January 25, 2011 revolution that overthrew former president (Hosni) Mubarak, and the Government of Egypt must allow for the peaceful political activist that the group practices if Egypt’s Interim intends to transition to democracy, as it has committed itself to do,” according to a statement issued in the name of the Department’s spokesperson, Jan Psaki.

Human rights groups also harshly criticised the latest court decisions, arguing that the judicial branch of Egypt’s government appears to have lost its independence and become a willing tool of the dominant military whose former chief and defence minister,

Field Marshal Abdul-Fattah el-Sisi is virtually certain to win the presidential election scheduled for May 26-27.

“Egypt’s judiciary risks becoming just another part of the authorities’ repressive machinery, issuing sentences of death and life imprisonment on an industrial scale,” according to Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, deputy director of the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International in London.

Independent experts here also took exception to Washington’s reaction, suggesting that until the U.S. takes stronger action, notably a cut-off of all military assistance, its verbal condemnations will not be taken seriously.

Washington provides Egypt with about 1.5 billion dollars a year in aid, 1.3 billion dollars of which has been earmarked for the military.

The new rulings came just as Secretary of State John Kerry was scheduled to meet Tuesday with visiting Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil Fahmy in what was billed as an effort to improve relations that were strained initially by Washington’s partial suspension of military cooperation and aid following last July’s coup against President Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first democratically elected president and a former Brotherhood leader.

“For many Egyptians and other Arabs, including liberals and Islamists, the U.S. reaction is mere words that will have no effect on Egypt’s ruling junta,” according to Emile Nakhleh, a former director of the Political Islam Strategic Analysis Programme at the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA).

“This perceived non-action will empower the junta in its bloody crackdown on all kinds of opposition and its continuing massive human rights violations,” he told IPS.

Nakhleh added that the delivery of the Apache helicopters, which was announced last week, as well as all military-to-military and intelligence cooperation with Egypt should be suspended “in reaction to the junta’s egregious human rights violations, sham trials, and summary convictions.”

Monday’s court decisions followed the sentencing last month of 529 people to death for a 2013 attack against a police station in Minya in which one officer was killed.

The same court announced Monday that it was commuting the sentences of 492 of those defendants to life imprisonment but was confirming the death penalty for the remaining 37.

The same court, however, proceeded to sentence another 683 people, including the Brotherhood’s top leader, Mohammed Badie, to death in connection with a separate attack in the same area.

Both incidents took place the same day last August after government forces in Cairo opened fire on demonstrators protesting against Morsi’s ouster, killing many hundreds of his supporters. Both trials took place in a matter of a few hours, and most of the defendants were tried in absentia.

“The only shocking thing about this latest sentencing is that they would do this again following the harsh international reaction to the outlandish verdicts from last month,” said Samer Shehata, an Egypt expert at the University of Oklahoma.

“It shows essentially a disregard not only for due process and Egyptian law, but also for international opinion,” he told IPS.

Since Morsi’s ouster, the military-backed regime has made clear its desire to crush the Brotherhood. In addition to arresting Morsi and charging the group’s leadership with capital offences, security forces have carried out several massacres of demonstrators, killing more than 1,000 people and detaining as many as 23,000 more, many of them in secret prisons where torture is routinely practiced, according to human rights groups.

They have also declared the Brotherhood a terrorist organisation.

The regime has also proposed new anti-terrorist legislation that, among other provisions, would make holding a leadership position in the Brotherhood, despite its advocacy of non-violence, a capital crime; expedite procedures for prosecuting defendants accused of terrorism; and significantly broaden the definition of terrorism to include any action that could “obstruct” the work of public officials or various other institutions. It would also criminalise any action that could “harm national unity”.

“By these definitions, anyone who participated in the popular uprisings of 2011 or 2013 could be branded a terrorist,” noted Joe Stork, an Egypt specialist at Human Rights Watch (HRW).

Monday’s third court decision – to ban the “pro-democracy” April 6 movement– was based on charges that the group had “tarnished the image” of Egypt and conspired with foreign powers.

Despite the group’s initial support for the military coup, three of its most prominent leaders were sentenced to three years of hard labour last fall for allegedly organising an unauthorised demonstration to protest police repression. Their sentences were upheld by an appeals court earlier this month.

“This reveals the true character of the regime in Egypt,” said Shehata. “It’s not interested in restoring democracy; it is interested in wiping out dissent – initially the Muslim Brotherhood and now liberal democracy activists and NGOs and human rights defenders.”

He expressed frustration with Washington’s reaction, insisting that military aid should be cut off.

“The United States seems not to be genuinely concerned about what is happening,” he complained. “What else would explain the recent Apache helicopters going to Egypt and the photo-op between Nabil Fahmy and Kerry?

“Unfortunately, the administration is behaving as if the Arab uprisings never occurred… and that all we care about is maintaining [the] Camp David [peace treaty between Egypt and Israel], passage through the Suez Canal, and counter-terrorism and forget about democracy and human rights.”

He added that Saudi Arabia, which hosted Obama last month during a key summit last month, and the United Arab Emirates were the main “cheerleaders and check-writers” for the regime and particularly its repression of the Brotherhood.

Along with Kuwait, the two Gulf monarchies have provided billions of dollars in aid. He also noted that Israel and its allies here have also lobbied in favour of continuing U.S. assistance.

CIA veteran analyst Paul Pillar, the government’s top Middle East intelligence officer from 2000 until his retirement in 2005, added that a combination of Israeli preferences and Islamophobia “has produced U.S. policy that has insufficiently recognised the repressive nature of the current Egyptian government.”

“Statements about how troubled we are will have little effect, coming at the same time the United States is partially resuming military aid to Egypt,” he told IPS via email.

Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at

]]> 0
Kerry Draws Israel Hawks’ Ire Amid Failed Talks Mon, 28 Apr 2014 17:36:40 +0000 Mitchell Plitnick Kerry’s comments came on the heels of Israel, the Palestinians and the United States all making statements and taking actions that seemed to draw a curtain on the latest peacemaking efforts. Ralph Alswang/cc by 2.0

Kerry’s comments came on the heels of Israel, the Palestinians and the United States all making statements and taking actions that seemed to draw a curtain on the latest peacemaking efforts. Ralph Alswang/cc by 2.0

By Mitchell Plitnick
WASHINGTON, Apr 28 2014 (IPS)

In the wake of the collapse of U.S.-led peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the angry rhetoric around this conflict has only escalated.

After days of mutual recriminations between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry ignited a controversy by telling a gathering of world leaders at the Trilateral Commission in Washington that Israel is now running the risk of becoming “an apartheid state.”“Kerry is four years behind Ehud Barak and seven years behind Ehud Olmert in acknowledging that Israel meets the conditions that define Apartheid." -- Rebeccca Vilkomerson

Kerry was stressing how important a two-state solution is for Israel’s concerns. He was explaining why he believed a one-state outcome of the conflict was not in Israel’s best interests.

He told the gathered leaders that “…a unitary state winds up either being an apartheid state with second class citizens – or it ends up being a state that destroys the capacity of Israel to be a Jewish state.”

After the web site, The Daily Beast, reported Kerry’s statements, some of Israel’s most right-wing supporters were outraged and called for Kerry’s removal from his post.

“It is no longer enough for the White House to clean up after the messes John Kerry has made,” the neoconservative, self-styled Emergency Committee for Israel (ECI) said in a statement. “It is time for John Kerry to step down as Secretary of State, or for President Obama to fire him.”

Other leading supporters of Israeli policies were disturbed by Kerry’s use of “apartheid,” while stopping short of ECI’s call.

David Harris, the executive director of the American Jewish Committee, told the Daily Beast that “the use of the word ‘apartheid’ is not helpful at all. It takes the discussion to an entirely different dimension.”

Palestinians and pro-Palestinian activists have claimed for years that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza Strip amounts to an apartheid regime. For many of them, Kerry’s statement is a long-awaited breath of realism, even if it still leaves them wanting more.

“Kerry was stating the obvious,” Professor Rashid Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University, told IPS. “It would be helpful and entirely healthy if this became a habit for American diplomats.

“They could also say that the unceasing expansion of Israeli settlements is incompatible with a two-state solution, and a clear sign that the Israel government has no intention of allowing a sovereign Palestinian state,” Khalidi continued.

“They could state unambiguously that the Palestinian people have an inalienable right to self-determination, sovereignty and independent statehood in their historic homeland, and that they do not need anyone’s permission in order to seek to exercise these rights. I unfortunately do not expect any such statements in the near future.”

But not all supporters of Palestinian rights see Kerry’s statement in the same way.

Nadia Hijab, senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies, doesn’t view the apartheid issue as a threat to Israel’s future, as Kerry frames it, but rather as an oppressive reality that Palestinians currently experience.

“I see Kerry’s remarks as wholly protective of Israel and unconcerned about the Palestinians,” Hijab told IPS.

“He seems unaware that Israel is close to being an apartheid state vis-a-vis its Palestinian citizens [within Israel]. What he wants from a two-state solution is to defend ‘Israel’s capacity to be a Jewish state’ – which would enable it to maintain its apartheid-like practices toward its Palestinian citizens.”

After Kerry’s apartheid comment stirred controversy, the U.S. State Department scrambled to contain the outbreak.

“Secretary Kerry, like [Israeli] Justice Minister [Tzipi] Livni and previous Israeli Prime Ministers [Ehud] Olmert and [Ehud] Barak, was reiterating why there’s no such thing as a one-state solution if you believe, as he does, in the principle of a Jewish state,” State Department Spokeswoman Jen Psaki said.

Rebeccca Vilkomerson, executive director of the progressive U.S. group, Jewish Voice for Peace, which is deeply critical of both Israeli and U.S. policies, sees some indication of long-delayed progress in Kerry’s comments.

“Kerry is four years behind Ehud Barak and seven years behind Ehud Olmert in acknowledging that Israel meets the conditions that define Apartheid,” Vilkomerson told IPS.

“That such a high-ranking U.S. official would use the term shows that the Obama administration, and the broader foreign policy community, is losing patience with Israel.  This may be an indicator that we are moving into a new phase of the U.S.-Israel relationship, and that the message of the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement is having a significant impact.”

The more centrist, “pro-Israel, pro-peace” group, J Street put Kerry’s words in a similar context to Psaki’s.

“Israel today is not an apartheid state, and that’s not what John Kerry is saying,” J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami told IPS.

“For over a year now, Kerry has argued that, without a two-state solution, Israel is risking its future and its values as it moves toward permanent rule over millions of Palestinians without equal rights.

“Former prime ministers Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert have used the ‘apartheid’ term as well to describe this possible future.  Instead of putting energy into attacking Secretary Kerry, those who are upset with the secretary’s use of the term should put their energy into opposing and changing the policies that are leading Israel down this road.”

Kerry’s comments came on the heels of Israel, the Palestinians and the United States all making statements and taking actions that seemed to draw a curtain on the latest peacemaking efforts.

After Israel refused to follow through with a planned release of prisoners, and announced new construction of settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem instead, the Palestinians applied to some 15 international treaties and organisations, further angering Israel.

When Israel announced renewed sanctions against the Palestinians, the situation flared up again when the Palestinian Authority and Hamas agreed to move forward with past agreements to reunify their government.

U.S. President Barack Obama declared that it was time for a “pause” in Middle East peacemaking shortly thereafter. This was the situation that Kerry was addressing with his words at the Trilateral Commission.

The Palestinian reconciliation agreement was controversial in itself, as the Israeli government immediately declared that any Palestinian leadership that was associated in any way with Hamas was one Israel would not deal with.

But many believe that Palestinian reunification is necessary if there is to be any real progress, now or in the future, in resolving this conflict.

“I think the reconciliation agreement is more of an acknowledgement from Abbas that the U.S. has utterly failed, yet again, in its efforts and he is embarking on creating a positive legacy before exiting the political theatre,” Palestinian-American businessman and activist Sam Bahour told IPS.

“If the reconciliation reaches the point of elections, it can be a game changer… Anyone serious about resolving this conflict must view the Palestinian people as a single unit, from Ramallah to Santiago, passing through the Galilee, Gaza, Lebanon, Syria and Jordan too. Political agency is of utmost priority today so a sustainable path forward can actually be crafted with some legitimacy.”

]]> 0
U.S. Apache Delivery Highlights Mixed Messaging on Egypt Thu, 24 Apr 2014 00:14:13 +0000 Jasmin Ramsey Capt. Sean Spence, the commander of B Co. TF Eagle, rides shotgun on an AH-64 Apache during an Apache extraction exercise Aug. 25 at Camp Bondsteel, Kosovo. Credit: public domain

Capt. Sean Spence, the commander of B Co. TF Eagle, rides shotgun on an AH-64 Apache during an Apache extraction exercise Aug. 25 at Camp Bondsteel, Kosovo. Credit: public domain

By Jasmin Ramsey
WASHINGTON, Apr 24 2014 (IPS)

Last October, the Barack Obama administration suspended the delivery of attack helicopters to Egypt’s interim government following the Jul. 2 military ouster of Egypt’s democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi.

“Delivery of these systems could resume pending Egypt’s progress toward an inclusive democratically-elected civilian government,” said Derek Chollet, the assistant secretary of defence for international security affairs, during testimony to the House Foreign Affairs Committee Oct. 29."There is a strong risk that they will be used in carrying out serious human rights abuses - basically collective punishment of entire communities - in the Sinai." -- Michelle Dunne

So the announcement late Tuesday by the Pentagon that 10 apache helicopters will now be delivered despite agreement by major rights groups that the Egyptian government has, if anything, increased its repression in the intervening six months is being met with concern.

“It’s abundantly clear that Egypt is not taking steps toward a democratic transition,” said Sarah Margon, the Washington director of Human Rights Watch. “It’s a very confused statement.”

Secretary of Defence Chuck Hagel told his Egyptian counterpart that “we are not yet able to certify that Egypt is taking steps to support a democratic transition.” At the same time he confirmed the delivery of the Apache helicopters in support of Egypt’s counterterrorism operations in the Sinai, according to a readout of their phone call Tuesday.

Secretary of State John Kerry will also be certifying to Congress that Egypt is “sustaining the strategic relationship with the United States – including by countering transnational threats such as terrorism and weapons proliferation – and that Egypt is upholding its obligations under the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty”, according to a separate statement released Tuesday.

“The U.S. administration keeps trying to split the difference, sending the message that they want to keep up security cooperation with the Egyptian government but at the same time that they don’t approve of the coup and the massive human rights abuses that have followed,” Michelle Dunne, a former State Department Middle East specialist, told IPS.

“I think these helicopters are intended to show support for the fight against terrorism in the Sinai and not for General [Abdel Fatah] al-Sisi’s presidential campaign, but that’s not an easy distinction to make,” said Dunne, now a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“The other problem with delivering the Apaches is that there is a strong risk that they will be used in carrying out serious human rights abuses — basically collective punishment of entire communities — in the Sinai,” she said.

“This would be a direct violation of President Obama’s January 2014 directive against providing conventional weapons in situations where they are likely to be used to commit human rights violations or to associate the United States with such violations,” added Dunne.

As noted by Dunne, rights groups worry that any distinctions the Obama administration may be trying to make between addressing legitimate Egyptian security concerns and disapproving of its human rights record will be lost as a result of the delivery of the Apache helicopters.

“Our concern is that these fine distinctions will be lost on most people in Egypt and will be distorted by the Egyptian government, that will claim that this indicates U.S. support,” Neil Hicks, the international policy advisor at Human Rights First, told IPS.

Almost one month ago, the Obama administration strongly denounced an Egyptian court’s decision to sentence 529 people to death for the killing of one police officer during protests of the coup against Morsi last July.

“The interim government must understand the negative message that this decision, if upheld, would send to the world about Egypt’s commitment to international law and inclusivity,” Kerry said on Mar. 26 in reaction to the mass death sentences.

The Obama administration has strongly condemned the violent crackdown by the Egyptian military against protesterrs following the ouster of Morsi, which many Egyptians supported at the time.

Citing statistics by Egyptian rights groups and other sources, a Carnegie report authored by Dunne and Scott Williamson in March found that the current level of repression in Egypt actually exceeds the scale reached under former President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who tried to crush the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1950s and 1960s by rounding up hundreds of members and executing a dozen of their leaders, and in the aftermath of the assassination of former President Anwar Sadat in 1981.

A total of 3,143 people have been killed as a result of political violence between Jul. 3 last year and the end of January. Of the total, at least 2,528 civilians and 60 police were killed in political protests and clashes, and another 281 others are estimated to have been killed in terrorist attacks.

Some 16,400 people have also been arrested during political events, while another 2,590 political leaders — the vast majority associated with the Muslim Brotherhood — have been rounded up and remain in detention, the report said.

According to Stephen McInerney, the executive director of the Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), the Obama administration’s decision to send the Apaches doesn’t contradict the law, “but sends the signal that concern for democratic progress is not an equal priority for this administration.

“Unfortunately, it’s not unexpected. It’s been clear that many in the administration have wanted to move forward with the resumption of military aid to Egypt,” McInerney told IPS.

Al-Sisi, who experts here say has exercised de facto power since the coup, is expected to be a shoo-in in Egypt’s presidential election late next month. He has returned many senior officials of the government of former President Hosni Mubarak, as well as many of his family’s business cronies, to positions they lost after Mubarak was forced to step down in the face of popular pressure and some urging by the U.S. and other Western governments in February 2011.

Citing increasing terrorist activity which has reportedly taken the lives of more than 430 police officers and soldiers since the coup, he urged the Obama administration Wednesday to re-instate all U.S. military and security all U.S. military assistance to Egypt. Washington has provided on average of about 1.3 billion dollars a year – almost all of it in military aid – in bilateral assistance to Cairo.

Next to Israel, Egypt has been the biggest beneficiary of U.S. bilateral assistance since the Camp David peace treaty was signed by the two nations in 1979. Besides helping to sustain the treaty, the aid has also ensured that U.S. warships are given priority access to the Suez Canal and U.S. warplanes can overfly Egyptian airspace.

The aid suspension last October infuriated the Egyptian military’s closest allies, notably Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Riyadh has promised to compensate for any shortfall in U.S. military aid by buying weapons systems other arms suppliers, including Russia, on Egypt’s behalf.

Saudi complaints that Washington has not provided sufficient support to Al-Sisi and the Egyptian military since the coup reportedly figured importantly in recent exchanges between Washington and Riyadh, including a visit by Obama himself with King Abdullah last month.

Jim Lobe contributed to this article.

]]> 1
OP-ED: Egyptian-Saudi Coalition in Defence of Autocracy Tue, 15 Apr 2014 15:28:37 +0000 Emile Nakhleh By Emile Nakhleh
WASHINGTON, Apr 15 2014 (IPS)

The Bahraini Arabic language newspaper al-Wasat reported on Wednesday Apr. 9 that a Cairo court began to consider a case brought by an Egyptian lawyer against Qatar accusing it of being soft on terrorism.

The “terrorism” charge is of course a euphemism for supporting the Muslim Brotherhood, which Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have designated a “terrorist” organisation and are vowed to dismantle.It’s becoming very clear that dictatorial policies are producing more instability, less security, and greater appeal to terrorism.

The two new partners and the UAE also loathe Qatar for hosting and funding Al-Jazeera satellite TV. The continued incarceration of the Al-Jazeera journalists and dozens of other journalists on trumped up charges is no coincidence.

The court case is symptomatic of the current Saudi-Egyptian relationship in their counter-revolution against the 2011 pro-democracy upheavals that toppled Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and his fellow autocrats in Tunisia, Yemen, and Libya.

The pro-autocracy partnership between the Egyptian military junta and the Saudi ruling family goes beyond their opposition to the Muslim Brotherhood and the perceived threat of terrorism. It emanates from the autocrats’ visceral opposition to democracy and human rights, including minority and women’s rights.

What should be most critical to them as they contemplate the future of their coalition of counter-revolutionaries, however, is the growing Western conviction that dictators can no longer provide stability.

The Egyptian Field Marshall and the Saudi potentate also abhor the key demands of the Arab uprisings and reject their peoples’ calls for freedom, dignity, justice, and genuine economic and political reform.

They are equally terrified of the coming end of the authoritarian paradigm, which could bring about their demise or at least force them to share power with their people. The Saudis and their Gulf Arab allies, especially Bahrain and the UAE, are willing to trample on their people’s rights in order to safeguard family tribal rule.

The Saudi-Egyptian partnership is also directed at the Obama administration primarily because of Washington’s diplomatic engagement with Iran.

According to media and Human Rights Watch reports, at least 15,000 secular and Islamist activists are currently being held in Egyptian prisons, without having been charged or convicted. This number includes hundreds of MB leaders and activists and thousands of its supporters.

Many of them, including teenagers, have also been tortured and abused physically and psychologically. These mass arrests and summary trials and convictions of Islamists and liberals alike belie the Saudi-Egyptian claim that theirs is a campaign against terrorism.

A brief history of Egyptian-Saudi relations

Egyptian-Saudi relations in the past 60 years have been erratic, depending on leadership, ideology, and regional and world events. During the Nasser era in the 1950s and ‘60s, relations were very tense because of Saudi fears of Nasser’s Arab nationalist ideology.

The Saudis saw Nasser a nationalist firebrand arousing Arab masses against colonialism and Arab monarchies. He supported national liberation movements and wars of independence against the French in North Africa and the British in the Arab littoral of the Persian Gulf.

The Saudi monarchy viewed Nasser’s call for Arab unity “from the roaring ocean to the rebellious Gulf” as a threat to their survival and declared a war on “secular” Arab nationalism and “atheist” Communism.

They perceived Nasser’s war in Yemen against the tribal monarchy as an existential threat at their door and began to fund and arm the royalists in Yemen against the Egyptian military campaign.

Egypt and Saudi Arabia were the two opposite poles of the “Arab cold war” during the 1950s and ‘60s. Nasser represented emerging Arab republicanism while Saudi Arabia epitomised traditional monarchies. Nasser turned to the Soviet Union; Saudi Arabia turned to the United States.

In the late 1960s, Saudi Arabia declared the proselytisation of its brand of Islam as a cardinal principle of its foreign policy for the purpose of fighting Arab nationalism and Communism.

It’s ironic that Saudi Arabia is currently supporting and funding the military junta in Egypt at a time when the military-turned-civilian presidential shoe-in Sisi is resurrecting the Nasserist brand of politics.

In the next three to five years, the most intriguing analytic question will be whether this partnership would endure and how long the post-2011 generation of Arabs would tolerate a coalition of secular autocracy and a religious theocracy.

Saudi Arabia supported Egyptian President Sadat’s war against Israel in 1973 but broke with him later in that decade after he visited Jerusalem and signed a peace treaty with Israel.

By the early 1980s, however, the two countries re-established close relations because of their common interest in supporting Iraq during the Iran-Iraq war and in pushing for the Saudi-articulated Arab Peace Initiative.

The Saudi King viewed President Hosni Mubarak warmly and was dismayed by his fall. He was particularly incensed by Washington’s seeming precipitous abandonment of Mubarak in January 2011.

The Saudi monarchy applauded General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s removal of President Muhammad Morsi and pumped billions of dollars into the Egyptian treasury. They also indicated they would make up any deficit in case U.S. aid to Egypt is halted.

The Saudis have endorsed Sisi’s decision to run for president of Egypt and adopted similar harsh policies against the Muslim Brotherhood and all political dissent. Several factors seem to push Saudi Arabia closer to Egypt.

The Saudis are concerned about their growing loss of influence and prestige in the region, especially their failure in thwarting the interim nuclear agreement between the P5+1 and Iran. Their policy in Syria is in shambles.

Initially, they encouraged jihadists to go to Syria to fight the Assad regime, but now they cannot control the pro-Al-Qaeda radical Salafi jihadists fighting the Damascus tyrant.

The Saudis also failed in transforming the Gulf Cooperation Council into a more unified structure. Other than Bahrain, almost every other state has balked at the Saudi suggestion, viewing it a power grab.

In an absurd form of retaliation against Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and Bahrain recalled their ambassadors from that country. The Saudis are engaged in tribal vendettas against their fellow tribal ruling families, which is out of place in a 21st century globalised and well-connected world.

The oil wealth and the regime’s inspired religious fatwas by establishment clerics have a diminishing impact on the younger generation connected to the global new social media.

Despite the heavy-handed crackdown, protests, demonstrations, and confrontations with the security forces are a daily occurrence in Egypt. It’s becoming very clear that dictatorial policies are producing more instability, less security, and greater appeal to terrorism.

It won’t be long before Western governments conclude that autocracy is bad for their moral sensibilities, destructive for business, and threatening for their presence in the region. The Saudi-Egyptian coalition of autocrats will soon be in the crosshairs.

In order to endure, such a coalition must be based on respect for their peoples, a genuine commitment to human rights, and a serious effort to address the “deficits” of liberty, education, and women’s rights that have afflicted Arab society for decades.

Emile Nakhleh, a former Senior Intelligence Service Officer, is a Research Professor at the University of New Mexico, a member of the Council on Foreign Relations, and author of “A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World.”

]]> 0
OP-ED: Egypt’s Death Sentences Test U.S. Resolve Fri, 28 Mar 2014 18:56:26 +0000 Emile Nakhleh U.S. Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel participates in an arrival honours ceremony with then Egyptian defence minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo, Egypt, Apr. 24, 2013. Credit: public domain

U.S. Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel participates in an arrival honours ceremony with then Egyptian defence minister Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo, Egypt, Apr. 24, 2013. Credit: public domain

By Emile Nakhleh
WASHINGTON, Mar 28 2014 (IPS)

The summary mass trial and sentencing of 529 Egyptians to death this week is yet another example of Egypt’s descent into lawlessness and blatant miscarriage of justice.

The rushed decision showed no respect for the most basic standards of due process under the military dictatorship.Sisi, much like Vladimir Putin and his land grab in Ukraine, feels empowered to defy the U.S. because he perceives it as unwilling or unable to confront him.

The Egyptian court spent less than a minute on each of the 529 defendants before sentencing them. Defence lawyers were barred from challenging state “evidence” and defendants were not allowed to speak. Yet, the Sisi government and the pliant Egyptian media did not question the sentences.

The U.S. State Department issued a statement in Secretary of State John Kerry’s name condemning the sentences. Kerry said he is “deeply troubled” and called on the Egyptian interim government to “remedy the situation.”

The decision, according to the statement, “simply defies logic” and fails to satisfy “even the most basic standards of justice.” Amnesty International deemed the death sentences “grotesque.” Most Western countries have expressed “deep concern” over the sham trial and convictions and the hope the decision would be overturned on appeal.

In his heady rush to seek the presidency, however, Field Marshall turned civilian Abdel Fattah al-Sisi is not paying much attention to Washington’s warnings or to international condemnations of the Minya judge who dispensed the ruling.

Sisi sees the Barack Obama administration moving away from values of good governance and the rule of law in Egypt to a myopic doctrine of national interest, which includes coddling Arab dictators and tribal ruling potentates.

Since the Arab upheavals of 2011, President Obama has identified U.S. values of tolerance, justice, fairness, and democracy as a guiding principle of post “Arab Spring” relations with Arab countries. These values, the U.S. president frequently said, “define who we are” as a people and as a nation.

Sisi, on the other hand, much like Vladimir Putin and his land grab in Ukraine, feels empowered to defy the U.S. because he perceives it as unwilling or unable to confront him or to shun him or cut military aid to Egypt. He counts on Washington’s inaction against him despite rising lawlessness by state institutions because of Egypt’s pivotal standing in the region.

By ignoring the Egyptian constitution and its traditional claim of judicial independence, the Egyptian judiciary seemed to kowtow to the military-run interim government.

The mass death sentences coupled with Sisi’s announcement of his candidacy for the presidency seem to bring the coup that toppled President Mohamed Morsi full circle. For Sisi, the January 25 Revolution is history, and the demands for democracy are now subsumed under the rubric of fighting “terrorism”, which he equates with the Muslim Brotherhood.

It’s symbolic that Sisi made the announcement on Egyptian television in military uniform even though he had just resigned as minister of defence and as a member of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF). He told the Egyptian public he would continue the struggle “against terrorism” and would fight to “regain Egypt” and restore its “dignity and stature.”

Sisi must have taken a page from the American Tea Party book about “taking back America” and from Putin about taking back Crimea. As if someone has stolen America from the Tea Party, or Ukraine from Russia, or Egypt from Sisi.

In fact, it was Sisi and the military junta that stole Egypt from the January 25 Revolution in a military coup. It was Sisi’s regime that has put over 15,000 Egyptians – Islamists and secularists – in jail through illegal arrests, sham trials, and without due process for challenging the coup.

Sisi envisions his presidency to rest on a three-legged stool of pliant media, submissive public, and adulation of him as a rising “selfie” star. In the name of “serving the nation,” Egyptians are being brainwashed not to question the personality cult of Sisi’s budding populist dictatorship.

In addition to frightening the public into submission, Sisi has also shuffled SCAF by sidelining potential challengers like General Ahmed Wasfi and promoting supporters like General Sidqi Sobhi. He sees these actions as an insurance policy against a possible coup that could topple him, much like he did against Morsi.

Although much has been written about Egypt in recent days, the death sentences and Sisi’s presidency have created two serious concerns, which Washington and other Western capitals must confront.

First, these actions likely will result in a growing radicalisation of some elements within the Muslim Brotherhood and other groups in Egypt. Radicalisation usually begets violence and terrorism.

It would be a nightmare scenario for any Egyptian government if the new radicals join forces with Salafi jihadists in Sinai. Such coordination, which could create an opening for al-Qa’ida in Egypt, would wreak havoc on the country and on Western interests and personnel there.

Second, continued instability, lawlessness, and repression in Egypt under a Sisi presidency would begin to attract Islamist jihadists from Syria to Egypt.

Unlike their counterparts from Afghanistan, the new jihadists are honed by combat experience and trained in the use of all kinds of weapons. A jihadist base in Egypt would certainly spread to neighbouring countries, including the Gulf tribal monarchies.

To stem this nightmarish tide, the United States and its Western allies must urge Gulf monarchies to start serious dialogue with their peoples toward inclusion and tolerance.

They also must convince Sisi that no stable political system would emerge in Egypt without including secularists and Islamists in the process. An adoring public, a pliant media, a sycophantic government, and an unfettered and corrupt military are a formula for disaster for the Egypt and the region.

Emile Nakhleh is a former Senior Intelligence Service Officer, a Research Professor at the University of New Mexico, and author of “A Necessary Engagement: Reinventing America’s Relations with the Muslim World.”

]]> 0
Increased Instability Predicted for Egypt Wed, 26 Mar 2014 00:02:50 +0000 Jim Lobe The killing of Muslim Brotherhood supporters has only strengthened resolve within the party to resist the current regime. Credit: Khaled Moussa al-Omrani/IPS

The killing of Muslim Brotherhood supporters has only strengthened resolve within the party to resist the current regime. Credit: Khaled Moussa al-Omrani/IPS

By Jim Lobe
WASHINGTON, Mar 26 2014 (IPS)

International human rights groups have strongly denounced Monday’s sentencing by an Egyptian court of 529 Islamists to death for a riot in which one policeman was killed.

Egypt specialists here say the sentences, which are widely seen as the latest in a series of steps taken by the authorities to crush the Muslim Brotherhood, as well as other dissident forces opposed to the military-backed government, are certain to fuel increased radicalisation in the Arab world’s most populous nation.“What all this repression creates is a very deep well of anger.” -- Michelle Dunne

“What all this repression creates is a very deep well of anger,” said Michelle Dunne, an Egypt specialist at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and co-chair of the Working Group on Egypt, a coalition of neo-conservative and liberal internationalist Middle East analysts who have informally advised the administration of President Barack Obama since the dawn of the Arab spring in late 2010.

“Where these kinds of actions are taking Egypt is very worrisome. …We now have an ally that might be headed toward serious and persistent instability,” according to Dunne, who noted that another court sentenced a group of 17 university students for rioting just a few days ago. Although no one was killed or seriously injured in that incident, each of the students received 14 years in prison.

Indeed, while the administration of President Barack Obama, which Monday described the mass death sentences as “defy(ing) logic,” had hoped to fully normalise military ties that were partially suspended after the July coup against President Mohamed Morsi, the latest court actions – along with the designation by the military-backed government of the Brotherhood as a terrorist organisation – would appear to make that much less likely.

The death sentences, which Amnesty International and the New York Times described as “grotesque” and “preposterous”, respectively, followed a one-day trial before three judges in Minya in which most of the defendants were absent or had no or very limited legal representation. As noted by Human Rights Watch (HRW), the prosecution failed to put forward evidence implicating any individual defendant.

“The Minya court’s sentencing more than 500 people to death for the killing of a police officer highlights the fact that no Egyptian court has even questioned a single police officer for the killing of well over 1,000 largely peaceful protesters since Jul. 3 [when the military ousted Morsi],” said Sarah Leah Whitson, HRW’s Middle East director.

“This trial is just one of dozens of mass trials taking place every day across Egypt, riddled with serious due process violations and resulting in outrageous sentences that represent serious miscarriages of justice,” she noted.

The defendants were all indicted for alleged participation in a riot in Minya, a Brotherhood stronghold in central Egypt, last August, some six weeks after a military coup against the country’s democratically elected president, Mohamed Morsi. The riot, which followed two massacres of hundreds of peaceful Brotherhood protestors in Cairo, resulted in the destruction of several churches and police stations and the death of one police officer.

Analysts here said the mass sentencing, the largest in modern Egyptian history, may have been motivated by a desire on the specific court’s part to retaliate against Morsi’s efforts to gain greater control over the judiciary or by its acquiescence to instructions by the police or interior ministry to make an example of the case as part of a broader strategy to intimidate the opposition. Both the verdicts and the sentences are subject to appeal.

If, indeed, the intent of the verdicts and other repressive measures is to restore stability to Egypt, the strategy does not appear to be working, according to Dunne, who Monday released a new report documenting both the growing repression and the rise in violence directed against the government.

“Egyptians have suffered through the most intense human rights abuses and terrorism in their recent history in the eight months since the military ousted then president Mohamed Morsi,” according to the report, “Egypt’s Unprecedented Instability by the Numbers.”

Citing statistics by Egyptian rights groups and other sources, the report found that a total of 3,143 people have been killed as a result of political violence between Jul. 3 last year and the end of January. Of the total, at least 2,528 civilians and 60 police were killed in political protests and clashes, and another 281 others are estimated to have been killed in terrorist attacks.

Some 16,400 people have been arrested during political events, while another 2,590 political leaders – the vast majority associated with the Brotherhood – have been rounded up and remain in detention, the report said.

All of these tallies, according to the report, show that current level of repression actually exceeds the scale reached under former President Gamal Abdel Nasser, who tried to crush the Brotherhood in the 1950s and 1960s by rounding up hundreds of members and executing a dozen of their leaders, and in the aftermath of the assassination of former President Anwar Sadat in 1981.

The report also found, the rate of terrorist incidents – and the deaths they’ve inflicted — in the seven months that followed the Jul. 3 coup have also surpassed the rates reached between 1993 and 1995, when more than 300 people, including police, extremists, civilians and tourists fell victim annually to the war between the security forces and Al-Gama’a al-Islamiyya (The Islamic Group) of which the current Al Qaeda chief, Ayman Al-Zawahiri, was a top leader.

“(M)ilitants have shown that they are capable of inflicting far more damage should they choose to do so,” according to the Carnegie report, which noted that insurgents have “shown increasing sophistication” in carrying out attacks against police officers, soldiers, and high-level government officials but have not yet shown interest in inflicting mass casualties.

The latest developments appear to have put the Obama administration, which suspended joint exercises with Egypt immediately after the coup and subsequently suspended delivery of some weapons systems, including attack helicopters and tanks, to coax the military into pursuing a less repressive policy toward the Brotherhood, in particular.

Saudi Arabia, with which Obama hopes to patch up relations badly strained by his failure both to support former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak at the outset of the Arab Spring and to intervene more aggressively on the side of rebels in Syria when he visits Riyadh later this week, has strongly backed the military’s crackdown against the Brotherhood and are expected to press their guest to do likewise.

The Saudis have not only provided billions of dollars in budgetary support for the regime; they have also offered to make up for any weapons withheld by Washington by buying comparable systems from other arms suppliers, including Russia, on Egypt’s behalf.

“The U.S. and Saudi Arabia have a basic disagreement about what’s going on in Egypt,” according to Dunne. “The Saudis would say whatever heavy-handed measures the authorities are taking is necessary to defeat terrorism. Most U.S. officials says these tactics are causing terrorism and potentially driving Egypt toward persistent instability.”

Jim Lobe’s blog on U.S. foreign policy can be read at

]]> 1