Three developments in the past few days suggest that the coming weeks could mark a decisive moment in the struggle for power in Syria, and the tug-of-war between pressure to bring down the Bashar Assad regime and the regime’s use of military force to beat the demonstrators into submission. The three critical developments are the “Friends of Syria” meeting in Tunisia last Friday; the appointment of former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan as the joint UN-Arab League special envoy to Syria; and, a UN report that essentially accuses Syrian senior officials of crimes against humanity, moving closer to international indictments against them.
A Blog on Middle East Transformation
When special people depart this world for another, as New York Times correspondent Anthony Shadid did earlier this week, those of us who are left behind feel like a rowboat bobbing in the rolling waves of a large luxury yacht or ocean liner that has left us in its wake. We are slightly disoriented, momentarily losing our balance and direction, focused only on regaining equilibrium, and later anchorage, in a suddenly turbulent and frightening world. Acids that are only occasionally activated for special assignments go to work in the pit of our stomach. They generate sadness at the passing of his life, fear because we have been alerted to the fragility of our own lives, and also small jolts of confidence and hope — because his life and death remind us that our world was, and remains, full of gifted people like him.
Well, reviewing events in Syria this week, I guess the uni-polar world, the looming American century, and the end of history that were simultaneously announced by assorted American chauvinists and crackpots at the end of the Cold War around 1990 can be discarded for now. The continuing killings in Syria, and the energized global diplomacy that is trying to wind it down and/or evict President Bashar el-Assad and his family from power, should be seen as two distinct dynamics that converge now for a moment.
The massacre committed in Port Said on Wednesday night when thousands of fans of the home team Al-Masry, which had secured a rare 3-1 victory over Al-Ahly, stormed the pitch and launched a deadly attack on Ahly fans in the bleachers, was no spur-of-the-moment act of mob behavior. It was a carefully premeditated counter-revolutionary plot to sow sedition and set Egyptians against each other to eventually justify the continued presence in power of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF).
Since the release of the result of parliamentary elections, all of the attention has been on Egypt’s Islamist parties, especially the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) and the Salafi al-Nour Party, which gained the majority of seats in Egypt’s People’s Assembly. Nevertheless, the presence of non-Islamist, or secular, parties is important in assessing Egypt’s new parliament especially with regards to their potential as a counterweight to the Islamists.
First there was Tunisia’s Jasmine Revolution, then came Libya’s bloody war, Syria’s ongoing crimes against humanity, Yemen’s forgotten struggle. And somewhere in between there was and continues to be Egypt’s so-called “revolution.”
The headline “Islamists win 70% of Egyptian Parliament list seats” was ubiquitous, even though we already knew that result was brewing since November and throughout the elections’ preliminary vote counts. Accompanying the historic headline was a significant frenzy of anger and despair.
The continuing deterioration of the political situation inside Syria last week led the emir of Qatar to suggest that it would be appropriate to send in Arab troops to stop the killing. How seriously he meant this suggestion remains unclear. He may have been offering this as a practical proposal or merely sending a political message that the Arab world could not wait forever as Syrians are killed by the dozen every day.
Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood stands on the brink of an impressive electoral victory. After several months of suggesting it would check its own electoral ambitions, the Brotherhood plunged into politics with unprecedented enthusiasm, focusing all of its energies and impressive organizational heft on the parliamentary vote. Now, with the electoral list of its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, likely to gain close to (and maybe even more than) half the seats and perhaps cabinet positions as well, the movement is entering uncharted waters.
On February 10, 2011, Egypt’s Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) met for the first time without its chairman, former president Hosni Mubarak. It issued a communiqué indicating that Mubarak was preparing to relinquish his powers to the military after eighteen days of massive antigovernment protests. The SCAF’s first statement signaling the power transition assured the Egyptian public that the council would remain in continuous session in order to ensure the protection of the people and nation, and that it would support the legitimate demands of the protesters who had called for Mubarak’s overthrow.
As expected, Egypt’s first parliamentary election after the overthrow of longtime leader Hosni Mubarak confirmed the popularity and organizational strength of the Muslim Brotherhood and Freedom and Justice Party, which won 77 of the 156 parliamentary seats contested in the first electoral round. Surprisingly, it also revealed the unexpected strength of the Salafi alliance, dominated by the al-Nour party, which secured 33 seats. Much to the discomfort of secular Egyptians and Western governments, Islamist parties now dominate the Egyptian political scene.
When the Egyptian military ousted President Hosni Mubarak on February 11, 2011, it was greeted by most Egyptians as the savior of the nation, the institution that had sided with the people against dictatorship and would steer the country through a period of transition toward democracy.
Egypt’s protracted series of parliamentary balloting has just begun, but it is not too soon to think about the implications of presidential elections that have yet to be scheduled. And indeed, the way those elections have been planned (or, more accurately, the way they have not been planned) should cause deep concern.
Death is at the end of every street. Mohamed Messara whispers this in my ear as he points to a photograph he took in the Libyan desert that bleeds dust and belches hot air as bullets fly, many bullets, as the photo of a rebel fighter in the battle to free the city of Sirte shows. A myriad of empty shells, a carpet thrown over the dust and mud of the road.
The trend of events inside Syria these days is towards a troubling increase in organized military operations by both the government and opposition groups, with breakaway troops from the state armed forces now attacking state institutions. This is both a worrying escalation that can push Syria into destructive domestic strife that could escalate into civil war, and also a more or less routine rite of passage for modern Arab states that ultimately find themselves dealing with the consequences of their own contradictions, incompetence and even some criminality.
Witnessing the popular and democratic revolutions sweeping across the Middle East, it is ironic to see that the United States and the West are focusing only on the perceived threat of Islamists coming to power democratically. While it is no surprise to us that the West is ready to forego its cherished democratic principles when it comes to Islamists being popularly elected (see Algeria and Palestine), it is all the more disturbing that they do not seem preoccupied about more dangerous extremists gaining influence in their own countries.
It has been eleven months since the Arab citizen revolts started in Tunisia last December and rolled through the Arab world in a wave that has manifested itself in different ways across the region. The two most striking things about the past eleven months are also slightly contradictory.
As I write, a moment of reckoning tangibly links three seemingly disparate protest sites: Tahrir Square, Los Angeles City Hall, and plazas across the University of California system. The opening moment of elections in Egypt, the closing of the Occupy movement’s last tent encampment by Los Angeles mayor Antonio R. Villaraigosa, and a UC-wide meeting of the Regents to discuss the shockingly mishandled response to student protests clearly illustrate, in their coincidental proximity to each other, what actors in each of these three contexts have long been self-consciously referencing: a global crisis.
Heading into their first post-revolution election for parliament, 51 percent of Egyptians had not yet made up their minds on what party to vote for. Yet the race appeared to be dominated by two long-established political groups–the Muslim Brotherhood, represented by its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, and the New Wafd, a liberal party with roots in Egypt’s nationalist movement.
Originally a splinter from the Wafd Party, al-Ghad has maintained its liberal orientation but has joined the Democratic Alliance with the Freedom and Justice Party rather than the Egypt Bloc with most other liberal parties. Troubled by internal dissensions exacerbated by the Mubarak regime’s effort to discredit its leader Ayman Nour, the party has failed to establish an identity separate from that of its leader.