Greater Middle East

Syria: tens of thousands defy regime in Ramadan protests

Tens of thousands returned to the streets in towns and cities across Syria for the first Friday protests of the Ramadan holy month Aug. 5, especially declaring their support for the residents of Hama, where an estimated 200 have been killed in a military crackdown over the past week. Rights advocates said 14 were killed in Erbin, Homs and Mouadhamiya. State-run Syrian TV broadcast footage from inside Hama for the first time, showing scenes of burned-out buildings, barricaded streets and damaged cars. In YouTube footage purporting to come from protesters in Hama, heavy gunfire can be heard and improvised roadblocks seen in the street, with a tank in the background. A voice says in Arabic: "Hama, 5 August 2011, severe artillery shooting in Hama... tanks incursion of Hama... gangs of Bashar al-Assad are shooting Hama neighborhoods." The date and name of the city are repeated. (The Guardian, Reuters, Aug. 5)

US drones strike Pakistan, Yemen

US drones struck for the first time in 19 days in Pakistan's tribal agencies on Aug. 1, killing four "militants" in an attack on a compound in the Azam Warzak area of South Waziristan. The area, along the Afghan border, is said to be under the control of local Taliban warlord Mullah Nazir. (Long War Journal, Aug. 1) The same day, a US drone strike killed 15 presumed fighters of al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) fighters yesterday in al-Khamila, a village outside the militant-controlled town of Zinjibar in southern Yemen. (Long War Journal, Aug. 2)

Egypt: Islamists vie with secularists for control of Tahrir Square

As promised, Egypt's self-declared "Salafists" marched en masse on Tahrir Square, where secular opposition groups were holding a thousands-strong rally on Friday July 29. No violence was reported, but the Salafists were clearly vying with the secularists for control of the square—and the message. While the secularists chanted "The people want to topple the regime," the Salafists responded, "The people want to implement Sharia." As the secularists chanted "Peaceful, peaceful," the Salafists responded, "Islamic, Islamic." The Salafists also chanted "There is no God but Allah" and "Islamiya, Islamiya"; they also waved banners reading "Islamic Egypt," and Saudi flags. Plans for a new constitution is the new point of conflict. "Islamic law above the Constitution" was another popular Salafists chant. While the Muslim Brotherhood has continued to stay away from the Tahrir Square protests, the more radical Salafists have apparently opted for a strategy of confrontation with the protesters. Over the course of the evening, more and more of the secularists were intimidated into leaving the square, which was increasingly given over to the Salafists. (Radio Australia's AM, July 30; Egyptian Gazette, July 29)

Egypt: Islamists groomed as enforcers for military regime?

Forebodings are in the air about tomorrow's Friday demonstration in Cairo's Tahrir Square following two violent clashes between protesters and regime elements in Egypt over the past days. On June 23, knife-wielding thugs—apparently supporters of the ruling military council—set on thousands of activists determined to march on the defense ministry. A day before the march, the military accused the April 6 Movement, one of the youth groups that launched the uprising against Hosni Mubarak, of seeking to turn people against the army. In verbiage redolent of the Mubarak regime, a senior army general was quoted as saying the group had received training abroad to destabilize the state. (Financial Times, July 24) Then, on July 26, clashes broke out between police and workers at an industrial free trade zone in the Suez Canal city of Ismailia, injuring at least 38 people. It was the second day of a strike by the workers, who are demanding a raise in the minimum wage. Suez Canal zone workers have been staging a series of protests and labor actions since the beginning of June. (The National, UAE, July 28)

Kucinich soft on Syrian strongman?

For all the endless paranoia about neocon conspiracies to destabilize the Syrian regime (and Arab regimes in general), there are still plenty of politicians in the West who fear instability more than they dislike dictators. Generally, these are the paleocons or "pragmatists" of the Old Right, but this tendency also infects some politicians of the left. NPR noted on June 29 that during a "fact-finding" trip to Syria, Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH) was quoted by Damascus' official news agency SANA saying:

Syria: law to allow political party formation

The Syrian government on July 24 approved a draft law that would allow the formation of political parties to oppose the ruling Baath Party, led by President Bashar al-Assad. The law would permit a political party to be established so long as it is not based on religious or tribal lines and does not discriminate based on ethnicity, gender or race. Though the draft law, along with other concessions made by al-Assad, is a step toward the reform demanded, protestors seek an end to Article 8 of the Syrian Constitution, which declares the Baath Party leader of the state and society. The bill will likely be presented for debate on Aug. 7, and Parliament must approve the law before it is enacted.

Bahrain: commission begins investigation of protest abuses

An independent commission on July 24 began investigating human rights violations related to the ongoing pro-democracy protests in Bahrain. The chairman of the five-person Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI), Cherif Bassiouni, announced that the group's investigation would focus on 30 police officers alleged to have committed violations of procedural laws, as well as the country's army. Bahraini authorities have promised that the commission will have access to government files and will be permitted to interview witnesses without supervision. The UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) announced in June that Bahrain had agreed to permit a UN commission to investigate human rights violations related to protests shortly after King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa agreed to the investigation. Thirty-three people died during the unrest and more than 400 were injured. The commission is scheduled to publish the results of the investigation by Oct. 30.

Libyan, Syrian opposition score gains on diplomatic front; Yemenis shift for themselves

Istanbul has been a busy place on the diplomatic front over the past two days. In the most significant development, the 32-nation Contact Group on Libya—including members of NATO, the EU and the Arab League—officially recognized the rebel National Transitional Council (NTC) as the legitimate government of Libya. Meeting with NTC leader Mahmud Jibril, the United States, Turkey and other delegations conferred on the Benghazi-based rebel council recognition as the North African country's "legitimate governmental authority." The Contact Group statement said dictator Moammar Qaddafi "must leave power according to defined steps to be publicly announced."

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