MENA Week in Review - January 17, 2013

Middle East and North Africa

Egypt featured heavily in the Middle East and North Africa news cycle this past week, as Egyptians approved a new constitution and U.S. lawmakers proposed fully restoring assistance to the country. Below is a roundup of those stories and some of the other top articles and news highlights from around the region over the last week:

United States policy:

  • The omnibus spending bill (pdf) that passed the Senate today restores the USD 1.3 billion in Foreign Military Financing and USD 250 million in Economic Support Fund assistance to Egypt (see section 7041 of the bill). The omnibus allows aid to Egypt to resume, adding new, relatively weak conditions on the 2014 aid package to encourage a transition to a democratically elected government. Unlike previous spending bills, it does not grant the administration a national security waiver.

Egypt’s military spokesperson, Ahmed Ali, called the resumption of military aid to Egypt a “positive step.” Conversely, the Washington Post sharply criticized the decision, arguing that the military backed government’s “repressive methods cannot stabilize Egypt, much less address its severe economic and social problems.”  

Despite some reports that the bill removes the prohibition on assistance to a post coup d’état government, the omnibus bill still contains the Section 7008 prohibition. Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) confirmed that Section 7008 has not been altered in the omnibus bill, but may be amended in the future. This change may come through the 2013 Egypt Assistance Reform Act (pdf) – passed with overwhelming support in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before Christmas – which introduces a “combating terrorism” waiver to the coup ban.

  • The Washington Post reported that the Defense Department hopes to establish an intelligence center in Bahrain to help its counternarcotics efforts in Afghanistan after 2014. The Post quoted Erin Logan, Principal Director for Counternarcotics and Global Threats Office at the Defense Department, who testified (pdf) on Wednesday that “The center will help fill the gap where space for personnel on the ground in Afghanistan is no longer available.”
  • Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki gave Vice President Joe Biden a list of military equipment that would assist Iraq’s efforts against Al Qaeda in Anbar province. Maliki also stated that he would request additional U.S. counterterrorism training for Iraq’s military. Commander of the Joint Chiefs, General Martin Dempsey, expressed disappointment over the situation in Iraq, while the Defense Department announced that it is preparing a small-arms shipment to the country.
  • Hooria Mashhour, Yemen’s Minister for Human Rights, published a Washington Post op-ed in which she harshly criticized U.S. drone policy in the country. Mashhour argued that the drone strikes are extremely unpopular in Yemen, causing resentment and fueling extremism. Mashhour also criticized Yemen’s President Mansur Hadi, who in the past had expressed his support for the drone program in Yemen.
  • The United States pledged on Wednesday an additional USD 380 million for humanitarian assistance “to those affected by the war in Syria.” Specifically, the assistance supports the work of various United Nations agencies, the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and international and non-governmental organizations within Syria and the regional refugee response in Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq, Turkey, and Egypt. USD 177 million of the assistance would be distributed within Syria, with the rest going to countries in the region that host Syrian refugees.

The pledge is a part of a USD 6.5 billion appeal by the United Nation in 2014 for medical care, food, water and shelter in Syria, after only 70% of funding promised last year by international donors actually reached the UN. UN Secretary Ban ki-moon also stated earlier this week that half of the population in Syria is in need of urgent humanitarian relief.


Other top security stories:

  • Egyptian state newspaper Ahram Online published unofficial results of Tuesday and Wednesday’s constitution referendum, with the constitution passing with 97.7% of the vote and voter turnout standing at 38.5%. The constitution had been expected to easily pass given the muted voices of those opposed to it, and prior to the vote there were reports of Egyptian officials arresting those campaigning against the constitution. The now outlawed-Muslim Brotherhood urged its supporters to boycott the voting, and clashes took place on Tuesday and Wednesday between government opponents and security forces. The New York Times’ David Kirkpartick noted the dichotomy between the human rights guarantees in the new Egyptian constitution and the repressive actions of the government.

Prior to the vote, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel spoke with Egyptian Defense Minister General Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, emphasizing the importance of a “transparent referendum” to Egypt’s political transition. On Monday, the State Department criticized the pre-election environment in Egypt, urging the government to create an inclusive climate for the vote.

  • On Sunday, Iran and the P5+1 announced that the interim deal signed back in November would formally begin on January 20. President Obama stated that in return for modest sanctions relief, Iran would take concrete steps to suspend progress on its nuclear program for the first time in a decade. While many lawmakers in Congress continued to push for new sanctions against Iran, the agreement, combined with intense White House lobbying, seemed to provide space for democratic Senate leadership to delay a vote on the legislation.
  • Secretary of State John Kerry and Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met on Monday to discuss the upcoming Geneva II Syria peace talks. The two offered a number of confidence building measures that both sides could adopt ahead of the talks, such as prisoner exchanges and localized ceasefires. The Syrian government today expressed interest in both measures. Secretary Kerry, meanwhile, has continued to pressure Syrian opposition groups, who are meeting today to decide whether to attend the talks.
  • Even though Bahrain’s national dialogue was officially suspended last week, opposition leaders and Bahrain’s crown prince held high level discussions on Wednesday. The opposition stated that the discussions were “honest and transparent.” The Associated Press reported that a U.S. diplomat attended the meeting.
  • Armed fighters broke into Libya’s General National Congress on Tuesday, hoping to pressure lawmakers to adopt a no-confidence vote against Prime Minister Ali Zeidan. Zeidan had previously stated that his government would step aside only once a suitable replacement was found to prevent a power vacuum in the government.
  • A number of clashes between armed fighters and the Yemeni military resulted in multiple soldier deaths this week: Al Qaeda militants seized a Coast Guard base on Sunday and killed four troops; on Thursday, coordinated Al Qaeda attacks killed ten soldiers; and on Friday, two soldiers died in clashes with militants at a local market.