MideastWeb Middle East Web Log
This last week was a period of quiet desparation and perhaps preparation for bigger and worse things to come. It began with a Palestinian suicide bombing in Haifa and an Israeli raid in Syria, and ended with a deep crisis in the Palestinian government.
A suicide bomb in an Arab Jewish Cafe killed 20 people last Saturday. On Sunday, October 5, Israel engaged in widespread retaliation or self-defense acitivities (depending on your viewpoint) which included incursions into Gaza and Jenin and bombing of a camp that allegedly trained terrorists in Syria. This marked a severe escalation in the conflict, and for the first time, threatened to turn it into a real regional war. Israel has not bombed Syrian soil in 30 years, and has not engaged in direct military confrontation with Syria since the 1982 war in Lebanon.
Meanwhile, the Palestinian Authority seemed to be falling into terminal chaos. Yasser Arafat is ill with what has been variously termed a stomach flu, stomach cancer and heart disease. The Prime Minister designate, Ahmed Qurei, resigned or threatened to resign last Thursday, apparantly because Chairman Yasser Arafat wanted to replace Nasser Youssef as Interior Minister, or possibly because Arafat wanted to declare the government to be an emergency government, depending on who you belief. Yousef was Arafat's own appointee, but proved to be too independent. At issue is control of the security forces.
The IAEA asked Iran to cooperate in investigating possible irregularities in its nuclear energy program. The IAEA request has a deadline of October 31. Iranians are afraid that Israel and the USA will use the pretext that Iran has a program to create nuclear weapons as an excuse to invade Iran, as the US invaded Iraq, or that Israel will bomb the Bushehr reactor facilities. IAEA reports indicate there are a large number of gas centrifuges that are unaccounted for and IAEA inspectors found traces of fissionable material at Iraqi nuclear sites. The centrifuges are usually used for purifying radioactive elements to obtain a fissionable isotope. Iran, which has huge petroleum reserves, claims that its nuclear program is aimed providing energy to replace fossil fuels, and that the centrifuges will be used to produce fuel for peaceful uses.
Meanwhile in Iraq, things go from bad to worse. US News was proud to announce that the electricity had remained on in Iraq for four straight days, but terror and suicide attacks continue. US attempts to get help from other countries in policing Iraq are mired in disagreement, and certain regimes may be waiting for the US to fail in Iraq, to further their own purposes.
An arricle in Cairo times quotes democracy activist Saaden Ibrahim as saying,
At the UN, Syria was readying a resolution against the Israeli separation fence ("Apartheid wall") and the USA was readying a veto for the resolution. The Security council meeting was postponed until Tuesday, giving diplomats time to work out a compromise.
Sources and excerpts used in preparing this summary are appended below. Full sources and additional materials are at Mewnews and Mewbkd and are available by email subscription to mewnews news service
Times Staff Writers
JERUSALEM -- Syria on Saturday insisted that it had a right to defend itself, the latest verbal shot fired off in a week of increasingly belligerent rhetoric after it was attacked by Israeli warplanes.
Since Israel bombed what it said was a terrorist training camp near Damascus in retaliation for a suicide bombing in Haifa, the two nations have been trading threats in what most analysts believe amounts to little more than a dangerous political game.
"We hope that the Israelis will not repeat their aggression. In case of repetition, Syria has the right to exercise self-defense in all available ways," Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Bushra Kanafani said at a Saturday briefing in Damascus. "I am talking about self-defense, and self-defense has its meaning, so I don't have to clarify."
Syria is highly unlikely to pit its weak, creaking military against the stronger - and U.S.-backed - Israeli armed forces. And a cash-strapped, war-weary Israel has little motivation to open up another front in the north by provoking Syria and its Hezbollah fighters along the Lebanese border.
Still, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon has set a precedent, and secured U.S. approval for an expanded, regionalized brand of warfare.
Though Syria denies that the bombed site was a training camp, Israeli military officials and politicians have been talking all week about the "message" they sent: Foreign countries, namely Iran and Syria, are not immune from attack so long as they aid armed Palestinian resistance. The countries themselves wouldn't be the targets, Israeli officials say - but the militants or their facilities are fair game.
After three years of Israeli-Palestinian bloodletting, Israel has exported the violence of the intifada, or uprising, to a neighboring country. In a speech at a commemoration ceremony last week for soldiers slain in the last war with Syria, Sharon assured the world that he wouldn't hesitate to repeat an attack on foreign soil if the message isn't taken.
"Israel will not be deterred from protecting its citizens and will strike its enemies in every place and in every way," Sharon said.
"Tel Aviv will never accept resuming the game in accordance with the older rules," Rintawi wrote. "Its raid on Damascus may be the first announcement that the phase of 'war by proxy' has come to an end, and that henceforth Israel intends to change the war's arena, tools, aims and rules."
Iran and Syria dole out weapons, shelter and instructions, the Israelis said. And it was those groups that worked to undermine the latest peace plan, Israeli-Palestinian negotiations and a cease-fire, or hudna in Arabic, struck by the major Palestinian factions this spring and summer, Israeli intelligence sources argued.
Apparently, the strike on Syria was some time in coming. Israel first decided to bomb Syria after a Palestinian bomber struck during the summer, but postponed the mission, military sources said. And in August, Israeli planes buzzed the home of Syrian President Bashar Assad.
The Haifa bomber was dispatched by Islamic Jihad, a militant organization whose leader lives in Damascus, the Syrian capital. Syria shelters training camps, Israel says, and despite U.S. pressure hasn't closed all of the militants' offices.
"Israel does not have a way to control the bombing of its citizens," said Robert Blecher, a Middle East spedeletedt at the University of Richmond in Virginia. "It's trying everything that it can, and it's even prepared to risk a larger confrontation in order to distract attention from the fact that that security [policy] isn't working."
PA sources: Attempt to end row over cabinet ends in failure http://www.haaretzdaily.com/hasen/spages/348738.html
By Haaretz Service and The Associated Press
Efforts by Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat and his prime minister, Ahmed Qureia, to resolve their dispute over the new Palestinian cabinet ended in failure Saturday, Israel Radio quoted sources in Ramallah as saying.
Arafat held closed-door meetings with his prime minister and officials from his Fatah faction Saturday to try to resolve the dispute, at the heart of which were Arafat's objections to the nomination of Nasser Yousef as interior minister, officials said.
During the meetings, Arafat said he wanted to replace Yousef with Hakam Balawi, a senior Fatah official, according to a Fatah official at the talks, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
But Qureia objected to dumping Yousef now, just a week after he was named, saying it would embarrass the government, the Fatah official said.
The Palestinian Legislative Council were supposed to ratify Qureia's new cabinet Thursday, but the ceremony was postponed after a last-minute row.
Yousef, who would control the security forces in the powerful portfolio, refused to participate in the swearing-in of the cabinet Tuesday, saying he did not want to take office until the government had parliament backing.
The new health minister also boycotted the swearing-in and the two were expected to do so after the PLC had voted in favor of the ministerial line-up.
Some interpreted that as a brazen slight to Arafat and a signal of independence to American officials expecting the new Palestinian government to send security forces to dismantle Hamas and other militant groups, in line with requirements of the road map plan.
To settle the dispute with Arafat, Qureia may have to replace Yousef.
After Thursday's meeting, an angry Qureia suggested to Arafat that he no longer wanted to be prime minister, just four days after taking office, and walked out of Arafat's office.
Palestinian prime minister quits http://www.mg.co.za/Content/l3.asp?ao=21689 Ramallah, West Bank
09 October 2003 15:41
Palestinian Prime Minister Ahmed Qorei handed in his resignation on Thursday, just two days after being sworn in by Yasser Arafat and as another suicide bomber blew himself up in the West Bank.
"Ahmed Qorei has submitted his resignation to the president," a source close to Arafat said after a key session of Parliament was postponed.
It was not immediately clear if Arafat had accepted the resignation.
The news came after a session of the Palestinian Parliament, at which Qorei was due to outline his programme of government, was postponed amid differences over the Cabinet's status.
When Arafat formally named Qorei to the post on Sunday, he also declared a state of emergency, with Qorei to have headed a small emergency Cabinet.
Some MPs had argued that while Arafat had the right to declare a state of emergency, there was no provision in the Palestinian Constitution for an emergency Cabinet and that Qorei's team would require parliamentary approval.
Sources said a meeting of senior members of the mainstream Fatah movement had broken up acrimoniously, with Arafat objecting to the presence of Nasser Yussef, who was slated to be the new interior minister but who refused to take the oath of office at a ceremony on Tuesday when Qorei and six other ministers were sworn in.
Arafat wanted approval of the emergency Cabinet, while Qorei, in the speech he was due to deliver during the postponed session, was to advocate a "normal limited cabinet".
"Abu Alaa stormed out of the meeting," a source said, using Qorei's nickname.
Israel has maintained a tight closure of the Palestinian territories since then, and was poised on Thursday to mobilise four reserve units in a bid to thwart potential attacks by militants.
Defence Minister Shaul Mofaz had decided to deploy the units from October 22 to the West Bank towns of Jenin, Tulkarem, Qalqilya and Ramallah, as well as in the Gaza Strip, Israeli radio reported.
Mofaz said the call-up of the reservists was needed as "the Israeli people will not tolerate a new attack like last Saturday's in Haifa".
There was no immediate confirmation of the decision. An army source said the "option of deploying a limited number of reserve forces is being examined", and that a decision had already been made to halt training courses in order to free up troops for deployment.....
Arab News Friday, 10, October, 2003 (14, Sha`ban, 1424) Arafat in Good Health, Aide Says After Medical Tests Agence France Presse . Reuters http://www.arabnews.com/?page=4§ion=0&article=33339&d=10&m=10&y=2003&pix=world.jpg&category=World
RAMALLAH, West Bank, 10 October 2003 - Yasser Arafat was in "good health" yesterday after being examined by a team of Egyptian medics, an aide to the aging Palestinian leader said. "An Egyptian medical team examined President Arafat last (Wednesday) night," the source told AFP on condition of anonymity.
The 74-year-old "is at present in good health and has recovered from his recent stomach illness." Aides to Arafat were forced to deny a report Wednesday in Britain's The Guardian newspaper that he had suffered a mild heart attack last week but that the news had been hushed up to avoid any panic in Palestinian ranks.
Instead officials have insisted that Arafat had merely suffered a bout of intestinal flu. Arafat was due to make a speech yesterday before MPs at his Muqataa headquarters here during a session of Parliament in which new Prime Minister Ahmed Qorei was due to unveil his program of government.
A senior aide said an Egyptian medical team headed by President Hosni Mubarak's private physician had examined Arafat at his headquarters in the West Bank city of Ramallah.
"They took blood samples and carried out several tests," he said. "Their initial findings were that he had a very strong flu and stomach virus, but the final results will be given to us tonight."
As a result of the illness, Arafat did not eat solid foods for 10 days and could not even keep soup down, aides said. Arafat had lost a lot of weight but his appearance had improved over the past three days and he has been more alert, the aides said.
Arafat, who sometimes shakes in public, emerged from his headquarters on Sept. 29 looking well and cheerful to dispel rumors he was in poor health.
Palestinian doctors said then he was suffering from a mild bout of influenza but that a medical team summoned from Jordan gave him a clean bill of health.
A senior Israeli military source said Arafat's ailment did not appear to be life-threatening. "We don't think his life is at risk. From what we know, he had some problems with his stomach. He is weak a little bit, he is operating. He is taking part in meetings. It was not a heart attack," the source said.
Arafat himself was quoted as saying by the Al-Quds newspaper yesterday that he was in "good health" and that he had recovered from his "stomach illness".
"People around him are afraid of complications because of his age but especially because of the unhealthy situation he is living in, in his office," another senior aide said. "Others are looking into the possibility that he might have been poisoned, so the...medical team has taken blood samples."
According to the official WAFA news agency, Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa and Tunisian President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali had called Arafat on Wednesday evening to inquire about his health.
Arafat has been weakened by a bad case of flu but his condition is not life-threatening, aides said yesterday after his pale appearance set the rumor mill spinning. "He is not dying," a Palestinian official close to Arafat, 74, told Reuters.
Arafat, a veteran symbol of Palestinian aspirations for independence, appeared to many observers to be frail during the swearing in ceremony on Tuesday of his new Cabinet.
Yasser Arafat's gaunt, fragile appearance during last weekend's inauguration of an emergency cabinet for the Palestinian Authority has raised a flurry of speculation over the state of the 74-year-old leader's health. Palestinian officials on Wednesday denied rumors that Arafat had last week suffered a mild heart attack and explained that Arafat has been suffering from a bad case of the flu or an intestinal infection. But according to a source inside the compound, the recent working diagnosis is that Arafat is suffering from stomach cancer. Al-Jazeera TV reported Wednesday that two teams of doctors, one from Jordan and the other from Egypt, arrived in Ramallah Wednesday to treat Arafat. Abu Dhabi TV reported on Thursday that following their examination of the Palestinian leader, the Egyptian doctors "expressed concern" about the state of his health. Neither report specified his condition. The prognosis for stomach cancer patients depends on the stage at which the cancer is diagnosed and treated, and the size and location of the tumor. Whatever the state of the cancer, however, such a diagnosis poses a major challenge to both Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which could require some nimble refereeing by the Bush administration.
The most immediate crisis would involve the need to treat Arafat's condition. The Ramallah compound in which Arafat has been holed up for the best part of two years is hardly the most conducive environment for invasive surgery. It would, in theory, be possible to erect a surgical suite at the compound, but hospitalization would certainly be preferable from a medical standpoint. Israel has until now insisted that if Arafat leaves his compound, he'd be on a one-way ticket out of the West Bank. And each new terror attack brings renewed public and political pressure on Sharon to make good on his cabinet's in-principle decision to expel the Palestinian leader. But Arafat has vowed to go down fighting against any attempt to remove him from the compound, and the Bush administration has restrained Israel from carrying out the threatened expulsion, on the grounds that such a move would be "unhelpful" to the pursuit of stability. The Palestinian leader's new condition, however, could raise uncomfortable choices for Israel, the Palestinians and the Bush administration.
If Arafat's condition proves to be terminal, the Palestinians will be forced to answer the long-deferred question of succession, and the running debate in Washington and Jerusalem over the prospects for pursuing a peace agreement without the aging Arafat will have been settled. The question of Arafat's succession is complicated by the fact that his power derives from the three separate offices he holds: Palestinian Authority president, PLO chairman and leader of the Fatah movement. The PA constitution requires that if the president is incapacitated, his post would be temporarily filled by the Speaker of the Palestinian legislature. However, the Speaker's position is currently vacant, following Ahmed Qureia's resignation from it in order to become prime minister. Following Thursday's meeting of the Palestinian legislature at which Arafat's appointment of an emergency cabinet was rebuffed, Qureia reportedly signaled Arafat that he no longer wants the position.
Rather than a simple transfer of the mantle of power from one uncontested national leader to another, Arafat's passing would likely open a protracted period of power struggles and realignments in Palestinian politics - and it appears unlikely that all three of his positions would be filled by a single successor. The immediate implications for any peace process will be uncertain, although the Israelis and the Bush administration have long insisted that breaking Arafat's grip on the Palestinian national movement is a prerequisite for progress.
BBC News Monday, 6 October, 2003, 13:53 GMT 14:53 UK
Iran releases nuclear data http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/3168150.stm
Tehran says its nuclear programme is for energy only Iran has begun releasing details of components it imported unofficially for its nuclear programme. The country's envoy to the United Nations nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency, said it was supplying a list of parts supplied through third parties.
Iran is under intense pressure to convince the UN this month that it has no plans to produce nuclear weapons.
UN inspectors are also seeking the right to mount snap inspections - a demand which Tehran has been resisting.
The list now being supplied to the IAEA is meant to cover unofficial purchases connected with the nuclear programme, which Iran insists is for civilian purposes only.
"We have already given a list of imported parts that were bought through intermediaries, and we are in the process of finishing this list," envoy Ali Akbar Salehi said.
"These are items which were not bought officially - they were bought through intermediaries and it is not possible to trace intermediaries."
He said that, in addition to supplying the list, Iran would show IAEA inspectors where the components had been stored.
On previous, arranged inspections to Iranian facilities, inspectors found traces of highly enriched uranium - sparking suspicions that the country was seeking to build a nuclear bomb.
However, Iran, which now largely relies on Russian technology for its nuclear programme, contends that the traces were contamination from parts supplied from abroad.
Mr Salehi said then that agreement had been reached on a plan of action to clarify the issues of concern to the agency and speed up co-operation.
The most senior IAEA official involved in the talks, Deputy Director General Pierre Goldschmidt, returned to Vienna, but other officials and tactical experts have stayed on.
However the IAEA itself made no comment on the talks.
If Iran fails to satisfy the UN's experts, the issue may be referred to the UN Security Council, which may consider sanctions.
Iran Says It Won't Stop Enriching Uranium
TEHRAN, Iran - Iran will not stop enriching uranium for peaceful purposes, despite a request from the U.N. nuclear watchdog, Iran's foreign minister said in remarks published Tuesday.
Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi also rejected calls from hard-liners in Iran, angry at the international pressure, that the country quit the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which prohibits the development of nuclear weapons.
"We are standing resolutely and will not allow anybody to deprive us of our legitimate right to make peaceful use of nuclear energy, especially uranium enrichment to provide fuel for nuclear plants," Kharrazi said at a meeting Monday night of imams, or Muslim prayer leaders. The official news agency IRNA published his comments Tuesday.
Last month, the U.N. nuclear agency gave Iran a deadline of Oct. 31 to prove that its nuclear program is peaceful. The resolution also urged Iran "to suspend all further uranium enrichment-related activities."
Iran insists its nuclear program is entirely for generating energy, particularly after its oil wells run dry. Nuclear reactors use radioactive uranium as fuel to produce electricity.
The United States, however, strongly suspects Iran has a nuclear weapons program.
In recent weeks, Iran has twice had to acknowledge that particles of uranium, enriched to weapons-grade level, have been found in different parts of the country. Iran said the particles came from contaminated equipment imported from another country it did not identify.
Some Iranian hard-liners have called for the country to quit the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. But Kharrazi said Iran was committed to the treaty - for now.
"Withdrawing from the treaty is not on our agenda ... unless Iran is deprived of all its rights," Kharrazi said.
The IAEA board is expected to take up the issue at next month's meeting. It could decide Iran has violated the treaty, in which case it would probably refer the matter to the U.N. Security Council, which could impose sanctions on Iran.
nytimes.com Spanish Envoy Among 9 Dead in 2 Iraq Attacks By REUTERS Published: October 9, 2003 Filed at 5:20 a.m. ET
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Twin attacks in Baghdad killed a Spanish diplomat and at least eight Iraqis Thursday, exactly half a year since U.S. troops occupied the city.
A suicide car bomber crashed through the gates of a police station, killing at least three policemen and five civilians and wounding scores in the blast, Iraqi police said.
It was definitely a suicide bomb," one policeman said at the scene. "We found the head of the attacker. It had been blown off his body. He was bearded, and his body was charred."
In another part of town, Jose Antonio Bernal, a Spanish air force sergeant attached to the embassy, was gunned down as he left his home. Spain has around 1,300 troops in Iraq and backed the U.S.-led war.
Occupation forces and diplomats in Baghdad have become targets of what the Americans consider elements loyal to ousted President Saddam Hussein, who is still on the run.
The instability has prompted the United States to ask for outside help in calming Iraq, but has made other key countries -- many of whom opposed the war -- even more reluctant.
German sources said Berlin wanted a key donor conference on Iraq delayed. Diplomats said Britain was trying to salvage a U.N. resolution aimed to winning more support over Iraq, but the United States seemed on the brink of abandoning it.
The United Nations has been pulling out staff since its headquarters was twice hit by suicide bombs, the first of which killed 22 people in August including top U.N. diplomat, Sergio Vieira de Mello.
Thursday's attack on a police station in a poor district once known as Saddam City is the bloodiest since then, and another setback for U.S. President George Bush's hopes of building a stable, democratic and U.S.-friendly Iraq.
Bush's forces won the war in three weeks, taking central Baghdad on April 9 and symbolically helping topple a statue of Saddam, but have struggled ever since to restore order and basic services.
U.S. officials have been trying to get an Iraqi police force running but its members have been targeted several times.
"A car sped up and slammed into other cars, and there was a large explosion," a wounded policeman said of Thursday's attack.
A police spokesman said hundreds of people had been in the building waiting to receive salaries, and three to five Iraqi policemen had been reported killed.
"The car was very, very fast, and the security guards at the main gate tried to stop the car. They opened fire," he said.
U.S. troops have been the main target of guerrilla attacks and since May 1, when Bush declared major hostilities over, over 90 U.S. soldiers have died.
Washington is now asking other nations for troops and money to help rebuild Iraq but has received a half-hearted response. Many countries opposed the war in the first place.
Amid signs Bush may abandon efforts to secure a new U.N. resolution meant to secure more international help, diplomats said ally Britain was pushing for amendments to salvage it.
Britain, a co-sponsor, would consider accelerating Iraqi sovereignty, even before elections were held, without giving a specific time frame, diplomats said. This would please doubters but whether Washington would agree is doubtful.
The United States wants to continue the occupation, with duties transferred to Iraqis gradually, until a constitution is written and elections are held, which could take two years.
A donors' conference for Iraq is due in Madrid on October 23-24, but German government sources said Wednesday Berlin wanted to delay it and could not define how much to contribute as there was no real estimate of the costs of rebuilding.
The U.S.-led administration is also facing disputes with the Governing Council of Iraqi leaders which it appointed itself.
The Council said Wednesday it was seeking a compromise to end a dispute with the Americans over the deployment of Turkish troops to help occupying forces stabilize the country.
Due to opposition from U.N. Security Council members, the Bush administration has pulled back from seeking a quick vote endorsing its plan for the future government of Iraq and may postpone it indefinitely, the New York Times reported today. The decision comes two weeks after President George W. Bush, speaking before the General Assembly, appealed for help in the reconstruction of Iraq.
The most recent U.S. proposal received a cool reception from council members, and U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan surprised administration officials by disclosing his own apprehensions about the plan. According to diplomats who have spoken to him, Annan believes attacks on Americans in Iraq would subside once an interim Iraqi government was in place, perhaps within a matter of months.
"We really are at a pause right now," an administration official said. "A number of countries were leaning in our direction. But after the secretary general's statements, they became leery about supporting something he opposes."
The split in the council is primarily over U.S. intentions to retain full control over Iraq during the building of democratic institutions and conducting of elections in the country (Weisman/Barringer, New York Times, Oct. 8).
As part of the effort to bolster the security situation in Iraq, the Turkish parliament voted on Tuesday to allow its government to send troops to Iraq. Washington applauded Ankara's decision, and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell told Turkish Foreign Minister Abdullah Gul that the United States would work with Turkey to facilitate the deployment, although it could be weeks or even months before any action is taken.
The Governing Council of Iraq opposed the decision. It has said previously that it would prefer peacekeepers not come from neighboring countries, but the council is likely to defer to the United States on security issues. There are additional fears over the involvement of Turkish troops in Kurdish-controlled areas.
"After long deliberations we reached consensus on issuing a statement opposing the arrival of Turkish troops," said Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish member of the council.
Gul said Turkish troops would be going to Iraq to help end the occupation of the country, not extend it (Louis Meixler, Associated Press/Yahoo! News, Oct. 8).
Washington is also looking to South Korea to send troops to Iraq, but South Korean President Roh Moo-Hyun responded to the pressure by linking any such deployment to further U.S. progress on reducing tensions with North Korea over its nuclear weapons program.
"I fear that if we decide to go ahead and send troops, it would not help achieve the second round of six-way talks over North Korea's nuclear program, or an agreement to be reached," Roh said on Friday (James Brooke, New York Times, Oct. 7).
Arab regimes are making efforts to reform in the wake of the US invasion of Iraq, but are they for real?
Charles Levinson, Cairo Times, August 14, 2003 On 9 August Jordanian Information Minister Nabil Al Sharif announced the dissolution of his ministry and the end of press censorship in Jordan. Coincidentally, on the same day, Sudanese president Omar Al Bashir promised a similar reform regarding the press in Sudan, along with the removal of restrictions on travel, the lifting of the state of emergency, and the release of political prisoners.
In the four months since the fall of Baghdad and the United States occupation of Iraq, Arab regimes across the region-in Syria, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, Sudan, and Libya-have escalated the rhetoric of reform. In some instances the regimes have gone a step farther, backing up the rhetoric with symbolic gestures.
In May, Qatar and Saudi Arabia both appointed human rights committees. Libya, after refusing for years, recently indicated that it will accept responsibility for the bombing of Pan Am Flight 103 and agree to pay $2.7 billion to the families of victims. In Syria, Bashar Al Assad has shaken up his government and is making headlines with promises of reform. Here in Egypt, the People's Assembly in June abolished State Security courts and announced the formation a National Council of Human Rights.
The proponents of the war in Iraq averred that a strong US presence in the region and a democratic, stable Iraq would galvanize change in the politically stagnant Middle East. Though democracy and stability have not yet blessed Iraq, those same proponents are pointing to these intimations of change as an early vindication for the war.
"Just the fact that they are talking about reform is significant," said Egyptian journalist Nabil Sharaf Al Din, who wrote a controversial pro-war editorial for the London-based website Elaph.com.
But few analysts think these limited moves amount to substantial reforms. The numerous critics of Arab regimes here in Cairo appear unanimous in dismissing these gestures as empty talk. And they look no further than Egypt to illustrate the vacuity of the so-called reforms.
While the People's Assembly abolished the ordinary State Security courts on 16 June, the State Security-Emergency courts, set up by the Emergency Law, remain in effect. As recently as 10 August, human rights groups protested as five political activists were sent to the Emergency Court.
"On the surface there are some changes happening in the region, but there is no true change in the way of governing people," said Youssri Moustafa, research director for the Egyptian Organization for Human Rights (EOHR).
Not all the reforms, of course, are without merit. Just ask the families of the victims of the Lockerbie bombing. Libya also has a new prime minister who is pushing a bold program of economic liberalization and privatization. And Jordan's lifting of restrictions on the press appears sincere, coming as it did with King Abdallah's public belittling of the Jordanian press corps, and his confession that he relies on Al Jazeera even for local news.
American pressure on Arab regimes began after 9/11 and intensified following the occupation of Iraq. The various regimes' subsequent nods at reform must be considered in the context of American desire for reform, according to most analysts. Sherif, the Jordanian information minister, speaking to the pan-Arab daily Al Hayat, acknowledged the influence of the American presence in Iraq on the recent decisions taken by his government. The issue of pushing reform in the Middle East has once again been front and center on the domestic political scene in the United States following National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice's call for transforming the Middle East in a 7 August editorial in the Washington Post. "The transformation of the Middle East... will require the broad engagement of America," she wrote.
Needless to say, most democracy advocates in Cairo give the American bluster little credence. America's push for democracy, even for the minority who accept its sincerity, has come too late for many. Egypt's activists, the vast majority of whom are staunchly anti- American, warn that US pressure is likely to backfire.
Activists like the EOHR's Moustafa feel the United States has for too long ignored their pleas to stop supporting oppressive Arab regimes. Now that the United States has decided it wants democracy, these activists are clamming up. The bulk of Egypt's pro-democracy movement is insistent that political change come from within and rejects outright any American interference or pressure.
"The American pressure adds a stress factor and raises a kind of resistance to democracy," Moustafa said. It's creating an odd contradiction, as two sides who claim to be after the same goal are instead at odds.
The democracy activist Saad Eddin Ibrahim has a different take. Ibrahim thinks that despite activists' defiant statements to the contrary, the US pressure will help advance the democracy movement throughout the Middle East.
"The continuation of the external pressure is giving the internal pressure more credence and vice-versa," said Ibrahim. "The internal opposition is emboldened and takes comfort and encouragement from the US pressure, much as they say they hate the US."
The entrenched Arab regimes have made limited symbolic reforms, biding their time for the US to fail in Iraq, according to Ibrahim. If America is perceived to be succeeding in creating a democratic state in Iraq, it will prove a source of increased pressure on regimes throughout the region. Conversely, a US failure will buttress the entrenched dictatorships.
"All the regimes are hoping that the Americans will fail in a big way," Ibrahim said. "Should that happen [these regimes] will be vindicated and they will have a new lease on life."
"If Israel is allowed to continue construction, "this will mean the end of the two-state solution, and that will take us to either a more drastic and radical solution or perpetual conflict. It should be looked at that seriously," Al-Qedwa said.
Al-Qedwa called for a UN Security Council vote on Tuesday on a draft resolution drafted by Syria. The text protests Israel's construction of a separation barrier in the occupied Palestinian territories and denouncing the Israeli plan to build more than 600 new homes in the illegal Jewish settlements built in the OPT.
The draft resolution urges the UN Security Council to decide "that the construction by Israel, the occupying power, of a wall in the Occupied Territories departing from the armistice line of 1949 are illegal under relevant provisions of international law and must be ceased and reversed."
The UN Security Council on Friday descided in a closed session to hled an open session in next Tuesday to discuss the the separation barrier Israel is building around the West Bank.
On his part, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan on Friday deplored the killing of seven Palestinian civilians, including two children, by an Israeli occupation raid during Israel's incursion Friday dawn into the Rafah refugee camp on the Gaza Strip.
"Not for the first time, the Secretary-General reminds Israel that the disproportionate use of force in densely populated areas is not compatible with international humanitarian law," spokesperson Hua Jiang said at news briefing.
Mr. Annan called again on both sides to take every measure to avoid harming innocent civilians, she added.
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