As Arab League Suspension Looms, Syria Faces New Assault

BEIRUT, Lebanon — As regional diplomacy and maneuvering intensified, President Bashar al-Assad of Syria faced challenges on two fronts Wednesday, with army defectors reported to have attacked an intelligence headquarters near Damascus and Arab foreign ministers meeting to endorse his country’s suspension from the Arab League.

News reports said the attack on a large air force intelligence complex near Damascus, the capital, was the first on such a major facility since Syria’s uprising began in March. The Local Coordination Committees, an opposition group, was quoted as saying defectors used shoulder-mounted anti-tank rockets and other weapons to attack the facility.

Reuters quoted anti-Assad activists as saying a gunfight erupted after the attack as helicopters circled the area.

The reported assault came hours before Arab foreign ministers gathered in Rabat, the Moroccan capital, to formalize a decision by the 22-member Arab League last weekend to suspend Syria, which said it would boycott Wednesday’s meeting.

The official Sana news agency in Damascus said the decision was taken in response to statements by Moroccan officials, who were quoted earlier as saying “Syrian colleagues” were welcome to attend the gathering.

Arab foreign ministers are to hold two sets of meetings in Rabat on Wednesday, one related to the Arab League, and the other grouping Arab states and Turkey, a central player in the growing crisis. Those moves were accompanied by signs that the opposition is gaining diplomatic ground.

On Tuesday, representatives of the Russian government and the Arab League met with political opponents of Mr. Assad, while Turkey, once a close ally of Syria, scrapped a plan to explore for oil in Syria and threatened to curtail electricity it sells to Damascus.

The developments came after what some activists portrayed as one of the bloodiest episodes in the eight-month uprising. Reports were conflicting, but one human rights group, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, based in Britain, said that more than 71 people were killed Monday, including 34 soldiers engaged in clashes with army defectors. If true, the deaths of the soldiers would constitute one of the highest tolls since defectors began carrying out attacks against government troops.

But unlike past episodes, when the Syrian government publicized the deaths of soldiers and security forces, official Syrian news outlets carried no reports about the clashes.

The Local Coordination Committees said it could not corroborate the Syrian Observatory’s account of the military casualties, though it also called Monday one of the uprising’s bloodier days, with at least 51 civilians killed. “We don’t have any confirmation of what they’re claiming,” said Omar Idlibi, a spokesman for the committees.

Reports of the violence emerged on Tuesday as the Syrian government announced that it had released 1,180 prisoners, in what appeared to be an effort to show flexibility and sincerity only hours before the Arab League foreign ministers were set to meet in Rabat. A terse official announcement of the prisoners’ release said only that the freed prisoners had been “involved in recent events” and had not committed murder.

Rights activists confirmed that the freed prisoners included Kamal Labwani, a prominent lawyer halfway through a 15-year sentence for having insulted Mr. Assad. Reuters quoted his daughter as saying that Mr. Labwani had no idea that Syria was in the throes of an upheaval, having been denied outside contact.

The uprising in Syria, one of the most strategically important countries in the Middle East, has become the latest focal point among the Arab revolts that have toppled autocrats in Egypt, Libya and Tunisia. Faced with Mr. Assad’s intransigence, the normally placid Arab League voted last weekend to suspend Syria from the group. On Monday King Abdullah II of Jordan called on him to step down. King Abdullah is the first leader from one of Syria’s Arab neighbors to go that far.

On Tuesday, officials of the Foreign Ministry of Russia, which has been one of Mr. Assad’s steadiest remaining allies, met with emissaries of the Syrian National Council, an opposition group. The group said that it failed to gain Russia’s support for anything more than a dialogue with Mr. Assad.

“We want to negotiate the steps of how to change the regime, and that’s not acceptable for the Russians,” said Sammir Nachar, a member of the council.

Nonetheless, activists said the meeting itself was a possible sign of Russia’s impatience with the direction of the Syrian conflict.

At the Cairo headquarters of the Arab League, the group held meetings with other representatives of the Syrian National Council and asked them to devise plans for a transition of power.

In Turkey, where the government’s relationship with Syria has been badly strained by Mr. Assad’s repression, officials said that plans for a Turkish oil company to explore for new deposits in Syria had been canceled, and that Turkish power lines into Syria might be severed. “Right now we are supplying electricity there,” the energy minister, Taner Yildiz, told reporters in Ankara, the capital. “If this course continues, we may have to review all of these decisions.”

While Turkey supplies only a small percentage of Syria’s power needs, the threats underscored how badly Syria’s relationship had deteriorated with Turkey, its top trading partner.

Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey, who has castigated Mr. Assad before, said Turkey no longer had confidence in the Syrian government. Mr. Erdogan said he hoped that Syria, “now on a knife edge, does not enter this road of no return, which leads to the edge of the abyss.”

Human rights groups calculated Monday’s death toll, raised from an initial report of 28, with the aid of telephone interviews and messages from witnesses in Syria, which has restricted foreign press coverage. The new figures make Monday the deadliest day in the country since Oct. 29, when 40 people were killed.

But the circumstances of the deaths remained unclear. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said defectors had clashed with soldiers in the southern province of Dara’a. It said 12 defectors, 24 people it identified as civilians and 34 government soldiers had been killed. The group called the confrontations the biggest since the uprising began in the same province.

Mr. Idlibi of the Local Coordination Committees said that 28 civilians had been killed in Dara’a, and that defections had taken place there. But the group had no details on the nature of the clashes.

The United Nations said this month that at least 3,500 people had been killed in Syria since the uprising started in March. The government disputes the death toll and has blamed armed groups for the unrest.


Egypt’s elections: don’t panic!

An opinion piece from Foreign Policy’s Marc Lynch:

Egypt’s first post-Mubarak elections are scheduled to begin in less than two weeks. It would be hard to exaggerate how badly the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) has prepared for these pivotal transitional elections. The election law is baffling and incoherent. Election preparations seem haphazard. The rules keep changing. People barely know what or who they are voting for. Some activists plan to boycott. Islamists seem poised to win big. The election is shaping up to be far messier and difficult than it needed to be.

And yet despite all of that, holding these elections is still the right move. For Egypt to make a transition to a more democratic, legitimate and accountable political order it has to actually start making that transition. And that means elections. And here, there are some all too rare good signs. There has been no backsliding on the SCAF’s commitment to hold these elections despite ample opportunity to postpone them, and there will even be international observers of a sort. On the other side, while some activists have decided to boycott the election they seem to be in the minority. And the Obama administration recognizes the importance of the election and is determined to do what it can to hold the SCAF to its commitments and to assist with the transition. Holding elections now still remains the best choice for Egypt. But everyone needs to prepare for the likely outcome to make sure that the vote actually does begin a real transition to a democratic Egypt rather than digging its early grave.

I remain broadly optimistic that Egypt, like Tunisia, will make its democratic transition despite all the turbulence. This is not because the SCAF has demonstrated any real commitment to democracy or the rule of law. It is because there is a broad and deep public consensus in support of democracy, and enough powerful competing forces to prevent any easy return to Mubarak-style authoritarian rule. It is also because the Obama administration at the highest levels is determined to help get Egypt right, and has been working hard — often behind the scenes — to push the SCAF in the correct direction.

It is also because the SCAF has proven to be politically incompetent. Even if they do hope to remain in power and are scheming to abort the revolution, they just aren’t very good at it. For all of their deep and justifiable frustrations, Egypt’s activists and the ornery, contentious Egyptian media and new political class have succeeded in making life miserable for the SCAF. The military hasn’t gotten comfortable in power. Nor has it been able to demonstrate that it holds the key to restoring public order or getting the economy back on track. Its efforts to impose its authority, with its continued resort to military courts and arrests of prominent activists and increasing censorship, have only made things more unstable. The violence against Copts last month, as well as the military clashes with protestors, left many people frightened. And this may be taking a toll. While public opinion surveys have consistently shown strong support for the SCAF, a new survey published last week shows their public approval dropping by twenty-five points in the last five months (from 86 percent to 61 percent).

There has been a lot of criticism of the decision to hold these elections now. But the other alternatives are all worse. The turbulence, chaos, abuses and violence of SCAF’s months in power have proven that their remaining in power does not guarantee stability, a steady hand, or economic revival.  If the SCAF had postponed elections further, as some had hoped, everyone would now be rightly complaining that this proved their intention of holding on to power. If the SCAF had opted to first draft the Constitution, everyone would now be complaining about the composition of the drafting committee and the content of leaked drafts while elections remained only on the distant horizon.

And that’s why it has always been so important that the elections go forward. That said, the election process in Egypt has been an inexcusable mess. The election law wasn’t announced until shortly before the election, and then amended again in the face of political uproar. This left little time for political parties to organize electoral strategies or coalitions. The law itself is nigh-incomprehensible, allocating two-thirds of the seats by lists and one-third to individual winners. Two weeks before the election, it is difficult to get even basic information about the parties, electoral coalitions, or candidates. That’s worrying.

What’s more, the rules keep changing, creating extreme uncertainty. The election law took forever to be released, and then changed. Right in the middle of the short election campaign, the SCAF dropped a controversial document of constitutional principles, which seemed to enshrine the military’s power in the emerging political order. It will probably back down on parts of it in the face of public pressure, including Friday’s threatened Islamist protest / campaign rally. But nobody really knows. Same thing for the presidential election, which will probably not really be postponed all the way to 2013, but nobody really knows. And then, of course, without a constitution nobody really knows what the Parliament will do. Ex-NDP candidates may or may not be banned. Egyptians abroad got the right to vote less than a month before the election. It’s obviously not good to have this kind of uncertainty about the basic rules in the midst of such a transition.

The other big source of incipient panic is the one thing upon which almost everyone now agrees: that the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party is likely to do well. There’s no great secret to the FJP’s likely success. After years of electoral participation, and with a large, disciplined organization and significant financial resources, the Muslim Brotherhood has a very effective campaign machine. It has been organizing in the field for many months, at a time when most of its competitors were not. It has been carefully selecting candidates, holding rallies, constructing a Get Out the Vote machine, hanging banners, and doing all the things which political parties which want to win votes are supposed to do. The FJP has many problems, and its efforts could still be short-circuited by a massive turnout which swamps its organizational advantages, but for now it is looking strong compared to its rivals.

It’s hard for anyone, even the MB and FJP’s leaders, to say exactly how well it will do in the election. When I spoke to a number of them in late September, they said that their goal of winning 30-40 percent of the seats remained unchanged. Tunisia-like numbers would represent something of a best-case scenario, forcing them to form coalitions rather than ruling alone. But their electoral strategy, they told me even then, was complicated by the confusion surrounding the election law, the rapidly shifting electoral coalitions, and the weak preparations by some of their chief rivals. It is all too plausible to see something like the 2006 Palestinian election unfold, where Fatah’s disorganization handed victory to Hamas (for example, multiple liberal candidates contesting the same seat handing a safe liberal seat to a unified Islamist vote). It now seems possible that the MB, alone or in coalition with other Islamists, could end up winning a Parliamentary majority. Even that would not be cause for panic, given the limits on Parliament’s power, but it would be far more difficult to navigate than an Islamist bloc under 40 percent.

With or without a majority, everyone needs to be prepared for Islamists to do well. It is almost impossible for there to be a free and fair Egyptian election in which Islamists do not win a sizable share of the vote. But even though it is expected, their success will likely prompt a media and political frenzy. This will be made even worse by the fact that Egypt’s election will extend over three rounds, rather than being completed in one day. This means that there will be long weeks for rumors of Islamist victories to circulate, for polarization and recriminations, and — worst of all — for calls for the army to step in and cancel elections as in Algeria in 1991.

To avoid such a catastrophic failure, everyone will need to avoid over-reaction. The Muslim Brotherhood will need to demonstrate a lot more political maturity  than it has shown in recent months. It will need to emulate Tunisia’s Rached al-Ghannouch, who has since al-Nahda’s big electoral victory done everything possible to reassure Tunisians and the West that his party will not impose Islamist rule on Tunisia. The Egyptian MB will need to do the same, and back those words with deeds by proving that it will not seek to dominate or to impose its agenda. I have heard a lot over the years from MB leaders about their true democratic convictions, their recognition of the fears they provoke in others and their desire to avoid repeating the Algerian or Palestinian experiences. This is their chance to prove it.

Egyptian secularists, leftists, liberals, and Christians will also need to show restraint, especially with regard to the temptation to call for the elections to be interrupted if they seem to be going badly. That doesn’t mean rolling over — those forces should absolutely continue to challenge and push the MB on their democratic commitments at every opportunity, and call them out when they don’t live up to them.

The U.S. and outside observers will also need to resist the tidal wave of recrimination and scare-mongering which is nearly certain to flood the media as the election unfolds. The Obama administration has tried to show that it will respect the outcome of democratic elections, and that it will be willing to work with Islamist parties which demonstrate respect for democratic rules, human rights, and non-violence. There has been a growing recognition that you can’t have a representative democracy which excludes a major political trend such as the Islamists, and that including Islamists in the political game is better than forcing them into the shadows. Most now see that lumping together the wide variety of often sharply competing Islamists into one vast Islamic menace is shoddy analytic bunk.

But that balance is going to be far harder to maintain in Egypt than it was after al-Nahda’s victory in Tunisia. The stakes are higher, the media glare hotter, and the Egyptian MB less forthcoming than their Tunisian counterparts. But doing so has never been more important. For years there was a bipartisan rhetorical consensus in the United States about supporting Arab democracy. This will be the most important test yet of that commitment to Arab democracy — for the administration, for Congress, for the media, and for the academic and policy communities.  Did they, and we, really mean it?

The best advice, as in most parts of the universe: don’t panic. The election isn’t going to be pretty, but it’s necessary.


Dozens killed in Syria as Jordan king tells Assad to go

BBC News reports:

In one incident, more than 30 troops were killed in clashes with suspected army defectors in a southern town near the Jordan border, activists say.

King Abdullah became the first Arab leader to openly urge Mr Assad to quit.

He told the BBC that if he were in Mr Assad’s position, he would start talks to ensure an orderly transition.

“I would step down and make sure whoever comes behind me has the ability to change the status quo that we’re seeing,” King Abdullah stated in an exclusive interview with BBC World News television.

He said: “If Bashar [al-Assad] has the interest of his country [at heart] he would step down, but he would also create an ability to reach out and start a new phase of Syrian political life.

King Abdullah added: “Whenever you exert violence on your own people, it is never going to end well.”

Angered by the king’s comments, about 100 Bashar supporters rallied outside the Jordanian embassy in Damascus late on Monday.

Three protesters scaled the embassy fence and took down the Jordanian flag, Jordanian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Kayed was quoted as saying by the Associated Press.

The spokesman added that no-one injured during the incident.

Many Arab leaders have condemned the crackdown on months of protests in Syria, and the Arab League voted on Saturday to suspend Syria’s membership.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Muallem has reacted defiantly to the Arab League’s move, saying it was illegal and vowed to overcome “conspiracies” against Damascus.

The UN says more than 3,500 people have died since the start of the protests in March. The Syrian authorities blame the violence on armed gangs and militants.

In the latest violence, 27 civilians were shot dead by security forces in the flashpoint southern province of Deraa on Monday, the UK-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said.

In the same area, 34 government soldiers died in clashes with suspected army defectors, the Observatory said. It added that 12 deserters were also killed.

Another four civilians were killed in the central city of Homs, activists said.

Such claims are impossible to verify as the Syrian government has severely restricted access for foreign journalists.

Military observers

Many Western powers have urged President Assad to stand down. Both the EU and the US have said he has lost legitimacy but have ruled out military intervention.

It added 18 Syrian officials to a list of people affected by a travel ban and asset freeze. This brings to 74 the number of President Assad’s inner circle who have been blacklisted.

The EU also approved the freezing of loans to Syria from the European Investment Bank.

French Foreign Minister Alain Juppe said he hoped the UN would finally impose its own sanctions on Syria.

Russia and China last month vetoed a Western-sponsored UN Security Council resolution condemning Damascus.

The US welcomed the moves by the Arab League and the EU.

The Arab League is set to hold another meeting to discuss Syria on Wednesday.

The league has already proposed sending a mission of 500 human rights and military observers, and also journalists to monitor the situation on the ground in Syria.


Qaddafi’s Ex-Prime Minister Ordered Extradited to Libya

The New York Times reports:

A Tunisian appeals court on Tuesday approved the extradition of Libya’s former prime minister, making him the first escaped member of Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi’s felled government to be ordered returned home into Libyan custody since the revolution that officially ended last month.

The former prime minister, Al-Baghdadi Ali al-Mahmoudi, was arrested by the Tunisian border police on Sept. 22 and sentenced to six months in a Tunisian prison for entering the country illegally. The sentence was overturned, but the Tunisian authorities held him pending the outcome of an extradition request by Libya’s post-Qaddafi government.

Despite a plea for a postponement by Mr. Mahmoudi’s defense lawyers, the appeals court ordered the extradition, according to TAP, the official Tunisia news agency.

It did not specify precisely when Mr. Mahmoudi would be returned to Libya.

The extradition order came despite concerns by rights groups and foreign governments, including those that aided the former rebels who toppled Colonel Qaddafi, about extrajudicial killings and mistreatment of Qaddafi loyalists by vindictive militia members who had battled them in the eight-month revolution.

Those concerns intensified when Colonel Qaddafi, one of his sons and a former intelligence minister were killed while in the custody of militias that besieged the former leader’s last redoubt of resistance, in his hometown, Surt, on Oct. 20.

Amnesty International had sent a letter to the Tunisian government urging it not to extradite Mr. Mahmoudi. James Lynch, the group’s spokesman for North Africa, was quoted by Agence France-Presse as saying it feared that Mr. Mahmoudi would “face real risks, serious human rights violations, including torture, extrajudicial execution and unfair trial.”

The Transitional National Council, the interim government in Libya, has promised that any former members of Colonel Qaddafi’s government accused of wrongdoing would be tried fairly. The council has also pledged to prosecute the killers of Colonel Qaddafi, although few Libyans expect that they will be arrested or punished.

There has been no word for more than a week on the whereabouts of Colonel Qaddafi’s remaining son-at-large, Seif al-Islam el-Qaddafi, who is believed to be hiding with sympathetic Tuareg tribesmen in Mali or Niger.

Luis Moreno-Ocampo, chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Court, which has issued a warrant for Mr. Qaddafi over suspected abuses of civilians committed during the Libyan revolution, said on Oct. 28 that he had been in indirect contact with Mr. Qaddafi about a possible surrender.


Arab Spring Spawns Interest in Improving Quality of Higher Education

The New York Times reports:

DOHA, Qatar — Recent upheavals in the Middle East and North Africa can be traced largely to the region’s youth — millions of young people facing widespread unemployment and seeing a dearth of opportunities ahead of them.

Now, academics are seeking to focus on the role that higher education can play to address their concerns, and the crucial steps that officials need to take to achieve this, like engaging with institutions outside the region, standardizing curriculums and finding alternative sources of financing.

“It is likely that the Arab Spring will certainly affect the governance system of higher education, probably in the direction of more independence, participation and partnerships,” said Rajika Bhandari, deputy vice president of research and evaluation at the Institute of International Education.

The institute presented its new report on the region, “Classifying Higher Education Institutions in the Middle East and North Africa: A Pilot Study,” at the World Innovation Summit for Education in Doha, Qatar, which completed its third annual conference last week.

The WISE conference, as it is known, is an international initiative financed by the Qatar Foundation, a government-funded nonprofit organization for education, science and community development. This year, the forum brought together 1,200 academic leaders and policy makers for three days of discussions on educational reform.

The study, which lasted two years, includes research on 300 higher education institutions in Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Issued in conjunction with the Lebanese Association for Educational Studies and with support from the Carnegie Corporation, the report was released at the summit meeting, its authors say, to underscore that countries in the region are trying to raise their educational profiles. “Many higher education systems in the region are still in transition phase — leaving old systems and coming to new systems,” said Adnan El Amine, co-author of the report, and founder of Lebanese Association for Education Studies. “Over all, Arab institutions’ involvement at the international level is relatively low.”

Part of that can be traced to the varying academic models used in the region — either an American model, a French model, or some combination.

Complicating the situation is the recent expansion of private universities. The private sector made up only 10 percent of universities in 1998, but by 2008 it accounted for more than half of all institutions in the region. The report found significant variation across countries: in some, the share of private universities exceeds 80 percent; elsewhere it is less than 20 percent.

“There is no standardized framework for understanding the region’s institutions,” Ms. Bhandari said. “Having more comparable information like this will lead to a deeper understanding of the wide range of institutions in the Arab world and how they must be financed and supported.”

This is particularly tricky in Egypt, where education funding, which largely came from the government, had to rely more heavily on charitable foundations and private funding this year.

“It’s a difficult transition time and even though funds are available, the terrain in Egypt is not clear to anyone, which creates uncertainty,” said Shahinaz Ahmed, chief executive of the Egypt arm of the nonprofit Education for Employment Foundation. “It took us six months to get back on track and raise funds again, but donors realize that education is a long-term investment that ultimately has high return on investment.”

While analysts say that financing for education should come from governments in the long run, they add that more options must be examined.

“There need to be new ideas in financing, new partnerships created, new ways to look at the old means of financing education,” Carol Bellamy, chairwoman of the Global Partnership for Education. “For too long, the education sector has been allergic to engaging with the private sector, but now we’re seeing more private-sector participation.”

The report also examined the issue of accrediting an expanding number of institutions, and the challenge it poses to mobility for students from Arab countries; the number of universities active in the Arab region rose to 467 in 2009, compared with just 174 a decade ago.

“Quantitative growth of higher education in the past decade has, in many cases, taken place at the expense of quality,” said Mr. El Amine. “Nonetheless, some important steps are being taken to address these challenges and aim for international standards.”

During the WISE conference, the issue of ensuring quality of education, and its link to employing young people, was at the forefront of discussions. “We cannot afford to produce graduates who don’t fit the needs of the market anymore,” said Sheika Mozah bint Nasser, chairwoman of the Qatar Foundation. “We have to have an education system that prepares them for jobs and builds critical thinking in a dynamic environment.”


Libya elects new interim prime minister

Video from Al-Jazeera:


Syria and Arab League Reach Consensus

Reported by CNN:

Syria and the Arab League have reached an agreement on a plan aimed at finding a solution to the months-long unrest in the country, state media reported Tuesday.

An official announcement will take place Wednesday at the Arab League’s headquarters in Cairo, according to Syrian state television and the Syrian Arab News Agency (SANA).

The Arab League has called on Syria’s government to end all violence against citizens, remove tanks and military vehicles from the streets of the country and release political prisoners, an official with the Arab organization said Monday.

The Arab countries made the proposal to Syria’s foreign minister, Walid al-Moallem, on Sunday in a meeting in Doha, Qatar. The Arab League also proposed a dialogue between Syrian officials and opposition members in Cairo starting Wednesday.

The proposals included a time frame for compliance, the Arab League official said.

The Syrian delegation left Qatar without responding to the Arab League letter, according to the Qatari national news agency.

More than 3,000 people have died in Syria since unrest broke out in mid-March, according to the United Nations. CNN cannot independently confirm individual accounts of violence because Syria’s government restricts the activity of journalists.

In early October, China and Russia teamed up to veto a U.N. Security Council resolution that would have condemned the Syrian response to the protests and called for an immediate end to the government clampdown on the opposition.

Meanwhile, Syrians aiming to write a new constitution for the strife-torn country met Monday for the first time, according to state news reports.

President Bashar al-Assad last month announced the formation of a committee to draft a new constitution within four months, SANA reported at the time. The October 15 announcement was one of several moves the government has made to defuse protests, but they have not calmed the situation within the country.