May 21 - June 3
Hello, and welcome to the dispatch for May 21st through June 3rd!
I apologize for my absence again last week. I spent the weekend hauling furniture from San Francisco out to Berkeley, and by Sunday evening I frankly didn’t have the strength left to lift the lid on my laptop. We’re mostly settled in to our new place here amid the fresh air and greenery, so I should be able to get back on a consistent schedule now.
Elections: Egypt held its first round of presidential polls on May 25. The top two candidates, who will face each other in runoff elections later this month, were Mohamed Morsi, of the Muslim Brotherhood, and Ahmed Shafik, the prime minister under Hosni Mubarak. The success of Shafik, seen to represent the old regime, has sparked particular anger: demonstrators gathered in the streets outside his offices after the results were announced, and the offices were set on fire sometime that evening.
NightWatch declared the elections a fraud immediately, an analysis with some merit. There are at least three alternative narratives: First, many Egyptians are tired of the uncertainty and chaos that have plagued Egypt since the revolution, and may be concerned to cede too much to the Islamists. Second, while those who support the Muslim Brotherhood and those who support the Army had one candidate each, the liberal/secular/moderate vote was split between three candidates — the sum of the votes for the three runners up exceeds that of either Morsi or Shafik. Third, the Muslim Brotherhood and the Army are the two best-organized actors in the country right now, so it’s not surprising their candidates managed to get the most voters out.
Whatever the cause, the results aren’t great. Neither the Army nor the Muslim Brotherhood are particularly popular in Egypt right now, and a victory by either group would concentrate a lot of power in the country into one set of hands. A victory by Shafik in particular would almost certainly put people out into the streets again - and with good cause, too: a win by Shafik is almost unthinkable absent manipulation by the Army.
Mubarak Verdict: Former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was sentenced to 50 years in prison for his role in the deaths of more than 800 protestors last year. His interior minister was also convicted, though six police commanders and his sons were acquitted. The broad acquittals were met with anger by Egyptians, who took to the streets in protest.
The case has been extremely poorly handled by the prosecutors - neither the charges brought against Mubarak nor the evidence was as strong as it could have been - but Mubarak’s conviction was a foregone conclusion from the start. Both the many, many crimes the man committed in office and the consequences of an acquittal for Egyptian stability meant a life sentence at the least. Still, much of Egypt would have preferred to see him hang, and the acquittal of most of the police commanders has caused protests in the streets again.
Egypt is in a very fragile place right now: between the poor outcome of the presidential elections and the half-hearted prosecution of Mubarak, an awful lot of Egyptians are starting to protest again. The outcome of the runoff elections on the 16th & 17th of this month - and their perceived fairness - could have serious consequences for stability in the country.
Lebanon: The Syrian conflict is increasingly bleeding across the border to Lebanon, with skirmishes breaking out between Sunni and Alawite militias in Tripoli.
So far the Lebanese army and various political leaders have been able to keep a lid on the conflicts, but Lebanon is a country with a long history of civil wars, strife, and armed militias. With strong Shia groups (including Hezbollah) and Sunni groups present, a protracted Syrian civil war could easily spill over into Lebanon.
Houla: On May 25th, a combination of Army artillery and armed militiamen killed more than 108 villagers in Houla. The Syrian government has denied responsibility for the massacre](http://www.nytimes.com/2012/06/04/world/middleeast/assad-condemns-houla-massacre-blaming-outside-terrorists.html?pagewanted=all), while residents have pointed the finger at the Shabiha, pro-government militias who have played a strong role in the government’s crackdown on protestors.
Unfortunately, the situation in Syria hasn’t improved in any way that makes any sort of intervention more palatable — which is why the West, for all its talk, is still sitting on its hands. The Free Syrian Army is still not strong enough or cohesive enough to stand up to the government’s troops, the opposition still isn’t coherent enough to form a legitimate government, there’s a huge threat of sectarian violence if the government does fall, and there’s increasing evidence of links to al-Qaeda and other extremist groups among the Syrian opposition (whether the opposition wants them there or not). There’s nothing that looks like a viable military solution that doesn’t end in a decade of occupation.
The only thing that looks like a potential viable solution is getting Assad to stand down and trying to form a unity government, and right now Assad still has too much support for that. Both the Russians and the Iranians are supporting the regime, and China is staying uninvolved, which is making pressuring the regime next to impossible.
Additional Reads: Two further reads on Syria for the week.
The first is a piece from the New York Times on opposition to Syrian intervention by the Russian Orthodox Church, a strong political force in Russia. Syrian christians have strong ties to the Russian Orthodoxy, and the church fears that an avowed Islamist government in Syria would lead to persecution of the country’s christians - Assad, for all his flaws, has generally let the christian minority be.
The second was published by the Guardian, and talks about the origins of the Shabiha. The author is a Syrian journalist, and he does state that some of the claims about the Shabiha cannot be verified. Nevertheless, it’s a good read, and an interesting look at the “Ghosts of Syria.”
The second round of talks over Iran’s nuclear program ended with no deal, but an agreement to meet again in Moscow on June 18th. Both sides described the talks as productive, and both expressed optimism that a deal could be reached.
The sticking point appears to be whether or not Iran can continue to enrich its own nuclear fuel. Iran insists it has a right to do so, while the six nations involved in the talks are unwilling to accede that point. Nevertheless, the talks seem to be proceeding, which is a good sign.
The next round of talks are the last before the Eurozone embargo kicks in on July 1st - Iran will be keen to reach a deal by then, but they’re not going to accept any deal that doesn’t include some immediate easing of the sanctions, and they’re not going to accept a deal that forces them to give up their civilian nuclear programs. There’s definitely room for negotiation, but it’s got to be legitimate negotiations - the international community isn’t going to get all of its demands, and it isn’t going to get anything without giving Tehran something in return.
I’m thrilled to see private space flight start to take off. I’m a huge fan of space exploration, but it’s extremely unlikely NASA’s budget will be restored anytime soon. It’s great to see space flight moving beyond the sole province of governments and to see the private sector start to get interested in space.
This is shaping up to be a busy month. Aside from elections in Egypt and another round of negotiations with Iran that are starting to want for deliverables, the situation in the Eurozone is starting to intensify too: Spain intends to try to sell a round of bonds this month, the success or failure of which could have serious consequences for the EU; and the Greeks go back to the polls on the 17th. Stay tuned - it’s going to be interesting.
Thanks for joining me, and my best for the week ahead!