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NightWatch 20110208


For the Night of 8 February 2011

South Korea-North Korea: Update. Little progress was made during the 8 February preliminary working-level military talks between North and South Korea, a South Korean defense spokesman said. Military officers from both sides met for more than nine hours at the border village of Panmunjom.

During this Watch, a second day of preliminary talks began. The South's spokesman said the atmosphere was "good.".

South Korea also informed North Korea that the Seoul government agreed in principle to Pyongyang's proposal to resume Red Cross talks about humanitarian issues.

Comment: The preliminary talks are aimed at setting the date, location and agenda for higher-level talks, possibly between each state's Defense Ministers. The North wants talks as early as next week, but the South wants to proceed at a more deliberate pace. The resumption of Red Cross talks might be linked to progress in the defense talks.

China-Iran: China has signed a contract with Iran's Construction and Development of Transportation Infrastructure Company to build a $13 billion, 5,300 kilometer (3,293 mile) railway network in Iran, Agence France-Presse reported on 8 February. The transportation company said the deal was signed when a Chinese delegation visited Tehran, though it did not specify when the delegation was actually there.

Comment: The Chinese are building railroads in Asia like the Romans built roads and apparently for economically similar reasons.

Afghanistan: The United States is seeking to establish permanent bases in Afghanistan to target al Qaeda and the Taliban in the region, Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced during a press conference on 8 February. Afghanistan and the United States are still negotiating the legal and strategic features of the agreement, Karzai said, adding he believes a long-term relationship with the United States is in the interest of Afghanistan. Any long-term partnership will need approval by the parliament and Loya Jirga and U.S. bases would not be used against other countries. Afghanistan is not a place from where our neighbors could be threatened, Karzai said.

Comment: Karzai's public statements such as this always have seem to be double-edged. This statement looks calculated to elicit reaction. More later.

Lebanon: Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati soon will complete his cabinet, which will include Hezbollah representatives, centrists and technocrats but exclude the pro-West camp, an unnamed official close to Mikati said. The cabinet will likely include 24 to 30 ministers, the official said. Mikati has not changed his response to former Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri's camp, and the prime minister-designate cannot commit to either side because then he would no longer be a centrist, the official said.

Comment: The pro-West camp is resisting co-option by the majority and does not want to be associated with the policy initiatives of a pro-Hezbollah government. But this is Lebanon where party alignments are impermanent and can change quickly, at least for now.

Nevertheless, a pro-Hezbollah government in Beirut will inaugurate a new era in Lebanese policy. It is the crowing success of Hezbollah's program of repackaging itself as a responsible political force in Lebanon and camouflage its history as an international terrorist organization. Hassan Nazrallah may have to write an instruction booklet for other Islamist movements on peaceful hostile takeovers by democratic means.

Palestinian Authority: The Palestinian Authority set local council elections for 9 July in both the West Bank and Gaza Strip, Palestinian Authority spokesman Ghassan Khatib said. Khatib said if militant group Hamas did not allow vote preparations in Gaza, balloting would be held only in the West Bank. Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhoum said the West Bank government had no right to call these elections, adding Hamas would not participate in any vote, even in the West Bank, until the two governments were reconciled.

The Islamic Jihad movement also objected to local elections in the Palestinian Authority, stating that July elections will deepen the rift between factions.

Comment: The fractiousness of the Palestinians remains an asset in Israel's strategic stability. Hamas and Islamic Jihad apparently judge the elections will not be fair to them, meaning they will not be able to use them to expand their influence.

Egypt: Update. Vice President Suleiman briefed President Hosni Mubarak on the national dialogue meetings, 1 TV reported 8 February.

Mubarak underlined the importance of continuing the process and signed a republican decree to form a constitutional committee responsible for implementing the required amendments to the constitution and ad hoc legislative amendments, Suleiman said. He gave directives to the prime minster to form a follow-up committee responsible for monitoring the implementation of agreements reached by the parties at the national dialogue.

A third fact-finding committee will be formed to investigate the clashes between pro- and anti-Mubarak protesters whose findings will be referred to the prosecutor-general, Suleiman said. The national dialogue will continue and Suleiman will brief Mubarak on reports from the follow-up and constitutional committees in operation from Feb. 8 and from the fact-finding committee upon its formation.

Comment: This seems to be part of the media program to depict Mubarak as no longer involved in the day-to-day running of the government, i.e., that the leadership transition in the exercise of power is in progress. He remains the ultimate authority for approvals.

Security. Tens of thousands of demonstrators on 8 February rallied in front of the Al Qaed Ibrahim Mosque in Alexandria, Egypt, demanding that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak step down, Al Jazeera reported. This is the only report of this information. Demonstrations also occurred in Tahrir Square in Cairo. Both were peaceful

Special Comment: Good news and bad news. The good news, arguably, is that the US has eased its pressure for immediate change in Egypt. The White House spokesman acknowledged the change, explaining that  free and fair elections would be nearly impossible to arrange in 60 days without causing instability, should Mubarak resign.

The other element of good news, again arguably, is that Vice President General Suleiman is obviously in charge of daily government operations, supported by Prime Minister Shafiq,. Both are deflecting attention from Mubarak to some extent. It is always politically useful for a subordinate to act as a body shield. It is an old bureaucratic technique.

Beyond protecting the boss, the two have had some success in stabilizing the security situation and their efforts seem to have created a bit of a lull in the confrontation. Both men are retired military officers. Shafiq is a a hero pilot of the Yom Kippur war when Mubarak was the head of the air force.

The bad news is that Suleiman has never been a friend of liberal republican democracy or opposition groups. As the Los Angeles Times analysis pointed out, Suleiman has been a bulwark against Islamic extremism. The two men are the public face of the Egyptian armed forces. That means there will be more and probably more violent demonstrations, if a revolution is taking place. If not, the armed forces-backed political system will make course corrections and survive.

The other bad news is that NightWatch reviewed the recent events in Egypt in the past two months and found the Muslim Brotherhood committed the first overt act. To refresh memories, on 19 January the Brotherhood delivered five demands to the Egyptian government that it had to meet in order to avert a crisis. The Day of Rage came six days later.

On 19 January the Brotherhood spokesman, Muhammad Mursi, said the group wants Cairo to revoke the state of emergency; dissolve the People's Assembly and hold free and fair elections; amend the constitutional articles that led to vote rigging in Egypt's last elections, hold presidential elections according to those amendments; and fire the current government and form a national unity government responsive to the Egyptian people's demands.

The Brotherhood warned the government. Few news outlets reported the ultimatum, but the Mubarak government took it seriously enough to make preparations for a crisis. The preparations proved inadequate. The timing suggests the Brotherhood has been the organizing force behind the demonstrations, but was unable to maintain control. Its leaders at least knew ahead of time that something significant was about to happen a week ahead.

The bad news in the five demands is their virtual identity with political changes the US supports. All of them have been mentioned by senior US officials in the past two weeks. US interests and Brotherhood interests have no basis for convergence. If the Brotherhood wants free and fair elections, it expects to benefit from them.

The demands of the Brotherhood and the success of Hezbollah in Lebanon suggest some Islamist groups are repackaging themselves as democrats to come to power or increase their public freedom of action.  Paraphrasing a recent statement by Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, democracy is a way station on the path to other goals.

End of NightWatch for 8 February.

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