Arab League imposes sanctions on Syria; Egypt starts elections amid violence

Updated On: Nov 28, 2011

The Arab League has approved economic sanctions on Syria, aimed at forcing Damascus to halt an eight-month crackdown on protests against President Bashar al-Assad.

Elsewhere in the region, Egypt has begun its first elections since the revolts that kicked off the Arab Spring, voting for a new lower house of parliament. But recent unrest in Egypt has cast a shadow over the polls. 

Arab League Sanctions on Syria

Hundreds of people, including civilians, soldiers and army deserters, have been killed in Syria this month, in the bloodiest period since unrest broke out in March. The United Nations estimates about 3,500 people have died in Syria thus far.

UPDATE: According to a new report by a UN Human Rights Council panel, Syrian forces have committed "crimes against humanity", including killing and torturing hundreds of children. At least 256 children were among the victims killed by government forces between mid-March and early November.

The new Arab League sanctions against Syria include an asset freeze and an embargo on investments, cutting off transactions with the Syrian central bank and halting funding by other Arab governments for projects in Syria. Senior Syrian officials have also been banned from travelling to other Arab countries.

Qatari Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani gave details of the sanctions at a news conference in Cairo on Sunday.

"The indications are not positive ... the sanctions are still economic but if there is no movement on the part of Syria then we have a responsibility as human beings to stop the killings," Sheikh Hamad told reporters.

"Power is not worth anything when a ruler kills his people."

Sheikh Hamad said Arab nations wanted to avoid a repeat of what happened in Libya, where a UN Security Council resolution led to NATO air strikes. He warned other Arab states that the West could intervene in Syria if it felt the League was not "serious."

"All the work that we are doing is to avoid this interference," he said.

Arab League foreign ministers adopted the unprecedented sanctions at a meeting in Cairo by a vote of 19 to three, after Syria refused to allow monitors into the country to assess the situation.

The Arab League previously suspended Syria earlier this month.

Syria has denounced the Arab League as meddling in its internal affairs and trying to internationalise the conflict. It condemned the sanctions as a betrayal by its neighbours.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem called the Arab League action “a declaration of economic war” and said Syria had withdrawn 95 percent of its assets in Arab countries.

The Arab League is a regional organisation of 22 countries in Africa and the Middle East. Syria was one of the founding members when the group was created in 1945.

Report: Syria unrest: Arab League adopts sanctions in Cairo [BBC, 27 Nov 2011]

Report: Arab states cut commercial ties with Syria [Reuters, 28 Nov 2011]

Report: UN: Syrian forces killed and tortured hundreds of children; regime warns of ‘economic war’ [Washington Post, 29 Nov 2011]

Impact of Sanctions

The sanctions have been hailed as a huge step, as the Arab League's strong condemnation removes the shield of Arab solidarity from the Syrian regime, which could make it easier for the international community to intervene.

Traditionally, the Arab League has avoided action against its members. But in recent months it has been galvanised by pressure from Gulf Arabs angered by Syria's alliance with regional rival Iran, by the political changes brought about by Arab uprisings, and by the scale of the Syrian bloodshed.

The Arab League's sanctions fall short of a full trade embargo on Syria, but ministers have made clear they are seeking to avoid measures which would hurt ordinary Syrians.

However, the sanctions are still expected to hit Syria hard. Syria's economy is already under siege, expected to contract up to 6 percent this year. The unrest has halted tourism, hit foreign investment, and has started eating into the country's foreign reserves.

European Union sanctions on Syrian crude oil, announced in September, have all but wiped out the country's oil exports, previously worth up to $400 million a month.

However, unease among Syria's neighbours about the impact of sanctions on their own economies may weaken the impact. Iraq, Lebanon and Algeria did not vote in favour of the sanctions.

Ahead of the Arab League meeting, Iraq hinted it might not impose sanctions against Syria. Lebanon has also expressed reservations, though last week Prime Minister Najib Mikati said his government would abide by Arab League decisions.

Analysis: Syria's neighbors may soften sanctions blow [Reuters, 27 Nov 2011]

Egypt Begins Elections Amid Violence

Egyptians have begun voting to elect a new lower house of parliament, with upper house and presidential elections scheduled for 2012. But violence has erupted in Egypt ahead of the polls.

Security forces have clashed with protesters, with more than 40 people killed and some 2,000 wounded in the last week. The demonstrations have been the worst violence in the country since the fall of former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

Egypt's armed forces are overseeing the transition to democratic rule, but protesters fear the military is attempting to retain power. Mass demonstrations have been calling for military rule to end before parliamentary elections.

Egypt's military chief Field Marshall Hussein Tantawi says he will not let "troublemakers" meddle in Monday's vote.

"We are at a crossroads. There are only two routes, the success of elections leading Egypt towards safety or facing dangerous hurdles that we in the armed forces, as part of the Egyptian people, will not allow," he said, in comments reported by the state-owned Al-Ahram newspaper.

He also urged top presidential candidates Mohammed ElBaradei and Amr Moussa to back the military's choice for Prime Minister, Kamal Ganzouri.

Field Marshal Tantawi said the army would ensure security at the polling booths and reiterated that the vote would go ahead on schedule.

Three separate polls will be held in Egypt over the coming months. The current elections for the lower house of parliament will last until 10 January 2012. Voting for the upper house will run from 29 January to 11 March. Presidential elections are subsequently expected in mid-2012.

UPDATE: Large numbers of Egyptians turned out to vote in Monday's polls. Voting was extended to cope with the high turnout and few security problems were reported. But protesters occupying Cairo's Tahrir Square have boycotted the vote.

Three separate polls will be held in Egypt over the coming months. The current elections for the lower house of parliament will last until 10 January 2012. Voting for the upper house will run from 29 January to 11 March. Presidential elections are subsequently expected in mid-2012.

Report: Egypt military chief Tantawi warns over elections [BBC, 27 Nov 2011]

Report: Egypt election: Long queues in first post-Mubarak vote [BBC, 28 Nov 2011]

Egyptian Parties

Adding to the confusion for voters is the presence of politicians from the former ruling National Democratic Party (NDP), now dissolved, who are running on new platforms.

One-third of seats in the upper and lower houses of parliament will be filled using a first-past-the-post system that favours candidates with strong local ties, which includes many former NDP members.

Candidates affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood, the largest opposition group during the Mubarak era, are also expected to do well. Since Egyptian law forbids overtly religious parties from running, candidates from the Muslim Brotherhood are running as members of the Freedom and Justice Party, which is not officially a religious party. Other Islamist groups have similarly adopted secular platforms.

But the country's Islamist parties did not play a major part in the earliest days of the protests that ousted President Mubarak. Ahead of the polls, many have called for the postponement of voting and reform of the electoral process, amid concerns that Muslim Brotherhood and former NDP members will have an unfair advantage in the ballot.

Analysis: Egypt Election 2011: Facts and Figures for Parliamentary Vote [Bloomberg, 27 Nov 2011]

The expected prominence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is a matter of concern for some observers. In the West, this phenomenon has led to a debate about the "problem" of the rise of political Islam. In the Arab world, too, there has been mounting tension between Islamists and secularists, who feel anxious about Islamic groups.

Islamic leadership has been a recent trend in elections following the Arab Spring. Last month, Ennahda, the Islamic party in Tunisia, won 41% of the seats of the Tunisian constitutional assembly. Similarly, on Friday the Islamic Justice and Development Party took the biggest share of the vote in Morocco and will lead the new coalition government for the first time in history.

But according to a commentary published by The Guardian newspaper, the world need not fear the rise of Islamic parties - many of these movements are genuinely committed to reform after suffering for years under dictatorial regimes, and realise the value of close ties with other countries.

Analysis: Those who support democracy must welcome the rise of political Islam [The Guardian, 27 Nov 2011]

Ahead of the polls, the Secretary General of Egypt's Freedom and Justice Party, Mohamed Saad Katatni, said that while his new party shares goals with the Muslim Brotherhood movement, it is an independent entity with its own governance. He said his group is not a religious party, and seeks modern democratic government for Egypt.

Video: Talk to Al Jazeera - Mohamed Saad Katatni: 'Not a religious party' [Al Jazeera (YouTube Channel), 27 Nov 2011]

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