The past two weeks in the Middle East have seen a tectonic and dramatic set of events that have quickly reshaped the region in unforeseen ways, and The Globe and Mail’s Patrick Martin and Omar El Akkad bore witness to their significance: the rockets that terrorized Israel, the assassination of a major Hamas leader, the Israeli bombs dropped on Gaza and a ceasefire improbably brokered by Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood leader. Who soon turned around and granted himself sweeping powers and neutralized the judiciary. Add to all that a United Nations vote this week to upgrade Palestine’s international status (much to the consternation of Canada). Now even the experts are working hard to make sense of the Middle East. To get a grip on a region in turmoil, editor Susan Sachs talks with Globe and Mail correspondents Patrick Martin, live from Jerusalem, and Omar El Akkad, currently on assignment in Cairo.
What’s surprised you two the most watching all this unfold?
OE: I was at Tahrir Square the other day with about 200,000 other people during a protest against Mr. Morsi, and I was surprised at how many of them did not look like hard-core revolutionaries. I saw families with young children and a sort of carnival atmosphere. Egyptians are no longer scared, and that is very significant. So, whether the Muslim Brotherhood succeeds in getting the country on side, it now has to deal with a population no longer afraid of saying what it thinks.
PM: On this side, I’d say the people of Israel are discovering fear once again. There was a real shock that rockets could reach Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Israel will say it won, but the Israelis are scrambling. I’m surprised that they weren’t ready for this possibility and you have a rapid move to the right among the nationalist settler forces. There is an opportunity here for a strong centrist candidate to maybe capture the strength of the country going forward.
And in Palestine?
PM: There was an enthusiastic crowd in Ramallah late Thursday night when the UN vote was conducted – so there’s a sense of joy. But it’s modest. There wasn’t that big a crowd - maybe 4,000 tops - and come morning, a lot of people weren’t sure what it really meant.
OE: During a debate at Egypt’s constitutional assembly on Thursday, the chair paused the proceedings to announce the successful Palestinian UN bid. Most of the assembly politely applauded, but one Islamist stood up and angrily declared that the news was meaningless, since Palestinians didn’t need any outside party validating what they already knew. For many Egyptians, anything short of a total Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territory isn’t worth cheering.
PM: Actually, what’s really captured attention here is Canada’s strident opposition to the UN bid. Palestinian leaders don’t like being dealt with as if some kind of errant school child, and the PLO’s point man on peace negotiations says life for Canada in this region will become difficult.
Meanwhile, the Muslim Brotherhood seems to have split Egypt in a way that it seems very difficult to mend.
OE: It’s deeply polarized, and there’s anger on the streets. There’s Mr. Morsi and his allies - and everyone else. The central tension, of course, are the decrees he issued last week - which essentially give him unchecked powers until a new constitution is drawn up.
Remember: Mr. Morsi won with only 51.7 per cent of the vote. And a lot of people who voted for him were really voting against Ahmed Shafiq, who had strong ties to the Mubarak regime. Before last week’s decrees, there was actually a lot of common ground: getting rid of Mubarak loyalists, establishing social justice.
But Mr. Morsi has now convinced a lot of his opponents that he’s really interested in securing unchecked power. Now, I’m constantly surprised by the number of people who absolutely despise the old regime - and yet fully believe things were better under it.
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