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Syrian regime supporters paint the national flags on their faces as they shout slogans during a demonstration to show their support for President Bashar Assad in Damascus, Syria, on Wednesday Oct. 12, 2011. (Bassem Tellawi/AP)
Syrian regime supporters paint the national flags on their faces as they shout slogans during a demonstration to show their support for President Bashar Assad in Damascus, Syria, on Wednesday Oct. 12, 2011. (Bassem Tellawi/AP)

MIDDLE EAST

Three events propelled by the Arab Spring Add to ...

The so-called Arab Spring is bearing fruit, some of it bitter, some of it unexpected. Events this week show just how far the seeds have spread.

HAMAS-ISRAEL PRISONER SWAP

The surprise announcement this week that Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit would be freed after more than five years of captivity in Gaza was a product of the region’s revolutions.

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As Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saw things, events were swirling around the Arab world so quickly that he couldn’t be sure there would be another opportunity to make an exchange for Sergeant Shalit. For Hamas, the urgency in concluding a deal was the popular uprising in Syria and the Hamas leadership’s preference to locate in Egypt.

For almost 2,000 days, there had been repeated attempts by mediators and secret contacts to help Israel and Hamas, the militant Islamic resistance group that holds Sgt. Shalit, agree on some kind of deal for the release of the Israeli – to no avail.

Israel, in particular, it seems, balked at concluding an agreement with an organization that had carried out terrorist attacks on the Jewish state.

That changed in April, however, when Mr. Netanyahu appointed a new representative, a senior Mossad official named David Meidan and, for the first time, issued the clear instruction to conclude a deal.

That deal would ultimately involve the release of 1,027 Palestinians serving prison sentences for attacks on Israelis in exchange for Sgt. Shalit.

Mr. Netanyahu’s shift in position would break the logjam in negotiations. Those negotiations had started three days after the abduction of Sgt. Shalit in June of 2006, when a mid-level Hamas figure contacted Gershon Baskin, co-chairman of the Israel/Palestine Centre for Research and Information, a Jerusalem-based group advocating peaceful co-existence. The overture to establish a link between the two sides would eventually put Mr. Baskin in regular contact with a senior Hamas figure, Ghazi Hamad, now deputy minister of foreign affairs in Gaza.

For five years Mr. Baskin and Mr. Hamad kept the lines of communication open, despite being rebuffed by previous Israeli officials. Hamas had assured the Israeli peace activist that “when Israel makes it clear it is serious about completing a deal, Hamas will be ready to negotiate,” Mr. Baskin told The Globe and Mail.

Israel’s new negotiator checked out Mr. Baskin and was impressed by the seniority of his Hamas contact. A series of communications went back and forth culminating in a one-page Arabic document faxed to Mr. Baskin on July 14, making it clear to the Israeli negotiators that Hamas was ready to deal.

Like the Israeli government, Hamas, too, was propelled by regional events and made considerable concessions in the final terms of the prisoner-exchange agreement it reached with Israel (in matters of which “high-value” prisoners would be released and in how many would be expelled to other countries).

The group appreciated having a base in Damascus provided by the Assad regime, but its sympathies were with the protesters, especially the Muslim Brotherhood that has a leading role. As long as Hosni Mubarak was president of Egypt, the group was not welcome to base itself in Cairo; such was the president’s concern about the growing Islamist presence in his country.

But with Mr. Mubarak’s ouster, Hamas found Egypt’s military authorities amenable to its leadership relocating to Egypt, provided it paid a price: Hamas was to reconcile with the Fatah party of Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, and was to agree to the release of Sgt. Shalit, based on terms Egypt had proposed some two years ago.

A PLOT TO KILL A SAUDI AMBASSADOR

Even an unsophisticated Iranian plot to assassinate a Saudi ambassador in Washington appears to have its genesis in the Arab uprisings.

As Iran and Saudi Arabia compete for influence in the evolving Arab world, the idea of one of the two knocking off the other’s leading diplomat is not farfetched.

But the plot, exposed this week by U.S. officials, was too crude to have been approved by the highest level of Iranian officials, Iran experts and diplomats agree. The scheme, to use hit men from a Mexican drug cartel to blow up a Washington restaurant in order to kill the Saudi diplomat at lunch, appears designed to be discovered by U.S. agencies, says a Tehran-based diplomat with extensive experience in the country and the region.

Rather than a bona fide assassination attempt, the plot is likely to have been the product of a conflict inside Iran between warring factions in the Iranian establishment.

“There’s a group [inside the Iranian hierarchy]that wants to reach out to the United States,” said the diplomat, in order to end the campaign of sanctions against Tehran and to defuse the threat of their own country’s nuclear bomb making. These people also recognize that far from benefiting from the upheaval in the Arab world, Iran risks losing its regional leverage in Syria, Lebanon and Bahrain. Even its Palestinian client, Hamas, is in the process of engaging with Egypt, and Iran appears to have cut off its funds.

Faced with all this, the pro-Westerners in Iran hope to win wider international acceptance.

“But there are people in the IRGC [Revolutionary Guards]who don’t want this to happen,” the diplomat added. These are the ones, he said, most likely to have launched the plot.

“They never expected it to be carried out,” he said, “and fully expected it to be uncovered. But they figured it would upset the Americans and rule out any possibility of [Iranian]talks with them for a year or more.”

The Iranians behind such measures are likely the ones still hoping to prevent their client, Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, from losing office to the uprising in his country.

A WAR ON COPTS

The killing of two dozen Coptic Christians in Cairo this past week should have come as no surprise.

The ouster of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak has uncorked old tensions including violence against Egypt’s minorities.

The Coptic community, which dates from shortly after the time of Jesus Christ, accounts for 15 per cent of Egypt’s population, but accounts for a much higher per cent of the nation’s wealth. With their many professionals, jewellers, money lenders and businessmen, Copts are viewed as a privileged class, especially in the smaller cities and towns of Upper Egypt.

Attacks on Coptic churches and businesses have been common for years, and became especially numerous and deadly in the 1990s, when the radical Islamist movement Gamaa al-Islamia was at its peak of violence. Not unlike the Nazis targeting of the Jews, Gamaa al-Islamia blamed the “apostate” Copts for the problems that beset the poor Muslim majority.

While attacks on tourists were numerous and costly during those years, the violent offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood more often targeted Coptic institutions. Until, that is, Egypt’s former president Mubarak launched a heavy-handed campaign to crush the group. Thousands were imprisoned and hundreds killed, returning relative safety to the Coptic districts of Assiut, Luxor and Aswan.

With the onset of this year’s popular uprising, however, and the ouster of Mr. Mubarak, the security that had safeguarded Copts and other minorities broke down.

The unfulfilled wishes of the revolution have left the frustrated, impoverished people looking to blame someone. Unfettered, Salafists and other extremist religious groups proliferate, and the finger of blame is pointed once again at the Copts.

As many as 250,000 Coptic Christians are expected to flee Egypt by the end of the year. They likely will be joined by tens of thousands of Christians who will flee Syria, as another regime that had protected Christians teeters because of the Arab Spring.

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