MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're going to start the program today by focusing on some pressing international stories. Later we'll try to find out why some demonstrators in Tel Aviv attacked African migrants last week, and we'll also talk about how Israel's government is responding to this. But first we turn to developments in Syria, where the violence that's been going on for a year has taken a particularly vicious turn.
The government has reportedly been shelling the city of Homs. This comes only a day after the Syrian government was widely condemned for what's been described as a massacre of more than 100 people in the town of Houla. The government and rebels are blaming each for this, but nearly a dozen countries are expelling Syrian envoys. Here again to help us understand what's going on is Abderrahim Foukara.
He is the Washington bureau chief for Al Jazeera International and he's with us often to talk about important stories like this. Welcome back. Thanks for joining us once again.
ABDERRAHIM FOUKARA: Thanks, Michel.
MARTIN: Now, your network is also using the term massacre to describe what happened in Houla this past Friday. Do I have that right?
FOUKARA: Yes, that's correct.
MARTIN: So can you break down what we know and what we don't know about what happened there?
FOUKARA: Well, there is an awful lot that we don't know, and that awful lot obviously hinges on the lack of certainty as to who actually committed the massacre. As you rightly pointed out, the international community is accusing the regime of Bashar al-Assad of being behind it, but Bashar al-Assad is accusing the opposition, the armed opposition, whom he dubs as terrorists.
And obviously he has the support of the Russians in that. The Russians - the position of the Russians seems to have evolved somewhat recently. There was that Security Council, U.N. Security Council statement condemning the massacring in Damascus, in Syria, but the Russians are now saying that there shouldn't be a leap of faith from that - what that statement says to concluding that the Russians want the regime to be changed or want to allow the West and its allies to change the regime in Damascus.
MARTIN: Well, as you pointed out, you know, the West, the United States, among others, have been calling for regime change for quite some time now, and nearly a dozen countries are now expelling Syrian envoys. This is a clip from the U.S. State Department's Victoria Nuland. Here it is.
VICTORIA NULAND: We will obviously continue to look at other ways we can pressure the regime economically, politically, diplomatically, and continue to try to tighten the noose.
MARTIN: I have two questions here. One is, you know, Kofi Annan, the U.N. special envoy to Syria, said this is a tipping point here, and I'm wondering whether in other countries in the region is it also seen that way, and what are some of these efforts to tighten the noose being contemplated?
FOUKARA: Well, a lot of people are seeing it as a tipping point, but it also has to be said that there have been points in the past that were seen as tipping points and yet Bashar al-Assad is still in place. The situation, the security situation, continues to be what it is in Syria. There are a lot of people talking of Kofi Annan. A lot of people in the region feel that his mission as U.N. and Arab League envoy in Syria is now dead.
But you're not going to get governments to actually proclaim it dead because the concern is if you proclaim it dead, then what? What do you do in lieu of it? The issue of tightening the noose - economically, obviously, Syria doesn't have significant assets with the West, economically, so that, you know, pressure could be brought to bear on them. The Syrians - Bashar al-Assad's main assets continue to be Russia and Iran.
The Iranians are supplying him with assets, various other needs. The Russians continue to provide political and diplomatic cover for him. And my sense is that until those dynamics change, the situation will continue. At least that's the general feeling in the region. The situation will continue to hurtle from one tipping point to another tipping point.
Except that internally the situation has reached a point where everybody now is increasingly talking about civil war, and to all intents and purposes there has been civil war going on.
MARTIN: I mean isn't it really one now?
FOUKARA: I mean from all the reports that we've been getting, it's very easy to conclude that civil war has been unfolding in Syria for some time. But to circle back to this massacre in Houla - because the region where it happened is a Sunni region and it's surrounded by Alawite Shia villages, and Bashar al-Assad is an Alawite.
So if it turns out - and the investigation is not conclusive yet - but if it turns out that people did come from those Alawite villages, as the accusation is, and committed that massacre, then obviously this is fully fledged civil war. And we've seen something similar in Algeria in the 1990s. Once you get those dynamics of a civil war, ethnic or religious, unleashed, it's very, very difficult to stop it, even if Bashar al-Assad were to leave power tomorrow.
MARTIN: If you're just joining us, you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. We're speaking with Abderrahim Foukara of Al Jazeera International. We're taking a look at developments in the Middle East and North Africa. I want to move to Egypt now because one of the reasons that I think that this particular story is so disturbing - I mean on top of just the obvious, you know, issue of the horrendous, you know, loss of life, is it's such a marked contrast to the sense of optimism that kind of spread through the region last year.
And you know, the election results were announced in Egypt earlier this week. This will be a runoff between the Muslim Brotherhood candidate and Mubarak's last prime minister. And I just wanted to just ask sort of your general sense of were the elections viewed to this point as free and fair? And what is your sense of how the Egyptian population is viewing their choices at this juncture?
FOUKARA: Well, we are obviously - what's going on now is a far cry from what happened 15 months ago in terms of the optimism but also in terms of the unity of Egyptians. Fifteen months ago, almost all Egyptians were united in wanting to get rid of Mubarak. And since they have been - Egypt has been sliced and diced politically in so many different ways.
And a lot of Egyptians feel that it's ironic that 15 months later we end up with Shafiq, who served as Mubarak's last prime minister before Mubarak stepped down, who is a former army general and therefore he's very close to the military council that's now ruling Egypt. So 15 months later you end up with a choice between Shafiq and the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood.
For those Egyptians who led the so-called revolution to get rid of Mubarak, it's obviously a disheartening choice. But a lot of other Egyptians are saying it is democracy. Ahmed Shafiq may not be the ideal candidate, but to a lot of Egyptians he is - he symbolizes stability. And Mursi, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, may not be an ideal candidate but he has some - compared with Shafiq, he symbolizes change. It's a difficult choice.
But the situation in Egypt has surprised us in so many different ways and the expectation is that we will see many more expectations in the weeks ahead.
MARTIN: Each of those candidates got less than 30 percent of the vote in the first round. Do you have any sense of how each of them is trying to put together a working majority? At least enough of a majority to claim the victory?
FOUKARA: Yes. I mean, each one of them is trying to reach out to other parts of the political spectrum. For example, Mursi, the candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, is trying to reach out to liberals on the left to sort of form a block that would enable him to govern and maybe give the candidate, the liberal candidate from the left who came in third in the elections, although Sabahi, his name is, he has rejected that.
The problem is that Shafiq, although many people reject him in Egypt, there are, for example, the Christian Copts feel so threatened by the rise of these Islamist movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood, and they see him as a hope, quite frankly, who may stand as a bulwark between them and what many of them describe as potential persecution that may happen to them under an Islamist government.
The Islamists are saying no, we are now trying to - for example, Morsi, over the last couple of days, has been saying the status of women will be preserved - that is(ph), their rights will be preserved. The status of the Copts - they will continue to enjoy freedom that they would enjoy under any other rule in Egypt.
Whether the promises that Morsi and Shafiq are offering Egyptians now will be able to be translated into reality once one of them becomes president, I guess remains the issue, but then again, you could argue that that's the case in any democracy. To what extent democracy will actually emerge in Egypt is the real question.
MARTIN: Before we let you go, I did want to just briefly ask your reaction to a provocative story in the New York Times. The New York Times reported yesterday that the president, President Obama, and a small circle of counterterrorism advisors have been working off an actual kill list to target al-Qaida terrorists and that some of the people on that list are, in fact, quite young. And I just wonder, what's been the reaction to this story, given all that's going on in the region?
FOUKARA: Yeah. I mean, there hasn't been a reaction as such to the revelations in the New York Times article, but there has been a sort of reaction to President Obama himself. The way he was seen four years ago is obviously very different from the way he is seen today in the region, and part of this metamorphosis, if you will, of his image in the region is the use of drones and the concomitant civilian casualties in places such as Afghanistan and Yemen.
Yemen, obviously, is a big story now and the position of the U.S. administration, vis-a-vis what's happening in Yemen, especially southern Yemen, where al-Qaida seems to have strengthened its position following the stepping down of the former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, that's obviously soliciting a lot of attention. And by default it's focusing a lot of attention on Obama and his policy in that part of the region.
MARTIN: Abderrahim Foukara is the Washington bureau chief for Al Jazeera International. He's a frequent guest on this program and he was kind enough to join us once again in our studios here in Washington, D.C.
Abderrahim, thank you so much for speaking with us.
FOUKARA: Always good to be with you. Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.