Syria

The EU and the US moved to impose sanctions on Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad and other high-level officials to raise the pressure on the regime as the killing of protesters continued. Canada went further by implementing wide-ranging sanctions against the country, which include the sales of arms.

Human rights groups now estimate that more than 700 civilians have been killed since the outbreak of protests two months ago. Popular protests have spread from the south to towns and cities across the country.

Russian President Dmitry Medvedev continued his dialogue with Al-Assad, who said he would implement reforms, but would not pander to radical elements in the protest movement.

Libya

The clashes between Muammar Qaddafi and the opposition rebels have continued, with the government remaining in control of Tripoli and the western part of the country.

Nato airstrikes have proven insufficient in breaking the deadlock and the coalition leadership is now considering broadening its arsenal against the regime. France and Britain are reported to be considering deploying helicopter gunships in an effort to deliver more precise strikes against Qaddafi forces that have sought shelter in urban areas. French defence minister Gérard Longuet said attack helicopters would target Libyan fuel tankers and ammunition trucks.

Diplomatic relations with the opposition leadership deepened, as the US’ top Middle East official, Jeffrey Feltman, visited members of the National Transitional Council in the rebel capital of Benghazi on 22 May.

Britain and the US discussed plans to increase the flow of financial aid to Libya by widening the remit of the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development to cover the countries subject to political upheaval during the Arab uprisings.

Egypt

Egypt’s former president Hosni Mubarak could face the death penalty if convicted of corruption charges and sharing responsibility in the deaths of protesters during the uprising that removed him from power.

Mubarak’s two sons, Gamal and Alaa, will be tried alongside him, the country’s prosecutor-general announced. A government fact-finding mission has put the death toll during the 18 days of protests at about 850.

A conviction could persuade embattled leaders, such as Yemen’s Ali Abdullah Saleh, to cling on to power rather than face a similar fate.

On 24 May, the World Bank announced it is willing to give Egypt grants and loans to encourage reforms and help its struggling economy back off the ground. The bank said it would provide $2bn in grants and a further $2.5bn in loans should certain reform criteria be met.

Iran

Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad escaped injury from an explosion during his visit to the country’s largest refinery in Abadan on 24 May.

The blast fuelled speculation on the future of the president at a time when Ahmadinejad is engaged in a power struggle with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the Islamic republic’s ultimate authority. The president has dismissed several government ministers and put himself at the head of the country’s oil ministry in what is seen as a direct challenge to the Supreme Leader a year ahead of presidential elections.

After the Guardian Council, Iran’s constitutional watchdog, ruled the self-appointment unconstitutional, Ahmadinejad has backed down, stating that he would send a less-senior official to next month’s Opec meeting in Vienna.

The refinery explosion has also brought internal ethnic tension into the spotlight. Abadan lies close to the border with Iraq in the heartland of Iran’s Arab minority. Arabs in Iran say they are subject to discrimination and have in the past launched terrorists attacks.

Gaza/West Bank

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected US pressure for a Palestinian state based on 1967 borders and US President Barack Obama’s demands for a removal of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Netanyahu instead denounced Palestinian plans to gain recognition as a state at a UN vote in September and told its leadership to accept the state of Israel. Netanyahu has refused to yield to Obama’s calls since 2009 to stop settlements in Palestinian territory.

The recent resignation of US Middle East envoy George Mitchell suggests the White House will soften its tough stance with the Jewish state in future.

Bahrain

The Bahraini authorities say 515 detainees have now been released since martial law was declared in March as part of a crackdown on Shia pro-reform protests. The state of emergency is scheduled to end in June.

The Gulf state’s Information Affairs Authority said 46 medical staff remained in custody, of which 29 will stand trial on criminal charges. Four protesters have been sentenced to death for the killing of two policemen.

The unrest escalated as security forces used violence against peaceful protesters and resulted in the loss of at least 29 lives, including those of four policemen.

The Bahrain Chamber of Commerce & Industry suspended its joint business councils with Iran, Iraq and Lebanon, citing the “blatant interference” of influential parties in these countries in Bahrain’s domestic affairs.