All analyses in chronological order - Afro-Middle East Centre

The Denis Hurley Peace Institute, an NGO that is part of the South African Cathholic Bishops' Conference, regularly compiles reports on Northern Mozambique from its sources in Pemba, Mozambique. We co-publish, with the DHPI, those reports here.

COUNTRY UPDATE: 27 October  2020

Johan Viljoen

Is an attack on Pemba Imminent?

The arrival of over 7 000 displaced persons on fishing boats during the course of last week in Pemba, fleeing attacks by insurgents in the north of the province, has raised fears of a possible attack on the city of Pemba itself. On Friday 23 October Julião João Cumbane, a senior Frelimo party member and part of the country’s intelligence community, wrote on his Facebook page that there are almost certainly “terrorists” amongst the refugees, who are posing as refugees to infiltrate Pemba, and plan an attack. 

On Saturday 27 October information was received from Metuge, about 10 km from Pemba, that insurgents had sent messengers to the community to warn them to evacuate “if they wanted to save their lives”. The City of Pemba is situated on a peninsula on the southern entrance to Pemba Bay. Metuge is on the mainland. 

Refugees fleeing the attacks by insurgents on Bilibiza, about 90 km north of Metuge, four weeks ago, say that insurgents told them not to stay in Pemba or Metuge, as these two towns would be attacked in the near future. Other sources, who were held captive by insurgents, report that insurgents told them that “their flag would be flying over Pemba and Nampula” before the end of the year. 

Two senior members of the local Muslim community in Pemba confirmed over the weekend that rumours of an imminent attack are rife, and that tensions are rising. The local Muslim community prepares about 1 500 meals per day for the displaced, self financed. The two consider an insurgent attack unlikely, due to the pronounced presence of the Army in Pemba. However, should it happen, they say that it will be “a blood bath”. 

Similarities between Cabo Delgado and Kivu North?

The Congolese Bishops, as reported above,  say: “We note there the strategy of depopulation by massacres of local populations, occupation of land and control of natural resources. (The Bishops of Bunia and Uvira) have denounced in recent months the balkanization of the Democratic Republic of the Congo by foreign forces who, according to them, are fueling tribal conflicts and rebellions to appropriate portions of Congolese land and exploit its wealth”. There are striking similarities between the observations of the Congolese Bishops regarding the situation in that country, and current developments in Cabo Delgado.

Mozambique’s 1997 Land Law (Law 19/97) reasserts the state’s ownership of land and provides that individuals, communities and entities can obtain long-term or perpetual rights to land, even without formal documentation of those rights. This right is known by the acronym DUAT, from the Portuguese Direito de Uso e Aproveitamento dos Terras.  

Sources in Pemba confirm that the latest wave of attacks, leading to last week’s influx of refugees in Pemba, has left the entire coastline, from Mocimboa da Praia down to Macomia and Quissanga and stretching up to 50 kilometres inland, depopulated. The Mwani people, who traditionally inhabited the region, have almost all left. 

According to reports, those arriving in Pemba are having their “DUAT’s” revoked – meaning that they lose all title to their land, and are not able to return. By law the land then reverts to the State. Sources in Pemba emphasise that they are not witnessing the emergence of an Islamic proto-state, but a territory empty of people, that can be allocated to investors. 

Allegations of sexual abuse ignored by UN

On Monday 26 October, the Centro de Integridade Publica (CIP) reported widespread allegations of sexual abuse of refugees. In almost all refugee settlements in Pemba, and to a lesser extent in Nampula, it was reported that refugees, the majority of whom are women, are only given food and other forms of humanitarian assistance in exchange for sex. The perpetrators appear to be local authorities, who have been placed by donor agencies in charge of the distribution of assistance. Borges Nhamire of CIP says that the issue was repeatedly raised with the three major donors: the World Food Program (WFP), the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Mobilization (IOM). Nhamire said that repeated phone calls and emails to the three institutions have gone unanswered. 

The Denis Hurley Peace Institute, an NGO that is part of the South African Cathholic Bishops' Conference, regularly compiles reports on Northern Mozambique from its sources in Pemba, Mozambique. We co-publish, with the DHPI, those reports here.

COUNTRY UPDATE: 27 October  2020

Johan Viljoen

Is an attack on Pemba Imminent?

The arrival of over 7 000 displaced persons on fishing boats during the course of last week in Pemba, fleeing attacks by insurgents in the north of the province, has raised fears of a possible attack on the city of Pemba itself. On Friday 23 October Julião João Cumbane, a senior Frelimo party member and part of the country’s intelligence community, wrote on his Facebook page that there are almost certainly “terrorists” amongst the refugees, who are posing as refugees to infiltrate Pemba, and plan an attack. 

On Saturday 27 October information was received from Metuge, about 10 km from Pemba, that insurgents had sent messengers to the community to warn them to evacuate “if they wanted to save their lives”. The City of Pemba is situated on a peninsula on the southern entrance to Pemba Bay. Metuge is on the mainland. 

Refugees fleeing the attacks by insurgents on Bilibiza, about 90 km north of Metuge, four weeks ago, say that insurgents told them not to stay in Pemba or Metuge, as these two towns would be attacked in the near future. Other sources, who were held captive by insurgents, report that insurgents told them that “their flag would be flying over Pemba and Nampula” before the end of the year. 

Two senior members of the local Muslim community in Pemba confirmed over the weekend that rumours of an imminent attack are rife, and that tensions are rising. The local Muslim community prepares about 1 500 meals per day for the displaced, self financed. The two consider an insurgent attack unlikely, due to the pronounced presence of the Army in Pemba. However, should it happen, they say that it will be “a blood bath”. 

Similarities between Cabo Delgado and Kivu North?

The Congolese Bishops, as reported above,  say: “We note there the strategy of depopulation by massacres of local populations, occupation of land and control of natural resources. (The Bishops of Bunia and Uvira) have denounced in recent months the balkanization of the Democratic Republic of the Congo by foreign forces who, according to them, are fueling tribal conflicts and rebellions to appropriate portions of Congolese land and exploit its wealth”. There are striking similarities between the observations of the Congolese Bishops regarding the situation in that country, and current developments in Cabo Delgado.

Mozambique’s 1997 Land Law (Law 19/97) reasserts the state’s ownership of land and provides that individuals, communities and entities can obtain long-term or perpetual rights to land, even without formal documentation of those rights. This right is known by the acronym DUAT, from the Portuguese Direito de Uso e Aproveitamento dos Terras.  

Sources in Pemba confirm that the latest wave of attacks, leading to last week’s influx of refugees in Pemba, has left the entire coastline, from Mocimboa da Praia down to Macomia and Quissanga and stretching up to 50 kilometres inland, depopulated. The Mwani people, who traditionally inhabited the region, have almost all left. 

According to reports, those arriving in Pemba are having their “DUAT’s” revoked – meaning that they lose all title to their land, and are not able to return. By law the land then reverts to the State. Sources in Pemba emphasise that they are not witnessing the emergence of an Islamic proto-state, but a territory empty of people, that can be allocated to investors. 

Allegations of sexual abuse ignored by UN

On Monday 26 October, the Centro de Integridade Publica (CIP) reported widespread allegations of sexual abuse of refugees. In almost all refugee settlements in Pemba, and to a lesser extent in Nampula, it was reported that refugees, the majority of whom are women, are only given food and other forms of humanitarian assistance in exchange for sex. The perpetrators appear to be local authorities, who have been placed by donor agencies in charge of the distribution of assistance. Borges Nhamire of CIP says that the issue was repeatedly raised with the three major donors: the World Food Program (WFP), the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the International Organization for Mobilization (IOM). Nhamire said that repeated phone calls and emails to the three institutions have gone unanswered. 

The Denis Hurley Peace Institute, an NGO that is part of the South African Catholic Bishops' Conference, regularly compiles reports on Northern Mozambique from its sources in Pemba, Mozambique. We co-publish, with the DHPI, those reports here.

COUNTRY UPDATE: 21 October  2020

Johan Viljoen

An escalation in the fighting in Cabo Delgado has resulted in a renewed influx of refugees to the provincial capital Pemba, by boat. The first fishing boats arrived on Saturday 17 October when hundreds of families disembarked  at Paquiquete beach from boats, each carrying 30 to 40 people, fleeing the armed conflict in the districts of Quissanga and Macomia. Children, women, the elderly and the sick travelled several miles in overcrowded boats. On Sunday around 700 people from the Quirimbas Archipelago, and from communities of Olumboa, Guludo, Ntoni, Kirimizi and Mucojo, in Macomia district, disembarked at the beach, the majority of them women and children.

The Denis Hurley Peace Institute, an NGO that is part of the South African Catholic Bishops' Conference, regularly compiles reports on Northern Mozambique from its sources in Pemba, Mozambique. We co-publish, with the DHPI, those reports here.

COUNTRY UPDATE: 16 October  2020

Johan Viljoen

Insurgents attach village in Tanzania

For the first time, the conflict in Cabo Delgado has spilled across the border into Tanzania, marking a dangerous escalation of the violence. About 30 insurgents  from Mozambique attacked the village of Kitaya on the Ruvuma river (right by the border) on 14 October n the evening (around 7 to 9 pm). There is a Tanzanian army base close to the village and Tanzanian soldiers tried to intervene, but the insurgents were very well equipped with machine guns and other material, and the soldiers could not do much. According to reports, two Tanzanian soldiers and 1 villager were killed, and another villager was shot in the legs.  1 tanker and 2 army vehicles were burned, in addition to the village dispensary, shops, warehouses and several houses. 30 Tanzanian villagers were taken by force to Mozambique by the insurgents. The insurgents claimed that that this was only the beginning, as they want the border between Tanzania and Mozambique to start in Lindi, not Mtwara

Zimbabwe is set to become the latest African country to embrace Israel as it seeks to get off the US sanctions list. Zimbabwe’s president, Emmerson Mnangagwa, vowed to get the embattled country out of the economic turmoil it had faced under the former president, Robert Mugabe, since the late 2000s, and ending US sanctions on the country would be a good start. 

In August, Mnangagwa appointed Israeli citizen Ronny Levi Musan as Zimbabwe’s honorary consul in Israel. This signalled strengthened relations between the two countries, and a move away from longstanding support expressed for Palestinians by the ruling Zimbabwe African National Union – Patriotic Front (ZANU-PF). Musan is alleged to have links with the controversial Nikuv International Projects Company that was accused of engineering Robert Mugabe’s win in the 2013 Zimbabwean elections. He is also the CEO of the Ashelroi Group, which describes itself as aiming to connect companies, organisations,  diplomats,  leaders  and  churches  from  all  over  the  world  to  Israel. 

Mnangagwa hopes to enlist Israel’s military intelligence to train Zimbabwe’s security forces and to establish a defence academy in Harare, which will be run by Israelis.

Zimbabwe’s relations with Israel began in the early 1990s under Mugabe, who deployed Israeli riot control equipment to suppress political opposition, especially before the 2008 elections when there was a heavy clampdown on the opposition, particularly supporters of the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC). The former president was also instrumental in Nikuv obtaining a stake in Zimbabwe’sdiamond mines in Mutare through a contract that has since been characterised by widespread corruption. After Mnangagwa took power from Mugabe in a military takeover in November 2017, the relationship with Israel has continued, and, more recently, seems set to improve. Mnangagwa has been on a drive to attract investment into the embattled Zimbabwean economy, and to find a way to re-engage western countries to lobby for the lifting of sanctions against the country; Israel seems to be the gateway.

In October 2019, Mnangagwa met then-Israeli foreign minister, Israel Katz, on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. Earlier, in April 2018, Mnangagwa accepted the credentials of Gershon Kedar as the non-resident ambassador to Zimbabwe, but based in Israel. Kedar brought representatives of a number of Israeli companies to Zimbabwe, including Michael Biniashvili, who is associated with former Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) general Gal Hirsch, a controversial businessperson who had been accused of bribery and money laundering while heading the Defensive Shield Holdings Company in which Biniashvili is a partner. Defensive Shield Holdings was accused of tax evasion in Israel and of bribingthe Georgian defence minister, Davit Kezerashvili, to secure military training contracts in 2007 and 2008. Another unsavoury businessperson that Kedar has pushed into Zimbabwe is Yaron Yamin, who owns 262 claims on sixty-two gold mines in the southern African country.

These initiatives, with Mnangagwa’s blessing, signal the president’s desperate attempts to appease the West, notably the USA, Israel’s biggest ally. Musan has set plans into motion for Mnangagwa’s official visit to Israel. His activities in Zimbabwe include collaboration with Pentecostal churches to push for Christian support for Israel. Zimbabwe’s honorary consul is also pushing for Israeli businesses to invest in Zimbabwe’s agricultural sector, and he recently announced the intention to open an Israeli academy of agriculture in Zimbabwe. 

On the diplomatic front, Israel hopes that Mnangagwa will follow the example of his Malawian counterpart, Lazarus Chakwera, who announced plans to open an embassy in Jerusalem, thus legitimising Israel’s claim of Jerusalem as its capital city, a claim not recognised under international law. Chakwera, an Evangelical Christian who staunchly supports Israel, is on a drive to promote Israel on the continent. His visit to Harare last month likely included discussions with Mnangagwa about relations with Israel and the USA.  

Donald Trump’s White House is increasingly doing Israel’s bidding on the African continent, and is pushing for African states to normalise relations with Israel as a means of unlocking US aid and investment. Sudan, for example, is being lobbied to recognise Israel in exchange for being removed from the US list of state sponsors of terrorism. The USA has also lobbied Kenya, which already has strong relations with Israel – including in security and intelligence, to publicly support Israel and push for Israel to get observer status in the African Union (AU). Others countries, such as Chad, have also used relations with Israel as a means of receiving western arms, which are being used to suppress domestic dissent. 

Like many other African and Arab states, Zimbabwe has long had secret relations with Israel; these are now coming to light through Mnangagwa’s rigorous attempts to attract investment into the Zimbabwean economy, despite ZANU-PF’s supposed support for the Palestinians.

By Phyllis Bennis

When US president, Donald Trump, announced his latest threats against Iran on Rush Limbaugh’s show last week, it was unclear whether he or his steroids were talking. Even this president rarely uses language like, ‘If you f**k around with us, if you do something bad to us, we are going to do things to you that have never been done before’ in announcing foreign policy.

The possibility of an ‘October Surprise’ looms over every US presidential election. This year, twenty-some days from the election they’re likely to lose, with more than 215 000 people across the United States dead from the pandemic, the White House transformed into the latest coronavirus hot spot, the economy still in free-fall, and the commander-in-chief high on drugs, the Trump administration’s latest harsh new sanctions on Iran do not look surprising at all. The political use of the term October Surprise, after all, started with the Iran hostage crisis of 1980.

But this not-so-shocking surprise is actually incredibly dangerous and reckless for the future, and incredibly cruel and heartless – even sadistic – right now. The new economic sanctions will shut down the last eighteen Iranian banks still able to finance the import of desperately-needed humanitarian goods, including medicine desperately needed during the Covid-19 crisis, and even basic foodstuffs. Earlier US sanctions had already brought massive suffering to Iranians. At the beginning of April, as the pandemic was at its height, Democratic Senator Chris Murphy acknowledged that ‘U.S. sanctions are stopping medical equipment from being sent to Iran. As a result, innocent people are dying.’

The White House claims this latest escalation of its ‘maximum economic pressure’ sanctions campaign will force Iran to the negotiating table. But years of punishing the entire population of 80 million Iranians has shown that this is almost certain to fail to achieve stated US goals, and even if it succeeded, the human price paid in hunger, lack of medicine during a raging pandemic, and the death of children and other vulnerable people is simply far too high. 

During an earlier sanctions campaign against Iran, Democratic congressperson Brad Sherman blithely noted that ‘critics also argued that these measures will hurt the Iranian people. Quite frankly, we need to do just that.’ Sherman, who is now running to chair the House Foreign Affairs Committee, had the audacity to compare Washington’s brutal sanctions against Iran to the global movement against apartheid South Africa in the 1980s. In so doing, Sherman deliberately ignored a critical distinction: the vast majority of South Africans supported anti-apartheid organisations that called on the world to impose sanctions, accepting the consequences, and linking those external sanctions to their broader national strategy for liberation and freedom. In Iran, people and organisations fighting to broaden democratic rights are calling desperately for an end to sanctions – because the sanctions are killing them.

This newest punishment on Iranians will exacerbate the devastating impact of the broader sanctions regime the USA has imposed on Iran for years. While the State Department brags that it ‘continues to stand with the Iranian people’ and that ‘exceptions for humanitarian exports to Iran…remain in full force’, the reality is that existing economic sanctions, despite those exceptions, have destroyed Iran’s economy and the lives of most of the 80 million Iranians, especially the poorest and most vulnerable among them. 

The latest escalations in broad US sanctions against Iran began with Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), or Iran Nuclear Deal. Despite virtually unanimous international and US intelligence agreement that the JCPOA was working (Iran was not building nuclear weapons), and UN inspectors remained on the ground in Iran, and despite UN sanctions being stopped, Trump made it clear that abandoning ‘Obama’s deal’ was top of his agenda. In May 2018 he pulled out of the deal and imposed a host of new crippling and unilateral sanctions against Iran.

Other signatories to the JCPOA – Germany, France, Britain, China, Russia, and the European Union – all opposed the US withdrawal, as did the UN Security Council, which had endorsed the deal and established a monitoring agency to guarantee its implementation. The biggest US demand that the UNSC had accepted was what became known as ‘snap-back’, by which any signatory could report an Iranian violation, and if confirmed by UN monitors, the UN sanctions that had been lifted would automatically be restored. With the USA having abandoned the deal, and US sanctions rapidly escalating, European countries made some efforts to protect Iran from the impact of the new sanctions, but largely failed. Iran eventually responded by taking some calibrated steps in nuclear power enrichment beyond what was permitted in the JCPOA.

In early August, Washington tried to convince the UNSC to extend some conventional arms’ restrictions on Iran that were set to expire. These restrictions had nothing to do with nuclear weapons, and the rest of the UNSC (with the exception of USA-dependent Dominican Republic) unanimously refused. A week later, in an effort to escalate ‘maximum pressure’ on Iran even further, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced he was invoking the ‘snap-back’ procedure, and demanded the restoration of UN sanctions against Iran. The rest of the Security Council (except the Dominican Republic) made it clear that since the USA had renounced the agreement, it no longer had standing to make such a demand. Pompeo’s response was that since the USA had originally signed the treaty, Washington still had all the rights of signatories, despite having officially withdrawn and thus ending all its obligations. He then simply announced that UN sanctions were back in force, though no other state agreed.

Then came the latest US sanctions. Along with new suffering for the Iranian people, the danger could quickly escalate if, for example, the USA decided to forcibly board and ‘inspect’ a ship that it might claim was carrying goods to or from Iran. If Iran were to resist, a serious military conflict could erupt. This threat of a deliberate US provocation, aimed at forcing Iran to respond militarily and giving hawks in Washington an excuse to use greater military force in time for pre-election boasting by Trump, could shape an incredibly dire and dangerous October surprise. Iran has not taken Washington’s bait, reacting instead to US provocations – including the assassination of powerful Iranian political and military leader General Qasem Soleimani in January – with significant caution. But Iran has its own elections scheduled in June, and there is growing pressure on the leadership for more decisive action.

Iran may also be holding back in anticipation of a change in the White House. Democratic Party presidential contender Joe Biden has not called for ending sanctions on Iran, but has made clear that he would: ‘offer Tehran a credible path back to diplomacy’, return to the JCPOA, end the Muslim ban on entry to the USA, and work to end the Yemen war. While his position is not nearly as strong as it needs to be to end the assault on ordinary Iranians’ lives, there is no question that it challenges some of the worst aspects of existing policy. This should not be surprising; the JCPOA represented the high point of Obama’s foreign policy achievements, and since Biden’s credibility is fundamentally bound up with Obama’s legacy, he needs to maintain the commitment to the JCPOA and the diplomacy-over-war framework that enabled it. It is public knowledge that pressure on Trump to impose new and ever-more-damaging sanctions on Iran come from Israel and the far-right Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington. Just a couple of weeks before the newest sanctions were announced, the FDD head co-authored a Wall Street Journal op-ed calling for a ‘12th-round economic knockout’ in the form of a Trump move to ‘[b]lacklist the entire Iranian financial industry’.

So, beyond the expectation of a last-minute electoral bump (which is not a sure thing, given significant public opposition to wars in the Middle East), what is the US goal in provoking a military clash with Iran that could quickly escalate out of control?

In the Trump era, clear strategy is generally outside the realm of possibility. But immediate goals can sometimes be discerned. From the beginning, the Trump administration – mainly in the person of Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner – has focused on building a US-backed regional anti-Iran alliance with Israel and key Arab allies Saudi Arabia, the UAE, and others. Much of that is underway, bolstered most recently by the USA-orchestrated agreements between Israel and both the UAE and Bahrain, with the blessing of Saudi Arabia. Those agreements, while leaving out any reference to ending Israel’s oppression, occupation and colonisation of Palestinians, are primarily aimed at increasing US arms sales to its Arab allies, and going public with the longstanding but formerly more-or-less hidden trade, commercial and security ties between Israel and the Gulf monarchies.

Preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons certainly remains a longstanding US goal. Part of that is rooted in the US determination to prevent further nuclear weapons proliferation in the world. However, much of it is based on a US commitment to Israel to maintain Tel Aviv’s nuclear weapons monopoly in the region; it is Israel’s Dimona nuclear plant that houses the Middle East’s only nuclear weapons arsenal. On the other hand, US intelligence agencies have for years agreed that Iran did not have a nuclear bomb, was not building a nuclear bomb, and had not even decided it wanted to build a nuclear bomb. Under the JCPOA, Iran’s nuclear capacity and its ability to obtain nuclear components anywhere else were extremely limited, and UN nuclear inspectors were on the ground. That remains the case, but could change if US ‘maximum pressure’ continues to prevent Iran’s access to international trade, purchases of food and medicine, and so forth.

Maintaining Iran’s role as enemy makes it easier for the USA to justify ever-more-massive arms sales to repressive authoritarian kingdoms, and the ten-year $38 billion gift to the Israeli military. For the preposterously wealthy but strategically dependent Gulf states, the real fears of Iranian influence (on Shi’a populations in their countries, competition for oilfields and pipeline routes, etc.) are matched or even outstripped by the value of Iran-as-bogeyman to ensure continuing US strategic support and protection. 

Reports have been floating around that Washington may close the giant US embassy in Baghdad, and pull out diplomatic and other non-military personnel. That may be in anticipation of a future Iranian response to continuing US escalation – perhaps something like a US military attack on the Iraqi Popular Mobilization Forces – that could lead to Iranian retaliation against US military forces in Iraq. With Israeli backing, a strike against Iranian interests by some combination of the UAE, Bahrain and/or Saudi Arabia, even without direct US participation, cannot be completely ruled out. Under such circumstances, it is not impossible that public pressure could lead the Iranian regime to make different and much more dangerous choices.

US escalations may not be over yet. There are several more weeks of October for new surprises.

* Phyllis Bennis is an advisory board member of the Afro-Middle East Centre. She is also a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies. Her most recent book is the seventh edition of Understanding the Palestinian-Israeli Conflict: A Primer.

** This article was first published online by Common Dreams

The Denis Hurley Peace Institute, an NGO that is part of the South African Catholic Bishops' Conference, regularly compiles reports on Northern Mozambique from its sources in Pemba, Mozambique. We co-publish, with the DHPI, those reports here.

COUNTRY UPDATE: 12 October 2020

Johan Viljoen

Suspected terrorists arrested in Quelimane, Zambezia Province

The arrest of four suspected terrorists on Thursday 8 October in Quelimane, the capital of Zambezia Province, has raised fears in Mozambique that the threat is now expanding beyond Cabo Delgado Province. 

Reports state that the four young men rented a residence for five days in the Torrone Velho neighborhood on the outskirts of Quelimane. Many different people came to the house daily, which raised suspicions on the part of the residents, who alerted the law enforcement agencies. The suspects were eventually arrested on Thursday (10/8).

The police have not yet commented on what happened.

“I saw the affliction of my people and I heard their cry, I know their sufferings and I went down to set them free… ”(Ex. 3, 7)

DIOCESE OF PEMBA, PROVINCE OF CAPE DELGADO, MOZAMBIQUE

Sr. Marinês Biasibetti

Activity carried out in the province of Cabo Delgado from 03 to 06 August.

Cabo Delgado Province is rich in natural resources and the discovery of gas and precious stone deposits in the region has attracted many foreign companies, which is contributing to aggravate old conflicts, feeding the differences between the privileged and the poor and vulnerable population.

The attacks began in October 2017 and have taken on terrible dimensions to this day, terrorizing populations and forcing mass migration.

 “The situation of the displaced is a major concern for the diocese, an unprecedented humanitarian crisis, a situation that is likely to get worse, the entire diocese through its organizations and NGOs, government institutions and people of goodwill are involved in assistance to the displaced, each giving their contribution, the number of displaced people in the province already exceeds 250 thousand with more than a thousand dead, civilians, security forces, insurgents, in addition to the disappearance and abduction of countless people, including journalists.

The Denis Hurley Peace Institute, an NGO that is part of the South African Catholic Bishops' Conference, regularly compiles reports on Northern Mozambique from its sources in Pemba, Mozambique. We co-publish, with the DHPI, those reports here.

COUNTRY UPDATE: 8 October 2020 - WHO PROFITEERS  IN CABO DELGADO?

Johan Viljoen

The global perception, informed by the media, believes that the conflict in Cabo Delgado is religious: Islamic terrorists who are intent on establishing an Islamic state there. This view is generally not shared by Mozambican commentators and analysts, who point out various root causes of the conflict. 

Jacinto Veloso is a former Portuguese air force pilot who flew his plane to Tanzania to join Frelimo in 1963. He was Security Minister (1980-83) and continued in government until 1994. He is currently a member of the government’s National Defence and Security Council (CNDS). A minister during the 1982-92 war, he saw big power destabilisation first hand. 

In an interview published in Savanah newspaper on 5 June 2020,  he argues that the war in Cabo Delgado represents a major strategic onslaught by an unknown party with vested interests on Mozambique’s  gas resources in order to control them. “ We are dealing with a mega-operation conceived, directed, and executed from outside the country.” He cites as a model the United States use of Islamic fundamentalists, notably Osama bin Laden, in Afghanistan from 1979 to eventually defeat the Russians.

The Denis Hurley Peace Institute, an NGO that is part of the South African Catholic Bishops' Conference, regularly compiles reports on Northern Mozambique from its sources in Pemba, Mozambique. We co-publish, with the DHPI, those reports here.

COUNTRY UPDATE: 5 October  2020

Johan Viljoen

Mozambique government requests military assistance from EU

The Portuguese Minister of Foreign Affairs, Augusto Santos Silva, said on 30 September that he is sure that the European Union's response to Mozambique, which asked for support for the training of its forces, will be positive.

"We received in the European Union the letter sent by the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Cooperation of Mozambique, it is a very clear letter. Mozambique is very clear in identifying the areas in which European cooperation can support them, namely in the fight against terrorism in Cabo Delgado and I am sure that the European Union will give a positive answer ", said Augusto Santos Silva.

Turkish airstrikes against the Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) in northern Iraq last month attracted the attention of regional and international players and angered Iraq’s prime minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi, who is seeking enough regional and international support to force Turkey to withdraw its troops and cease the bombardment. Although Turkey has occasionally bombed the PKK in the Qandil Mountains, near the Iraq-Iran border, for many years, the latest incursion that started in June, dubbed Operation Claw Tiger, has been unrelenting. Iraqi government protests have not stopped the Turkish incursion. On the other hand, the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), in the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq, seems to be ignoring the incursions, despite occasional statements of protest. 

Iran, on 8 August, committed to joining the Turkish bombardment. Attempting to seize the initiative, especially with Iran joining in, on 25 August the USA offered to mediate between Baghdad, Ankara and the KRG. The US offer followed Kadhimi’s complaint to US president Donald Trump about the ongoing airstrikes and his appeal for American assistance. The appeal to Trump followed a Turkish drone strike that killed two high-ranking Iraqi border officials, the first casualties of Iraqi officials since the start of the Turkish campaign in June. Despite Baghdad’s condemnation of the killings, which led to the cancellation of a planned visit of the Turkish foreign minister to Baghdad, Turkey vowed not to back down.

On the same day as the US offer, at a summit between Egypt, Jordan and Iraq about the formation of an economic, diplomatic and security bloc, Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi stressed the need to deal with foreign interventions destabilising countries in the region, hinting at Turkish activities in Iraq, Syria and Libya. Not to be left out, French president Emmanuel Macron visited Iraq on 2 September, and met Kadhimi and KRG leader Nechirvan Barzani to discuss Iraq’s sovereignty. Unimpressed by Macron’s visit, Turkey hosted Barzani in Ankara two days later. On 8 September, ignoring criticisms, Turkey and Iran vowed to continue the airstrikes against the PKK and its Iranian affiliate, the Kurdistan Free Life Party (PJAK), upsetting Baghdad further. 

The incursion is not, however, a matter of Turkey against the Kurds, as it is sometimes portrayed. Turkey has strong and enduring relations with the KRG based largely on trade relations and security cooperation. Despite occasional public condemnation, Erbil seems to be broadly supportive of the Turkish incursion and has cooperated with Turkish intelligence, even providing information on PKK positions. 

The PKK began an insurgency against the Turkish state in 1984, attempting to create an independent Kurdish state. Since then, the Turkish military has killed hundreds of PKK members and imprisoned thousands more, including the group’s founder, Abdullah Ocalan, captured in 1999 in Nairobi while en route to South Africa. A ceasefire between Turkey and the PKK, agreed in 2013 as part of a move towards a negotiated settlement, broke down in 2015, and Turkey, USA and the EU listed the PKK as a terrorist organisation. The group operates mainly from the Kurdish regions in northern Iraq and southern Turkey. Its Iranian affiliate, the PJAK, was formed in 2004 and operates between Iraq and Iran, launching attacks against Iran.

Mass demonstrations broke out in northern Iraq against the KRG’s response to the airstrikes, including in Sinjar where Turkish troops are present. In Baghdad, activists have accused Turkey of murdering civilians. The anti-Turkish demonstrations are likely to continue as the Turkish incursion persists, especially in the Sinjar region where many displaced Yazidis want to return to the homes that they had evacuated or were evicted from during the reign of terror of the Islamic State group in August 2014.

Turkish activities against the PKK in northern Iraq have also highlighted the rivalry between different Iraqi Kurdish groups, exposing historical tensions between them, which have differing views on Turkey and its role in northeastern Syria, where it has been battling Kurdish groups. The KRG’s ruling party, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP), has close relations with Turkey, and, consequently, the KRG and Turkey have strong trade links that date back to late 2000s, as well as security cooperation and intelligence sharing. These relations were temporarily disrupted when the KRG held a referendum for independence in 2017. The referendum proved to be a miscalculation by the KRG as it was condemned by regional and global powers, including its allies Turkey and the USA, as well as Iran. Then-president of the KRG, Masoud Barzani, stepped down after the referendum, paving the way for his son to succeed him and repair damaged foreign relations.

The KRG was formed as an autonomous entity in 1992 after the UN imposed a no-fly zone in the Kurdish region following Iraq’s defeat by the USA in the first Gulf War. However, rivalry between Kurdish groups prevented a stable government being formed, and it was only in 1998 that the KDP and its main rival, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), signed a US-brokered ceasefire agreement. In 2005, the Iraqi constitution granted the region autonomous status. Unlike the PUK, the KDP shares Turkey’s hostility towards the PKK, leading the PUK to accuse its rival of collaborating with Turkey and being responsible for the increased Turkish bombing of the city of Sulaymaniyah in Iraq’s eastern Kurdish region. Apart from the PUK, other Iraqi Kurdish groups that are friendly towards the PKK include the Change Movement (Gorran) and the Freedom Movement of Kurdistan Society. Turkey has been agitating with the KRG for these groups to be banned.

These differences among Kurdish groups were again highlighted when, on 21 July, Turkey revealed that it had detained Dalia Muslim, the niece of Saleh Muslim, a prominent leader of the Syrian Kurdish group, the Democratic Union Party (PYD). Ankara claimed she had defected from from the Kurdistan Protection Units (YPG), the PYD’s armed wing; she had been a fighter in the YPG’s Women’s Protection Units (YPJ). The PYD denied that she had defected, and accused the KRG of having handed her over to Turkish intelligence agents after she had travelled to Erbil for medical treatment.

Allegations of KRG ‘collaboration’ with Turkey are partly based on the close economic relations between the two. The KRG exports oil via Turkish pipelines that connect Kurdish oilfields to the Turkish port of Ceyhan. Controlling huge oil and natural gas reserves, the KRG often clashes with Baghdad over the distribution of the revenues from the sale of these resources. This dispute escalated in 2014 when Baghdad lodged a complaint against the KRG at the International Chamber of Commerce’s International Court of Arbitration (ICA) in Paris. Baghdad is demanding US$25 billion in compensation for allowing the KRG to export oil without the central government’s consent. 

The Baghdad-Ankara tension is likely to persist, especially now that Iran is involved. Turkey has found yet another reason for its antagonism to France, which it regards as interfering in its fight against ‘terrorism’. The KRG finds itself in a dilemma. On the one hand, it too wants to curb PKK activities and force it out of areas the KRG controls; on the other hand, it wants to maintain good relations with Baghdad and does not want to be seen to support foreign intervention in Iraq.

The Denis Hurley Peace Institute, an NGO that is part of the South African Catholic Bishops' Conference, regularly compiles reports on Northern Mozambique from its sources in Pemba, Mozambique. We co-publish, with the DHPI, those reports here.

COUNTRY UPDATE: 15 SEPTEMBER 2020

Johan Viljoen

Atrocities against civilians

Following the report by Amnesty International last week, giving particulars of videos detailing atrocities by government soldiers, the issue has once again been raised. On Tuesday 14 September a video emerged on social media, seemingly being taken by a soldier – a member of a group patrolling a rural area. A naked women appears in the road ahead of them. After one soldier beats her with a stick, she runs away. A soldier opens fire on her. She collapses in the road. The soldiers continue shooting at her, at close range, until there is no more movement. The group of soldiers then turn around and walk away. According to initial information received, the incident occurred in the Diaca/Oasse area, between Mueda and Mocimboa da Praia districts.

The government was quick to react. On the same day, a letter was issued by the government, condemning the incident, and stating that the military exists to protect the human rights of the country’s citizens. On Wednesday 15 September the Mozambique Army website (https://defesammoz.info) published a report by the National Commission for Human Rights calling for an investigation into the Amnesty International report. 

By Ramzy Baroud

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has largely become  an alliance in name alone. Recent events notwithstanding, the conflict brewing over territorial waters in the eastern Mediterranean suggests that the military union between mostly western countries is faltering. The current Turkish-Greek tension is only one facet of a much larger conflict involving – aside from these two Mediterranean countries – Israel, Egypt, Cyprus, France, Libya and other Mediterranean and European countries. Notably absent from the list are the United States and Russia; the latter, in particular, stands to gain or lose much economic leverage, depending on the outcome of the conflict.

Conflicts of this nature tend to have historic roots; in this case, it is important to consider that Turkey and Greece fought a brief but consequential war in 1974. Also of relevance to the current conflagration is an agreement signed by the Israeli prime minister, Benyamin Netanyahu, and his Greek and Cypriot counterparts, Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Nicos Anastasiades, respectively, on 2 January. It envisages the establishment of the EastMed pipeline that is projected, once finalised, to flood Europe with Israeli natural gas, pumped mostly from the Leviathan Basin. Several European countries are keen on being part of, and profiting from, the project. However, Europe’s gain is not just economic; it is also geostrategic. Cheap Israeli gas will reduce Europe’s reliance on Russia’s natural gas, which arrives in Europe through two pipelines: Nord Stream and Gazprom, the latter extending through Turkey. 

Gazprom alone supplies Europe with an estimated forty per cent of its natural gas needs, thus giving Russia significant economic and political leverage in Europe. Some European countries, especially France, have laboured hard to liberate themselves from what they see as a Russian economic chokehold on their economies because of the gas supply. Indeed, the French and Italian rivalry currently under way in Libya is tantamount to colonial expeditions aimed at balancing out the over-reliance on Russian and Turkish supplies of gas and other sources of energy.

Fully aware of France’s and Italy’s intentions in Libya, the Russians and Turks are wholly involved in Libya’s military showdown between the forces of the Government of National Accord (GNA) and those from the East, loyal to Khalifa Haftar, and organised under the militia called the Libyan National Army. The conflict in Libya has been under way for a decade, but the issue of the EastMed pipeline that will supply Israeli gas has added fuel to the fire: it has infuriated Turkey, which is excluded from the agreement; worried Russia, whose gas arrives in Europe partially via Turkey; and empowered Israel, which will likely use this as an opportunity to cement its economic integration with the European continent. 

Anticipating the Israel-led alliance, Turkey and Libya signed a Maritime Boundary Treaty on 28 November 2019 that gave Ankara access to Libya’s territorial waters. The bold manoeuvre now allows Turkey to claim territorial rights for gas exploration in a massive region that extends from the Turkish southern coast to Libya’s north-east coast. Europe finds this ‘Exclusive Economic Zone’ (EEZ) unacceptable because, if it is used effectively by Turkey, it could nullify the importance of the ambitious EastMed project, and fundamentally alter the currently geopolitical situation in the region, which is largely dictated by Europe and guaranteed by NATO.

However, NATO is no longer the formidable and unified power it once was. Since its inception in 1949, NATO rose dramatically; NATO members fought major wars in the name of defending the interests of member states, and to protect ‘the West’ from the ‘Soviet menace’. NATO remained strong and relatively unified even after the dismantlement of the Soviet Union and the abrupt collapse, in 1991, of its Warsaw Pact. NATO managed to sustain a degree of unity, despite its raison d’être – defeating the Soviets – being no longer being a factor. This was mainly because Washington wished to maintain its global military hegemony, especially in the Middle East. 

The Iraq war of 1991 was the first powerful expression of NATO’s new mission, but the Iraq war of 2003 signalled NATO’s undoing. After failing to achieve any of its goals in Iraq, the USA adopted an ‘exit strategy’ that foresaw a gradual American retreat from Iraq while, simultaneously, ‘pivoting to Asia’ in the desperate hope of slowing down China’s military encroachment in the Pacific. The best expression of the American decision to divest militarily from the Middle East was NATO’s war on Libya launched in March 2011. Military strategists had to devise a bewildering new term, ‘leading from behind’, to describe the role that the USA played in the assault on Libya. For the first time since the establishment of NATO, the USA was part of a conflict that was largely controlled by comparatively smaller and weaker NATO members – Italy, France, Britain and others. While the former US president, Barack Obama, insisted on the centrality of NATO in US military strategies, it was evident that the once-powerful alliance had outlived its usefulness for Washington. 

France, in particular, continues to fight for NATO with the same ferocity it fought to keep the European Union intact. It is this French faith in European and western ideals that has compelled Paris to fill the gap left by the gradual American withdrawal. France is currently playing the role of the military hegemon and political leader in many of the Middle East’s ongoing crises (and a few in Africa), including the flaring east Mediterranean conflict. On 3 December 2019, France’s Emmanuel Macron stood up to the US president, Donald Trump, at the NATO summit in London. There, Trump had chastised NATO for its reliance on American defence, and had threatened to pull out of the alliance altogether if NATO members did not compensate Washington for its protection.

It is a strange and unprecedented spectacle when countries such as Israel, Greece, Egypt, Libya, Turkey and others lay claims over the Mediterranean, while NATO scrambles to stave off an outright war among its own members. It is even stranger to see France and Germany taking over the leadership of NATO while the USA remains almost completely absent. It is difficult to imagine the reinvention of NATO into a body that no longer caters to Washington’s interests and diktats. Judging by France’s recent behaviour, the future may hold irreversible paradigm shifts for the alliance. In November 2018, Macron made what seemed a baffling proposal at the time when he called for the establishment of a ‘true, European army’. Considering the rapid regional developments and the incremental collapse of NATO, Macron may one day get his army, after all.

Ramzy Baroud is a journalist and the Editor of The Palestine Chronicle, and the author of five books. His latest is These Chains Will Be Broken: Palestinian Stories of Struggle and Defiance in Israeli Prisons

 

The Denis Hurley Peace Institute, an NGO that is part of the South African Cathholic Bishops' Conference, regularly compiles reports on Northern Mozambique from its sources in Pemba, Mozambique. We co-publish, with the DHPI, those reports here.

COUNTRY UPDATE: 9 September 2020

Johan Viljoen

Nuns kidnapped in Mocimboa da Praia freed

Club of Mozambique reported the following:

The two sisters of the congregation of St. Joseph of Chambery kidnapped on 12 August in Mocímboa da Praia (Mozambique) have been freed. This was announced on Sunday, September 6, by Mgr. Luiz Fernando Lisboa, Bishop of Pemba. “The nuns – highlights the Bishop in a note sent to Agenzia Fides – are safe and sound. Inês and Eliane, who work in the parish of Mocímboa da Praia, after twenty-four days spent in prisons, are back among us”.

The two nuns of Brazilian origin had been kidnapped during a furious attack by al-Shabab militias, on Tuesday 12 August, in Mocímboa da Praia, an important centre in the province of Cabo Delgado. On that occasion, the police and the armed forces were forced to withdraw hastily, leaving the militia free for a few days. During that period, the nuns were kidnapped from their community and taken away. For a few days nothing was known about them, but the national and international authorities immediately mobilised to facilitate their release. The negotiations were successful.

Disputes within Libya’s Government of National Accord (GNA), highlighted last week by the suspension of the interior minister, Fathi Bashagha, suggests a power struggle within the GNA that could be an obstacle in the implementation of the 21 August ceasefire announced by the Tripoli-based GNA and the House of Representatives (HoR) based in the east of the country. Bashagha was suspended on 29 August by GNA head Fayez Sarraj, ostensibly because of his handling of protests in Tripoli and Misrata against Libya’s worsening living standards, where some militia indiscriminately fired on protesters and abduct a few people.

Some concerns have been expressed within the GNA about Bashagha’s growing popularity and his attempts to curb the powers of Tripoli-based militia groups, many of which celebrated his suspension, and some of which participated in the protest crackdown. Bashagha had supported the protests and criticised the crackdown. Sarraj, using a legalistic argument, said protesters had not obtained relevant permits. He suspended Bashaga, who was on an official visit to Turkey, for contradicting him. Sarraj also simultaneously replaced the defence minister and head of the army, giving credence to suspicions that the GNA feared Bashagha had been plotting a coup; he has a large popular base and is supported by Turkey and Qatar. The interior minister returned to Libya, saying he would subject himself to an inquiry but demanding it be held publicly. Meanwhile, the seventy-two hour timeframe that the GNA had set for an investigation elapsed with no date being announced for a hearing.

Bashagha’s sacking followed a rare mood of optimism in Libya after the GNA and HoR announced a ceasefire that could lead to restarting negotiations aimed at ending the country’s six-year-long civil war. GNA and HoR statements were announced simultaneously following German mediation, with the two parties agreeing to a ceasefire, an end to the oil blockade imposed by the HoR, and the holding of an election tentatively set for March 2021. They had also agreed to demilitarise the strategic western town of Sirte, birthplace of former Libyan leader Muammar Gadhdhafi, around which there has been a build-up of forces since June. 

The agreement highlighted that differences between the GNA and HoR had already been narrowing, with officials from the High State Council (HSC), the GNA’s parliamentary arm, saying they were amenable to negotiations with HoR speaker Ageela Saleh. The ‘five-plus-five’ talks between military leaders from the two sides had resumed under UN auspices, and oil exports had already partially recommenced. Two foreign actors involved in the conflict, Turkey and Russia, supporting the GNA and HoR respectively, had agreed on intra-Libyan dialogue and considered forming a joint working group aimed at concluding a ceasefire agreement. Even Egypt, a staunch supporter of the east, feared being further dragged into the conflict and advocated negotiations. Moreover, senior officials from the GNA and the HSC had advocated negotiations with Saleh, with Cairo, Algeria and Moscow likewise holding talks with the HoR speaker.

All these initiatives suggest a change in the balance of power in the east; Saleh’s power has strengthened at the expense of Khalifa Haftar, the powerful leader of the Libyan National Army (LNA) militia. Haftar is determined to achieve a military victory over the GNA, believes it is possible – more than eighteen months after his failed April 2019 march on Tripoli, and has rejected the ceasefire. Until recently, Haftar had pretended that his militia was an army of the HoR, but, in reality, he exercised control over Saleh and the HoR. It seems that his foreign backers Russia and Egypt are switching their support to Saleh instead. A coalescence of domestic, regional and global actors around the ceasefire has thus occurred. Unlike the concluding stages of the December 2015 Libyan Political Agreement (Skhirat agreement), this ceasefire was not imposed by foreign powers, but was a culmination of global pressure and domestic realisation of the futility of hoping for a military solution.

Bashagha’s suspension might impede the ceasefire’s implementation since his support was crucial in enabling Tripoli to withstand Haftar’s assault. He is popular in Misrata, whose militia’s support is required for any ceasefire to be successful, and among foreign backers, including Turkey, Qatar and even the USA, which urged Sarraj and Bashagha to reconcile. This, together with the fact of Haftar’s rejection of the ceasefire, and that he still is the most powerful domestic actor in the east and heads the strongest militia, threatens the ceasefire.

Another factor is that the GNA and HoR statements disagreed on the areas to be demilitarised. The GNA claims the agreement calls for the demilitarisation of Sirte and Jufra, where Moscow has an airbase, while the HoR’s statement mentions only Sirte. Moreover, there is no agreement on who would be tasked with implementing and monitoring the demilitarisation and ceasefire.

Moscow, which has strong economic interests in eastern Libya, could also act as a spoiler if it believes that negotiations will jeopardise these interests. In May, it dispatched fourteen aircraft, including MiG 29s and SU 24s, to Jufra to halt the GNA’s march toward Sirte and Jufra. The Russian paramilitary company Wagner also consolidated control over the country’s oilfields in the south and east, and assisted Haftar to implement the almost six-month-long oil blockade. Likewise, the UAE remains opposed to Turkey and the Islamist component of the GNA, and is unlikely to end its support for Haftar soon. Between April 2019 and April 2020, UAE aircraft were involved in over 850 attacks on GNA targets; Emirati support was key in enabling Haftar to snub a 13 January ceasefire agreement mediated by Turkey and Russia.

Concretising the ceasefire into a genuine political agreement will prove difficult, especially with calls from the east for autonomy, and in light of the different foreign interests in the outcome. The UN has been unsuccessful, since 2018, in its attempt to hold new elections in Libya, and attempts to initiate talks between Sarraj and Haftar under the auspices of France, Italy, and even Russia and Turkey have all failed. Egypt also sent its head of Military Intelligence, Major General Khaled Megawer, to reassure Haftar; Cairo is hedging its bets by talking to both the LNA and Libyan tribal leaders in the east. The tribes form the backbone of Saleh’s influence, and have largely filled the vacuum left by the decay of the country’s political and social institutions. For its part, Turkey recently concluded a military agreement with the GNA and Qatar. These dynamics point to some of the major domestic and regional obstacles to the ceasefire’s success and to hopes that it migh pave the way for substantive negotiations. 

Meanwhile, the situation facing civilians continues to worsen. The COVID-19 crises is intensifying; it has been cited by both the GNA and HoR as a reason for the ceasefire. Social services, especially health care, continue to deteriorate, and corruption remains rampant. The country lost much of its hard currency reserves, which are necessary to remunerate civil servants and restart public services. Only around 90 000 barrels of oil out of a possible 1.2 million were produced in June, netting the National Oil Corporation only forty-five million dollars; Libya lost over six billion dollars in oil revenue since January. Protests occurred in Tripoli and Misrata over the country’s dire economic situation, and spread to HoR-controlled Sabah and Qubah in the south and east of the country. 

Despite these negative and cautionary factors, the ceasefire does provide some room for cautious optimism, especially if the oil blockade is fully lifted and fighting reduces steadily and substantially. However, much more is required for this to eventuate in a political solution. Bashagha’s suspension could hinder this progress since it will embolden Haftar, and because it could be the beginning of fragmentation in the GNA.

The Denis Hurley Peace Institute, an NGO that is part of the South African Cathholic Bishops' Conference, regularly compiles reports on Northern Mozambique from its sources in Pemba, Mozambique. We co-publish, with the DHPI, those reports here.

COUNTRY UPDATES: 2 SEPTEMBER 2020

Johan Viljoen

President visits Bishop of Pemba

On 31 August 2020 President Felipe Nyusi held a meeting with Bishop Luis Fernando Lisboa at the Episcopal Palace in Pemba.  Bishop Luiz Fernando, who invited the President of the Republic, speaking at the end of the private meeting to journalists present, thanked the chief executive of Mozambique for his availability. In turn, Filipe Nyusi was happy and grateful for the invitation and praised the role of the Church in Cabo Delgado.

After the meeting with Bishop  Luiz Lisboa, Nyusi delivered a reassuring speech: “The country is living at a time when it needs to speak, to dialogue. It is necessary to understand what the other sees and what the other knows. Being a religious, this Bishop of ours has a lot of information. It is logical information because the church is implanted here in the territory of the province and has many believers, priests. We took the opportunity to share information and even exchange some ideas ”. The Bishop of Pemba thanked  the President of the Republic and said that the conversation had been “rich” and “fruitful”.

The meeting followed two weeks of escalating tension between the Church and the State, during which period the Holy Father personally phoned the Bishop, and the Mozambique Episcopal Conference issued a Pastoral letter, in a show of unity.

Within days of the United Arab Emirates and Israel signing a deal to normalise relations, the UAE indefinitely postponed a ceremonial signing eventthat was to be held with the USA and Israel because of Israeli opposition to Abu Dhabi purchasing F-35 fighters from the USA. The UAE cancelled the trilateral meeting that was supposed to take place on 31 August. It is clear that the F-35 sale was an integral part of the agreement, and the Emiratis claim that the Israeli prime minister, Benyamin Netanyahu, had agreed to it. No wonder that Netanyahu’s rejection of the possibility of such a sale outraged the UAE. These developments also suggest, as some Palestinians have pointed out, that the deal had nothing to do with Israel agreeing to halt plans to annex Palestinian territory, as Abu Dhabi had claimed. 

The normalisation agreement between the UAE and Israel, concluded on 13 August, is far from being the historical deal the protagonists make it out to be. Instead, it exposed an existing affair the two states have cultivated from the mid-2000s. Although the UAE has just joined Egypt and Jordan as the only Arab countries with peace agreements with Israel, UAE-Israel secret relations for more than a decade have included commerce, cyber technology, security and military hardware and energy; these will strengthen and become overt under the new agreement. Israel had, in fact, secretly established and strengthened relations with a number of Gulf States in recent years, and some of these have reached maturity under US president Donald Trump. 

Even before this agreement was concluded, Emirati-Israeli cooperation had strengthened with the assistance of the Trump administration. The UAE was one of three Arab countries to attend the unveiling of Trump’s farcical ‘deal of the century’ in January, and was a critical part of the June 2019 economic package for Palestinians designed by Trump’s adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, and announced in a conference for this purpose in Bahrain. Following the conference, Israeli ministers undertook several visits to the UAE, signalling progress towards normalisation. A series of cooperation agreements between the UAE and Israel to tackle the COVID-19 pandemic and an Emirati plane landing in Tel Aviv in July signalled increasing relations between the two countries, and the normalisation agreement was the logical next step. In July, in a move now seen as preparing the ground for the normalisation deal, the Emirati ambassador to the USA, Yousef Al-Otaiba, published an op-ed in an Israeli newspaper after Netanyahu had announced plans to annex parts of the West Bank, calling for these plans to be halted. Two other Gulf countries, Bahrain and Oman, as well Sudan could follow soon with normalisation plans.

Tracing UAE-Israel relations

Current relations between the UAE and Israel may be traced back to 2009, after the inauguration of Barack Obama as US president. The relationship blossomed via secret meetings held to pressure Washington into taking a stronger stance against Iran. However, UAE purchases of military intelligence software and arms deals suggest the relations started in the early 2000s. The two countries had already been communicating via intermediaries, mostly discussing their common opposition to Iran. 

Mossad’s assassination of Mahmoud al-Mabhouh, Hamas leader and co-founder of the movement’s armed wing, Al-Qassam Brigades, in January 2010 threatened carefully-nurtured and ongoing secret links between the two states. Contact stalled over Mabhouh’s murder until 2012 when Netanyahu secretly met the Emirati foreign minister, Abdullah Bin Zayed, in New York during the UN General Assembly. Talks on Iranian activities in the region resumed, establishing mutual geopolitical concerns. Emirati cooperation with Israel accelerated as a response to the 2010/11 Arab uprisings and Iranian involvement in the Syrian conflict. In January 2014, then Israeli energy minister, Silvan Shalom, attended a renewable energy conference in Abu Dhabi, spurring on relations. In the following year, the UAE granted Israel permission to establish an office in Abu Dhabi for the International Renewable Energy Agency, which has served as platform for regular communication between the two countries.

To showcase the relationship and test responses, the UAE, in a break with a decades-old practice among Arab states, allowed the Israeli national anthem to be played for Israeli athletes at a judo tournament held in Abu Dhabi in October 2018. This was followed by visits to Abu Dhabi by Israel’s communications and culture ministers, Ayoub Kara and Miri Regev respectively, in the same week that Netanyahu made an unprecedented visit to Oman in which he met the country’s ruler, Sultan Qaboos. Gulf leaders reciprocated.  For example, the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) was reported secretly to have visited Israel and met with Israeli officials; his visit was preceded by a July 2016 delegation led by former Saudi general, Anwar Eshki, who also met with Israeli officials.

In July 2019, the Israeli foreign minister, Israel Katz, attended the UN climate conference in Abu Dhabi, and, on the sidelines of the conference, discussed Iran with senior UAE officials as well as the Israeli ‘Tracks for Regional Peace’ initiative meant to open up travel and trade between Israel and Gulf countries. Katz’s visit came on the heels of the US economic conference in Bahrain. While such official visits between Israeli and certain Gulf states did not represent diplomatic relationships, they showed that Israel was making headway towards normalisation with Gulf countries – especially key players such as Saudi Arabia and the UAE. This was cemented in December 2019 when USA hosted Israel and the UAE in an anti-Iran meeting that discussed a non-aggression pact between the two states as a step towards full diplomatic ties.

 

Normalisation, weapons and strategic alliances

Until recently, the UAE and Saudi Arabia had shied away from overt relations with Israel for fear of backlash from their citizens. This changed with Trump’s attempts to build an anti-Iran coalition with Gulf states. 

Emirati-Israeli relations have grown significantly in the fields of cyber-espionage and big data analysis since 2009. Acquiring Israeli technology and cybersecurity expertise has boosted the UAE’s domestic and regional surveillance capabilities – even against its own citizens. The UAE uses Israeli companies such as DarkMatter and NSO Group, staffed by Israeli cyber experts, to hack phones, gather intelligence and monitor Islamists, other dissidents and other Gulf leaders. Many Israeli military and security specialists also work for Emirati companies, and have often been hired as mercenaries since the Arab uprisings of 2010/2011.

Although the 13 August normalisation deal is a victory for Israel, which seeks legitimacy among Arab states in order to make the Palestinians irrelevant in international affairs, the Emiratis also scored big in the deal, or so they initially thought. The package included a US agreement to sell F-35 fighter jets to Abu Dhabi in a multi-million-dollar-sale. The UAE had been looking for ways to acquire F-35s as it seeks to present itself militarily as the region’s emerging hegemon. Netanyahu, however, quickly denied these Emirati claims that F-35 acquisition  had been secured, emphasising that Israel remained opposed to the sale of advanced weapons to Arab countries. Israel’s opposition to the sale of the jets to the UAE created tensions in the new alliance. Abu Dhabi cancelled the meeting that was to mark the official and ceremonial signing of the normalisation agreement in protest against Netanyahu’s opposition to the F-35 sale. Meanwhile, conflicting sentiments have emerged from the White House. 

Differences also quickly emerged about Emirati claims that the normalisation agreement included an end to Israeli plans for the annexation of the West Bank. Within hours of the deal’s announcement, Netanyahu confirmed his commitment to annexation, saying it only been delayed, not cancelled. Kushner supported the Israeli prime minister, clarifying that the annexation was only temporarily halted to allow Israel to focus on strengthening its relations with Gulf countries. Clearly, the Emiratis failed in their attempts to win Arab support by packaging  normalisation with Israel as a move to support Palestinians.

The attendance of Otaiba, the UAE ambassador to the USA, at the unveiling of Trump’s ‘deal of the century’ in January had already indicated the increasing Emirati disregard for Palestinians. In drafting Trump’s plan, Kushner had consulted widely with Gulf countries – especially the UAE and Saudi Arabia. These countries had formed part of the process despite the fact that no Palestinians had been consulted. The Palestinian Authority (PA) and other Palestinian groups had slammed Emirati support for the heavily pro-Israel plan as the ultimate betrayal. The same sense of betrayal was expressed when the UAE-Israel deal was announced this month.

The Dahlan effect

The Emirati attitude to and interference in Palestinian affairs can be seen in the role of exiled former Fatah strongmanMohammed Dahlan, arch enemy of PA and PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas. After being expelled by Fatah, Dahlan found refuge and massive financial support in the UAE. Some of those financial resources have been dedicated to undermining Abbas to set the stage for Dahlan to capture the PA and PLO. Many Palestinians credit him for being behind the UAE-Israel deal. Dahlan, who used to be close to the CIA and the Israeli security establishment, was convicted for corruption by a Palestinian court in 2014. Since then, from exile, he has tried to to re-enter Palestinian politics and return to Palestine. The UAE, Egypt and Israel prefer him as a replacement or replacement for or successor to Abbas. He has built a support base among sections of Fatah youth in Gaza, some of the refugee camps in Lebanon, and in a few Palestinian diplomatic missions abroad.

The UAE also has a difficult relationship with Gaza-based Hamas, which it treats with hostility because of the group’s links to the Muslim Brotherhood. Although the UAE has not officially designated Hamas a terrorist group, Emirati officials refer to it as such in private, especially after the 2017 blockade on Qatar, imposed by the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Bahrain and Egypt. UAE ally Saudi Arabia has detained dozens of Hamas activists since February 2019, allegedly at Israel’s bidding.

Through Dahlan, the UAE has sponsored aid projects in Gaza. In May and June this year, the UAE also sent two planeloads of COVID-19 aid to Israel for Palestinians in the West Bank. The first plane landed in Tel Aviv in May, unmarked, while the second plane bore the Etihad airline logo and the UAE flag, marking significant strides in UAE-Israel relations. Despite being cash strapped and battling the pandemic, the PA rejected both planeloads, viewing Emirati coordination with Israel (and the lack of consultation with Palestinians) as a betrayal. The recent normalisation deal emphasised this sense of betrayal; protests against it erupted in both the West Bank and Gaza, with protesters burning pictures of the UAE crown prince, Mohammed Bin Zayed Al-Nahyan, Dahlan, Trump and Netanyahu.

Other Gulf states may follow

Oman and Bahrain, both of which immediately praised the UAE-Israel agreement, are expected to follow the Emiratis, allowing Israel to realise its long-time dream of normalisation with regional states while isolating the Palestinians. Israel’s foreign minister, Gabi Ashkenazi, and his Omani counterpart, Yusuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, have already discussed strengthening bilateral ties. The USA hoped that plans to normalise might be announced soon, and the recent regional tour of Kushner and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was aimed to finalise these plans. Pompeo’s trip to Bahrain on 26 August did not yield the hoped-for results, however, as the Bahraini king emphasised the creation of a Palestinian state. Sudan’s transitional government also backtracked. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Morocco have reiterated their stance not to normalise relations with Israel until a peace deal with Palestinians is reached. However, this does not preclude relations taking place secretly.

Secret relations persist between Israel and certain Gulf countries, as well as some Arab states in Africa. Before Bahrain, Pompeo visited Khartoum and met the Sudanese prime minister, Abdullah Hamdok, who disputed claims that his country will normalise relations with Israel, despite Sudanese officials having secretly met Netanyahu in February to discuss normalisation. Despite Sudan’s transitional government issuing conflicting statements on the matter, an 18 August meeting between Mossad chief Yossi Cohen and member of Sudan’s Sovereignty Council, Mohamed Hamdan Dagalo (Hemeti), in Abu Dhabi suggests that that closed door relations will take place despite Hamdok’s statement.

The Denis Hurley Peace Institute, an NGO that is part of the South African Cathholic Bishops' Conference, regularly compiles reports on Northern Mozambique from its sources in Pemba, Mozambique. We co-publish, with the DHPI, those reports here.

COUNTRY UPDATE: 27 AUGUST 2020

Johan Viljoen

Press Freedom Under Attack

Following attacks on the Church last week, the independent media in Mozambique has also come under attack, posing a serious threat to press freedom and freedom of expression. At 20h00 on the evening of Sunday 23 August, the Maputo offices of Canalmoz/Canal de Moçambique were attacked by unknown assailants, and firebombed. Destruction was total – all files, computers, printers and other equipment were destroyed.

By Joseph Hanlon

There is growing pressure in South Africa for military intervention in the insurgency in Cabo Delgado province in northern Mozambique. But the government needs to be aware that it would be choosing sides in an extremely complicated civil war. The elite from the ruling party, Frelimo, its international backers and the proponents of military support say the war is part of a global campaign by the Islamic State group (IS) militant group that might spread to South Africa.

In fact, this is a civil war in Cabo Delgado driven by growing poverty and inequality. From Boko Haram in Nigeria to insurgents in Cabo Delgado, Isis has tagged on to local insurgencies driven by inequality and marginalisation, only adding a bit of publicity and aid. And it is pleased to see the global panic, which builds its brand.

The Denis Hurley Peace Institute, an NGO that is part of the South African Cathholic Bishops' Conference, regularly compiles reports on Northern Mozambique from its sources in Pemba, Mozambique. We co-publish, with the DHPI, those reports here.

COUNTRY UPDATE: 20 AUGUST  2020

Johan Viljoen

Attacks on the Church continue. On Sunday 16 August, during a press conference announcing the electrification of government buildings in rural areas, President Nyusi criticized foreigners living in Cabo Delgado, who were undermining security in the name of protecting human rights. Although nobody was mentioned by name, it was followed up almost immediately by a Facebook post by Gustavo Mavie, widely circulated, saying that the Bishop had a political agenda, and accusing him of providing support to insurgents – see https://facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=10223280252014527&id=1231517071

Civil society and human rights activists reacted swiftly. Social media commentator Elvino Dias, in an article titled “Please don’t kill our Bishop” pointed out that the killing of Professor Gilles Cistac was also preceded by similar attacks on social media by an individual calling himself “Kalado Kalashinicov”, before the Professor was assassinated by death squads. 

The Denis Hurley Peace Institute, an NGO that is part of the South African Cathholic Bishops' Conference, regularly compiles reports on Northern Mozambique from its sources in Pemba, Mozambique. We co-publish, with the DHPI, those reports here.

COUNTRY UPDATE: 13 August 2020

Johan Viljoen

The most recent offensive by insurgents in Cabo Delgado culminated in the capture and occupation of the important and strategic port of Mocímboa da Praia, on Tuesday night, 11 August 2020, several local sources reported to Voice of America (VOA). The insurgents took control of the town after almost five days of clashes, which started on August 5, between them and the Mozambican Navy (Marines), who defended the port, until they ran out of ammunition.

The Islamic State group posted images of killed members of the Mozambican  Defense and Security Forces (SDS) on its communication channels, as well as weapons and ammunition captured in two barracks in Mocímboa da Praia. 

Ethiopia’s announcement on 21 July that it had already filled its Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) to its first year’s target has temporarily quelled tensions between it, Egypt and Sudan. The GERD, which will be the largest dam in Africa when completed, has been a source of great tension between these three states since it was initially announced in April 2011. Sudan and Egypt, downstream from Ethiopia on the Nile River, regard the dam as a threat to their water security and dominance over the Nile. But the current easing of tensions is temporary. The three countries will return to talks, under the auspices of the African Union (AU), to negotiate future filling of the GERD and the conclusion of a comprehensive agreement. This will be no easy task, especially since Cairo stubbornly insists that it is entitled to the bulk of the Nile water, and should have a veto over upstream dam construction or other developments. This attitude, which originates in the British colonial era, is, however, incompatible with the changing balance of power in the Nile Basin and with international norms regarding water-sharing.

Historic overview

The two tributaries of the Nile flow through eleven countries, and are relied upon by over forty per cent of the African continent’s population. Its small capacity (eighty-four billion cubic metres relative to other large rivers, such as the Amazon River (5 500 billion cubic meters), Congo River (1 250 billion cubic meters), and even the Niger River (180 billion cubic meters), and large number of dependent people and countries means that it has often been seen as having the potential to create conflict. This is especially since two downstream states, Egypt and Sudan, individually receive less than twenty-five millimetres of rain annually, thus contributing little to nothing to the river, but consuming more of its water than any of the other Nile riparian states. Egypt, particularly, is dependent on the Nile for over ninety-five per cent of its fresh water and irrigation needs. 

The Nile River originates through two main sources, Lake Victoria (bordered by Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya) giving rise to the White Nile, and Lake Tana in Ethiopia, the source of the Blue Nile, with feeder tributaries from Rwanda and Burundi. The White Nile comprises around fifteen per cent of the river, and the other eighty-five per cent is the Blue Nile. Both tributaries meet in Khartoum, Sudan, and then flow into Egypt. Egypt, South Sudan, Sudan and Ethiopia are very highly dependent on the Nile; Uganda is highly dependent; Tanzania, Rwanda, Kenya and Burundi are moderately dependent on it; and the Democratic Republic of the Congo has a low dependence on it. 

Although the Nile has, for thousands of years, played a critical role in the lives of communities through which it flows, two more recent factors have influenced its current water usage: British colonisation of most of the area comprising the basin, and, thereafter, Egyptian attempts to ‘secure’ the river for itself. In relation to British colonialism, two main treaties regarding the Nile were agreed upon, one between Egypt and Britain, which, at the time, ruled many of the upstream states such as Tanzania and Uganda, and the other between Egypt and the Sudan. Egypt continues to cite these colonial-era treaties as its justification to deflect attempts to make Nile usage more equitable. The 1929 treaty recognised Egypt’s ‘natural’ and ‘historic’ rights to the river, and affording it the major share of the water. The treaty also tasked Egypt with monitoring the river, and gave it a veto vote over any Nile projects in upstream states. 

The second treaty, signed in 1959 by Egypt and the Sudan, renewed the 1929 treaty, granting Sudan the use of four billion cubic metres of water, and Egypt 48 billion. This second treaty hinted at the possibility of other states sharing the water, but Sudan and Egypt would first have to agree to such usage. The water allocation to Sudan and Egypt has since been revised upwards as a result of the construction of the High Aswan Dam in Egypt, and the Roseires Dam in Sudan. Sudan is now allotted 18.5 billion cubic meters, and Egypt 55 billion. The two countries have historically negotiated between themselves regarding the building of dams in either of their territories, and regarding water allocations, and they have generally adopted a common stance in negotiations with upstream states. In light of the clean slate and Nyerere Doctrines on treaty succession, both of which assert that newly-independent states can choose which colonial era treaties to remain bound by, the legitimacy of the 1929 and 1959 treaties is questionable.

Egypt is almost totally dependent on the Nile, especially since ninety-seven per cent of its population resides in the Nile valley; it is reliant on the river for over ninety-five per cent of its fresh water needs. The Egyptian state therefore threatened to use force to secure the river’s flow through its territory. In order to do so, both Egypt and Sudan even supported Ethiopian rebel groups, including the Eritrean and Tikrayan liberation movements, to weaken the country. This ultimately led to the 1993 secession of Eritrea. Egypt also pressured financial institutions to refrain from funding dam construction projects in upper riparian states. Thus, even if they had wanted to, it was no financially not possible for most Nile basin states to carry out construction on the river.

Political and power balance alterations

Since the mid-1990s, the power balance in the region has been shifting. Ethiopia has strengthened politically, economically and militarily, while Egypt and Sudan have weakened. Sudan split into two entities in 2011, with the Republic of Sudan losing much of its oil and agricultural resources to the new South Sudan state. Funding difficulties were alleviated for some states with the entry of China into the continent; it funded a number of dam projects, including the Tana Belez and Tekez dams in Ethiopia and the Marowe Dam in Sudan. Furthermore, the global discourse around water usage has changed. Whereas treaties and hard power had previously been the norm, human security and equity are now increasingly being promoted. The Helsinki and Berlin rules on water usage developed by the international law association, and the 1997 UN Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses, emphasise equity in water usage allowances. 

A combination of these factors resulted in the 1999 creation of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), between the ten countries through which the Nile traversed. The NBI’s aim was to achieve sustainable socioeconomic development through the equitable utilisation of the Nile. A new water-sharing framework, the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA or Entebbe agreement) was conceptualised to replace the outdated 1959 treaty. Although Egyptian and Sudanese opposition stalled the process, it was adopted since upstream states had a majority of members The CFA provided for Nile water to be shared equitably among all Nile Basin countries while causing as little harm to downstream counties as possible. It also stipulated that upstream countries would no longer require Egypt’s consent for water projects. Water security rather than ‘historical rights’ would be the criterion for water usage, according to Article 14B of the CFA, resulting in it being vehemently opposed by Egypt and Sudan. They claimed this had crossed a ‘red line’, and Egypt predicted that it lead to the NBI’s collapse. Six states – Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, and Ethiopia – have signed the agreement, making it legally enforceable.

GERD and its consequences

Following the overthrow of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak in 2011, Ethiopia saw an opportunity to assert itself in the matter of the Nile. In April 2011, it announced the creation of the Millennium Dam, now known as the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). The idea had previously been touted by the US National Bureau of Reclamation in 1966, in response to Soviet funding of Egypt’s Aswan High Dam, as part of the US-Soviet proxy war in Africa. The proposed dam was conceived as a strong source of hydroelectrical power for the country, which could supply over 6 000 megawatts annually. Sixty-five million of Ethiopia’s 110-million population could receive energy from it. Former Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi also asserted that it would be used to irrigate 500 000 hectares of land. However, Addis Ababa subsequently asserted that it would used solely for electricity generation.

Funding for the dam was generated through a variety of measures, including the issuance of bonds to Ethiopian citizens and businesses, and public servants being docked a month’s salary. Wealthy Ethiopian businesspeople such as Mohammed Al-Amoudi also invested in the project, but this was minimal compared to the amount raised through public funding. Ethiopia thus did not require foreign funding, a factor Egypt had initially hoped would prevent the project going ahead. Costing around five billion dollars, the dam is being built in the Benishangul-Gumuz region of Ethiopia, about twenty kilometres away from the Sudanese border. It will be the largest dam on the continent, the tenth largest in the world, and its reservoir will hold around seventy-four-billion cubic metres of water once completed. Originally planned to be completed in 2017, delays and the suicide of its chief engineer meant that it is currently only seventy per cent complete. The current level of completion did, however, allow filling to begin in 2020. 

Egypt and Sudan have opposed the dam from the planning stages, arguing for their ‘historical right’ to determine the Nile’s usage. Egypt insisted it would impair the Nile’s flow, and the electricity generation capacity of Egypt’s Aswan High Dam. Some studies, which were confirmed by Ethiopian officials during negotiations, put the losses at between eight and twenty billion cubic metres annually, accounting for between twenty and forty per cent of the Blue Nile’s flow to Sudan and then Egypt, which could drastically impact fresh water access for Egypt’s ninety million people. Further, the Aswan High Dam’s electricity generation capacity will drop by between twenty-five and forty per cent. However, this risk will be realised only if Ethiopia fills the dam in four years. Although this was the original intention, Ethiopia subsequently agreed to fill it in seven to nine years. Tensions came to a head in May 2013, when Ethiopia diverted the river’s course to facilitate the dam construction. Egyptian politicians in a parliamentary meeting, accidentally livestreamed by Egyptian television, called for the bombing of the dam and Egyptian support to rebel groups to destabilise Ethiopia. Both Ethiopia and Sudan condemned the calls.

Sudan subsequently dropped its opposition to the GERD in December 2013, mainly because it would also benefit with increased electricity supply through its connection to Ethiopia’s electricity grid. The dam would also regulate the flow of the river to South Sudan and Sudan, thus reducing floods during the rainy seasons and enabling Sudan to increase crop rotations to three times annually from the current once a year. It would also reduce sediment flow; currently, Sudan is able to use only half the water capacity of the Saddar and Roseires dams because of sediment. Sudan uses only around twelve billion of its eighteen billion cubic metre water allocation from the Nile, even though it is a water scarce country; the Sudanese are less dependent on Nile waters than Egypt. Sudan is also less dependent on the Blue Nile, whose flow Ethiopia will impede, because the White Nile, unaffected by the GERD also flows through it.

Sudan’s changed position, together with Ethiopia’s obduracy, forced Egypt to also alter its position. I August 2014, Cairo acquiesced to the GERD’s construction, insisting on an expert panel’s technical analysis of the dam’s impact, but dropping its demand that construction be halted until the completion of the analysis. This paved the way for a March 2015 agreement, the ‘Agreement on Declaration of Principles between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan on the GERDP’ The agreement recognised that Sudan and Egypt would be impacted by the dam’s construction, but stipulated water sharing among the three states. Principle four of the ten-principle declaration also acknowledged usage rights based on river drainage; Ethiopia has the third largest land drainage of the whole river, including its Blue and White branches, after Sudan and South Sudan. The agreement further clarified that the dam would only be used for electricity generation and not irrigation, which was a victory for Egypt. However, it implicitly excluded the International Court of Justice from adjudicating on the dam’s legality, instead proposing for mediation and negotiations in the case of differences. Egyptian politicians had touted the ICJ as a means of delaying and halting the GERD’s construction. By endorsing the agreement, Cairo acquiesced to the validity of the GERD’s construction, and, since then, has sought only to ensure that the filling period is extended as much as possible.

Following the election of Abiy Ahmed as prime minister of Ethiopia in April 2018, relations further warmed between Cairo and Addis Ababa, especially since Abiy has been, in general, critical of dam projects. He argued that such projects were used for ‘political expediency’. At a 2018 summit between him and Egyptian President Abdul Fattah el-Sisi, Abiy told Sisi that he would never harm Egyptians, a comment seen by Egyptians as an acknowledgement of his opposition to the GERD.

Current situation

Despite Ethiopia’s assertion that it has already filled the dam to its first year carrying capacity, agreement on its ongoing filling has not yet been concluded. Taking advantage of the heavy rains, Addis Ababa rapidly filled the dam unilaterally in about two weeks, causing much consternation in Sudan, which saw its dam levels drop, and Egypt.

In November 2019, Egypt had roped in Washington and the World Bank to mediate. The US Trump administration continues to see Cairo as an important ally, and thus supported its position during negotiations. A draft ‘agreement’ on the filling process, signed only by Egypt in February 2020, was criticised by Addis Ababa. Abiy’s mind seems to have changed on both his previous willingness to negotiate, and his previous opposition to dams, especially after Cairo’s attempts to involve the USA in negotiations, and because of his loss of domestic support.

There remain a number of contentious issues regarding the dam. One of them is about the period of the filling of the dam. Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia agree that it should be phased, with the first phase spread over two years and the dam being filled to a depth of 595 metres, thus allowing for small-scale electricity generation and testing. Egypt, however, insists that Ethiopia releases over forty billion cubic metres of water each year, while Ethiopia wants to release thirty-billion cubic metres. Egypt currently receives forty-seven to forty-nine billion cubic metres of water from the Blue Nile annually. Ethiopia has conceded to providing a maximum of thirty-seven billion cubic metres annually, an amount Egypt will probably have to reluctantly accept. Addis Ababa is concerned that Cairo also wants it to empty the GERD’s reservoir to supplement the river’s flow in times of drought.

The parties have also not yet agreed on a monitoring and dispute resolution mechanism to ensure compliance. The UN asserts that the legality and binding nature of a possible agreement has not yet been agreed upon by all parties. Egypt and Sudan want the agreement to be legally binding and enforceable, while Ethiopia is wary that this may constrain it in the future, especially since it has a growing economy and because the GERD provides only one-fifth of the possible energy it could generate from the Nile.

Negotiations are being made more difficult by Egypt and Ethiopia both viewing the dam as an existential matter for their regimes. Article Forty-Four of Egypt’s constitution tasks the state with protecting the country’s ‘historic right’ to the Nile. Sisi already received much backlash for handing over the islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia in June 2017, including from Egyptian nationalists and military officials who saw his act as a betrayal of Egypt’s territorial claims. He would be careful about creating another such scandal. With Egypt’s population predicted to rise to 150 million by 2050, the country will become even more dependent on the Nile for its survival. Egypt’s annual water capacity per capita is already predicted to be forced to diminish from 570 cubic metres per person annually to 500 cubic metres in the coming years as a result of climate change. 

Meanwhile, in Ethiopia, the fact that many Ethiopians purchased GERD bonds to fund the building of the dam means that the regime has minimal wiggle room. Popular songs have been written in support of the dam, with some likening its construction to the 1896 battle of Adwa, when Ethiopians united to defeat Italian colonisers. The current domestic political context worsens the situation. Abiy’s popularity is waning, and the decision to postpone elections to 2021 has been criticised. Further, in recent weeks, the assassination of popular Oromo singer Hachalu Hundessa sparked riots in Oromia, with the Oromo people, who comprise a third of the country’s population, arguing that the prime minister was not benefiting them. Abiy thus sanctioned the filling of the dam unilaterally, without obtaining consent from Sudan and Egypt as the two countries had expected, partly in an attempt to deflect from his domestic travails. His unstable position will likely influence any negotiations regarding the second year’s filling process, and will likely be deployed in electoral campaigns, making compromise less likely.

Sudan, on the other hand, has adopted a more balanced approach, siding with Ethiopia and refusing to agree to a March 2020 Arab League resolution condemning the GERD. Although largely agreeing with Egypt regarding the GERD’s filling and the need for a binding agreement, Khartoum has recently indicated a further willingness to compromise. It has conceded that Ethiopia will have to have flexibility regarding releasing water from the reservoir during drought, and also accepted that Addis Ababa might want to build more dams on the Nile in the future. However, it wants an agreement between the three states to be binding and enforceable. Moreover, consistent with the emphasis on ‘historic rights’, Sudan wants Ethiopia to notify it and Egypt before any dam construction.

Ethiopia and Sudan requested the AU, in June, to mediate between the three states. This was after the failures of trilateral negotiations between the states themselves, and after Ethiopia accused the USA of being biased towards Egypt. Before this, the AU had been relatively uninvolved in the GERD issue, calling on the states to negotiate among themselves. Some commentators argue that the continental body did not want to be involved in mediating a conflict between two powerful member states, especially since this would inevitably be perceived as it siding with one side if an agreement was not concluded. Following a failed first round of AU mediation at the end of June, which was to result in an agreement within two weeks thereafter, the three countries again announced, on 22 July, their willingness to accept AU mediation. The issues under mediation are especially contentious since they may be precedent-setting, and upsetting either Egypt or Ethiopia is not what the AU would want. However, successfully dealing with the Nile matter can position the AU as a serious continental structure that can resolve conflicts even between its strongest members, especially after external structures and foreign states were unable to bring the matter to conclusion.

 

Conclusion

The AU’s involvement in the Nile dispute has the potential to both resolve the matter, and enhance the reputation of the body. However, while on many substantive issues the parties have come closer, there remains much ground still to be covered and many disputes still requiring compromises. Ethiopia’s unilateral filling of the dam and its announcement that the first year filling process has completed has deescalated the situation temporarily, giving the AU some breathing space to address the more with cooler heads. However, a few of the serious issues will continue to make negotiations difficult. Whether the agreement should be legally enforceable, and whether Ethiopia should accept Cairo’s demand to release large water reserves during droughts are among those thorny issues.

It is highly unlikely that differences over the GERD issue could result in military conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia, despite the rhetoric from both sides. Cairo is involved in a seemingly-unwinnable conflict against the Islamic State group’s ‘Sinai province’, and is getting itself mired in Libya. It is unlikely that it will want to open up a third front. Moreover, the balance of power in the Nile is shifting, with Ethiopia gaining influence regionally and continentally. Addis Ababa’s confidentially filling up the dam unilaterally in the past few months, without any consequences, clearly indicates this shift.

A comprehensive solution will need to be based on the Entebbe agreement if it is to have a chance of long-term success. Egypt will need to give up on its insistence that it has a ‘historic right’ to the Nile waters, and on its demand that upstream states obtain its approval before undertaking construction projects on the river. Climate change, coupled with the increasing growth of countries such as Tanzania and Ethiopia, will result in these states seek to use the river’s water much more than previously to sustain their growing populations.

The Denis Hurley Peace Institute, an NGO that is part of the South African Catholic Bishops' Conference, regularly compiles reports on Northern Mozambique from its sources in Pemba, Mozambique. We co-publish, with the DHPI, those reports here.

COUNTRY UPDATE: 31 July 2020

Johan Viljoen

The South African National Defence Force (SANDF) is preparing to be deployed in Cabo Delgado, Mozambique, according to reports published on www.africaintelligence.com on 29 July, and on https://plataformamedia.com/2020/07/30/exercito-sul-africano-preparado-para-entrar-em-cabo-delgado/

On 30 July 2020. It is reported that SANDF units have been undergoing training at Walmannsthal, north of Pretoria, since the beginning of July. According to General Mankayi, the SANDF is preparing for a mission of two months, to “stabilize the region”. This despite the fact that the government of Mozambique has not yet publicly requested assistance from the SANDF. 

By Larbi Sadiki and Layla Saleh

Introduction: A Turbulent Transition

For the third time in six months, Tunisia’s political elites are scrambling to form a new government. This latest saga of political wheeling and dealing came after Elyes El-Fakhfakh’s abrupt resignation earlier this month amidst his conflict of interest (read: corruption) scandal over profiting from government contracts with companies he owns, to the tune of fifteen million dollars, and the appointment of his replacement, Hichem Mechichi, by President Kais Saied. This insight focuses on a series of interrelated and interconnected crises afflicting Tunisia over the past several months, since the September-October 2019 presidential and parliamentary elections.

It is time to go beyond sensationalist coverage and ideological or politicised ‘analysis’ of Tunisia’s dizzying political scene, in the hope that the country’s political elite can get on with the business of governing. To that end, the article considers not just the political implications for the latest developments in the country, but also ponders some of the lessons to be learned at this critical stage in the country’s democratic transition.

Two observations are in order. First, Tunisia may not be ‘exceptional’, but its democratisation deserves contextualised attention. The idiosyncrasy of Tunisia’s transition is its ever-shifting centres of power between the various political actors and even institutions. Parties within and outside of the ruling coalition, as well as individuals, always seem to be looking for an improved sort of power balance to strengthen themselves vis-à-vis other players, even within the same ruling coalition. This constant competitiveness, long after election season ended, likely spurred the revelations of Fafkhfakh’s earnings now under investigation, precipitating his resignation.

Changing coalitions, changes within parties, unsteady dynamics and tugs-of-war between the ‘three presidents’ (President Saied; the now-former head of government, Fakhfakh; and Speaker of Parliament, Rached Ghannouchi) have become an expected feature of Tunisian politics. No consensus seems to exist on anything at the partisan level. The electorate has accepted the country’s basic institutions, but this is not always echoed by politicians and parties. Examples include Saied’s campaigning to change the political system in favour of more direct democracy;  the electoral law that is lopsided regarding how seats are counted, making it advantageous to newcomers like Itilaf al-Karama and detrimental to larger parties like Ennahda; parliamentary by-laws (including speaking time, committees, and the option to debate and vote on ‘petitions’);  and foreign policy (on Libya, Syria, or other regional powers such as Turkey, Qatar, the UAE, and Egypt). Continuing instability has yielded few set expectations that pattern the behaviour of either voters or political elites. The political scene has neither found nor fully constructed itself. Tunisian politics, nearly ten years after the 2011 uprisings that ousted Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, has not yet settled from its institutions to its political culture.

Stemming from this instability, a second related feature is the absence of dominance or hegemony by any political actor, party or individual. Even the largest party, Ennahda, has seen its parliamentary seats plummet from sixty nine to fifty four in the last elections. The question ‘Who governs in Tunisia today?’ is pertinent. Is it the head of government, the speaker of parliament or the president? To an extent, this fragmentation will continue to be part of the landscape in the foreseeable future. Overall, this is a healthy dynamic in Tunisia’s democratisation, making a repeat of the 2013 Egypt coup scenario unlikely. 

 

The ‘conflict of interest’/corruption scandal

The extremely rapid rise and fall of a candidate who received less than 0.5 per cent of Tunisians’ votes when he ran for the presidency in October 2019 has made headlines in and outside Tunisia. His insistent confidence, as pressure mounted by MPs and the media (for instance, his interview with Nawaat), was baffling. Fakhfakh insisted that the judicial process would play out in his favour. Investigations and new reports by the finance ministry and the committee tasked with looking into the conflict of interest allegations were not kind to this short-lived prime minister. The conditions of contracts awarded to companies in which he has at least partial ownership (including Valis) were far from being above board, the reports suggest.  Paradoxically, Fakhfakh had promised to lead a government of ‘clarity’ (al-wuduh) and to regain public trust ('adat al-thiqah). These pledges have fallen flat and it will be little wonder if even more voters (particularly young people) sink deeper into political apathy and disillusionment.

The choice of this allegedly corrupt politician to lead government reveals that Saied misfired terribly when he nominated Fakhfakh as the ‘most competent’ person for the position (al-shakhsiyyah al-aqdar) as outlined by Article 89 of the constitution. This was after Ennahda’s nominee, Habib Jemli, failed to deliver a government acceptable to a majority in the legislature. There is irony in a newcomer president, about whom there is general agreement on his ‘clean’ record, choosing a prime minister knee-deep in corruption allegations. The question now is whether Saied’s new appointment, former interior minister Hichem Mechichi, will be able to form a new government? Or will the country head to new elections in three months?

Parliamentary mayhem

The exploding Fakhfakh scandal came amidst a chaotic parliamentary term. The tireless campaign of the head of the Free Destourian Party, Abir Moussi, against Rached Ghannouchi appears to be bearing fruit. Moussi claims to have secured at least the seventy-three signatures needed for debate and a vote of no confidence in the parliamentary speaker. This situation seemed unlikely a few months ago when she first brought up the idea after a meeting between Ghannouchi and Turkey’s Erdogan, and urged action by Tunisians committed to a ‘civil’ Tunisian state and national security.

Moussi and her party did not secure these gains in a vacuum. They have been boosted by the constant disruptions, name-calling, and time-wasting by an almost anarchic parliament. The sessions debating two petitions in early June – on Libya and an interrogation of Ghannouchi, and on demanding a French apology for colonialism – are cases in point. MPs and their party/coalition blocs appear to have no time for actual deliberation and lawmaking on matters of substantive importance, such as deepening poverty, increasing marginalisation, unmet demands of the El Kamour social movement, and the alarming foreign debt in a Tunisia recovering from the coronavirus. 

Parliamentary disruption reached its apex on 16 July as a Free Destourian Party’s sit-in prevented the long-awaited session on voting for nominees for the constitutional court, forcing the session to be moved to a different hall on Monday, 21 July. The antics in parliament may make for dramatic and viral video clips, but the distasteful political altercations, now extending to trading accusations of violence between Ennahda and the Free Destourian Party, are unseemly performances by elected officials. Unpleasant verbal exchanges between Etilaf al-Karamah and Moussi’s party, Moussi’s monologues against Ennahdah, whom she calls ‘Ikhwaniyyah’, as well as Sa'id al-Jaziri’s railing against everyone and everything including his fellow MPs whom he has called ni’aj (sheep), do not contribute to resolving any of Tunisia’s deep challenges. It is probably safe to say that parliament does not inspire the confidence of the voting public. One hopes that voters who still are paying attention will remember that electability does not always translate into skills in debate, persuasion, dialogue, and the kinds of policymaking that the country needs.

Decaying, moving parties

Tunisia’s new parties exhibit constant change internally as well as toward each other. Alliances even within the ruling coalition (Ennahda, Al-Tayyar al-Dimuqrati, Harakat al-Sha’b, Tahya Tounes, and independents) survived for barely a few months. Ennahda has been, among other things, accused of playing both sides – opposition and government – as it secured votes by the opposition (Etilaf al-Karamah and Qalb Tounes) in Parliament. (The rejoinder is that the government coalition is not reflected in relations within Parliament.) The ruling coalition turned out to be highly problematic. It became Ennahdah vs the rest, it seems, with severe attacks in the media, by Harakat al-Sha'b (Salim Labyad) and al-Tayyar al-Dimuqrati (al-'Ajbuni and Samia 'Abbo) against the Islamists with whom they were coalition partners. 

Ennahda was indiscreet, announcing days before Fakhfakh’s resignation that it was entering talks with the president about forming a new government. The party was rebuffed by Saied, who claimed publicly, and in the presence of Fakhfakh, that he refused to be ‘blackmailed’, and that he was neither part of nor committed to decisions made ‘behind closed doors’. Fakhfakh promptly dismissed Ennahda’s ministers before resigning. This final move was telling, pointing to a lack of political coexistence and congeniality between parties and individuals in the five-month-old governing coalition.

Meanwhile, discord within Ennahda continues with it being hit by a number of high-level resignations, most notably that of Abdelhamid Jlassi in March. Dissenting voices against Ghannouchi, and debate about whether or not he will seek to change the party’s by-laws to renew his leadership, may pause until a new government is formed. Yet all eyes are on Ennahda and its impending eleventh congress. Another coalition member, Qalb Tounes, suffers from internal problems, including resignations and losing MPs in its parliamentary delegation, which has shrunk from thirty-eight to twenty-seven. Yet, Nabil Karoui’s party may be making a comeback. (Another irony is that Karoui himself was imprisoned during the presidential campaign on corruption allegations.) Will it ally with Ennahda and Etilaf al-Karamah? That seems possible, but nothing is certain.

The rightist Etilaf al-Karamah makes headlines, but its MPs seem amateurish. Party leaders Makhlouf and Alawi prioritise showy speeches over substantive debate. They may be counterpoints to Moussi, doing their fair share of playing into regional politics. Etilaf al-Karamah has thus not been inconsequential in this year’s political events, but its performance is far from validating the revolutionary discourse of its campaign and its slogans such as halat wa’i (state of enhanced consciousness).

Informal politics: responding to socioeconomic challenges

Outside the country’s formal institutions, the biggest story has been the ongoing Kamour protests. Most recently, it has disrupted gas production after mediation failed. Protests also rocked Ramada in the governorate of Tataouine, after the killing of a young man by security forces. The Kamour protesters are adamant that the 2017 agreement with Youssef Chahed’s government, promising jobs and a regional development fund, be honoured. In addition, they insist that the government travel southward to Tataouine and insist ‘al-tafawud fi al-Kamour wa laysa fi al-kusoor (negotiations in Kamour, not in castles)The state’s security reflex in Ramada and the rest of Tataouine is, of course, worrying almost ten years into the country’s democratic transition.

Tataouine’s protests exemplify Tunisia’s huge challenges. The country faces not just the political task of forming a new government, but also a contracting economy hit by the coronavirus. A newly reopened tourism sector may do little to offset the budget deficit or create jobs for the unemployed. If Fakhfakh accomplished anything during his brief tenure, it was burying the country deeper in foreign debt, perhaps over a billion dollars just in the months since the epidemic began. There appear to be no economic fixes (quick or otherwise) on the horizon, as the ‘multiple marginalization’ of regional (under)development, despite being a commonly articulated concern on the lips of politicians, is a huge problem that grows more urgent by the day. Political unruliness (protests, sit-ins, etc.) in Kamour are not likely to suddenly disappear.

Lessons for democratisation

The dramatic turn of events in Tunisia reminds one that corruption is deeply entrenched in the country. A pertinent question is: ‘How did it come to pass that Fakhfakh was approved by parliament to head the government?’ Furthermore, why was he not vetted more thoroughly? The silver lining of this entire scandal may be that he did not get further into his premiership and make millions more dollars than most Tunisians would only dream of earning in their lifetime. A transitional justice process was cut short when the Truth and Dignity Commission’s mandate ended eighteen months ago. That, along with the economic Reconciliation Law (qanun al-musalahah) of 2018 is quite worrying. Fakhfakh may have been a newcomer to corruption, but there are countless other businesspeople profiting from suspicious deals, including from the Ben Ali era. Moreover, Fakhfakhgate demonstrates how corruption can undermine the entire political process. Consequently, regional development cannot be ignored. Mitigating Tunisia’s inequalities is one side of the oin of political institution-building. Economic development for the country’s marginalised population is a necessary and urgent undertaking.

Among the country’s political elites, MPs and politicians might all benefit from a lesson or two in civility. They would do well to brush up on discourse ethics (how to conduct respectful dialogue), and the parliamentary decorum expected of those elected into office. Disagreement is expected, even encouraged, in a democracy, but the level of personal attacks has reached an unprecedented low. Even basic parliamentary procedure appears to be too much to ask of this batch of MPs. Interruptions, yelling, and a lack of respect for physical space are all violations of the parliament’s by-laws, which appear meaningless as the speaker of parliament or his two deputy speakers (Samira al-Chaouachi and Tariq al-Fatiti) are unable to control their colleagues’ antics. Parliamentary etiquette is a prerequisite for substantive deliberation and lawmaking; it is not mere ornamentation, as indicated by the meagre accomplishments of this parliament.

She may divide people, but Abir Moussi is a fast-rising political force in the country. Her imprint is on much of what happens in Tunisian politics today, inflecting political discourse from foreign policy (vis-à-vis Libya or Turkey) to Islamism (in her campaign against Ennahda and outlawing the Muslim Brotherhood), to development (where she is head of the Committee on Industry and Trade in parliament), to parliamentary procedure (it was she who activated the ‘war of the petitions’.) Referred to by many as the neo-Tajamu’ leader, she may never get the presidency, but she has a clear future ahead of her.

Improving inter-party dynamics is an important challenge for Tunisian democratic learning. Parties and coalitions may gain a great deal from an extraparliamentary platform for dialogue in an attempt to map out common ground and mutual acceptance, and some level of professional, collegial tolerance and coexistence. Tunisia’s parties seem not to debate head-to-head, but indirectly, via the media, press conferences, statements and facebook posts. Direct encounters and interactions would be beneficial to all, would enrich political life generally, and may go some way towards blunting some of the discord and fracturing, affecting the goings-on in and between the offices of the president, prime minister and parliamentary speaker.

Ennahdah, the country’s largest party, needs serious reflection and to focus on regaining voters and reconnecting with its base. If it has learned anything from the last nine months, Nahdaouis should, by now, be keenly aware that without the numbers, they cannot accomplish much. The backsliding in vote share and parliamentary seats should be a problem that they place centre stage, strategising on how to woo back their voters. These internal reviews should be as big a concern at Ennahdah’s next congress as the fateful decision about the party’s leadership.

Saied seemed to have drawn out the electorate (particularly youth), but mounting disinterest in voting and formal politics suggest he has not lived up to the hype. The president appears aloof, and fumbling when he does decide to express clear views on contentious political issues. He could play a more constructive role in the midst of all the disharmony, especially since he is supposedly party-neutral. The instability of the past few months has laid bare the challenges of governing in this pilloried system. Endless wrangling between the three most important political offices and a parliament where no party has a clear majority have resulted in deadlock. Perhaps the drafters of the constitution did not anticipate this. Politicians, parties and voters now know that, in Tunisia, pluralism can bring it political fragmentation. It is up to the creativity and civic-mindedness of all political actors vested in the democratic transition to ensure that fragmentation does not obstruct the smooth functioning of the country’s political institutions. Democracy, after all, is meant to solve real problems for real people.

 

Looking forward: political paralysis and democratisation

The current mayhem confirms that perfect procedural execution does not mean that democratisation unfolds. If there is something to be said about the North African country, it is that, procedurally, everything is going according to plan. The hold-up is not in the democratic machinery, processes, institutions, and procedures which are, on the whole, operating as they should (even if the Constitutional Court nomination process being held up again by the Free Destourian Party’s sit-in). Rather, the problem is in the stock of values that seem not to have matured: moderation, inclusiveness, dialogue, compromise, tolerance, and so forth. Further, we see very serious remnants of ideological divides that rise to the level of personal animosities (for example, between Ennahda members and Moussi). Politicians have not been able to transcend the polarisation that interferes in the business of government.

Tunisia’s political parties are fragile and have no permanence in constituency, policy or leadership. Far from settled, they all display symptoms of attrition and decay. All are receding, losing the public to varying degrees. Ennahda is beleaguered by huge problems and seems to be in denial, and the Islamist (or ‘Muslim Democrat’, as it has described itself since 2016) party is sorely in need of renewal. It has not successfully engaged with its ideological foes, and currently engages with the always controversial Etilaf Al-Karamah and Qalb Tounes. This unease with other political players has become a huge predicament. Ennahda has not been able to politically penetrate anything: any ideology, the constituencies of other parties, the leaderships of other parties. This failure does not mean that there are no leaders or interlocutors within the party who might be able to reach out and communicate with other political actors, but this is the exception, not the rule.

As for party leader Rached Ghannouchi, he has done all he can. There is not much more he can offer to Tunisian politics, nor can he climb up any other political ladder. He will neither become president nor prime minister of the country. He did well in steering his party into routinising its role in Tunisian politics, has been successful in normalising his party as a major player in the political scene, and in contributing to building democratic institutions since 2011 (including the 2014 constitution). He has earned himself a place in the annals of the country’s political history. Highlighting the fact that he has outlived his political career is his very contentious role at the head of parliament. One the one hand, it is convenient for other parties to blame Ennahda when everyone shares responsibility in the widely remarked-upon chaos in parliament. Yet, it may not be false that parliament is dysfunctional partly because people do not want to work with Ghannouchi. For whatever reason, people across the political spectrum have problems with him. Moreover, at this level of performance he is not doing well either, having proved over the past five months his inability to be a suitable moderator of parliamentary sessions or debates. Having such a lightning-rod figure leading parliament in such a fragmented political landscape does not facilitate a stumbling democratic transition. It may be best for Tunisia’s democratisation, and even for Ennahda, if Ghannouchi resigns as speaker.

The other parties have a ‘tall poppy syndrome’; they share the perception that there is a constant threat from Ennahda, which is mobilised to dominate the entire political system and the state itself. This position of almost intimidation is reflected in expressions of concern that Ennahda is ‘taking over’ various institutions and processes in the country. The hubbub over the office of the parliamentary speaker is one example. 

Kaiss Saied exaggerates when he ominously warns that the Tunisian state is under threat. What is clear is that Tunisia’s politicians, parties, and their respective political institutions have not risen to the occasion of the country’s pressing socioeconomic needs.  It is fair to say that the deprivation, marginalisation, and socioeconomic exclusion that gave birth to the revolution in late 2010 have not been adequately addressed, let alone resolved. Democracy is a medium that facilitates delivering the goods: the sharing and organising of power and resources and the putting in place of processes that facilitate the arrival, execution and implementation of laws and constitutional rights, such as clean water, employment, regional development, access to decent healthcare and education, among others. This has not happened. 

The incessant commotion in parliament has created endless digressions, diverting from the business of governing. This parliament has passed only nineteen pieces of legislation in its first session, compared to forty-three in the 2014 to 2019 parliament. In the wake of Covid-19, Tunisia is confronting increasing debt, exclusion, rising unemployment, and an economy that is stalled, according to all indicators. Politicians should take their electoral mandate more seriously, living up to whatever lowered expectations Tunisians have of their democratically-elected representatives and their nascent political institutions.

The uncertainty that comes with democracy may be the price to pay for institutionalised freedom, equality, rule of law, etc. Democracy remains preferable to any other political system. The Tunisian experiment has demonstrated that democracy may bring to power people who are not necessarily qualified to govern, particularly in times of repeated or continual crises. The ‘three presidencies’ has proven to be a drawback to effective governance: Tunisia has a very inexperienced head of state, with no vision, experience or history of struggle; an octogenarian head of parliament who courts controversy and even rejection; and a head of the executive branch (who has just left) mired in corruption allegations. 

A kind of chaos continues in the search for Tunisia’s next government. All eyes are on the Arab world’s first democratising country, to see what surprises await.

* Larbi Sadiki is a full professor of Arab Democratization, Qatar University, and Layla Saleh is an associate professor of International Relations, Qatar University

Despite relative calm in fighting in many parts of Syria, the north-western Idlib province has been under heavy Russian and Syrian government bombardment after a March 2020 ceasefire between Russia and Turkey ended in June. Bashar al-Asad’s regime, backed by Iran and Russia, has been leading a campaign to retake control of Idlib, which is currently in the hands of former Al-Qa'ida affiliate, Hayat Tahrir al-Sham (HTS), and other jihadi groups. Turkey, which backs a number of rebel groups, including HTS, has sought to delay the regime offensive by trying to convince these groups to disarm and surrender territory along the strategic M4 and M5 highway to regime forces. This has largely failed and the government offensive continues, despite Russia, Turkey and Iran, partners in the Astana process, claiming to pursue a political solution to the embattled Syrian conflict. 

Russia and Iran, both supporters of Asad, have locked horns in the past year, with one result being continuing divisions in the Syrian military and security apparatuses and tensions flaring in the south-western Dera'a province. Compounding the situation are an increasing number of Israeli airstrikes against Iranian personnel and Iranian-sponsored militia in Syria; the most recent airstrikes targeted Iranian and Hizbullah positions in Damascus. A further complicating factor is that Turkey and Russia support opposite sides in the Libyan war, which has, thus, spilled into Syria as each of these two states recruits Syrian fighters to fight with opposing sides in Libyan. 

All of these national and international politics and military operations have worsened the lives of ordinary Syrians. Millions of Syrians facing a humanitarian crisis were dealt a immense blow on 12 July when Russia blocked a UN Security Council’s resolution that aimed to open humanitarian border crossings for the flow of aid to areas hard hit by the civil war.

 

Attempts to revive a political solution

The presidents of Iran, Russia and Turkey met in a videoconference on 30 June to discuss the Astana de-escalation process they had agreed on in May 2017 in Kazakhstan. The Astana process has been dormant since the beginning of 2020, having become unworkable when the regime began battling rebel groups in Idlib. The meeting was the first since Turkey had clashed with regime forces in Idlib in March, when a Russian airstrike had killed at least thirty-three Turkish soldiers. The official statement of the virtual summit slammed the USA for seizing oil fields in the northeast; criticised the autonomous northeast region – controlled by the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) – and labelled them ‘illegal self-rule initiatives’; and condemned US sanctions on the Syrian regime, including the latest Caesar Act sanctions targeting individuals linked to the regime.

Even as the three countries issued a joint statement, political differences between them were stark. Turkey and Russia clashed in February, causing the deaths of over sixty Turkish soldiers in Idlib. Turkey retaliated with ‘Operation Spring Shield’ against Asad’s forces, downing three Syrian fighter jets and killing many soldiers. Russia then accused Turkey of breaching the terms of the September 2018 de-militarisation agreement, and of cooperating with HTS. This Russian statement represented the high point of recent tensions between the two countries, and led to the signing of another ceasefire agreement early March that committed both states to joint patrols alongside the Idlib part of the M4 highway.

Turkey has funded a number of rebel groups, has launched various military campaigns in northern Syria, and has a large military presence in Idlib province, which borders Turkey. The Turkish army has also conducted various cross-border military operations against Kurdish targets in northeast Syria, the one being dubbed ‘Operation Peace Spring’ in October 2019 under a US-brokered agreement that left Turkey controlling a 120-kilometre area between Tal Abyad and Ras al-Ain that had been under the control of the Kurdish-dominated and US-sponsored Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF). Turkey carries out these operations and maintains a presence in Idlib at the accommodation of Russia, even with Iranian disagreement. Iran disapproves of Turkish military operations in the northeast as well as plans for demilitarisation in Idlib. It accuses Turkey of undermining Syria’s territorial integrity, and of giving control of the area to Free Syrian Army (FSA) rebels. Iran’s disagreements with Turkey have become obstacles in the implementation of the Russia-Turkey agreement, especially because Turkey is to be the guarantor of Idlib as an Astana de-escalation zone. 

Iran-Turkey disagreements are, however, minute within the larger set of problems with the Astana process. The Syrian regime remains the biggest obstacle to a political solution, including its foot dragging on the UN Geneva process. The government’s focus is on its attempt to retake control of the entire country – with Russian and Iranian assistance, and little attention is paid to participation in the political process, despite occasional Kremlin pressure. The UN-Geneva process is a case in point. The regime’s delegates always stall the process, outrightly rejecting most proposals from other parties, and resisting every attempt to proceed with any of the political processes. In December 2019, the UN Special Envoy for Syria, Geir Pederson, told the UN Security Council that the second round of talks had failed because Syrian regime officials refused to discuss constitutional reforms. This came after months of UN and Russian efforts to get the Asad government to agree to a list of opposition and civil society participants for the Constitutional Review Committee formed under the auspices of the UN, and supported by Russia and Turkey.

Idlib offensive

Instead, the regime set its sights on Idlib, the last rebel bastion in the country, under the control of HTS And other rebel groups. Idlib has become the haven for Syrian civilians and rebels who had fled regime bombardment in other, previously rebel-held, areas. It enjoyed relative calm for a while as the regime reconquered other parts of the country. From September 2018, a series of ceasefire agreements were signed between Russia and Turkey. Some three million people are at risk of displacement in Idlib because of continuing violence, and around one million are already housed in refugee camps along the Turkish border. 

Although Russia seems to have a great appetite to revive and establish a political process to end the conflict, military operations place this project at risk. The Asad government has won back around seventy per cent of the country, and hopes to regain the remaining thirty per cent over the next months, starting with Idlib. With the Idlib offensive in full swing after a few months of relative calm, the regime is still nowhere near to conquering the province, mainly thanks to Turkish interference. HTS, which controls around sixty per cent of the province, has been cooperating with Turkey in a bid to stop Russian and Syrian army bombardments. In the process, the leader of the former Al-Qa'ida affiliate, Mohammed al-Julani, has rebranded the group and, at Turkish insistence, been suppressing dissenting groups, including those that are close or aligned to Al-Qa'ida. 

This strategy attracted the attention of James Jeffrey, the US envoy to Syria, who began to advocate for flexibility towards HTS. Jeffrey praised the group’s claim of patriotism to Syria, and said it did not pose an international threat, but was focused on maintaining its positions in Idlib. HTS’s determination to hold its position and control in the province has resulted in it intensifying its attacks against rival rebel groups. On 22 June, the group arrested senior members of its Shura Council who had defected to two other jihadi factions: Ansar al-Din and Muqatileen al-Ansar. These (and other) groups accuse HTS of cooperating with Turkey, which shares intelligence with the USA on Al-Qa'ida affiliates’ leaders in Idlib. In June, US drone strikes killed two Huras al-Din leaders – Khaled al-Aruri, a Jordanian who had been a member of Al-Qa'ida in Iraq before moving to Syria in 2015, and Abu Adan al-Homsi, who was in charge of logistics for the group. 

HTS’s doing Turkey’s bidding was seen starkly in May when the group declared the Turkish Lira as the official currency in Idlib. It intensified after protests by displaced Idlib civilians – said to be mobilised by rival groups – disrupted Russian and Turkish patrols along the M4 highway. A blast on the M4 that targeted Russian and Turkish soldiers early July was blamed on HTS rival Huras al-Din, and HTS subsequently arrested many of its leaders and members. Russia retaliated for the bombing by pounding rebel positions in the Latakia countryside. However, this HTS strategy to make itself more acceptable than other rebel groups has not worked; Russia and the Syrian regime insist that HTS members remain terrorists, and they press forward with attacks on the group despite unsuccessful Turkish attempts to get it to give up its heavy weapons as per the 2018 agreement. 

Dera'a a battleground for influence and control

Since entering the Syrian conflict in 2011 to support Asad, Iran continues to be a key player in the Syrian conflict. Iranian-linked militia and Lebanon’s Hizbullah are stationed in various parts of Syria backing the regime, and Asad’s survival until the Russian entry into the war is largely dependent on Iranian and Hizbullah support. Iran also has considerable influence in various sections of the Syrian military and intelligence apparatuses. Since the 2015 Russian engagement in Syria, however, changes have been made in the Syrian military and security institutions to minimise Iranian influence. This led to tensions within the military and allied militia, and the rivalry has unfolded rapidly in the southwestern province of Dera'a, where a July 2018 Russian-brokered deal saw rebel factions surrender their heavy weapons and the province to the regime, ending a month-long regime bombardment.

Iranian-backed militia in Dera'a are linked to assassinations and kidnappings of opposition faction leaders who had been part of the 2018 deal that ended regime incursion in the province. Syrian army officers linked to Russia have also been implicated in assassinations and attacks on Iranian-linked groups in the province. The Iranian-Russian tensions came to a boil on 4 May 2020 when former rebel leader Qasem al-Subehi, linked to the Russia-backed Fifth Corps, killed nine regime police officers in Muzayrib town. These tensions also saw parliamentary elections disrupted in various parts of Dera'a on Sunday, 19 July.

Former rebels such as al-Subehi are part of a policing force set up by the Russians called the Eight Division, which had been incorporated into the Syrian army’s Fifth CorpsThe Eight Division, is led by former Sunna Youth rebel group leader Ahamd al-Oda, polices checkpoints in many areas in Dera'a. It has also been implicated in violence against regime supporters and Iranian-linked generals in Dera'a. On 12 April, two Iranian-linked regime generals – Hamid Makhlouf and Mahmoud Habib – of the Fifty Second Brigade of the Fourth Division were assassinated in an attack that was widely blamed on Russia. Russia, through the Eighth Division, is vying for control and influence in the province against the Fourth Division, headed by Maher al-Asad, the president’s brother. Maher is known to have links with Iran and to coordinate with Iranian paramilitaries and Hizbullah forces in southern Syria. 

Together with Maher Fourth Division, Iranian-linked militia have been blamed for over 102 assassinations of former rebel leaders who joined the Fifth Corps. The Fourth Division constantly clashes with military, security and other agencies loyal to Russia. Such clashes and attacks have become a routine occurrence in Dera'a, threatening an escalation of violence in the province where the Syrian uprising had begun in 2011.

In the midst of this ongoing violence, Russia has used the province as a harvesting ground to recruit fighters to be sent to Libya. Russian paramilitary company Wagner has been recruiting young Syrian men to fight in Libya for warlord Khalifa Haftar. In May, tribal leaders in Dera'a organised protests condemning this Russian recruitment of Dera'a’s youth.

 

Increasing Israeli airstrikes

The increasing number of Israeli airstrikes in Syria targeting Iranian and Hizbullah positions has added an additional layer of violence in the ongoing conflict. On Monday, 20 July, Israeli airstrikes violated Lebanese airspace and struck positions in south Damascus, killing Iranian-backed fighters and causing infrastructural damage. These airstrikes were the latest in a series of ongoing Israeli attacks against Iranian and Hizbullah forces. Israel, which previously did not acknowledge carrying out these attacks, has recently been more brazen about admitting to its striking Iranian interests in Syria. The airstrikes represent Israeli acts of war against Iran, and have been sanctioned by the US.

The Israeli airstrikes have also raised questions over the role of Russia, which appears to be turning a blind eye to Israeli incursions. Russia had previously summoned and reprimanded Israeli ambassadors over Israeli airstrikes in Syria. The most recent reprimand was in February 2020, when the Russian defence ministry condemned Israeli airstrikes in Damascus suburbs that nearly hit an airbus carrying 172 passengers. The Russian defence ministry still holds a grudge against Israel after a Russian reconnaissance aircraft was shot down by Israeli strikes in September 2018, but was seemingly downplayed by the Russian President Vladimir Putin. There seems to be a difference between the Russian defence ministry and the presidency on how to address Israeli operations in Syria.

Although the occasional Russian rebuke gets attention, this does not deter Israel, suggesting the Russian criticism is merely performative. This suspicion is strengthened by the fact that Russian complaints are few, and only for specific cases rather than against the overall Israeli series of attacks. Israel strikes in Syria despite Russian S-300 surface-to-air missile defence systems deployed in Syria in February 2019. The non-effectiveness (or non-activation) of the Russian missile defence systems is, at best, because of a lack of effective training of Syrian military personnel. However, there have also been reports that Russia had not given the Syrians the control codes to the systems, which prevents them from detecting the Israeli F-16s, effectively making Russia complicit in the Israeli attacks.

 

Worsening humanitarian situation and Russian interference

Amid increasing pressure from the Russian-led offensive on the embattled Idlib province, millions of displaced Syrians refugees are stuck in IDP (internally displaced persons) camps inside the country. The face dire humanitarian conditions, which prompted the UN Security Council to pass Resolution 2533 on 11 July to resume its mandate to deliver aid to the country. The resolution came after Russia and China vetoed an earlier proposal aimed at keeping open two border crossings that channel aid from Turkey to Idlib. The UNSC finally resolved to allow the use of the Bab al-Hawa crossing point for one year, but close the border crossing at Bab al-Salam, both in Idlib.

The closure of the Yaroubia crossing from Iraq prevents the delivery of medical supplies from various aid agencies, including the UN, into the Kurdish-controlled northeastern Syrian region. The Jordanian Nasib Border crossing has similarly been closed; it had functioned as a lifeline for refugees mainly stranded at the Rukban refugee camp in southern Syria. The closures of these crossings will ensure the that the distribution of aid will be controlled by the Syrian regime, thus making it difficult for opposition groups to continue controlling territory. The UN has warned that humanitarian conditions are worsening because of the closure of these crossings, especially as the world battles the Covid-19 pandemic, which has also gripped Syria’s northern provinces.

Blocking the original resolution was also Russia’s attempt to give the regime access to resources as the government battles a weak economy and falling currency prices. In June, the USA announced economic and travel sanctions on Asad and members of his inner political circle, including family members, putting further pressure on the already-struggling government. Named the Caesar Syrian Civilian Protection Act, it allows the administration of US president Donald Trump to name and sanction thirty-nine individuals, companies and cross-border networks that channel money into Syria. The sanctions have added another layer of strain on the cash-strapped Syrian government as deepening rifts within Asad’s family expose worsen economic problems. Asad’s cousin, Rami Makhlouf, once a leading businessperson in the Syrian economy and fervent financial backer of Asad, has been confined to his residence after the state seized most of his business assets. Makhlouf’s Syriatel company was targeted amid rumours that Asad’s wife Asma was looking to set up a rival telecommunications company. The assets of other businesspeople and political figures have since also been seized by the government in a bid to replenish the state’s coffers.

Fragile situation in northeast Syria

The predominantly Kurdish region of northeast Syria has been in a fragile political situation after the Turks launched ‘Operation Peace Spring’ in October 2019. On 1 June, the Kurdish Democratic Union Party (PYD) – whose military wing, the Kurdish Protection Units (YPG), leads the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) – announced progress on reconciliation talks with the opposition Syrian National Council (SNC). The rival parties began reconciliation talks in November 2019, following the end of the Turkish offensive in the northeast. The SNC is based in Turkey and one of its members, the Kurdish National Council, is the only Kurdish faction at the UN Geneva talks.

Kurdish issues in Syria have been seized upon by the French government, which currently has tense diplomatic relations with Turkey over Ankara’s involvement in the Libyan conflict and Turkish naval manoeuvres in the Mediterranean. In May this year, French officials secretly met with the parties that form the Kurdish National Alliance (HNKS) and the PYD in a move seen as a direct provocation to Turkey. Turkey considers the SDF and PYD as affiliates of the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which is in a state of war with and outlawed in Turkey. 

 

Conclusion

The 30 June Astana meeting between Russia, Turkey and Iran revived a political process that seemed to have reached an untimely end because of political problems between the leaders of the process. Russia continues complicated bilateral relations separately with Turkey and Iran pertaining to the Syrian conflict, thus putting the Astana process in a never-ending quagmire. The regime’s offensive in Idlib supported by Russia ended a ceasefire agreement signed between Turkey and Russia in March, compounding an already-alarming humanitarian crisis for three million Syrians displaced in the province. This has put the Turkish-Russian relationship in a precarious position in Idlib as rebels continue to fight against the regime and Russia. Iran, which also supports the regime’s Idlib offensive is looking to counter increasing Israeli attacks against its positions inside Syria. Although the recent Astana meeting addressed these issues, it is yet to translate to tangible results on the ground. Meanwhile, boiling tensions in Dera'a remain unresolved, threatening renewed violence. Russia’s bid to restore territorial control to the Syrian regime saw it force the closure of two UN humanitarian aid crossings, leaving open only the Bab al-Hawa crossing in the northwest. This puts a strain on an already-struggling Syrian population because of the failing economy and US sanctions.

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