All analyses in chronological order - Afro-Middle East Centre

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.

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

 

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.

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.

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.

Members of the Frelimo elite have been siphoning off increasing amounts of money for two decades. The dollar signs have flashed in their eyes since the discovery of huge gas reserves. The notorious $2 billion (about R35 billion) secret debt was a way in which elite bank accounts received hundreds of millions of dollars five years ago – and they spent some on property in South Africa. Sons of then president Armando Guebuza have been charged and arrested, but it is not clear if the case will ever go to trial. Former finance minister Manuel Chang is still in a South African jail awaiting extradition.

Although a few strong sectors of the civil service survive, notably the health sector, there has been little economic development in years. All the statistics show growing poverty, inequality and child malnutrition. Cabo Delgado has become a flashpoint, with thousands of families stripped of their livelihoods after being displaced by ruby and graphite mines and the gas project. Young people see a few gaining from the mineral wealth and well-paid outsiders coming in to work on the gas, and most local people not benefitting.

Islamic militants are attracting willing recruits in exactly the same way Frelimo attracted its recruits when it started in the same places fifty years ago, with both promising a fairer sharing of the wealth of the province. Too many young people now view Frelimo in the same way that their grandparents saw the colonial administration, and the new civil war is the result.

Levels of patronage

Opposition to Frelimo was already growing in 2018’s municipal elections. President Filipe Nyusi’s dubious landslide re-election last year was made possible by strengthening the party’s patronage network, created by Guebuza when he was president. This can be seen at three levels. At the top is a group of mini-oligarchs who control land, contracts, the illegal trade in heroin and timber, and shares of international loans. 

At the next level, officials earn smaller but still significant rewards that come from servicing the big beasts by facilitating their land concessions and contracts. And these officials can give smaller contracts to their families and friends. Construction quality is notoriously poor, but it has to be gross to be noticed. Nyusi walked out of a school inauguration on 24 July because the school was so badly built. 

And at a lower level, all civil service jobs now depend on Frelimo membership. Teachers can impregnate schoolgirls, demand money for exam passes and not show up to teach if they work hard enough on the elections. The police and others assume bribes are part of their salary.

Liberation parties across southern Africa are trying to deal with similar problems. In South Africa and Zimbabwe, entrenched and corrupt liberation leaders were pushed out by their comrades. But corruption is now so embedded that they are having serious problems cleaning up the mess. Inflation of more than 250 per cent has returned to Zimbabwe because President Emmerson Mnangagwa cannot control arbitrage: privileged people are allowed to buy United States dollars at official rates, which they sell on the parallel market to buy more dollars and so on, and that is enough to drive hyperinflation. Mnangagwa built a coalition to overthrow Robert Mugabe, but it contains those able to drive inflation and he cannot control them.

As in the countries neighbouring his, Mozambican liberation general Guebuza was pushed out, albeit more gently, by being prevented from standing again. He was replaced by Nyusi, a son of the liberation, who seems unable to control his Frelimo party, which is dazzled by the coming billion-dollar gas bonanza.

As well as the civil war, Mozambique is still dealing with the severe economic backlash of the secret debt, which led to cuts in infrastructure upkeep and limited government ability to respond to two cyclones in 2019. Growing greed and the impact of the secret debt are increasing discontent in Mozambique.

Fraud on a grand scale

Internationally, the two biggest government-involved bank scandals are Malaysia’s $4.5 billion (R78.5 billion) 1Malaysia Development Berhad scandal and Mozambique’s $2 billion secret debt. The sentencing to jail last month of former Malaysian prime minister Najib Razak for his involvement in the fraud should provoke some deep thinking by Frelimo, Mozambique’s international partners and those who want to choose sides in the new war. 

There are important similarities. Like Nyusi, Razak was the son of a liberation leader and himself became defence minister and then prime minister. Razak personally stole huge amounts of money. He was voted out in 2018. Because of the scandal, the government realised it needed high-level trials to demonstrate change. Nyusi is at least tainted by the secret debt, but he was re-elected in a dubious election and his government seems to be avoiding Malaysia-style trials.

The international community is now choosing sides. As well as international banks, eight export credit agencies, including the US and United Kingdom, on 17 July backed a $4.9 billion (R85.5 billion) loan for the gas project. The International Monetary Fund’s representative in Maputo, Ari Anson, said on 29 July that it was ‘very positive’ that such strong support came despite the Cabo Delgado insurgency and the secret debt scandal. Profits from gas contracts are more important; international finance is now firmly backing the Frelimo leadership. 

Now there is a growing wave of support for foreign military intervention in the Cabo Delgado war. If the grievances remain unresolved, this will not end the war. The most likely outcome is that, as in Afghanistan and elsewhere, private security companies will be paid to guard the economic installations – gas, rubies and other minerals – and cities like provincial capital Pemba. In rural areas the war will continue, and the more than 250 000 refugees will increase as the government tries to drain the ‘sea’ the guerrillas swim in.

Mozambique’s young people, Frelimo and the international community face a difficult choice. Will they accept a failed state where a ruling party elite and international companies can be walled off from the chaos and continue to profit, at least for a few more years? Will a comfortable Maputo middle class feel it can ignore what happens in faraway Cabo Delgado, and that the urgent priority is to earn enough for private school fees and other essentials? Will the ANC send in troops to back old friends now profiting from a failing state? Or is there a will to stop the headlong rush to a failed state? 

South Africa and Zimbabwe show how difficult it is. Malaysia shows it is possible.

* Joseph Hanlon has been writing about Mozambique since 1978 and is the editor of the newsletter ‘Mozambique News Reports and Clippings’. He is a visiting senior fellow in international development at the London School of Economics. 

** This article was first published by New Frame

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.

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.

Recent protests in Mali pose the greatest threat to the regime of Ibrahim Boubacar Keita, who has led Mali since 2013. Endemic corruption, Keita’s failure to curb the militant threat in the north of the country, and accusations of electoral  fraud have spawned a disparate protest movement, the M5RFP, led by influential cleric Mahmoud Dicko. The responses by foreign powers, especially France, could help determine Keita’s fate. Like many other leaders in the region, including Idriss Deby and Mohamedou Essoufou in neighbouring Niger and Chad respectively, Keita owes his survival, to a large extent, to French and American support. Mali is, after all, the epicentre of the militancy in the Sahel, and currently the home of the second largest UN peacekeeping mission (MINUSMA), comprising over 15 000 UN personnel (13 000 military troops and 2 000 police).

The most recent round of protests began in May, after the constitutional court’s decision upholding the results of the March and April parliamentary poll, which had originally been scheduled for 2018, but which had been postponed twice due to security concerns. Especially contentious was the court’s decision to uphold the results of around thirty seats in the second round, held on 18 April, which saw Keita’s Rally for Mali Party (RPH) and its allies awarded most of the seats. 

Large protests occurred on 5 June, organised by a coalition consisting of the thirty-party Front for Safeguarding Democracy (FDS), civil society organisations under the banner of Espoir Mali Koura (EMK), and the Coordination of Movements, Associations and Sympathizers (CMAS), led by the influential Dicko. Initially demanding the election results be overturned, M5RFP now wants Keita’s resignation and the dissolution of parliament. Protesters are calling for civil disobedience, including the non-payment of fines. Massive protests have occurred in the past few weeks, which the regime has been unable to quell, despite its use of force and the arrest of protest leaders. Over twenty protesters were killed and 150 injured since Friday, 10 July, when protesters blocked bridges and forced their way into the country’s state broadcaster and into parliament. 

These protests follow increasing disillusionment of Malians with Keita’s governance, with the northern militancy being a major grievance. Many citizens criticise the nature of his electoral victories, especially his second term presidential electoral win in August 2018, and the parliamentary vote. Malians are also concerned that his inability to tackle the country’s militancy threat has resulted it spreading to the centre of the country. Economic mismanagement is also rampant, especially in relation to military procurement, while Keita’s decision to purchase a new forty-million-dollar presidential jet angered people further. 

Since April 2019, following the massacre  of over 100 Fulani people the previous month, numerous protests have occurred against the government’s inability to restore stability to the country. Teachers and widows of soldiers killed on duty also protested, calling for salary and pension increases. Keita’s inability or unwillingness to oppose French designs for the country has also caused much dissatisfaction. Most Malians are critical that militancy in the country has grown despite the presence of UN, French and regional troops in the country. Huge protests opposing France’s presence occurred in 2019 and 2020, resulting in the French president, Emmanuel Macron, summoning Sahelian leaders to Pau in January 2020. A poll in Bamako in December 2019 saw Keita’s approval at twenty-six per cent; over eighty per cent of the participants had a negative view of France and wanted Paris to leave the country. Significantly, Bamako, home to most of the country’s population, was previously seen as a Keita stronghold.

Keita has responded to the protests by releasing around twenty protest leaders arrested after the 10 July protests. He also vowed to reform the constitutional court and allow it to again adjudicate o the rerun/second round electoral decisions, and said he was open to the formation of a national unity government. However, he is silent on protesters’ calls for the dissolution of parliament and for his resignation. Prime Minister Boubou Cisse also apologised for the security forces’ heavy-handed response to the 10 July protests, but said Keita would not resign since he was democratically elected. An Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS) decision advocating electoral reruns in contested districts seems outdated, and has not been accepted by either the government or protesters. ECOWAS has since dispatched former Nigerian president, Goodluck Jonathan, as an envoy to mediate between Keita and the opposition.

Meanwhile, in the north and centre of the country, militancy continues. An attack on a military convoy on 13 June, likely by Jama'a Nusratul  Islam WalMuslimin (JNIM), killed over twenty Malian soldiers. Further, the UN reports that between January and June, around 300 Fulani and Dogon people were killed in communal violence in the country’s central regions. Keita’s attempts to negotiate with militant groups, which was mandated by the 2017 National Conference of Understanding (NCU), but which had been delayed because of government intransigence and pressure from outside powers, has stalled. Seeking to benefit from the growing anti-French sentiment, JNIM stated that it would only begin negotiations after France pulled troops out of the country, and referred to Mali as French-occupied territory.

Keita’s only real strength is his support from foreign powers who view the Sahelian crisis, which saw over 4 000 civilians killed in 2019, primarily as a security threat. These powers, especially France and the USA, regard Keita’s continued rule as critical in their attempt to combat Sahelian militancy. In January 2020, Keita endorsed the Pau declaration calling for the formation of a French-led joint command to combat JNIM and the Islamic State group’s ‘Greater Saharan Province’, and seeking the deployment of more French troops. The large protests in Mali in opposition to France was one reason informing Macron’s summoning Sahelian leaders; he wanted them publicly to call for more French assistance. Paris and Washington have been silent on the recent protests, and despite the UN and ECOWAS criticising the government’s heavy-handed response, Keita continues to have their backing.

There still is room for negotiations between Keita and the opposition since both are amenable to mediation. Despite the M5RFP reiterating its demand that Keita step down, Dicko, the most influential member of the coalition, is willing to consider compromises. He previously had called for protesters’ restraint, and had shown willingness to meet with government officials and ECOWAS diplomats. Keita has also sought to reduce tensions through compromise. He has also not expressed any aspirations to run for a third term, and has attempted to be somewhat restrained in the crackdown on protests compared, for example, to neighbouring Niger. Solving the country’s challenges will, however, require a major change in focus away from viewing militancy as primarily a security issue to considering governance issues and negotiating with militant groups. It is doubtful, however, that France and the USA will allow any Malian government the leeway to pursue this option.

Virtual Nelson Mandela Lecture, hosted by the National Council of Provinces, Parliament of South Africa
Theme: Each one Teach One: The Power to Transform the World: Mandela in Conversation with Palestine

Presented by Na'eem Jeenah

(View the event on Youtube here)

17 July 2020

Honourable Deputy Chairperson of the NCOP, Comrade Sylvia Lucas, Honourable Deputy Speaker of the National Assembly, Comrade Lechesa Tsenoli, Honourable members, Comrades.

Before I begin, I want to extend my condolences and the condolences of my colleagues and comrades to the Mandela family on the loss of their daughter, our sister and comrade, Zindzi. Comrade Zindzi’s death reminds us of the many struggles we still have to win in our country and the world: against impoverishment, climate change, occupation, colonialism, apartheid, capitalism, and for justice, economic liberation, and freedom. It also reminds us of the very immediate and urgent challenge of Covid-19. May she rest in Peace, and may she and her parents be witnesses to us never dropping the spear.

One other comment before I begin is to note that Comrade Lechesa Tsenoli and I both signed the Global South Call against Israeli annexation of Palestinian territory, along with politicians, academics, artists, sportspeople, judges from various countries of the South, such as Brazil, India, Malaysia, Chile and Venezuela. We were in company of a number of former heads of state, including Kgalema Motlanthe. Such gestures from the leadership of our legislature are important for Palestinians who are being betrayed all over the world.

We have all heard the famous statement of the first president of the democratic Republic of South Africa, Comrade Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela: ‘We know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.’ This statement has been quoted across the length and breadth of our country, and across the world. It is a popular quote in the Palestinian solidarity movement and among Palestinians. One can understand why, of course. It is Madiba! And for Palestinians, it is affirmation of their struggle by the global icon of justice, the freedom fighter, Nelson Mandela.

But beyond the identity of the person being quoted is the very important substance and meaning of the comment, its implications for solidarity, and for South Africa. Indeed, Madiba encapsulates, in this sentence about the Palestinian people, the essence of solidarity itself. Because solidarity is not just about doing for others; it is very much also about doing for ourselves. Solidarity is not about things like humanitarian assistance, pity, or giving; solidarity is a political act; more than that, it is a political process that creates political (and, dare I say, loving – in the Guevaran understanding of revolutionary love) relationships.

I stress this point because, in the era of NGOisation, and Palestine is a wonderful example of the worst meanings of this term, solidarity, for many, has come to mean less a process of struggling together and more one of privileged people being ‘human rights’ defenders’ or providing humanitarian assistance – whether campaigns for political prisoners or food aid. For too many people, solidarity is viewed in an individualistic way, to campaign for injustices perpetrated against this or that person rather than battling the overwhelming structures of oppression that keep entire oppressed populations under their jackboots. It is saddening that many of us, even erstwhile liberation fighters, have succumbed to the allure of neoliberal material benefits, and allowed the attraction of lucre to trump the demands of solidarity.

Chandra Mohanty wrote that solidarity must be based on a ‘common context of struggles against specific exploitative structures and systems.’ (Mohanty 2003, 49). 

Perhaps more familiar to us, is the teaching of Comrade Samora Machel: 

International solidarity is not an act of charity: it is an act of unity between allies fighting on different terrains toward the same objectives…

Solidarity is an assertion that no people is alone, no people is isolated in the struggle for progress. Solidarity is the conscious alliance of the progressive and peace-loving revolutionary forces in the common struggle against colonialism, capitalism and imperialism. In short, against exploitation of human by human.

Solidarity has no race and no colour, and its country has no frontiers. There is no solidarity just among Africans, no exclusively Asian solidarity, since the enemy of the people also has no country or race.

We therefore approach the question of solidarity with the Palestinian people not as privileged northerners do, but as people of the Global South, grappling with our own legacy (and current reality) of ‘exploitative structures and system’, of apartheid, and as a ‘conscious alliance of the progressive and peace-loving revolutionary forces in the common struggle against colonialism, capitalism and imperialism’. For us, then, international solidarity should never mean just doing charity for someone else. It is primarily about developing relationships between oppressed peoples – even if, in the case of some oppressed people, they have more privilege. As in our case, compared to the Palestinians. We have a state, a government, a parliament (even if these are also terrains of struggle), a sovereign nation… The Palestinian people have none of these. When Madiba says we will not be free until the Palestinians are free, he is tying our fate, the fate of an oppressed people (or formerly oppressed people if you wish, though I don’t agree with that description) with the fate of other oppressed people. In supporting Palestinian resistance and Palestinian struggles for justice, Mandela is telling us, we are charting a course for our own liberation.

But when looking at the Israeli occupation, Madiba didn’t just speak about the Palestinians. Long before the regular Israeli onslaughts on Gaza, such as in 2008-2009, and in 2014, long before Israel used the Oslo Accords to undermine the Palestinian struggle and as an excuse to construct illegal settler towns in the West Bank, long before Israel’s thousands of checkpoints made miserable the daily lives of Palestinians, long before the illegal hermetic siege of Gaza, Madiba said of Israel, in 1990: ‘If one has to refer to any parties as a terrorist state, one might refer to the Israeli government because they are the people who are slaughtering defenseless and innocent Arabs in the occupied territories.’ The PLO, he said, ‘we don’t regard… as a terrorist organization.’ This was a clear understanding of what constitutes terrorism and where our solidarity should lie.

But if our solidarity is founded on a context of shared struggles, and on love of other oppressed people, then surely it is hypocritical for us to pat ourselves on the back, telling ourselves that we are fulfilling our responsibility by statements and speeches on significant days, while continuing our lives as if the world is normal, and without concrete action towards realising the freedom of the Palestinian people, which will also be our freedom. It is not sufficient that we deploy the revolutionary slogans of our own struggle – such as ‘Each one, teach one’ – when talking about the Palestinian struggle, but do not imbue our deeds with the revolutionary fervour and actions that accompanied those slogans. Let us remember that Madiba’s statement – ‘…our freedom is incomplete…’ – was not made in the heady days of struggle; not in the 1960s, not after 1976, not in the 1980s. It was made in 1997. It was a commitment made not by the president of the ANC, but by the head of state of a democratic South Africa, suggesting that that state, supposedly a liberated state, was also ‘not free until…’ and implicitly committing the state to achieving its own freedom through that of the Palestinian people. Our stated solidarity and commitment must result in practical consequences for us, as a people, as a state, as a parliament. And I want to turn my attention now to a few of these – particularly as they are relevant to parliament and government.

Yesterday, 16 July, was the 57th anniversary of the address of Mama Miriam Makeba to the UN Special Committee on Apartheid. In her speech, which resulted in her passport being withdrawn and her not being able to return to South Africa, Makeba said: 

I ask you and all the leaders of the world, would you act differently, would you keep silent and do nothing if you were in our place? Would you not resist if you were allowed no rights in your own country because the colour of your skin is different from that of the rulers, and if you were punished for even asking for equality. I appeal to you, and to all countries of the world to do everything you can to stop the coming tragedy. I appeal to you to save the lives of our leaders, to empty the prisons of all those who should never have been there.

Who of us, especially the Black people among us, cannot see Palestine described in these words of Makeba, and, before her, in the words of Amilcar Cabral and Mwalimu Julius Nyerere, both of whom strongly supported the Palestinian struggle. We are not fooled by the apologists of apartheid and colonialism who demand that we should not equate Israeli racism to South African racism of the past. We who have lived as Black people under apartheid know it when we see it, we know what it feels like on our bodies, what it tastes like in our bloodied mouths. And racism, Madiba reminded us, 

is a blight on the human conscience. The idea that any people can be inferior to another, to the point where those who consider themselves superior define and treat the rest as sub-human, denies the humanity even of those who elevate themselves to the status of gods.

He could have been talking of the Israeli treatment of Palestinians.

This brings me to an important point. The UN committee that Mama Miriam Makeba addressed no longer exists. It presented its last report in June 1994. While the committee focused on South Africa, let us note that the 1973 ‘International Convention on the Suppression and Punishment of the Crime of Apartheid’ is not about South Africa. Nor is the apartheid clause in the Rome Statute, adopted in July 1998 – four years after the ‘fall’ of apartheid in South Africa – about our country. In fact, South Africa is not ever mentioned in either document. The Convention is about apartheid, and it will remain relevant as long as apartheid exists anywhere in the world. 

Why then is it, I ask you, Deputy chairpersons, that while we see and recognise and are pained by the apartheid that we witness practised by Israel (and other states), South Africa still has not signed the Convention on Apartheid? Do we feel no shame not to have endorsed a legal instrument developed by the international community that was a weapon in our struggle and can be a weapon in the just struggles of other people? I believe that this is a critical task for this parliament to deal with: signing and ratifying the Convention on Apartheid (especially at this time when we are an elected member of the UNSC), and spearheading a campaign for the reactivation of the Special Committee against Apartheid so that it might be able to address manifestations of apartheid in, for example, Palestine.

There are also numerous considerations for us in terms of South Africa’s relations with Israel. Two and half years ago, the African National Congress resolved at its 54th National Conference in Nasrec to call on the government to downgrade South Africa’s embassy in Tel Aviv to a liaison office. This was certainly the kind of concrete action that reflects (or will reflect when it is completed) South African seriousness in our solidarity with the Palestinian people. That resolution was referred to and supported on numerous occasions by President Cyril Ramaphosa, Minister Naledi Pandor (even before she became Minister of International Relations and Cooperation) and Minister Lindiwe Sisulu (when she was Minister of International Relations and Cooperation). Minister Sisulu added that the downgrade process had already begun with the recall, in May 2018, of our ambassador to Tel Aviv, and the decision not to appoint a new ambassador in his place. Moving ahead on the process to downgrade the embassy, for which the ANC has called, will be a concrete expression of our solidarity. Parliament needs to hold DIRCO and the presidency accountable to ensuring that the process goes ahead, speedily.

There are also other aspects of our relationship with Israel that are concerning. Why have wee not banned, at the very least, the products of the illegal Israeli settlements from being imported into South Africa – no matter how they are labelled? Indeed, why have we not made it difficult for the importation of any Israeli products into South Africa? Our special concern should be for the large amount of Israeli-manufactured security-related equipment that dominates the South African market – from household security technology to commercial and industrial security technology. How can we claim to express solidarity with the Palestinian people when the security technologies used by most state-owned enterprises comes from Israel? How can we be tolerant of Telkom’s billing systems being outsourced to an Israeli company, which has exclusive control over our metadata? How can we express solidarity with the Palestinians but accept as ‘normal business’ when a South African icon, Clover, is bought out by an Israeli consortium?

Furthermore, what is our solidarity worth if we allow South Africans to join and fight with the Israeli Defense Forces, thus being responsible for the murder of Palestinians and the destruction of Palestinian livelihoods. After the 2008-2009 Israeli onslaught on Gaza (called Operation Cast Lead), a handful of NGOs in South Africa prepared and submitted to the National Prosecuting Authority a dossier, commonly called the ‘Gaza Docket’, which listed 75 South Africans who had been operational in the IDF during Operation Cast Lead. Many of those names were linked to social media accounts where these South Africans boasted of their role in the IDF, with some proudly posting pictures of themselves in the uniforms of the occupation army and displaying their weapons. Nothing has come of this Gaza Docket; no one has been prosecuted; no serious investigation, it seems, has been conducted. And yet you, our Parliament, has passed the Regulation of Foreign Military Assistance Act in 1998, which makes such activities illegal.

On the global stage, South Africa is currently both an elected member of the United Nations Security Council and the Chair of the African Union. Each of these is a weighty responsibility. Together, they place on our shoulders as a nation, and on your shoulders as legislators, a massive set of responsibilities. They also put us in a unique position to use these weighty responsibilities in order to give concreteness to our solidarity with oppressed peoples. We might have only six months left on the UNSC, but we should not miss the opportunity to use these months to lobby for the world body, which is heavily weighted against the Palestinians, to strengthen international law, pass critical resolutions, and craft new conversations around the Palestinian struggle. Solidarity should not be restricted to the streets, but should forcefully enter the hallowed chambers of the Security Council as well – even if, for now, only virtually. This is especially so when Israel treats the UN with disdain and dismissal. 

Our role in the AU is, perhaps, more important substantively. When Israel, the ‘terrorist state’ that Madiba referred to, is poised to turn a sufficient number of African states to support its bid for observer status at the AU, when Israel’s exploitation of blood diamonds from our continent has deadly implications for a large number of Africans, when Israel is supporting undemocratic regimes militarily against their own people, a critical South African voice in the AU is more important than it ever has been. We must ensure that Israel does not put its bum on an observer seat in the AU, a cause to which South Africa has been committed but is facing dissent from many other South African states. We must also cast the spotlight on the broader role of Israel on the continent, especially its military, intelligence and security involvement with states and non-state actors.

Not long after US president Donald Trump unveiled his annexation plan for Palestine in January this year, a plan that the Israeli government has enthusiastically embraced, President Ramaphosa said that it 

brought to mind the chronicled history that we as South Africans went through. The apartheid regime once imposed the Bantustan system on the people of South Africa without consulting them and with all the oppressive elements which that plan had… [Trump’s plan] sounds like a Bantustan type of construct.

Our president was, of course, correct in his assessment. However, a slightly deeper examination of the issue demonstrates that, in fact, since the 1990s when the Palestinian Authority was created, Israel never had any intention of allowing the creation of a Palestinian state. The most it was ever willing to countenance was the possibility of a Palestinian bantustan, where the so-called government of that entity would have fewer powers and less authority than did the ‘government’ of Bophutatswana. That is the current situation. What is referred to as a ‘Palestinian state’ today is, in effect, a glorified bantustan. Despite Israeli leaders occasionally paying tribute to a ‘two-state solution’, a Palestinian and an Israeli state existing side-by-side, there never was any Israeli intention to allow for a Palestinian state to exist. The Trump plan has made that clear for those who were previously confused – as our president acknowledged in February.

How, then, should South Africa respond in this context? How should this realisation be reflected in concrete political and policy positions? 

At some level, it is understandable that South Africa, as a member state of the UN and steadfastly committed to the notion of multilateralism in global diplomacy, continues to maintain its support – even if just rhetorically – for a ‘two-state solution’. However, especially in light of the Trump plan, which, as any political scientist will tell you, makes a mockery of the notion of ‘state’, and which proposes a Palestinian entity that will have no control over its borders, water resources, airspace, electromagnetic spectrum, coastline, nor army and not even an independent police force… In light of this, it is now necessary for us to revisit this ‘two-state’ idea. Such a re-evaluation, by the way, is no longer a radical idea, if it ever was. When even (liberal) Zionists are busy re-evaluating the idea and when many of them have already concluded that the only way forward for the Palestinian and Israeli people is to live together in one state, then it is certainly not radical for a leading state in the Global South, with revolutionary credentials, to engage in its own reassessment on this issue.

It is not sufficient to continue hiding behind the argument that this is the position of ‘the Quartet’, especially when one member of that quartet is the architect of this abomination of a ‘peace plan’ and another satisfies itself by whining and hand-wringing while doing nothing to ensure that Palestinian territory is not annexed in complete violation of international law.

It is also not sufficient to hide behind the argument that we are following ‘the Arab states’ or ‘the Arab League’. Since when has ethnicity granted a people the right of veto over principles and moral questions? These are the same Arab states whose authoritarian regimes oppress their own people, which have normalised relations with Israel, which have ensured long term civil wars in various parts of the Middle East and North Africa, which undermine democratically-elected governments (including on our continent). Why are they our teachers?

South Africa, it must be said, has not been shy, since 1994, to challenge ‘the way things are done’ on the global stage. We have been courageous and forthright, for example, in our calls for reform of the United Nations and other multilateral structures. Why then are we afraid of being forthright enough to call for a reassessment of this now-implausible and silly-tragic idea of a two-state solution? Why are we afraid to even begin that conversation publicly at the level of government, parliament and the ruling party? This debate must begin, publicly, in a manner that looks at the best interests of all the people who live in Palestine, Palestinians and Jewish Israelis.

Comrades, as we remember Tata Madiba this month, and as we prepare, especially, for Nelson Mandela Day tomorrow, we must soberly examine his comment about the necessity for seeing justice and peace existing everywhere. We cannot allow ourselves to fall into the trap that has long been set for us of extracting Madiba from his legacy as a freedom fighter and seeing him only as a teddy bear hugging children and White people. Let us not forget that Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela was not sentenced to life in prison because he was a cuddly stuffed toy, but because he was a founder of Mkhonto we Sizwe, a leader of our armed struggle against an apartheid state. Let us remember too, that while Madiba committed ad devoted his entire life to justice and peace, Apartheid Israel is not interested in justice or peace. Unless it is the peace of the graveyard, or pieces of bantustans. It is interested only in war, in the theft of Palestinian land and in the ethnic cleansing of the Palestinian people. Solidarity, as Madiba demanded of us, requires real and concrete support for Palestinian resistance, not talk of fictitious mediations between Israelis and the Palestinians.

Allow me to end this tribute to our leader Nelson Mandela with a quote from him from 1999, when Madiba, president of the Republic of South Africa, was seated next to PLO Chairperson Yasser Arafat in Gaza. Madiba declared on that occasion: 

All men and women with vision choose peace rather than confrontation, except in cases where we cannot proceed, where we cannot move forward. Then if the only alternative is violence, we will use violence.

A few weeks later, Palestinians launched the Second Intifada. 

Palestinians today find themselves in a position where they ‘cannot proceed’, where they ‘cannot move forward’. If we fail them, and if we fail the calls for real solidarity from Madiba and from the Palestinian people, we will push them further into a corner where there are no alternatives. Our solidarity must ensure that Palestinians have alternatives that will provide them a just and fair future, free from oppression and exploitation, occupation, colonisation and apartheid.

AMANDLA!

* Na'eem Jeenah is the Executive Director of the Afro-Middle East Centre

By Larbi Sadiki 

Since 2017, Tunisia’s interior and south have witnessed a wave of ongoing protests, characterised by the slogan ‘al-rakh la’, meaning ‘No Relenting’. These protests have tested the resilience of the country’s democracy. Though they intermittently disrupt phosphate and oil production, they do so against the disruption of lives in towns like Gafsa, Kasserine or Tataouine, where democracy is yet to end marginalisation.

As the Tunisian government celebrated its ‘victory’ over the spread of COVID-19 on 25 June, protestors in Tataouine, at the southern tip of the country, sounded a different note. The jubilation over the release of the Kamour Hirak detainees did not prevent the activists from getting back to the business of protesting. The Kamour Hirak is a three-year-old protest in Tunisia’s southern Tataouine province, focused around grievances related to jobs in the oil and gas fields in the area, and on the share of funds from the hydrocarbon industry to be earmarked for local development. The activists in this loose group of protesters, who mostly rely on employment in the southern region’s oilfields, are demanding jobs and investments as part of a regional development fund that had been promised to them under a 2017 agreement with Youcef Chahed’s government.

Sustained protest

The Kamour protests did not erupt in a vacuum; they must be situated within the context of more than fifteen years of revolutionary action in the phosphate basin. The causes are still the same as they were late 2010 and 2011 when the former president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, was ousted. Multiple marginalisation is still the common incubator of the protests.

The protests are reminders of several interconnected issues. First, policy inertia when it comes to youth unemployment and regional marginalisation is a festering problem crying for urgent attention. Second, they sound an alarm about southern youth being disaffected and disenchanted with Tunisia’s new rulers. Third, they have created a protest multiplier effect, eliciting a widespread sense of solidarity and unity with the marginalised people of the south and centre. Last, the state’s coercive apparatus’s reaction to these protests shows that old habits die hard: when politics fails, there is an escalation of violent police tactics.

Recent weeks have seen an escalation of protests in Tataouine as the working class ups the ante. Tansiqiyyat al-Kamour is a newer movement that mirrors persistent unrest in Gafsa’s phosphate basin, but protests and sit-ins have disrupted Tunisian phosphate production for years, recently resulting in production being 27.5 per cent lower than the 2.7 million ton goal set by the Gafsa Phosphate Company.

Before the 2011 revolution, protestors faced the challenge of dealing with the authoritarian state under Ben Ali. Arrests and state security repression included violence that resulted in at least four deaths in the famous phosphate basin events of 2008. Now, the same protesters are wrangling with a new democratic state that includes a stumbling transitional justice process for previous state crackdowns. Importantly, the demands of Gafsa’s marginalised people have not changed much since before the 2011 uprising.

Democracy is not enough

These clusters of unruliness across the country’s south represent movements of moral protest. Activists insist on a minimum standard of dignity to complement the hard-won freedoms of the 2011 uprising, and, when it is lacking, protests erupt periodically in the long-marginalised south of the country, with its long history of state neglect since formal independence in 1956. Tunisia’s politicians may rightly declare that COVID-19 exposed deep social inequality in the country, but economic and social exclusion are not news to those suffering deprivation in the south. One government after another seems incapable of finding solutions to poverty, unemployment, poor healthcare infrastructure (highlighted during the COVID-19 crisis), and lethal environmental damage in Tataouine, Gafsa, Kasserine (with Sidi Bouzid – the birthplace of the 2010-11 uprising), among other interior and southern regions.

Kamour’s latest escalation is but one manifestation of long-simmering discontent, accompanied by feelings of discrimination in broad segments of the country. For the people in these areas, the richer Sahel (coast), including the capital and surrounding areas, is a world away. The democratic ‘pill’ may have quelled some of the indignation in Tunisia’s marginal areas since 2011, but protests have not faded from the scene since Ben Ali’s fall.

The state’s heavy-handed approach to sit-ins and protests, such as the confiscation of 13 tents in Tataouine last week, did not go down well; indeed, it resulted in many citizens feeling unseen and unheard. ‘These events were painful,’ said Khalifah Bohoush, a member of Tansiqiyyat Al-Kamour. He complained that the government had violated protestors’ dignity. ‘We felt insulted…[after] we had chanted thawrah (revolution) in one voice with all Tunisians!’ Like Bohoush, many feel that the canisters of tear gas, the broken arms and legs, and the curses and insults hurled by security officials signal that not all Tunisian citizens are equal, that the country’s north is more deserving of wealth and government attention than the south’s forgotten and restless youth.

Democratisation has raised the expectations of unemployed youth seeking jobs, and of poverty-stricken families, all of whom wait to realise the distributive responsibilities of the state, and the peaceful settlement of disputes. Kamour youth continually stress their constitutional right to protest. Upon his release, Kamour spokesperson Tarek al Haddad admonished the country’s politicians that Ben Ali’s days were over: after 2011, there is no rule by force, he said. Why, then, the vicious crackdown, the teargas, the violence, the foul language?

These latest clashes between protestors and security ­­officials remind us that the ballot is not enough. Especially for a poor country beleaguered by deep inequalities, voting people into parliament and presidents into office is not an end in itself; elected officials should represent constituents’ demands. In this case, these demands include the implementation of a three-year-old agreement guaranteeing 1 500 jobs in oil companies (for instance, in the new Nawara plant), 500 landscape/agricultural jobs, and TND 80 million (about $28 400 000) a year for a regional development fund in Tataouine.

Democratic ethos and practice furnish the framework for constant dialogue between state and society, voters and officials. Reverting to the old Ben Ali-era tactics that made the Interior Ministry notorious in Tunisia and elsewhere in the Arab world does not square well with democratisation. At this democratic moment, Tunisia finds itself doubly besieged. Internally, the government of Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh faces the challenge of the ‘hirak’ and the youth stubbornly hanging onto government pledges to deliver the goods. A cabinet meeting late last week discussed the original pledge, inching closer to meeting the Kamour protesters’ demands for jobs. The embattled prime minister is also busy with a burgeoning ‘conflict of interest’ scandal. Externally, Tunisia is deeper in debt than ever before; a perfunctory calculation of debt accumulated during the past few months of the COVID-19 crisis tallies up to more than a USD 1 billion.

Who will pay back these loans, and where is the COVID-19 assistance going? Ultimately, democracy creates openings for solving people’s problems, particularly when opportunities arise. The epidemic was one such opportunity, the latest protests in the interior and the south are another. If youth grievances continue to fester in the country’s marginalised (and border) regions, any awe of democracy that still exists may fade. These youth publicly insist on the peacefulness, legality, and the justness of their demands and their tactics. The government should not lose them as interlocutors for confronting the country’s problems. Before Fakhfakh, the Chahed government lost credibility by failing to satisfactorily fulfil its Kamour promises. 

The current government seems to follow a policy of delay and decay: deferring distributive justice and sinking in political paralysis. The new president, Kais Saeid, seemed to have acted proactively by meeting with the Kamour protesters. However, not much has materialised since that encounter. And it was followed by a stain on his reputation when, on a recent tour France, he secured Tunisia’s latest loan instalment of $350 million and asserted in an interview on France24 that Tunisia had been a protectorate, rather than a colony, of France. Tunisia had not been not colonised the way that Algeria had, he insisted. In one interview, Saeid erased and rewrote Tunisian history and the numerous struggles and sacrifices against French colonialism.

Whether or not ‘protectorate’ is a precise legal designation is beside the point. Language always implies power. It is tactless and jarring that a sitting Tunisian president would reproduce the linguistic understandings of colonial discourse, which underpin decades of physical and cultural violence. Saeid revealed not only his lack of sophistication, but also an aloofness from Tunisian society. He demonstrated a willingness, for whatever reason, to verbally violate elements of the basis of a multi-vocal Tunisian identity whose very postcoloniality was forged in sacrifices of life and limb, for the sake of freedom.

Perhaps the president should reread Frantz Fanon and Edward Said. He would do well to re-immerse himself in the voices of local resisters and Tunisian voices such as Abdelaziz Al-Tha’albi, Farhat Hashad, Habib Bourguiba, to name but a few, who struggled, wrote, organised, and fought against colonialism. However, even more damaging to Saeid’s reputation has been his foot-dragging in making good on his promise to the Kamour youth who he met in January.

A distracted parliament

Tunisia has recently experienced parliamentary mayhem, epitomised in June’s ‘battle of the petitions’ that included one petition on 9 June that was sponsored by the Dignity Coalition, which demanded an apology from France for its colonial crimes. The debacle illustrated the lack of an ethos of respectful dialogue among MPs from rival parties (even within the government’s teetering ruling coalition). Instead, citizens witness cheap showmanship and sensationalism, ideological polarisation, and a willingness to turn parliament into a new televised battleground for region-wide conflicts.

Parliamentary deliberation has ceded to ‘petitioning’ by constantly bickering political parties and coalitions. The bickering has become more ideological and historical than contemporary or for Tunisia’s benefit. We see parliamentarian seek to issue final judgements on history (on, for example, Bourguiba’s legacy), or to position themselves vis-à-vis regional discord (regarding, for instance, pro- or anti-Turkey sentiments with respect to the conflict in Libya). This has intensified polarisation. Such raucousness in the legislature has distracted and detracted from real social and economic woes felt in Tataouine, Gafsa, Kasserine, Sidi Bouzid and other interior and southern regions.

Civil society actors, from Tataouine and Kasserine’s protesting youth to an Arab-wide initiative calling for the cancellation of exploitative international loans, may be ahead of politicians in demanding solutions for worsening socio-economic predicaments. Yet it remains up to those who hold power in Tunisia, the controllers of its purse strings, to activate the country’s impressive democratic toolkit. The government should ramp up the budgets of regions with special needs: unemployment, poverty, crumbling public amenities, etc. These are problems that will not go away.

Enacting policies that inch towards responsiveness to urgent citizen demands and away from external dependency is a Herculean but inescapable task, if not out of a sense of moral obligation, then at least because the disruptions of protests will not simply disappear. Kamour’s youth chant it in protests and scrawl it on walls: ‘Al rakh la’ – resist, and stay the course. Democracy demands they be taken seriously.

Thinking ahead: researching protests

From an epistemological angle, Tunisian and other Arab protests force us to revisit their common puzzle and research trajectories via a positivist take (when and how are protests inevitable?), and a normative angle (when, how and why should elected politicians represent the marginalised and the protesters?). In Tunisia, the biggest gain of the 2011 uprising is freedom. Freedom, however, begets more freedom, reinforcing different actors’ quests for dignity. It knows no limits in reimagining polity and democratic citizenship of equal (distributive, not adversarial) opportunity.

What do Tunisia’s protests share with contemporaneous moral protests and riots? In a nutshell, even if in some form or other they are conditioned by local concerns related to specific sociopolitical realities, they seem to share patterns of misrule and injustice. Arab protests from Beirut or Tripoli in Lebanon to Suweida in Syria, from Gafsa to Morocco’s Rif, keep millions of youth hanging on to possibilities of justice, democracy and better lives: ‘Al rakh la!’

Larbi Sadiki is a Tunisian writer, political scientist and Professor at the Qatar University. He was formerly a scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center. Sadiki's writing focuses on the democratization of the Arab world as well as human rights studies and dialogue between the Western and Islamic civilizations.

** This article was first published in openDemocracy (8 July 2020)

By Ramzy Baroud

The painful truth is that the Palestinian Authority (PA) of President Mahmoud Abbas has already ceased to exist as a political body that holds much sway or relevance, either to the Palestinian people or to Abbas’s former benefactors – the Israeli and American governments. Therefore, when the Palestinian Authority prime minister, Mohammed Shtayyeh, announced on 9 June 2020 that the Palestinian leadership had submitted a ‘counter proposal’ to the US Middle East ‘peace plan’, also known as the ‘Deal of the Century’, few people seemed to care.

Little is known about this ‘counter proposal’, apart from the fact that it envisages a demilitarised Palestinian state within the pre-1967 borders. We also know that the PA is willing to accept land swaps and border adjustments, a provision that has surely been inserted to cater for Israel’s demographic and security needs. It is almost certain, however, that nothing will come of Shtayyeh’s counter proposal, and no independent Palestinian state will result from the seemingly historical offer. Why then did Ramallah opt for such a strategy only days before the 1 July deadline, when the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to launch its process of illegal annexation in the occupied West Bank and the Jordan Valley?

The main reason behind Shtayyeh’s announcement is that the PA leadership is often accused by Israel, the USA and their allies of supposedly rejecting previous ‘peace’ overtures. Correctly so, the PA rejected the ‘Deal of the Century’ because it represents the most jarring violation of international law yet. It denies the Palestinians’ territorial rights in occupied East Jerusalem, completely dismisses the right of return for Palestinian refugees, and gives carte blanche to the Israeli government to colonise more Palestinian territory.

In principle, Netanyahu also rejected the American proposal, though without pronouncing his rejection publicly. Indeed, the Israeli leader has already dismissed any prospects of Palestinian statehood and has decided to move forward with the unilateral annexation of nearly thirty per cent of the West Bank, without paying any heed to the fact that even Trump’s unfair ‘peace’ initiative called for mutual dialogue before any annexation takes place.

As soon as Washington’s plan was announced in January, followed by Israel’s insistence that the annexation of Palestinian territories was imminent, the PA spun into a strange political mode, far more unpredictable and bizarre than ever before. One after another, PA officials began making all sorts of contradictory remarks and declarations, notable among them being Abbas’s announcement on 19 May to cancel all agreements between the Palestinians and Israel. This was followed by another announcement, on 8 June, this time by Hussein Al-Sheikh, a senior PA official and Abbas confidante, that if annexation were to take place, the Authority would cut off civic services to Palestinians to force Israel to assume its legal role as an occupying power as per international norms. Then a third announcement was made the following day by Shtayyeh himself, threatening that if Israel were to claim sovereignty over parts of the West Bank, the PA would retaliate by declaring statehood within the pre-1967 borders.

The Palestinian counter-proposal was declared soon after this hotchpotch of announcements, most likely to offset the state of confusion that is marring the Palestinian body politic. It is the PA’s way of appearing proactive, positive, and stately. The Palestinian initiative also aims at sending a message to European countries that, despite Abbas’s cancellation of agreements with Israel, the PA was still committed to the political parameters set by the Oslo Accords in September 1993.

What Abbas and Shtayyeh are ultimately hoping to achieve is a repeat of an earlier episode that followed the admission of Palestine as a non-state member of the United Nations General Assembly in 2011. Salam Fayyad, who served as the PA’s prime minister at the time, also waved the card of the unilateral declaration of statehood to force Israel to freeze the construction of illegal Jewish settlements. Eventually, the PA was co-opted by then-US Secretary of State, John Kerry, to return to another round of useless negotiations with Israel. This won the PA another ten years, during which time it received generous international funds while selling Palestinians false hope for an imaginary state.

Sadly, this is the current strategy of the Palestinian leadership: a combination of threats, counter proposals and such, in the hope that Washington and Tel Aviv will agree to return to a bygone era. Unfortunately, but hardly surprisingly, it seems the Palestinian people, occupied, besieged, and oppressed, is the least relevant factor in the PA’s calculations. The PA has operated for many years without a semblance of democracy, and the Palestinian people neither respect ‘their government’ nor their so-called president. They have made their feelings known, repeatedly, in many opinion polls

In the last few months, the PA has used every trick in the book to demonstrate its relevance and seriousness in the face of the dual threat of Trump’s ‘Deal of the Century’ and Netanyahu’s annexation of Palestinian lands. Yet, the most significant and absolutely pressing step, that of uniting all Palestinians, people and factions, behind a single political body and a single political document, is yet to be taken. It is, therefore, no exaggeration to argue that Abbas’s Authority is gasping its last breath, especially if its traditional European allies fail to extend a desperately-needed lifeline. The guarded positions adopted by EU countries have, thus far, signalled that no European country is capable or willing to fill the gap left open by Washington’s betrayal of the PA and of the ‘peace process’.

Until the PA hands over the keys to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) so that the more democratically representative Palestinian body can start a process of national reconciliation, Netanyahu will, tragically, remain the only relevant party, determining the fate of Palestine and her people.

* Ramzy Baroud is a journalist and the editor of The Palestine Chronicle. He is the author of five books, his latest being These Chains Will Be Broken: Palestinian Stories of Struggle and Defiance in Israeli Prisons. His website is www.ramzybaroud.net

The Libyan conflict has endured for years despite numerous failed attempts at mediating a solution by the UN, African Union, and even Turkey and Italy. A 2011 arms embargo imposed on the country has been ineffective, mainly because France and Russia, which support one side in the conflict, are permanent members on the UNSC. Other states, including Egypt, the UAE and Turkey, have their own interests in the country and have thus largely ignored the embargo. Four UN special envoys have been appointed and have resigned, citing outside influence as an obstacle to their work. Despite this, foreign support for the belligerents continues to intensify, with Greece and Cyprus now also interested in the conflict’s outcomes.

Overview of the Libyan conflict 

Since 2014, Libya has been divided between two governments and even, for a period between 2015 and 2017, three centres of power. This included a legislature in Tripoli, in the west of the country, formerly the General National Congress and now the High State Council (HSC); a parliament in Tobruk in the east, the House of Representatives (HoR); and the UN-recognised government, the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli. The influence and power of various militia often supersedes that of these political institutions. The HoR is dependent on the support of the largest militia, the Libyan National Army (LNA), headed by warlord Khalifa Haftar, while the GNA relies heavily on the support of the Bunyan Marsus militia in the western city of Misrata. UN attempts to mediate a power-sharing agreement have repeatedly failed, mainly because foreign support has ensured obduracy from the LNA, which by April 2019 had captured much of the south of Libya and had besieged the capital, Tripoli. A year later, in April 2020, the GNA began reversing many of these gains, but the LNA remains in control of the east and much of the south.

 

Foreign interference

Libya’s strategic position on the southern Mediterranean, its location as a transit route for migrants travelling to Europe, and its large oil resources have meant that it is regarded as a prize for Libyans and non-Libyans alike. Many foreign powers, including France, Russia and the USA, have significant economic and other interests in the country. Seemingly, the strategic importance of the country increased after the ouster and murder of Libya’s former leader, Muammar Gaddafi, especially since the country’s instability saw increasing numbers of migrants use the country as a transit route when travelling to Europe. Further, arms proliferation across Libya’s porous borders greatly influenced instability in the Sahel, infamously playing a role in the 2012 Malian coup. The power vacuum and contested centres of power meant that regional countries, including Egypt, the UAE, and Turkey, as well as extra-regional powers, have tried to exploit the situation for both financial and political gains.

Government of National Accord

The most recent phase of the conflict commenced in April 2019, when Haftar’s LNA besieged Tripoli. Haftar believed the capital would readily capitulate. However, after a siege lasting one year, the GNA has pushed the LNA militia out of most of the country’s western regions, recapturing the strategic Watiya airbase in May 2020 and forcing LNA troops out of their strategic base in Tarhuna thereafter. The LNA retreated from areas surrounding southern Tripoli and was pushed further east; it is now unable to mount a direct offensive on Tripoli. This new situation is due, mainly, to enhanced Turkish support for the GNA. Ankara, viewing Libya as being of strategic importance for Turkey, deployed Special Forces and recruits from among Syrian rebels, numbering around 10 000 according to some reports. Turkey also provided air support to the GNA, enabling it to end Haftar’s aerial dominance.

Turkey’s interests in Libya include a maritime border agreement signed in 2019 between Ankara and the GNA, strengthening Turkish claims over natural gas in the Mediterranean, and undermining the claims of Greece and Cyprus. Ankara also has long-standing commercial and economic interests in Libya, and is opposed to the regimes in Cairo and Abu Dhabi, Haftar’s key supporters. Egypt’s and the UAE’s recent attempts to curtail Ankara’s growing regional influence have included supporting the Asad regime in Syria. It is almost certain, however, that Turkey will increase its support to the GNA, since ensuring a GNA victory is now part of Turkey’s national interest.

The GNA also receives diplomatic support from Italy, its closest European neighbour, and Italy opposes France’s support of Haftar. Rome also assisted in financing and training the Libyan Coast Guard, but has avoided supporting the GNA financially or militarily in its confrontation with Haftar. Rome’s main interest is to prevent migration from Libya to Europe. Another strong GNA supporter is Qatar; its support is mainly financial. Recently, the new Tunisian government, which was elected in February 2020, has also begun expressing support for the GNA. Tunisia has allowed Turkish aircraft that are delivering aid to the GNA to land in the country, a move that has been vehemently criticised by the HoR.

The LNA and the HoR 

Haftar’s main weapons suppliers are the UAE and Egypt. Chadian, Sudanese, and Russian mercenaries have also been recruited to bolster his ill-fated advance on Tripoli. Most of these countries view the Islamist components of the GNA as a threat. Egypt’s additional motivation is the possibility of benefiting from Libyan oil. Egypt’s president, Abdul Fattah El Sisi, regards Haftar as having similar interests as him, since both are military strongman, and because both oppose political Islam. Cairo has provided diplomatic and military backing for the LNA, and allowed Emirati aircraft to use Egyptian airspace and bases to carry out attack on Libya Dawn forces in Tripoli in August 2014.  

Saudi Arabia and the UAE also increasingly regard their support to Haftar as a means of containing Turkey by engulfing Ankara in a potentially unwinnable conflict. Between  April 2019 and April 2020 the UAE carried out over 850 air attacks on GNA targets, mainly through drones. In January and February 2020 alone, Abu Dhabi provided over 4.6 tons of military equipment to the LNA, allowing it to respond to Turkish attacks and also to snub ceasefire calls from the UN, EU and Turkey and Russia.  Riyadh too has financially supported the LNA; Haftar visited Saudi Arabia in March 2019, just weeks before his April 2019 march on Tripoli. 

For Russia, the reinstatement of Gadhafi-era weapons contracts, worth over four billion dollars, would be a big prize, one that a military like Haftar would be able to guarantee. Moscow also sees other economic benefits through eastern Libya, including the exploitation of Libya’s oil resources. In general, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin views strongmen as more reliable allies and more able to provide stability. Like some of the other state supporters of Haftar, Moscow does not always differentiate between militant and democratic Islamists. Moscow has, therefore, diplomatically and militarily supported the LNA, including by watering down and, at times, blocking UN statements and resolutions condemning Haftar. Recently, Moscow deployed fourteen fighter jets, including MiG29s and SU24s, to the Jafra airbase to support the LNA after the GNA’s military gains. Apart from state involvement, the Russian Wagner security group, which is said to have close links to Putin, is also active in Libya, supporting Haftar’s militia.

France regards Haftar as pivotal in its Sahelian counterterrorism strategy, which has resulted in it supporting strongmen in the Sahel, and turning a blind eye to the suppression of freedoms and narrowing political space. France was the first western state to dispatch special forces to support Haftar, and has worked to weaken EU statements criticising his actions, the most recent of which followed his march on Tripoli.

Haftar has skilfully used the Islamic State group (IS) bogey to garner western and Russian support. His 2014 ‘Operation Dignity’ was presented as a counterterrorism operation, and he includes elements of the GNA in his ‘terrorist’ category. France, a major player in the 2011 uprisings and the NATO campaign to unseat Gaddafi, initially supported Haftar ostensibly to counter IS. The group currently has little influence in Libya, with only a few hundred members, but its name has been useful for Haftar to use as a scare tactic.

Jordan, Greece and Cyprus have also recently increased their support for the LNA. Amman dispatched UAE-funded weapons and aircraft to the LNA in an attempt to mask their origination. Jordanian-manufactured armoured vehicles and weapons have also been used by Haftar. Amman is wary of Turkish support for the GNA. Jordan also regards support for the LNA as a politically tolerable method of ensuring that it continues to receive support from Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Although the country is opposed to the Qatari blockade and Saudi and Emirati support for Trump’s ‘deal of the century’ on Palestine, it is dependent on Saudi and Gulf Cooperation Council largess for its survival. Greek and Cypriot support for the LNA is mainly an attempt to scupper Turkish efforts to explore natural gas in the Mediterranean.

Haftar has also enlisted the services of private security companies from a number of countries, including, reportedly, South Africa, in the attempted capture of Tripoli. In May, a group of private military contractors, including eleven South Africans, evacuated to Malta from Libya, as reported by the UN panel monitoring the embargo. They were to engage in an assault on Tripoli using three SA341 Gazelle and three AS332 Super Puma helicopters that had been sourced in South Africa by UAE companies and transported to Libya via Botswana. The eleven South Africans included four pilots.

Current political situation

Until the LNA began to be pushed back and forced to retreat from April 2020, Haftar had remained resolutely opposed to a negotiated political settlement, believing that he had the means to achieve a military victory against the GNA. Once it became clear after the April 2020 GNA gains that Tripoli was no longer within the reach of the LNA, he began making calls for a ceasefire. Splits have also emerged between the HoR and Haftar. The HoR’s speaker, Ageela Saleh, announced a new peace initiative in April 2020 that called for a restructuring of the presidency council to three members, one from each of the country’s three main regions. The initiative would have partially curtailed Haftar’s powers, since he would be answerable to this new council. Haftar subsequently anointed himself in charge of the country, declaring the 2015 Skhirat agreement void, in a move that was criticised by most of his supporters, including Moscow.

The failed Tripoli offensive has weakened Haftar’s influence relative to Saleh’s. This is indicated by the shift away from Haftar by Egypt, the UAE and Russia since May. Haftar’s powerful militia, however, will ensure that, at least for the time being, he will continue being influential in the east. The HoR will likely continue supporting him for now, even though many of its members are disillusioned and frustrated that he controls most of the levers of power.

Although the GNA, currently enjoying many military victories, claims it is no longer interested in talks and wants to ‘liberate’ the whole country, it will likely be prepared to engage in peace talks after it establishes its dominance in the west and captures the city of Sirte. The recent gains have, however, granted the GNA new confidence and it is insisting that its leader, Fayez Sarraj, heads a reformed presidency council that would include Saleh. The GNA has also become more assertive in opposing Haftar’s remaining in charge of the LNA after a resolution is found.

 

Foreign powers impede political negotiations

The UN has been attempting to find a resolution to the Libyan crisis since 2015, but continues to be hamstrung by divisions in the UNSC. Haftar’s continued obduracy has been encouraged by support he receives from UNSC non-elected member France and, more recently, Russia. Further, the UN’s focus on elections as the sole means out of the conflict has resulted in it not concentrating more effort on consensus-building and bottom-up negotiations. These were hallmarks of the initial phases of the negotiations that resulted in the 2015 Libyan Political Agreement (LPA/Skhirat agreement).  The UN planned for elections to be held in 2018, but these have repeatedly been postponed.

A 13 January 2020 ceasefire agreement, mediated by Turkey and Russia, failed because Haftar refused to endorse it. Further, a fifty-five-point roadmap endorsed by most of the roleplayers in Libya, as well as the UAE, Turkey, and France, and signed in Berlin on 19 January, is proving difficult to implement. UN-sponsored ceasefire talks between five military officials from each of the two sides convened in February in Geneva and agreed on a tentative ceasefire. However, the two rival governments subsequently overruled this. Negotiations have since recommenced following the LNA withdrawal from Western Libya, but no new agreement has been reached.

Conclusion 

It is clear, as suggested by the one-year stalemate as Tripoli was besieged, that a political solution is the only way out of the Libyan crisis. However, most of the actors in that country have ulterior motives, and have hampered negotiations and, more importantly, implementation of agreements. They have thus continued to try to shape solutions by announcing their own initiatives outside the UN in attempts to provide political legitimisation for their interference. This was the case with the 2018 Paris and Palermo meetings and the unsuccessful January 2020 Turkey-Russia ceasefire. The 6 June Cairo declaration may be characterised in the same way. Although advocating a ceasefire, an elected governing structure and the expulsion of outside forces from the country, Egypt’s declaration is an attempt to protect the HoR, which had been suffering military losses since April. The Egyptian call for foreign forces to leave is directed at Turkey; it is unlikely that Sisi includes Haftar’s supporters – Egypt, UAE, France and Russia – in that call. They are unlikely to reduce their support to the LNA or withdraw forces from Libya. 

It was no surprise, then, that the UAE, France and Russia vociferously supported Sisi’s call;  Turkey, Germany and the USA have been more cautious, arguing that it was a good first step but that negotiations needed to be guided by the UN. Turkey is unlikely to accept an agreement that will see its interests negatively impacted. The agreement, similar to the 2018 meetings in France and Italy, will likely be stillborn. Turkey has already expressed its dissatisfaction over Saleh being seen as the main personality guiding the process. A 16 June meeting between the Turkish and Russian defence and foreign ministers was cancelled following Ankara’s opposition to Russian proposals that Saleh lead a new political process in the country.

The UN and AU are the only institutions that remain able to mediate and formulate a solution that would be acceptable to most parties. However, both institutions are hamstrung by the interests of powerful states; Egypt in the case of the AU, and France and Russia in the UNSC. The inability of the UNSC to appoint a replacement for former special envoy Ghassan Salame for three months also means that negotiations are not able to take place since there is no one to drive the process from the UN.  Any lasting agreement will have to be in line with the fifty-five point roadmap agreed upon in Berlin in January to have a chance at success. Further, the UN’s three track negotiations process, dealing with economic, political and security/military issues, will need to be replicated to engender a more holistic solution.

By Ramzy Baroud

The banning of deadly police practices by many American states and cities following the murder of George Floyd, an African American man, at the hands of Minneapolis police officers is, once more, shedding light on US-Israeli collaboration in the fields of policing, security and crowd control.

From California to New York, and from Washington State to Minneapolis, all forms of neck restraints and chokeholds that are used by police while dealing with suspects are no longer allowed by local, state, or federal authorities. Even the US president, Donald Trump, felt pressured enough to issue an executive order outlawing police use of the chokehold.

This is only the beginning of what promises to be a serious rethink in police practices that disproportionately target African Americans and other minority and marginalised communities across the United States.

The refashioning of the American police, in recent years, to fit a military model is a subject that requires better understanding than the one currently offered by mainstream US media. Certainly, US racism and police violence are intrinsically linked and date back decades, but the militarisation of the US police and their use of deadly violence against suspected petty criminals – and often non criminals – is a relatively new phenomenon that has largely been imported from Israel. 

While an urgent conversation is already under way in US cities regarding the need to reimagine public safety, or even to defund the police altogether, little is being said about the link between the US ‘war on terror’ and the American elites’ fascination with the ‘Israeli example’ in how the Israeli military deals with Palestinians in the besieged Gaza Strip and in the occupied West Bank.

‘The Israeli example (could serve as) a possible basis for arguing…that “torture was necessary to prevent imminent, significant, physical harm to persons, where there is no other available means to prevent the harm”,’ read the CIA General Counsel report of September 2001.

Equally important to the content of this argument made by the CIA was the actual date of the report – only a few days after the 11 September attacks in New York. That was the beginning of a new form of the Israeli-American love affair, which entirely redefined the nature of the relationship between Washington and Tel Aviv, removing Israel from the category of ‘client regimes’, and casting it into a whole new category – that of a model to be emulated, and a true partner to be embraced.

The language used by the CIA and other structures within the US intelligence community quickly seeped into the military as well, and eventually became the uncontested political discourse, epitomised by the words of the former US president, Barack Obama, in June 2010 when he said that ‘the bond between the United States and Israel is unbreakable.’ ‘Unbreakable’ indeed, since Israel, the long-time recipient of American financial support and military and intelligence secrets became a major exporter of ideas, security technology, and ‘war on terror’ tactics to the USA.

It is, however, critical that we do not reduce our understanding of this troubling rapport between the USA and Israel to only military hardware and intelligence sharing. The new American infatuation with Israel is essentially an intellectual one, as the USA began viewing itself as inferior to Israel in terms of the latter’s supposed ability to navigate between sustaining its own democracy and successfully defeating Palestinian and Arab ‘terrorism’.

For example, former US President George W Bush regarded extremist Israeli politician and author, Natan Sharansky, as a mentor. In January 2005, The New York Times reported how Bush had invited Sharansky to the Oval Office to discuss his book The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror. A barely visible Israeli politician thus became the moral authority for Bush’s invasion of sovereign Arab countries. It was during this period that Israeli torture tactics, including the infamous ‘Palestinian Chair’, became the crown jewel of the American military’s systematic violence used in America’s immoral wars from Iraq to Afghanistan, to elsewhere.

Writing in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in 2016, Rachel Stroumsa argued that the ‘Palestinian Chair’ was ‘but one of many examples of ties and seepages between the security practices of Israel and America’, adding that ‘the CIA explicitly justified its use of torture in depositions to the Senate Intelligence Committee by citing High Court of Justice rulings.’

The political, military, and intelligence marriage between the USA and Israel in Iraq quickly spread to include the US ‘global war on terror’, where Israeli weapon manufacturers cater to every American need, playing on the country’s growing sense of insecurity, offering products that range from airport security, the building of watchtowers, the erection of walls and fences, to spying and surveillance technology.

Elbit Systems, Israel’s largest military company, made a fortune from building surveillance towers and sensors, in addition to many other products, across the USA-Mexico border. The company, like other Israeli companies, won one bid after another, because its products are ‘combat-proven’ or ‘field-proven’, referred to as such because these technologies have been used against, or tested on, real people in real situations; the ‘people’ here, of course, being Palestinians, Lebanese, and Syrians. The fact that thousands of American police officers have been trained by Israelis, as evidenced by the burgeoning of violent military-like tactics used against ordinary Americans, is only one link in a long chain of ‘deadly exchanges’ between the two countries.

Almost immediately after the 11 September 2001 attacks, ‘the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee’s Project Interchange and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs have paid for police chiefs, assistant chiefs and captains to train in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories,’ Amnesty International said in a recent report. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. The Israeli army manual, which holds little respect for internationally-recognised rules of conduct, infiltrated numerous police departments across the USA. Even the typical look of the American police officers began changing to resemble that of a combat soldier in full gear. The growing Israeli role in shaping the American security state allowed Israel to push its political priorities past its traditional stronghold over the US Congress to individual states and, eventually, to city councils across the country.

Even if some Israeli tactics that are currently applied by the US police are discontinued under the collective chants of ‘Black Lives Matter’, Israel – if not stopped – will continue to define Washington’s security priorities from Washington State to Texas, because the relationship – Obama’s ‘unbreakable bond’ – is much stronger and deeper than anyone could have ever imagined.

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

by Mohammed Cherkaoui

Retired general Khalifa Haftar stated that his ‘Libyan National Army (LNA)’ had a ‘popular mandate’ to rule Libya and vowed to press his assault to seize Tripoli. In a televised address on his Libya al-Hadath TV channel, he announced, ‘The general command is answering the will of the people, despite the heavy burden and the many obligations and the size of the responsibility, and we will be subject to the people’s wish.’[1] He also declared the ‘end of the Skhirat Agreement’, a 2015 UN-mediated deal that consolidated Libya’s government. Haftar vowed his forces would work ‘to put in place the necessary conditions to build the permanent institutions of a civil state’. However, he did not specify whether the House of Representatives in Tobruk, eastern Libya, would support his plans. Similar to the kind of declaration that Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi made in 2013 to justify his coup against the democratically-elected president, Haftar’s unilateral ‘popular mandate’ and his intention to impose some de facto authority in Libya have serious ramifications, and indicate what could be a third legitimacy crisis in the last six years. His plans point to a further escalation of an open-ended crisis, which the UN Secretary General considers a ‘proxy war’. Another diplomatic puzzle is the future of the Libyan Political Agreement, or the ‘Skhirat Agreement’, signed on 17 December 2015 at a conference in Skhirat, Morocco. 

After a 31-month tenure as UN special envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salamé submitted his resignation to the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, for ‘health reasons’, on 2 March 2020. His decision suggested deep frustration in his pursuit, for more than two and a half years, ‘to unite Libyans, prevent foreign intervention, and preserve the unity of the country’.[2] The Trump administration refused to agree to the appointment of former Algerian foreign minister, Ramtane Lamamra, to replace Salamé. The US mission to the UN gave no explanation for opposing Lamamra, Algeria’s foreign minister from 2013 to 2017.

This paper examines what seems to be the dynamo factor, or driving force, of the Libyan conflict – fluctuation and reconstruction of political legitimacy. Since mid-2014, two legitimation crises have spoiled Libyan politics and weakened UN mediation, with two rounds of international recognition of one new political institution or another. Both institutions have required separate budgets, obtained from oil revenues, for the rival entities and their respective governments, which claimed distant interpretations of ‘legitimacy’ in the eyes of Libyans and the rest of the world. Moreover, most of the political process and interaction with the UN or foreign governments has been constrained by an ego-inflated dilemma of personal animosity between four figures with opposing views, scopes of power, and foreign affiliations.

This part 2 of the paper also probes the struggle of UN diplomacy, which had passed its eighth-year mark on 16 September 2019. It examines four main factors. 

First, the construction of a double-edged legitimacy of two competing institutions: House of Representatives (HoR) in Tobruk with its government housed in Bayda, and the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli. Second, the foreign interference of certain states such as Egypt, the UAE, Turkey, Qatar, France, Russia and the US have unduly affected the already-fragile balance of power on the ground, pitting various countries against each other. Third, the Libyan conflict has been subject to several diplomatic initiatives by the African Union (AU), the Arab League (AL), the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the European Union (EU). For instance, the AU initiative opted for a policy not to remove the Qaddafi regime, but committed itself to a ‘’reform process and a political transition’.[3] Fourth, the mismatch between the discourse of ‘national unity’ and that of ‘counterterrorism’ since General Haftar pledged to ‘cleanse’ the western part of the country of terrorists’.

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Khalifa Haftar and commanders of the Libyan National Army [Getty]

Libya’s international links

The Libyan conflict is a prime example of how the scope of differences and the extent of external geopolitical interests in the country cannot be contained or overcome. I have often argued that if local stakeholders in Libya, Syria, Yemen or elsewhere could free themselves from foreign manipulation and focus on devising a sustainable solution on their own terms, the prospects of finding a compromise, by either their own initiative or UN mediation efforts, would be rewarding. The interference of certain regional states and of superpowers has solidified the obduracy of these conflicts. The Libyan prime minister, Fayyez Sarraj, stated that foreign interference ‘is making the situation more difficult. It is not helping Libyans sit down and find a solution.’

Haftar’s role has attracted increasing support by several Gulf and European states, and, recently, of Trump’s White House. The Libyan bazaar has displayed the rise of Islamist groups, threats of Jihadi militias in Derna, the fight over the Oil Crescent, waves of sub-Saharan migration, and possible future arms deals, should Haftar succeed in becoming minister of defence, or the leader of a new Libya. Between 14 and 25 June 2018, the UN noted that a collation of armed groups attempted to seize control of oil facilities in the Oil Crescent. The Libyan National Army announced it would transfer management of the oil facilities to a non-recognised national oil corporation. These developments have prevented some 850 000 barrels of oil per day from being exported, and caused a loss of more than $900 million for Libya.[4]

The UN Panel of Experts received independent, corroborated reports from multiple confidential sources that ‘Egypt has conducted air strikes against targets in the oil crescent to support the recapture by LNA of a number of oil terminals. Egypt denied that the Egyptian Armed Forces carried out these strikes.’[5] Steven Cook of the US Council on Foreign Relations explains how certain states have decided to invest in Haftar’s military power: ‘Thus, the Egyptians, Saudis, Emiratis, Russians, and French have bet on Haftar to repress Islamists and establish stability. For the French, Haftar may also be helpful in stemming the flow of migrants to Europe and protecting their oil interests. Given the internal and external dynamics that are driving support for Haftar, he may be able to carry on his fight for a long time.’[6]

During his visit to Moscow in August 2017, Haftar was welcome ‘like a foreign leader already in office, arranging meetings with high-ranking ministers as well as security officials.’[7] The Kremlin adopted a two-part strategy: empowering Haftar and providing logistical and technical support for his National Army, while avoiding any apparent violation of the UN arms embargo. Some reports revealed that Moscow ‘could send weapons through Egypt, a pro-Haftar neighbor that borders the Haftar-held parts of eastern Libya and is said to have hosted Russian Special Forces’.[8]

libya army

National Libyan Army [Getty]

Turning west, Meanwhile US President Donald Trump’s position on Libya shifted from downsizing the US Libya policy. In April 2017, he said: ‘I do not see a role in Libya’ (except) ‘getting rid of ISIS. We’re being very effective in that regard.’[9] Two years later, he highlighted the Haftar factor in more than the area of counterterrorism and geopolitics, as evidenced during his famous phone call to Haftar on 15 April 2019. In the call, Trump and Haftar spoke about ‘the need to achieve peace and stability in Libya’, and Trump ‘recognized Field Marshal Haftar’s significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources, and… discussed a shared vision for Libya’s transition to a stable, democratic political system.’[10] This interaction between the two men amounted to an endorsement of Haftar’s five-year quest to establish himself as Libya’s leader.

Haftar’s political silhouette also gained greater significance in the eyes of the US military establishment. Then-acting US Defence Secretary, Patrick Shanahan, underscored that ‘a military solution is not what Libya needs’, and supported Haftar’s ‘role in counterterrorism’. He added that Washington needed Haftar’s ‘support in building democratic stability in the region.’ In the same week, both the US and Russia said they could not support a UNSC resolution calling for a ceasefire in Libya.[11] One can argue that Haftar’s claim of combatting ‘terrorists’ in eastern Libya has been an oversold narrative to get the support of the USA and several European and Gulf states for his armed campaign to capture the capital, Tripoli. When the battle of Sirte had escalated against the Islamic State group (IS), Haftar’s rivals, the Misrata Brigades, fought alongside GNA forces to defeat IS, without Haftar’s support.

The French president, Immanuel Macron, hosted more than one meeting between Haftar and Sarraj in Paris, but several calls for an unconditional ceasefire were rejected by Haftar – until recently. After talks in November 2018, Macron’s office said he reiterated France’s priorities in Libya: ‘Fight against terrorist groups, dismantle trafficking networks, especially those for illegal immigration, and permanently stabilize Libya.’[12] The dominant view in French government circles is that strongman solutions are ‘the only way to keep a lid on Islamist militancy and mass migration.’[13]

lib fren

The French position seems to support the objectives of the UAE and Saudi Arabia, not only in military and economic terms, but also as part of a regional ideological battle across the region. Steven Cook notes, ‘None of these countries ever believed in the promise of the Arab uprisings to produce more open and democratic societies. Their view is that the uprisings have only empowered Islamists and sown chaos. They also regard the internationally recognized government as one that is aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood, Qatar, and Turkey – enemies of the governments in Cairo, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.’[14]

Four years after the signing of the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) in Skhirat, Morocco, on 17 December 2015, Salamé repeatedly cautioned against the interference of regional and international powers in the Libyan conflict. He told the UNSC, ‘More than ever, Libyans are now fighting the wars of other countries who appear content to fight to the last Libyan and to see the country entirely destroyed in order to settle their own scores.’[15] He also bemoaned the delivery of weapons by foreign supporters as ‘falling into the hands of terrorist groups or being sold to them…This is nothing short of a recipe for disaster.’

Haftar remains the main player in the militarisation of the conflict, and a bulwark against Islamist groups, with growing external support. He managed to secure arms and maintenance for his military equipment despite the UN arms’ ban on Libya. He has also positioned himself as the saviour of post-Qaddafi Libya with the aim of assuming the presidency, and as the key figure in dealing with migration to Europe. ‘For the control of the borders in the south,’ he proposed, ‘I can provide human resources, but the Europeans must send aid, drones, helicopters, night-vision goggles and vehicles.’[16]Responding to Haftar, Sarraj maintained that the Libyan civil war is not between Libya’s east and west, rather, ‘It is between people who back civilian government and those who want military rule.’

macron

President Macron stands between Fayez Sarraj and Khalifa Haftar [Reuters]

 

Parallel or rival diplomacies?

From the onset of the Libyan conflict, several complexities caused by NATO’s military intervention in 2011, subsequent humanitarian and peacemaking missions, and other responses to regime change, have become entwined in the UN mediation process. This process has also coincided with competing diplomatic initiatives and distant trajectories pursued by the African Union (AU), the Arab League (AL), the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the European Union (EU). For instance, the AU initiative had opted not remove the Qaddafi regime, but was committed to a ‘reform process and a political transition’.[17] As Edward Azar said, the Libyan conflict has the ‘propensity for involving neighboring communities and states, and even super powers.’[18] The 10th ministerial meeting of Libya’s neighbouring countries, held in Cairo, agreed on a ‘rejection of any external interference in the internal affairs of Libya’.[19]

Libya remains a strategic supplier of energy for most southern European countries. France and Italy are at the top of the list of oil importers from the southern shore of the Mediterranean. Libya has the largest proven crude oil reserves in Africa at 48.4 billion barrels. It was producing around 1.6 million barrels per day before the collapse of the Qaddafi regime. A Libyan government audit conducted in 2017 estimated the total value of fuel smuggled out of the country at five billion dollars a year. Some observers highlight the fact that Paris has been quietly involved at least since 2015 ‘in building up the flashy uniformed baron of Benghazi as a strongman (that) it hopes can impose order on the vast, thinly populated North African oil producer and crack down on the Islamist groups that have flourished in the ungoverned spaces of the failed state.’[20]

In January 2019, Italy’s deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini, was blunt in expressing his criticism of Macron: ‘France has no interest in stabilizing the situation, probably because it has oil interests that are opposed to those of Italy.’ This statement provoked the anger of the Élysées, and caused a diplomatic row between Rome and Paris. The French government summoned the Italian ambassador for an explanation. Meanwhile, Haftar made little secret of modern French weaponry he had acquired, despite a UN arms embargo.[21]

Macron had hosted a well-publicised meeting between Sarraj, Haftar, Aguila Issa, and Khalid al-Mishri in mid-2018, in Paris. It made news headlines with their ‘agreement’ on holding presidential and parliamentary elections in early 2019. France needed Haftar to be included in the dialogue because ‘he is in control of the Libyan areas where France’s interests lie, which means its oil wells in the Sirte Basin’,[22] as Gabriele Lacovino of the Rome-based Center for International Studies explains. Macron described the accord as ‘historic’ and an ‘essential step towards reconciliation’. Representatives from EU countries, the USA and regional neighbours supported the agreement.

army

Transfer of arms into Libya despite the UN ban [Getty]

In early 2019, the AU called for an international conference on reconciliation in Libya. Three African nations – South Africa, Ivory Coast and Equatorial Guinea – introduced a draft resolution draft in October 2019 to appoint a joint AU-UN envoy for Libya, in an apparent attempt to replace Salamé. A leaked copy of the resolution draft expressed ‘deep concern over the security situation in Libya and the risk of a dangerous military escalation.’[23] It also called for compliance with the arms embargo and condemned ‘continued external interferences that are exacerbating the already volatile situation on the ground.’[24]

The stalemate in the Libyan conflict resulted in a diplomatic showdown between Egypt and Qatar at the 74th UN General Assembly, in September 2019. Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a close ally of the UAE and a Haftar supporter, sought to play the counterterrorism card in justifying Haftar’s armed campaigns as a ‘fight against armed militias’ inside Libya. He told delegates of the 193 UN member states, ‘We need to work on unifying all national institutions in order to save our dear neighbor from the ensuing chaos by militias and prevent the intervention of external actors in Libya’s internal affairs.’[25] Five months earlier, during a visit to the White House, Sisi reportedly spoke to Trump at length about the need to support Haftar and not ‘leave him out in the cold’. However, Qatar’s emir, Shaykh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, accused Haftar’s forces of war crimes with the support of countries that were undermining the GNA and UN peace efforts. He told the UNGA, ‘The latest military operations on the capital Tripoli have thwarted the holding of the comprehensive Libyan national conference.’ 

Earlier, I addressed what seems to be UN diplomatic fatigue in securing a sustainable truce between Haftar’s forces and the GNA military. Other interpretations have called it ‘diplomatic paralysis’. The International Crisis Group indicated that, in 2019, the UNSC was, more than in previous years, ‘divided and unable to call for a cessation of hostilities, mostly owing to US opposition to a draft resolution that would have done just that. The US claims it resisted the draft resolution because it lacked a mechanism to ensure compliance, but its stance more likely reflected White House sympathy for Haftar and for his Saudi, Emirati and Egyptian supporters.’[26]

In his testimony before the US House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Middle East, North Africa, and International Terrorism, Thomas Hill, senior programme officer at USIP, explained the causality of the struggling UN mediation in Libya. ‘If “Plan A” was to allow the United Nations to resolve the Libyan conflict, that experiment has failed. The United Nations was not able to constrain external actors who frequently sought to advance narrow self-interest at the expense of peace and stability in Libya. The United Nations was not given the resources or mandate necessary to fulfill its charge; in retrospect, a political mission did not have the coercive power to constrain internal spoilers and external actors.’[27]

thomas

Thomas Hill senior program officer at USIP delivering his briefing at Congress [Reuters]

This medley of international and cross-Mediterranean initiatives of diplomacy adds to the complexity of the Libyan conflict. The UN mediation seems to be sandwiched between thick layers of the hidden agendas and strategic interests of outside stakeholders. This overlap of interventions and the variety of political agendas of several states – France, the USA, Egypt, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and others – have greatly undermined the possibility of reaching a permanent political solution for Libya. Accordingly, the UN may need to return to the drawing board and affirm the singularity of its mediation process i.e., one track of UN mediation to be reflected in UNSC resolutions.

Behind the counter-terrorism discourse

Since early 2015, Haftar has positioned himself as Libya’s driving force in counterterrorism, while leading his self-proclaimed Libyan National Army on his ‘Operation Dignity’. He has often sugar-coated his fierce military attacks in eastern Libya and, later, western Libya, with the alleged ‘pursuit of eradicating jihadi groups’. Besides external support, he has also galvanised the allegiance of several armed groups, including the 106th Infantry Brigade, the Tarhouna-based 9th Infantry Brigade, Chadian and Sudanese rebels, and some elements associated with Qaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam. Haftar experimented with his anti-terror venture by targeting Ansar al-Sharia, a jihadist group in Benghazi, in 2015, before zooming in on the town of Derna and extending his armed campaign towards Tripoli with a rebranded ‘End of Treachery’ Operation in 2019. In April 2019, he asserted, ‘We hear your call Tripoli. It is now the time for the great victory. March forward.’[28] A senior French official said support for Haftar was partly driven by the imperative of preventing the supply of arms and funds to jihadist groups threatening fragile governments in Niger, Chad and Mali, which are backed by France’s Operation Barkhane.[29]

One of the worst single atrocities of the Libyan Civil War occurred in July 2019, resulting in the deaths of at least fifty-three refugees at a detention centre near Tripoli. The incident is one of many attacks launched by Haftar’s forces with foreign logistical support. UN arms’ experts suspected the involvement of ‘foreign fighter jets’.[30] Former British ambassador to Libya, Peter Millett, pointed out that ‘the only two countries with capacity and motive to mount the strike were the UAE and Egypt.’ He called on the UNSC to discuss, at ambassadorial level, how outside powers were prolonging the conflict in Libya and extending the suffering of the Libyan people. For instance, the UAE has plans to dominate shipping lanes, including in the Mediterranean Sea, and considers Libya’s geographical position important for this project. The Emiratis aspire to exploit Libya’s huge energy resources and need for reconstruction. 

In 2019, Haftar’s role and political status gained momentum on account of three moves by three powerful states.

  1. Saudi Arabia promisedtens of millions of dollars, upon the UAE’s recommendation, to help pay for Haftar’s military operation to seize the capital, Tripoli.[31]
  2. The US mission at the UN threatened to veto calls for a ceasefire at the UNSC, with a subtle hint of endorsing of Haftar’s counterterrorism narrative. Further, the famous phone call between Trump and Haftar was uplifting for the latter’s ego and ambition. The call included, in the same sentence, an ironic link between ‘ongoing counter-terrorism efforts’ and ‘building democratic stability’ in Libya.
  3. France blockedan EU statement opposing Haftar’s offensive while citing the need for its own reassurances regarding the alleged ‘involvement of terrorist groups’ fighting Haftar in Tripoli.[32]

In the eyes of those governments, Haftar’s anti-terror narrative has overshadowed the ferocity and vengeance of his troops against Islamist groups and GNA supporters. One Libya observer explained Haftar’s history of ‘repackaging failed military coups as “wars on terror” to justify excessive use of force whilst gaining international legitimacy and political support in the process.’[33] In a mocking comment on Haftar’s power in Libya, Osama al-Juwaili, the leading commander of the GNA forces, told the New York Times, ‘Why all this pain? Just stop this now and assign the guy [Haftar] to rule us!’

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Conclusion: need for a blank slate 

The political turmoil has entered its ninth year in Libya, while perpetuating a complex intrastate conflict with no apparent light at the end of the tunnel. The Libyan Political Agreement is stuck in a protracted limbo with no hope of reconciliation. Between the high point of peacemaking in 2015 when the parties signed the LPA in Morocco, and the low point of military offensives and counter offensives around Tripoli in 2019, UN diplomacy has shifted to backpedalling on several issues, notably the elections and the new constitution project. There is also a sense of loss and despair among elites and ordinary individuals, both inside Libya and in the Libyan diaspora. The balance of power between Haftar’s forces, the HoR, GNA and other stakeholders is fluid, and the GNA, the UN-recognised government, does not have much control in the country.

There was little optimism in the new round of talks in March in Berlin. German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, warned that the Libyan civil war could spiral into a larger conflict, much like the one in Syria. The nightmarish scenario of a huge influx of migrants across the Mediterranean is imminent should the country slide into a larger civil war. One cannot belittle the skills and reputation of those world diplomats at the UNSMIL headquarters in Libya, or at various capitals, who remain sincere is their search for a political solution for Libya. There is always the same high degree of optimism prior to every meeting about Libya, whether in Tunis, Skhirat, Paris, Palermo, or Berlin. There has been no viable prospect of securing the commitment of the five top men of new Libya - Haftar, Saleh, Sarraj, Mishri, and Swehli - to any sustainable political formula. 

The UN process of mediation should not compete with any parallel initiatives proposed by other international bodies or countries, or any latent manipulation of the status quo in favour of one group over another. There is consensus among most Libyan observers that a permanent political solution is not possible ‘if external actors and nation-states continue to intervene in Libya in ways that prioritize their own interests over those of the Libyan people.’[34] This paradox of UN mediation and foreign manipulation by several external actors defies the wisdom of envisioning a political settlement of the Libyan conflict. All international diplomatic gestures need to be aligned and coordinated via the UN platform, with a well-defined trajectory, rather than any zero-sum equation or realist calculation. UNSMIL’s mandate can be inclusive of such coordination. 

un envoy

 Former UN envoy to Libya Ghassan Salamé [Reuters]

* Dr. Mohammed Cherkaoui is a Professor of Conflict Resolution at George Mason University in Washington D.C. and former member of the United Nations Panel of Experts.

** This article was first published b y Al Jazeera Centre for Studies

 

[1] DW News (2015). ‘Libya: Khalifa Haftar declares “popular mandate”, end to 2015 UN agreement’, DW, 27 April, https://www.dw.com/en/libya-khalifa-haftar-declares-popular-mandate-end-to-2015-un-agreement/a-53264892

[2] BBC (2020). ‘Libya conflict: “Stressed” Ghassan Salamé resigns as UN envoy’. BBC News, 2 March, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-51713683

[3] Peter Bartu (2014). Libya’s Political Transition: The Challenges of Mediation: International Peace Institute, December.

[4] UN News (2018). ‘Despite Some Progress, Libya in Decline, Top United Nations Official Warns Security Council, Calling for Continued International Unity, Support’. SC/13425, 16 July, https://www.un.org/press/en/2018/sc13425.doc.htm

[5] Final report of the Panel of Experts on Libya established pursuant to resolution 1973 (2011), S/2018/812, 5 September 2018.

[6] Steven A Cook (2019). ‘The Fight for Libya: What to Know’, Council on Foreign Relations, 19 April, https://www.cfr.org/in-brief/fight-libya-what-know

[7] Lincoln Pigman (2017). ‘Inside Putin’s Libyan Power Play’, Foreign Policy, 4 September, http://foreignpolicy.com/2017/09/14/inside-putins-libyan-power-play/

[8] Lincoln Pigman (2017). ‘Inside Putin’s Libyan Power Play’.

[9] Abby Phillip (2017). ‘Trump says he does not see expanded role for U.S. in Libya beyond ISIS fight’, 20 April, https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/trump-says-he-does-not-see-expanded-role-for-us-in-libya-beyond-isis-fight/2017/04/20/2e2b735c-25ff-11e7-a1b3-faff0034e2de_story.html

[10] Steven Cook (2019). ‘Loving Dictators Is as American as Apple Pie’, Foreign Policy, 26 April, https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/04/26/loving-dictators-is-as-american-as-apple-pie/

[11] Steve Holland (2019). ‘White House says Trump spoke to Libyan commander Haftar on Monday’, Reuters, 19 April,https://www.reuters.com/article/us-libya-security-trump/white-house-says-trump-spoke-to-libyan-commander-haftar-on-monday-idUSKCN1RV0WW

[12] Aljazeera News (2019). ‘Libya’s rebel commander Haftar tells Macron no ceasefire for now’, 23 May, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/05/libyan-commander-haftar-tells-macron-ceasefire-190523062338818.html

[13] Paul Taylor (2019). ‘France’s Double Game in Libya’ POLITICO, 17 April, https://www.politico.eu/article/frances-double-game-in-libya-nato-un-khalifa-haftar/

[14] Steven A Cook (2019). ‘The Fight for Libya: What to Know’.

[15] Ghassan Salamé (2019). ‘With Libyans now “fighting the wars of others” inside their own country, UN envoy urges Security Council action to end violence.’ UN News, 29 July, https://news.un.org/en/story/2019/07/1043381

[16] Patrick Wintour (2017). ‘Italy’s deal to stem flow of people from Libya in danger of collapse’, The Guardian, 7 October, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/oct/03/italys-deal-to-stem-flow-of-people-from-libya-in-danger-of-collapse

[17] Peter Bartu (2014). Libya’s Political Transition: The Challenges of Mediation: International Peace Institute, December.

[18] Edward E Azar (1990). The Management of Protracted Social Conflict: Theory and Cases, Dartmouth Pub Co.

[19] Libyan Express (2017). ‘Cairo meeting ends with Libya’s neighbours excluding any foreign intervention in Libya’, 22 January,

https://www.libyanexpress.com/cairo-meeting-ends-with-libyas-neighbours-excluding-any-foreign-intervention-in-libya/

[20] Paul Taylor (2019). ‘France’s Double Game in Libya’.

[21] Paul Taylor, (2019). ‘France’s Double Game in Libya’.

[22] Centreo Studi Internationali (2014). ‘Strategic interests behind France’s stance on Libya collides with those of Italy’, 17 August, https://www.cesi-italia.org/eventi/625/interview-strategic-interests-behind-frances-stance-on-libya-collides-with-those-of-italy-xinhuanet

[23] Libyan Express (2019). ‘African Union attempted to replace UN envoy to Libya Ghassan Salame, but failed’, 21 October, https://www.libyanexpress.com/african-union-attempted-to-replace-un-envoy-to-libya-ghassan-salame-but-failed/

[24] Centreo Studi Internationali (2014). ‘Strategic interests behind France’s stance on Libya collides with those of Italy’.

[25] Reuters (2019). ‘Egypt, Qatar Trade Barbs at UN on Libya Conflict Interference’, 24 September, https://www.voanews.com/middle-east/egypt-qatar-trade-barbs-un-libya-conflict-interference

[26] ICG (2019). ‘Avoiding a Protracted Conflict in Libya’. 22 July, https://www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/north-africa/libya/avoiding-protracted-conflict-libya

[27] Thomas Hill (2019). ‘Testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Middle East, North Africa, and International Terrorism’, USIP, 15 May, https://www.usip.org/publications/2019/05/conflict-libya

[28] Tarek El-Tablawy, et al (2019). ‘Libya's Haftar Orders Forces to Advance on Tripoli’, Bloomberg, 4 April, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-04-04/libya-s-haftar-orders-forces-to-advance-on-tripoli

[29] Paul Taylor (2019). ‘France’s Double Game in Libya’.

[30] Patrick Wintour (2019). ‘Foreign jets used in Libyan refugee centre airstrike, says UN’, The Guardian, 6 November,https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/nov/06/foreign-jets-used-in-libyan-refugee-centre-airstrike-claims-un-report

[31] Jared Malsin and Summer Said (2019). ‘Saudi Arabia Promised Support to Libyan Warlord in Push to Seize Tripoli’, Wall Street Journal, 12 April, https://www.wsj.com/articles/saudi-arabia-promised-support-to-libyan-warlord-in-push-to-seize-tripoli-11555077600

[32] Anas Elgomati (2019). ‘Haftar’s Rebranded Coups’, Carnegie Endowment, 3 July, https://carnegieendowment.org/sada/79579

[33] Anas Elgomati (2019). ‘Haftar’s Rebranded Coups’.

[34] Thomas Hill (2019). ‘Testimony before the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Middle East, North Africa, and International Terrorism’.

by Mohammed Cherkaoui

Several puzzling questions have emerged in the volatile Arab geopolitical environment after two major developments occurred within less than forty-eight hours of each other in the last week of April. 

First, Yemen’s main southern separatist group, the Southern Transitional Council (STC), decided to establish self-rule in areas it controlled, to impose emergency law in the city of Aden and in all southern governorates, and to take control of Aden’s port, airport and other state institutions such as the central bank. The Saudi-backed government warned that these measures would have ‘catastrophic consequences’.[1] An armed unit of the STC fought to wrest control of Socotra’s provincial capital, Hadibo, from forces loyal to President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who is backed by Saudi Arabia. 

Second, retired general, Khalifa Haftar, asserted that his Libyan National Army (LNA) had a ‘popular mandate’ to rule Libya, and vowed to intensify his assault to seize Tripoli. In a televised address on his Libya al-Hadath television channel, he announced, ‘The general command is answering the will of the people, despite the heavy burden and the many obligations and the size of the responsibility, and we will be subject to the people’s wish.’[2] He also declared ‘the end of the Skhirat Agreement’, a 2015 UN-mediated deal that consolidated Libya’s government. Haftar vowed his forces would work ‘to put in place the necessary conditions to build the permanent institutions of a civil state’. He did not specify whether the House of Representatives in Tobruk, eastern Libya, would support his plans. 

These moves represent two strategic shifts in Yemeni and Libyan geopolitics, amidst global health concerns of the coronavirus pandemic, and despite the religious norms of a truce during the fasting month of Ramadan. The moves by Yemen’s STC and Libya’s Haftar suggest the strong role of certain regional powers, rather than simply internal differences between local stakeholders. The fragile balance of power seems to be proceeding along the strategy of some regional players, notably the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which have pursued an opportunistic form of political realism. The UAE has relied on the logic of military power by supporting armed proxies, and has ignored international agreements and diplomatic efforts of the UN to reach solutions that would be accepted by all parties in the Yemeni and Libyan crises.

The UAE appears to be accelerating the pace towards full control of southern Yemen and its ports, especially Aden and Socotra, to help enhance its maritime trade and expand its influence in the Red Sea region. It also hopes to expand its political investment in oil-rich Libya, and its strategic position on the southern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. It competes with another regional power, Turkey, which has supported the Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Fayez Sarraj in Tripoli, and has provided technological and tactical backing for GNA-aligned militias. In early May 2020, armed clashes in western Libya stopped Haftar’s forces from advancing, and reversed their course of action in certainstrategic areas.

Haftar’s unilateral declaration of a ‘popular mandate’ – similar to a declaration by Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi when he announced his coup against a democratically-elected president – and intention of imposing de facto authority in Libya, have serious ramifications, and indicate what could be a third legitimacy crisis in the last six years. Haftar’s plans further threaten to escalate the crisis, which the UN Secretary General regards as a ‘proxy war’. Another diplomatic puzzle is the future of the Libyan Political Agreement, also known as the Skhirat Agreement, signed on 17 December 2015 in Skhirat, Morocco. 

After a 31-month tenure as UN special envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salamé submitted his resignation to the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, for ‘health reasons’, on 2 March 2020. His decision implied deep frustration in his pursuit of more two and a half years ‘to unite Libyans, prevent foreign intervention, and preserve the unity of the country’.[3] The Trump administration has refused to vote for the appointment of former Algerian foreign minister Ramtane Lamamra to replace Salamé. The US mission to the UN gave no further explanation for opposing Lamamra, who served as Algeria’s foreign minister (2013-2017) and as African Union commissioner for peace and security (2008-2013). He also served as Algeria’s ambassador to the United Nations and the United States in mid-1990s. He is considered an experienced diplomat and has been a mediator in several African conflicts, notably in Liberia.

This two-part paper examines what seems to be the dynamo factor, or driving force, of the Libyan conflict: fluctuation and reconstruction of political legitimacy. Since the summer of 2014, two battles over legitimacy have spoiled Libyan politics and weakened the UN mediation with two rounds of international recognition of one new political institution or another. Both institutions have required separate budgets for the oil revenues for their rival entities and their respective governments, and claimed distant interpretations of ‘legitimacy’ in the eyes of Libyans and the rest of the world. Moreover, most of the political process and interaction with either the United Nations or foreign governments have been constrained by an ego-inflated dilemma of personal animosity between four particular figures with opposite views, scopes of power, and foreign affiliations.

The paper also probes into the struggle of the UN diplomacy, which passed its eighth-year mark on 16 September 2019. It examines four main factors. First, the construction of a double-edged legitimacy of two competing institutions: House of Representatives in Tobruk with its government housed in Bayda versus GNA in Tripoli. Second, the foreign interference of certain countries, like Egypt, UAE, Turkey, Qatar, France, and Russia, and the United States have pursued tilting the already flimsy balance of power on the ground in favour one player against another. Third, The Libyan conflict has been subject to several diplomatic initiatives by the African Union (AU), the Arab League (AL), the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), and the European Union (EU). For instance, the AU initiative opted for a non-removal policy of the Qaddafi regime, but committed to a ‘reform process and a political transition’.[4]Fourth, the mismatch between the discourse of ‘national unity’ and the discourse of ‘counter-terrorism’ since General Haftar has pledged to ‘cleanse’ the western part of the country from the perceived ‘terrorists’. The paper draws on my study of the Libyan case among other Arab conflicts, my previous writings, and fieldwork while serving on the UN Panel of Experts.

Bargaining with bullets

Libya has endured bloody confrontations, foreign manipulation, uncompromising diplomacy, and an open-ended stalemate. These challenges seem to have exhausted the UN nine-year diplomatic manoeuvring of the Libyan conflict. The overall scene presents Libya as synonymous with violence, lawlessness and statelessness, while lurking at the border between a ‘fragile state’ and a ‘failed state’. Libya represents a typical scenario of the gap between the normativity of the UN mediation and the realist strategic bet of foreign stakeholders on their armed proxies in the field. The nine-year UN mediation has been outperformed by cycles of diplomatic overtures in Tunis, Skhirat, Geneva, Paris, Palermo, Abu Dhabi, Moscow, and Berlin, followed by new rounds of fierce infighting on the ground between the Tripoli- Tobruk camps. In his book ‘International Mediation in Civil Wars’, Timothy Desk points to the transnational flow of weapons, resources, and ideas, which ‘means that when civil wars today end, they are more likely to do so at the negotiating table than on the battlefield’.[5]

In the early 1990s, Edward Azar, one of the forefathers of Conflict Resolution, developed his nuanced theoretical framework of Protracted Social Conflict (PSC) as a culmination of four main clusters which leads to violent conflict: ‘communal content’, ‘human needs’, ‘governance and state’s role’, and ‘international linkages’. He expects these conflicts to occur ‘when communities are deprived of satisfaction of their basic needs on the basis of the communal identity. However, the deprivation is the result of a complex causal chain involving the role of the state and the pattern of international linkages.’[6] Consequently, the interests of foreign players tend to suppress the desire for reconciliation among internal contenders. In most instances, those international linkages dictate the internal policy along two types of subordination: economic dependency and client relationships.

Prior to the UN General Assembly held in New York in September 2019, Haftar’s forces faced tough resistance in their attempt to capture the capital, Tripoli, from the Government of National Accord. The World Health Organization (WHO) reported that the fighting between pro-GNA and pro-Haftar forces killed at least 1 093 people, wounded 5 752, and forced some 120 000 into displacement.[7] Former UN envoy Ghassan Salamé told the UN Human Rights Council the conflict had spread outside Tripoli with air and drone attacks against the port city of Misrata, Sirte, and Jufra in central Libya. He expressed concern as ‘the conflict risks escalating to full-blown civil war… It is fanned by widespread violations of the UN arms embargo by all parties and external actors.’[8]

Consequently, the philosophy of the UN Resolution 1973 (March 2011) which established the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), has gone astray. UNSMIL emerged with the aim of ‘find[ing] a peaceful and sustainable solution’ to the crisis, and, most recently, Resolution 2376 (2017), has extended the mission mandate for mediation and provision of good offices, including (since December 2015) supporting the implementation of the Libyan Political Agreement. There have been recurring themes of ‘promising’ dialogue and ‘imminent’ reconciliation, proposed by six consecutive UN special envoys: Abdelilah Khatib (2011), Ian Martin (2011-2012), Tarek Mitri (2012-2014), Bernardino León (2014-2015), Martin Kobler (2015-2017), and Ghassan Salamé (June 2017- March 2020).

The struggle of the United Nations diplomacy in Libya represents one of several challenges of international mediation in contemporary Arab conflicts. The protracted Libyan conflict remains a snapshot of several deadlocks, which have undermined the United Nations mediation and desired political transition in the North African oil-rich country after the fall of Qaddafi regime. In his concluding chapter in the 2018 Davos edition ‘The Future of Politics’, politician-turned-Harvard scholar, Nicholas Burns, wrote: ‘Nearly all of the Middle East’s twenty-two Arab countries are worse off, not better off… Stability and hope in the region are in very short supply. Four important Arab countries – Libya, Yemen, Iraq and Syria – are essentially “failed states”. Libya’s warring tribes continue to contest for power with the outcome doubtful.’[9]

UNSMIL as a wishful platform of UN mediation 

The most recent SC Resolution 2486 (2019) was adopted on 12 September 2019, to keep UNSMIL operational until 15 September 2020, and recognised that ‘since 30 March 2016 UNSMIL has gradually established a consistent presence in Libya, and welcomes UNSMIL’s progress in re-establishing a presence in Tripoli, Benghazi and other parts of Libya, as security conditions allow. This presence inside Libya was impossible for nearly eight years of UNSMIL’s existence. The United Nations peace-making efforts between the two rival parliaments and governments gained some short-lived momentum after brokering, as mentioned earlier, the power-sharing Libyan Political Agreement, in December 2015. Yet, the deal soon ran into difficulties and ushered in a new phase in the conflict.’[10]

The frequency of infighting between the western and eastern camps, not ignoring several rogue militias, has derailed both political and humanitarian progress, if one considers the dilemma of slavery, detention, and abuse of sub-Saharan migrants. So far, UN diplomacy remains sandwiched between the interpretative legitimacy as a political construct, bestowed on the former by the international community under the Skhirat process, and the claimed military ‘determinism’ of the latter. 

In his briefing to the Security Council on 4 September 2019, then-UN envoy, Ghassan Salamé, stated, ‘Many Libyans feel abandoned by part of the international community and exploited by others.’ He also warned of two ‘highly unpalatable scenarios’ if the Council and broader international community fail to support an immediate end to the conflict — either a persistent and low-intensity conflict with continued fratricide among Libyans, or a doubling down of military support to one side or the other by their external patrons, resulting in a sharp escalation and regional chaos.[11]

UN chief, António Guterres, has publicly condemned ‘the descent of Libya into political uncertainty and armed hostilities during the reporting period as deeply alarming.’ He also remains concerned about the impact on civilians of the shelling of residential areas and about the reports of targeted attacks and the destruction of vital infrastructure.[12] By the end of 2019, Salamé was cynical of the external support, which was ‘instrumental in the intensification of airstrikes’, and ‘imported weaponry is being accompanied by foreign personnel working as pilots, trainers and technicians’.[13] In Europe, four well-publicised meetings were held, one in Paris and another in Palermo, to reach a Libyan reconciliation in 2018, a third in Moscow and a fourth in Berlin in early 2020. However, they failed to bring about any diplomatic breakthrough. 

Detractors of the UN in Libya

With the open-ended cycle of violence, the death toll, and civilian suffering in Libya, new questions arise now about the pragmatism of intervention: can the United Nations, at this point, avoid more civilian fatalities, provide humanitarian assistance for millions of internally-displaced persons and refugees, or guide any mechanism of peaceful transition into stability in Libya, and other those failed states like Yemen, Syria, and Iraq? What would be the minimum expectation from the UN now?

There might be some alternative approaches to what I term a good-enough paradigm of conflict management, however, affected civilians and concerned public opinion are hopeful of effective frameworks of conflict resolution and peacebuilding. In January 2018, in his remarks to the Security Council, Salamé explained how the complexity of the Libyan crisis pivoted around a conflict over resources. He then reiterated his UNSMIL team’s commitment to three fundamental objectives: a) adopting a new constitution as a permanent legal framework, b) reformulating a Libyan national polity, and c) holding general elections while more than two million Libyans have put their names on the electoral register. As stated previously, ‘the majority of Libyans feel less enthusiastic and believe the current deadlock is too strong to make any real political overtures. The only political momentum in Libya at present is the United Nations’ search for a new impetus among rival centres of power, including the militias. However, leaders of political and military rival groups are reluctant to engage in the UN process or to commit to any final decision.’[14]

UN diplomacy seems to be undergoing a period of fatigue. It has apparently exhausted its energy in searching for efficient formulas of conflict transformation, in fact, on fully-fledged conflict resolution. The UN literature asserts, ‘When an effective mediation process is hampered, other efforts may be required to contain the conflict or to mitigate the human suffering, but there should be constant efforts to remain engaged so as to identify and seize possible windows of opportunity for mediation in the future.’ So far, six UN envoys have experimented with a variety of mediation techniques and combined their institutional guidelines with their personal touch in managing the Libyan conflict. Any revision of these approaches should take into consideration four main challenges: 

  1. Fragmented legitimacy

As mentioned in the introduction, two battles over legitimacy, or two legitimation crises, have spoiled Libyan politics and UN mediation with two rounds of international recognition of one new political institution or another. German philosopher and sociologist, Jurgen Habermas, conceptualises a legitimation crisis as ‘an identity crisis that results from a loss of confidence in administrative institutions, which occurs despite the fact that they still retain legal authority by which to govern.’[15]

  1. First battle – why HoR?

I joined the UN Panel of Experts on Libya less than three months after the general elections of June 25, 2014, which gave birth to the House of Representatives in Tobruk, and later, the first government in Bayda led by Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thani. The turnout was very low at 18 per cent, while most candidates ran as independents. Nationalist and liberal factions gained momentum by securing the majority of seats, whereas the Islamist groups’ representation shrunk to around 30 seats. There was common interpretation that the Islamist forces faced ‘a devastating loss at the ballot box, and now face a genuine existential threat’.[16] The ballot results triggered several reactions nationally and internationally. The majority of Libyans, the new parliament, and the international community, would expect the Islamists ‘to accept the will of the Libya people expressed through the ballot box, and to refrain from using unorthodox tactics, such as using armed militias to influence the political process.’[17]

The United Nations swiftly recognised the HoR as ‘the only legitimately elected legislature’.[18] Then-UN envoy, Tarek Mitri, attended its inaugural session in Tobruk on 4 August 2014, and later expressed some regret in his report to the Security Council. He wrote, ‘Many efforts, including ours, to arrive at an agreement over procedural and related issues failed to ensure full participation of all elected members. A number of representatives decided to boycott the sessions. Underlining the importance of safeguarding Libya’s fragile transition, with the House of Representatives as the only legitimately elected legislature, we affirmed that every effort must be exerted towards enabling parliamentarians, who boycott the House of Representatives, to join their colleagues.’[19]

However, the political elite of the west and their Misrata fighters’ supporters, with links to Operation Dawn, did not accept the emergence of HoR as Libya’s new legislative assembly in lieu of the Tripoli-based General National Congress (GNC). A new war of narratives erupted between the two political camps, and the conflict over the constitutionality of HoR became a wider legal battle before the Supreme Court. Throughout the summer of 2014, the gap deepened between the two de facto parliaments and rival governments over political legitimacy and control of the country’s vast energy reserves. In ancient Greece, Aristotle argued that the legitimacy of the government relied upon constitutionalism and consent, but also posited that political stability relied upon the legitimacy of rewards.[20]

In early November 2014, the Supreme Court invalidated the election of the HoR, and stated that the Election Law Committee ‘had violated Libya’s provisional constitution’.[21] The Court verdict led to celebrations in the streets of Tripoli, as it meant the non-constitutionality of HoR in Tobruk. Nouri Abusahmain, then-head of GNC, told reporters, ‘We, the General National Congress, call for dialogue. A dialogue serves national reconciliation, stability and development.’[22] However, HoR rejected the Court’s decision arguing it was made ‘at gunpoint’[23] with the court being controlled by armed militias. The UNSMIL team was taken by surprise, and the gist of its reaction was ‘an urgent need for all parties to forge consensus on political arrangements’.[24] Consequently, the Tripoli-Tobruk political rivalry and emergence of Haftar, as the ‘strong man’ of the east, have had a negative impact on the UN mediation efforts. 

  1. Second battle - why GNA?

A second reconstructed legitimacy emerged between November 2014 and October 2015. The UN mediation focused on multi-track, cross-elite, cross-tribe negotiations held in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. Bernardino León, then-head of UNSMIL, engaged in some shuttle diplomacy between HoR and GNC around a compromise with Sarraj. By mid-October, he secured the initial acceptance of both sides of a revised version of a framework of power sharing. The diplomatic breakthrough was celebrated on October 17 in Morocco by signing the new Libyan Political Agreement. 

The new agreement established a nine-member Presidency Council and a seventeen-member interim Government of National Accord, with the aim of holding new elections within two years (October 2015-October 2017). It also maintained the continuity of HoR as a legislature and advisory body, to be known as the ‘High Council of State’. This shift represented the best possible scenario of national unity and positive engagement of several stakeholders. The Agreement introduction reads, ‘Members from all these three legislative bodies made very important contributions to the dialogue process and to the conclusion of this agreement. Other independent stakeholders participated as well. The armed groups, municipal councils, political parties, tribal leaders, and women’s organizations contributed to other elements of the dialogue to promote a genuine and stable reconciliation.’ The Security Council announced its support of the Government of National Accord as ‘the sole legitimate government of Libya’, and stressed, ‘a Government of National Accord that should be based in the capital Tripoli is urgently needed to provide Libya with the means to maintain governance, promote stability and economic development.’

In the following two years, the military open-ended Karama (Dignity) operation, led by General Haftar, has scaled back the diplomatic hopes of the United Nations. The battle over legitimacy is not only political Tobruk and Tripoli, but also entails the complexity of the military-civilian relations in the country. Haftar is a good example of how certain military figures tend to flex their muscles in the field, intimidate the political will of Sarraj, and impose their fait accompli at every turn of the negotiating process. By mid-December 2017, he declared the Skhirat agreement ‘void’. So far, Haftar’s intention is ‘to seize, rather than share’, as he believes that ‘power can come as no surprise’.[25]

Several factors have solidified these disputing constructs of legitimacy: electoral legitimacy, international legitimacy, military legitimacy, and others. The International Crisis Group has noticed that, ‘While international rifts and competing regional ambitions remain an overarching conflict driver, locally, interlocking competing narratives of political and military legitimacy, a battle for power, tribal rifts and recriminations, and a deeply polarized media are making the war even more intractable.’[26]

Part 2 of the paper will address the impact of international links in Libya, the question of parallel or rival diplomacies, what is behind the counterterrorism discourse, and some concluding remarks.

* Dr Mohammed Cherkaoui is a professor of Conflict Resolution at George Mason University in Washington DC and former member of the United Nations Panel of Experts.

 

[1] Mohammed Ghobari, Mohammed Mokhashef (2020). ‘Yemen separatists announce self-rule in south, complicating peace efforts’, Reuters, 26 April, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-yemen-security-south/yemen-separatis…

[2] DW News (2020). ‘Libya: Khalifa Haftar declares “popular mandate,” end to 2015 UN agreement’. DW, 27 April, https://www.dw.com/en/libya-khalifa-haftar-declares-popular-mandate-end…

[3] BBC (2020). ‘Libya conflict: “Stressed” Ghassan Salamé resigns as UN envoy,’ BBC News, 2 March 2, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-africa-51713683

[4] Peter Bartu (2014). ‘Libya’s Political Transition: The Challenges of Mediation’, International Peace Institute, December.

[5] Timothy D Sisk (2008). International Mediation in Civil Wars: Bargaining with Bullets, Routledge.

[6] Edward E Azar (1990). The Management of Protracted Social Conflict: Theory and Cases, Dartmouth Pub Co. 

[7] Aljazeera News (2019). ‘Libya’s Khalifa Haftar says open to dialogue as fighting drags on,’ 29 September, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2019/09/libya-khalifa-haftar-open-dialog…

[8] Aljazeera News (2019). ‘Libya’s Khalifa Haftar says open to dialogue as fighting drags on’.

[9] Nicholas Burns (2018). ‘An Outlook on Global Politics’, in The Future of Politics, Credit Suisse, 2018 Davos edition.

[10] Lisa Watanabe (2019). ‘UN Mediation in Libya: Peace Still a Distant Prospect,’ CSS Analyses in Security Policy, No. 246, June.

[11] UN News (2019). ‘International Meeting Essential to Getting Libya-led Political Process Back on Track, Ending Conflict, Special Representative Tells Security Council’, Security Council 8611TH, 4 September.

[12] António Guterres (2019). ‘United Nations Support Mission in Libya Report of the Secretary-General’, S2019/682, 26 August.

[13] Ghassan Salamé (2019). ‘With Libyans now “fighting the wars of others” inside their own country, UN envoy urges Security Council action to end violence’, UN News, July 29, https://news.un.org/en/story/2019/07/1043381

[14] Mohammed Cherkaoui (2018). ‘Fits and Starts Characterize UN Mediation in Yemen, Syria, and Libya’. Arab Center DC, 7 February, http://arabcenterdc.org/policy_analyses/fits-and-starts-characterize-un…

[15] Habermas, Jürgen (1975). Legitimation Crisis. Boston: Beacon Press. 

[16] Mohamed Eljarh (2014). ‘Libya’s Islamists Go for Broke’, Foreign Policy, 22 July, https://foreignpolicy.com/2014/07/22/libyas-islamists-go-for-broke/

[17] Mohamed Eljarh (2014). ‘Libya’s Islamists Go for Broke’.

[18] Tarek Mitri (2014). ‘Security Council Briefing’, 27 August, https://unsmil.unmissions.org/sites/default/files/SRSG%20SC%20briefing%…

[19] Tarek Mitri (2014). ‘Security Council Briefing’, 27 August.

[20] Morris Zelditch, Jr (2001). ‘Theories of Legitimacy’, in Jost, John; Major, Brenda (eds), The Psychology of Legitimacy: Emerging Perspectives on Ideology, Justice, and Intergroup Relations. Cambridge University Press, 38.

[21] Reuters (2014). ‘Libya faces chaos as top court rejects elected assembly’, 6 November, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-libya-security-parliament/libya-face…

[22] Reuters (2014). ‘Libya faces chaos as top court rejects elected assembly’.

[23] Aljazeera News (2014). ‘Libyan court rules elected parliament illegal’, 7 November, https://www.aljazeera.com/news/middleeast/2014/11/libyan-court-suspends…

[24] Reuters (2014). ‘Libya faces chaos as top court rejects elected assembly’, 6 November, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-libya-security-parliament/libya-face…

[25] Paul Taylor (2019). ‘France’s Double Game in Libya’, POLITICO, 17 April, https://www.politico.eu/article/frances-double-game-in-libya-nato-un-kh…

[26] International Crisis Group (2019). ‘Avoiding a Protracted Conflict in Libya’, 22 July, https://www.crisisgroup.org/middle-east-north-africa/north-africa/libya/avoiding-protracted-conflict-libya

By Jonathan Fenton-Harvey

Crashing oil prices and further economic woes from the coronavirus outbreak are hitting the Middle East region hard, with many countries already in need of external support, and even long-standing Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) heavyweight Saudi Arabia, facing a backlash.

Yet this pandemic could tell a different story for the United Arab Emirates, as Abu Dhabi’s cunning and power-hungry Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ) has presented his country as a key protagonist in the fight against coronavirus, with humanitarian gestures and communication established with powerful regional actors and international bodies. Ultimately, these stronger ties and a further polished international image could help MbZ’s bid to establish the UAE as a dominant powerhouse in the region. As the UAE has traditionally used aid to justify its interventions in Libya, Yemen, the Horn of Africa and elsewhere, it has now adapted this strategy to the coronavirus pandemic.

By March, Iran had the worst coronavirus outbreak in the region, and the UAE moved by offering Tehran assistance by sending several rounds of aid, building on their already warmer ties from the second half of last year. Abu Dhabi claimed to forge ‘a roadmap to boost stability in the region’, suggesting that political differences would be forgotten during the coronavirus outbreak. On 26 April, Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and his Emirati counterpart Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al Nayhan discussed the coronavirus outbreak and other regional ‘issues of mutual interest’, showing an increased forging of their alliance.

This ties in with the UAE’s interests in Syria, where it increasingly supports Bashar al Asad’s regime as a bulwark against its ongoing regional rival Turkey – a supporter of Syria’s opposition. Bin Zayed called Asad on 27 March, declaring that the UAE ‘stands’ with the Syrian people amid the Covid-19 outbreak. In reality, this helps the UAE bolster its ties with the Syrian government, which it perceives as a vital strategic partner. Abu Dhabi’s coordination with Tehran becomes helpful here, given the latter’s strong influence in Syria since 2013, and its support for Asad during the civil war.

Following a bolstering of ties with Tehran and Damascus, Abu Dhabi has turned to China, another regional actor whose strong ties it depends upon. Having strengthened regional cooperation with Beijing last year, the UAE in February sent China medical supplies as the virus spread there, prompting Lin Yaduo, a diplomat at the Chinese Embassy in Abu Dhabi to praise the UAE’s efforts of solidarity. Their ties subsequently grew, and UAE’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al Nahyan, and State and Foreign Minister of China, Wang Yi, discussed how both states’ cooperation was effective in countering the coronavirus, offering a mutual ‘exchange of expertise’ and anti-virus equipment. For the UAE, riding on Beijing’s growing influence in the Middle East and Africa helps solidify its own geopolitical clout. Winning favour with another global power aside from the United States could also grant the UAE further international impunity for its controversial involvement in Yemen, Libya and elsewhere regionally.

Such cooperation could also help ease any differences between the two countries over their operations in the Horn of Africa, where the UAE also seeks to secure control over Red Sea shipping lines for its international maritime trade, while Beijing built rival ports there. After all, the UAE had delivered tonnes of medical aid to Somaliland by 8 April, showing its ambitions to consolidate control over the autonomous region in the Somali Peninsula are still alive, despite recent setbacks such as President Muse Bihi Abdi’s decision last September to turn Abu Dhabi’s military airport in Berbera into a civilian airport.

It also delivered medical equipment to Somalia’s central government, a surprise move considering it had fallen out with Mogadishu in 2018, following opposition to Abu Dhabi’s port development projects in Somaliland and Somalia’s refusal to sever ties with Qatar and Turkey. The UAE is likely being more pragmatic in reviving ties with Mogadishu, seeking to gain influence with Somalia to secure its port influence, and shifting away from its previous ‘divide-and-rule’ strategy.

Yet as the UAE continues its covert support to rogue Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar’s ongoing military campaign to capture Libya’s capital Tripoli and the entire country, it is clear the UAE’s foreign policy is not being driven by a humanitarian agenda. A continuation of Libya’s war, which looks increasingly likely by the day, risks exacerbating the country’s Covid-19 crisis.

Despite Abu Dhabi’s ulterior motives, it is already gaining international approval for its anti-coronavirus initiatives. The World Health Organisation (WHO) praised the UAE’s efforts to help Iran, while Abu Dhabi’s aid deliveries have largely been in cooperation with the WHO. MbZ recently tweeted of the UAE’s growing communications with David Beardsley, Director of the World Food Program, concerning ways to cooperate over helping people affected by the virus. Bin Zayed also communicated with Bill Gates, a prominent advocate for a Covid-19 vaccination, to discuss ways in which Emirati humanitarian organisations could cooperate with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Such efforts not only bolster Abu Dhabi’s international credentials, but would also thicken the smokescreen of international impunity under which its zealous foreign policy operates.

Though the UAE faces economic losses, like much of the world and its close ally Saudi Arabia, the traditionally divided nature of the Emirates means Abu Dhabi and bin Zayed’s own interests would be relatively better off. The loss of international investment and travel could leave tourist hotspot Dubai more vulnerable, creating the prospect of another financial bailout and more purchasing of its stakes from Abu Dhabi, as occurred following the 2007-2008 global financial crisis and subsequent recession. Such an outcome would further shift the power balance towards Abu Dhabi, bolstering MbZ’s position as the UAE’s figurehead. 

As Saudi Arabia faces economic uncertainty, along with a failing foreign policy and a deteriorating international image, the UAE’s increasingly pragmatic foreign policy has the potential to drive it into a stronger position than Riyadh in a post-coronavirus world.

* Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a freelance journalist

** This article was first published by The New Arab

By Ran Greenstein

When the Israeli Parliament dissolved itself in December 2018 and scheduled elections for April 2019, no one expected that it would take a full year to form a new coalition government. But it is only now that such a government is coming into being, based on an agreement between the right-wing Likud headed by Prime Minister Netanyahu, which has been in power since 2009, and the new centre-right Blue-White party headed by General Benny Gantz, a newcomer to the political scene. Signed on 20 April 2020, the agreement was ratified by Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, in the first week of May, after Israel’s supreme court ruled against challenges to the deal.

This development came after three rounds of elections in less than a year, which reflected the same balance of forces that made the formation of a stable coalition impossible. Although right-wing Jewish nationalist and religious parties gained a majority each time (65 out of 120 seats in April 2019, 63 seats in September 2019, and 65 again in March 2020), the Israel Beitenu hard-right secular party led by Avigdor Lieberman refused to join Likud and its partners, thus depriving them of a majority. The deadlock was finally broken when Gantz made a deal with Netanyahu to form a government, in which the prime minister will retain his post for eighteen months while Gantz acts as his deputy, after which they will switch roles. All other positions will equally be divided between the two sides. 

Even before it was finalised, the agreement caused a split in the ranks of Blue-White: half of its Knesse representatives joined Gantz, while the others vowed to remain in opposition. The rationale for forming Blue-White as a broad centrist front in the run-up to the April 2019 elections was the need to pose a viable alternative to Netanyahu, seen as a corrupt and unreliable leader. The total rejection of Netanyahu was the glue holding its different components together. Ditching that goal was a betrayal of the core promise to its voters. We can safely set aside the official excuse for the move – that the coronavirus crisis created an urgent need for national unity – because nothing in the agreement is relevant to health policy. Much of it, in fact, is devoted to entrenching Netanyahu’s control over the judicial system and protecting his family’s access to state benefits.

How can we make sense of this development and its implications? To answer that question, we must go beyond party-political considerations that occupy the media and much public opinion and look at a crucial background factor: Israel’s self-definition as a ‘Jewish state’ and the role of Palestinian citizens in its political system.

A key feature of the last two electoral rounds was that the anti-Netanyahu bloc won a majority and yet could not form a government. Beyond agreeing on the need to get rid of Netanyahu, due to his personal failings and corruption charges, there were no common positions unifying the bloc. Getting Lieberman to work with the Palestinian-led Joint List proved impossible, and Blue-White too included factions opposed to such cooperation. Many who were appalled by Netanyahu’s fraudulent behaviour and unrestrained greed and lust for power had no problems with his party. Their preference was to work with a Likud led by someone else, not to make radical changes to Israel’s ethnocratic regime. The imperative of removing Netanyahu from office was never strong enough to allow new alliances that would contest the boundaries between adherents of Israel as a ‘Jewish Democratic State’ and those challenging that principle.

As things now stand, the coalition will include Likud, the religious parties, Blue-White and the Labour Party, once the central pillar of the Israeli state but now reduced to two Knesset members (MKs) attached to Gantz’s bloc. The opposition is divided between those who oppose Netanyahu personally, but have no problem working with Likud (just over 20 MKs), and those who offer a principled challenge to policies pursued by Israel over the last decades. The latter group includes representatives of liberal Zionism (four MKs), and the Joint List (15 MKs), the only force independent of Israel’s political-military establishment.

Formed in 2015 as a united front of Palestinian citizens, the Joint List extended its dominant position among them (gaining 85-90 per cent of their votes). Suffering a dip in April 2019 due to internal bickering, it regained support in subsequent rounds. Unity in the face of exclusionary state policies is a stance clearly valued by the constituency of the Joint List, but internal unity need not come at the expense of external cooperation. Following the March 2020 elections, the party expressed its willingness to work with all parties that offered an alternative to Likud, even if only on a limited basis. Nothing emerged from that, due to Gantz’s fear of being accused of collaboration with ‘terrorist supporters’. He was worried that without a Jewish majority any government he might form would not be seen as legitimate by Jewish Israelis. A mere majority in Parliament was not enough for those operating within the framework of Jewish ethnocracy. Still, the move signified an important reaching out by the Joint List to the Jewish mainstream, without relinquishing its independence.  

As the only major force offering resolute opposition, not just to Likud but to the entire course of ethnocratic policies since 1967, if not 1948, the Joint List is at the core of any progressive alternative to existing relations of domination. However, its growth potential is constrained by its rootedness in a specific constituency – Palestinian citizens of Israel, who are a minority in relation both to the majority-Jewish Israeli population and to the majority non-citizen Palestinian population. To overcome this limitation, it needs to form tighter links with progressive Israeli-Jewish activists and movements, as well as Palestinian movements operating outside the boundaries of Israeli citizenship. Such an expansion may push it in opposite directions, a dilemma that is likely to occupy it in coming years.

One option would be to strengthen its appeal to liberal-left Jews who may adhere to Zionism as an ideology but are open to moving beyond it in practical matters: putting an end to the occupation, reversing settlement activities, extending rights to Palestinian citizens, and so on. The past year saw the electoral fortunes of this group rapidly dwindling (with less than six per cent of the vote in 2020) with little prospect of revival. But we must keep in mind that only five years ago, close to a million Israelis (23 per cent of the vote) voted for parties criticising, to varying degrees, Likud’s hard-right policies. Many of them shifted to Blue-White in order to topple Netanyahu, but they did not disappear as a potentially-progressive constituency. Of course, most of them are far from breaking with mainstream Zionist policies, but a useful long-term strategy could engage them in joint initiatives on shared practical concerns.

What can we expect from the new government? It has not yet come up with concrete plans, with one crucial exception: from 1 July 2020, Netanyahu will be able to submit an agreement reached with the Trump administration for extending Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank – in other words, its annexation to Israel – to his cabinet or to the Knesset. Needless to say, Palestinian or other Arab and international agreement with that development is neither required nor desired by Netanyahu. As far as he is concerned, it is a matter that involves only the USA and Israel.

The implications of such annexation require a longer discussion than can be offered here. But briefly: a formal move from military rule to civilian control over the West Bank would mean a radical change in the legal status of the occupation, and transition into a full-fledged apartheid system, not just de facto (as has been the case for decades) but de jure as well. This will present new problems for Israel. Even if support by the Trump administration were guaranteed, the US president may not remain in office for a second term. In any event, the USA alone cannot re-create international law. Resistance by local Palestinians and neighbouring countries is likely to intensify, and global condemnation will follow. For all these reasons, Netanyahu may well prefer not to make that move, and retain the option as a threat for the future. In all likelihood, the picture will become clearer in the next couple of months.

* Rand Greenstein is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology, University of the Witwatersrand

By Ali Fathollah-Nejad *

Iran’s 21 February parliamentary (Majlis) elections, which took place amid massive internal and external challenges to the state, ended with an all-too predictable result: the conservative camp – the so-called ‘principlists’ (osoul-garâ), consisting of conservatives and ultra-conservatives – emerged victorious, not least because of the mass disqualification of most reformist and moderate contenders (including eighty sitting MPs) by the ultraconservative Guardian Council that vets candidates for elections. As a result, the reformists had refused to endorse candidates in twenty-two of the country’s thirty-one provinces, including the capital Tehran where thirty seats were up for grabs.

Although these elections, the most uncompetitive in years, signalled the hardliners’ bold willingness to seek the monopolisation of power within the Islamic Republic’s institutions, the historic low turn-out has dealt a major blow to the legitimacy of the regime, and reflected the low level of people’s confidence toward it. As such, the elections’ outcome may complicate the realisation of such ambitions for power monopolisation, potentially constituting a Pyrrhic victory.

Against this backdrop, various scenarios regarding the domestic distribution of power can be envisaged, especially in view of presidential elections set for June 2021 – from monopolisation of power by hardliners all the way to a reformist comeback for the sake of regime survival. In foreign policy, the conservatives’ increasingly tight grip on all institutions – contrary to conventional assumptions of further hardening the fronts between Iran and the USA – might actually facilitate an arrangement with Washington.

Many candidates, little participation

These elections assembled a few superlatives compared to the eleven parliamentary elections held under the Islamic Republic since 1979: While a record number of people applied to run (around 16 000), the Guardian Council only approved a record low number (forty-four per cent of applicants); in total numbers, three times as many were disqualified in 2019 as compared to the last elections in 2016; and the number of approved candidates was the highest ever. The Guardian Council, whose members are directly and indirectly approved by the Supreme Leader, is responsible to vet candidates for parliamentary, presidential and Assembly of Experts elections. Most of those disqualified in these elections were reformists, undermining the Council’s allegedly non-partisan claim that most were excluded because of pending financial corruption charges.

Another superlative is the historic low voter turnout. It was officially put at 42.6%; yet, in reality, it is believed to be much lower, with some estimating it to be half as much. In the 2016 parliamentary elections, the official turnout was 61.8%. The hardliners are usually believed to represent only 15% of the population, who remain loyal to the system because of ideological persuasion and/or material benefits. Thus, a high turnout has usually benefited reformists.

The low turnout this time around is a major blow to the regime as a whole, but especially to the Supreme Leader who had argued that the election results will define the ruling system’s very ‘prestige’. The reduced participation was despite an unprecedented campaign led by state media and the Supreme Leader to urge people to vote, portrayed as a national and religious duty to protect the nation from its omnipresent enemies; despite various coercive elements conventionally deployed by the state to persuade people towards the polling stations (from bussing in military conscripts to hidden fears by segments of society that not voting will negatively impact their access to state allocations and job prospects); and despite the voting period being extended by several hours. Hence, the low turnout is a reflection of a general public mood toward a ruling system seen by many as increasingly illegitimate, incompetent, and anathema to the interests of many citizens.

The low turnout was rationalised by Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani-Fazli as reflecting the prevalent social mood in the country and people’s deep discontent and disillusionment following the nationwide anti-regime protests of January 2018 and November 2019, and, more recently, the January 2020 downing of a passenger jet, killing all 176 on board, with authorities having lied about their responsibility for three days.

The Conservative victory

Conservatives won 230 of the 290 parliamentary seats, including all 30 in Tehran (where not a single MP was re-elected), while reformists won sixteen seats. The Hope Faction, which supports President Hassan Rouhani and is headed by reformist Mohammad-Reza Aref (who had topped the Tehran results in the 2016 parliamentary elections, but decided not to run this year) is believed to have lost more than 90% of its MPs (with only seven MPs in the next parliament instead of the current 120), while the entire moderate camp is believed to have won a maximum of fifty seats. The parliament will thus completely be transformed, with less than one fifth of sitting MPs represented in the next Majlis.

In the capital, Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf, a former Tehran mayor with higher political ambitions, topped the list with over a million votes. In contrast, in 2016 all Tehran MPs got more than a million votes, indicating the widespread stayaway in the capital city in 2020. The victors in Tehran were, thus, the conservative camp and Ghalibaf.

The wider conservative camp, composed of numerous factions, emerged victorious, with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as its most powerful institution expected to further gain ground and Ghalibaf, the most successful conservative candidate, well positioned for higher political offices. With its new power over the parliament, the IRGC could extend its current dominance in the military, intelligence, and economic spheres onto the political one, making the military-rule component in the Islamic Republic more pronounced.

The mass disqualifications and the low turnout may signal a miscalculation on the part of the ultraconservatives, as well as their sense of hubris – due to a large extent to the moderate camp’s weaknesses and failures. The miscalculation is because this election could end a rather well-functioning safety net meant to channel public discontent, and a mechanism for regime resilience, namely, offering the choice – as many Iranians refer to it – between a lesser and a greater evil (i.e., the moderates or reformists against the hardliners). However, despite the conservative camp’s victory, its sense of hubris ahead of the elections had allowed for fiercer confrontations and contradictions within it openly, which might play out in the next years. The conservative camp includes three main factions, which both compete and cooperate with each other:

  • ‘Velâ’i’ – the dominant faction, which promotes full allegiance to the Supreme Leader,
  • ‘Pâydâri’ – (officially the Front of Islamic Revolution Stability or Endurance), a smaller faction loyal to ultraconservative cleric Ayatollah Mohammad-Taqi Mesbah-Yazdi, and headed by his protégé and secretary-general of the faction, Morteza Aghatehrani, which in late 2018 had introduced a bill to impeach the foreign minister, Javad Zarif,
  • A ‘neo-principlist’ faction– including a formation consisting of a younger generation of conservatives loyal to the Islamic Revolution, pursuing an agenda under the banner of welfare, growth and development, and supported by Ghalibaf.

Ghalibaf future president?

The most prominent figure emerging from the elections is Ghalibaf, whose Proud Iran (Iran-e Sarboland) list, uniting many principlists and critics of the Rouhani administration, had fielded thirty candidates. He ranked first in Tehran, and is thus poised to assume the powerful position of parliamentary speaker, which he could use to position himself as the next president. Ghalibaf had failed to win the presidency thrice: 2005, 2013, and 2017. He began his career in the security-military establishment, then delved into the economic and political spheres – most of which was closely connected to the IRGC. During the Iraq-Iran War, he held chief commander positions in several brigades and divisions. After the war, he became managing director of the IRGC’s engineering arm, Khatam-ol Anbia, the main economic entity of the Guards since then-president Rafsanjani integrated them into the post-war reconstruction economy, and which has developed an economic empire of its own. Ghalibaf was later appointed by Khamenei as the commander of the IRGC air force (1997-2000); became chief of police (or the Law Enforcement of the Islamic Republic of Iran, or NAJA, 2000-2005); more recently, mayor of Tehran (2005-2017); and is currently the Expediency Council’s Economic Commission Deputy. In 2001, he obtained a doctorate in political geography from Tarbiat Modares University in Tehran, with a dissertation entitled Analysis of the Local State in Iran.

With a security background, Ghalibaf’s political agenda combines economic populism, technocratic management (he was largely seen in this light during his twelve years as Tehran mayor) and militaristic nationalism (during the parliamentary campaign, he played on his close friendship with the late head of the IRGC’s Quds Force, General Qassem Soleimani, during the Iraq-Iran War). Given more extremist elements within the conservative camp, he will have a good chance of becoming president as a ‘’lesser evil’ option.

Facilitating talks with Washington

For Iran’s regional and international friends and foes, the historic low turnout, which did not escape their attention, indicated the depth of the regime’s legitimacy crisis, while the hardliners’ victory signalled the political trajectory to be expected. There is little chance of foreign policy changes as a result of these elections. Until the 2021 presidential elections, it is likely that there will be a duality of voices from Tehran: a moderate one from the Rouhani administration and a hardline one from other institutions (the IRGC and, now, the Majlis). Both voices operating in tandem have usually demonstrated their usefulness for the regime and the Supreme Leader.

Contrary to conventional thinking, the hardliners’ increasing grip on power might actually help facilitate talks with the USA; such talks are indispensable given Iran’s desperate need to unshackle itself of US sanctions for the sake of regime stability. One major reason for such a scenario, which may play out only after the US and Iranian presidential elections, is that a key impediment to hardliners’ rejection of an opening with the West or negotiations with Washington would be removed. Currently, hardliners’ concern is that an opening to the West, a process which will be negotiated by their rival elite moderate forces if the president is from that camp, would endanger or not sufficiently guarantee their politico-economic and ideological interests. Such concern may just be the result of paranoia; after all, the Supreme Leader supervises and controls any such process of negotiations, thus acting as a guarantor of his hardline allies’ interest.

No redistributive measures

There might be more bold attempts by the future conservative parliament to unseat important figures of the moderate administration, but this is unlikely to be supported by the Supreme Leader – given the aforementioned benefits for the balance of a duality of elite voices. Regarding state-society relations, the gulf between the two sides will likely widen, given the unlikelihood that people’s socioeconomic demands will be met in the short term, with US sanctions continuing unabated, and no major economic policy changes or redistribution of wealth on the horizon. Thus, the conservative camp’s victory may only be a Pyrrhic one for the Islamic Republic as a whole, and will probably prompt some soul searching within its strategic circles about how to deal with such widespread public alienation and disenchantment.

Ideally, a unified hardline camp could offer some socioeconomic relief to lower strata of the population, by utilising its unrivalled access to state and semi-state resources (which they largely control), even in the absence of US sanctions relief. The timing of such redistributive measures will be important: Doing so before next year’s presidential elections might inadvertently polish the tarnished image of the moderate Rouhani administration, increasing the moderate/reformist camp’s chances for his succession and thus diminishing their own. Thus, it is more probable that the hardliners’ parliamentary victory will further explicitly deepen the lame-duck performance of the current administration – soon entering its last year in office – in order later to increase their own political fortunes.

Down the road, the emerging dominant line in Iranian politics could be a kind of right-wing populism, i.e., promoting a discourse around delivering social justice without actually engaging in a redistribution of wealth, while the ideological role of nationalism will continue to rise relative to Islamism, potentially opening up some space (e.g., on the mandatory headcover for women) to absorb some public pressure, while repression against protests and civil society activism will continue unabated. In other words, the IRGC acting – or pretending to act – as iron-fisted modernisers. Be that as it may, a de facto military dictatorship will also have a hard time satisfying the population’s desire for more social equality and political freedoms. A key variable would be if any emerging political regime can maintain the current gulf between the lower classes and the middle class by playing their respective priorities against each other. In the meanwhile, as long as the coronavirus crisis rages in Iran, it is likely to impede the re-eruption of large-scale popular mobilisation, especially by the middle class, thus entrenching the feeling of resignation and despair among many.

Reforming reformism

The election results also reinvigorated discussions about the fate of reformism in Iran, most notably about whether the moderate and reformist camps’ losses could spell the ultimate demise of the already crisis-ridden reformists; in other words, whether their losses will be the kiss of death for the reformist-conservative duality within the Islamic Republic’s political establishment. Over the years, Iran’s reformists have experienced a significant loss of legitimacy among the social bases that had previously supported them, as a result of not only of the hardline camp’s combined opposition, repression and sabotage against them, but, also, and more importantly, of their own shortcomings to deliver on their political and economic promises. This has led to the belief that rather than constituting an agent of change from the top, the reformists have squarely positioned themselves within the establishment and against large sections of the population. In fact, for the first time, during the nationwide anti-regime protests since December 2017, they have been subjected to popular anger equally with the conservatives.

Against this backdrop, the future of reformism may involve two scenarios.

  • A reform of reformism: This would end to the reformists’ rejection of street mobilisations and radical demands, while reversing their disregard of the ‘social question’, i.e., by proposing economic policies that would help alleviate the socioeconomic grievances of the lower classes and the middle-class poor; or
  • reformists’ reintegration into the highest echelons of power, facilitated by their hardline rivals, so as to serve as the regime’s safety valve. This scenario, a function of calculations made for the sake of regime survival threatened by persisting or deepening popular discontent, would see the rehabilitation and reintegration of those within the reformist camp willing to cooperate with regime conservatives to save an Islamic Republic from which both reformists and conservatives profit.

Such a move by conservatives to reintegrate the reformists could be deemed even more necessary if public perception would be that even a more powerful post-parliamentary election conservative camp had failed to address people’s grievances. In fact, the mass disqualification of reformist candidates led to disunity in the reformist camp, from some boycotting the elections to others participating (e.g., the former reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, whose public activities since the 2009 Green Movement have been heavily restricted by regime hardliners but who was shown casting a ballot in these crucial elections), potentially a signal of some among the reformists willing to forge a coalition with the conservative camp, or, at least, with those closest to the moderates.

* Ali Fathollah-Nejad is a visiting fellow at Brookings Doha Centre, and honorary affiliated researcher with the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Politics at Freie Universität Berlin) and of Centre d’Études de la Coopération Internationale et du Développement (CECID) de l’Université libre de Bruxelles
 
** Versions of this article were presented at a panel discussion titled 'Where will US-Ira tensions lead the Middle East?', organised by the Afro-Middle East Centre on 11 March 2020 in Pretoria, and at a panel titled 'The internal aand regional impact of the Iranian legislative elections', organised by the Gulf Studies Center at Qatar University, Doha, on 9 March 2020.

It was originally published in Orient XXI. It has also been translated into French and Arabic.

 

by Yara Hawari

The first measures taken against COVID-19 in the West Bank occurred in early March after the confirmation of seven cases in Bethlehem that were linked to a Greek tourist group. The Palestinian Authority (PA) declared a state of emergency and imposed a lockdown on the city, banning all entry and exit, and enforcing a curfew on residents. The PA also announced restrictions across the West Bank, including prohibitions on travel between governorates, and the shuttering of public spaces and education facilities. On 22 March, following a steady increase in cases, the PA declared a curfew.

In the Gaza Strip, in mid-March Hamas authorities and UNRWA began converting schools into quarantine centres and clinics in preparation for a possible outbreak. On 21 March, two Gazans returning from Pakistan tested positive for the virus and were immediately hospitalised. Twenty-nine people were identified as having come into contact with them and they were all placed in quarantine. 

At the time of writing, the total number of confirmed cases in the West Bank is 247 and twelve in Gaza. Although the figures are relatively low, the worry is that the limited number of testing kits available means that the number of infected people is most probably much higher.

Coronavirus and the Occupation

The West Bank and Gaza Strip are confronting COVID-19 under the gun and with the reality of Israeli military occupation. This substantially weakens the ability of the Palestinian authorities and the Palestinian people effectively to respond to the deadly virus. While many health care systems around the world are struggling to deal with the pandemic, the fifty-three-year occupation has seriously depleted medical capabilities in the West Bank and Gaza. The donor-dependent system has shortages in equipment, medication, and staff due to such issues as military raids and restrictions on imports. In the Gaza Strip in particular – deemed unliveable by the UN as a result of over thirteen years of blockade and multiple Israeli-imposed wars – the health care system had already struggled to deal with medical cases before the pandemic. Indeed, Gaza currently has only seventy-eight ICU beds and only sixty-three ventilators to service a population of two million.

Meanwhile, daily manifestations of the occupation persist, such as the continued demolition of Palestinian homes and military raids on Palestinian villages and towns. There have also been direct Israeli attacks on Palestinian attempts to confront the virus, such as the destruction of a COVID-19 clinic in the Jordan Valley, and the arrest of Palestinian volunteers attempting to distribute supplies to impoverished communities in East Jerusalem. The Israeli occupation authorities are also failing to take any preventative measures to protect Palestinian political prisoners, who are being illegally incarcerated within a military prison system that fails to meet even basic health and sanitation standards. 

Political manipulations

The Israeli regime is using the global coronavirus crisis not only to distract from its ongoing violations of human rights, but also as a political tool to gain diplomatic leverage. Indeed, international bodies have been commending Israel for its ‘cooperation’ with the PA during this crisis; the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Nickolay Mladenov, referred to such coordination as ‘excellent’ during a recent speech. In reality, however, Israeli ‘cooperation’ includes the Israeli Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) ‘allowing’ a minimum of internationally-donated medical supplies to reach the Occupied Palestinian Territory, as was the case with a shipment of 3 000 tests and 50 000 masks from the World Health Organization (WHO) to the PA. This is far below the actual needs of the West Bank. 

Those commending the cooperation also point to the presence of the thousands of Palestinian workers in Israel. In an attempt to prevent mass movement and the potential spread of the disease, Israel and the PA reached an agreement that, as of 18 March, Palestinian workers’ continued employment in Israel would be conditioned on them staying in Israel for several months rather than returning to the West Bank. Yet the workers were not only deprived of proper protective equipment, Israeli authorities also dumped workers who they suspected of having being infected by the virus at checkpoint entrances to the West Bank – without informing the PA. The Palestinian prime minister, Mohammad Shtayyeh, reversed the decision on 25 March, and ordered Palestinian workers in Israel to return home. The serious concern, however, is that the PA will not have the capacity to test people upon their return, and Israel has so far not offered to test them. 

Shifting the narrative 

In effect, the Israeli regime, which maintains a violent military occupation and has depleted the capabilities of the Palestinian health care system, is being praised for allowing scraps of medical supplies to enter from international donors, despite its responsibility under international law as an occupying power to provide the supplies itself. It is essential that international actors not only support vital humanitarian efforts for immediate medical relief in Palestine, but that they also insist on Israel’s responsibility to finance Palestinian medical needs.

It is also imperative to shift the narrative from cooperation, and to highlight the Israeli occupation as an instrument of comorbidity. In other words, not only does the occupation exacerbate the conditions that increase Palestinians’ susceptibility to infection, it is also directly responsible for those conditions. It is therefore disingenuous to argue that now is the time for cooperation and dialogue between Israel and the Palestinian authorities to confront the pandemic. Now is the time, as it was before, to demand the lifting of the blockade on Gaza and the end of the military occupation of the West Bank. 

* Yara Hawari is a Senior Palestine Policy Fellow of Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network. She completed her PhD in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, where she continues to be an honorary research fellow.

* This article was first published by Al-Shabaka

Amid the outbreak of the global coronavirus pandemic, countries in conflict, such as Syria, are in the spotlight. The UN called for an immediate ceasefire in Syria in light of the pandemic after Turkey and Russia announced a ceasefire agreement in the northwestern Idlib province on 5 March. Idlib, a province largely controlled by Al-Qa'ida offshoot Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), has been under heavy bombardment by the Syrian regime, supported by Russian airpower over the past year. The bombardment has pitted the Syrian regime against Turkish and Turkish-backed forces stationed across the province in observation posts set up in May 2017 under the Astana agreement signed by Russia, Iran and Turkey. 

SyriaMap Idlib

Since February, the regime bombardment has resulted in the deaths of over thirty Turkish soldiers in Idlib, with Turkey threatening a massive retaliation. These escalations saw Turkey and Russia agree to a ceasefire on 5 March that includes joint patrols along the strategic M4 highway. The M4 is one of the two most strategic motorways in Syria, running from Latakia to Saraqib, parallel to the northern border with Turkey. The highway’s strategic route also links Syria’s commercial centre Aleppo with Mosul in Iraq, making it important for trade between the two countries.

The 5 March ceasefire agreement followed a series of ceasefire agreements that Turkey and Russia had signed since the Astana de-escalation deal. It is the second of its kind since the beginning of this year. The first was announced on 9 January 2020, after a Syrian regime offensive forced 300 000 Syrians towards the Turkish border, with many living under trees in already overburdened refugee camps. The January agreement did not hold for long as Russia and the Syrian army soon advanced against rebel groups in the province, capturing strategic towns along the M4 and M5 highways. The latter motorway, also called the Damascus-Aleppo highway, is the second most important highway in Syria, beginning in southern Syria near the border with Jordan, and linking the country’s four largest cities: Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo, near the Turkish border. It intersects the M4 in Idlib. The route is crucial for the Syrian economy, and used to transport around $25 million worth of business each day before the war. Turkey, which controls twelve observation posts in the province under the Astana agreement, repeatedly warned of escalations as the offensive intensified until Turkish soldiers were killed by regime bombardment in February. 

On 15 March, Turkey and Russia conducted their first joint military patrol along the M4, but were forced to stop these after protests by residents. Civilians living in areas along the M4 highway demonstrated against the presence of Russia, and condemned the ceasefire agreement. People opposing the ceasefire agreement called for the halt of Russian-sponsored patrols, and for displaced people to be allowed to return to their homes in Idlib. Russia dismissed these protests as ‘terrorists using civilians as shields’, while Turkey chose to ignore them completely.

Ankara’s approach of ignoring the protests highlights Turkey’s miscalculations in Idlib. Its backing of opposition groups such as Free Syrian Army (FSA), which, together with other groups, has morphed into an umbrella structure now called the National Liberation Front (NLF), as well as its indirect coordination with the HTS (formerly an Al-Qa'ida affiliate called Jabhat Al-Nusra), has yielded both problems and solutions. The groups had assisted Turkey in its operations against Kurdish forces in northeast Syria, helped coordinate its demilitarised zone in Idlib to keep refugees from flocking to the Turkish border, and some of their members have agreed to be deployed by Turkey to Libya to fight against warlord Khalifa Haftar. After the 5 March agreement, these groups defied Turkish orders to stay clear of the demilitarised zone created in 2018. This as speculation rises that the Syrian army and Russian forces will soon resume the offensive in Idlib, ending the almost one-month-long ceasefire agreement with Turkey. With these disagreements, Turkey is struggling to keep its 5 March ceasefire promises to Russia. Russia argues that jihadist groups such as HTS must be eliminated before military operations can be halted in Idlib.

Turkey is also hesitant directly to confront HTS, even though it designated the group a terrorist organisation in August 2018. Turkey had supported HTS and other similar groups earlier in the Syrian civil war, and it is apprehensive about fighting a group with which it had previously coordinated operations. The situation is further complicated by these groups launching attacks against Turkish soldiers in Idlib. Two Turkish soldiers were killed by a rocket attack that Turkey believes was launched by HTS or one of its affiliates on 19 March, two weeks into the ceasefire agreement. Although Turkey said it had retaliated against the perpetrators, it was not clear how the retaliation actually took place. Compounding Turkey’s predicament were protests by Turkish-backed groups since the start of April in Ras Al-Ain and Al-Hasakah areas in the northeast, as well as in parts of rural Raqqa where many Turkish soldiers remain stationed.

Moving forward, the form of Turkish cooperation with rebel groups in Idlib is uncertain, as Russia remains adamant that these groups, in Syria’s last rebel bastion, must be destroyed. The 5 March ceasefire is nearing its end as regime and Russian forces prepare for another round of heavy bombardment of the province, which has already displaced over 300 000 people, most of whom fled towards the Turkish border and its overcrowded refugee camps. Turkey is in a difficult situation, fearing it will face heavy repercussions if it confronts jihadi groups that could launch attacks inside Turkey through inactive cells. Further, attacking the rebel groups could jeopardise its own operations in the province, and its attempts to prevent refugees fleeing the regime bombardment from flocking to Turkey where over three million refugees already reside. Turkey’s predicament is worsened by the fact that it does not want to upset its relationship with Russia, which has allowed Turkey to carry out numerous military campaigns in northeast Syria against Kurdish forces. Despite rollercoaster Turkey-Russian relations over the past few years, Turkey regards Russia a necessary ally as its relations with both the USA and Europe remain precarious. 

The 18 February 2020 attack on Tripoli’s main seaport is the latest in a series of measures by Libyan warlord, General Khalifa Haftar, to secure a military victory over his rivals, the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA). His self-styled ‘Libyan National Army (LNA)’ also seized the port city of Sirte in January, and halted shipments of Libyan oil in an attempt to weaken the Tripoli-based GNA. The Tripoli seaport attack ended UN-brokered ceasefire negotiations between the two sides. Haftar, who is supported by the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and France, among others, has been emboldened by the lack of censure for his actions. His decision not to endorse a January 2020 ceasefire agreement mediated by Turkey and Russia was rewarded by the UAE with two fighter jets. 

The February port attack followed increased Turkish support for the GNA, enabling it to force back LNA troops to pre-April 2019 battle lines. Thus, apart from Haftar’s capture of the strategic city of Sirte in January 2020, his ten-month siege of the capital, Tripoli, which commenced in April 2019, has resulted in limited gains. This despite the fact that his forces have had an enormous military hardware advantage, having received arms from the UAE and Egypt, with Chadian, Sudanese, and Russian mercenaries being attracted to support his advance. To break the military stalemate, Haftar imposed an oil embargo in an attempt to strangle the GNA, which relies on oil revenues to provide services and compensate militias. Haftar has not attempted to resell the oil, but his control of most of Libya’s oil and water resources – which are located in the country’s east – allows him great leverage.

Between January and February this year, the UAE provided Haftar with over 4 600 tons of military equipment, allowing him to snub UN and Turkish-Russian mediation efforts. Turkey, on the other hand, supports the GNA. Ankara enhanced this support in recent months by deploying Syrian rebels and Turkish Special Forces to Libya after Haftar captured Sirte. Ankara and the GNA also concluded a maritime border agreement in 2019, strengthening Turkish claims over natural gas in the Mediterranean, and undermining the claims of Greece and Cyprus. Ankara thus regards support for the GNA as critical to its national interests, and will likely further augment its support, despite suffering dozens of casualties among its soldiers. It is noteworthy that Syria and the eastern House of Representatives, which Haftar is influential over, concluded an agreement in March jointly to confront Turkey; the two will likely soon exchange diplomatic representatives. The HoR followed the UAE and Bahrain in re-establishing ties with Syria, which were severed following the start of the Syrian uprising.

Meanwhile, the UN continues to be hamstrung by divisions within the Security Council. Haftar’s continued obduracy has been encouraged by support he receives from France, a permanent member of the UNSC, and, more recently, Russia, another permanent member. His march on Tripoli, a week before a UN-sponsored national conference scheduled to be in Libya (which was subsequently cancelled), and his issuance of an arrest warrant for the head of the GNA, Fayez al-Sarraj, elicited little censure from the UNSC, despite the UN’s now-former special envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salame, labelling the move a coup. In addition, Haftar’s shutting down of oil terminals also resulted in no repercussions, despite UNSC Resolution 2510, which affirms the need to resume oil production.

Further, the UN has had an obsessive focus on elections as a means out of the conflict, and has not given much attention to consensus-building and bottom-up negotiations, which were hallmarks of the initial phases of the 2015 Libyan Political Agreement and the subsequent Skhirat agreement. The UN had planned for elections to be held in 2018, but these have continually been postponed. In February, UNSC Resolution 2510 ratified the January 2020 Berlin Roadmap calling for a full ceasefire and an arms embargo on Libya. Implementation of the resolution will be difficult, however, especially since Russia, a key Haftar supporter, abstained from the vote, indicating it is unlikely that it will support the implementation of the resolution.

A 13 January 2020 ceasefire agreement, mediated by Turkey and Russia, failed because Haftar refused to endorse it, while a fifty-five point roadmap endorsed by most roleplayers in Libya, including the UAE, Turkey, and France, in Berlin on 19 January is also proving difficult to implement.  Ceasefire talks between five military officials from each of the two sides in February in Geneva agreed on a tentative ceasefire, but the two rival governments overruled this. Another seemingly-useless initiative is the EU’s February endorsement of a new mission to complement its Operation Sophia, which seeks to enforce the Libyan arms embargo, but which fails to account for the fact that this will not hamper Haftar since most of his weapons come through Egypt. France, which had despatched forces to support Haftar from 2014, and which had vociferously advocated for the new mission, opposes Turkey’s support of the GNA.

The current stalemate suggests that a political solution is the only real way out of the crisis. However, it is doubtful that Haftar will enter into negotiations in good faith; he has continually acted to scupper any talks that might limit his power. On the sidelines of the Berlin conference, he insisted that talks to form a government could only occur after Tripoli was disarmed, supporting an earlier LNA statement that a militarily-imposed solution was the only way to ensure security. His attitude is hardened by the support he continues to receive from regional and global powers, which emboldens him, even though consolidating control over Tripoli and the country’s western regions has proved more difficult when compared to his rapid march through the South in early 2019. Haftar’s recent announcement of a humanitarian ceasefire was a result of pressure from the USA, and is unlikely to lead to real change. Already, the LNA has undertaken attacks in Tripoli, killing two.

By Ramzy Baroud

Israeli Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, must be channelling the spirit of Houdini as he continues to plot his escape from one of the most convoluted political dilemmas in Israel’s history. It is no secret that Netanyahu’s political behaviour is almost entirely shaped by his desire to survive in office for as long as possible in order to avoid possible jail time.  But how long will the Israeli escape artist manage to survive, now that a date for his trial has been set?

After months of bargaining with the country’s political elite, on the one hand, and pleading to his own right-wing constituency on the other, Netanyahu has failed to create the necessary momentum that would render him immune from prosecution and secure his position at the helm of Israeli politics. 

Failing to form a government after the April 2019 elections, Netanyahu masterfully linked his fate as prime minister to all of Israel’s affairs, internal and external. Nevertheless, there is little evidence to suggest that Netanyahu’s diplomatic and financial conquests have yielded his hoped-for result of augmenting his support among ordinary Israelis, especially as Benny Gantz, who heads the Kahol Lavan (Blue and White) party, has continued to venture further to the right, thus slowly undermining Netanyahu’s support in every facet of Israeli society. The September 209 election demonstrated Gantz’s ability to overcome the Likud leader’s various political advantages in the eyes of Israeli voters.

On 2 March, Israelis are scheduled to return to the polling booths to vote in their third general election in less than one year. In that short period of time, Gantz, a former chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces, managed to repeatedly alter his political positions to be even more right-wing than they had been, while still presenting himself as a centrist who is willing to engage with the ‘left’ in order to build a future government coalition.

Knowing that the noose has further tightened around his neck since the first elections in April 2019, Netanyahu resorted to Washington and US president Donald Trump, asking for the release of Trump’s ‘Deal of the Century’. Indeed, the ‘Middle East plan’ - as Trump calls it – was revealed ahead of schedule in order to provide the despairing Israeli leader a final lifeline that would help him win his multiple battles in a decisive blow. 

Alas, for Netanyahu, things did not work out as planned.

The Netanyahu strategy was meant to unfold in a manner that would increase his support among Israelis and help stave off prosecution. Trump’s administration was to reveal the ‘plan’ that would give Israel everything Palestinian and give Palestinians nothing. Netanyahu would, of course, take full credit for this, his greatest achievement in office, and he would follow that by annexing all illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank, as well as the entire Jordan Valley.

This, however, play out as he and his American benefactor had hoped, resulting in Netanyahu, on 4 February, reversinghis earlier decision to annex much of the West Bank before the scheduled elections. Instead, he told a campaign rally that such annexation was conditioned to his victory in the March elections. While many in the media parroted, without evidence, that the postponement of the annexation was a direct result of a request from Washington, the real reason was likely related to Netanyahu’s domestic political woes.

The Israeli prime minister must have been aware that Trump’s ‘Deal of the Century’ and the annexation of the West Bank cards were his last hope to secure a comfortable election victory, to be granted immunity, and to avoid serving jail time for corruption. But if he annexed parts of the West Bank and then failed to win the elections, the embattled Israeli leader would have no more wiggle room and zero political advantage for a future plea bargain. This explains the sudden halt in Netanyahu’s annexation plan, especially as the he had, at a recent campaign rally, presented annexation in the form of a political barter.

‘When we win,’ he said, ‘we will extend sovereignty over all the Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria,’ referring to the annexation of the occupied Palestinian West Bank.  As a consolation prize and to avoid angry reactions by the country’s far right constituency, especially the politically well-organised Jewish settlers, Netanyahu announced on 20 February that he would revive a long-dormant plan to construct 3 000 new homes for illegal Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem.

‘Today I approved the construction in Givat Hamatos of 3 000 homes for Jews,’ Reuters reported, with 2 000 more homes expected to be built in the Har Homa illegal settlement as well.

These moves are particularly significant, for such construction will completely isolate the Palestinian city of Bethlehem from occupied East Jerusalem, thus killing any hope for Palestinian territorial contiguity in any future state. Netanyahu’s adversaries in the opposition, in the government, and in the Supreme Court are, of course, aware and wary of Netanyahu’s shenanigans. While Gantz often responds to Netanyahu’s opportunistic moves largely by altering his own political position to match or even surpass his opponent’s position, the prime minister’s support in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, is lukewarm at best. In fact, on 28 January, Netanyahu was forced to withdraw his request for immunity, knowing that the request would not receive the required support. 

Meanwhile, the legal proceedings regarding Netanyahu’s corruption cases continue unabated. According to the Israeli Justice Ministry, Netanyahu will be obligated to attend his trial in the Jerusalem District Court, even as prime minister, and regardless of what transpires in the 2 March elections. A three-judge panel will hear the case, forcing Netanyahu to divide his time between running Israeli affairs and fending off accusations of his  corruption.

This is an uncharted territory for Israel. Never before in Israel’s history has the ruling elite been faced with such legal and political dilemmas. Since Israel continues to operate without a constitution, and because this is the first time that a sitting prime minister will face a trial, the Supreme Court is the only authority that is able to interpret the country’s laws in order to advance the legal proceedings. But even that is problematic.

Ayelet Shaked, the controversial and often vulgar former justice minister, is already attempting to derail that possibility, openly warning the Supreme Court judges that any involvement in the political process would be ‘tantamount to a coup’. Israelis now find themselves at the cusp of a new era, one that is defined by the breakdown of the country’s legal system, prolonged political crisis and never-ending social instability. 

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

Egypt is reportedly furious at Hamas’ leader Ismail Haniyeh after he and a delegation from Gaza attended the funeral of slain Iranian Quds Force commander, Qassem Soleimani. Haniyeh headed a Hamas delegation out of the besieged Gaza Strip on 2 December 2019, the first time that Egypt allowed him to leave the enclave since his election as leader of Hamas in 2017. He was meant to visit a number of countries as part of an international relations tour. Egypt approved the countries he would visit; Iran was not on the list. Haniyeh, however, attended Soleimani’s funeral and was the only non-Iranian to speak at the event, where he referred to the Iranian general as ‘the martyr of Jerusalem’. The Egyptians have allowed other members of the delegation to return to Gaza, but it is unclear whether Egypt will allow Haniyeh to leave again, when he returns. Hamas is also cagey about when its leader will make his way back or whether he will visit other countries not approved of by the Egyptians.

Egypt and Hamas relations become stronger after the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime during the 2011 uprisings. The one-year presidency of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi, from June 2012 to July 2013, saw flourishing relations between the Egyptian government and the authority in Gaza. Morsi had ordered the permanent opening of the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza. Palestinians from Gaza were thus able to travel in and out of the territory without hindrance, and there was also an increase in trade, after years of prohibition.  In a July 2013 coup, General Abdel Fattah El Sisi overthrew Morsi and accused Hamas of being a co-conspirator against the security and the stability of the Egyptian people. Reversing Morsi’s decision, he tightened the blockade on Gaza. 

Relations improved in 2017 when Hamas elected a new leadership mostly based in Gaza, unlike the previous leadership that was based mostly in Qatar and headed by Khaled Mesha'al. Haniyeh quickly started talks with Egypt after he election. Hamas delegations frequently visited Cairo for reconciliation talks with other Palestinian factions, notably Fatah, facilitated by Egypt. Egyptian officials have also frequented Gaza for negotiations with Hamas over ceasefires with Israel and to discuss blockade restrictions imposed by Israel and Egypt. Relations further strengthened when Egypt agreed to a buffer zone between Gaza and the Sinai to prevent Islamic State (IS) group militants  retreating into Gaza.

A critical aspect of Egypt’s relations with Hamas is the former’s strong ties to Israel and to the USA. In 2018, US President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, discussed with Egypt the creation of a trade zone and industrial projects in the northern Sinai and in Gaza as part of Trump’s touted ‘deal of the century’. To realise this plan, Egypt agreed that it would coordinate economic projects  with Hamas. In 2019, Qatar announced that it would begin distributing funds to families in Gaza and pay for fuel for electricity generation as part of its National Committee for the Reconstruction of Gaza project. This followed indirect negotiations between Hamas and Israel, mediated by Egypt, which brought relief to 2 million besieged Gazans. This agreement had been concluded during a twenty-four day trip to Cairo by  a Hamas delegation headed by Haniyeh in February 2019.  It became clear that Egypt was willing to allow Haniyeh to travel out of Gaza but only for meetings in Cairo; he swiftly returned to the strip after every trip.

For his current trip, Haniyeh left Gaza on 2 December 2019 for Cairo, where he attended a number of meetings with Egyptian officials to negotiate a longterm ceasefire with Israel. This followed an exchange of fire between groups in Gaza and Israel, after Israel assassinated one Islamic Jihad (Bahaa Abu Al-Ata) leader in Gaza. After these meetings, Haniyeh’s delegation departed for his first international trip as Hamas leader. The trip’s schedule was agreed upon with Egypt, and included Qatar, where many former and current Hamas leaders are based, as well as Turkey and Malaysia.

The Egyptians told Haniyeh not to attend the Kuala Lumpur Summit in Malaysia on 18 December, following Saudi Arabia’s insistence. The Saudis viewed the Summit as Malaysia’s attempt to set up an alternative to the Organisation for Islamic  Cooperation (OIC), which Saudi Arabia  currently heads. Haniyeh obliged and sent a high-level delegation instead. Unimpressed, Egypt nonetheless conceded that Haniyeh had not violated the agreement. Egypt’s conditions included Haniyeh’s not visiting Iran.  

When the head of the Quds Force unit of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Qassem Soleimani, was killed by an American airstrike on 3 January, Egypt further warned Haniyeh not to attend his funeral. Haniyeh, however, defied the order. He also met with the newly-appointed Quds Force commander Esmail Ghaani, and, together with Islamic Jihad leader  for an international relations trip, visited Soleimani’s home to express condolences.

Haniyeh’s trip to Iran angered the Egyptians to such an extent that they may not let him back into Gaza after he completes his trip, or prevent him leaving the territory again. Egypt also, in retaliation for Haniyeh’s insubordination, temporarily blocked the transfer of gas into Gaza. This resumed only after talks on 9 February. After these talks, little was mentioned about what the Egyptians had said about Haniyeh, who is still in Doha.

Although Hamas has denied that Egypt had been furious over the Iran visit, it is clear that relations between the two parties have been shaken. Egypt believes that since 2013 it has largely managed to exercise control over Hamas, in line with the wishes of Israel and Egyptian allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Haniyeh’s Iran visit was, thus, an embarrassment for Egypt. Although Haniyeh’s trip to Iran might have been strategic from a Hamas point of view, it, however, throws the existing relationship with Egypt into murky waters. Egypt might further restrict the movement of goods and people through the Rafah crossing, in a form of collective punishments against Gaza’s residents.

The US assassination, on 3 January 2020, of Major-General Qasem Soleimani, head of the Quds Force unit of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), greatly intensified tensions in the MENA region, taking it, by some accounts, to the brink of war. Iran responded five days later with attacks on American troops in Iraq, and will likely use its allies and proxies to undertake further attacks on US soldiers stationed in Iraq, thus maintaining a low-level war of attrition, less intense in the days after Soleimani’s assassination, but a longer-term strategy.

The assassination followed and intensified a series of incremental and escalating indirect attacks by Iran and the USA on each other’s interests in the MENA region, especially after the 2018 US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the 2015 Iran Nuclear deal), and more so after around March 2019, when Iran decided to respond more assertively to the US withdrawal. The USA subsequently accused Iran of increasing its support to armed groups in Iraq, Syria and Yemen; and of being involved in the May 2019 Fujairah sabotage of four oil tankers, and an attackon Saudi Aramco facilities in Al-Qaiq and Khuraise in September 2019. Both the tanker and the Aramco attacks were blamed on Iranian-backed groups. Contributing to a tense situation, The USA deployed a carrier strike-group to the gulf in May 2019, increased its troop presence in the region, and resolved to no longer grant oil wavers to countries purchasing Iranian oil.

However, neither Iran nor the USA wants an all-out war. Instead, the USA will continue pressuring Iran through current and further sanctions, while Tehran and its allies will conduct numerous low-level actions aimed at disrupting US operations and interests. Further, two of Iran’s main rivals in the region, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, have stretched their resources over the Middle East and North Africa, and have realised that they cannot rely on the USA to fight their battles with Iran. Both have thus made overtures to Tehran, especially after the tanker and Aramco operations; Riyadh advocated de-escalation after Soleimani’s assassination, and is negotiating an end to the Yemeni conflict.

 

Roots of current tensions

Iran and the USA have had long-standing tensions, heightened after the US role in the coup against Iran’s democratically-elected president, Mohammad Mosaddegh, in 1953. The ouster was supported, financially and diplomatically, by the CIA and the Eisenhower Administration. The Shah, whose powers were then strengthened, making him an absolute ruler, was subsequently propped up by successive US administrations through the 1960s and 1970s.

Relations between the two states further deteriorated after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which forced the Shah out of power and into exile. He was granted asylum in the USA, prompting Iranian students to storm and besiege the US embassy in Tehran in November 1979, holding US diplomats hostage for 444 days. The USA imposed an economic embargo on Iran, and US sanctions have progressively been strengthened over the past forty-one years. Washington also actively supported Saddam Hussein in Iraq’s eight-year war against Iran, which sought to overthrow that country’s new government, and resulted in a million deaths.

In 2011, the USA, prodded by Israel, added sanctions on Iranian oil as a means of pressurising Iran to halt its nuclear programme. Since Donald Trump’s entry into the White House in 2016, relations between USA and Iran have mainly been related to or a consequence of Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The American president hoped to pressure Tehran to negotiate a more comprehensive agreement with him, to also address its support for groups such as the Houthi and Hizbullah, and the Syrian regime, as well as Iran’s ballistic missile capability. US allies Saudi Arabia and the UAE have used their economic clout, purchasing large quantities of American weapons, to convince Trump to maintain pressure on Iran. The Saudis successfully slowed down the initial JCPOA negotiations in 2013 by using its arms’ purchases to lobby France to demand more restrictions on Iran’s Arak reactor and on Tehran’s stockpile of uranium.

Measures, countermeasures

In 2018, after pulling out of the JCPOA, the USA began instituting new sanctions on Iranian companies, and, more significantly, decided not to issue new waivers on the import of Iranian oil, a key source of foreign exchange for Iran. These waivers previously allowed certain countries, such as Turkey, South Korea, Japan and India, to purchase Iranian oil. Then, in April 2019, Washington declared the IRGC a terrorist organisation, the first time the administration had labelled an entire military arm of another state in this way. Trump also deployed an additional 3 000 troops to the region, including an aircraft carrier and destroyer group. He imposed additional sanctions on Iran and Iranian officials, including on Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and on its chief diplomat, Iran’s foreign minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, severely limiting his ability to travel within New York.

With an economy ravaged by the sanctions, rebellion from hardliners within the regime, and because of the failures of the EU’s proposed special purpose financial vehicle, which was supposed to facilitate the circumvention of US sanctions, the Rouhani administration began to incrementally reduce its compliance with the JCPOA, hoping to pressure the EU to comply with its side of the agreement and to ease trade and investment with Iran. This series of violations is what Iranian deputy foreign minister Abbas Araqchi referred to as a ‘rebalancing’ of, rather than a withdrawal from, the JCPOA. Tehran will still allow International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) officials to inspect its uranium enrichment facilities, has not (yet) increased the level of enrichment to twenty per cent, and has not sought to repurpose the design of its Arak nuclear reactor to process plutonium. This suggests the country wants to salvage the JCPOA, but wants compliance form other partners, especially the EU.

The EU responded by declaring a dispute under the JCPOA. Little will result from this, since any decision on imposing sanctions on Iran will need to be adopted by the UNSC in which Russia and China, both Iranian allies, hold veto powers. A key factor in Iran’s favour is that it has not enriched uranium to twenty per cent – the level which would radically decrease the time and effort required to enrich to weapons-grade ninety per cent.

Tehran has deployed mobile short-range missiles on naval vessels in the Gulf, in Iranian waters, in response to Washington’s deployment of an aircraft carrier and destroyer group to the region. Iran also used its proxies, especially the Hashd  al-Shabi (Popular Mobilization Forces/Units) in Iraq and the Houthi in Yemen to attack US troops and interests in the region, and in June 2019 Tehran shot down an American Global Hawk surveillance drone, one of only four the USA possessed at the time. 

Soleimani assassination – on a knife edge

On 3 January 2020, the USA military assassinated Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, one of the most influential leaders of Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), largely supported by Iran. The assassinations, widely recognised  by international scholars – including the UN Special Rapporteur for Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, Agnès Callamard – as being illegal under international law, and even domestic US law. The White House initially claimed the assassination was a pre-emptive strike because Soleimani had been planning ‘imminent attacks’ on US interests, including American embassies in the region. This claim proved to be hollow, with even the US Defense Secretary, Mark Esper, stating that  no evidence existed around the imminence and targets of the supposed plans.

Soleimani’s influence and popularity meant that the assassination was especially contentious for both Iran and the USA. He had been the key person involved in providing advice, training and weapons to Iran’s allies in Syria and Iraq, and coordinating between Iran and various PMF forces in Syria and Iraq, as well as with Hamas and Hizbullah. He was also revered by many Iranians who credited him with preventing the Islamic State group (IS) gaining a foothold in Iran. But he was also despised by many Syrians and Iraqis for his role in protecting regimes in their countries. Critics also blame him for Russia’s entry into the Syrian civil war, arguing that his July 2015 meeting with Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, secured Moscow’s aerial support for the Syrian regime, without which it might have fallen. In Iraq, Soleimani consolidated support in the past few months for the Adel Abdul Mahdi administration, which has been accused of corruption and ineptitude, and which has violently cracked down on protests, killing hundreds.

Soleimani had previously worked with the USA in Afghanistan and Iraq. In the former, Soleimani coordinated certain activities with the USA in the fight against the Taliban, which both viewed as an enemy. The ‘relationship’ broke down, however, after then-US president, George W Bush, named Iran as part of an ‘axis of evil’ in 2002. Later, in Iraq, Soleimani was the point person dealing with the USA for Iran, including in discussions to form the Iraqi governing council, which took office in July 2003, and in 2009-10 to install the Nouri al-Maliki government. 

After Soleimani’s assassination and funeral, which millions of Iranians and Iraqis participated in, Iran had to respond to the US aggression. Tehran decided on a two-pronged approach: a direct attack, in its name, on US troops, and a longer war of attrition with the USA through its partners and proxies. The direct response was through the attacks on the Ayn Al-Asad Airbase, west of Baghdad, and on the Irbil base, which host US troops, using around twenty Fateh and Qaim ballistic missiles on the 8 January 2020. Before the attack, the Iranians stressed that they would target only US military interests. They also informed the Iraqis which bases would be targeted. The warning, coupled with the fact that Iran conveyed a message to the USA, first via a Swiss back channel and later publicly, that this was the totality of its response, suggests that Tehran sought immediate de-escalation. The ‘indirect’ responses began soon after, in Iraq, with rockets launched at bases hosting US troops and even a the American embassy, but ensuring there were no casualties. Such attacks will likely continue, in Iraq and perhaps also in Syria and Yemen, targeting either US interests or those of its allies.

 

Run-up to the assassination

Before Soleimani’s assassination, regional tensions had been increasing. On 12 May 2019, four oil tankers belonging to Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Norway, were sabotaged off the UAE port of Fujairah; two days later, Houthi drones damaged Saudi Arabia’s reserve oil pipeline in Riyadh province, forcing its closure. While no one claimed responsibility for the tanker attacks, the Norwegian insurer alleged that the shrapnel from the explosions displays similarities to shrapnel from IEDs used by Houthi fighters in Yemen. Further, a Saudi-UAE-Norwegian investigation alleged ‘state involvement’ in the sabotage. 

A month later, Iran shot down an American drone that had entered its airspace. Trump initially contemplated retaliatory airstrikes on Iranian missile defence systems, but later stood down. Then, in September 2019, precision drone and missile attacks on Saudi-Aramco oil facilities in Al-Qaiq and Khuraise forced a shutdown of over half of Saudi Arabia’s oil capacity, resulting in a loss of over two billion dollars. Although Yemen’s Houthi claimed the attack, a UN report suggests that the missiles originated from the north, likely from Iraq.

The USA and Israel responded by increasing attacks on Iranian troops in Syria, killing scores of people. US strikes were more limited than Israel’s, commencing in December 2019 after the death of an American contractor in a PMF attack on a military base in Iraq. Israel was more blatant, continually violating Lebanese and Syrian airspace, and launching missiles at Iranian assets in Syria. The USA also increased its troop deployment to the region, and dispatched more naval hardware to the Gulf.

Gulf countries, specifically Saudi Arabia and the UAE, shocked by what they saw as a lack of an adequate response by the USA to the tanker and Aramco attacks, and believing they could no longer rely on the USA for protection, responded through attempts at rapprochement with Iran. Riyadh sought to initiate indirect talks with Iran, having Iraq and Pakistan simultaneously acting as mediators. The UAE also sought to negotiate with Iran. In August 2019, in the aftermath of the Fujairah attack, a maritime border agreement was concluded between the UAE and Iran, regarding Abu Dhabi’s access to sea lanes. It is worth noting that the UAE’s Jebel Ali port is the largest in the region, while DP World, an Emirati port operator is the fourth largest globally. Abu Dhabi is thus invested in maintaining and enhancing sea lane access as a means of both economic growth and military influence.

In September 2019, Riyadh entered direct talks with the Houthi; Saudi coalition airstrikes in Yemen decreased by over eighty per cent in November 2019; and hundreds of prisoners, including around 130 in besieged Taiz, were exchanged between the two parties as a confidence-building measure. Further, the perceived lack of American support also saw Saudi Arabia commence negotiations to end the Qatar blockade, which Riyadh – along with the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt – imposed in 2017. Although differences still remain, the blockade has weakened at a diplomatic level with the Saudi, Emirati and Bahraini teams attending the Gulf Cup in Qatar in November 2019, and Qatar’s prime minister, Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa Al Thani, attending the annual GCC Summit in Saudi Arabia in December 2019. A ‘cold peace’ between the two sides is likely soon to emerge.

Conclusion

It seems that both the USA and Iran, and regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia, do not want an all-out confrontation, especially since Iran possesses powerful military assets that can cause real damage, and Iran seems willing to use these. Saudi Arabia called for calm after Soleimani’s assassination, while Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, shortened his trip to Greece and returned to Israel in an attempt to prepare for any Iranian response. Further, both the Iranian and American governments have cautioned against a war, even though Soleimani’s assassination had the potential to cause events to spiral out of control.

With 2020 being a presidential election year in the USA, Trump is unlikely to want a war (especially one that could result in a large number of American casualties) when a key promise of his 2016 campaign was to halt America’s wars and remove American troops from the Middle East. Even though he has not succeeded in this regard, Trump would not want the negative publicity that another war would bring, unless his popularity rapidly drops and he requires something to create a rally-around-the-flag effect.

For the moment, it seems as if Iraq will bear the brunt of these tensions, serving as a key battleground between the USA and Iran, especially since it is dependent on both countries, and because it is seen by Tehran as falling within its sphere of influence. Soleimani was assassinated in Iraq, and Iran’s response was to target American troops in Iraq. The Iraqi protests over unemployment, corruption and for a restructuring of the political system have thus been overshadowed. The protests, which saw tens of thousands gather in December 2019 in opposition to the government, waned after the US attacks on PMF forces in Iraq in late December. More recently, the larger protests have been those calling for US troops to leave, rather than the earlier ones which called for Iranian influence in Iraq to be decreased.

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