By Larbi Sadiki
Ennahda’s Tenth Congress in May 2016 was a leap of faith into re-endorsing the movement’s historical leadership as well as learning to ‘Tunisify’ its specific brand of Islamism – or whatever is left of it. The stakes are high, and so are the challenges lurking ahead. At a historical juncture of intra-Islamist divisions from Morocco to Egypt over matters of substance and organisation, and parallel divisions among secularists, Tunisia’s Islamists seem to favour the contest of power over the contest of ideology: policy is now primary; ideology is secondary.
Have they ‘killed’ Muslim Brotherhood ideologues Hassan Al-Banna, Sayyid Qutb, and the late Hassan Al-Turabi, and prominent Shi'a religious leaders Imam Khomeini and Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah – all iconic ideologues whose writings stamped Islamist dogma with the dictum that Islam is ‘din wa dawlah’ (religion and politics)? Tunisian Islamists, like their Moroccan and Turkish counterparts earlier, seem to have rethought their ideas, which have postulated the inseparability of Islam and politics for almost a century.
Ennahda’s resolve to finally put to bed the conundrum of religion and politics, by declaring their separation at its congress, may be a turning point in the movement’s thirty-six-year history that amounts to a ‘second founding’. But the move is not necessarily motivated by tactical manoeuvring; ‘civic habituation’ is a moderating force too.
Neo-Political Islam and the primacy of practical knowledge
Three key observations are in order here.
First, the tendency today by Islamists in places such as in Morocco and Tunisia to ‘separate’ religion and politics – or, more aptly, to de-emphasise religion in their brand of politics – speaks to the failure within political Islam to translate theoretical ideals, agendas and knowledge into a convincing and satisfactory practice in terms of political behaviour and civic engagement in many Arabo-Islamic settings. There are qualified exceptions; Turkey and Malaysia may be imperfect examples but both function well.
Second, separation of religion and politics by Islamists subverts the original paradigm: instead of moving from theory to practice, the new trend that focuses on the experience of political Islam has the potential to inform theory-building. Perhaps the practice of political Islam at the level of the state will eventually enable deeper appreciation of the theoretical potentialities of Islam as a religion. This will help incorporate practical knowledge into the organisation of politics by Islamists who are informed by theories that have thus far eluded application. Reconciling this ‘contradiction’ is a huge challenge for Arab politics in general. It is easy to pontificate about an ideal – such as social justice or its ethical foundations – as do many Islamist theoreticians, postulating it as an indispensable virtue of Islamic democracy or governance. It is a greater challenge to apply it as integrally part of lived Islam.
Third, the tendency today to separate religion and politics may bode well for levelling the playing field. The interpretation of religion ceases to be the exclusive bastion of righteous voices whose missionary zeal in some settings may have turned them into self-appointed speakers on behalf of ‘Islamic correctness’. No one reserves the right to claim the moral high ground and dictate what religion in the public sphere should and should not mean.
The Tunisian context
Islamism is not going away. Scholars from John Esposito and John Volli to Khaled Abou El Fadlii have confirmed this axiom. It is, however, the dogma that underpin the various Islamisms vying for attention in the Muslim world that should be under close scrutiny or is subject to tactical shifts or rethinking. Dale Eickelman and James Piscatori view ‘Muslim politics’ as involving ‘the competition and contest over both the interpretation of religious symbols and the control of the institutions that produce and sustain them’. Consequently ‘Muslim Politics’ is a sophisticated analysis of the ever-changing correlation between the sacred and the profane in the Muslim world.
Eickelman and Piscatori advance the idea that the politics of language that embed the expression and organisation of Muslim politics must be ‘deconstructed’. The Muslim world has witnessed a process of ‘objectification of consciousness’, a process sparking fundamental questions in the minds of believers. This objectification has come about as a result of mass education and wider channels of communication within the Muslim World, rendering exegesis widespread.iii Tunisia, like other countries that experienced uprisings in 2010-2011, is today awash in contestation over meaning in politics, religion and culture. It is a facet of maturing pluralism, civic engagement and freedom.
Political Islam or Islamism is simply refashioning itself according to the exigencies of time and space. Old conundrums are being tackled head on, and Tunisian Islamists are not exempted from this process. In his recent book Young Islam, Avi Spiegel, referring to Morocco, makes relevant points to those pondering the state of play within Islamism.iv Taking a leaf from Eickelman and Piscatori about how ‘Muslim politics’ is lived, Spiegel considers political Islam in practice, in the way it is operationalised, especially by the younger generation of activists, dealing with a huge lacuna in research on Islamism.
Spiegel makes two important points when accounting for transformative processes within Islamism.
First, that Islamist-Islamist relations inform behaviour and thinking more than external factors. This is more relevant to Morocco than Tunisia because Morocco’s Islamism is more dispersed and plural, with competing versions of Islamism, including establishment Islamism, competing for influence in the monarchy’s ‘public sphere’. Tunisia’s Ennahda has been shaped by its relationship to the state (which Spiegel says is not the case in Morocco). A brand of secular nationalism led by Tunisia’s first post-independence leader, Habib Bourguiba, provoked Islamists into opposing the suppression of Tunisia’s Islamic identity and heritage in nation- and state-building. Ennahda today argues that the question of identity no longer divides Tunisians. It is doubtful whether Ansar al-Shari'ah,v the violent extremist group designated as a terrorist organisation by Tunisia and much weaker now than three years ago, has forced policy rethinking within Ennahda.
Second, that the separation of al-siyasi (civic activism or politics) and da'awi (religious or proselytisation activities) has been in the offing within Morocco’s Justice and Development Party (PJD). Using the example of Abdelali Hamiddine, amongst others, Spiegel shows how there is a separation between the religious movement (harakah) and the political party.v This is the direction Ennahda has just taken.
Ennahda’s emerging brand of rethought Islamism provides a more open engagement in the socio-political sphere after the democratic reforms that routinised the Islamist party as a major stakeholder in Tunisia’s fledgling ‘public sphere’. This brand of civic Islamism that slots the political and the religious into two different compartments works in tandem with increasing civic engagement, contest of power, a power-sharing record since 2011, and massive investment in the professionalisation of the party.
Concomitant with its new status as a power broker in Tunisian politics, Ennahda engages with deeply entrenched leftist and secular forces through both dialogic (including alliance with secularists in government in 2011 and currently) and concessionary means. Ennahda has adopted a declaratory policy of deference to the state when it comes to the management of mosques – leaving them as venues of worship. It has also supported current plans to re-educate imams and professionalising their functions. This may also be a defence mechanism at a time when the state is eager to counter terrorism and overall religious radicalisation, especially amongst youth.vi Religiously-inspired actors in the Muslim world are trying to define themselves in opposition to the likes of the Islamic State group (IS); Ennahda is no exception in this narrative pitting ‘moderates’ against ‘radicals’.
Distinguishing between the fixed (al-thabit) and the mutable (al-mutaghayyir) may explain Ennahda’s attitude towards the state. Politics, the party argues, belongs to the sphere of the changing. I propose that there is a public utility or ‘maqasidi’ framework at play here, and that exigencies and necessities of the Tunisian context have influenced this move.
In the Tunisian national milieu, Ennahda is also probably responding to the misgivings of its detractors that it conceals a secret theocratic agenda; that once in power it will impose dictatorship. The shift is intended also to pre-empt criticisms from liberals and secularists that it does not respect Tunisia’s political identity. Ennahda can now claim it is transcending politics of identity.
The plan to refashion Ennahda as per the movement’s Tenth Congress can be summed up in the following areas:
It commits to a civic state (dawlah madaniyyah), which rethinks earlier Islamist positions to make shari'ah (Islamic legal system) the law of the land.
It moves away from the revivalist brand of Islamism by locating itself as a national actor sharing political space with other power claimants and contestants. The old claim by Muslim Brotherhood movements that ‘Islam is the solution’ is no more (even though Ennahda never really used this motto).
It redefines Islamism as approximating ‘political ethics’ rather than ideology that informs political ends in the contest for power. In this sense Ennahda attempts to become post-ideological in a quasi-‘end of ideology’ moment.
It embraces the market unambiguously. This position breaks with earlier Islamist reservations about capitalism (Sayyid Qutb is a leading voice in this regard, with Islam’s social justice being a key tenet of his political thought). Ennahda’s discourse after the uprisings also embraced social justice.
It renounces moralisation in the social realm in a society which is ninety-nine per cent Sunni Muslim. This aims to end the pursuit of da'wah or religious propagation by the newly-professionalised political party, and to end its monopoly over interpreting religious dogma – much less endeavouring to implement it.
Where Ennahda is concerned, the fundamentals that defined Muslim Brotherhood-type movements (such as ‘the Quran is our constitution’; ‘jihad is our method’) no longer apply in any evaluative (normative) or practical (political) sense.
Like Islamist parties in Algeria, Egypt, Lebanon, Morocco and Sudan, Ennahda is undergoing a phase of ‘civic habituation’. Islamists today are faced with having real power, reversing past practices when they were excluded.vii Moderating policy and political behaviour may thus not be just tactical or ephemeral. The party has a fixed constituency and following (sympathisers and members) that secure it political visibility and prominence, though not always as the winning party as was the case in the 2014 parliamentary elections. It has gained kudos, status and know-how that deepen civic habituation. Before the uprisings, Ennahda was at the receiving end of the dictatorial proverbial ‘stick’. Now its political fortunes have improved and with that come increased legal participation, recognition of the political system, legitimacy, and shared power.
As a stakeholder, Ennahda is now concerned with self-reproduction – via the contestation of power, effective political strategies and responsive public policy platforms. Ideology ceases to be a guiding force, even if in the minds of many members and the wider Islamist transnational community the separation of religion and politics may seem heretical. Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood (MB) showed how contest and acquisition of power play a moderating role, thus informing incipient civic habituation. Most MB groups conducted a de facto separation following the Arab Spring; the Egyptian MB, for example, founded the Freedom and Justice Party, open to members and non-members, which accepted the civil state and political pluralism, at least in theory.
Adaptation is the name of the game: the challenge to measure up to the demands of pluralism, freedom and democratic transition through constant training in the art of politics. That is, finding a shared space for engaging self and other through clear messages, legal and democratic strategies, shared values and rallying multipartisan objectives. Thus Tunisia’s Islamists may contribute in a practical sense to a form of ‘Islamic democracy’, an oxymoron for many of their detractors.viii In fact, as so-called Arab liberals continue to fragment or are slow at self-reforming,ix it is legalised Islamists that seem to be turning the learning curve of democratic government.
Of course, it is moot whether civic habituation through increased participation as a result of the adoption of the separation of religion and politics produces radicalisation or deradicalisation within society. It is undeniable that there is demand for a role for religion in political affairs in Tunisia, as in many other Arab states. Abandoning a powerful tenet of Islamism may be read as a form of retreat, which may have a radicalising effect.x Nevertheless, the rule of thumb is that civic engagement spells moderation and de-emphasis of ideology, not radicalisation.
Is Ennahda renouncing ‘Islamism’, its doctrinaire sine qua non and the basis of its foundational identity? Since its emergence in the late 1970s as the ‘Islamic Tendency Movement’, identity politics – promoting the idea of Islam as an organic frame of reference for imagining polity, society and economy – has defined the movement’s declaratory policy, rhetoric, discourse and political engagement.
This template and attendant agency came at a high price: exile, imprisonment, and exclusion under both Bourguiba and his successor, ousted dictator Zinelabidine Ben Ali. Under Ben Ali, Ennahda sought accommodation and even contested by-elections, showing early indications of electoral support in the late 1980s, which made the then-dictator buckle and shift policy from co-existence to systematic exclusion and coercion. No single political current in Tunisia’s history suffered as much at the hands of Ben Ali’s police machinery.
Neo-Ennahda emerged over a three-day historic congress punctuated by fascinating and heated but pluralist debates, part of which I witnessed first hand, as a national political party with an Islamic frame of reference that deploys democracy as a mode of political engagement. To this end, Neo-Ennahda is now committing to separate the religious (al-da'awi) and the political (al-siyasi).
A vision that was upheld for over three decades has ceded to a new brand of civic Islamism. As an analogy, Neo-Ennahda has not only edged closer to the notion of a civil state, but also to Turkey’s AKP and further from Egypt’s standard Muslim Brotherhood or ‘Ikhwani’ model: the former operationalises politics with minimum ideology, the latter has historically harboured ambitions of Islamising polity.
This is why, in one of his interventions during the congress, party president Shaykh Rachid Ghannouchi adopted a new discourse angled at stressing the primacy of the market, economic growth, renouncing the politics of identity (huwiyyah), elements which had been part of the fundamentals of his thought for over thirty years.
There are three interconnected motivations for the change.
First,normalisation of Ennahda with the ‘deep state’, which has preserved the imprints of Bourguiba’s political modelling of it a la Francophile: secular in nature. Tunisia’s society is similarly shaped, manifesting a deeply hybrid national persona that reveres Islam but with a bent for civic engagement of all aspects of the horizontal side of life, including politics. Ennahda is finally being intelligently and deftly adaptive, seeking a brand of ‘Tunisification’ of its identity as a major political force with a fixed thirty-five to forty percent political following.
Second,professionalisation, and this is common to all major parties anywhere as they mature politically. So by defending a new identity that separates the religious and the political, Ennahda has turned an important learning curve on the way to a fully-fledged civic political party. The amendments, all of which passed with absolute majorities of more than 800 votes, prove that several months of internal debates have come to full fruition for the party’s reformists. This includes further empowerment of the party’s Shura Council, of which 100 members are directly elected by conference, and another fifty by the Council’s elected representatives. Ennahda’s partnering in the troika government that delivered the country’s democratic constitution in early 2014 provided the party with an invaluable ‘reality check’, which it used to reflect, revise and adjust.
Third,democratisation via ‘factionalisation’: a salient feature of maturing political parties anywhere. One of the most fascinating debates and the first ever in the history of Ennahda took place on the morning of 22 May. Three leading leaders representing first and second generations took to the floor to openly contest and defend their respective views of how the party should be internally organised, led, and administered. (I am not at liberty to disclose more.) This was unthinkable before the uprisings. Ennahda’s practice of internal democracy has produced a kind of factionalisation, which may, over time, serve to reduce the huge concentration of power in the party executive. Islamist parties, like Arab secularist parties, tend to be resistant to democratic transformation in party structures and internal democracy. From this perspective, factionalisation must be seen as having a democratising effect, at least in the long term.
Al-Banna’s Islamism no more?
Surveying the state of political Islam in the aftermath of the uprisings, what is most conspicuous is the presence of a spectre of stagnation, crisis and fragmentation. From Egypt to Tunisia there are signs that there is confusion in the ‘Islamic project’ adopted since the days of Hassan Al-Banna (assassinated in 1949), the founder of the Muslim Brotherhood ideal and model of socio-politico-moral organisation.
Morally, the flame of the ideal has not dimmed; it still lights up millions of subaltern lives. Al-Banna – and after him other like-minded iconic figures ranging from Sayyid Qutb (MB ideologue and scholar hanged by Gamal Abdel Nasser in 1966) to Maulana Abu 'Ala Maududi (leading Scholar of Indian-Pakistani origin, d 1979) – made a strong case for ‘Islamic governance’. They found in Islam an organic repertoire for giving the former colonised a voice, and also the means to resist subjugation, westernisation, secularisation, moral decay, and dissolution into followers of Euro-American models of organising polity, society, economy and morality.
In a short but brilliant ‘Foreword’ to Sayyed Abul Hassan Al-Nadwi’s famous book Islam and the World,xi Qutb seconds the author’s ideas of an Islam that sanctions liberation from ‘superstitions and banalities’, ‘slavery and degradation’, and from religious and political ‘tyranny’. Islam, Qutb argues, blesses life with faith, a font of ‘knowledge, fraternity, justice and self-confidence’. These are in turn life-giving values that through hard work maximise humans potential for realising the quest for a ‘just, healthy and balanced system’.xii The genius of Islam resides in the telos of a ‘just’ and ‘balanced system’. A balanced system defuses the tension between dualisms such as God/man, this world/the hereafter, Muslim/non-Muslim (or peoples of the Book), community/individual, and theory/practice.
Qutb does not mince his words when it comes to articulating the primacy of Islam as ‘din wa dawlah’ (religion and state), and in terms of visibility and leadership in world (and worldly) affairs. He affirms that there is ‘good’ to be had when Islam assumes a leading role ‘to fashion life according to its own special genius’.xiii There is no doubt in his mind that justice and a balanced society or polity derive from Muslims leading, not following. He regards leadership as intrinsic to Islam. Moreover, he affirms that ‘proving’ and ‘testing’ Islam’s mettle obtains only when assuming responsibility. Thus in his view Islam is predisposed to ‘lead the caravan of life. It cannot be a camp follower.’xiv Perhaps this is no longer the case. Muslims, being today plugged into the international economy, integrated in an international order not of their making, and, of late, as they are being converted to the notion of separation of religion and politics, cannot be but ‘camp followers’.
The issues that shaped Qutb’s thinking more than fifty years agoxv – the ideological standoff with the ‘West’, colonial penetration, Muslim identity – do not seem to feature large in the thinking of current Islamist ideologues. Qutb found both capitalism and communism to be inferior to Islam,xvi with both steeped in materialism. Even when they valorise justice, as did communism, they expunge it of all spiritual content.
In its continuous transformation, Islamism has, thus, shifted emphasis according to time and space, oscillating between phases of confrontation and reconciliation, rejection and accommodation. Some of these shifting emphases include:
The deployment of Islam as a moral and educational medium for raising levels of consciousness and resisting colonialism;
Islam as a medium of resisting secularisation, to the point that sometimes mere political participation in ‘secular’ politics was considered heretical;
Resurgence or sahwah islamiyyah that positioned the question of identity at the heart of the quarrel with national-secular elites and states;
Islamisation of state, society, morality and knowledge, all overlapping agendas that gave rise to transnational rethought Islamisms, recognising authoritarian regimes (what the MB and the PJD did in Egypt in Morocco respectively), and approving of engaging the secular state by equating the Islamic concept of ‘shura’ (consultation) with democracy;
Islamism going hand in hand with revolution, and the emergence of Islamist resistance movements;
The Wahhabi Salafi explosion promoting literalist interpretations of Islam that spread to all corners of the Muslim world;
Intra-Salafi divisions and the rise of intellectual and radical salafisms;
Divisions within moderate Islamisms (for example, in Egypt, Jordan, Sudan), and attendant ‘rationalisation’ of Islamism through adoption of formerly rejected positions such as separation of religion and politics.
End of Political Islam? End of Ideology?
It is too early to confidently state that the shift marks the end of political Islam, because it depends firstly on how one defines political Islam. A strict ideological definition will lead to the conclusion that it is the end of political Islam, in a certain sense. But if one allows for the elasticity of ideas and practice within political Islam, then it is not, but a recognition that Islamists come in all shapes and colours: they are neither fixed nor unitary.
For me, a Tunisian who closely follows the politics of a fledgling democracy, I never cease to remind myself of the enduring legacy of Bourguiba’s secularism. It lives on, and today reshapes Tunisia, including its Islamists. Many Tunisians – including Ennahda sympathisers and members – are left with a big question: was Bourguiba right all along? This is a question Ennahda has to ponder. For, after the tragic experiences of torture, martyrs, exile and suffering, a big volte face on this issue cannot be easy. Was the suffering for nothing at all? Has Ennahda abandoned its original vision that Islam and politics belong to an organic sphere in which they are mutually reinforcing as a matter of conviction or necessity? These are questions that will not disappear for some time.
*This article was originally published on Al Jazeera Centre for Studies website.
iJohn L Esposito and John O Voll, Islam and Democracy (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996).
iiAbou El Fadl, Khaled et al., Islam and the Challenge of Democracy (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2004).
iiiDale Eickelman and James Piscatori, Muslim Politics (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996).
ivAvi Max Spiegel, Young Islam: The New Politics of Religion in Morocco and the Arab World (Princeton, NJ.: Princeton University Press, 2015), pp 177-178.
vAaron Y Zelin, ‘Tunisia: Uncovering Ansar Al-Sharia,’ p 178.
viRachid Khechana, ‘The thorns in the side of Tunisia’s young democratic process,’ Aspen Institute, 25/04/2016, https://www.aspeninstitute.it/aspenia-online/article/thorns-side-tunisias-young-democratic-process.
viiEmmanuel Sivan, ‘Why Radical Muslims Aren’t Taking Over Governments,’ Middle East Review of International Affairs, Vol. 2, No. 2 (1998).
viiiGudrun Krämer, ‘Islamist Notions of Democracy,’ Middle East Report, No. 183 (1993), pp 2-8.
ixJon Alterman, ‘The False Promise of Arab Liberals,’ Policy Review (June/July 2004).
xMichael Georgy and Tom Perry, ‘Special report: As Brotherhood retreats, risks of extremism increase,’ Reuters, 28 October 2013, http://www.reuters.com/article/2013/10/28/us-egypt-brotherhood-special-report-idUSBRE99R0DU20131028.
xiSayyid Qutb, ‘Foreword’ in Sayyed Abul Hasan Ali Al-Nadwi, Islam and the World: The Rise and Decline of Muslims and its Effect on Mankind (Leicester: UK Islamic Academy), p vii.
xiiSayyid Qutb, ‘Foreword’, p vii.
xiiiSayyid Qutb, ‘Foreword’.
xivSayyid Qutb, ‘Foreword’.
xvSayed Khatab, The Political Thought of Sayyid Qutb: The Theory of Jahiliyyah (London: Routledge, 2006).
xviSayyid Qutb, Al-Adalah Al-Ijtima’iyyah fi Al-Islam [Social Justice in Islam] (Cairo: Makatab Masr, 1949). See also, Sayyid Qutb, Ma’rakat Al-Islam wa Al-Ra’smaliyyah [The Battle of Islam and Capitalism] (Cairo: Dar Al-Shuruq, 1975).
By Afro-Middle East Centre
Turkey’s Kurdish question: Historic foundations and contemporary issues
After about eighty years of marginalisation and persecution, Turkey’s Kurdish population had a glimmer of hope for the resolution of the ‘Kurdish question’ through talks between the Justice and Development (AKP) government and the Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) in 2013. The PKK had pursued an armed insurgency against the state since 1984, but proximity talks between Turkish National Intelligence Service and PKK representatives in Oslo in 2009 suggested the possibility of a new dawn. The talks developed into a dialogue with PKK leader and ideologue, Abdullah Ocalan, who had been serving a life sentence in the Imrali Island prison since 1999. In 2013 both sides declared a ceasefire, which substantially held until 2015. In September 2015 Turkey and the armed PKK renewed hostilities, effectively terminating two years of peace talks. Since then, the Turkish military has bombed PKK bases in the Iraqi Qandil Mountains and implemented martial law across Turkey’s Kurdish dominated southeast, as a string of bombings rocked Turkish cities, and an uprising erupted in various Kurdish urban centres.
Numbering between 15 and 20 million, Turkey’s Kurds form the largest part of the Kurdish community, which is split across Kurdish inhabited areas in Syria, Iraq, Iran and parts of the Caucasus. Since the division of these areas following the Second World War, Kurdish groups across this region have called for increased autonomy from central governments, and, often, complete secession that would allow the various parts of the Kurdish community to unite into a new Kurdish state. That discourse has changed over the past few years, with new ideas of democratic autonomy diluting the push for succession which once dominated the Kurdish national movement.
Victims of Ataturk’s nationalist project
After the First World War, with the Ottoman empire divided into several new states, a group of former Ottoman Officers headed by Mustafa Kemal, a charismatic general known among Turkish nationalists as the ‘father’ of modern Turkey, or Ataturk, led the Turkish War of Independence which resulted in the creation of the Republic of Turkey in 1923. In his vision for a secular republican Turkey, Ataturk pursued a programme of social and political reform which included the abolition of Islamic institutions; the introduction of western legal codes, dress, and calendar; and the latinisation of the Turkish language from the Arabic Ottoman alphabet. The reforms formed part of a Turkish nationalist project which championed the primacy of Turkishness over other ethnic identities. Secular Turkish nationalism ensured that development in the Kurdish regions was stymied, and the Kurdish language was banned in public spaces, including schools, resulting in disproportionately high illiteracy levels among Kurds. The effects of this policy persist. The channelling of state development projects to West Turkey resulted in the underdevelopment of the east, which was used as a cheap reservoir of labour. The 1950s were years of major political upheaval for the Kurdish southeast; feudal relations suffered as numerous rural uprisings took place against the state, increasing urbanisation.
Roots and evolution of the PKK
In the 1960s, educated and unionised Kurdish counter-elites gained control of the Kurdish national movement from its more traditional and conservative support base. Years of cultural patronisation and economic neglect stemming from Ankara’s Kemalist socioeconomic policies radicalised Kurdish youth. The combination of socioeconomic factors and renascent Kurdish cultural idioms produced a new Kurdish movement. Soon the leadership began to use a Marxist discourse, mainly within trade union movements – the only legal avenues for Kurdish political thought and action. In 1978 Ocalan and a number of radical Turkish and Kurdish intellectuals established the PKK with the aim of seceding from Turkey and joining with other Kurdish regions to form a Kurdish state – a call which grew stronger among Turkish Kurds after military rule in 1980. In 1984 the PKK’s armed wing, The People’s Liberation Army of Kurdistan (ARKG) began an armed insurgency against the state. Although the armed campaigns enjoyed rural support, there were also Kurds who were opposed this strategy. This section of the Kurdish community was mostly tribal, conservative and religious. Ankara, aware of these fissures, sought to divide support for the PKK through increased urbanisation programmes, and the introduction of a Kurdish paramilitary force known as The Village Guard, ostensibly to protect Kurdish villages from PKK insurgents. Rogue elements in the Turkish security apparatus also provided support to the Turkish Hizbullah (no relation to the Lebanese Hizbullah), a militant Islamist group which fought the PKK, adding another dimension to Kurdish infighting.
Nevertheless, by the 1990s the Turkish state was unable to destroy Kurdish identity and political expression, and the PKK and other armed Kurdish groups were unable to secede from Turkey through armed force. In 1993, following the fall of the Soviet Union, Ocalan began discussing autonomy for the Kurdish regions, promoting self-rule within existing states, and abandoning the notion of secession to create a Kurdish state. This ‘Democratic Confederalism’ project, as he called it, would provide for the development of autonomous sociocultural systems with defined independent economic domains aiming to move away from the central state and parochial nationalism, diversifying governance from the ‘bottom up’, and championing localised governance whilst celebrating ethnic and linguistic difference. The PKK reframed armed resistance as ‘self defence’, and the ARKG changed its name to People’s Defence Forces (HPG). Inserted into the Democratic Confederalism discourse, ‘self-defence’ was a way to address the contradictions between the continued existence of an armed wing, and the official policy of peace.
Kurdish participatory politics
Between 1993 and 2008, Kurds attempted to create political parties which could contest Turkish parliamentary elections. Seven were launched in this period, and all were banned by Turkey’s constitutional court. They also suffered state repression in the form of imprisonment and assassinations. Although some parties had ties to the PKK, many were banned due to their policies of autonomy – consistent with the Democratic Confederalism model – which they attempted to institutionalise in municipalities that their members controlled. Since 2005 the Group of Communities in Kurdistan (KCK), which promotes Democratic Confederalism through assemblies and grassroots participatory politics, has expanded its operations. With a similar objective, the Democratic Society Congress, a brainchild of the Democratic Society Party (DTP) – one of the seven banned parties, was formed in 2007, aiming to further autonomy in Kurdish areas.
By 2007 Kurdish political leaders regarded the hegemonic Kurdish nationalist discourse as the cause for poor performance at the polls, and for consistent legislative attacks from the state. In order to address this, the Peace and Democracy Party (BDP) aligned with twenty socialist parties to form the People’s Democratic Congress (HDK); it won thirty-six seats in the 2011 general elections. In 2013 HDK was given a historic opportunity to push its pluralist agenda to an even broader audience after the Gezi Park protest movement erupted in central Istanbul, driven by objections to gentrification in Istanbul and deteriorating press freedoms. The Gezi Park movement offered the HDK a mouthpiece within Turkish urban centres. In October 2013 the HDK established the People’s Democratic Party (HDP), the most inclusive Kurdish-led political party thus far, which appealed to anti-austerity, socialist and progressive Turks who had found a platform at Gezi.
As Kurdish political parties grew throughout the 1990s, Islamist Turkish parties emerged. The roots of these parties lie deep within the Turkish social fabric, and date back to the founding of Turkish nationalism, when Turkish identity was founded as a derivative of Islam. The military junta played a role in the mid-1980s in laying the ground for the entrance of Islamist political discourse into the fiercely secular Turkish political scene. As part of its attempt to combat the rise of left-wing politics, it introduced ‘Islamisation from above’ policies which included compulsory religious education, and the reopening of religious schools and institutions. More profoundly, it fused Islamic symbols with nationalism in the hope of combating the revolutionary Islamic thought emanating from post-revolutionary Iran. It also introduced deregulation reforms which strengthened the emergence of an Anatolian bourgeoisie which had strong roots in Islamic culture. This, together with the elitism of Kemalist parties, resulted in the emergence of the Welfare Party, the Islamist precursor to the AKP.
In1997 eighteen ‘28 February Recommendations’ by military and Kemalist leaders were issued, designed to stem the growth of Islamism Turkish politics. The military gave the Welfare party-led coalition government an ultimatum over issues regarding secularism and political Islam. A year later the Welfare Party was outlawed. Despite the retaking of the political realm by Turkey’s military elite, the growth and popularity of Islamic politics had been established, and it had captured the imagination of groups of people – particularly conservative or religious Turks and Kurds – who had been marginalised by elitist, secular fundamentalist and nationalist politics. The AKP emerged in 2001 within this context, and secured substantial Kurdish support by utilising the influence of religious Kurdish groups, particularly the Naqshbandi Sufi order. From the 2002 to the 2007 parliamentary election the AKP doubled its support in the southeast due to the support of conservative and religious Kurds.
The 2012 Peace Process
AKP victories at the 2002, 2007 and 2011 elections symbolised the return and victory of Islamist politics within Turkey. These electoral wins were secured partly through consistent support from the southeast, where the Kurdish electorate saw the AKP as the only party willing and able to resolve the Kurdish question and to secure a lasting peace with the PKK. To address the Kurdish issue decisively, the Turkish prime minister and leader of the AKP, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, opened a dialogue with Ocalan and the PKK high command in late 2012. He wanted to finally resolve the problem of Kurdish marginalisation, while securing a diplomatic coup for his party. The PKK claims, cynically and in retrospect, that he also wanted to create a peaceful environment in the run up to the 2014 elections, and to build support for a presidential system in Turkey among Kurds.
The emergence of the HDP as the voice of participatory and radical Kurdish politics, however, challenged the AKP’s position as the sole political force for peace. The HDP could not be ignored in any peace process, and was chosen as a courier between Imrali Island and Ankara, and, at points, to represent Ocalan in negotiations with government. A February 2015 meeting between HDP leaders and the deputy prime minister, Yalcin Akdogan, at the Domalbache Palace resulted in a ten-point roadmap for a final resolution. Erdogan, however, rejected the Domalbache agreement, blaming continuing violence between state security forces and the PKK, and criticising the HDP for not condemning the Kurdish group.
The PKK’s main complaint about the peace process was that it only guaranteed the rehabilitation of PKK fighters, and gave few guarantees regarding demands for autonomy. This strengthened an environment of distrust, intensified when Ankara began building military bases as PKK fighters were withdrawing. As a result of this PKK scepticism, its military units began to return from the Qandil Mountains in 2014, enforcing checkpoints and imposing taxes, resulting in pitched battles between PKK militants and the army, and skirmishes between PKK youth and Kurdish Islamists. By late 2014 the PKK had accused Ankara of negotiating in bad faith, and of marginalising the HDP. This saw an increase in militancy within the PKK and other groups such as the Kurdistan Freedom Falcons (TAK), with them undertaking bombing campaigns and armed attacks. The situation exploded early 2015 with Erdogan’s ambivalence towards the Islamic State group’s siege of the Syrian Kurdish town of Kobane, which was controlled by PKK-affiliated Peoples Protection Units. This perceived complicity in the siege saw two dramatic developments for the tattered Kurdish peace process: the PKK called on youth in the southeast to rise up against the state, and the significant Kurdish vote the AKP had enjoyed gravitated to the HDP and another Kurdish party, Huda Par, in the June 2015 parliamentary election.
Future for Turkey’s Kurdish question
In the subsequent October 2015 elections, the HDP lost a large number of votes to the AKP and lost twenty-one of its eighty parliamentary seats. With armed battles and deep suspicion now characterising the relationship between the PKK and the state, it is unlikely that talks between them will resume anytime soon. In this context, the AKP hopes to solve the Kurdish issue unilaterally, without negotiating with Kurdish representatives.
With the HDP’s loss in the October election, many frustrated Kurds that had been drawn to the party’s participatory narrative became more amenable to PKK militancy. However, the PKK does not enjoy complete support in Kurdish areas, and has made a number of strategic errors in 2015. Its call on urban youth to revolt, for example, failed to attract broad support among Kurds. The instability on the Syrian border, and the emergence of the PKK-linked PYD as a potential power broker in any Syrian solution has complicated the Kurdish question for Ankara. Failure to engage meaningfully with the political forces ranged against it has emboldened those in the PKK who advocate a violent response.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
The Iraqi army’s assault on the city of Fallujah held by the Islamic State group (IS) has ground to a halt in light of fierce house-to-house fighting with IS fighters. The city has been under IS control since January 2014, with 90 000 civilians trapped inside. Some 20 000 civilians fled during the first few weeks of the fighting, which began on 25 May, through IS lines, dodging Iraqi army fire, and even swimming the Euphrates river. In the initial push towards Fallujah, the Popular Mobilisation Forces (Hashd al-Sha'bi) were at the forefront of the battle. These Shi'a militias have been accused of numerous human rights violations against Sunni communities, since their cooption by Baghdad in the fight against IS.
Merely fifty kilometres north of Baghdad, Fallujah is strategically important to the Iraqi capital. IS has used it as a staging ground for infiltrating the capital, and executing attacks that have sapped confidence in the government’s ability to provide security. The manner in which Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi retakes Fallujah and returns it to Baghdad’s authority will serve as the template for the Iraqi army’s impending assault on Mosul, which will be conducted in coordination with Kurdish Peshmerga forces. The battle of Fallujah also represents an internal political issue for Iraq’s Shi'a political class. The successes of the Badr Brigade, a Shi'a militia with strong links to Tehran, in securing Baghdad and beating back IS from Diyala province has provided Badr leader Hadi al-Ameri with significant political capital. Meanwhile the protest movement in Baghdad against corruption and poor service delivery threatens to de-legitimise Abadi’s fledgling government.
The inability of Iraqi forces to coordinate with Sunni tribal leaders – who the government had alienated through heavily sectarian security measures – granted IS the ability to consolidate its control over Fallujah in 2014. In light of the failures leading up to the fall of Fallujah, the government has recently worked to increase coordination with Sunni tribes and militias in battles to retake territory seized by IS since mid-2014. This coordination is a conscious attempt by Abadi to provide a united national front against IS, exemplified through the increasing purchase Sunni tribes and militias have over Baghdad’s approach to retaking Sunni areas. Sunni tribes have called on the government to reign in Popular Mobilisation Forces in the Fallujah assault. Abadi had attempted to hold them on the outskirts of the city. In the days leading up to the current assault, reports of abuses by these forces against Sunni civilians in the liberated areas south of Fallujah prompted Anbar’s Provincial Council to call on ‘sectarian factions [to keep] away from the battle of Fallujah’. In light of these abuses, Abadi also ordered the government to prosecute fighters accused of committing violations.
Within the Shi'a political class, Abadi is on the back foot. The Badr Brigade has become a prominent force within Iraqi politics through its successes against IS. Badr’s political front, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, is poised to become kingmaker in Iraqi elections. This party receives much financial support from Tehran, and uses its control of Diyala province to exhibit its potential as a ruling partner. Meanwhile, the Sadrist camp, led by influential Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, seized upon the May protests in Baghdad’s Green Zone to demand the prime minister changes his cabinet to a technocratic one, eradicates corruption, and enhances service delivery. Sadr and Abadi support the incorporation of the Popular Mobilisation Forces into the Iraqi army, a move opposed by Badr head Ameri. Other militia leaders echo this.
The battle for Fallujah will be a protracted engagement for Iraqi national forces, is becoming increasingly bloody as Iraqi forces get closer to the centre where IS militants are holed up, allegedly using civilians as human shields. Abadi knows that using the militias will grant political points to his rivals. However, these forces have proved effective at clearing and occupying rural zones around contested cities. Abadi thus devised a formula in which Popular Mobilisation Forces are held at the outskirts to prevent IS reinforcements entering the cities, but play no visible role in the liberation of the city. This is a positive development in the battle against IS. The perception of the Iraqi army as liberators in Sunni Fallujah will assist in the pursuit of national unity. Success could guarantee Abadi’s administration the popular support it drastically needs.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
The February 2016 announcement by Moroccan King Mohammed VI that the kingdom intended to upgrade diplomatic ties with South Africa pointed to a recalculation of that country’s national interests. This has mainly been caused by regional factors such as the increase in militancy in the Sahel, and the drop in oil and liquefied natural gas (LNG) prices. In Morocco’s assessment, these factors have helped weaken support for Saharawi independence, and the kingdom believes that its 2007 autonomy plan will soon be accepted as an optimal method of resolving the issue, especially since it has created new facts on the ground. Morocco thus expelled UN civilian monitors in March, and wants to ensure that the mandate of the United Nations’s Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) no longer includes holding a referendum. Moreover, it has stepped up attempts to engage with African countries, such as South Africa and Kenya, which recognise the Saharawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), to gain support for the Moroccan position on the SADR, and lobby the African Union to alter its stance on this issue.
The slowdown in the global – and especially European – economy following the 2008 financial crisis, and the weakening of domestic demand, has also forced Rabat to look toward Sub-Saharan Africa, including South Africa, for economic partnerships. An upgrade in ties between Morocco and South Africa will, however, be of little political consequence. Although bilateral economic opportunities and counter terrorism coordination will likely be facilitated and increase, South Africa will continue its support for the Polisario Front, the Saharawi liberation movement, and its recognition of the SADR, which has an embassy in Pretoria. Morocco hopes economic convergences and increases in bilateral trade will help mitigate these differences.
Relations since 1990
Moroccan-South African relations were formally established in September 1991 after Pretoria established an interest office in Rabat. Morocco reciprocated in April 1992, and both offices were upgraded to embassies in 1994. Earlier, Morocco had supported the anti-apartheid movement and provided diplomatic, military and financial backing to the African National Congress (ANC). Nelson Mandela had travelled to the kingdom in the 1960s to garner support for the anti-apartheid struggle, and received some military training there. Since 2004, however, relations between Pretoria and Rabat have been tense because of ANC support for independence of the SADR, whose territory is claimed by Morocco.
Morocco formally downgraded relations in September 2004 after severely criticising Pretoria’s inauguration of a Saharawi representative office in Pretoria. South Africa believed that it could maintain good relations with both Morocco and the SADR, which it views as independent states. This is similar to South Africa’s position on Israel and Palestine. When the term of South Africa’s ambassador to Rabat ended in 2006, Ashraf Suleiman was appointed to head the South African mission. Rabat ignored the appointment and did not issue South Africa with the necessary agrément (approval). After about a year of waiting, it seems President Thabo Mbeki got the message. He deployed Suleiman elsewhere, and downgraded South Africa’s representation in Rabat to chargé d’affaires level.
At the time, trade between the two countries stood at around 500 million rands annually, with companies such as Eskom and Anglo American benefiting the most. NEXSA (formally the nuclear energy cooperation of South Africa) had been building a facility in Morocco and procuring material to assist in the area of nuclear medicine.
The situation has since changed. A 150-member Moroccan delegation, including the country’s prime minister and foreign minister attended last year’s Africities summit in Johannesburg, and it is probable that diplomatic ties will soon be upgraded to ambassadorial level, following a February announcement by King Mohammed VI of a new ambassador to Pretoria, AbdelKader Chaoui. He is, however, no longer the ambassador-designate because of ill-health, and the king is currently considering a replacement. That Chaoui’s appointment was publicly announced suggests that agreement had been received from Pretoria for the upgrade in ties, and South Africa will likely reciprocate. In a further indication of an upgrade in relations, Royal Air Maroc (Morocco’s national carrier) will soon launch direct flights to South Africa.
Why the change from Rabat
The change in approach is mostly in terms of Morocco’s foreign relations; Pretoria has not altered its positions much from its 2004 decision to recognise the SADR – the main reason for Rabat’s downgrading of relations. Until then, the kingdom had believed that it had the upper hand in attempts to get African states to withdraw recognition of the SADR and its Polisario Front. South Africa’s recognition, unofficial from the ANC’s accession to power in 1994 until 2004, was an obstacle in this process.
Morocco claims Western Sahara, a Spanish colony until 1975, as part of its territory, and has since occupied much of the territory. Morocco also refuses to join international and regional organisations which recognise the independence of the SADR, pulling out of the Organisation of African Unity (OAU) in 1984, and playing little role in other regional bodies on the continent. Pretoria, though, views the Saharawi struggle as the last anti-colonial struggle in Africa, has lobbied international organisations for the Saharawi right to self-determination, and believes that its support for the SADR is integral to a foreign policy guided by human rights imperatives.
Rabat now believes that there is no longer enthusiasm for Saharawi recognition, and that the Polisario’s capabilities are on the wane – because of three key factors. First, the kingdom believes it has created a situation on the ground that makes Saharawi independence less viable than previously. It has conceptualised an autonomy plan that will allow the territory some legislative and judicial powers, but guard Rabat’s control over defence and foreign policy. Certain major powers, such as USA and France, have responded positively to the plan, and have worked with the kingdom to halt opposition to it. France and Senegal (currently a non-permanent UNSC member) have even lobbied to alter MINURSO’s mandate to exclude the hosting of a referendum.
Second, the South Sudan crisis has diluted optimism for independence struggles even amongst European states. No African state has gained independence since Namibia (formally South West Africa) in 1990 with South Sudan’s 2011 recognition being an anomaly. Morocco assesses that many states will reconsider SADR recognition if African heavyweights and the AU accept the 2007 autonomy plan. To date, over thirty of the around eighty-four states that had recognised Western Saharan independence have frozen or/and withdrawn SADR recognition, even though such a move does not comply with the 1933 Montevideo convention on statehood recognition.
Furthermore, the kingdom believes that the increase in weapons proliferation and militancy in the Sahel, largely caused by the NATO-led overthrow of Muammar Gadhdhafi, will increase the tendency for states to favour their own stability over the right to self-determination of others. Morocco has thus been actively engaging with states such as Mali and Mauritania after Gadhdhafi’s ouster, and supported the French 2012-13 Mali intervention. The increasing influence of al-Qa'ida in the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM) in areas around Western Sahara and the group’s recruitment of Saharawi youth convinced Rabat that its assessment of states’ response was correct. Its position received a boost when it was elected to lead the Community of Saharan and Sahelian States’ (CEN-Sad) executive committee in 2013.
Third, Rabat believes that the oil and liquefied natural gas (LNG) price drop has negatively impacted Algeria to the extent that it would be unable to continue supporting Polisario at the same levels as previously. It also believes that Algeria’s succession question will weaken its resolve. The over fifty per cent drop in the oil price between 2014 and 2015 placed immense pressure on Algiers, which sought loans and suspended subsidies. Algeria, however, argues that it remains committed to the Saharawi struggle, and that its economy will weather the oil price crisis.
Sub-Saharan Africa’s economic opportunities
For Morocco, Sub-Saharan Africa represents a significant market for its industries. Although previously relying on Europe for over sixty per cent of its exports and for foreign direct investment, the 2008 financial crisis and subsequent increase in competitiveness of Eastern European states placed pressure on this export potential. Under Mohammed VI the kingdom thus looked southwards, backed by Moroccan companies which possess a competitive advantage in many industries such as banking, construction and electricity generation. Domestic demand within Morocco has stagnated, increasing by a mere 2.4 per cent from around six per cent in 2011, and the free trade agreement with the US failed to realise an increase in trade.
The rest of Africa still however remains third in Morocco’s foreign relations priorities, after Europe and the USA. Moreover, even though trade between the Kingdom and the rest of the continent has increased in recent years, it only comprises around five per cent of overall Moroccan trade. Moroccan exports to sub-Saharan Africa tripled from around 250 million dollars in 2000 to over 840 million in 2010, and foreign direct investment from Morocco to the rest of the continent has doubled to around 500 million dollars in 2010 from 250 million just two years earlier. Focal sectors include banking, agriculture and pharmaceuticals. Airline diplomacy, cultural ties, and counter terrorism cooperation have been used to strengthen ties with francophone West African states such as Senegal and Cote d’Ivoire. King Mohammed VI has himself increased his visits to West and Central Africa, and concluded treaties on eliminating double taxation and reducing tariffs.
With this change in approach, Morocco is also increasing its diplomatic clout and activities in multilateral organisations. Apart from its leadership role in CEN-SAD, it was elected to the UN Security Council in 2012 as a non-permanent member. As such, it successfully prevented the UN from extending its Western Sahara mandate to include human rights monitoring. Morocco also regards conflict resolution as an important component guiding its foreign policy, and it attempted to mediate between various parties following the failed coup in Guinea (2010), and acted as a mediator to smooth US relations with Mauritania after the 2008 coup there. Furthermore, the recent agreement to form a unified Libyan government, which resulted in the Government of National Accord, was partly driven by Morocco, and signed in the Moroccan resort city of Skhirat.
The Kingdom is keen to restore its African Union seat, but will rejoin the AU only if the SADR’s recognition is revoked. While the AU’s Constitutive Act does not permit the de-recognition of a state, the act can be amended to allow for this, and there is a precedent in this regard. At the founding of the OAU in 1963, the Portuguese protectorate of Kabinda was recognised as the thirty-ninth African state still to be decolonised, and Angola the thirty-fifth. However, when Angola gained independence in 1975, the OAU recognised the incorporation of Kabinda into Angola despite Kabindan opposition. For any such attempt by Morocco, South African support will be crucial, partly because of Pretoria’s clout in Southern Africa, and because it is one of the ‘big five’ members of the African union.
Impact on Morocco-South Africa relations
it is within this context that Morocco is looking to upgrade relations with Pretoria and return them to ambassadorial level. Chaoui, named by Mohammed VI as the new ambassador to South Africa, is a former dissident who spent fifteen years in jail for belonging to the Leninist ‘March 23’ movement. Released in 1990, he joined the justice ministry, and is currently the ambassador to Chile. It is probable that Chaoui was strategically selected because of his dissident credentials and favourable reputation amongst Moroccan opposition parties, which Morocco would have hoped would endear him to Pretoria. His replacement will likely have similar credentials. However, it is inconceivable that any ambassador to South Africa will have a different position on the SADR than Rabat; most political parties and politicians operating in Morocco, those supporting and those opposing the monarchy, support the king’s claims over Saharawi territory.
The participation of a large delegation – with the largest exhibition stand – to the Africities summit in Johannesburg in November 2015 was not coincidental. Morocco’s attendance was to garner support for its stance on Saharawi independence, and to exhibit its local government-decentralisation model. Yet the country’s foreign minister, Salaheddine Mezouar, met with South Africa’s Maite Nkoana-Mashabane. It is likely that Chaoui’s appointment and Pretoria’s reciprocation was a key issue discussed.
The upgrading of diplomatic ties and recently-announced direct flights between Morocco and South Africa will have mainly economic implications. Opportunities for investments for both South African and Moroccan companies will increase. This is especially pertinent because they are the two largest investors in the continent. South African companies, especially in the areas of retail, finance and mining, have been very active on the continent, while Morocco’s banks have replaced much of the French continental banking investments following the 2008 economic collapse. In 2015 South Africa’s largest insurer, Sanlam, acquired around thirty per cent of Moroccan insurer Saham Finances in a five billion rand deal that will allow Sanlam to have a foothold in the largely untapped and lucrative Francophone West African market. South African trade statistics already show an increase in bilateral trade from around thirty four million rand in 1992, when the interest office was established, to over four billion in 2015. The tripling of exports from South Africa to Morocco from 1.2 billion in 2014 to over 3.2 billion in 2015, and the quadrupling of imports from Morocco to over one billion in 2014 from around 270 million the previous year point to increasing economic convergences. It is thus not surprising that Morocco’s reading of the change in the SADR situation prompted it to reconsider its diplomatic relations with South Africa.
The political consequences will, however, be minimal. The upgrade might strengthen continental counter terrorism cooperation, which Morocco is keen on. However, South Africa’s stance on the SADR is unlikely to change. Pretoria has been emphatic on the issue, and altering its position will undermine its soft power, hegemonic aspirations and its moral authority on the continent. Pretoria is also unlikely to support Moroccan attempts to lobby the AU to change its position regarding SADR recognition. South Africa’s close ties with Algeria will ensure that it will defer to Algeria’s position on the SADR, which is unlikely to change even with the current budget crunch and succession battle. If Rabat seeks better diplomatic relations with South Africa while ignoring Pretoria’s recognition of the SADR, the upgrade in relations will be successful; however, if the kingdom expects to move Pretoria’s position on the SADR, it will likely fail. Economic convergences can mitigate these differences, and bilateral relations will likely improve in the short- to medium-term.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
A French initiative to revive the ‘peace process’ between Israel and the Palestinians will kick off at a foreign ministers’ conference in Paris on Friday, 3 June. It will bring together around twenty countries including the USA, Russia, and South Africa, as well as the European Union, UN Security Council, and the Arab League in a multilateral attempt to refocus attention on a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine, which the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs says is vitally important to stem violence and ensure peace.
The initiative, was first proposed by then French foreign minister Laurent Fabius in January 2016. Neither Palestinians nor Israelis have been invited to Friday’s conference, but both will be included at a later stage.The French hope to mobilise external parties to meet to utilise international law and UN resolutions to develop a blueprint for future negotiations that will then be presented to the two protagonists. This week’s meeting will discuss issues such as the nature of a future Palestinian state (with the 1967 borders as the basis), Palestinian refugees, natural resources (especially water resources in the West Bank), and the status of Jerusalem. French foreign minister Jean-Marc Ayrault hopes it will establish an international support group comprising of the UNSC, the EU, members of the Arab League and other countries.
Although a French project, the Paris Initiative represents the EU policy that supports a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinians. In pursuance of this policy, the EU has been more strident than the USA with strategies attempting to reach that objective, such as the labelling of consumer goods sourced from the illegal Israeli settlements, and funding for nascent Palestinians state institutions.
Palestinians are divided on whether to support the Paris initiative. The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) officially supports it, and regards it as of paramount importance for Palestinian statehood. PLO chairperson Mahmoud Abbas even met President Zuma in Cape Town to encourage South Africa’s participation. However, that sentiment is not universal among Palestinians, or even within the PLO, and reflects the dominance of Abbas and his Fatah faction in the organisation. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP) has rejected the initiative, viewing it as a pretext to undermine the right of return of Palestinian refugees, and Hamas regards it as a ruse to allow Israel time to expand its settlement enterprise.
For Abbas, whose obsession with negotiations as the only means to realise Palestinian aspirations has proved to have been misplaced, and whose hope that the USA will help reach a resolution has been dashed, leaving him with no strategic space to manoeuvre, Paris is yet another opportunity to give his strategy a chance. To emphasise how important they believe the French initiative is, some Palestinian Authority officials have threatened that if it fails they will embark on a more concerted effort to refer Israel to the International Criminal Court (ICC). Yet their delaying the submission of a resolution on settlements to the UN Security Council, and repeatedly delaying and hesitating about the laying of charges at the ICC suggests this is another empty threat.
Israel is much more unequivocal, and has flatly rejected the initiative. This position has been strengthened as the Israeli governing coalition becomes more right-wing, and includes racists who not only resolutely refuse any possibility of a Palestinian state, but would also prefer Israel used any means to rid itself of the Palestinians it occupies. Israel also knows from experience that its rejectionism can be wielded with great strength, which will be used against France, whose volte-face on a UNESCO resolution in April that attacked Israel’s control over East Jerusalem suggests that France could yield to Israeli pressure even without Israeli participation. This despite Ayrault’s threat that if the Paris initiative fails France will recognise a Palestinian state.
The Arab League has endorsed the French project, but its members are unlikely fully to use their diplomatic pressure, being more concerned with other crises in the Arab world, such as events in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Although US Secretary of State John Kerry will attend the Paris conference, the USA is yet to explicitly back the plan, and has been somewhat reserved on the initiative, primarily due to Washington’s perception that it should take the lead in any Israeli-Palestinian ‘peace process’. Nevertheless, the participation of Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov does add considerable weight to the talks.
Not much, however, should be expected from the conference or the process that might follow. The weakness of the Palestinians, as a fractured disharmonious political force, and the diplomatic, military and economic strength of Israel means that even without their presence at the initial talks, the initiative will ultimately favour the Israeli line as western powers, in particular, dilute any real strategies in order to appease Israel. Tel Aviv torpedoed the 2013-2014 Kerry initiative, which also claimed to be based on international law, was driven by the most powerful member of the UNSC, and favoured Israel from the outset. The latest initiative does not come with unequivocal support of Israel’s greatest ally, the USA, or with unified international pressure on Israel.
By Steven Friedman
An assault on democracy has begun in the United States of America and Europe. Its source is not the ‘Islamic fundamentalism’ that is regularly branded a threat to democracy, or right-wing demagogues who use fear of immigrants and radical Islam to foment hate. It comes, rather, from the mainstream of these societies.
Legislatures, courts and university governors in the liberal democracies of the global North are being used to close down the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign, which seeks to use non-violent pressure to alter the behaviour of the Israeli state. The campaign to muzzle BDS is a stark contravention of the self-image of these societies, which routinely claim that love of freedom sets them apart from those who campaign against them. The campaign against BDS has been described as the greatest threat to free speech in the West today. And yet it has been met with silence by mainstream opinion.
The attack on BDS is not an isolated example: for well over a decade, it has been clear that the liberal democracy that these countries are eager to export – sometimes by waging war – does not extend to Palestinians and those who sympathise with them. Academics in these countries who zealously study and support the extension of liberal democracy to all show no interest in whether Palestinians have this right, and some are actively hostile to their exercising it.
Of course, measures to suppress or outlaw BDS are a response to pressure from the Israeli state, which has adopted its own measures to suppress boycott activity. But Israel is not a liberal democracy – it is an ethno-nationalist state. There is no such thing as Israeli nationality in Israeli law: citizens are classified as Jewish or non-Jewish. Western democracies’ embrace of anti-democratic measures to defend the Israeli state is, by contrast, a denial of the values that these states publicly proclaim.
Palestine is thus the scandal of western democracy and the academic theories that sustain it.1 It is an unacknowledged blind spot, which makes all of western democratic deed and thought open to the charge that it is not a doctrine of universal freedom but a means to justify dominance. If ‘universal’ values do not apply to everyone they are simply cultural biases. As long, therefore, as democratic values and rights are off limits to Palestinians, western democracy will be open to the charge that its ‘freedoms’ are a prejudice, a means by which the powerful chain the weak. Palestine is thus the litmus test of western democracy and its advocates, a test that they currently fail. As long as advocates of western democracy exclude one group of people from its rights, its claim to speak for all humanity will lack credibility.
All the actions to suppress BDS use the same fig leaf: anti-Semitism. Because it might not be defensible to justify abridging democracy to protect the Israeli state purely on the grounds that it is a western ally, measures against BDS are usually justified as action against anti-Jewish racism. This endorses a deeply undemocratic and possibly racist notion – that anti-Zionism is anti-Semitism. This rallying cry of the Zionist right is designed to demonise criticism of the Israeli state by labelling it a disguised form of prejudice against Jews. It advances the untenable idea that opposition to a political ideology is also hostility to an ethnic group. No political ideology enjoys the unanimous support of any ethnic group – to say that an entire group endorses the same ideology is to insult it by implying that its members are incapable of independent thought. It is also anti-democratic because it delegitimises difference – it implies that any Jew who is not Zionist is not a Jew.
A second rationale for suppressing BDS, advanced repeatedly on US campuses, is that this is necessary to ensure that campuses are ‘safe places’ – despite the fact that there are no published instances of BDS activists directly threatening anyone with violence, let alone actually using it. This may reflect and seek to manipulate deep Jewish fears as well as a more general fear of Muslims (who might be assumed to behind BDS even though most activists are not Muslim and many are Jewish). A core rationale of Zionism has been the assumption that Jews are always under threat of violence and need their own state to protect themselves. The notion of BDS as violent expresses the Zionist view that opponents of the Israeli state are inherently violent, even if their only weapons are words, and also seeks to manipulate Jewish students into fearing threats to their safety when none exist.
There are two types of action against BDS. The one shows insensitivity to Palestinian rights but is not necessarily anti-democratic, while the other breaches democracy. In the first category are statements of government opposition to BDS, even when backed by law. The most important example is the 2015 US law, the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act, which make preventing boycotts of Israel a ‘principal trade negotiating objective’ of the USA. This commits the US government to a political preference but does not require it to act against those who hold the opposing view. The second category does infringe those rights since it actively seeks to suppress people’s voice or their choices or both.
A summary of anti-BDS actions published by the Palestine National BDS Committee confirms that the most repressive anti-BDS measures have been implemented in France where a nineteenth-century law is used to criminalise BDS: more than thirty activists have faced criminal charges for participation in nonviolent BDS advocacy. One was arrested for wearing a BDS T-shirt. Prime Minister Manuel Valls recently said he would discuss with the Ministry of Interior further measures to repress BDS activism.
In the USA, anti-BDS bills or resolutions have been introduced in twenty-one states and in the Congress, while universities have also been seeking ways to curb BDS. Most US measures have stopped short of suppressing BDS, but they curtail democratic rights in other ways. The emphasis is on using public funds to deter BDS activity: the New York State Senate cut 485 million US dollars to senior colleges in the City University of New York system despite a speech by a legislator who said that her (Jewish) husband was a CUNY professor, and ‘he has never brought home to me any concerns about anti-Semitism’. Universities also act against BDS activity as part of a wider clamp down on support for Palestinian rights: Palestine Legal, a US-based group, reports that action against campus BDS activity includes administrative sanctions, censorship, intrusive investigations, restriction of advocacy and criminal prosecutions. American companies are barred from cooperating with ‘state-led’ boycotts of Israel; this violates their right to take decisions and therefore abridges their right to engage freely in economic activity.
The British government has also avoided removing the civil liberties of BDS campaigners. However, its proposed measures violate democratic principle in another way – by barring local councils and other public bodies from supporting BDS. This breaches the democratic principle that an elected government should be entitled to take any decision that it believes represents the will of the voters. Canada has not yet taken action to restrict BDS, but there are well-founded fears that it may do this: officials have threatened criminal prosecution against anyone supporting boycotts against Israel.
Liberal democracy in peril
A relentless, well-funded campaign by the Israeli state to suppress BDS activism has, therefore, attracted willing support in major western countries.
In varying degrees, this has prompted them to violate rights: even a core American value – the right of businesses to manage their property in the way they see fit – is considered dispensable in this rush to support the Israeli state. Rights are not absolute in liberal democracies – they can be abridged when exercising them infringes the rights of others or when the security of the state is said to be threatened. But there is nothing in liberal theory that allows for suppressing free speech and association on behalf of a foreign state when those who oppose the actions of that state do not threaten the state imposing the restriction.
The spurious claim that these actions are aimed at anti-Semitism further undermines the good faith of liberal democracy. While it presents itself as a philosophy of freedom, its critics argue that it is meant to preserve the freedoms of some at the expense of others – liberalism, argues one of its critics, has always distinguished between the ‘civilised’ and the ‘barbarian’. Equating BDS with anti-Semitism and violence neatly fits this negative portrayal of liberalism: it stigmatises a fight for universal human rights, and critics will note that western democracies’ supposed enthusiasm for outlawing anti-Semitism does not extend to anti-black racism or hostility towards Muslims, indigenous people and others who suffer racial bigotry.
The attack on BDS seems to confirm that western democracies are only interested in protecting the rights of some against the supposed onslaught of others and that whether or not you are protected is related to your race, creed and culture. The effect is to demolish the credibility of liberal democracy as a guarantor of the rights of all and to portray it as a view of the world and a system of government that recognises the rights only of those who do not offend the sensibilities of the dominant group for which these rights are really meant.
Palestine is a scandal for liberalism and its version of democracy not only because the reaction to it in the West is born of cultural prejudice, not concern for the rights of all. It is this also because of the depth and the width of the consensus that supports it: it is impossible to see the belief in liberal democracy’s blindness to Palestinian rights as a distortion or only a particular interpretation when it is embraced by virtually the entire liberal spectrum and includes academics and activists whose interest is democracy promotion, extending to every human being the rights and systems of government that are said to be enjoyed by the citizens of Western Europe and North America.
As evidence that the suppression of BDS is of no concern to democracy promoters, we can look at a decade-old example of this double standard in action – the rejection by North America and Western Europe of a 2006 Palestinian election deemed free and fair by observers because the winning party, Hamas, was considered hostile to western (and Israeli) interests: democracy promoters ignored this obvious violation of the Palestinians’ right to choose. It is routine for democracy promotion academics to monitor or analyse democratic progress around the world without allowing at all for the Palestinians’ right to govern themselves or to be free of attacks on their rights – in many of these exercises, Israel is listed as a democratic country, and analysis assumes (by omission) that only Jews are its citizens. Activist academics in the United States who doggedly work to bring Latin American rights abusers to book actively support the Israeli state or never mention it as an abuser. It is an unwritten assumption of democracy promoters that all people are entitled to democratic government and rights as long as they are not Palestinian.
Conclusion: The sense of the scandal
Why is it important that the suppression of BDS – and of Palestinian rights generally – makes liberal democracy appear as a cultural prejudice masquerading as a charter for the rights of all?
Support for the Palestinian cause, and for BDS, is usually associated in the mainstream with Muslims or the political left, the two groups who have been most vocal on this issue. While Muslims and left-wingers have as much right to be heard as anyone else, the effect is to relegate Palestinian rights to the outer margin of society, exempting the Israeli state from the human rights scrutiny that impedes other rights abusers.
If we understand the suppression of Palestinian rights as a scandal of liberal democracy, suppressing BDS or resisting the Palestinians’ right to democracy and freedom is not a refusal to be ordered around by Muslims and leftists – it is a refusal to honour the principles the West itself proclaims and is therefore a threat to the credibility and even perhaps the survival of liberal democracy. The more this point is placed at the forefront of Palestine solidarity campaigns, the more difficult will it be to relegate the Palestinian cause to the margins.
Supporters of the Palestinian fight for recognition are more likely to be heard if they centre their campaigns on the gap between what the western mainstream says and what, in Palestine, it does: this is unlikely to influence governments and the democracy promoters who provide them with an intellectual rationale – but it could make sense to many citizens who, because they are more removed from power may be less inclined to see the values proclaimed by western states as a useful political device rather than a deeply held principle. Portraying the suppression of BDS – and Palestinian rights – as a scandal of liberal democracy frames the Palestinian fight for freedom as a cause to which many in the West can relate rather than one that requires them to leave behind their cultural roots. It turns the language of the campaign into one that citizens of the West understand and so offers a route out of marginalisation.
1 For philosophers, a scandal is a glaring weakness to which thinkers are blind or which they choose to ignore. The term may originate with Immanuel Kant, who found it scandalous that philosophy had not found a rational proof of the existence of the external world. See for example Luigi Caranti Kant and the Scandal of Philosophy: The Kantian critique of Cartesian Scepticism (Toronto, University of Toronto Press, 2007).
* Professor Steven Friedman is the Director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at Rhodes University and the University of Johannesburg, South Africa.
*This article was originally published on Al Jazeera Centre for Studies website.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
Protests by Egypt’s main journalist syndicate and Egyptians previously loyal to the military regime point to increasing opposition to President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi and his regime, and to their inability or unwillingness to scale down their repression of citizens.
The most recent protests were sparked by the police’s storming of the journalist syndicate’s Cairo headquarters and the arrest of journalists Amr Badr and Mahmoud el-Sakka. They were accused of inciting protests against Sisi’s April 2016 decision to hand over the islands of Sanafir and Tiran to Saudi Arabia. The decision was widely criticised by Egypt’s elite and media. Ironically, one of the ‘reasons’ cited for the military coup against former president Mohamed Morsi was the (false) claim that he intended transferring control of North Sinai to the Palestinian resistance group Hamas. Badr and el-Sakka had opposed the unpopular island transfer, which saw thousands protesting and 1 200 arrested. Over 150 protesters were subsequently sentenced to between two- and five-year prison terms for the protests, which violated the November 2013 protest law adopted to quell dissent after Morsi’s ouster. Even former Sisi supporters, including Popular Current Party’s Hamdeen Sabahi, challenged the island decision in court, and it is likely that opposition will increase further if parliament ratifies the handover.
The May protests follow a pattern of increasing dissatisfaction with Sisi’s policies, which have failed to stimulate an economy that contracted in 2015. Inflation currently stands at eleven per cent, and the much- touted eight billion dollar Suez Canal expansion project only marginally increased government revenue, owing to the global economic slowdown and drop in oil prices. Shortages of cooking gas and electricity continue, and the drop in foreign reserves has caused the government to tighten exchange controls, especially since Gulf aid has diminished following the accession to power of King Salman in Saudi Arabia. Further, the military has aggressively increased its already numerous activities in Egypt’s economy, thus competing with private business. Egypt’s elite has been impacted, and Sisi has come under increasing criticism from private media outlets and commentators. His popularity has decreased drastically.
The protests have been endorsed by over 3 000 members of Egypt’s 8 000-member journalist syndicate, including editors of most major private and even state-owned media outlets. Supported by the previously apolitical doctors’ syndicate, which opposes the interior ministry’s treatment of doctors, protesters have demanded the removal of the country’s interior minister, Magdy Abdel Ghaffar. The syndicate has refused to publish the minister’s name until an apology from Sisi is received, and has vowed to escalate actions into a full-blown strike in the coming weeks.
Traditional opposition parties such as the Muslim Brotherhood and activist youth groups such as the April 6 Youth Movement have added their voices, and for the first time since seizing power, Sisi faces a backlash from most major Egyptian constituencies. Prior to the large 15 and 25 April protests, the frequency of and attendance at anti-regime protests had been waning when compared to late 2013; however, the island transfer has galvanised many Egyptians. It seems even some officials in the interior ministry are sympathetic, and memos alluding to methods of regime discourse manipulation and instructions on constraining protests have been leaked. Much of the media had previously supported the regime, and endorsed Sisi’s crackdown on the Brotherhood, enabling him to control public discourse and silence opposition figures.
The regime responded by increasing its crackdown on opposition figures, including journalists, insisting in one leaked memo, that it ‘cannot retreat from this position now; a retreat would mean a mistake was made, and if there was a mistake who is responsible and who is to be held to account?’ Sisi has, in recent months. sought to silence opposition even from the supportive elite, insisting that it threatened the country’s stability. He even implored Egyptians in one speech to listen only to him.
In January 2016, the Al-Nadeem Centre for Rehabilitation of Victims of Violence in Cairo reported ‘195 deaths, 42 cases of torture, including eight people who were tortured to death, 60 cases of medical neglect, 20 cases of group violence by the police, and 66 forced disappearances, while 32 people were reported to have reappeared in various places of detention, in some cases months after they had vanished.’ Authorities subsequently shut down Al-Nadeem in February. It is noteworthy that the sentences issued to recent protesters are less punitive than those issued to people believed to be close to the banned Brotherhood. Six people, including three journalists (two from Al Jazeera) were sentenced to death on 7 May, accused of ‘leaking information to Qatar’.
Although opposition to the regime has increased, the regime remains unthreatened in the short term, especially since many Egyptians are content with the ‘stability’ Sisi’s rule brings. Moreover, the internal opposition is too fragmented, and the regime crackdown too heavy-handed to allow for the formation of a unified and coordinated stance. Moreover, many from within the Egyptian left and secularists are still prejudiced against the role of Islamists, specifically the Brotherhood, in a new dispensation, and are likely to advocate reform rather than revolution. The protests do, however, illustrate that Egyptians’ aspirations and expectations have grown since Mubarak’s overthrow, and that if Sisi’s policies to stimulate the economy continue to fail, Egyptians are unlikely to allow him the same amount of leeway as was afforded Mubarak, especially since the regime no longer operates from behind a liberal veneer.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
The International Syria Support Group (ISSG) met in Vienna on 17 May to discuss the ongoing civil war in Syria. The group of seventeen countries, chaired by the USA and Russia, is tasked with devising a diplomatic solution to the war afflicting Syria since 2011, which has killed between 250 000 and 400 000 people. This week’s meeting was mostly concerned with humanitarian assistance to areas still under siege, and with the internationally endorsed ceasefire that began on 27 February, through Security Council Resolution 2268. These points had been part of the measures agreed upon in order to restart negotiations between the Syrian regime of Bashar al-Asad, and the Syrian opposition, represented by the Higher Negotiations Committee (HNC).
The withdrawal of the HNC from UN-brokered talks on 20 April set back weeks of shuttle diplomacy by UN special envoy Stefan de Mistura. Continued violations of the ceasefire and questions concerning Asad’s future – which the regime, Moscow and Tehran insist is not under discussion – were perceived by the HNC as Asad negotiating in bad faith.
The Vienna meeting was different from previous meetings in February when there was great optimism that talks would recommence. The ISSG reiterated the need for the 1 August deadline for the implementation of Security Council Resolution 2254 to be met ‘at an appropriate time’. In the strongest worded statement from the ISSG yet, it was noted that failure to adhere to the ceasefire would be followed by the removal of its legal protection to those party to it. Saudi Arabia commented that if the ceasefire were to fail it might provide the rebels with heavier arms, including surface-to-air missiles. While US State Department officials echoed this comment, US Secretary of State John Kerry, eager not to alienate Russia, omitted this possibility in public.
An ISSG meeting in March had guaranteed humanitarian assistance to areas under siege. Since then, limited UN humanitarian aid has been airlifted to Deir ez-Zor – besieged by the Islamic State group (IS); and aid convoys have passed through government-controlled areas to rebel-held territory in Idlib province, which previously faced drastic shortages of food and medicine. Since the ceasefire began in February, the International Committee of the Red Cross and the Syrian Arab Red Crescent have delivered assistance to 255 000 people in besieged areas and 473 000 people in hard-to-reach areas. However, continued fighting between regime forces and their allies, aided by Russian airstrikes, on the one hand, and rebel groups on the other has made aid delivery into Aleppo and the Idlib countryside extremely difficult. Difficulty has also been experienced getting aid to the outskirts of Damascus, and there are reports of starvation in the suburb of Daraya.
After the Vienna meeting the ISSG said the UN plan for ‘priority humanitarian deliveries’ in June, as stipulated in UNSC Resolution 2254, should progressively be built upon until aid can be delivered throughout the country. Kerry noted that he and his Russian counterpart, Sergey Lavrov, would coordinate airdrops to areas blocked by Asad’s forces if Damascus did not facilitate aid deliveries. This is an admission of the failure of previous aid declarations, and an indication that even Asad’s Russian backers are concerned about his regime ignoring agreements. The difficulty of aid delivery is linked to the 27 February ceasefire which allowed Russian and Syrian aircraft to continue striking areas controlled by IS, al-Qa'ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra, and allied groups. Due to increased pressure on various rebel groups, particularly in Aleppo, many rekindled or forged alliances with Jabhat al-Nusra, a fact which was used by the Russians to bomb these groups, resulting in massive destruction on civilian areas in these groups’ control.
The USA, currently moving towards an election, will not push for drastic changes, and thus will play the role of junior chair of the ISSG over the coming months. The current ceasefire allows continued bombing of areas in a state of flux, changing hands between rebel groups. Until a more comprehensive ceasefire is endorsed, the violence will continue. The latest ISSG meeting raised less expectations than previous meetings did, indicating that the real negotiations on the fate of the political transition in Syria will take place elsewhere.
This paper examines the reasons for the military steadfastness of the Islamic State group (IS) in the face of local and international forces that are larger in numbers and equipped with more and better weaponry. The paper is divided into three sections. The first reviews some security and military studies that explain the reasons behind the success, or steadfastness, of militarily weaker players in the face of stronger parties. The second focuses on IS’s military capabilities and ways of using its power tactically and strategically. The final section discusses the crisis in the Arab political environment, contradictions in the strategy to combat IS, and the implications of such actions. The paper concludes that while defeating IS militarily may temporarily treat a symptom of the political crisis in the region, the roots will remain valid.i
After more than seven months of the US-led air campaign against IS, and following a multiplicity of ground attacks by various parties, even opposing ones, the group remains able not only to survive but also to expand. This puzzling result emerges despite the group’s lack of numbers and materiel compared to those of its enemies, and despite its great losses since early 2015.
In June 2015, the US Deputy Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, confirmed that coalition air strikes in Syria and Iraq had destroyed more than 6 200 IS targets and killed more than 10 000 of its fighters since the strikes commenced in September 2014. In December 2015 the Pentagon updated those estimates to more than 8 600 attacks by the US Air Force alone, comprising of more than 28 000 bombs in its raids in Iraq and Syria. That’s about sixty bombs and seventeen air attacks daily for nearly a year and a half.ii The Pentagon estimated the death toll of IS fighters during the last seventeen months at 20 000 people, while it did not recognise any killing of civilians with the exception of six people killed by ‘mistake’.iii In December 2015, US President Barak Obama estimated that IS had lost forty per cent of its territory in Iraq,iv while other reports issued by military research centres specialising in intelligence analysis estimated that the group had lost fourteen per cent of its territory (12 800 square kilometres) in Iraq and Syria from January to December 2015.v
Despite losses in Ramadi, Tikrit, Baiji, the countryside of Hasaka, and some towns and villages around Raqqa, Homs and Hama, the organisation has not collapsed. This is contrary to what was suggested by the balance of forces on the ground, or any conventional military analysis that took those views into account.
It is interesting to compare IS with the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Ba'ath Party in Iraq. The former lost control of its capital, Kandahar, within two months of air strikes by the US-led international coalition and opposition forces loyal to the coalition. The latter lost control of its capital, Baghdad, less than a month and a half after the Anglo-American invasion began in March 2003. However, after nearly a year and a half of strikes by an international coalition consisting of more than sixty countries, IS dominates in both its capitals, Mosul in Iraq and Raqqa in Syria. During 2014 and 2015, the organisation expanded and remained on land stretching from parts of the Syrian Aleppo province to parts of the Iraqi Salah al-Din province, an area 650 kilometres in width.
This area includes large parts of the provinces of Anbar, Ninewa, Kirkuk, Diyala and Salah al-Din in Iraq, as well as large parts of Raqqa, Hasaka, Deir al-Zor, Aleppo, Homs and Damascus in Syria. The organisation had also conquered the suburb of Al-Hajar al-Aswad and large parts of Yarmouk refugee camp in Damascus by late 2015, and it had reached within five kilometres of Umayyad Square in central Damascus. These areas (or ‘provinces’, according to the groups’ administrative-geographic division) are home to an estimated ten million people. In addition, the organisation has control or influence – through advancing and retreating – in parts of central and eastern Libya (Sirte and Bin Jawad), north-eastern Nigeria, eastern Afghanistan (especially Nangarhar), Egypt (northeastern Sinai) and other areas.
The smaller group: How to succeed militarily
Since the last quarter of the twentieth century, the military capabilities of armed opposition groups against states and governments have risen steadily. Many military and security studies have documented a significant increase in the success of these groups against existing state authorities or the authorities’ inability to defeat these groups, which are much weaker than other groups in terms of resources and numbers. This is a significant change from the prevailing historical pattern. For example, a study of 286 armed rebellions between 1800 and 2005 showed that ruling authorities won only twenty-five per cent of the battles with armed revolutionary organisations between 1976 and 2005. This can be compared to success in ninety per cent of battles with armed rebels between 1826 and 1850.vi The RAND Corporation, partially funded by the US Pentagon, reached a similar conclusion in a study of eighty-nine internal armed conflicts, stating that regular armed forces triumphed in twenty-eight cases (thirty-one per cent), irregular forces won in twenty-six cases (twenty-nine per cent), and there were mixed outcomes in nineteen cases (two per cent, including cases of political negotiation or geographical division). The rest can be summarised as cases of continuous conflictsvii – i.e., regular armed forces of the ruling authority were defeated, failed to win or have been continuously fighting – in sixty-nine per cent of studied cases (mostly in the second half of the last century).
Security and military studies provide a range of explanations of the reasons for the military success, or steadfastness, of weaker entities in the face of more powerful entities – whether international alliances, individual countries or non-state actors such as armed institutions (i.e., factions of the regular army or armed revolutionary organisations). Most explanations and the theories they build upon have focused on rugged geography and complexities of topography, popular support factors of various types (populist, ethnic, sectarian, regional, religious, intellectual/ideological) and international military support for the weaker party, as well as the military tactics and strategies of the conflicting parties.
Mao Zedong, the supreme theorist of modern revolutionary war, shed some light on the local population’s loyalty to any successful armed resistance, whether against tyranny or colonialism: ‘The guerilla must move amongst the people as fish swim in the sea.’viii The US Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, based primarily on experiences in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, with an intensive study of other cases, reached the same conclusion, emphasising that conflict between a regular soldier and an insurgent is a ‘loyalty contest’ to co-opt the general public which is mostly not in favour of the warring parties. Therefore, success in the fight against an insurgency requires winning the hearts and minds of a neutral public.ix There exists a near consensus among strategic military specialists in revolutionary war studies that when a local population is brutally treated by regular forces this aids irregular combatants in recruitment, collecting resources and validating their legitimacy. General Stanley McChrystal, former leader of US forces in Afghanistan, referred to this relationship as ‘insurgent math’. ‘Every innocent civilian killed by regular forces generates ten new fighters against them,’ he suggested.x
Military explanations that focus on geography and its complexities are numerous and varied. James Fearon and David Laitin confirm in a well-known study that geography is one of four critical variables in situations of successful armed rebellion.xi Sun Tzu, the renowned Chinese military commander and philosopher, also considered it as one of five critical factors in any type of armed conflict. Mao wrote that guerilla wars were more effective in large countries where it was easy to strike regular forces’ supply lines with small numbers and at low cost. As Neil McCauley showed, hundreds of left-wing revolutionary fighters of several nationalities could defeat a regular army of 40 000 troops during the 1950s Cuban revolution by using rugged terrain to turn the military balance in their favour. The well-known French officer and scholar of revolutionary wars, David Galula, asserted, ‘The role of geography, a significant one in an ordinary war, may be overriding in a revolutionary war. If the insurgent, with his initial weakness, cannot be assisted by geography, he may well be condemned to failure before he starts.’xii Kenneth Boulding introduced the ‘Loss of Strength Gradient (LSG)’ to geographic explanations, arguing that the further fighting centres (such as capitals, large cities and camps) are from regular forces, the more likely it is that they will lose some of their strength. Sebastian Schutte adjusted the theory in 2014, saying regular forces lose ‘accuracy’ in striking targets, and not necessarily strength, the further they are from the centres. Their attempts to kill insurgents become more random and less accurate, and the resultant local anger increases rebels’ legitimacy, and their ability to mobilise and recruit.
Other scholars have focused on the importance of different forms of external support to the militarily weaker party. The RAND study of eighty-nine armed rebellions against a variety of systems (authoritarian, democratic, colonial) found that armed movements that benefited from the care of an external state or states won militarily in sixty-seven per cent of unresolved cases. However, when external support ceased, and dependency shifted internally, the ratio of victory decreased to twenty-five per cent of unresolved cases (i.e., cases with a clear victory or defeat; these ratios do not take into account mixed cases or unresolved ongoing confrontations).
Another group of military strategy scholars showed that a weaker party’s victory may be explained through field tactics and military strategy. In terms of field tactics, a Yale University study found that modern military vehicles (especially armoured vehicles and aircraft) undermined the ability of soldiers to create positive relationships with the local population, and thus undermined their ability to gather valuable intelligence from local collaborators. A large number of scholars of military strategy – particularly from US and British universities – concluded that it is no longer the preserve of a state, capturing regime or armed actors to employ new military technologies in weapons, communications, information and intelligence gathering, transportation, infrastructure, regulatory and administrative sciences.xiii ‘Breaking the monopoly’ has allowed armed organisations independent from states and regimes to improve their combat performance. This remarkable increase in the number of defeats of regimes or state governments by armed organisations that are weaker in number and equipment differs from the historical trend. Some specialist researchers have provided a framework for the complex strategic interactions between varying strengths of military entities. The study concluded that the weaker party could often win if it adopted opposite strategies to the strategies and tactics of the stronger party. For example, a ‘guerilla’ strategy (indirect fighting strategy) is the most appropriate strategy against a direct attack by a stronger party, including strategies referred to as ‘shock and awe’ (blitzkrieg).
Military capabilities of the Islamic State group: Strategy and tactics
Many of these elements of military and strategic theories and studies help us to understand the status of IS in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Egypt and elsewhere. However, the group’s survival and expansion has not been fully explained until recently. Explanations citing geography, popular support factors, external support and related theories do not help much in understanding the situation. Most of the areas under IS control are not as rugged as the mountains of Cuba, Afghanistan or Chechnya, where weaker military parties have benefited from geographic complexities. The ‘support factors’ do not exceed minorities that shrink and grow according to the ferocity and brutality of regimes in conflict with IS. The Institute of Administration and Civil Society Studies in Iraq conducted a micro-level opinion poll in the city of Mosulxiv and found that in June 2014 the percentage of those who believed that IS represented their views or interests did not exceed ten per cent; in December 2015, after the coalition strikes, the percentage increased to thirty-nine per cent.xv
Some IS supporters (not members) in areas such as Sirte (Libya), Deir al-Zor (Syria) and Sinai (Egypt) view IS as the lesser of two evil, where the greater is the ruling regime. In addition, the organisation is not only in a state of war with governments and regimes inside and outside the region, but also with large segments of conservative Muslim communities, as well as with many Sunni and Shi'a Islamic groups, and even with some jihadists – including al-Qa'ida. And, despite an abundance of conspiracy theories espoused by all parties for the purposes of political propaganda and to discredit opponents, it has not yet been proven that IS receives systemic support directly from any government or regime, similar to, for example, Soviet support for the Cuban rebels, or Pakistani and Saudi support for the Afghan mujahideen groups.
IS’s military strategies and tactics may better explain its ability to withstand and expand. The organisation does not have large numbers of troops and equipment compared to the sophisticated resources of its enemies. With regard to numerical strength ratios, the CIA in 2014 estimated the number of IS fighters to be between 20 000 and 31 000. Compared just to the Iraqi armed forces, this means that there is one IS fighter for every ten soldiers. This excludes the number of supportive or allied forces such as popular militia, tribal groups, Peshmerga units and international coalition forces. In the battles of Mosul (June 2014) and Ramadi (December 2015–January 2016), the ratios dropped to one fighter for every twenty soldiers and officers in Mosul, and one fighter for twenty-five soldiers and officers in the case of Ramadi. In areas outside Iraq and Syria, the numerical strength ratio sometimes drops to one fighter against 500 soldiers and officers, as in northern Sinai. These ratios only estimate numerical strength, without taking into account the quality of the weaponry, ratios of firepower, effects of air support and intelligence, and strategic/schematic regional and international advice and aid; none of these factors and ratios are in IS’s favour.
However, with a mix of general military strategy principles, discipline in the field, a decentralised command and control structure, the commitment of soldiers to leadership structures and the dedication of fighters to their work – whatever the degree of brutality, combined with unusual tactics on the ground and the use of sudden, fast, accurate and repeatable methods, the organisation has been able to overcome not only a lack of human resources and equipment, but it has won battles where victory was unexpected based on traditional military data.
Some of its combat methods are consistent with Sun Tzu’s strategies, particularly regarding the collection of intelligence about the enemy, stealth before and after striking, attacking the weaker flank, efficiently using the element of surprise, avoiding the enemy in its strongholds and the time of readiness.xvi Tactics of ‘urban terrorism’ (especially car bombs; suicide bombers; sudden, frequent and extensive use of snipers; and assassinations before and during attacks) combined with traditional revolutionary warfare methods (especially mixing military and trained volunteer units, a quick hit-and-run approach and small numbers), in addition to conventional tactics (light artillery, heavy armoured vehicles and tanks, as well as different types of guided and unguided missiles) have proven highly effective despite the small number of IS fighters.
IS’s attack pattern is designed to establish control on the ground (in a village, town or city neighbourhood); followed by its combat units attacking from three sides at the same time while using high intensity fire to push defending forces to the fourth side. When the defending forces gather there, they are attacked by one or a series of car bombs (either detonated remotely or by suicide attackers), which often leads to the defending forces’ collapse or weakening, making the attack much easier. Captain Hassan Al-Hajri, a commander of the Suqour al-Jabal Brigade in Syria, pointed out that after attacking with booby traps, the ‘Inghemasiyoun’, a small commando unit of not more than twenty IS shock troops (mostly non-local), carry out further attacks.xvii This unit is given special training on tactics of close quarters combat.xviii Its main task after attacking with booby traps is breaking enemy lines, raiding hard targets and then progressing slowly. As a former officer in the Free Syrian Army’s (FSA) Squad 101 said, ‘After car bombing, IS sends not more than ten to fifteen fighters of different nationalities. They advance fifty metres, lie down, then advance another fifty metres, then lie down and concentrate their efforts. We have not heard of this specific method of attack in any Arab military academy, including those of the Ba'ath Party.’xix
Various kinds of booby-traps (containers, cars, motorcycles, etc.) have proven effective in breaking troop lines, initiating attacks and even as defensive tactics, but their place in the military doctrine of IS is still a mystery. Some military analysts argue that the element of shock and horror, and its effect in weakening and confusing enemies, has proven valuable for IS. Others focus on the extensive damage caused by car bombs. Thus, a quick resolution of battle is in favour of IS’s forces even if the conventional military balance is not in their favour. When FSA officers and Libyan military forces from Battalion 166 who fought IS in Sirte were asked about the reasons for the organisation’s military victories, despite its lack of human resources and equipment, the answers were similar and can be summed up as ‘booby traps are the key to victories’.
There is another important aspect with regards to the command and control framework of IS: the group’s decentralised approach to military action. IS sometimes attacks sites and towns that are not strategically important and has small numbers of people. It appears that, in these cases, mid-level leaders have taken attack decisions, without reference to senior leadership. Despite the tactical failure of some of these attacks, their frequency and success in other instances is an important indicator of the degree of centralised decision-making at the command and control level. This decentralised military modus operandi is more mature and effective than the methods of many Arab armies, which is one reason for their semi-chronic tactical weakness. In practice, IS has overcome a major obstacle facing the military effectiveness of some Arab armies. These armies, which sometimes show some tactical initiative and creativity, lack the ability to innovate and improvise without orders from the top brass. They have little ability to adapt to sudden and unexpected circumstances, and are unable to undertake independent tactical operations. The degree of centralisation may reflect the weakness of ‘strategic coherence’ between military units and ‘tactical turmoil’; it is a traditional point of weakness that may defeat and obliterate any military entity. However, in the case of IS, a centralised senior leadership with a decentralised field of operations has proven vital for enhanced military performance. The dynamic attack forces allow the organisation to make quick decisions when facing superior forces. In addition, it seems that IS leaders on the ground learn quickly, continually improving their performance.
On the other hand, most IS air defences are weak, limited and undeveloped. The group can defend only against helicopters and old military aircraft flying at low altitudes (at 20 000 feet or less). This has been very costly for the organisation. The traditional irregular warfare style (especially the use of armoured vehicles) has been undermined to a large extent due to coalition air strikes, and the lack of capacity of terrestrial defences to respond. However, the group was able to avoid further losses by dispersing and concealing heavy weapons and some armoured vehicles and tanks that had survived the bombing. During IS attacks, its fighters benefit from the confusion created by both sides using a combination of Russian, US and Chinese weapons. This makes coalition air forces unable to distinguish between friendly and IS forces. The difficulty of precise targeting also increases because of the limited number of joint terminal attack controllers (JTAC) – plants for qualified personnel closely working to provide offensive air operations with information.
The quality of the fighters who join IS brigades has added to its military balance, in terms of discipline on the battlefield and focus on the goal. Its combatants may be divided into three categories: former members of regular armed forces (especially from Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Georgia) who had served in various structures, including the republican guard, military, intelligence, artillery, armour and police (civil and military); unlawful combatants who fought in previous wars, have abundant combat experience in a variety of geographies (mountains, jungles, deserts, cities, villages and towns); and local fighters who had accumulated long-term experience in combating local regular troops and providing logistical support for building networks over the past decade. Some fighters, especially from the second category, fought many defensive battles to prevent the enemy from controlling villages, towns or cities in several countries. In later wars, they used commando tactics when they had lost land to their enemies. These tactics relied on light infantry units with ten to fifteen fighters clashing with the enemy at close range (fifty to 250 metres), which prevents the use of heavy artillery and shelling from the air.
The near future and the far enemy
In conclusion, attention must be focused on the environment within which IS has developed, remained and expanded. In most countries in the region – with a few exceptions – legitimacy obtained through religious advisory opinions (fatawa) or through extreme nationalism are the crucial means by which to access or remain in political power. In most Arab political environments, elections, constitutions, laws, principles of good governance, and social and economic achievements are merely secondary factors, and sometimes only cosmetic. The regional context proves that the bullet is frequently more effective than the ballot in reaching and staying in power. In this context a large proportion of political, social and cultural elites see force as a way to filter and eradicate political dissent – at least through torture, or, at most, through genocide – and mutual concessions and political compromises to prevent bloodshed are regarded as forms of ‘betrayal’. IS and other jihadi groups have merely increased the dose of violence, multiplied its targets and radicalised religious interpretation, but they did not depart from the prevailing political pattern in the region. These jihadi tendencies organisations are a natural consequence of this pattern of violence and ruthlessness.xx
IS, therefore, does not face considerable difficulty in recruiting minorities that support it because the repressive political environment helps to give credibility to its tactics. This explains the imbalance in the long-term strategy to contain and destroy it, which depends on four major pillars: two military/security pillars, a political/reform pillar and an intellectual/rhetorical pillar. This translates into air strikes to contain it in the short term; local partners who collaborate with coalition forces to weaken and destroy it on the ground in the medium or long terms; attempts to repair the political environment through settlements and/or reconciliation and/or democratisation to create a political and social environment that would prevent the group from reproducing; and the production of ideologies and discourses to counter the ideas and behaviours of the organisation and behaviours arising in the long-term. These pillars are incompatible with each other, with the most conflicting being the second and third pillars. Considering that the regimes have committed massacres against their own people and crimes against humanity, being ‘partners’ in the fight against terrorism (which are some of the second pillar’s concerns) would harm the third pillar of the strategy over the long term. Thus the military defeat of IS – a result that should not be seen as an accomplishment of tactical/field significance given the enormous differences in numbers, equipment and weaponry – may temporarily treat a symptom of the political crisis in the region. However, the roots of the crisis remain valid (unless the third pillar succeeds). Consequently, those roots will generate another symptom that may be more extreme, violent and rigid.
* Dr Omar Ashour is a lecturer in security and strategic studies at the University of Exeter, and associate fellow in security studies at the Royal Institute of International Studies (Chatham House)
i The paper ignores several important dimensions that the author sees the need to discuss in greater depth. First, at the field or operational level, the importance of individual battles in the countryside of Aleppo (January 2014), the city of Raqqa (January–March 2014 ), Mosul (June 2014), Al-Ramadi (May 2015, and December 2015–January 2016), Sirte (May–August 2015), Sheikh Zuid (July 2015) and the countryside of Deir ez-Zor (January 2016). The paper also avoids analysing the Islamic State group’s security and intelligence capabilities; this has proven most important in military action, especially its ability to penetrate its opponents and map internal opposition parties or the regimes that it is fighting. This paper also avoids delving into the extreme ideological discourses employed in IS’s mobilisation and propaganda, despite the importance of this militarily as well as in special operations that continue and sustain recruitment, thus giving IS the ability to train, substitute and replace fighters; to survive and expand in the battlefield; and to continue as a ‘state’ structure.
ii Schultz, Bryan (2015). ‘The Pentagon Says It Has Killed 20,000 ISIS Fighters—and Just 6 Civilians’, Mother Jones, 23 December. <http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2015/12/united-states-isis-bombing-civilian-deaths/>.
iii Schultz, Bryan (2015).
iv ‘US hitting IS harder than ever, says Obama’, BBC, 14 December. <http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-35097279> (Accessed: 15 February 2016).
v Strack, Columb (2015). ‘Islamic State’s Caliphate Shrinks by 14 Percent in 2015’, Jane’s Intelligence review, 21 December. <http://www.janes.com/article/56794/islamic-state-s-caliphate-shrinks-by-14-in-2015>.
vi Strack, Columb (2015).
vii Connable, B and Libicki, MC (2010). ‘How Insurgencies End’, RAND Publications, <http://www.rand.org/content/dam/rand/pubs/monographs/2010/RAND_MG965.pdf/> (Accessed: 15 February 2016).
viii Mao, T (1937/61). On Guerrilla Warfare. Champaign: University of Illinois.
ix Petraeus, David, Amos, James F and Nagl, John A (2007). The US Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
x Dreyfuss, B (2013). ‘How the War in Afghanistan Fuelled the Taliban’, The Nation, 23 September. <http://www.thenation.com/article/how-us-war-afghanistan-fueled-taliban-insurgency/>
xi Fearon, James and Laitin, David (2012). ‘Ethnicity, Insurgency and Civil War’, American Political Science Review 57 (1): 75–90.
xii Galula, D (1964). Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice. Westport, CT: Praeger.
xiiiThe conclusions are based on a large number of military and strategic studies, such as: Ashour, O (2009). The De-Radicalization of Jihadists: Transforming Armed Islamist Movements. New York, London: Routledge; Connable, B and Libicki, MC (2010). How Insurgencies End. Arlington: Rand Publications; Fearon, JD and Laitin, DD (2012). ‘Ethnicity, Insurgency and Civil War’, American Political Science Review 57 (1): 75–90; Johnston, PB (2008). ‘The Geography of Insurgent Organization and its Consequences for Civil Wars: Evidence from Liberia and Sierra Leone’, Security Studies 17 (1): 107–37. Kalyvas, S (2006). The Logic of Violence in Civil Wars. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; Kalyvas, S and Kocher, Matthew A (2006). ‘Ethnic Cleavages and Irregular War: Iraq and Vietnam’, Politics and Society 35 (2): 183–223.
xiv See the poll details at: <http://www.slideshare.net/TWIPubs/combating-daesh-we-are-losing-the-battle-for-hearts-and-minds?ref=http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/the-islamic-state-new-inside-views> (Accessed: 15 February 2016).
xv See <http://www.slideshare.net/TWIPubs/combating-daesh-we-are-losing-the-battle-for-hearts-and-minds?ref=http://www.washingtoninstitute.org/policy-analysis/view/the-islamic-state-new-inside-views>.
xvi Tzu, Sun The Art of War, Pax Librorum, 2009
xvii Hendawi, Hamza. Abdul-Zahra, Qassim and Mroue, Bassem (2015). ‘Inside ISIS Battle Strategy, Use of Special Forces’, Associated Press, 8 July. <http://bigstory.ap.org/article/873276499f8145eba8680d5b4e1e13f1/secret-success-shock-troops-who-fight-death>.
xix Interview with the author, September 2015.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
The recent handing over of two islands – Tiran and Sanafir – to Saudi Arabia by the Egyptian government emphasises that the Sisi regime remains so in need of external support to buttress its domestic control that it is willing to anger significant sections of the population. The islands’ importance to Israel and the fact that Israel agreed to the handover also point to strengthening cooperation between Tel Aviv, Riyadh and Cairo in an effort to contain Iran’s resurgence.
The announcement about the islands was made as the Saudi king, Salman bin Abdul Aziz, undertook his first official trip to Egypt since acceding to the thrown in January 2015. Other deals signed during his visit included a twenty-two billion dollar agreement for Saudi Arabia to supply Egypt with energy, and the establishment of a sixteen billion dollar joint Saudi-Egyptian investment fund. Recent tensions between the two regional powers had heightened after Egypt’s refusal to commit troops to the Saudi war in Yemen, and because of Egypt’s support for Russia's Syrian intervention. Egypt is also critical about strengthening ties between Riyadh and Ankara, and because of the Kingdom’s support for Yemen’s Muslim Brotherhood Islah party. Tensions had been simmering since Salman became king, however, with his suspicion that Egypt’s military ruler, Abdel Fatah el-Sisi, had plotted against his acceding to the throne.
Riyadh nevertheless views Egypt as an important ally in its attempt to counter growing Iranian influence in the region, and sees its large and well-equipped military as a critical deterrent to Iran’s regional forays. Moreover, Egypt’s Sidi Kerir port and SUMED oil storage terminal can be used by Saudi Arabia to slow down and disrupt Iranian oil exports. Before 2011 Iran had dispatched over 200 000 barrels of oil per day from the port, has used the storage terminal for oil shipped to Europe since diverting shipments through its own Kharg Island port causes a month delay. With this agenda, Salman has reduced his criticism of Egypt – and especially of Sisi – and continued to buttress it. Significantly, however, recent assistance packages to Egypt have been more as loans and investments than aid; only around two billion of the sixty billion in recent deals is aid.
But there is also a third player involved; for the transfer to have occurred Israel’s approval was required in terms of the 1979 Camp David Accords between Israel and Egypt. The two islands essentially block access to the Red Sea from the Gulf of Aqaba, thus blocking access to the critical Israeli port of Eilat. Israel thus regards control of the Tiran Straits and the waters around both islands as critical since much of its maritime trade passes through en route to Eilat. A perception that this access would be disrupted was a major factor informing Israel’s involvement in the 1956 Suez crisis and 1967 six day war. They were twice captured by Israel, which controlled them from 1967 to 1982. Guarantees over waterway access were thus key stipulations in the Camp David agreement. The transfer of the islands means Israeli vessels will now traverse Saudi waters to reach Eilat.
Tel Aviv’s acquiescence and statements by Israeli and Saudi officials indicate that firm guarantees had been provided by Saudi Arabia regarding Israel’s freedom of navigation through the Strait of Tiran. Israel has been informed about the secret negotiations regarding the islands from the beginning, and written guarantees that Riyadh would abide by the terms stipulated at Camp David were given in talks that involved Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Israel and the USA. (Although Israel and Saudi Arabia are officially in a state of war, they have collaborated on a number of issues recently, and Riyadh had informed Israel about then-secretive nuclear negotiations between the USA and Iran.)
For Egypt, transferring the islands to Saudi Arabia has little negative strategic implication. The islands are uninhabited, have few resources, and technically belonged to Saudi Arabia though administered on its behalf by Egypt since 1950, when Saudi Arabia requested Egypt to play this role, believing that Egypt could protect them from Israel. Returning the islands was thus an opportunity to renew Egypt’s relationship with Saudi Arabia, and to continue receiving assistance for Egypt’s stalling economy and Sisi’s power base.
The move has elicited much criticism from Egyptians, especially since Sisi had inserted a stipulation in Article 151 of the 2014 Egyptian Constitution prohibiting territorial transfers. The clause was intended to augment Sisi’s nationalist credentials, and because the army garnered support for its 2013 coup by arguing that the former president, Mohamed Morsi, was ceding parts of Sinai to Hamas, and endangering Egyptian sovereignty through his alliance with Qatar.
Sisi thus argued that the island transfer restores sovereignty to Saudi Arabia, which owns the islands, and was not a ceding of Egyptian territory. But prominent political figures such as Hamdeen Sabahi, Khaled Ali, Ayman Nour and the Muslim Brotherhood criticise this reasoning, and Ali has lodged court papers to halt the deal. Although this sees some fissures in the regime’s support base, it is unlikely to pose a significant threat.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
Russian President Vladimir Putin shocked many with his announcement on 14 March that his 8 000-strong expeditionary force in Syria would begin a gradual withdrawal over the next five months. The move has attracted a varied set of responses from Russia’s allies, critics, and other roleplayers in the Syrian crisis. It is clear this will not be a full withdrawal of all forces, weaponry and materiel. Instead, while most forces – including pilots – will return home, a number will be confined to the Russian naval base in Tartus, and the Russian Hmeimim airbase near Latakia, as will much of the weaponry and military aircraft. Putin claimed the withdrawal was because Russian intervention in Syria had achieved its objectives.
Since September 2015 Russian aircraft have bombarded Syrian opposition groups, as well as some Islamic State group (IS) targets, from the air, while Spetsnaz special forces and Russian military advisers have directed and assisted Syrian, Hizbullah and Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps forces in their defence of President Bashar al-Asad’s regime, and the Syrian army’s surge into Aleppo’s rebel-held northern countryside. Russia also upgraded its Tartus naval base, and rebuilt and expanded the Hmeimim airbase.
Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov had initially said the intervention was aimed at fighting ‘terrorist groups’ in Syria, which, for Russia, included various Free Syrian Army and other rebel groups. But Russia’s objectives also included: propping up the Asad regime and returning it to a position of superiority on the battlefield; removing the immediate threat to the Alawi heartland along the western coast; ensuring that Russian interests in Syria were protected; establishing itself as a global player that is able decisively to deal with international conflicts; use the military campaign to prepare for Geneva negotiations in a manner that would make negotiations favourable to the Syrian regime and to Russia’s role as a mediator. Many of these objectives have been attained, and Russia does not want to extend its stay and risk an Afghanistan-type quagmire.
When Russian aircraft took to the skies above Syria in September 2015, rebel forces had been making substantial and sustained gains on the battlefield, and had posed a threat to Asad’s stronghold of Latakia. The Russian campaign has decisively reversed many of those gains and eliminated the threat to Latakia; and while the regime still does not have full control over the country, it is now more secure and has the upper hand in the war. Russia is not necessarily concerned about Asad having full control over the country, even if that is the Syrian government’s aim.
Russia is eager to secure is its interests in Syria, and has achieved that by securing the regime’s position, thus ensuring Russian influence in the Arab world; fortifying the Tartus and Hmeimim bases, thus guaranteeing Russia a longer term presence and protection of its warm water Mediterranean port. That this is not a real ‘withdrawal’ is illustrated by Putin’s comment that the two bases will be ‘protected from the land, from the sea, and from the air’. Russia might have stopped bombing Syria, but it will still have the capacity to control Syrian airspace and to deter foreign (including regional) powers from intervening.
Russia has also strengthened its influence in Syria through its intervention because it has emboldened forces within the Syrian Ba'ath Party which do not like the Islamist Iranian ally, including senior officers who trained in the Soviet Union and are more comfortable with a Russian role than an Iranian one. Furthermore, Iran has become, for Russia, a slightly less predictable ally after the Iran nuclear deal drew that country closer to the West. Direct influence in Syria means Russia does not need to rely on Iranian influence to achieve its objectives there. Thus, although Iran was pleased when the Russian strikes began, it might see its influence in Syria decrease in favour of Russia.
Putin has also decisively emphasised Russia’s status as a global player that will not shy away from challenges, and is able to play a role in foreign conflicts both at diplomatic and military levels. Unlike the US role in countries such as Libya, Russia is also able to claim that it intervened not against but in support of an internationally recognised government, thus not violating international law.
Significantly, Putin made the announcement on the day that peace talks between the Syrian regime and opposition groups were to resume in Geneva. As co-chair of the International Syria Support Group, Russia was instrumental in setting up the ceasefire – as problematic as it might have been – that was vital for these negotiations to take place. Russia’s support of Asad in the past five months means it will be able to persuade him to participate in the talks in a manner that will lead to some solution. Asad’s belligerence should be sobered by realising that Russia can alter or withdraw its support as it pleases. Furthermore, with the opposition having been battered by Russian airstrikes, these groups will participate in talks while licking their wounds, and with the knowledge that the strikes could begin as suddenly as they had ended. Despite belligerent rhetoric, many of them will also be relieved to find a solution. For Russia, its withdrawal from the battlefield allows it now to present itself as more ‘neutral’ and as a mediator, enhancing its role in the talks and on the global stage.
Putin aims to re-establish Russia’s political standing globally, commensurate to its nuclear capability, UN Security Council seat and historic role in world affairs. Guiding the Syrian war to a settlement which restores relative stability can therefore be significant. While the Syrian role and the withdrawal helps rejuvenate its image as a military-diplomatic superpower, it also assists in rolling back Russian isolation forced onto the state by western sanctions after its intervention in Ukraine. The European Union will decide in July whether to renew sanctions on Russia. If Russia secures a Syria deal that helps reduce the flow of refugees to Europe, and can use a Syria deal to ease tensions in Ukraine, it could realise a favourable outcome in July. It will bank on Italy and/or Hungary – whose representatives have already met Russian officials to discuss the refugee issue – to oppose sanction renewal.
Another gain for Russia, though of a lower priority, has been an increase in Russian arms sales in the past few months. Russian airforce sorties over Syria provided a wonderful advertisement for its weapons’ industry.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
The decision by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) on 2 March declaring Hizbullah a terrorist organisation is the latest in a string of moves by Saudi Arabia to blunt the perceived increase in Iran’s regional influence. The resolution will have dire consequences for Lebanon’s already fragmented and gridlocked institutions, but may have an effect opposite to that intended by the GCC; it could push Lebanon further into Iran’s orbit.
The GCC verdict followed Saudi Arabia’s decision on 19 February, which halted its four billion dollar aid to Lebanon’s state security institutions, and the subsequent GCC states’ ban on their citizens from visiting the country. At the heart of these decisions is the perception of increasing Iranian influence in Lebanon, especially after the nuclear deal between Iran and the P5+1 world powers. GCC states were furious over Beirut’s decision not to endorse an Arab League and Organisation of Islamic Cooperation statement criticising attacks on Saudi diplomatic offices in Tehran in January. Lebanon’s dissociation from international actions that may interfere with its fragile sectarian balance is seen by the increasingly assertive Saudi regime as a sign of Beirut’s proximity to Iran. Saudi Arabia believes this proximity is proven by the inability and unwillingness of the Lebanese Armed Forces (LAF) to disarm Hizbullah, and by the group’s activities in Syria. Saudi officials had already conveyed these concerns to Lebanon’s deputy prime minister and defence minister, Samir Mouqbel, in January, and had indicated that Saudi Arabia might reverse its decision if Lebanon were to change course.
The Saudi move will seriously impede Lebanon’s economy, which is heavily reliant on GCC tourism, investments, and five billion dollars in remittances sent by Lebanese nationals working in the Gulf. These remittances will dry up if GCC states act against the 750 000 Lebanese workers. It is possible that the GCC will impose further sanctions on Lebanon, which will be disastrous since the country relies on Gulf support to maintain its banking sector and currency.
However, these measures may have the opposite and unintended impact of pushing Lebanon closer to Iran. Already the Islamic Republic has offered to compensate for the shortfall if Beirut officially requests assistance. Further, those most affected, ordinary Lebanese citizens, may become disillusioned with the GCC – particularly Saudi Arabia. Ultimately, the measures will have little effect on Hizbullah, which is not reliant on GCC funds for its social service, patronage or any other activities, and because this will further increase the chasm in weaponry and training between it and the LAF. The party has thus confidently criticised the GCC, suggested that GCC states were cooperating with Israel, and pointed out that the GCC decision would have a harsher impact on average Lebanese nationals.
The Saudi and GCC positions will not collapse Lebanon’s confessionalist political system, whose sectarian nature prevents strong parties from dominating political institutions. Power balancing and coalition formation are promoted through the stipulation of cabinet and government positions on a sectarian basis. Although many within the March 14 coalition – Hizbullah’s rivals – have supported Saudi Arabia and criticised Hizbullah, talks to elect a president have continued between March 14 and the Hizbullah-led March 8 coalition. Lebanese politicians benefit from the system, and fear that too strong appeals to identity politics could result in a situation similar to that which sparked Lebanon’s fourteen-year civil war in 1975. Further, global powers – including the USA and France – regard Lebanon’s stability as paramount, especially in light of the growth of the Islamic State group, and have acted to mitigate the effects of the GCC decision by offering to mediate between the two parties.
What the GCC and Saudi positions indicate is an increasing willingness – especially by Saudi Arabia – to adopt aggressive stances to weaken Iran and ensure GCC allies close ranks – as happened in January when Saudi allies severed ties with the Islamic republic. Small and relatively week states such as Lebanon and Yemen will increasingly be forced to support one or other side in this Cold War-like regional atmosphere. In Beirut’s case the risk is larger because of the spillover of the Syrian conflict into Lebanon, especially with Hizbullah’s involvement in Syria. The Lebanese political establishment needs urgently to resolve its political problems, elect a new president immediately since the twenty-two month wait for a consensus candidate has imperilled much of the country’s institutions, and citizens have been forced to resort to patronage and sectarian networks to ensure the partial provision of state services.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
As various parties to the Syrian crisis, including the United Nations, Russia, and the United States, prepare for ‘proximity talks’ to take place this week, and as UN Special Envoy Stefan de Mistura attempts to put a positive face to a ceasefire he oversaw, it was clear within twenty-four hours of the ceasefire going into effect that it would not hold. Within the first week of the ceasefire a total of 135 people were killed according to one monitoring group, although the real number is likely to be much higher.
The cessation of hostilities between Bashar al-Asad’s regime and a selection of opposition groups took effect on 27 February. The ceasefire was orchestrated by Russia and the USA, co-chairs of the seventeen-member International Syria Support Group (ISSG). The joint US-Russian communiqué regarding the aims and logistics of the ceasefire noted that Islamic State group (IS) and al-Qa'ida affiliate Jabhat al-Nusra were not included in the ceasefire agreement, and mandated that a US-Russian-led ISSG Ceasefire Task Force would be responsible for identifying IS- and Jabhat-controlled territory for continued airstrikes. The communiqué also committed all parties to ensure the safe passage of aid to areas requiring it. Within twenty-four hours of the ceasefire having gone into force, however, Russian aircraft are believed to have bombed targets in Hama province around the village of Herbanafsa, where rebels associated with the powerful Jaish al-Fatah faction are operating. In Darkosh, Idlib province, where Ahrar al-Sham (AAS) rebels are in control, the ceasefire is also not holding. Throughout the week following the signing of the ceasefire agreement, suspected Russian aircraft continued to pound villages allegedly linked to JAN and IS and those controlled by the Free Syrian Army, which is a party to the ceasefire. Due to international and regional actors putting their geostrategic goals ahead of promoting a complete winding down of hostilities, the ceasefire is incomplete and is barely holding even in its targeted areas.
The communiqué notes that the identification of armed groups will be based on UN Security Council Resolution 2254. Paragraph 8 of the resolution obligates UN member states to suppress ‘terrorist acts committed specifically by…entities associated with Al Qa'ida or ISIL’. A number of groups so identified by this resolution are backed by the USA – either directly or indirectly through its allies in Ankara, Doha and Riyadh. The powerful components of the Jaish al-Fatah coalition, such as Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam, are backed by Riyadh, received training through CIA programmes, and were invited to form part of the Saudi-backed Higher Negotiation Committee. Ahrar al-Sham and Jaish al-Islam have occasionally fought alongside Jabhat al-Nusra, and also alongside Free Syrian Army-linked units, notably in the eastern Damascene suburbs. Ahrar al-Sham’s position on various issues has been particularly ambivalent. It aims to present itself as moderate and accommodating in various Arab media forums, while also stating that it will not abide by any ceasefire, and pledging support for Jabhat al-Nusra. The group opportunistically allies itself with al-Nusra in areas where IS and the Syrian forces pose a threat, while decrying Nusra’s exclusionary Salafism on the international stage to avoid being labelled a terrorist outfit.
Such tactics have provided Russia with the excuse to continue bombing ‘terrorists’. Meanwhile, Riyadh and Washington see groups such as Ahrar al-Sham as a counterweight to IS and regard them as battle hardened enough to be able to hold ground against the Syrian army. Turkey and Saudi Arabia will likely continue arming and funding certain groups within Jaish al-Fatah; Riyadh hopes to bolster its main proxy groups as the war enters a new and more unpredictable phase. Ankara hopes to strengthen groups that can win political and military victories against the Kurds. The ambition of the most powerful Syrian Kurdish armed group, the Peoples Protection Units (YPG), is to link the Kurdish cantons of Efrin with other Kurdish cantons ofCizire and Kobani by a strip of Syrian territory disputed between various rebel groups and IS. By linking these three cantons the PYD-YPG would be able to forge a contiguous Kurdish-controlled territory in order to entrench its social project and block supply routes to Jabhat al-Nusra, IS and other rebel groups. Ankara views this ambition as a direct attack on its security and foreign policy goals in Syria; an autonomous Kurdish area on its southern border could provide the armed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has renewed hostilities with the Turkish state, with a safe haven. Furthermore; any experiment in autonomy could provide inspiration to Turkey’s own restless Kurdish population. Turkey has therefore been shelling YPG positions along the border and threatened intervention into Syria – which is unlikely given the strong involvement of Russia.
Another important element of the ceasefire communiqué is the humanitarian aspect. Parties to the ceasefire are obliged to ‘allow humanitarian agencies rapid, unhindered and sustained access throughout areas under their control’. UN and partner aid agencies had planned to deliver life-saving aid to 154 000 civilians this week, but even this is subject to the politics of the groups involved, with many areas still subject to air raids. The siege of Deir al-Zor, wherein 200 000 people are trapped, continues because IS, which controls that territory, is not part of the agreement; and airdrops which were meant to ease the plight of the besieged inhabitants have been missing their targets.
De Mistura expressed hope that increased aid to besieged areas and a lull in the violence could set the stage for the revival of the halted Geneva peace talks. He wants ‘proximity talks’ to begin on 10 March. It is likely that the Syrian regime will attempt to create a situation on the ground before then that will grant them maximum negotiating power. Riyadh and Ankara, meanwhile, will look at ways to prop up rebel factions in order to both block both an Iranian diplomatic coup and a roll back of Kurdish goals.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
Reports of secret meetings between Israeli and Turkish officials in Switzerland in February suggest Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development (AKP) is softening its attitude towards Tel Aviv. Any rapprochement will likely include compensation for the Turkish victims of the Israeli commando raid on the Mavi Marmara ship in 2010, access to Gaza for Turkish aid ships, and a Turkish statement to crack down on Hamas operations from within Turkey. Less public agreements will likely include a reopening of arms deals between the two former allies, a united front on the diplomatic stage concerning Iran’s regional influence, possible energy deals concerning Israel’s eastern Mediterranean gas reserves and the exchange of intelligence on various non-state actors, particularly Kurdish groups. The talks in Switzerland may signal a watershed, but broader strategic imperatives, overlapping rivalries and new geopolitical realities have been coalescing behind the scenes to nudge Turkey towards Israel.
The killing of the nine Turkish citizens on the Mavi Marmara – part of the Freedom Flotilla bound for the Gaza Strip in 2010 – had been preceded by a dip in relations caused by a tirade by then-Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan against Israeli President Shimon Peres at the World Trade Forum in Davos in 2009.
Benefits for Turkey
In 1998 the Turkish government planned to invest 150 billion dollars over twenty-five years in the modernisation of the country’s armed forces. Turkey’s main strategic goal during this time was to develop its local arms industry through the acquisition of advanced military knowledge, technology and materiel from suppliers who placed no conditions on sales. Israel was perfect since it chose to ignore Turkey’s egregious human rights record at the time, unlike EU arms suppliers. Israeli arms companies supplied Turkey with over 389 million dollars in weapons between 2001 and 2014, including ten Heron drones purchased under an AKP government. With old and new threats to Turkish security emanating from the resurgent Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) and Islamic State group (IS) respectively, Turkey seems to again be aiming to diversify its arms’ procurement. The Turkish defence minister sent a special envoy to meet with Israel’s security establishment on 1 March to negotiate financial terms on a number of weapons deals which reportedly will include drones. The planned purchase is a major component of the rapprochement.
Israel’s position as a world leader in cyber-security will also entice capital from interested public and private parties in Turkey. Turkish Ministry of Transport and Communications report covering 2013-2014 stated that Turkey was developing a comprehensive cyber-security programme. The fact that Syrian regime ‘hacktivists’ were able to wreak havoc on top-secret Turkish agencies in 2013 and 2014 suggests that this programme is still in its infancy. Thus, sourcing technology, expertise and equipment Israel until its own programme is underway could be useful for Turkey to counter the cyber threats it already faces.
There are also energy-related reasons that Turkey would want to upgrade ties with Israel. Russia’s entry in the Syrian civil war in support of the regime creates an energy dilemma for Turkey, which imports about fifty-five per cent of its natural gas supplies from Russia (and another eighteen per cent from another of Syria’s allies, Iran). Turkey is opposed to Moscow’s backing of the Bashar al-Asad regime, and has genuine fears that Russia might use gas as a geo-strategic bludgeon, not least to keep open the strategic Bosphorous strait which is the throughway for Russian ships taking supplies to Syria, and which, under the 1936 Montreux Convention Regarding the Regime of the Turkish Straits, is under Turkish control. The discovery of billions of cubic metres of gas off Israel’s coast, and in Gazan waters controlled by the Israeli navy, provides the possibility of an alternative energy source for Turkey that could make it less reliant on Russia. Israel is not poised to immediately satiate Turkish demands due to various complications over Israel’s development of these fields. Nevertheless, energy diplomacy remains a factor bringing these two states closer together.
The combination of détente with the West, and its presence in Syria – through proxies and its own forces – has granted Iran considerable weight in the International Syria Support Group (ISSG) co-chaired by the USA and Russia. This has sent Turkey’s Syria policy into a tailspin, as the ISSG’s fixation on battling IS has contributed to a ceasefire which technically grants Syrian, Russian and Iranian forces the right to fight Turkish- and Saudi-backed rebels. The more pressing issue, from Ankara’s perspective, is that the Syrian Kurdish militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG), has gained from Russian bombing campaigns along northern Syria. PYG is the armed wing of the Democratic Union Party (PYD) in Syria and the main militia for the Kurdish Supreme Committee whose autonomous canton of Rojava in Syria is regarded by Ankara as a security threat because it serves as a safe haven for the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, and because the Rojava model for Kurdish autonomy is inspiring for Turkey’s Kurdish population. Israel’s close relationship with the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, with which Turkey already good relations, is useful to Turkey as the KRG is a competitor to the PKK-PYD for leadership of the Kurdish movement. Ankara sought to exploit these rivalries during the IS siege of the Syrian Kurdish town Kobane in 2014 when it allowed KRG Peshmerga forces access to liberate the town in an attempt to prevent a YPG-PKK symbolic victory. Israel is also able to provide Turkey with intelligence on the YPG and PKK.
Benefits for Israel
Military agreements between Israel and Turkey during the 1990s reaped considerable dividends for Tel Aviv. The 1996 signing of the ‘Military Training and Cooperation Agreement’ between the two states enabled Israel to participate in war games with NATO members, and granted it a strategic alliance with NATO. Israel was able to deepen its strategic depth abroad through utilising Turkish airspace, which it often exploited to monitor events in Lebanon and Syria. The downgrading of these relations in the wake of the Mavi Marmara raid left Israel more vulnerable at its northern frontier, with an inability to exploit airspace to monitor Hizbullah and Syrian personal movements. Recent Israeli artillery and war games around the Lebanese border reflect this insecurity. Israel is now looking to shore up its capabilities in the aftermath of the Iran nuclear deal and Hizbullah’s reported procurement of advanced Russian ballistic weapons, a return to the past agreement in which an informal military alliance is in place is not imminent, but the Israeli defence establishment will remind Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that a return to the tacit military pact of the 1990s would benefit Israel as the Syrian quagmire deepens.
Turkey’s diplomatic capital with Syriane opposition groups, particularly Islamists, and members within the Gulf Cooperation Countries and their allies provides Israel with a critical ear among Muslim states opposed to Iranian ambitions. With the paranoia in Israel that the nuclear deal with Iran between the P5+1 (the five permanent members of the UN Security Council – USA, Britain, France, Russia and China – plus Germany) has imperilled Israel’s monopoly of force in the region, the diplomatic capital gained by Israel through improved relations with Turkey cannot be overstated. Coordination with the GCC, and especially Saudi Arabia, in countering Iranian ambitions will be a foreign policy objective for Israel in the coming years. Despite bilateral (albeit secretive) alliance building in the gulf by Israel, official links with Ankara can develop these links without further compromising Riyadh, Doha and Dubai, which require the pretence of aloofness from Israel for reputational purposes.
Furthermore, Israel hopes that Turkey’s influence on Hamas will provide it with a partner that can pressure the group when needed. Turkey has played patron to Hamas, and wields some influence within the group’s politburo.
Implications for the Palestinians
The Palestinian issue plays an important tactical role in the AKP’s foreign policy, and Turkey was in the throes of a diplomatic crisis with Israel at the apogee of Erdogan’s national and regional popularity. His public admonishments of Israel have been common spectacle, especially with regards to the situation in Gaza, a cause celebre for the Turkish population. Erdogan will want to rebuild his shattered image within the region, and he will therefore want a renewal of relations with Israel to be premised on agreement for at least one Turkish aid ship to Gaza. The situation in Gaza is reaching breaking point, with the territory going into its ninth year of siege and on a ‘disastrous trajectory’, according to the UN.
A complete removal of the blockade as a result of Turkish demands is unlikely, but Israel may allow limited entrance of Turkish aid into the besieged territory. Israel would prefer Hamas having Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia as patrons rather then Iran, and thus Israel’s allowing a trickling of Turkish aid into Gaza is possible. Furthermore, tepid comments from the US State Department with regards to Israel’s human rights transgressions have frosted the historically special relationship between Washington and Tel Aviv. By allowing Turkish ships, possibly after being searched and monitored by Israeli agents, to enter Gaza, Israel will portray itself as a benevolent force granting its subjugated population a limited reprieve. The humanitarian public relations coup this could bring for Israel could be significant, as could be the ammunition it provides its supporters in the USA.
The Palestinian faction which will benefit most from a Turkish-Israeli accord is Hamas. Any reprieve for beleaguered Palestinians in Gaza will give the movement more popular appeal in its heartland. Former Fatah member Mohammad Dahlan, who has designs on the presidency of the PLO and of the Palestinian Authority (PA) and has been strengthening his support base in Gaza, risks seeing his support weakened if aid enters through Hamas diplomacy. Dahlan is planning a comeback that is being funded primarily by the UAE and supported by Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. Sisi has already stressed he opposes Turkish ships docking at Gaza’s port. Sisi and Erdogan already have a tempestuous relationship after the former’s coup which overthrew President Mohammad Morsi in 2013.
Developments in the region have compelled Ankara to reorganise its foreign policy, and new and resurgent security challenges have compelled it to reconsider its alliances and its source of high grade military technology. Its overreliance on Russian energy has also made it wary, and made the possibility of sourcing gas from Israel more attractive. Erdogan’s grip on Turkish foreign policy has resulted in some disastrous decisions which have scuppered his reputation as a darling of the region. Supporting besieged Palestinians in Gaza in a manner no one else is able to is a good way to reassert himself regionally and attempt to reverse some reputational damage.
Israel has little to lose by rebuilding ties with Turkey. A ready customer for its gas and weapons will provide the economy with a rich windfall. Closeness with a NATO country, especially after a very public spat between US President Barack Obama and Netanyahu and disagreements with the EU, would be warmly welcomed in Tel Aviv, especially in defence circles.
For Palestinians, especially in Gaza, Turkish-Israeli rapprochement is unlikely to result in any significant and medium-term improvement in their living conditions. There will be short-term humanitarian benefit (and political benefit for Hamas) from a Turkish aid flotilla – the best possible scenario for Gazans, but that will not lift the siege. And even such aid is not certain; it still needs approval by a hawkish Netanyahu cabinet, whose objections will be bolstered by loud calls from Cairo, and quieter calls from Ramallah where PA and Fatah leaders would be loathe to see aid reach Hamas-controlled Gaza.
By Afro-Middle East
The accession to the throne of Salman Bin Abdulaziz has led to a reprioritisation of Saudi Arabian foreign policy. The rise of the Islamic State group (IS) and resurgence of Iran are now perceived as posing a more acute threat to the regime than that of democratic/participatory Islamists such as the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). Salman has thus sought to include these groups in a coalition with like-minded regional states to counter balance Iran and IS. Relations with Turkey and Qatar have consequently improved. However, the evolving nature of regional coalitions and the drop in the oil price will limit the kingdom’s ability to influence the foreign policy decisions of other regional states. Moreover, domestic matters, such as youth unemployment, will increasingly force the regime to look inward in the struggle for regime survival.
History and foreign policy impetuses
Saudi foreign policy has historically been governed by four main principles. These include territorial integrity, regime protection, economic prosperity and the promotion and preservation of its form of monarchical Islamic governance. However, because the Saudi kingdom possessed little influence and military strength during its initial stages, protection from a global power was usually sought and took the form of partnerships with the United Kingdom and the USA. These partnerships, together with its vast oil wealth, have enabled it to grow in strength. From the mid-2000s, Riyadh has acted more as a regional hegemon and deployed its financial and military power in the pursuit of its national interest. Although foreign policy in the kingdom is an elite-driven process, because the country is a monarchy, the king possesses disproportional influence. Domestic regime protection is the most significant thrust informing Saudi foreign policy.
Foreign policy during Abdullah’s era
Under Abdullah bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, Saudi Arabia aggressively increased and diversified its bilateral relations. In 2006 and 2007 alone, Abdullah visited China, Russia, India and Pakistan. These visits were mainly a consequence of Saudi Arabia’s opposition to the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq and overthrow of the Saddam regime. The kingdom viewed Iraq under Saddam as a bulwark against Iran, which it views as a regional competitor. It perceives Iran as posing a threat to it domestically in terms of inspiring its minority Shia population, who face much state-sponsored discrimination. Regionally it worries that Iran’s military and economic power, if allowed to flourish, will dilute the kingdom’s regional influence, especially amongst the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). The kingdom also views itself as the protector of ‘Sunnis’ and ‘Arabs’ from what it believes is ‘Shia’ and ‘Persian’ Iran, but this is of less importance in its calculations than the Islamic republic’s potential to undermine its domestic and regional interests.
The MENA uprisings
The kingdom, however, maintained warm relations with the USA, even when it emerged that the removal of Saddam had enabled Iran to gain influence in Iraq. A key factor informing this was the US opposition to Iran’s nuclear programme and the administration’s implementation of strict sanctions on the Islamic republic. This changed following the ‘Arab Spring’ uprisings. Three issues were critical in shaping this evolution. First, the kingdom was opposed to the forced resignation of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak in February 2011 and the US’s role in enabling this; Abdullah and Mubarak were close allies. The kingdom felt that the USA betrayed Mubarak, and that the US would take a similar stance if Abdullah were in that position. This was especially critical in light of the fact that, at the time, the main actors to gain from the uprisings were democratic Islamists. Riyadh views these groups as posing a normative threat to its monarchical form of Islam and still bemoans the fact that senior MB figures refused to support its role during the 1990–91 Gulf War.
Second, Riyadh felt let down over the Obama administration’s failure to intervene in Syria in September 2013, even when Bashar al-Asad was alleged to have used chemical weapons. Last, the kingdom is opposed to the Iranian nuclear deal, fearing that the deal will allow Iran to increase its regional and global influence. This is especially since the Islamic republic shares economic and energy interests with many Gulf states including Qatar and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), is influential in Lebanon and Syria through its alliances with Hizbullah and the Assad regime, and has more popular legitimacy in light of its holding of elections. The kingdom was especially angered at not being informed about the initial US–Iranian negotiations, which paved the way for the November 2013 interim agreement. It thus has become wary of future US support.
Riyadh thus responded by adopting a more assertive and independent foreign policy. First, it adopted a policy of containment. Through the use of its vast cash reserves (over seven hundred billion dollars in 2011) it sought to stifle protest movements from spreading to Gulf and Arab monarchs. Morocco and Jordan were invited to join the GCC and successfully provided funding to withstand protests. The kingdom also attempted to contain the uprisings through strengthening GCC cooperation and increasing the council’s capacity. GCC forces were deployed to Bahrain in 2011 and successfully supported and protected the Hamid regime, while in December 2013 the GCC concluded an agreement to establish a unified command and shared Gulf police force.
Second, Riyadh sought to reverse the successes gained by Islamists in countries such as Egypt. Through supporting former regime officials, together with the UAE and Kuwait, to the tune of between twenty-five and forty billion dollars, the Morsi regime was overthrown and replaced by former military head Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Riyadh supported the Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi administration in Yemen in its attempts to confront the Yemeni Islah party in light of Islah’s links to the MB, and Saudi–Emirati relations strengthened, partly as a result of the UAE’s actions in Tunisia and Libya, which were targeted at undermining democratic Islamists. This culminated in the March 2014 decision, adopted by Gulf states, declaring the MB a terrorist organisation and the withdrawal of the Kuwaiti, Saudi, and Emirati ambassadors from Qatar in protest over Qatar’s support for the group. Even though Riyadh supported opposition groups in Syria, this was more because it saw an opportunity to weaken Iran by removing the Assad regime, which is closely allied to the Islamic republic. Moreover, Saudi assistance to Syrian opposition groups sought to distinguish between Islamists such as the Syrian Brotherhood and more Salafi groups such as Jaysh al-Islam and Ahrar al-Sham, supporting the latter.
Abdullah’s death: change of course?
Following King Abdullah’s death in January 2015 and the ascension to the thrown of Salman bin Abdulaziz, Saudi foreign policy priorities have been reformulated. This resulted from both domestic and regional factors. Immediately following Salman’s accession, rhetoric toward the Brotherhood changed, and kingdom officials stated that the group as a whole was not viewed as a terrorist organisation. Further, relations between Qatar and Turkey dramatically improved at the expense of those with Egypt and the UAE.
The Iranian nuclear deal and rise of IS have been key influences in these decisions. The kingdom views these threats as posing a greater threat to it than that of democratic Islamists. It fears an Iranian resurgence after the nuclear deal, especially as this may diminish its regional influence.
IS on the other hand has been active in Saudi Arabia, claiming bombings on mosques frequented by Shi'a and special forces. Further, the group’s leadership has been critical of the Saudi regime, advocating internal rebellion and censuring its relative lack of support for Palestinian independence. This is aside from the normative threat that the group poses to the regime because of its use of religious texts legitimising its form of governance.
Salman has thus moved to adopt a policy of tolerance toward more democratic Islamists, with leaders from Ennahda, Hamas and the Islamic Action Front all visiting Saudi Arabia in 2015. It has also re-established ties with the Yemeni Islah party. Further, the kingdom has sought to form a coalition to confront Iran and IS. It stepped up coordination with Turkey and other countries to support and arm opposition groups in Syria, while in December it spearheaded the creation of an ‘anti-terrorism’ coalition together with thirty-four other, mainly Sunni, countries. The coalition excluded Iraq and Syria in light of their governments’ close ties to the Islamic republic – even though Iraq and Syria were designated as two of the coalition’s main areas of focus, and Iran is currently the only Gulf state with ground troops fighting IS. In addition, in January 2016, the kingdom severed diplomatic and trade ties with Iran following the storming of the Saudi embassy by Iranian protesters angered by the execution of influential Saudi Shia cleric Nimr al-Nimr. Nimr’s execution seemed calculated to coincide with the unfreezing of Iranian sanctions and was an unsuccessful attempt to stall the improving relations between Iran and Western states.
Yemen has provided the best example of Salman’s reprioritised foreign policy. Being paranoid over Iran’s support for Houthi (Ansarullah) rebels, and fearing that the Islamic republic would now be in control of four Arab capitals, in March 2015 Saudi Arabia commenced airstrikes on Houthi positions. The strikes were part of a ten-member Saudi-led coalition and were without initial US endorsement. The Yemeni Islah party has been empowered, especially in its attempts to consolidate control of the city of Taiz, and a coalition ground force, consisting of around 5 000 troops has since been deployed. Thus far the effort has had some successes; the Hadi administration has re-established control over Taiz and much of the country’s south and in recent weeks has been gaining ground in and around Sana’a. However, Houthi fighters, in coalition with military units loyal to Yemen’s former president, Ali Abdallah Saleh, remain in Sana’a and many northern regions, and will be difficult to dislodge in light of their institutional links and grass-roots support.
Salman’s renewed relations with democratic Islamists constitute tolerance and not necessarily rapprochement. Although Salman has had warm relations with Turkey’s president (Recep Tayyip Erdogan) and the previous emir of Qatar (Hamid bin Khalifa Al-Thani), the decision to re-engage democratic Islamists is more the result of Riyadh’s belief that these groups have been weakened and no longer pose an immediate threat to the regime’s survival. Moreover, the regime has concluded that these Islamists possess some influence regionally, and that this influence will be useful in combating Iran and IS. Last, it is notable that Salman has utilised similar means to those of Abdullah in implementing Saudi regional aspirations. Financial and military assistance has been provided to sympathetic parties, and Salman has not held back from endorsing direct military action. Further, US–Saudi relations have largely remained apprehensive since Salman’s accession.
Regionally the main consequences of the shifts in foreign policy under Abdullah and reprioritisation under Salman will see an intensification of regional conflicts, especially those involving Iran or its proxies. Finding political solutions to the Syrian and Yemeni conflicts will thus become exceedingly difficult. Yemen peace talks scheduled for January have already been postponed indefinitely, while the Munich truce between the Syrian regime and opposition fighters is already proving difficult to implement. This will result in the worsening of conditions for civilians trapped in the middle of this battle, which increasingly resembles a regional cold war.
Foreign policy constraints
Salman’s ambitions will however be constrained by various factors. First, coalition formation in the region is notoriously difficult. The balance of power is influenced more by domestic factors than states’ hard power resources, making coalition formation improbable and short term in nature. The UAE, for example, is more fearful of domestic Islamists than it is of Iran, making it unlikely that the country will defer totally in a coalition with the Saudis. This is currently being observed in Yemen, where the Emirates is sceptical of Islah and has thus refused to finance and arm the party. Moreover, economic ties are likely to ensure that coalition formation is loose and more issue specific. The UAE and Oman have important economic ties with Iran, while Qatar and Iran jointly share the South Pars / North Dome gas field. All three of these countries refused to fully follow the Saudi lead and sever diplomatic relations with Iran after the Saudi embassy attack. Qatar and Oman maintained the same level of diplomatic engagement with Tehran, while the UAE downgraded relations but did not fully sever diplomatic ties. Further, Turkey is dependent on Iranian gas, especially since Ankara now has tense relations with Russia, and has thus offered to play a mediating role between Saudi Arabia and Iran, despite the Erdogan regime’s opposition to Iran’s interests in Syria.
Second, the drop in oil and liquefied natural gas prices will impede the kingdom’s attempts to use its vast oil wealth to influence other, poorer regional states. The price drop has even meant that it has had to utilise its cash reserves to fund domestic programs, causing these to drop by over a hundred billion in 2015 alone. Riyadh has increased levies on petrol and gas by fifty per cent and sixty-six per cent, respectively, and the GCC is mulling the introduction of a form of value-added tax with income tax soon to follow. The funding it was able to provide to regional states in 2011 to stall protests and ensure state alliances will thus be curtailed. Some have argued that this is one of the reasons informing the kingdom’s provision of loans instead of grants to the Sisi regime.
Last, the country will increasingly be required to focus internally. Following the uprisings it sought to stymie domestic rumblings through increased social spending and utilised over a hundred billion of its reserves for this purpose in 2011 alone. However, issues still remain, especially within the country’s restive youth population. Unemployment amongst the fifteen to twenty-four year old group stands at over thirty per cent, and around two-thirds of the country is under thirty. The 2016 budget allocates around twenty-three billion to education and a significant amount to other social services; however, much more will need to be done, including providing employment and a sense of purpose for qualified graduates. This is one of the reasons accounting for Salman’s appointment of his youngest son Mohammad bin Salman (aged thirty) and the relatively young Muhammad bin Nayef (aged fifty-six) as deputy crown prince and crown prince, respectively. The kingdom is seeking to reconnect with its youth population in an attempt to quell descent and ensure its perpetuation. This will be increasingly difficult, especially in light of its lifting of subsidies and implementation of taxes.
Things however can change quickly, and chances for miscalculations abound, especially in light of the complex regional and international alliances involved. Moreover, opposition to Salman’s policies from within the royal family is manifest; the allegiance council did not unanimously endorse the appointment of Mohammad bin Salman as deputy crown prince and de facto prime minister. However, for the time being, while Salman is still at the helm, Riyadh’s foreign policy will mainly be concerned with confronting Iran and IS. Relations with democratic Islamists will improve as the regime seeks to create a bloc to balance Iran, consequently intensifying conflicts in Syria and Yemen, and inflaming sectarian tensions in the process.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
Israel’s government ended its eighteen-month ‘freeze’ on settlement construction in the West Bank with an announcement ofplans to construct 153 housing units across the territory. That the expansion of these units includes large settlement blocs as well as settlement towns deep into the West Bank reveals the far-reaching designs for a resurgent settlement enterprise. UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon labelled the settlements ‘an affront to the Palestinian people and the international community’, with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu predictably responding that Ban gave a ‘tailwind to terrorism’.
The announcement came just days after twelve Israeli settlers were evicted from two homes in Hebron, which they had invaded and occupied. Their evictions caused an uproar in Netanyahu’s coalition government, with Immigrant Absorption and Jerusalem Affairs Minister Ze'ev Elkin, himself a West Bank settler, calling on the defence minister, Moshe Ya'alon, to halt the eviction. Elkin’s comments were echoed by Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein. Likud’s coalition partner, Habayit Yehudi, which holds three prominent cabinet portfolios, condemned the action.
The settlement announcement is a very public attempt by Netanyahu’s government to placate the vocal settlement supporters (and settlers) in the coalition. It also represents another episode in an ongoing challenge to the international community, following Netanyahu’s numerous foreign ministry appointments of individuals who actively support the settlement programme and oppose international law on this issue. These include Tzipi Hotovely, the deputy minister of foreign affairs, who advocates for Israeli sovereignty over the whole of the OPT (West Bank and Gaza). In August 2015 he appointed Danny Danon as ambassador to the UN. Danon opposes a two-state solution, and positions himself to the right of Netanyahu. The appointment of Dani Dayan, former chair of the settlement group Yesha Council, as ambassador to Brazil was met with strong objections by Brazilian President Dilma Rouseff.
Little under a week before the announcement of the settlement expansion, the European Union Foreign Affairs Council passed a resolution criticising Israeli settlement activity. The resolution said the EU would closely monitor developments on the ground and assess their broader implications. The resolution is intended as a follow up to the EU’s new guidelines last year for the labelling of products from Israeli settlements. Alongside established trade deals with Israel and engagement with the Israel-Palestine peace process, the EU has funded numerous development projects in the OPT; some in Area C, which is under full Israeli control. Most Palestinian buildings subject to Israeli demolition orders are in Area C, and EU-funded structures are not immune. Between January and May 2015, forty-one EU-funded structures built at a cost of 236 000 Euros were torn down by the Israeli army.
The EU is not the only big power publicly criticising Israel’s settlement project. Earlier this month US ambassador to Israel, Daniel Shapiro, spoke against what he called two standards of law that Israel applies in the West Bank – one for Jews and one for Palestinians, and Israel’s tolerance of settler vigilantism. He questioned Israel’s commitment to peace and the two-state solution in light of continued settlement expansion. Following strong criticism from the Israeli government, Shapiro’s comments were defended by the US State Department as being correct. Relations between Netanyahu and US President Barack Obama have seldom been warm, but such direct criticism from within the US administration suggests that concern over Israel’s attitude towards the ‘peace process’ is broad.
The swing to the right in the Israeli political landscape since the signing of the Oslo Accords has provided the settlement enterprise increasing credibility within Israel’s political institutions. A number of mainstream parties now contest elections on pro-settlement platforms: Habeyit Yehudi runs on an overt pro-settler anti-two-state platform, whilst most in Likud, the largest party in government, either sympathise with the settler movement or openly advocate for the complete annexation of the West Bank.
As this phenomenon has crystallised, discontent within the UN General Assembly has grown. Emerging regional powers in Central and South America and BRICS countries have voiced doubts about Israel’s commitment to the peace process. Popular grassroots pressure from civil society groups across Europe has forced Israel’s long-standing allies within the EU to take action on Israel’s human rights transgressions. Although Israel remains the US’s strongest ally in the Middle East, public disagreements over the Iranian nuclear deal have created unprecedented discord between Washington and Tel Aviv; Shapiro’s comments fall within this context. Yet little over a week after Shapiro’s barbed statement, Obama made the most ‘philosemetic, pro-Jewish’ speech in the Israeli embassy in Washington DC. In the last months of Obama’s presidency, back channel disagreements and distaste with Israeli policy by State Department officials has led to embarrassment for his administration, with the president often deploying a doting speech to reaffirm US commitment to ‘Israel’s security’. These contradictions, although not significant enough to alter US policy towards Israel in the short term, will be difficult to paper over as Israel intensifies its settlement expansion.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
The International Atomic Energy Agency’s 16 January certification that Iran had complied with the provisions of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA) negotiated between it and world powers over its nuclear programme means that sanctions relief would be forthcoming, will have substantial regional and global consequences.
Even prior to the deal’s conclusion, Saudi Arabia and certain members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) had expressed dissatisfaction and had resolved to intervene in Yemen, and to increase support to Syrian opposition groups. Fears of a resurgent Iran after the lifting of sanctions have led to many GCC members downgrading ties with Iran and reequipping their armed forces. Iran’s compliance with the deal has also reduced the probability of an Israeli air offensive against the Islamic Republic over fears of an international backlash. However, Israel’s weakened regional position and difficult relations with the Obama administration will increase covert relations between it and Saudi Arabia. Globally, increased Iranian oil and liquefied natural gas supplies have helped lower energy prices, and diplomacy and the nuclear non-proliferation treaty have been strengthened.
The deal is also triggering a significant effect domestically. Polarisation between Iranian institutions wary of relations with the West, such as the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and those, such as President Hassan Rouhani and foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, who have worked to improve Iran’s international standing, have increased. At the core of this is the fear among some that Rouhani seeks to liberalise Iranian society, and that the nuclear deal is the first step in a wider détente between it and the USA, which some perceive as posing a threat to the character of the Islamic Republic. Some in this camp are still distrustful of the role played by Rouhani’s benefactors after the disputed 2009 presidential election. Flexing its muscles, the IRGC, in the past three months alone, performed two missile tests, allegedly fired at an American aircraft carrier in the strait of Hormuz, and captured and later released ten American Navy personnel who had traversed Iranian territorial waters. Some referred to the deal as nuclear sedition, while others argued that the country had conceded too much. The Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has adopted a more balanced position, supporting the negotiations while remaining critical of America and other western states.
Polarisation has been compounded by two impending elections in February: a parliamentary election, and the election for members of the Assembly of Experts. The latter body, whose members serve for eight years, appoints the supreme leader. Since it is believed that seventy-four-year old Khamenei may not survive the next eight years, the next assembly will likely choose his replacement, making this election extremely critical. Rouhani’s ally, the influential Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, has announced he will attempt to again become head of the Assembly, and seeks to empower it by granting it a supervisory role over the next supreme leader. Such a change will qualitatively alter Iran’s governance structures. This has been interpreted as posing an internal threat to the regime by some Iranians who view him as a ‘seditionist’, and have sought to minimise his role in the country’s governance.
Sanctions relief, a core tenet of Rouhani’s 2013 electoral platform, will likely result in increased popular support for reform-minded members in the parliamentary election, and Rouhani’s re-election in the 2017 presidential poll. Conservatives in the Guardian Council – which vets electoral candidates – have thus disqualified most Rouhani supporters wishing to contest the February poll. Only thirty-three of the over 3 000 Rouhani supporters were approved to run in February.
Economically, sanctions relief will aid Iranians and encourage development. The 100 billion dollars in unfrozen assets (thirty billion of it almost immediately) will boost government revenue, and assist it to compensate for the declining oil price. Relief from financial sanctions will foster investment, and increase the number and variety of consumer products. More than 140 business delegations have already visited Iran since the deal’s conclusion in June 2015. Manufacturing, energy, and transportation have attracted the most interest, and conglomerates such as Alstom, Eni, Renault and Ericson had expressed interest before the agreement was signed. Iran will, however, have to deal with corruption and inefficiency issues to fully benefit from sanctions relief. Further, the low oil price, which accounts for most government revenue, will reduce benefits gained from increased oil production and increasing sales. Economic liberalisation, one of Rouhani’s aspirations, has become more possible in light of potential new investment, but will likely increase the double-digit inflation rate, impacting on the country’s poor and lower middle classes. This will be felt once the jubilation and relief over the lifting of sanctions wears off. Significantly, the opening up of the country’s economy will impede the influence of the IRGC, which is heavily involved in the Iranian economy, and which will have to compete with foreign companies.
None of this poses an existential threat to the regime and the governance institution of the velayat-e-faqih. Despite the seeming contradictions, elite consensus continues to favour the system. Rouhani and his ilk do not seek the system’s dissolution, but hope economic and cultural liberalisation will ensure its survival. They therefore participated in electoral processes even after the 2009 election and subsequent crackdown, many of whose targets are still behind bars. Rouhani is, after all, a confidant of Khamenei, who appointed him to the Supreme National Security Council. Moreover, the system is still viewed favourably by most citizens, with seventy-two per cent participating in the 2013 presidential election. Although the nuclear deal’s greater impact will be on the regional and international stages where a Cold War-like atmosphere is developing between Saudi Arabia and Iran, its domestic implications will also be noteworthy in shaping the country’s societal and political evolution.
By Yehia Hamid
All economic indicators in Egypt point to the fact that the country has entered a phase of serious economic collapse, for which it and its people will pay for many years, and which will have an impact on a large proportion of its people.
Indicators from the Egyptian Exchange show that it has lost 30 per cent within two years, and 27 billion Egyptian pounds ($3.4 billion) within only two weeks. Egypt’s feeble exchange is expected to continue its nosedive.
Egypt’s foreign currency reserves reached their worst levels since Egypt received nearly $50 billion from three Gulf states after the July 2013 coup in which General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi seized power. Most of these funds have been squandered. About $16.4 billion remain, and this amount is not sufficient to pay for the importation of basic commodities for more than two months.
Sisi, now president after being ‘elected’ in a sham election, requires $1.5 billion a month in order to remain in power. Reaching this target is becoming increasingly difficult because donor countries themselves face tough global economic circumstances, and because one of the main donors, Saudi Arabia, seems no longer to have the appetite to throw money Sisi’s way. The United Arab Emirates, the other big donor, is also tiring of the squandering f its money and of being treated like ‘an ATM machine’. Even if these countries were to continue to provide minimal support, that will not halt the economic decline that is felt by Egyptians.
Egyptian exports in general have fallen by 25 per cent, and the export of petroleum products has fallen by 19 per cent compared to the same period in 2014. Such numbers are due to a failure by the government on an economic level, the war it has waged on the private sector, and the monopoly of the political elite over all government tenders – completely shutting out smaller contractors.
Over the past two years, the government went further. It also fought against the activities of the ‘parallel economy’, which represents about 30 per cent of all economic activity. This battle has taken different forms in order to force small private businesses into the official market so as to reap taxes from these small workshops and their small unofficial activities. As a result, tens of thousands of people have lost their seasonal jobs, and around five million Egyptians served by these economic activities have been deprived of their services.
The business sector in Egypt, employing more than 300 000 Egyptians, is experiencing an extremely difficult time. It has suffered power shortages, a reduction in natural gas, and non-approval of funding required to renew necessary machinery and tools. Consequently, the situation in the sector has worsened as a result of a plan by the government to cripple these vital companies and force them to sell, thus benefiting from their cheap sale price or the cheap prices of their properties. Notable examples of this are the steel factory Najaa Hammadi Aluminium Factory and Al-Mahallah Textile Factory.
The country stands at the threshold of a collapse in the value of the Egyptian pound, which has lost 20 per cent of its value over the past two years and will likely be further devalued by the new Central Bank governor, Tarek Amer. The government, in the meanwhile, insists on collecting money from the Egyptians in a variety of ways – either through failed projects such as the Suez Canal water way extension project, or by hiking interest rates on saving certificates to 12.5 per cent, which are likely to rise even higher.
All the government’s ‘giant projects’ have either been cancelled or have failed. The Suez Canal expansion project, for which $8 billion was collected from citizens and for which a mandatory $1 billion of interest will have to be paid annually, is an example. The canal has already suffered a drop of 9.7 per cent of its revenues due to recent declines in world trade. In other words, the Suez Canal will this year likely attract a revenue of under $4 billion, compared to $5.4 billion in 2014 – despite the expansion project.
This failure is related to the complete absence of any legislative regulation or system of accountability. Sisi has purchased $8 billion worth of weapons, some of which are partly funded by regional powers while some will be paid for at a later stage by Egyptians, either through new taxes or through deductions from foreign aid.
The tourism sector suffered another collapse with the regime failing to protect it. Tourism were already low but were worsened recently with the killing of twelve Mexican tourists, and the deaths of 224 people in the Russian plane crash last month as a result of a security breach. The plane crash represented the beginning of a virtual freeze in tourism at the most crucial time – the commencement of the main tourism season of the year. Around two million Egyptians work in the tourism sector, either directly or indirectly, and more than eight million citizens will be affected by the failure of the government to salvage this important economic sector.
As if these indicators were not bad enough, the banking system is no longer able to save people’s money due to the Central Bank of Egypt lacking any independence or transparency. The bank’s current governor, Hisham Ramez, whose term ends at the end of November, was responsible for concealing billions of dollars of foreign funds that entered Egypt, had banned the publication of any credible information about the currency reserve, and refused to devalue the Egyptian pound in order to attempt to rescue the economy.
* Yehia Hamid is a former minister of investment in Egypt
There have been numerous analyses of the current conflagration raging in Palestine. We present here another such analysis. This one, however, is from within one of the Palestinian factions - the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. This internal discussion document has been circulating within that movement, and was translated by AMEC in order to allow English-speaking readers to understand differing perspectives on the uprising. While the views expressed here are those of the Islamic Jihad Movement and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Afro-Middle East Centre, this paper is being published because it is important in representing a protagonist voice engaging fellow interlocutors. AMEC's objective in making this analysis available is to enrich the discussion on the uprising specifically, and the broader Palestinian question in general.
Prepared by: Studies and Policies Unit, General Secretariat, Islamic Jihad Movement in Palestine
In the name of God, the Gracious, the Merciful
Once again the Palestinian people have shown, as they have done through more than a century of struggle, that the land of Palestine is what makes life worth living, and that it is worth sacrifices of blood and soul and all that is precious and valuable.
It was Al-Aqsa Mosque, the iconic symbol evoked in the Qur'an, which caused our people in all of Palestine to rise in defence and in sacrifice for the sake of each step that our Prophet Muhammad, Peace be upon Him, had taken in his ascension to heaven. It is a sacrifice for every grain of sand on which Umar al-Farouq had prostrated to God, and for the army of the Prophet’s companions, God bless them, on the great day of the conquest of Jerusalem when al-Nasser Salahuddin liberated Jerusalem and Al-Aqsa Mosque from the clutches of its invaders, the Crusaders, with the sword of Islam.
It is Palestine, rising up en masse from the river to the sea, from Rafah to Ras al-Naqura (Rosh Hanikra), and from Khalil al-Rahman (Hebron) to Sakhnin, to trouble the faces of the new invaders, the Zionist usurpers. It is the blessed intifada brought back to life by the youth of Palestine, and the people of Palestine, transmitting their message to the whole world, to those who turned their backs on Palestine or forgot it. The message says: ‘Palestine cannot be forgotten, and she will remain alive until God ordains that right be done and falsehood be nullified, until the land and the homes are restored to her people, and they return to them victorious and dignified, God willing.’
By Afro-Middle East Centre
The recently-signed agreement between sections from Libya’s warring factions will likely have little impact as most Libyan political players and militia groups oppose it, and because local initiatives and views were ignored during its conceptualisation. The deal could increase fragmentation in the already gridlocked Libyan political situation, and provide more space for the growth of the Islamic state group (IS). Further, foreign intervention, under the guise of supporting the new ‘Government of National Accord’ (GNA), is becoming an increasingly distinct possibility, and was key in informing the international community’s support for the deal.
The agreement, signed in the Moroccan resort of Skheirat, ends a year-long negotiation process. The negotiations followed the reconvening of the General National Congress (GNC) in Libya in August 2014 in opposition to the internationally-recognised House of Representatives (HoR) based in the eastern city of Tobruk. The deal envisages the creation of a seventeen-member government, led by the little known Faez Serraj as prime minister, and deputies representing the provinces of Fezzan, Tripoli and Benghazi, who will be based in Tripoli. The internationally recognised House of Representatives (HoR) will play a legislative role, while the GNC will play an advisory role. Only members from both institutions who had signed the deal will, however, be regarded as being members of the two bodies.
Initially a bottom-up process which sought to incorporate civil society and lower level political actors such as mayors and town councillors into a process of finding solutions, the ‘negotiations’ have become a diktat from foreign powers. Diplomats have threatened sanctions for ‘spoilers’, refused to recognise the results of internal negotiations between the GNC and HoR, and stated that the agreement is unalterable. Further, the credibility of the UN has been tarnished by its partiality in the negotiations process. At the core of this heavy-handed attitude is the fears of foreign powers, particularly the USA and European Union, of migration and the growth of IS. Libya is viewed as a transit hub for African migrants seeking to enter the EU through Malta, a fear amplified by IS’s consolidation in the port city of Sirte. Western states regard Libya as a growing alternate IS base, and thus see intervention as inevitable. Already US and French aircraft have carried out operations in Libya, and Britain and Italy are likely to deploy ground troops in the country. These states therefore seek the formation of a Libyan government which will sanction and coordinate such intervention. It is expected a UN resolution will soon be passed, declaring the new entity as the only recognised Libyan government.
The agreement has therefore been criticised by the leaders of both the GNC and HoR as a foreign imposition. Less than half of the members of both institutions (eighty of 180 HoR members, and fifty of 136 GNC members) have signed the agreement – in their personal capacities, critics claim. Further, on the 6 December, the GNC and HoR signed a declaration of intent in Tunis, which envisages the creation of two ten-member bodies to form a unity government and draft a new constitution. This would pave the way for the holding of elections in two years. The UN’s special envoy to Libya, Martin Kobler, dismissed this local process by saying the ‘train had already left the station’, asserting that the UN deal was the only one that would be considered, and imploring all factions to sign it. Consequently, the UN deal is unlikely to be respected by the GNC and HoR, and it is difficult to see the new ‘government’ operating out of Tripoli. Further, militia leaders were not involved in the negotiations, and are even less supportive of the agreement than the GNC and HoR. Thus, foreign security will likely be required to protect the new government, weakening its already diminished legitimacy and adding another centre of power into the current civil war. The power of the GNC and HoR will thus be denuded, allowing IS to gain more ground, especially as it begins to create institutions to govern areas it controls, and locals become disillusioned with the failure of the mainstream political actors abilities to govern and provide services.
The current situation is a throwback to what Libya faced in April 2011, when the UN and NATO continued to advocate regime change even after the Gadhafi regime had accepted the African Union’s road map which would have allowed for the development of a local political solution. The failure to involve local, influential actors in the process is a big reason the country currently finds itself in a situation of political gridlock and spiralling insecurity. The UN seems to have failed to learn these lessons. However, the agreement can still be saved if the UN is more flexible and willing to incorporate the local process, which on 14 December saw the heads of the GNC and HoR meet for the first time in an attempt to broker a solution. The UN would also need to stave off calls for foreign intervention and airstrikes – at least until a legitimate political solution incorporating all major players is concluded.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
The revelation that the alleged mastermind of the 13 November Paris attacks claimed by the Islamic State group (IS) was of Moroccan descent, the turmoil in Libya, and the general strife in numerous African countries such as Nigeria and Somalia that is being attributed to IS and Al-Qa'ida has sparked speculation that IS is likely to expand within Africa, and even in South Africa.
However, most of these assertions are the result of hurried summaries rather than sober analysis. One news outlet, for example, carried two contradictory headlines on the IS threat in Libya within two days of each other. One claimed IS was ‘struggling to expand in Libya’ and the other that IS ‘could expand from Libya’.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
The terror unleashed on Paris streets on 13 November reverberated throughout the world. From the G20 summit in Antalya to social media debates about how only the suffering of white or western bodies is highlighted, the attack continues generating much debate. The most important questions arising from the Paris bombings concern the French response, and what, if anything, the incidents might tell us about the Islamic State (IS) group’s future strategy.
The French government’s response has been multi-faceted. At the domestic level France began investigating the planning and execution of the attacks, and the parliament approved a three-month state of emergency. The French parliament amended the 1955 law governing states of emergency to concentrate power in the hands of the government, and has given wide latitude to police in a manner that undermines human rights and civil liberties in France – similar to laws passed in the USA after the 2011 attacks. Police have been empowered to detain people in their homes without trial, search houses without warrants, break up meetings, impose curfews, and block websites at their whim. The army may also be deployed in French cities. France also worked with Belgian authorities to follow up links the attackers might have had in Belgian. France also announced with Russia that the two states would coordinate their aerial attacks in Syria, after France claimed to have hit IS targets in Raqqa, which IS considers its capital.
Afraid that questions will be raised about their inability to prevent attacks such as the Paris bombings from occurring, no state waging war against IS seems willing to admit that the operation should not have been a surprise, and that more are possible soon. Instead, demands are being made by governments for a freer hand in ‘fighting terrorism’. UK prime minister David Cameron is still attempting to convince the British parliament to approve air strikes inside Syria, and Belgium’s prime minister, Charles Michel, asked parliament to implement stricter measures – such as extending the time for detention without charge to 72 (from 24) hours; the authority to shut down mosques that ‘preach hate’; and to approve an additional 400 million Euros for state security.
While refugees entering Europe have not yet been targeted after the IS attacks, they will likely occasion a growing European military role in the global coalition against IS, and stricter border policies. Such reactions will likely attract the ire of IS and its global sympathisers. Therefore, attempts at duplicating the Paris attacks could continue after IS members realise the great deal of fear created in France, and the potential for such attacks to unleash Islamophobia in the West, both of which are tactical objectives for IS.
The Paris attacks raise the question of whether this is a new phase in IS’s evolution, and whether the group has adopted a new strategy of carrying out terrorist-type operations rather than the insurgency which won it victories in Iraq and Syria a year ago. It is unlikely that IS is substituting one strategy for another. It needs to control and govern territory, otherwise it will be another al-Qa'ida-like entity, after having eclipsed its parent entity as the biggest world enemy. From a strategic perspective, it would not want to invite the wrath of western powers to the extent that will undermine its ability to hold territory. Therefore, the Paris attacks, rather than representing a strategy change, can be explained differently. IS regional affiliates are decentralised, with broad directives to engage in operations in targeted areas; the precise timing and coordination is left to local operatives. France is a target because of its bombing campaign against IS in Syria. Hence, the timing of the attacks in France is probably not significant.
How the IS strategy unfolds in the next few months will provide important hints for the group’s future. Its leaders do not all hold the same views on its strategic objectives. Many are pragmatists, more concerned with fighting an insurgency and controlling territory than undertaking terrorist attacks in western countries. Therefore, it can be expected that high-ranking IS members are not all in favour of operations such as that in Paris because of tactical and strategic considerations, and the fear of eliciting reactions that might be difficult to bear.
Whatever the exact reasons behind the attacks in Paris, which the IS claim of responsibility does not fully explain, it is possible that Paris might not be the last city that IS and its sympathisers will target in the countries whose governments are maintaining a war against it in Iraq and Syria.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
Hizbullah was established in 1982, at the height of Lebanon’s fifteen-year civil war, to protect Lebanon’s Shi'a community which, at the time, was one of the country’s most disadvantaged communities. Its main objective was opposition to Israeli aggression against Palestinians and Lebanon, and it hoped to engender a more favourable view of Iran. The party’s most concrete advances occurred after the 1990 Saudi-brokered Taif Accord which ended the civil war. Israel’s occupation of southern Lebanon allowed Hizbullah to retain its weapons, unlike other militia groupings which were largely disarmed and incorporated into the country’s formal political and military systems. Hizbullah’s effective guerrilla campaign forced Israel to withdraw from Lebanon in 2000, and the party began playing a more active role in Lebanese electoral politics. Its providing civil services to its mainly Shi'a constituency, and Lebanon’s consociational system which allocates government and the military positions on a sectarian basis, allowed it to punch above its weight. Following the May 2008 Beirut clashes, which saw the deaths of around seventy people, and during which Hizbullah violently and successfully opposed scrutiny of its telecommunications network, the party negotiated a ‘blocking vote’ which allowed its March 8 alliance a third of cabinet seats, and decisions of ‘national importance’ could only be passed with a two thirds majority. This blocking vote has been largely removed in the current government’s working, but Hizbullah is still able to block decisions that negatively affect it through quorum rules.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
The outcome of Turkey’s 1 November snap election was an unexpected surge in support for the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP) which will comfortably dominate parliament with 49 per cent of the vote (up from 41 per cent in the June election) and 57 per cent of parliamentary seats. This is in stark contrast to the results of the June election that had produced a hung parliament and led to five months of political and economic instability. This latest outcome sets a different scene for the country’s future social, political and economic agendas as the AKP takes 317 of the 550 parliamentary seats.
With large numbers of refugees arriving in Turkey daily, the Syrian crisis certainly influenced the the socio-economic environment and the election, but there is little doubt that the resumption of violence between the state and the Kurdish Worker’s Party (PKK) was extremely crucial in how votes would be cast. While opposition media, particularly those aligned to the Gulen/Hizmet movement, portray the outcome as a personal victory for the president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the results highlight the collective weakness of the three main opposition parties, underlined by the spectacular losses suffered by the Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) – which shed 40 parliamentary seats – and the pro-Kurdish People’s Democratic Party (HDP) – with a decrease of 21 seats. Both parties could have been king-makers in a coalition government after June but, like the AKP, they gambled on securing more seats in the second election. The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) maintained its position, losing only two seats.
The AKP’s revival as majority party with four million votes more votes than in June can be attributed mainly to a popular desire for ‘stability’ which, many voters believed, can be delivered only by the ruling party. Further, the Kurdish issue and related violence loomed large, and coalition governments in Turkey have historically failed to help in resolving the Kurdish question. Turks became instinctively distrustful of coalition governments after the turbulent 1990s when frequent military interventions into politics became the norm. This week’s outcome can, thus, also be read as an attempt by voters to prevent a situation where Turkey can only be governed by a coalition. Five months ago analysts and exit polls predicted the AKP’s decline as a result of internal and external pressures, particularly because of contestation between the party and its former ally, the Fethullah Gulen movement. The Gulenists’ withdrawing support from the AKP in June strongly influenced the party’s poor showing.
In five months the HDP, which celebrated in June for the 13 per cent of the vote it had received, lost three per cent, while its leadership aimed for 20 per cent. To voters for whom stability was a priority – especially conservative Kurdish voters, the HDP’s unwillingness to distance itself from and condemn the PKK was a major factor for its losses. Votes that the HDP received in June from those who viewed a strong HDP as a check on the AKP’s exercise of power, especially in light of corruption allegations against AKP officials, now switched to the AKP. Some observers suggest that the shock decline in AKP votes in June was a result of punitive voting because of a stagnant economy and rising instability brought on by the Syrian crisis. And nationalists wanted to punish the AKP for its seemingly-dovish approach to the PKK. Images of armed PKK members at check points in Kurdish areas such as Cizre stirred anti-AKP sentiment even within its traditional support base.
But the return of violence on a daily basis – with bombings in Turkey’s major cities, and the Turkish army at war with both the PKK and Islamic State group and with deaths on both sides of the state-Kurdish conflict – turned a large number of voters away from the HDP back to the AKP. Most HDP votes this week came from Turkey’s east, suggesting that Kurds in other areas switched their votes back to the AKP. The ruling party seems to be considered by many as a safe bet during tumultuous times. Some critics argue that the AKP manufactured ‘instability’ in the past five months in order to return precisely the result that this election did, that while the government has not been responsible for all the violence, it created the conditions for it and helped paint the PKK (and politicised Kurds more generally) as Turkey’s enemy – in order to win back the parliament.
If this criticism is correct, it is possible the AKP might consider reviving talks with the PKK now that it is again politically secure. Abdullah Ocalan, the PKK’s imprisoned leader, will likely face increased pressure from Turkey’s National Intelligence Organization (MIT), which will want him to support a political solution to the conflict. If he is unwilling or unable to do so, the assumption would be that the PKK strategic leadership centre had shifted to the commanders in the Qandil Mountains, and that Ocalan had become irrelevant.
HDP leaders will face similar pressures. To continue to be recognised as the political voice of Turkish Kurds (at least by the state), they will be expected to distance themselves from the PKK. It will also have to consider how it might strengthen its appeal both to Kurds and to Turkish leftists who supported it in June, but might have deserted it in November. As with all parties, the HDP’s survival partly depends on the Turkish economy. This will be a critical factor for the HDP which won most seats through votes obtained in the east where the economy has been particularly hard hit as a result of the government-PKK battles. To complicate matters further for the HDP, it will have to navigate its ‘debt’ to the Gulen movement whose members voted for the HDP as a way of blocking the AKP and opposing Erdogan.
But with the Kurdish question again becoming the most pressing domestic issue – especially with the renewed war between the state and the PKK, the government will want a strong Kurdish political partner that can be an interlocutor with the PKK and encourage it back to the negotiations table. The AKP will likely see the HDP as such a partner and will want to change that adversarial relationship into one of cooperation.
Paradoxically, the AKP also retained votes from supporters who had been critical of the party’s negotiations with the PKK, but who did not shift their votes to the hardline Turkish nationalist MHP; and it won the votes of MHP nationalists who were encouraged by the government’s recent (deadly) confrontations with the PKK. The MHP’s identity-based policies are viewed by many as incapable of dealing with the new reality, including that of Kurdish parliamentarians, and is losing even leaders because of this. The AKP, then, succeeded in winning the votes of both conservative Kurds (from the HDP), and nationalist Turks (from the MHP) – even though that seems counter-intuitive.
Another factor contributing to the AKP’s success was the revision of its candidate lists since the June election. Many well-known leaders who had reached their three-term limit were unable to stand in June, but, having ‘missed’ an election, became eligible again. In a period of uncertainty the electorate seems to have taken comfort in personalities from the past who are tried and trusted.
While in most elections a weak economy results in the incumbent ruling party losing support, in Turkey it has meant that voters supported the incumbent because they believed it could rescue the economy – as it did over a decade ago.
While the Syrian war is ever-present for all Turks – especially since Turkey hosts two million Syrian refugees who have been partly blamed for the country’s economic woes – it and other foreign policy issues were less important in this election than the PKK issue.
With the question of parliament’s make-up settled for another term, there have been two broad perspectives on a future under the AKP. The optimistic view is that the government, with a secure majority, will be able to deal with the economic, foreign policy and Kurdish issues. The other is that the vote was unfair because of repression, and that the AKP will become more authoritarian, further restrict free expression and increase polarisation.
Ahmet Davutoglu, Turkey’s prime minister and AKP’s chief, acknowledged in his victory speech that polarisation was a problem, and he pledged to form a government that will embrace all Turks. Will he seriously address the problem? Will he reflect that pledge in a new cabinet that includes members of other parties? For many critics of the AKP, the big concern is what they see as Erdogan’s authoritarian tendency and his desire to change Turkey’s political system into a presidential one. Whether this desire or Davutoglu’s pledge will trump will have long-term implications for Turkey.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
The recent uprising in East Jerusalem and the Palestinian West Bank points to a clear disillusionment among Palestinian youth, largely caused by Israel’s occupation, its Judaisation of Jerusalem, and the complicity of certain Palestinian political parties.
The intensification of the conflict since the beginning of October, which has caused the deaths of over sixty Palestinians and ten Israelis, was ignited by increased Israeli government sanctioning of visits of nationalist, religious Jews to the Aqsa Mosque, many of whom seek the compound’s destruction. Israel has also severely restricted Muslims access to Al-Aqsa, and increased its monitoring of Muslim groups operating at the compound. In late August and September, Israeli police prevented Palestinian women and men under fifty from visiting the mosque before noon, and in September the Murabitun and Murabitat, informal groups of men and women who offer religious classes and attempt to ensure the ban on Jewish prayer is observed, were declared illegal.
These measures have contravened the ‘status quo’, a situation that has been in place since the eighteenth century, and in terms of which the Aqsa compound will be controlled by Muslims; people of other faiths will be allowed access to the compound but will not be allowed to pray there. This status quo has been repeatedly ratified and upheld over the past two and half centuries – even after Jerusalem was occupied by Israel in 1967, and annexed to Israel in 1980. The 1994 peace treaty between Israel and Jordan commits Israel to ‘respect the special role of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan in Muslim Holy shrines in Jerusalem’. Currently, by mutual agreement between Jordan and Israel, the Aqsa Mosque compound is administered by the Jordanian Waqf. This body also, supposedly in consultation with Israel, monitors Jewish access to the site. Israeli Jewish groups entering the compound are supposed to be accompanied by police, and Waqf guides are to ensure no Jews pray on the site.
The status quo has been violated by Israel numerous times in recent years. For example, Israel often restricts Muslim access to the Aqsa Mosque compound, ranging from completely closing the Old City for Muslims to imposing age limits on those wanting to attend Friday prayers. There are also certain permanent restrictions that are less well-known. A recent privately commissioned report claims that the Israeli government has instructed that when there are Jews present in the compound, Muslim men and women under the age of 50 should not be allowed to enter. Since Israeli groups tour the compound throughout the week, this means that Muslims under 50 are not allowed access to the site every morning from Sunday to Thursday.
Further inflaming the situation, cabinet ministers, including agriculture minister Uri Ariel, who previously advocated the building of the Third Temple on the cite, visited the compound in recent weeks. This raised the ire of many Palestinians who fear the mosque is threatened with partition, as happened to Hebron’s Ibrahimi Mosque after Zionist fundamentalist Baruch Goldstein massacred twenty-nine worshippers in February 1994 while they were praying. The latest Israeli violations resulted in protests, then running battles inside the compound between Palestinian defenders and Israelis, and culminating in a series of into lone wolf knife attacks on Israeli soldiers and settlers.
The Israeli army responded in its usual, heavy-handed way, and Israel’s defence minister, Moshe Ya’alon, called for a shoot first policy on ‘stabbers and stone throwers’. Neighbourhoods in East Jerusalem have been blockaded by Israeli occupation forces; extra police reservists and civil and border police have been deployed; and the homes of alleged attackers have been destroyed. This further worsened the situation, and the protests and attacks on soldiers have spread to other areas in the West Bank.
These incidents take place within a context of Israel’s increased and intensified control over East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Settler numbers have increased from 150 000 during the Oslo negotiations in 1993 to over 500 000 in 2015, and, to protect these, Israel has instituted measures such as restrictions on Palestinian movement and a minimum ten year jail term for Palestinian’s convicted of stone throwing. Palestinians in the West Bank have also increasingly become victims of settlers’ ‘price tag’ attacks, with little or no repercussions for the perpetrators. The Israeli NGO Yesh Din reports that convictions are obtained in less than two per cent of cases and that over eighty-five per cent of cases are closed before the indictment stage.
Adding to Palestinian frustration, the Palestinian Authority has become increasingly ineffective. Corruption, a lack of political will, and security coordination with Israel (a requirement of the Oslo Agreement), mean that many Palestinians view the PA as part of the problem. Many Palestinian youth – born around the time of the Oslo negotiations or thereafter– have become disillusioned with the PA’s broken promises, causing them to seek different means of articulating their dissatisfaction. This has been compounded by a cynicism among Palestinians about the role of the international community and Arab states. With negotiations non-existent, Palestinians see no end in sight for the Israeli occupation as the region’s and the world’s attention is consumed by the growth of the Islamic State group (IS), and conflicts in Syria, Libya and Ukraine.
Most major Palestinian parties have responded in a haphazard and even contradictory manner. Fatah has called for calm, and deployed its security apparatus to quell the protests in some areas, leading many to accuse it of complicity. Later, it attempted to co-opt the protests, arguing that they were against the occupation. Hamas, on the other hand, expressed support for the protests, advocating the formation of a unified Palestinian position to defend and escalate the uprising. There is little chance, however, that Hamas will want to militarise the uprising from Gaza. It has been accused by some Palestinians of wanting to benefit from the crisis, and its hands-off approach – while repeatedly calling for unity – is likely so that it does not give the impression that it wants to take control of the uprising. It is noteworthy that no party has yet sought to take the lead and formally support the protests, especially the stabbings of Israeli soldiers and settlers. The uprising, thus, is largely a leaderless revolt of Palestinian youth.
Questions over whether this may herald the beginning of the Third Intifada abound, particularly since the people’s anger is similar to that which preceded the first two intifadas, and the lives of Palestinians are more miserable now, especially considering the dire socio-economic conditions of ordinary Palestinians. Compounding this is the hopelessness caused by the lack of leadership. However, the absence of a coherent national movement and established party support raises questions about the sustainability of the protests. It is debatable whether Palestinians will be able to continue the current protest actions and endure its consequences long enough to realise substantial change without the support of established political parties. Furthermore, political fragmentation and the impact of neoliberalism have prevented ordinary Palestinians from being able to formulate a unifying vision.
The Israeli government, supported by Jordan and the Middle East quartet (the USA, EU, Russia and UN), has announced that the status quo at Al-Aqsa will remain in force, and that surveillance cameras will be installed at the compound in an attempt to prevent the protests from spreading. However, this is a disingenuous attempt to deflect attention from the fact that Israel has already been working to alter facts on the ground.
In 2014, over 11 000 Jewish religious nationalist visitors were allowed into the compound, twenty-eight per cent up from the previous year and almost double the 2009 figure. Further, the frequency of these visits increased from bi-weekly in 2012 to around twice or thrice a week in 2014. In August, the head of the notorious Third Temple Movement, Yehuda Glick, privately met with Netanyahu, and subsequently claimed the government was attuned to the needs of fundamentalist Jews regarding Al-Aqsa. The struggle over protection of the compound is thus likely to further intensify and these provocations will ensure that protests endure. This is especially since the protests over Al-Aqsa are a reflection of dissatisfaction with the larger problem of Israel’s occupation, the corruption of the PA, and the lack of political leadership.