By Nick Rodrigo
The closeness of the elections was matched only by their bizarreness. As Herzog and Netanyahu went into the final weeks neck and neck one Likud campaign video likened those who complained about the economy to Hamas terrorists. It is possible that this fear mongering played a large role in mobilising support for Likud and engineering the nationalist party’s victory. Netanyahu went so far as to argue that the “left” posed an existential threat to Israeli democracy, as they were bussing in Israeli Arabs to vote; an ironic statement not lost on many political commentators. In light of Likud’s victory at the polls liberal supporters of the Palestinian quest for security, justice and human rights have taken to the airwaves to express their lamentations. Where is the chance for a peaceful resolution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict when such a militaristic hawk is at the helm of Israel?
Netanyahu’s alienation of the more left wing members of his last cabinet means that he is likely to cobble together the most nationalist and right wing coalition in Israeli history. “Bibi” as he is affectionately known by Likudniks, has already opened talks with Naftali Bennet, leader the Jewish Home party and chairman of the Yesha Council; an umbrella organisation of Israeli settlement councils. Bennet was granted the economics ministry in the last coalition government and enjoyed huge public support during the summer offensive on Gaza, calling for the besieged strip to be invaded and occupied. Netanyahu has also approached Avigdor Lieberman of Yisrael Beitinu, who was head of the foreign ministry in the last government coalition, engaging in constant diplomatic missions to Africa to sell Israeli military hardware. In the run up to the elections Lieberman stated that disloyal Arab citizens of Israel should be beheaded. Netanyahu will head a coalition that will oppose any Palestinian state and ratchet up pressure on Palestinians with Israeli citizenship to declare allegiance to Israel.
With the prospect of cabinet positions being held by nationalistic zealots, it is little wonder that sympathizers of the Palestinian struggle are pouring out tweets and statuses of disdain. Even Barack Obama has indirectly expressed his frustration with the prospect of dealing with Netanyahu, passing on responsibilities to John Kerry. However, what was the alternative to Bibi?
Netanyahu’s main opponents were the “Zionist List”, a coalition comprised of the historic Labor party and the liberal Zionists Hatnuah (The Movement). Lead by Isaac Herzog, Labor had seen a renaissance in recent years, capitalising on public outrage at corruption and housing crisis and side stepping to the right several paces with regards to the free market. Having met repeatedly with Palestinian Authority Abu Mazen, Herzog backs reviving the peace process. By rebranding Labor as a party to the “Zionist Camp” with Hatnuah, the two liberal Zionist parties made direct appeals to the centre swing voters of the Israeli electorate, jettisoning past campaign tactics of alluring those on the left. Herzog’s partner Tzipi Livni of Hatnuah is one of the more enigmatic Israeli politicians. Livni’s position on the peace process is that a dual state resolution is necessary for Israeli democracy and blames settlements for blocking a resolution, even proposing a cut to state expenditure on settlements.
Yet documents leaked by Al Jazeera in 2011 detail her rejecting an offer by PA leaders to agree to Israeli annexation of all but one of the settlements built in East Jerusalem. Her position remained unbroken in the lead up to the elections, and was not a sticking point with Herzog. Throughout the elections the peace process was downplayed but the official Zionist Union line was any solution would include full Israeli annexation of the major settlement blocs of Gush Etzion, Ma’ale Adumim and Ariel settlement blocs, with the Jordan River becoming security border and security cooperation with any future Palestinian state. There were no olive branches in the Zionist Union platform for the besieged Gaza strip, promising to maintain the pressure on Hamas until it complies with Israeli demands. For the 1.8 million Palestinians living there this means maintenance of a siege which will render the coastal enclave unliveable by 2020 unless Hamas give up their right to self defence.
Perhaps the most striking issue surrounding Herzog’s campaign is his reluctance to bring up the peace process in any tangible way, both Hatnuah and Labor refrain from mentioning any of the core components needed for a viable Palestinian state such as borders and access to resources. Analysis of the facts on the ground in line with what policy has been divulged can paint a truer picture of how the Joint Zionist List views these issues and how they will impact a Palestinian state.
The inclusion of Jordan valley as a security buffer would need major access roads splicing any Palestinian state in half. Israeli control over it’s “undivided capital Jerusalem” would mean the annexation of huge settlement blocks and impede the free movement of goods/services/peoples from the commercial centres of Hebron, Bethlehem, Ramallah and Nablus, stifling economic growth. The annexation of Jerusalem would be a setback for the Palestinian people in an immeasurable way and throw the fate of over 370,000 Palestinian Jerusalemites into uncertainty. Israel is highly dependent on the water resources within the OPT’s, as they constitute 60% of its water supply. Many of the large settlement blocks, which would have been annexed by any Zionist Union peace plan, are dependent upon water supply from the West Bank. From Begin to Olmert, the precondition of a Palestinian state has been complete Israeli control of Palestinian water use and extraction, much of which is earmarked for Israeli settlement use.
Since 1970’s the UN General Assembly has affirmed the Palestinian’s right to self determination and control of its resources within the a sovereign state predicated on 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital. Added to this there a must be a just solution for the Palestinian refugee issue based on UN resolution 194. Across the Israeli partisan spectrum, aside from the marginalised Meretz party and United Arab List, there is scant political will for adhering to any of these prerequisites for a lasting peace with most parties advocating for even more annexation, more settlement construction and more plundering of Palestinian resources. Netanyahu is the bloodiest of butchers, his actions in Gaza and the West Bank and his fiery rhetoric towards his own Palestinian population with Israeli citizenship has been well documented. However the theft of land, the brutal military occupation and the plundering of resources are not Likud policies. These actions are structural policies and are a theme of the Zionist colonial project and predates expulsion of two thirds of historic Palestine’s population in 1948: it is within the DNA of the Israeli national project. As stated by one enthusiastic Zionist to his son in 1937
“We can no longer tolerate that vast territories capable of absorbing tens of thousands of Jews should remain vacant, and that Jews cannot return to their homeland because the Arabs prefer that the place [the Negev] remains neither ours nor theirs. We must expel Arabs and take their place.”
This Zionist pioneer was David Ben Gurion, who went on to hold the office of Prime Minister, and founded the Israeli Labor party, he is also considered the godfather of the state of Israel.
* Nick Rodrigo is a researcher on Palestine at the Afro-Middle East Centre in Johannesburg and holds an MA in the Theory and Practice of Human Rights.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
On 15 February 2015, an armed group calling itself the Tripoli Province of the Islamic State and claiming affiliation with the Islamic State group in Iraq (IS) posted a video on the internet of what looked like the execution of twenty-one Egyptian Copts. The incident likely occurred on the beach of the city of Sirte. That evening, the Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, delivered a hasty speech condemning the incident and warning that Egypt had the right to respond. He convened a late night meeting of Egypt’s Supreme Defence Council. The next four Egyptian Air Force fighter jets twice bombed targets in Darna (instead of Sirte), claiming Darna was controlled by IS.
The raids followed a massive inflammatory media campaign by regime-supporting Egyptian media, and ignited controversy in various quarters. Many people questioned whether Sisi would use the incident to justify a large-scale military intervention in Libya, thus militarily involving Egypt on the side of its allies in the Tobruk government and forces loyal to the renegade colonel, Khalifa Haftar.
Libya is host to a large Egyptian community of workers, which was threatened after Sisi expressed support for the Tobruk government and for Haftar. After the Coptic Church became a strong supporter of the Egyptian regime, there have been kidnappings and murders of Egyptians, especially Copts, in Libya. The people supposedly executed by the Sirte militants in February were kidnapped two months earlier, but there is no evidence that Egyptian authorities had exerted concerted efforts to communicate with the kidnappers and ascertain their demands, or to try to secure the lives of the abductees. It is also difficult to ascertain whether all those in the video were Egyptians and Copts.
The video greatly embarrassed the Egyptian regime, both because it had done so little over the past two months to secure the release of the abductees, and because the event targeted Egyptian Copts at a time when the Egyptian Church had become the strongest supporter of the Egyptian coup regime. More importantly, the video was posted when the regime was embroiled in crises and amid waning political support from sectors that had initially welcomed it. The deepening economic crisis and leaked recordings from Sisi’s office have negatively impacted his public image and his relations with allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Thus there had to be a response to the Sirte incident, to prevent a heavy political cost for Sisi. Hence the rapid retaliation, within a few hours of the Supreme Defence Council’s meeting ending.
However, the retaliatory raids did not target the Tripoli Province group in Sirte, on Libya’s west coast. Rather, they struck at targets in Darna, east of Benghazi, that cannot easily be identified as being under the group’s jurisdiction. A group called Ansar al-Shari'ah exists in Darna, but there is ambiguity about whether it has pledged allegiance to IS or to al-Qaeda. Ansar al-Shari'ah is part of the Darna Mujahideen Shura Council, and is loyal to the General National Congress, the Tripoli Transitional Government and the Fajr Libya (Libya Dawn) command. Little is known about the Tripoli Province which surprisingly and suddenly emerged in Sirte. It is unclear whether the group consists of Libyans only, or if it is a mixture of Libyans and foreign fighters, and what its military strength is.
That Egypt targeted Darna and ignored Sirte suggest that the Egyptian military decided on an easy target, and one closer to the Egyptian border. This choice also reflects Darna’s status in the Libyan conflict. The city, which Haftar’s forces failed to seize, constitutes a strategic obstacle that impedes coastal communications between Tobruk and Benghazi. Haftar’s forces are engaged in a bitter battle to take control of Libya’s second largest city, Benghazi, and he is forced to avoid Darna and to use a long desert detour to send supplies to his troops in Benghazi.
Egyptian intervention: extent and conditions
Egypt has one of the largest armies in North Africa, one of the few armies in the region with operational experience of fighting in a desert environment. Apart from the Tobruk government’s and Haftar’s pleas for Egypt to intervene militarily, Libya represents a huge market for Egyptian labour and products, and can be a source of cheap oil for Egypt. It is not unlikely that Cairo decided to intervene in Libya for these interests, and that the United Arab Emirates, a close ally of the Egyptian regime and of Tobruk and Haftar, will shoulder the financial costs. The regional and global sympathy with Egypt, as a result of the execution of the captives, and the consequent outpourings of anger and disapproval in Egypt, Libya and across the Arab region and the world, suggest that the Sisi regime can intervene militarily in Libya and avoid any diplomatic fallout.
However, there are significant constraints to any such intervention. Despite the size of the Egyptian army, there is considerable doubt about its efficiency and ability to conduct a major military operation outside its own borders. It has not engaged in a real battle since 1973, and it is widely believed that the economic activities of the military have corrupted large segments of the officer corps. Further, the army lacks significant experience in fighting against paramilitary armed groups, or fighting inside cities and residential areas. In fact, the Sinai armed groups, with only a few hundred fighters, have inflicted significant losses on Egypt’s military forces in northern Sinai over the past eighteen months. Equally importantly, despite their repudiation of jihadi groups, most Libyans would reject Egyptian military interference in Libyan affairs.
Furthermore, the Egyptian army’s operations abroad in the past few decades do not instil much confidence. Indeed, it suffered huge losses and painful defeats during the Palestine War at the end of the 1940s, and the Yemen Civil War in the early 1960s. The defeat in Palestine was a cause of the July 1952 coup. Similarly, losses in Yemen had a profound impact on Egyptians’ support for Nasser. In fact, it is believed that the Egyptian intervention in Yemen contributed to weakening its army and to its grave failure in the third Arab-Israeli War in June 1967.
Algeria and Cairo have been competing for influence in Libya, and Sisi is aware that a direct large-scale military intervention in Libya without Algeria’s approval could cause Algiers to extend support to rebels and to the Tripoli government. Among the many condemnatory statements about the hostage killings, Algeria’s official statement included an emphasis on the need for continuous and concerted efforts to reach a ‘political solution’ to the Libyan crisis.
It is therefore likely that Egyptian direct intervention will be limited to the raids carried out on 16 February, and that the Egyptian Air Force will not strike again unless the Tripoli Province group undertakes new provocative actions. Egypt’s involvement could also include indirect intervention. It is no secret that Cairo provided military aid to Haftar’s forces over a year ago, including training and military equipment, believed to be funded by the UAE. The extent of such indirect intervention may become larger in the next few months.
Arab, international intervention?
Cairo’s growing concern over the Libyan situation, the inability of Haftar’s forces to achieve tangible progress to resolve the dispute, and the difficulty of Egypt’s solo intervention raise two other possibilities: a collective Arab intervention, or an international intervention involving Egyptian or other Arab forces. Arab intervention would require an Arab League resolution and broad Arab support. The Sisi regime was expected to appeal to the Arab League for such a resolution after the Sirte incident. It did not do so because it knew that Algeria would not support Arab military intervention. While some GCC states might back Arab intervention, it is uncertain whether Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Sudan would support it. Those countries that are likely to support such intervention lack the military capabilities to do so.
International intervention will require a UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution, and the willingness of a number of major western countries to participate. The UNSC held an emergency meeting on Libya after the Sirte incident, but no member state has yet announced that it will submit a new draft resolution on Libya. If a member state submits a draft resolution to provide international cover for military intervention, the draft could be limited to fighting the Tripoli Province group, or expansive enough to allow for large-scale intervention aiming to forcefully rebuilding a unified Libyan state. It is unlikely that such a draft resolution will secure sufficient support, especially given Russia’s traditional rejection of western military intervention in other countries’ domestic affairs.
Whatever the UNSC’s position on international military intervention in Libya, an intervention of this magnitude would be difficult without US participation. There are indications that Italy and France have become more willing to intervene in Libya, but the 2011 NATO intervention provided sufficient evidence that European countries cannot, without US participation, bear the burden of a large-scale and long-term military operation, and are unwilling to stay in Libya for a long period to enforce peace and rebuild the state. Various western countries, including the USA, affirmed their commitment to a peaceful resolution of the Libya issue on 17 February, after the Sirte executions, thus seemingly rejecting foreign military solutions.
Risks of intervention
In the first months of 2015, the UN Envoy to Libya, Bernardino Leon, succeeded in engaging most parties to the Libyan crisis. Indicating some progress in the dialogue effort, Libyan groups agreed to move the venue of the dialogue from Switzerland to Libya, albeit for one day. The first dialogue session has already been held in Libya. However, the Sirte incident, the Egyptian air strikes, and increasing calls for foreign intervention from the Tobruk government and from Haftar have cast doubt on the dialogue’s future.
After months of fighting on various fronts, with a decline in Libya’s financial capabilities, and an increasing number of refugees, there is no longer disagreement that the solution to the Libyan crisis must be reached through negotiations. Foreign military interventions, whether Egyptian, Arab or western, will increase the complexity of the crisis and the pain of the Libyan people and deepen their losses. Such interventions could also cause significant harm to the Egyptian army, and to any other intervening military forces, which in turn would provide more fertile ground for the growth of militant groups, and aggravate the crises instead of solving them.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
The 15 February Islamic State group (IS) video showing the beheadings of twenty-one Egyptians raised concerns both about the possibility of the group’s influence growing in Libya (and North Africa more generally), and about the subsequent Egyptian airstrikes inside Libya, ostensibly against IS targets. Condemnation of IS has been widespread; however, Egypt’s attempt to further militarise the Libyan conflict should be equally concerning, and could help grow IS and increase its reach.
The video was another suggestion of increasing IS assertiveness in Libya. In December 2014 the group attacked a military base in the country’s South, killing fourteen soldiers; in January 2015 an attack by IS supporters on the Corinthian Hotel, used by many politicians and diplomats, resulted in the deaths of eight people. However, the publicity given to these operations masks the extent of IS influence and impact in Libya. Competing with larger militant organisations such as the Salafi Ansar al-Sharia in Libya (ASL), and more mainstream Islamist militia such as Fajr Libya (Libya Dawn), IS’s membership numbers a few hundred, which has remained constant over many months. Its links and allegiance to IS in Syria and Iraq are tenuous, making it likely that if IS was defeated in Syria and Iraq, members in Libya will defect to other groups.
The group’s minimal influence was best illustrated in its response to the thirteen Egyptian airstrikes on the town of Darna. There were no retaliatory operations against Egyptian interests in Libya or Egypt; instead, IS set off bombs in the eastern city of Qubba, killing forty-two, and attacked the house of the Iranian ambassador in Tripoli. This retaliation indicates, first, that the group does not possess the capability to project power beyond Libya’s borders. (Thus threats to attack Europe will remain just threats, at least in the short term.) Further, that it was unable to coordinate attacks with the IS affiliate in Egypt, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, illustrates that little coordination and tactical links exist between IS affiliates in North Africa. Second, it indicates that the group’s greater focus is domestic. Qubba is the closest town to Darna, which is controlled by renegade general Khalifa Haftar, and the attack on the ambassador’s residence was more related to IS being forced out of Sirte by Fajr Libya.
The international community responded in a measured and balanced manner. While condemning the attacks, the USA, Britain and France stressed that a political solution was required. This despite intercepted letters between IS recruiters which referred to Libya as a ‘gateway’ to Europe. Even Italy, which in 2014 received over 170 000 Sub-Saharan and Middle Eastern refugees through Libya, had revoked its offer to lead a multinational force against IS, and supported a political solution. Wariness over the consequences of Gadhafi’s overthrow, coupled with their own economic sluggishness, has resulted in most foreign countries being disinclined to intervene, especially since efforts are under way to weaken IS in Syria and Iraq.
Egypt, on the other hand, used the beheadings to legitimise activities it had been conducting for a while. The Egyptian military regime has attempted to influence Libyan politics from early 2014, because of the attractiveness of Libyan oil reserves, and weapons’ smuggling from Libya into Egypt’s Sinai. Already in March 2014 the Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, advocated international action in Libya. With the United Arab Emirates, Egypt has also assisted the Libyan government in Tobruk with logistical and intelligence support, in order to weaken the Tripoli-based General National Congress (GNC) government. In October 2014, Egypt conducted airstrikes in Benghazi, deep into Libyan airspace, to support Haftar.
Its recent airstrikes resulted in a number of civilian casualties, and it subsequently called for the United Nations to provide it ‘political’ and ‘military’ support for the strikes. The strikes violate international law, and Egypt’s supplying weapons to the Tobruk government violates the UN arms embargo on Libya. Egypt has therefore called on the UN to lift the embargo. Its requests to the international community were unsuccessful, however, leading Sisi to advocate for the creation of an inter-state Pan-Arab military force. This too is unlikely to occur, with both Qatar and Saudi Arabia sceptical about such moves.
Despite the fact that the mess in Libya has been created partly as a result of international intervention, the international response in this instance is correct. The growth of IS (and other militant groups) in Libya is a direct result of the power vacuum created by Muammar Gadhafi’s overthrow, and the consequent deteriorating security situation and political gridlock. Dealing with IS alone will merely address symptoms of the problem, and could generate increased sympathy towards the group. The United Nations initiative to broker a political solution and form a government of national unity presents the best future scenario, and must be strengthened. It complies with the hopes of neighbouring states such as Tunisia and Algeria. The latter released a peace plan which cautions against military intervention and advocates developing consensus between the two Libyan governments.
While political posturing of the different groups sometimes sees one or another boycotting talks, all parties must be enticed into the negotiations’ process, and foreign military interference must be prevented. Allowing such military adventures, and not pressing forward with a political solution could see Libya breaking up into enclaves, and groups such as IS proliferating.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
The situation in Yemen is rapidly deteriorating. President Mansour Hadi, formerly under house arrest in Sanaa, has now escaped to the city of Aden and could set up an alternate government there in competition with the one in Sanaa. Also, a number of embassies have already shut down, and international investors have withdrawn, signalling a growing isolation for the country whose new de facto rulers in Sanaa (even if not recognised as such by the rest of the world), the Zaidi-Shi'a insurgents from the northern part of the country, the Houthis, will find difficult to manage. The United Nations has not given up on Yemen yet; its envoy, Jamal Benomar, brokered a deal between the various political foes on Friday, 20 February, before Hadi’s escape, while the UN Security Council called on the Houthis to relinquish power and allow Hadi to return to his position. However, militias aligned to Hadi and antipathetic to the Houthis took matters into their own hands and seized key government buildings and institutions. Meanwhile, al-Qa'ida, which was previously being targeted by a US-Hadi security alliance, has continued with its campaign against military instalments, citing fear of a Houthi takeover.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
The death of Saudi King Abdullah on 23 January, and the ascension to the throne of his half-brother Salman have generated a flurry of discussions and speculation globally. Much attention has being paid to gestures of condolences, and comments about Abdullah’s legacy and achievements (including some western leaders’ assertions of Abdullah as a ‘reformer’). The conversations have also included reflections on royal succession and the potential for Saudi domestic and foreign policy changes. The issue of succession has been feverishly discussed for the past few years, dogged by the question of who among the grandsons of the founder of the Saudi monarchy, Abdulaziz al-Saud, would reign and when that might happen. Among many commentators there is an impression that this succession question has been resolved because Salman’s appointment of Muhammad bin Nayef as the new deputy crown prince was seemingly accepted without dissent by members of the royal family.
Such a view, however, misses the rumblings within the Saudi family that run deeper than the supposedly calm process that preceded the announcement of the new deputy crown prince, and which could lead to major fault lines developing between the royals. An indication of this is the intrigue that surrounded the announcement and Abdullah’s funeral, and attempts by Salman to shift influence within the royal family in a manner that could have important foreign policy implications.
When Salman was confronted by some royals regarding his announcement of the new deputy crown prince, he revealed that he had already consulted the Allegiance Council, the body appointed by Abdullah and having the responsibility of approving the selection of a crown prince. In fact, before announcing his decision, Salman had individually lobbied various members of the council and obtained their support for bin Nayef’s appointment. He did this while keeping the new crown prince, Muqrin, and the former secretary of the royal court under Abdullah, Khalid al-Tuwaijri, in the dark. Salman’s stealth indicates that he does not see eye to eye with Muqrin, and that he regards Muqrin and Tuwaijri as part of an opposition camp. They both would have preferred Abdullah’s son and the current minister of the National Guard, Mu't', to be appointed as deputy crown prince. It is rumoured that Tuwaijri, who was Abdullah’s main confidante and the person making domestic and foreign policy in the last few years, is under house arrest and will likely quietly disappear from the political scene.
Apart from bin Nayef’s appointment, Salman rapidly announcing other appointments, such as the dual elevation of his son, Muhammad bin Salman, to the position of defence minister – replacing Salman, and as secretary general of the royal court, in Tuwaijri’s stead, are an attempt to marginalise the Abdullah circle within the ruling elite of Saudi royals. Further evidence of this was the removal of two of Abdullah’s sofrom their positions as governors of the Riyadh and Makkah provinces. The governorship of Makkah was returned to Khalid bin Faisal, from whom it was taken away by Abdullah two years ago, while Riyadh is now in the hands of Faisal bin Bandar. Similarly, another third generation Saudi royal who was close to Abdullah, Bandar bin Sultan, who had been increasingly at odds with bin Nayef over their different approaches to the Syrian crisis, was removed from his roles as the secretary general of the National Security Council and advisor to the king. Additionally, the National Security Council was dissolved, and Salman formed two new councils, the Council for Political and Security Affairs and the Council for Economic and Development Affairs; the former is headed by bin Nayef, and the latter by Salman’s son Muhammad.
Clearly, a battle is developing within the royal family, pitting the families of King Salman and of the late Nayef (the second crown prince appointed by Abdullah) against the families of former king Abdullah and of the late Sultan (the first crown prince appointed by Abdullah). Muqrin is believed to be in the Abdullah-Sultan camp, and there is a suspicion that, within a few months, as Salman consolidates his power, the crown prince will also get the sack, and either Muhammad bin Nayef or another of Salman’s brothers will be appointed crown prince.
Foreign policy shifts?
With Salman attempting to move away from certain of Abdullah’s policies, a shift in some foreign policy aspects is likely to become visible in the next few months. Some of this is based on his desire to change Abdullah’s policy; but other factors include his political sympathies which differ from Abdullah’s, and his personal relationships with other political figures in the region. As a result, while Saudi policy on Syria is unlikely to change, the rest of this year is likely to witness a change in Saudi Arabia’s support for the post-coup Egyptian government, and in its formerly close alliance with the United Arab Emirates. One indication of this change was Salman’s communication to both the Egyptians and Emiratis that the Egyptian president, Abdel Fatah el-Sisi, and the UAE crown prince, Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, would not be welcome at Abdullah’s funeral, while he warmly welcomed their rival, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who remained in the kingdom for an extra day to discuss regional security matters with the new king. Salman even received Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the funeral.
On Egypt, Salman has indicated that aid from Saudi Arabia to that country’s military government will cease. The Saudis have already given Egypt between ten and twenty billion dollars in aid over the past eighteen months. His decision seems to be based partly on his discomfort with propping up the Egyptian regime further, and partly due to a very negative relationship that has developed between him and Sisi. The negative relationship intensified over the past few months, particularly with Sisi’s comments to various people that he and the Emiratis would like to see a rapid transfer of power after Abdullah’s death to Muqrin, effectively bypassing Salman. Furthermore, Sisi also, prior to Abdullah’s death, sent messages to Tuwaijri supporting Muqrin’s ascension to the throne, and even committed Egyptian troops to ensure that the ascension would be smooth, if the need for such a step arose. The relationship between Salman and Sisi will thus be difficult to repair. In Salman’s eyes, bin Zayed is also part of this alleged conspiracy. Furthermore, the new deputy crown prince, bin Nayef, has a severe dislike for bin Zayed, originating from comments the latter made and revealed by WikiLeaks, where he severely insulted bin Nayef’s father.
Another area of policy change, though unlikely to be very visible, is the new Saudi government’s attitude towards the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). In March 2014, Saudi Arabia followed the UAE in designating the Brotherhood a terrorist organisation. At the time, Salman had indicated to some Brotherhood leaders that he personally did not regard the movement as ‘an enemy’. Although it is unlikely that he will suddenly change that designation, there will probably be an increased tolerance of the MB by the Saudis. Bin Nayef, who is responsible for the Saudi role in the war against the Islamic State group (IS), also believes that tolerating the Brotherhood could assist in that war because the MB is less dangerous than the IS. This perception has been reinforced by the surge in IS’s popularity in Saudi Arabia, and IS’s habit of accusing Saudi Arabia of being close to western powers and Israel, and of supporting dictatorial oppression in the Middle East. And this week Saudi foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, said, ‘There was no problem between the Kingdom and [Brotherhood] movement,’ and that the problem was only with a few MB. Apart from the political reasons, Salman also has a good relationship with Erdogan and a fifteen-year-long close relationship with Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the former emir of Qatar, and father of the current emir. Both the Turkish and Qatari leaders have sympathies for the MB. Indications are, therefore, that Saudi Arabia, under Salman, will look to mend its ties with the MB-affiliated versions of republican Sunni Islam, such as Erdogan’s AK Party in Turkey and Hamas in Palestine, and others that support them, such as Qatar, at the expense of those who are unwilling to accommodate them. Qatar is, it seems, reading the situation in this manner, and has indicated that it will allow back into the country senior MB leaders that had previously been asked to leave as a result of Saudi and Emirati pressure.
One area of the new Saudi foreign policy which remains unclear is the relationship with Iran. There are pressures on Salman both to improve relations with Iran and to maintain the status quo. The pressure to better their relationship comes from, first, the possibility of an impending deal between Saudi ally, USA, and Iran on the nuclear and other issues. If such a deal happens in the next few months, there will be pressure from the USA for Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran to work together in the region to maintain a balance of power. Second, the dire situations in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon call out for an end to the cold war between regional hegemons Saudi Arabia and Iran, and the current conjuncture points to the need for a cooperative relationship in order to develop a joint strategy for confronting the IS threat. On the other hand, Salman and bin Nayef are close to conservative sections of the Saudi clergy, which are virulently anti-Shi'a and for whom restoring relations with Iran is anathema. Further, if Saudi Arabia mends relations with Iran it might reinforce the perception that the regime is a puppet of imperialist powers, and provide grounds for IS sympathies to spread. Salman will seek to cleverly navigate these imperatives, but it is difficult to predict the future direction of this relationship.
Saudi Arabia, then, could see some serious changes within its ruling and policymaking structures, and its domestic and foreign policies. The public silence of the Saudi family cannot be taken as an indicator of the level of internal fighting. However, while the family is known for its secrecy, the younger generation of royals is becoming more vocal in criticising the old guard. All of this is likely to create a more robust debate over the future of the kingdom, albeit behind high palace walls. While it may be slow in coming, one can be sure that the Abdullah-aligned faction must be contemplating an appropriate riposte to Salman’s machinations. However, those who expect rapid and sudden changes in policy will be disappointed. Saudi Arabia is a large and difficult ship to steer. Sudden changes rarely occur, and amendments to policy usually are preceded by wide turns rather than sharp jerks.
By Afro-Middle East Centre
Tunisia’s parliament last week ratified the cabinet of the prime minister, Habib Essid, in a sign of the country’s preference for consensus building. It points to a desire for democratic consolidation, but could portend trouble for, and even fragmentation of, the ruling Nidaa Tounes party.
The cabinet comprises four parties, including the three largest parties in the legislature, Nidaa Tounes (with eighty-six seats), Ennahda (sixty-nine seats) and the Free Patriotic Union (sixteen seats). The ratification of the cabinet was a formality and over seventy-five per cent of voting parliamentarians (166 out of 204) endorsed its formation. This augurs well for Tunisians; the vast economic and security challenges the country faces requires the adoption of difficult measures, supported by a large constituency. Key amongst these is a reduction in subsidies, especially on fuel, which benefit mostly the middle and upper classes; and combating militancy without disillusioning religious Tunisians.
By Al-Jazeera Centre for Studies
Late on Sunday, 25 January 2015, hundreds of protests broke in various Egyptian cities and towns, followed by attacks on public administration buildings and branches of the Interior Ministry; the burning of dozens of police and security vehicles; blocking of roads and railways all over the country; and even armed attacks on security patrols, with security personnel being ambushed and attacked at roadblocks. Some of these activities continued well into the following morning, with the death toll including more than twenty-five civilians and four security personnel, and with hundreds injured and hundreds more in custody.
This article is an initial reading of the events of that day, and their implications for the futures of both the popular opposition and the regime. It also discusses how regional and global forces view the regime.
Growth of the popular movement
Given the sheer number and spread of protests around the country, it would be nigh on impossible to estimate the number of participants in the popular movement with any measure of accuracy. It is clear, though, that Egypt last week witnessed the largest popular anti-regime gatherings since the sits-in at Rabaa al-Adawiya and al-Nahda squares were quelled in August 2013.
There are various reasons behind this escalation by the opposition, not least of which is the prevailing political climate in the country more than one and a half years after the birth of the 3 July 2013 regime. It has also became apparent just how big a reversal Egypt has suffered, from an unstable but free democratic situation to one of oppression, where the iron fist of security routinely slams down on opposition and strangles political freedom, with no sign of stability on the horizon. The acquittal, and subsequent release, of several figures of the Mubarak regime, including Mubarak and his two sons, only reinforce the general feeling that Egypt is rapidly slipping back under the old regime, even if the names of those at the helm have changed. Moreover, the devaluation of the Egyptian pound and the continuing deterioration of the economy have resulted in the strengthening belief that the regime, despite considerable financial support from certain GCC states, is no longer able to contain the runaway economic crisis.
In this climate, different sectors of the population are increasingly joining the opposition movement. But the situation is not confined to growth in the popularity of the movement. In the larger cities, especially Cairo, there are growing signs that some political groups, such as the April 6 movement, the radical left, and opposition student movements have become more willing to take to the streets and participate with the anti-coup National Alliance Supporting Legitimacy in popular demonstrations.
On the other hand, the successive changes in the leadership structure of the Muslim Brotherhood, both within the country and abroad, have boosted confidence among the Brotherhood’s rank-and-file, bolstering the ability of the movement and its sympathisers to mobilise, and reinvigorating its determination to continue its activities against the regime.
However, despite the massive mobilisation, and the sheer number and spread of the demonstrations, it would be premature to suggest that the balance of forces between the opposition and the regime has tilted in favour of the former. A significant majority of Egyptians is still wary of participating in the opposition, either out of fear of the regime and its oppressive machine, out of a collective desire to see a return to stability, or because of support for the regime. Some have been disillusioned by the lack of a viable alternative after the failure of the first attempt at democratic change and the crumbling of the revolutionary masses, while others actually support the regime fearing that Islamists might return to power. In other words, large swathes of the population have yet to reach a sufficient level of discontent to prompt them to go out to the streets and demand the downfall of the regime.
The armed option
The change in the disposition of the popular movement opposing the 3 July 2013 regime is undeniable. Even though the Muslim Brotherhood (the main force behind the anti-coup alliance that has led the opposition throughout the past nineteen months) and its partners in the alliance have adhered to completely peaceful methods in their opposition to the regime, there are some groups in various parts of the country that are resorting to different methods. The subtle indicators of this shift began to appear about a year ago, but by 25 January 2015 they had grown so strong that they can no longer be ignored.
These indicators fall into two main categories:
The goal of the first category is to compromise the regime’s ability to govern and to cripple the state, while the motives of the second are revenge and settling of scores.
There are three groups that have openly claimed responsibility for such actions at different times. The first, Ajnad Misr (Soldiers of Egypt), went public a year ago with a black flag that resembles that of the Islamic State (IS) group. If a relationship, whether direct or indirect, between Ajnad Misr and IS can be confirmed, the group, which operates mainly in the governorates along the Nile Valley, would be the second to declare its allegiance to IS and its jihadi-oriented interpretation of Islam. The first was Ansar Bait al-Maqdis (Supporters of the Holy House), which is active in northern Sinai.
The second group, Harakat al-Iqaab al-Thawri (Revolutionary Retribution Movement), announced itself on 24 January 2015, claiming to have active cells in fifteen of Egypt’s twenty-seven governorates. Despite the obvious difficulties in verifying that claim, the wording of the announcement seemed free of the usual hallmarks of jihadi discourse, suggesting that the group has no jihadi leanings. However, the sheer magnitude of operations for which the group has claimed responsibility is astounding, since these occurred throughout the country, including in Cairo, Alexandria and cities along the Suez Canal.
Both Ajnad Misr and Harakat al-Iqaab al-Thawri appear to have no qualms about carrying out deadly attacks and bombings using triggered devices and time bombs, either targeting specific people or randomly killing security and police personnel. Despite the glaring contrast in discourse between the two, they clearly share the belief that armed violence is part and parcel of dealing with the regime, and that violence is the only course of action to bring about change in Egypt.
The third group, Al-Muqawama al-Shaabiya (Popular Resistance), emerged about six months ago. The wording of its statements suggests a generally jihadi leaning, with close ties to the popular movement. Al-Muqawama al-Shaabiya is inclined more towards vandalism and road-blocking. To date, it is not known to have executed any armed attacks on security forces, even though it has been known to protect protesters from attacks by groups of thugs and criminal gangs believed to be affiliated with the regime’s security apparatus.
Unlike northern Sinai, which has witnessed almost open warfare between the armed forces and Ansar Bait al-Maqdis since the 3 July coup, the magnitude and frequency of vandalism and armed attacks in the governorates along the Nile Valley have not yet reached sufficient intensity to be described as an armed struggle. Unlike in Syria, where the popular movement receded as the armed struggle escalated, armed resistance in Egypt has not even reached a level that it could cripple the state or negatively impact the popular movement. Nevertheless, the magnitude and scale of events that took place on 25 January 2015 did cause the regime’s leaders serious concern.
The illusion of stability
The military officers who led the 3 July coup, and most of the civilian politicians who supported them, were hardly oblivious to the fact that they were desecrating the democratic process, nor were they unaware that their actions were – at least at the time – unwelcome to Egypt’s US and European allies. Washington and various European capitals certainly wanted to tame the rule of President Muhammad Mursi, but they also wanted the change to come about legally and constitutionally. On the other hand, the leaders of the 3 July regime were betting on the huge financial, economic and political support of some GCC countries, especially Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as well as Israel’s welcoming of the coup. The generals gambled on the probability that these countries would eventually help change the western stance and build legitimacy for the regime. They also wagered that they would quickly be able to establish stability, thus providing a climate for continued Arab support and a gradual shift in the western stance. It would be safe to say that that objective of achieving stability as rapidly as possible became such a high priority for the regime that it made the ill-advised decision to brutally break up the Rabaa and Nahda sits-in in an attempt to end the manifestations of popular opposition and social discord.
During the past eighteen months, the pro-regime GCC governments have pumped more than US$40 billion into the Egyptian treasury and economy. With support from the West, these countries helped the regime to gradually normalise its relations with the USA and Europe. Over the past few months, the regime appeared to be slowly but surely achieving its aim of building an image of stability for the country, despite the repressive actions of the security sector and the tyranny of the judiciary which is aimed at quelling the opposition. But the events of 25 January 2015 demonstrate that the dream of stability is far from being a reality, that the regime is no longer capable of breaking, or even containing, the popular political opposition, and that the country is entering a phase of worsening tension that could be far more destructive than anything it has witnessed over the past year-and-a-half.
Western media outlets have generally displayed substantial interest in that Sunday’s events. Spokespersons for the US State Department, the European Union and a number of European countries expressed concern over the death toll among protesters. The impression of instability will make European governments hesitant to offer Egypt direct financial or economic assistance. Likewise, there are growing signs that the enthusiasm with which some Gulf countries offered direct financial assistance to Egypt has waned since a year ago, either because of the proverbial black hole of corruption that exists deep within the structure of the Egyptian state (as the UAE believes), or due to the rapid, successive changes in the country’s political leadership (as Saudi Arabia has just experienced), or because of the dramatic decline in oil prices (as Kuwait fears). The decline in direct financial support is the only explanation behind the Central Bank’s inability to keep propping up the value of the national currency, and the subsequent dramatic freefall of the Egyptian pound’s value against the US dollar.
Since 3 July 2013, the Egyptian regime has repeatedly gambled on the security option to quell opposition and impose stability, and on the financial support of some GCC states to shore up the economy. However, at the fourth anniversary of the uprising, it finds itself staring down the barrel of instability, with more and more segments of the populace trying to cripple the state’s control of the country, and with a rapidly dwindling cash lifeline from the Gulf, which has weakened the Egyptian pound, causing buying power to drop and prices of imported goods to skyrocket, and making the lives of ordinary Egyptians increasingly difficult.
The bottom line is that the growing violence of the opposition and the state’s dwindling ability to build a popular base will inevitably lead to more unrest and lawlessness, which in turn will chip away at the state’s institutions and pave the way for violence to tear into the very fabric of society.
*This article was published in terms of a partnership agreement between Al-Jazeera Centre for Studies and AMEC
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