By Ramzy Baroud
The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has largely become an alliance in name alone. Recent events notwithstanding, the conflict brewing over territorial waters in the eastern Mediterranean suggests that the military union between mostly western countries is faltering. The current Turkish-Greek tension is only one facet of a much larger conflict involving – aside from these two Mediterranean countries – Israel, Egypt, Cyprus, France, Libya and other Mediterranean and European countries. Notably absent from the list are the United States and Russia; the latter, in particular, stands to gain or lose much economic leverage, depending on the outcome of the conflict.
Conflicts of this nature tend to have historic roots; in this case, it is important to consider that Turkey and Greece fought a brief but consequential war in 1974. Also of relevance to the current conflagration is an agreement signed by the Israeli prime minister, Benyamin Netanyahu, and his Greek and Cypriot counterparts, Kyriakos Mitsotakis and Nicos Anastasiades, respectively, on 2 January. It envisages the establishment of the EastMed pipeline that is projected, once finalised, to flood Europe with Israeli natural gas, pumped mostly from the Leviathan Basin. Several European countries are keen on being part of, and profiting from, the project. However, Europe’s gain is not just economic; it is also geostrategic. Cheap Israeli gas will reduce Europe’s reliance on Russia’s natural gas, which arrives in Europe through two pipelines: Nord Stream and Gazprom, the latter extending through Turkey.
Gazprom alone supplies Europe with an estimated forty per cent of its natural gas needs, thus giving Russia significant economic and political leverage in Europe. Some European countries, especially France, have laboured hard to liberate themselves from what they see as a Russian economic chokehold on their economies because of the gas supply. Indeed, the French and Italian rivalry currently under way in Libya is tantamount to colonial expeditions aimed at balancing out the over-reliance on Russian and Turkish supplies of gas and other sources of energy.
Fully aware of France’s and Italy’s intentions in Libya, the Russians and Turks are wholly involved in Libya’s military showdown between the forces of the Government of National Accord (GNA) and those from the East, loyal to Khalifa Haftar, and organised under the militia called the Libyan National Army. The conflict in Libya has been under way for a decade, but the issue of the EastMed pipeline that will supply Israeli gas has added fuel to the fire: it has infuriated Turkey, which is excluded from the agreement; worried Russia, whose gas arrives in Europe partially via Turkey; and empowered Israel, which will likely use this as an opportunity to cement its economic integration with the European continent.
Anticipating the Israel-led alliance, Turkey and Libya signed a Maritime Boundary Treaty on 28 November 2019 that gave Ankara access to Libya’s territorial waters. The bold manoeuvre now allows Turkey to claim territorial rights for gas exploration in a massive region that extends from the Turkish southern coast to Libya’s north-east coast. Europe finds this ‘Exclusive Economic Zone’ (EEZ) unacceptable because, if it is used effectively by Turkey, it could nullify the importance of the ambitious EastMed project, and fundamentally alter the currently geopolitical situation in the region, which is largely dictated by Europe and guaranteed by NATO.
However, NATO is no longer the formidable and unified power it once was. Since its inception in 1949, NATO rose dramatically; NATO members fought major wars in the name of defending the interests of member states, and to protect ‘the West’ from the ‘Soviet menace’. NATO remained strong and relatively unified even after the dismantlement of the Soviet Union and the abrupt collapse, in 1991, of its Warsaw Pact. NATO managed to sustain a degree of unity, despite its raison d’être – defeating the Soviets – being no longer being a factor. This was mainly because Washington wished to maintain its global military hegemony, especially in the Middle East.
The Iraq war of 1991 was the first powerful expression of NATO’s new mission, but the Iraq war of 2003 signalled NATO’s undoing. After failing to achieve any of its goals in Iraq, the USA adopted an ‘exit strategy’ that foresaw a gradual American retreat from Iraq while, simultaneously, ‘pivoting to Asia’ in the desperate hope of slowing down China’s military encroachment in the Pacific. The best expression of the American decision to divest militarily from the Middle East was NATO’s war on Libya launched in March 2011. Military strategists had to devise a bewildering new term, ‘leading from behind’, to describe the role that the USA played in the assault on Libya. For the first time since the establishment of NATO, the USA was part of a conflict that was largely controlled by comparatively smaller and weaker NATO members – Italy, France, Britain and others. While the former US president, Barack Obama, insisted on the centrality of NATO in US military strategies, it was evident that the once-powerful alliance had outlived its usefulness for Washington.
France, in particular, continues to fight for NATO with the same ferocity it fought to keep the European Union intact. It is this French faith in European and western ideals that has compelled Paris to fill the gap left by the gradual American withdrawal. France is currently playing the role of the military hegemon and political leader in many of the Middle East’s ongoing crises (and a few in Africa), including the flaring east Mediterranean conflict. On 3 December 2019, France’s Emmanuel Macron stood up to the US president, Donald Trump, at the NATO summit in London. There, Trump had chastised NATO for its reliance on American defence, and had threatened to pull out of the alliance altogether if NATO members did not compensate Washington for its protection.
It is a strange and unprecedented spectacle when countries such as Israel, Greece, Egypt, Libya, Turkey and others lay claims over the Mediterranean, while NATO scrambles to stave off an outright war among its own members. It is even stranger to see France and Germany taking over the leadership of NATO while the USA remains almost completely absent. It is difficult to imagine the reinvention of NATO into a body that no longer caters to Washington’s interests and diktats. Judging by France’s recent behaviour, the future may hold irreversible paradigm shifts for the alliance. In November 2018, Macron made what seemed a baffling proposal at the time when he called for the establishment of a ‘true, European army’. Considering the rapid regional developments and the incremental collapse of NATO, Macron may one day get his army, after all.
* Ramzy Baroud is a journalist and the Editor of The Palestine Chronicle, and the author of five books. His latest is These Chains Will Be Broken: Palestinian Stories of Struggle and Defiance in Israeli Prisons
Ethiopia’s announcement on 21 July that it had already filled its Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD) to its first year’s target has temporarily quelled tensions between it, Egypt and Sudan. The GERD, which will be the largest dam in Africa when completed, has been a source of great tension between these three states since it was initially announced in April 2011. Sudan and Egypt, downstream from Ethiopia on the Nile River, regard the dam as a threat to their water security and dominance over the Nile. But the current easing of tensions is temporary. The three countries will return to talks, under the auspices of the African Union (AU), to negotiate future filling of the GERD and the conclusion of a comprehensive agreement. This will be no easy task, especially since Cairo stubbornly insists that it is entitled to the bulk of the Nile water, and should have a veto over upstream dam construction or other developments. This attitude, which originates in the British colonial era, is, however, incompatible with the changing balance of power in the Nile Basin and with international norms regarding water-sharing.
The two tributaries of the Nile flow through eleven countries, and are relied upon by over forty per cent of the African continent’s population. Its small capacity (eighty-four billion cubic metres relative to other large rivers, such as the Amazon River (5 500 billion cubic meters), Congo River (1 250 billion cubic meters), and even the Niger River (180 billion cubic meters), and large number of dependent people and countries means that it has often been seen as having the potential to create conflict. This is especially since two downstream states, Egypt and Sudan, individually receive less than twenty-five millimetres of rain annually, thus contributing little to nothing to the river, but consuming more of its water than any of the other Nile riparian states. Egypt, particularly, is dependent on the Nile for over ninety-five per cent of its fresh water and irrigation needs.
The Nile River originates through two main sources, Lake Victoria (bordered by Tanzania, Uganda and Kenya) giving rise to the White Nile, and Lake Tana in Ethiopia, the source of the Blue Nile, with feeder tributaries from Rwanda and Burundi. The White Nile comprises around fifteen per cent of the river, and the other eighty-five per cent is the Blue Nile. Both tributaries meet in Khartoum, Sudan, and then flow into Egypt. Egypt, South Sudan, Sudan and Ethiopia are very highly dependent on the Nile; Uganda is highly dependent; Tanzania, Rwanda, Kenya and Burundi are moderately dependent on it; and the Democratic Republic of the Congo has a low dependence on it.
Although the Nile has, for thousands of years, played a critical role in the lives of communities through which it flows, two more recent factors have influenced its current water usage: British colonisation of most of the area comprising the basin, and, thereafter, Egyptian attempts to ‘secure’ the river for itself. In relation to British colonialism, two main treaties regarding the Nile were agreed upon, one between Egypt and Britain, which, at the time, ruled many of the upstream states such as Tanzania and Uganda, and the other between Egypt and the Sudan. Egypt continues to cite these colonial-era treaties as its justification to deflect attempts to make Nile usage more equitable. The 1929 treaty recognised Egypt’s ‘natural’ and ‘historic’ rights to the river, and affording it the major share of the water. The treaty also tasked Egypt with monitoring the river, and gave it a veto vote over any Nile projects in upstream states.
The second treaty, signed in 1959 by Egypt and the Sudan, renewed the 1929 treaty, granting Sudan the use of four billion cubic metres of water, and Egypt 48 billion. This second treaty hinted at the possibility of other states sharing the water, but Sudan and Egypt would first have to agree to such usage. The water allocation to Sudan and Egypt has since been revised upwards as a result of the construction of the High Aswan Dam in Egypt, and the Roseires Dam in Sudan. Sudan is now allotted 18.5 billion cubic meters, and Egypt 55 billion. The two countries have historically negotiated between themselves regarding the building of dams in either of their territories, and regarding water allocations, and they have generally adopted a common stance in negotiations with upstream states. In light of the clean slate and Nyerere Doctrines on treaty succession, both of which assert that newly-independent states can choose which colonial era treaties to remain bound by, the legitimacy of the 1929 and 1959 treaties is questionable.
Egypt is almost totally dependent on the Nile, especially since ninety-seven per cent of its population resides in the Nile valley; it is reliant on the river for over ninety-five per cent of its fresh water needs. The Egyptian state therefore threatened to use force to secure the river’s flow through its territory. In order to do so, both Egypt and Sudan even supported Ethiopian rebel groups, including the Eritrean and Tikrayan liberation movements, to weaken the country. This ultimately led to the 1993 secession of Eritrea. Egypt also pressured financial institutions to refrain from funding dam construction projects in upper riparian states. Thus, even if they had wanted to, it was no financially not possible for most Nile basin states to carry out construction on the river.
Political and power balance alterations
Since the mid-1990s, the power balance in the region has been shifting. Ethiopia has strengthened politically, economically and militarily, while Egypt and Sudan have weakened. Sudan split into two entities in 2011, with the Republic of Sudan losing much of its oil and agricultural resources to the new South Sudan state. Funding difficulties were alleviated for some states with the entry of China into the continent; it funded a number of dam projects, including the Tana Belez and Tekez dams in Ethiopia and the Marowe Dam in Sudan. Furthermore, the global discourse around water usage has changed. Whereas treaties and hard power had previously been the norm, human security and equity are now increasingly being promoted. The Helsinki and Berlin rules on water usage developed by the international law association, and the 1997 UN Convention on the Law of the Non-Navigational Uses of International Watercourses, emphasise equity in water usage allowances.
A combination of these factors resulted in the 1999 creation of the Nile Basin Initiative (NBI), between the ten countries through which the Nile traversed. The NBI’s aim was to achieve sustainable socioeconomic development through the equitable utilisation of the Nile. A new water-sharing framework, the Cooperative Framework Agreement (CFA or Entebbe agreement) was conceptualised to replace the outdated 1959 treaty. Although Egyptian and Sudanese opposition stalled the process, it was adopted since upstream states had a majority of members The CFA provided for Nile water to be shared equitably among all Nile Basin countries while causing as little harm to downstream counties as possible. It also stipulated that upstream countries would no longer require Egypt’s consent for water projects. Water security rather than ‘historical rights’ would be the criterion for water usage, according to Article 14B of the CFA, resulting in it being vehemently opposed by Egypt and Sudan. They claimed this had crossed a ‘red line’, and Egypt predicted that it lead to the NBI’s collapse. Six states – Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Uganda, Kenya, and Ethiopia – have signed the agreement, making it legally enforceable.
GERD and its consequences
Following the overthrow of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak in 2011, Ethiopia saw an opportunity to assert itself in the matter of the Nile. In April 2011, it announced the creation of the Millennium Dam, now known as the Grand Ethiopian Renaissance Dam (GERD). The idea had previously been touted by the US National Bureau of Reclamation in 1966, in response to Soviet funding of Egypt’s Aswan High Dam, as part of the US-Soviet proxy war in Africa. The proposed dam was conceived as a strong source of hydroelectrical power for the country, which could supply over 6 000 megawatts annually. Sixty-five million of Ethiopia’s 110-million population could receive energy from it. Former Ethiopian Prime Minister Meles Zenawi also asserted that it would be used to irrigate 500 000 hectares of land. However, Addis Ababa subsequently asserted that it would used solely for electricity generation.
Funding for the dam was generated through a variety of measures, including the issuance of bonds to Ethiopian citizens and businesses, and public servants being docked a month’s salary. Wealthy Ethiopian businesspeople such as Mohammed Al-Amoudi also invested in the project, but this was minimal compared to the amount raised through public funding. Ethiopia thus did not require foreign funding, a factor Egypt had initially hoped would prevent the project going ahead. Costing around five billion dollars, the dam is being built in the Benishangul-Gumuz region of Ethiopia, about twenty kilometres away from the Sudanese border. It will be the largest dam on the continent, the tenth largest in the world, and its reservoir will hold around seventy-four-billion cubic metres of water once completed. Originally planned to be completed in 2017, delays and the suicide of its chief engineer meant that it is currently only seventy per cent complete. The current level of completion did, however, allow filling to begin in 2020.
Egypt and Sudan have opposed the dam from the planning stages, arguing for their ‘historical right’ to determine the Nile’s usage. Egypt insisted it would impair the Nile’s flow, and the electricity generation capacity of Egypt’s Aswan High Dam. Some studies, which were confirmed by Ethiopian officials during negotiations, put the losses at between eight and twenty billion cubic metres annually, accounting for between twenty and forty per cent of the Blue Nile’s flow to Sudan and then Egypt, which could drastically impact fresh water access for Egypt’s ninety million people. Further, the Aswan High Dam’s electricity generation capacity will drop by between twenty-five and forty per cent. However, this risk will be realised only if Ethiopia fills the dam in four years. Although this was the original intention, Ethiopia subsequently agreed to fill it in seven to nine years. Tensions came to a head in May 2013, when Ethiopia diverted the river’s course to facilitate the dam construction. Egyptian politicians in a parliamentary meeting, accidentally livestreamed by Egyptian television, called for the bombing of the dam and Egyptian support to rebel groups to destabilise Ethiopia. Both Ethiopia and Sudan condemned the calls.
Sudan subsequently dropped its opposition to the GERD in December 2013, mainly because it would also benefit with increased electricity supply through its connection to Ethiopia’s electricity grid. The dam would also regulate the flow of the river to South Sudan and Sudan, thus reducing floods during the rainy seasons and enabling Sudan to increase crop rotations to three times annually from the current once a year. It would also reduce sediment flow; currently, Sudan is able to use only half the water capacity of the Saddar and Roseires dams because of sediment. Sudan uses only around twelve billion of its eighteen billion cubic metre water allocation from the Nile, even though it is a water scarce country; the Sudanese are less dependent on Nile waters than Egypt. Sudan is also less dependent on the Blue Nile, whose flow Ethiopia will impede, because the White Nile, unaffected by the GERD also flows through it.
Sudan’s changed position, together with Ethiopia’s obduracy, forced Egypt to also alter its position. I August 2014, Cairo acquiesced to the GERD’s construction, insisting on an expert panel’s technical analysis of the dam’s impact, but dropping its demand that construction be halted until the completion of the analysis. This paved the way for a March 2015 agreement, the ‘Agreement on Declaration of Principles between Egypt, Ethiopia and Sudan on the GERDP’ The agreement recognised that Sudan and Egypt would be impacted by the dam’s construction, but stipulated water sharing among the three states. Principle four of the ten-principle declaration also acknowledged usage rights based on river drainage; Ethiopia has the third largest land drainage of the whole river, including its Blue and White branches, after Sudan and South Sudan. The agreement further clarified that the dam would only be used for electricity generation and not irrigation, which was a victory for Egypt. However, it implicitly excluded the International Court of Justice from adjudicating on the dam’s legality, instead proposing for mediation and negotiations in the case of differences. Egyptian politicians had touted the ICJ as a means of delaying and halting the GERD’s construction. By endorsing the agreement, Cairo acquiesced to the validity of the GERD’s construction, and, since then, has sought only to ensure that the filling period is extended as much as possible.
Following the election of Abiy Ahmed as prime minister of Ethiopia in April 2018, relations further warmed between Cairo and Addis Ababa, especially since Abiy has been, in general, critical of dam projects. He argued that such projects were used for ‘political expediency’. At a 2018 summit between him and Egyptian President Abdul Fattah el-Sisi, Abiy told Sisi that he would never harm Egyptians, a comment seen by Egyptians as an acknowledgement of his opposition to the GERD.
Despite Ethiopia’s assertion that it has already filled the dam to its first year carrying capacity, agreement on its ongoing filling has not yet been concluded. Taking advantage of the heavy rains, Addis Ababa rapidly filled the dam unilaterally in about two weeks, causing much consternation in Sudan, which saw its dam levels drop, and Egypt.
In November 2019, Egypt had roped in Washington and the World Bank to mediate. The US Trump administration continues to see Cairo as an important ally, and thus supported its position during negotiations. A draft ‘agreement’ on the filling process, signed only by Egypt in February 2020, was criticised by Addis Ababa. Abiy’s mind seems to have changed on both his previous willingness to negotiate, and his previous opposition to dams, especially after Cairo’s attempts to involve the USA in negotiations, and because of his loss of domestic support.
There remain a number of contentious issues regarding the dam. One of them is about the period of the filling of the dam. Sudan, Egypt and Ethiopia agree that it should be phased, with the first phase spread over two years and the dam being filled to a depth of 595 metres, thus allowing for small-scale electricity generation and testing. Egypt, however, insists that Ethiopia releases over forty billion cubic metres of water each year, while Ethiopia wants to release thirty-billion cubic metres. Egypt currently receives forty-seven to forty-nine billion cubic metres of water from the Blue Nile annually. Ethiopia has conceded to providing a maximum of thirty-seven billion cubic metres annually, an amount Egypt will probably have to reluctantly accept. Addis Ababa is concerned that Cairo also wants it to empty the GERD’s reservoir to supplement the river’s flow in times of drought.
The parties have also not yet agreed on a monitoring and dispute resolution mechanism to ensure compliance. The UN asserts that the legality and binding nature of a possible agreement has not yet been agreed upon by all parties. Egypt and Sudan want the agreement to be legally binding and enforceable, while Ethiopia is wary that this may constrain it in the future, especially since it has a growing economy and because the GERD provides only one-fifth of the possible energy it could generate from the Nile.
Negotiations are being made more difficult by Egypt and Ethiopia both viewing the dam as an existential matter for their regimes. Article Forty-Four of Egypt’s constitution tasks the state with protecting the country’s ‘historic right’ to the Nile. Sisi already received much backlash for handing over the islands of Tiran and Sanafir to Saudi Arabia in June 2017, including from Egyptian nationalists and military officials who saw his act as a betrayal of Egypt’s territorial claims. He would be careful about creating another such scandal. With Egypt’s population predicted to rise to 150 million by 2050, the country will become even more dependent on the Nile for its survival. Egypt’s annual water capacity per capita is already predicted to be forced to diminish from 570 cubic metres per person annually to 500 cubic metres in the coming years as a result of climate change.
Meanwhile, in Ethiopia, the fact that many Ethiopians purchased GERD bonds to fund the building of the dam means that the regime has minimal wiggle room. Popular songs have been written in support of the dam, with some likening its construction to the 1896 battle of Adwa, when Ethiopians united to defeat Italian colonisers. The current domestic political context worsens the situation. Abiy’s popularity is waning, and the decision to postpone elections to 2021 has been criticised. Further, in recent weeks, the assassination of popular Oromo singer Hachalu Hundessa sparked riots in Oromia, with the Oromo people, who comprise a third of the country’s population, arguing that the prime minister was not benefiting them. Abiy thus sanctioned the filling of the dam unilaterally, without obtaining consent from Sudan and Egypt as the two countries had expected, partly in an attempt to deflect from his domestic travails. His unstable position will likely influence any negotiations regarding the second year’s filling process, and will likely be deployed in electoral campaigns, making compromise less likely.
Sudan, on the other hand, has adopted a more balanced approach, siding with Ethiopia and refusing to agree to a March 2020 Arab League resolution condemning the GERD. Although largely agreeing with Egypt regarding the GERD’s filling and the need for a binding agreement, Khartoum has recently indicated a further willingness to compromise. It has conceded that Ethiopia will have to have flexibility regarding releasing water from the reservoir during drought, and also accepted that Addis Ababa might want to build more dams on the Nile in the future. However, it wants an agreement between the three states to be binding and enforceable. Moreover, consistent with the emphasis on ‘historic rights’, Sudan wants Ethiopia to notify it and Egypt before any dam construction.
Ethiopia and Sudan requested the AU, in June, to mediate between the three states. This was after the failures of trilateral negotiations between the states themselves, and after Ethiopia accused the USA of being biased towards Egypt. Before this, the AU had been relatively uninvolved in the GERD issue, calling on the states to negotiate among themselves. Some commentators argue that the continental body did not want to be involved in mediating a conflict between two powerful member states, especially since this would inevitably be perceived as it siding with one side if an agreement was not concluded. Following a failed first round of AU mediation at the end of June, which was to result in an agreement within two weeks thereafter, the three countries again announced, on 22 July, their willingness to accept AU mediation. The issues under mediation are especially contentious since they may be precedent-setting, and upsetting either Egypt or Ethiopia is not what the AU would want. However, successfully dealing with the Nile matter can position the AU as a serious continental structure that can resolve conflicts even between its strongest members, especially after external structures and foreign states were unable to bring the matter to conclusion.
The AU’s involvement in the Nile dispute has the potential to both resolve the matter, and enhance the reputation of the body. However, while on many substantive issues the parties have come closer, there remains much ground still to be covered and many disputes still requiring compromises. Ethiopia’s unilateral filling of the dam and its announcement that the first year filling process has completed has deescalated the situation temporarily, giving the AU some breathing space to address the more with cooler heads. However, a few of the serious issues will continue to make negotiations difficult. Whether the agreement should be legally enforceable, and whether Ethiopia should accept Cairo’s demand to release large water reserves during droughts are among those thorny issues.
It is highly unlikely that differences over the GERD issue could result in military conflict between Egypt and Ethiopia, despite the rhetoric from both sides. Cairo is involved in a seemingly-unwinnable conflict against the Islamic State group’s ‘Sinai province’, and is getting itself mired in Libya. It is unlikely that it will want to open up a third front. Moreover, the balance of power in the Nile is shifting, with Ethiopia gaining influence regionally and continentally. Addis Ababa’s confidentially filling up the dam unilaterally in the past few months, without any consequences, clearly indicates this shift.
A comprehensive solution will need to be based on the Entebbe agreement if it is to have a chance of long-term success. Egypt will need to give up on its insistence that it has a ‘historic right’ to the Nile waters, and on its demand that upstream states obtain its approval before undertaking construction projects on the river. Climate change, coupled with the increasing growth of countries such as Tanzania and Ethiopia, will result in these states seek to use the river’s water much more than previously to sustain their growing populations.
Egypt is reportedly furious at Hamas’ leader Ismail Haniyeh after he and a delegation from Gaza attended the funeral of slain Iranian Quds Force commander, Qassem Soleimani. Haniyeh headed a Hamas delegation out of the besieged Gaza Strip on 2 December 2019, the first time that Egypt allowed him to leave the enclave since his election as leader of Hamas in 2017. He was meant to visit a number of countries as part of an international relations tour. Egypt approved the countries he would visit; Iran was not on the list. Haniyeh, however, attended Soleimani’s funeral and was the only non-Iranian to speak at the event, where he referred to the Iranian general as ‘the martyr of Jerusalem’. The Egyptians have allowed other members of the delegation to return to Gaza, but it is unclear whether Egypt will allow Haniyeh to leave again, when he returns. Hamas is also cagey about when its leader will make his way back or whether he will visit other countries not approved of by the Egyptians.
Egypt and Hamas relations become stronger after the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime during the 2011 uprisings. The one-year presidency of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi, from June 2012 to July 2013, saw flourishing relations between the Egyptian government and the authority in Gaza. Morsi had ordered the permanent opening of the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza. Palestinians from Gaza were thus able to travel in and out of the territory without hindrance, and there was also an increase in trade, after years of prohibition. In a July 2013 coup, General Abdel Fattah El Sisi overthrew Morsi and accused Hamas of being a co-conspirator against the security and the stability of the Egyptian people. Reversing Morsi’s decision, he tightened the blockade on Gaza.
Relations improved in 2017 when Hamas elected a new leadership mostly based in Gaza, unlike the previous leadership that was based mostly in Qatar and headed by Khaled Mesha'al. Haniyeh quickly started talks with Egypt after he election. Hamas delegations frequently visited Cairo for reconciliation talks with other Palestinian factions, notably Fatah, facilitated by Egypt. Egyptian officials have also frequented Gaza for negotiations with Hamas over ceasefires with Israel and to discuss blockade restrictions imposed by Israel and Egypt. Relations further strengthened when Egypt agreed to a buffer zone between Gaza and the Sinai to prevent Islamic State (IS) group militants retreating into Gaza.
A critical aspect of Egypt’s relations with Hamas is the former’s strong ties to Israel and to the USA. In 2018, US President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, discussed with Egypt the creation of a trade zone and industrial projects in the northern Sinai and in Gaza as part of Trump’s touted ‘deal of the century’. To realise this plan, Egypt agreed that it would coordinate economic projects with Hamas. In 2019, Qatar announced that it would begin distributing funds to families in Gaza and pay for fuel for electricity generation as part of its National Committee for the Reconstruction of Gaza project. This followed indirect negotiations between Hamas and Israel, mediated by Egypt, which brought relief to 2 million besieged Gazans. This agreement had been concluded during a twenty-four day trip to Cairo by a Hamas delegation headed by Haniyeh in February 2019. It became clear that Egypt was willing to allow Haniyeh to travel out of Gaza but only for meetings in Cairo; he swiftly returned to the strip after every trip.
For his current trip, Haniyeh left Gaza on 2 December 2019 for Cairo, where he attended a number of meetings with Egyptian officials to negotiate a longterm ceasefire with Israel. This followed an exchange of fire between groups in Gaza and Israel, after Israel assassinated one Islamic Jihad (Bahaa Abu Al-Ata) leader in Gaza. After these meetings, Haniyeh’s delegation departed for his first international trip as Hamas leader. The trip’s schedule was agreed upon with Egypt, and included Qatar, where many former and current Hamas leaders are based, as well as Turkey and Malaysia.
The Egyptians told Haniyeh not to attend the Kuala Lumpur Summit in Malaysia on 18 December, following Saudi Arabia’s insistence. The Saudis viewed the Summit as Malaysia’s attempt to set up an alternative to the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which Saudi Arabia currently heads. Haniyeh obliged and sent a high-level delegation instead. Unimpressed, Egypt nonetheless conceded that Haniyeh had not violated the agreement. Egypt’s conditions included Haniyeh’s not visiting Iran.
When the head of the Quds Force unit of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Qassem Soleimani, was killed by an American airstrike on 3 January, Egypt further warned Haniyeh not to attend his funeral. Haniyeh, however, defied the order. He also met with the newly-appointed Quds Force commander Esmail Ghaani, and, together with Islamic Jihad leader for an international relations trip, visited Soleimani’s home to express condolences.
Haniyeh’s trip to Iran angered the Egyptians to such an extent that they may not let him back into Gaza after he completes his trip, or prevent him leaving the territory again. Egypt also, in retaliation for Haniyeh’s insubordination, temporarily blocked the transfer of gas into Gaza. This resumed only after talks on 9 February. After these talks, little was mentioned about what the Egyptians had said about Haniyeh, who is still in Doha.
Although Hamas has denied that Egypt had been furious over the Iran visit, it is clear that relations between the two parties have been shaken. Egypt believes that since 2013 it has largely managed to exercise control over Hamas, in line with the wishes of Israel and Egyptian allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Haniyeh’s Iran visit was, thus, an embarrassment for Egypt. Although Haniyeh’s trip to Iran might have been strategic from a Hamas point of view, it, however, throws the existing relationship with Egypt into murky waters. Egypt might further restrict the movement of goods and people through the Rafah crossing, in a form of collective punishments against Gaza’s residents.
The Egyptian government’s need to artificially increase voter turnout in the presidential election at the end of March through a combination of enticements and threats indicates a growing disillusionment among ordinary Egyptians with the political situation in the country. With the victory of the incumbent, Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, which was never in doubt, it is likely that Egypt will see an increase in already-high levels of repression.
Long before official electoral results gave Sisi ninety-seven per cent of the vote, his victory had been expected by everyone, especially after former military chief of staff, General Sami Anan, had been arrested in January, and human rights lawyer Khaled Ali had been forced to withdraw from the race. These events occurred in an atmosphere in which dissent was being violently repressed. That repression intensified in the past few months as the regime sought to shut down the already minuscule space available for opposition.
Sisi’s rein has seen thousands killed and tens of thousands arrested; a 2013 law severely curtailed the right to protest; and a 2017 law ensures that only NGOs supportive of the regime are able to operate. Some constituencies that had initially given some level of support to SIsi, such as leftist parties and youth organisations, have seen their members arrested more recently, and the state has been formenting leadership contestation within some such groups. In a 29 January statement, Anan, Ali, and others labelled the electoral process a sham and advocated a boycott. To prevent Sisi being the sole candidate, the regime allegedly influenced Al Gad party’s Moussa Mostafa Moussa, who had already expressed his love for Sisi, to register as a candidate hours before the close of nominations. Until a week before his registration, he had been actively campaigning for Sisi.
With all these shenanigans, the only question that the election would answer was how large the voter turnout would be. The regime resorted to threatening voters to ensure a high turnout, which it believed would indicate support for Sisi. Teachers were forced to sign voter cards with their inked fingers in an attempt to ensure that they had voted, and in the governorates of Beheira and New Valley, officials had promised increased social services for districts with high voter turnouts.
In Minya and Sohag, police sought to pressure citizens to participate, and street vendors were threatened with the confiscation of their property if they failed to vote. Despite these attempts, voting numbers were still low, and the preliminary turnout had to be adjusted upward from forty to forty-two percent; Sisi’s vote of ninety-two per cent was also upped to ninety-seven per cent in order to equal the 2014 poll.
Astonishingly, the National Election Agency (NEA) claimed a high turnout in northern Sinai despite the Egyptian military’s scorched earth operations in the peninsula, and despite many in the region not being regarded as integral to Egypt, and many not even possessing full citizenship rights.
Although Sisi’s victory was guaranteed, the severity of the measures instituted to crack down on dissent and ensure that citizens voted point to his many failings. His handling of the economy has alienated many Egyptians; a twelve billion dollar IMF loan was conditioned on the regime drastically reducing subsidies and allowing the currency to float. This aggravated the conditions of Egyptians, and criticism of the regime has increased, even from previously supportive lawmakers and television personalities. The president’s decision to hand over the Tiran and Sanafir islands to Saudi Arabia angered many Egyptians who had supported his nationalist rhetoric; and the insurgency in northern Sinai (and its spillover into the mainland) saw Sisi’s security credentials being questioned. The opposition from Anan and former air force General Ahmed Shafiq are significant in this regard, and suggest the possibility that there is not unanimity within the military regarding Sisi’s rule. In October 2017, he dismissed his confidante and military chief of staff Mahmoud Hegazy, and in January 2018 he fired the head of intelligence, Khaled Fawzy, leading some former insiders to argue that military discontent is at a high.
With Sisi’s electoral victory, it is likely that harsher measures will be implemented in Egypt, especially as regards economic policy, which could see further subsidy cuts to unlock the second tranche of the IMF loan. This will likely lead to more discontent and further repression, especially if citizens’ socioeconomic conditions worsen dramatically. The international community, especially since the accession of Donald Trump to the US presidency in 2017, and later Emmanuel Macron’s election to the French presidency, has been willing to tolerate Sisi’s repression since Cairo is regarded as being in the frontline of the battle against the Islamic State group, whose strongest branch (Sinai ‘Province’), operates in Egypt, and because Cairo is largely supportive of the dominant powers on regional issues. Sisi’s victory is also being seen by many as a sign that he might attempt to amend the constitution to remove the two-term presidential limit. Already, pro-Sisi parliamentarians are agitating for this, thus laying the ground for a new confrontation.
Egypt's cabinet has approved a countrywide state of emergency for three months, a day after two church bombings left at least 44 people dead. It needs to be approved by parliament within seven days in order to remain in place.