By Larbi Sadiki
Since 2017, Tunisia’s interior and south have witnessed a wave of ongoing protests, characterised by the slogan ‘al-rakh la’, meaning ‘No Relenting’. These protests have tested the resilience of the country’s democracy. Though they intermittently disrupt phosphate and oil production, they do so against the disruption of lives in towns like Gafsa, Kasserine or Tataouine, where democracy is yet to end marginalisation.
As the Tunisian government celebrated its ‘victory’ over the spread of COVID-19 on 25 June, protestors in Tataouine, at the southern tip of the country, sounded a different note. The jubilation over the release of the Kamour Hirak detainees did not prevent the activists from getting back to the business of protesting. The Kamour Hirak is a three-year-old protest in Tunisia’s southern Tataouine province, focused around grievances related to jobs in the oil and gas fields in the area, and on the share of funds from the hydrocarbon industry to be earmarked for local development. The activists in this loose group of protesters, who mostly rely on employment in the southern region’s oilfields, are demanding jobs and investments as part of a regional development fund that had been promised to them under a 2017 agreement with Youcef Chahed’s government.
The Kamour protests did not erupt in a vacuum; they must be situated within the context of more than fifteen years of revolutionary action in the phosphate basin. The causes are still the same as they were late 2010 and 2011 when the former president, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, was ousted. Multiple marginalisation is still the common incubator of the protests.
The protests are reminders of several interconnected issues. First, policy inertia when it comes to youth unemployment and regional marginalisation is a festering problem crying for urgent attention. Second, they sound an alarm about southern youth being disaffected and disenchanted with Tunisia’s new rulers. Third, they have created a protest multiplier effect, eliciting a widespread sense of solidarity and unity with the marginalised people of the south and centre. Last, the state’s coercive apparatus’s reaction to these protests shows that old habits die hard: when politics fails, there is an escalation of violent police tactics.
Recent weeks have seen an escalation of protests in Tataouine as the working class ups the ante. Tansiqiyyat al-Kamour is a newer movement that mirrors persistent unrest in Gafsa’s phosphate basin, but protests and sit-ins have disrupted Tunisian phosphate production for years, recently resulting in production being 27.5 per cent lower than the 2.7 million ton goal set by the Gafsa Phosphate Company.
Before the 2011 revolution, protestors faced the challenge of dealing with the authoritarian state under Ben Ali. Arrests and state security repression included violence that resulted in at least four deaths in the famous phosphate basin events of 2008. Now, the same protesters are wrangling with a new democratic state that includes a stumbling transitional justice process for previous state crackdowns. Importantly, the demands of Gafsa’s marginalised people have not changed much since before the 2011 uprising.
These clusters of unruliness across the country’s south represent movements of moral protest. Activists insist on a minimum standard of dignity to complement the hard-won freedoms of the 2011 uprising, and, when it is lacking, protests erupt periodically in the long-marginalised south of the country, with its long history of state neglect since formal independence in 1956. Tunisia’s politicians may rightly declare that COVID-19 exposed deep social inequality in the country, but economic and social exclusion are not news to those suffering deprivation in the south. One government after another seems incapable of finding solutions to poverty, unemployment, poor healthcare infrastructure (highlighted during the COVID-19 crisis), and lethal environmental damage in Tataouine, Gafsa, Kasserine (with Sidi Bouzid – the birthplace of the 2010-11 uprising), among other interior and southern regions.
Kamour’s latest escalation is but one manifestation of long-simmering discontent, accompanied by feelings of discrimination in broad segments of the country. For the people in these areas, the richer Sahel (coast), including the capital and surrounding areas, is a world away. The democratic ‘pill’ may have quelled some of the indignation in Tunisia’s marginal areas since 2011, but protests have not faded from the scene since Ben Ali’s fall.
The state’s heavy-handed approach to sit-ins and protests, such as the confiscation of 13 tents in Tataouine last week, did not go down well; indeed, it resulted in many citizens feeling unseen and unheard. ‘These events were painful,’ said Khalifah Bohoush, a member of Tansiqiyyat Al-Kamour. He complained that the government had violated protestors’ dignity. ‘We felt insulted…[after] we had chanted thawrah (revolution) in one voice with all Tunisians!’ Like Bohoush, many feel that the canisters of tear gas, the broken arms and legs, and the curses and insults hurled by security officials signal that not all Tunisian citizens are equal, that the country’s north is more deserving of wealth and government attention than the south’s forgotten and restless youth.
Democratisation has raised the expectations of unemployed youth seeking jobs, and of poverty-stricken families, all of whom wait to realise the distributive responsibilities of the state, and the peaceful settlement of disputes. Kamour youth continually stress their constitutional right to protest. Upon his release, Kamour spokesperson Tarek al Haddad admonished the country’s politicians that Ben Ali’s days were over: after 2011, there is no rule by force, he said. Why, then, the vicious crackdown, the teargas, the violence, the foul language?
These latest clashes between protestors and security officials remind us that the ballot is not enough. Especially for a poor country beleaguered by deep inequalities, voting people into parliament and presidents into office is not an end in itself; elected officials should represent constituents’ demands. In this case, these demands include the implementation of a three-year-old agreement guaranteeing 1 500 jobs in oil companies (for instance, in the new Nawara plant), 500 landscape/agricultural jobs, and TND 80 million (about $28 400 000) a year for a regional development fund in Tataouine.
Democratic ethos and practice furnish the framework for constant dialogue between state and society, voters and officials. Reverting to the old Ben Ali-era tactics that made the Interior Ministry notorious in Tunisia and elsewhere in the Arab world does not square well with democratisation. At this democratic moment, Tunisia finds itself doubly besieged. Internally, the government of Prime Minister Elyes Fakhfakh faces the challenge of the ‘hirak’ and the youth stubbornly hanging onto government pledges to deliver the goods. A cabinet meeting late last week discussed the original pledge, inching closer to meeting the Kamour protesters’ demands for jobs. The embattled prime minister is also busy with a burgeoning ‘conflict of interest’ scandal. Externally, Tunisia is deeper in debt than ever before; a perfunctory calculation of debt accumulated during the past few months of the COVID-19 crisis tallies up to more than a USD 1 billion.
Who will pay back these loans, and where is the COVID-19 assistance going? Ultimately, democracy creates openings for solving people’s problems, particularly when opportunities arise. The epidemic was one such opportunity, the latest protests in the interior and the south are another. If youth grievances continue to fester in the country’s marginalised (and border) regions, any awe of democracy that still exists may fade. These youth publicly insist on the peacefulness, legality, and the justness of their demands and their tactics. The government should not lose them as interlocutors for confronting the country’s problems. Before Fakhfakh, the Chahed government lost credibility by failing to satisfactorily fulfil its Kamour promises.
The current government seems to follow a policy of delay and decay: deferring distributive justice and sinking in political paralysis. The new president, Kais Saeid, seemed to have acted proactively by meeting with the Kamour protesters. However, not much has materialised since that encounter. And it was followed by a stain on his reputation when, on a recent tour France, he secured Tunisia’s latest loan instalment of $350 million and asserted in an interview on France24 that Tunisia had been a protectorate, rather than a colony, of France. Tunisia had not been not colonised the way that Algeria had, he insisted. In one interview, Saeid erased and rewrote Tunisian history and the numerous struggles and sacrifices against French colonialism.
Whether or not ‘protectorate’ is a precise legal designation is beside the point. Language always implies power. It is tactless and jarring that a sitting Tunisian president would reproduce the linguistic understandings of colonial discourse, which underpin decades of physical and cultural violence. Saeid revealed not only his lack of sophistication, but also an aloofness from Tunisian society. He demonstrated a willingness, for whatever reason, to verbally violate elements of the basis of a multi-vocal Tunisian identity whose very postcoloniality was forged in sacrifices of life and limb, for the sake of freedom.
Perhaps the president should reread Frantz Fanon and Edward Said. He would do well to re-immerse himself in the voices of local resisters and Tunisian voices such as Abdelaziz Al-Tha’albi, Farhat Hashad, Habib Bourguiba, to name but a few, who struggled, wrote, organised, and fought against colonialism. However, even more damaging to Saeid’s reputation has been his foot-dragging in making good on his promise to the Kamour youth who he met in January.
Tunisia has recently experienced parliamentary mayhem, epitomised in June’s ‘battle of the petitions’ that included one petition on 9 June that was sponsored by the Dignity Coalition, which demanded an apology from France for its colonial crimes. The debacle illustrated the lack of an ethos of respectful dialogue among MPs from rival parties (even within the government’s teetering ruling coalition). Instead, citizens witness cheap showmanship and sensationalism, ideological polarisation, and a willingness to turn parliament into a new televised battleground for region-wide conflicts.
Parliamentary deliberation has ceded to ‘petitioning’ by constantly bickering political parties and coalitions. The bickering has become more ideological and historical than contemporary or for Tunisia’s benefit. We see parliamentarian seek to issue final judgements on history (on, for example, Bourguiba’s legacy), or to position themselves vis-à-vis regional discord (regarding, for instance, pro- or anti-Turkey sentiments with respect to the conflict in Libya). This has intensified polarisation. Such raucousness in the legislature has distracted and detracted from real social and economic woes felt in Tataouine, Gafsa, Kasserine, Sidi Bouzid and other interior and southern regions.
Civil society actors, from Tataouine and Kasserine’s protesting youth to an Arab-wide initiative calling for the cancellation of exploitative international loans, may be ahead of politicians in demanding solutions for worsening socio-economic predicaments. Yet it remains up to those who hold power in Tunisia, the controllers of its purse strings, to activate the country’s impressive democratic toolkit. The government should ramp up the budgets of regions with special needs: unemployment, poverty, crumbling public amenities, etc. These are problems that will not go away.
Enacting policies that inch towards responsiveness to urgent citizen demands and away from external dependency is a Herculean but inescapable task, if not out of a sense of moral obligation, then at least because the disruptions of protests will not simply disappear. Kamour’s youth chant it in protests and scrawl it on walls: ‘Al rakh la’ – resist, and stay the course. Democracy demands they be taken seriously.
From an epistemological angle, Tunisian and other Arab protests force us to revisit their common puzzle and research trajectories via a positivist take (when and how are protests inevitable?), and a normative angle (when, how and why should elected politicians represent the marginalised and the protesters?). In Tunisia, the biggest gain of the 2011 uprising is freedom. Freedom, however, begets more freedom, reinforcing different actors’ quests for dignity. It knows no limits in reimagining polity and democratic citizenship of equal (distributive, not adversarial) opportunity.
What do Tunisia’s protests share with contemporaneous moral protests and riots? In a nutshell, even if in some form or other they are conditioned by local concerns related to specific sociopolitical realities, they seem to share patterns of misrule and injustice. Arab protests from Beirut or Tripoli in Lebanon to Suweida in Syria, from Gafsa to Morocco’s Rif, keep millions of youth hanging on to possibilities of justice, democracy and better lives: ‘Al rakh la!’
* Larbi Sadiki is a Tunisian writer, political scientist and Professor at the Qatar University. He was formerly a scholar at the Carnegie Middle East Center. Sadiki's writing focuses on the democratization of the Arab world as well as human rights studies and dialogue between the Western and Islamic civilizations.
** This article was first published in openDemocracy (8 July 2020)
By Ramzy Baroud
The painful truth is that the Palestinian Authority (PA) of President Mahmoud Abbas has already ceased to exist as a political body that holds much sway or relevance, either to the Palestinian people or to Abbas’s former benefactors – the Israeli and American governments. Therefore, when the Palestinian Authority prime minister, Mohammed Shtayyeh, announced on 9 June 2020 that the Palestinian leadership had submitted a ‘counter proposal’ to the US Middle East ‘peace plan’, also known as the ‘Deal of the Century’, few people seemed to care.
Little is known about this ‘counter proposal’, apart from the fact that it envisages a demilitarised Palestinian state within the pre-1967 borders. We also know that the PA is willing to accept land swaps and border adjustments, a provision that has surely been inserted to cater for Israel’s demographic and security needs. It is almost certain, however, that nothing will come of Shtayyeh’s counter proposal, and no independent Palestinian state will result from the seemingly historical offer. Why then did Ramallah opt for such a strategy only days before the 1 July deadline, when the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to launch its process of illegal annexation in the occupied West Bank and the Jordan Valley?
The main reason behind Shtayyeh’s announcement is that the PA leadership is often accused by Israel, the USA and their allies of supposedly rejecting previous ‘peace’ overtures. Correctly so, the PA rejected the ‘Deal of the Century’ because it represents the most jarring violation of international law yet. It denies the Palestinians’ territorial rights in occupied East Jerusalem, completely dismisses the right of return for Palestinian refugees, and gives carte blanche to the Israeli government to colonise more Palestinian territory.
In principle, Netanyahu also rejected the American proposal, though without pronouncing his rejection publicly. Indeed, the Israeli leader has already dismissed any prospects of Palestinian statehood and has decided to move forward with the unilateral annexation of nearly thirty per cent of the West Bank, without paying any heed to the fact that even Trump’s unfair ‘peace’ initiative called for mutual dialogue before any annexation takes place.
As soon as Washington’s plan was announced in January, followed by Israel’s insistence that the annexation of Palestinian territories was imminent, the PA spun into a strange political mode, far more unpredictable and bizarre than ever before. One after another, PA officials began making all sorts of contradictory remarks and declarations, notable among them being Abbas’s announcement on 19 May to cancel all agreements between the Palestinians and Israel. This was followed by another announcement, on 8 June, this time by Hussein Al-Sheikh, a senior PA official and Abbas confidante, that if annexation were to take place, the Authority would cut off civic services to Palestinians to force Israel to assume its legal role as an occupying power as per international norms. Then a third announcement was made the following day by Shtayyeh himself, threatening that if Israel were to claim sovereignty over parts of the West Bank, the PA would retaliate by declaring statehood within the pre-1967 borders.
The Palestinian counter-proposal was declared soon after this hotchpotch of announcements, most likely to offset the state of confusion that is marring the Palestinian body politic. It is the PA’s way of appearing proactive, positive, and stately. The Palestinian initiative also aims at sending a message to European countries that, despite Abbas’s cancellation of agreements with Israel, the PA was still committed to the political parameters set by the Oslo Accords in September 1993.
What Abbas and Shtayyeh are ultimately hoping to achieve is a repeat of an earlier episode that followed the admission of Palestine as a non-state member of the United Nations General Assembly in 2011. Salam Fayyad, who served as the PA’s prime minister at the time, also waved the card of the unilateral declaration of statehood to force Israel to freeze the construction of illegal Jewish settlements. Eventually, the PA was co-opted by then-US Secretary of State, John Kerry, to return to another round of useless negotiations with Israel. This won the PA another ten years, during which time it received generous international funds while selling Palestinians false hope for an imaginary state.
Sadly, this is the current strategy of the Palestinian leadership: a combination of threats, counter proposals and such, in the hope that Washington and Tel Aviv will agree to return to a bygone era. Unfortunately, but hardly surprisingly, it seems the Palestinian people, occupied, besieged, and oppressed, is the least relevant factor in the PA’s calculations. The PA has operated for many years without a semblance of democracy, and the Palestinian people neither respect ‘their government’ nor their so-called president. They have made their feelings known, repeatedly, in many opinion polls.
In the last few months, the PA has used every trick in the book to demonstrate its relevance and seriousness in the face of the dual threat of Trump’s ‘Deal of the Century’ and Netanyahu’s annexation of Palestinian lands. Yet, the most significant and absolutely pressing step, that of uniting all Palestinians, people and factions, behind a single political body and a single political document, is yet to be taken. It is, therefore, no exaggeration to argue that Abbas’s Authority is gasping its last breath, especially if its traditional European allies fail to extend a desperately-needed lifeline. The guarded positions adopted by EU countries have, thus far, signalled that no European country is capable or willing to fill the gap left open by Washington’s betrayal of the PA and of the ‘peace process’.
Until the PA hands over the keys to the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) so that the more democratically representative Palestinian body can start a process of national reconciliation, Netanyahu will, tragically, remain the only relevant party, determining the fate of Palestine and her people.
* Ramzy Baroud is a journalist and the editor of The Palestine Chronicle. He is the author of five books, his latest being These Chains Will Be Broken: Palestinian Stories of Struggle and Defiance in Israeli Prisons. His website is www.ramzybaroud.net
The Libyan conflict has endured for years despite numerous failed attempts at mediating a solution by the UN, African Union, and even Turkey and Italy. A 2011 arms embargo imposed on the country has been ineffective, mainly because France and Russia, which support one side in the conflict, are permanent members on the UNSC. Other states, including Egypt, the UAE and Turkey, have their own interests in the country and have thus largely ignored the embargo. Four UN special envoys have been appointed and have resigned, citing outside influence as an obstacle to their work. Despite this, foreign support for the belligerents continues to intensify, with Greece and Cyprus now also interested in the conflict’s outcomes.
Overview of the Libyan conflict
Since 2014, Libya has been divided between two governments and even, for a period between 2015 and 2017, three centres of power. This included a legislature in Tripoli, in the west of the country, formerly the General National Congress and now the High State Council (HSC); a parliament in Tobruk in the east, the House of Representatives (HoR); and the UN-recognised government, the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli. The influence and power of various militia often supersedes that of these political institutions. The HoR is dependent on the support of the largest militia, the Libyan National Army (LNA), headed by warlord Khalifa Haftar, while the GNA relies heavily on the support of the Bunyan Marsus militia in the western city of Misrata. UN attempts to mediate a power-sharing agreement have repeatedly failed, mainly because foreign support has ensured obduracy from the LNA, which by April 2019 had captured much of the south of Libya and had besieged the capital, Tripoli. A year later, in April 2020, the GNA began reversing many of these gains, but the LNA remains in control of the east and much of the south.
Libya’s strategic position on the southern Mediterranean, its location as a transit route for migrants travelling to Europe, and its large oil resources have meant that it is regarded as a prize for Libyans and non-Libyans alike. Many foreign powers, including France, Russia and the USA, have significant economic and other interests in the country. Seemingly, the strategic importance of the country increased after the ouster and murder of Libya’s former leader, Muammar Gaddafi, especially since the country’s instability saw increasing numbers of migrants use the country as a transit route when travelling to Europe. Further, arms proliferation across Libya’s porous borders greatly influenced instability in the Sahel, infamously playing a role in the 2012 Malian coup. The power vacuum and contested centres of power meant that regional countries, including Egypt, the UAE, and Turkey, as well as extra-regional powers, have tried to exploit the situation for both financial and political gains.
Government of National Accord
The most recent phase of the conflict commenced in April 2019, when Haftar’s LNA besieged Tripoli. Haftar believed the capital would readily capitulate. However, after a siege lasting one year, the GNA has pushed the LNA militia out of most of the country’s western regions, recapturing the strategic Watiya airbase in May 2020 and forcing LNA troops out of their strategic base in Tarhuna thereafter. The LNA retreated from areas surrounding southern Tripoli and was pushed further east; it is now unable to mount a direct offensive on Tripoli. This new situation is due, mainly, to enhanced Turkish support for the GNA. Ankara, viewing Libya as being of strategic importance for Turkey, deployed Special Forces and recruits from among Syrian rebels, numbering around 10 000 according to some reports. Turkey also provided air support to the GNA, enabling it to end Haftar’s aerial dominance.
Turkey’s interests in Libya include a maritime border agreement signed in 2019 between Ankara and the GNA, strengthening Turkish claims over natural gas in the Mediterranean, and undermining the claims of Greece and Cyprus. Ankara also has long-standing commercial and economic interests in Libya, and is opposed to the regimes in Cairo and Abu Dhabi, Haftar’s key supporters. Egypt’s and the UAE’s recent attempts to curtail Ankara’s growing regional influence have included supporting the Asad regime in Syria. It is almost certain, however, that Turkey will increase its support to the GNA, since ensuring a GNA victory is now part of Turkey’s national interest.
The GNA also receives diplomatic support from Italy, its closest European neighbour, and Italy opposes France’s support of Haftar. Rome also assisted in financing and training the Libyan Coast Guard, but has avoided supporting the GNA financially or militarily in its confrontation with Haftar. Rome’s main interest is to prevent migration from Libya to Europe. Another strong GNA supporter is Qatar; its support is mainly financial. Recently, the new Tunisian government, which was elected in February 2020, has also begun expressing support for the GNA. Tunisia has allowed Turkish aircraft that are delivering aid to the GNA to land in the country, a move that has been vehemently criticised by the HoR.
The LNA and the HoR
Haftar’s main weapons suppliers are the UAE and Egypt. Chadian, Sudanese, and Russian mercenaries have also been recruited to bolster his ill-fated advance on Tripoli. Most of these countries view the Islamist components of the GNA as a threat. Egypt’s additional motivation is the possibility of benefiting from Libyan oil. Egypt’s president, Abdul Fattah El Sisi, regards Haftar as having similar interests as him, since both are military strongman, and because both oppose political Islam. Cairo has provided diplomatic and military backing for the LNA, and allowed Emirati aircraft to use Egyptian airspace and bases to carry out attack on Libya Dawn forces in Tripoli in August 2014.
Saudi Arabia and the UAE also increasingly regard their support to Haftar as a means of containing Turkey by engulfing Ankara in a potentially unwinnable conflict. Between April 2019 and April 2020 the UAE carried out over 850 air attacks on GNA targets, mainly through drones. In January and February 2020 alone, Abu Dhabi provided over 4.6 tons of military equipment to the LNA, allowing it to respond to Turkish attacks and also to snub ceasefire calls from the UN, EU and Turkey and Russia. Riyadh too has financially supported the LNA; Haftar visited Saudi Arabia in March 2019, just weeks before his April 2019 march on Tripoli.
For Russia, the reinstatement of Gadhafi-era weapons contracts, worth over four billion dollars, would be a big prize, one that a military like Haftar would be able to guarantee. Moscow also sees other economic benefits through eastern Libya, including the exploitation of Libya’s oil resources. In general, Russia’s President Vladimir Putin views strongmen as more reliable allies and more able to provide stability. Like some of the other state supporters of Haftar, Moscow does not always differentiate between militant and democratic Islamists. Moscow has, therefore, diplomatically and militarily supported the LNA, including by watering down and, at times, blocking UN statements and resolutions condemning Haftar. Recently, Moscow deployed fourteen fighter jets, including MiG29s and SU24s, to the Jafra airbase to support the LNA after the GNA’s military gains. Apart from state involvement, the Russian Wagner security group, which is said to have close links to Putin, is also active in Libya, supporting Haftar’s militia.
France regards Haftar as pivotal in its Sahelian counterterrorism strategy, which has resulted in it supporting strongmen in the Sahel, and turning a blind eye to the suppression of freedoms and narrowing political space. France was the first western state to dispatch special forces to support Haftar, and has worked to weaken EU statements criticising his actions, the most recent of which followed his march on Tripoli.
Haftar has skilfully used the Islamic State group (IS) bogey to garner western and Russian support. His 2014 ‘Operation Dignity’ was presented as a counterterrorism operation, and he includes elements of the GNA in his ‘terrorist’ category. France, a major player in the 2011 uprisings and the NATO campaign to unseat Gaddafi, initially supported Haftar ostensibly to counter IS. The group currently has little influence in Libya, with only a few hundred members, but its name has been useful for Haftar to use as a scare tactic.
Jordan, Greece and Cyprus have also recently increased their support for the LNA. Amman dispatched UAE-funded weapons and aircraft to the LNA in an attempt to mask their origination. Jordanian-manufactured armoured vehicles and weapons have also been used by Haftar. Amman is wary of Turkish support for the GNA. Jordan also regards support for the LNA as a politically tolerable method of ensuring that it continues to receive support from Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Although the country is opposed to the Qatari blockade and Saudi and Emirati support for Trump’s ‘deal of the century’ on Palestine, it is dependent on Saudi and Gulf Cooperation Council largess for its survival. Greek and Cypriot support for the LNA is mainly an attempt to scupper Turkish efforts to explore natural gas in the Mediterranean.
Haftar has also enlisted the services of private security companies from a number of countries, including, reportedly, South Africa, in the attempted capture of Tripoli. In May, a group of private military contractors, including eleven South Africans, evacuated to Malta from Libya, as reported by the UN panel monitoring the embargo. They were to engage in an assault on Tripoli using three SA341 Gazelle and three AS332 Super Puma helicopters that had been sourced in South Africa by UAE companies and transported to Libya via Botswana. The eleven South Africans included four pilots.
Current political situation
Until the LNA began to be pushed back and forced to retreat from April 2020, Haftar had remained resolutely opposed to a negotiated political settlement, believing that he had the means to achieve a military victory against the GNA. Once it became clear after the April 2020 GNA gains that Tripoli was no longer within the reach of the LNA, he began making calls for a ceasefire. Splits have also emerged between the HoR and Haftar. The HoR’s speaker, Ageela Saleh, announced a new peace initiative in April 2020 that called for a restructuring of the presidency council to three members, one from each of the country’s three main regions. The initiative would have partially curtailed Haftar’s powers, since he would be answerable to this new council. Haftar subsequently anointed himself in charge of the country, declaring the 2015 Skhirat agreement void, in a move that was criticised by most of his supporters, including Moscow.
The failed Tripoli offensive has weakened Haftar’s influence relative to Saleh’s. This is indicated by the shift away from Haftar by Egypt, the UAE and Russia since May. Haftar’s powerful militia, however, will ensure that, at least for the time being, he will continue being influential in the east. The HoR will likely continue supporting him for now, even though many of its members are disillusioned and frustrated that he controls most of the levers of power.
Although the GNA, currently enjoying many military victories, claims it is no longer interested in talks and wants to ‘liberate’ the whole country, it will likely be prepared to engage in peace talks after it establishes its dominance in the west and captures the city of Sirte. The recent gains have, however, granted the GNA new confidence and it is insisting that its leader, Fayez Sarraj, heads a reformed presidency council that would include Saleh. The GNA has also become more assertive in opposing Haftar’s remaining in charge of the LNA after a resolution is found.
Foreign powers impede political negotiations
The UN has been attempting to find a resolution to the Libyan crisis since 2015, but continues to be hamstrung by divisions in the UNSC. Haftar’s continued obduracy has been encouraged by support he receives from UNSC non-elected member France and, more recently, Russia. Further, the UN’s focus on elections as the sole means out of the conflict has resulted in it not concentrating more effort on consensus-building and bottom-up negotiations. These were hallmarks of the initial phases of the negotiations that resulted in the 2015 Libyan Political Agreement (LPA/Skhirat agreement). The UN planned for elections to be held in 2018, but these have repeatedly been postponed.
A 13 January 2020 ceasefire agreement, mediated by Turkey and Russia, failed because Haftar refused to endorse it. Further, a fifty-five-point roadmap endorsed by most of the roleplayers in Libya, as well as the UAE, Turkey, and France, and signed in Berlin on 19 January, is proving difficult to implement. UN-sponsored ceasefire talks between five military officials from each of the two sides convened in February in Geneva and agreed on a tentative ceasefire. However, the two rival governments subsequently overruled this. Negotiations have since recommenced following the LNA withdrawal from Western Libya, but no new agreement has been reached.
It is clear, as suggested by the one-year stalemate as Tripoli was besieged, that a political solution is the only way out of the Libyan crisis. However, most of the actors in that country have ulterior motives, and have hampered negotiations and, more importantly, implementation of agreements. They have thus continued to try to shape solutions by announcing their own initiatives outside the UN in attempts to provide political legitimisation for their interference. This was the case with the 2018 Paris and Palermo meetings and the unsuccessful January 2020 Turkey-Russia ceasefire. The 6 June Cairo declaration may be characterised in the same way. Although advocating a ceasefire, an elected governing structure and the expulsion of outside forces from the country, Egypt’s declaration is an attempt to protect the HoR, which had been suffering military losses since April. The Egyptian call for foreign forces to leave is directed at Turkey; it is unlikely that Sisi includes Haftar’s supporters – Egypt, UAE, France and Russia – in that call. They are unlikely to reduce their support to the LNA or withdraw forces from Libya.
It was no surprise, then, that the UAE, France and Russia vociferously supported Sisi’s call; Turkey, Germany and the USA have been more cautious, arguing that it was a good first step but that negotiations needed to be guided by the UN. Turkey is unlikely to accept an agreement that will see its interests negatively impacted. The agreement, similar to the 2018 meetings in France and Italy, will likely be stillborn. Turkey has already expressed its dissatisfaction over Saleh being seen as the main personality guiding the process. A 16 June meeting between the Turkish and Russian defence and foreign ministers was cancelled following Ankara’s opposition to Russian proposals that Saleh lead a new political process in the country.
The UN and AU are the only institutions that remain able to mediate and formulate a solution that would be acceptable to most parties. However, both institutions are hamstrung by the interests of powerful states; Egypt in the case of the AU, and France and Russia in the UNSC. The inability of the UNSC to appoint a replacement for former special envoy Ghassan Salame for three months also means that negotiations are not able to take place since there is no one to drive the process from the UN. Any lasting agreement will have to be in line with the fifty-five point roadmap agreed upon in Berlin in January to have a chance at success. Further, the UN’s three track negotiations process, dealing with economic, political and security/military issues, will need to be replicated to engender a more holistic solution.
By Ramzy Baroud
The banning of deadly police practices by many American states and cities following the murder of George Floyd, an African American man, at the hands of Minneapolis police officers is, once more, shedding light on US-Israeli collaboration in the fields of policing, security and crowd control.
From California to New York, and from Washington State to Minneapolis, all forms of neck restraints and chokeholds that are used by police while dealing with suspects are no longer allowed by local, state, or federal authorities. Even the US president, Donald Trump, felt pressured enough to issue an executive order outlawing police use of the chokehold.
This is only the beginning of what promises to be a serious rethink in police practices that disproportionately target African Americans and other minority and marginalised communities across the United States.
The refashioning of the American police, in recent years, to fit a military model is a subject that requires better understanding than the one currently offered by mainstream US media. Certainly, US racism and police violence are intrinsically linked and date back decades, but the militarisation of the US police and their use of deadly violence against suspected petty criminals – and often non criminals – is a relatively new phenomenon that has largely been imported from Israel.
While an urgent conversation is already under way in US cities regarding the need to reimagine public safety, or even to defund the police altogether, little is being said about the link between the US ‘war on terror’ and the American elites’ fascination with the ‘Israeli example’ in how the Israeli military deals with Palestinians in the besieged Gaza Strip and in the occupied West Bank.
‘The Israeli example (could serve as) a possible basis for arguing…that “torture was necessary to prevent imminent, significant, physical harm to persons, where there is no other available means to prevent the harm”,’ read the CIA General Counsel report of September 2001.
Equally important to the content of this argument made by the CIA was the actual date of the report – only a few days after the 11 September attacks in New York. That was the beginning of a new form of the Israeli-American love affair, which entirely redefined the nature of the relationship between Washington and Tel Aviv, removing Israel from the category of ‘client regimes’, and casting it into a whole new category – that of a model to be emulated, and a true partner to be embraced.
The language used by the CIA and other structures within the US intelligence community quickly seeped into the military as well, and eventually became the uncontested political discourse, epitomised by the words of the former US president, Barack Obama, in June 2010 when he said that ‘the bond between the United States and Israel is unbreakable.’ ‘Unbreakable’ indeed, since Israel, the long-time recipient of American financial support and military and intelligence secrets became a major exporter of ideas, security technology, and ‘war on terror’ tactics to the USA.
It is, however, critical that we do not reduce our understanding of this troubling rapport between the USA and Israel to only military hardware and intelligence sharing. The new American infatuation with Israel is essentially an intellectual one, as the USA began viewing itself as inferior to Israel in terms of the latter’s supposed ability to navigate between sustaining its own democracy and successfully defeating Palestinian and Arab ‘terrorism’.
For example, former US President George W Bush regarded extremist Israeli politician and author, Natan Sharansky, as a mentor. In January 2005, The New York Times reported how Bush had invited Sharansky to the Oval Office to discuss his book The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror. A barely visible Israeli politician thus became the moral authority for Bush’s invasion of sovereign Arab countries. It was during this period that Israeli torture tactics, including the infamous ‘Palestinian Chair’, became the crown jewel of the American military’s systematic violence used in America’s immoral wars from Iraq to Afghanistan, to elsewhere.
Writing in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz in 2016, Rachel Stroumsa argued that the ‘Palestinian Chair’ was ‘but one of many examples of ties and seepages between the security practices of Israel and America’, adding that ‘the CIA explicitly justified its use of torture in depositions to the Senate Intelligence Committee by citing High Court of Justice rulings.’
The political, military, and intelligence marriage between the USA and Israel in Iraq quickly spread to include the US ‘global war on terror’, where Israeli weapon manufacturers cater to every American need, playing on the country’s growing sense of insecurity, offering products that range from airport security, the building of watchtowers, the erection of walls and fences, to spying and surveillance technology.
Elbit Systems, Israel’s largest military company, made a fortune from building surveillance towers and sensors, in addition to many other products, across the USA-Mexico border. The company, like other Israeli companies, won one bid after another, because its products are ‘combat-proven’ or ‘field-proven’, referred to as such because these technologies have been used against, or tested on, real people in real situations; the ‘people’ here, of course, being Palestinians, Lebanese, and Syrians. The fact that thousands of American police officers have been trained by Israelis, as evidenced by the burgeoning of violent military-like tactics used against ordinary Americans, is only one link in a long chain of ‘deadly exchanges’ between the two countries.
Almost immediately after the 11 September 2001 attacks, ‘the Anti-Defamation League, the American Jewish Committee’s Project Interchange and the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs have paid for police chiefs, assistant chiefs and captains to train in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories,’ Amnesty International said in a recent report. But this is only the tip of the iceberg. The Israeli army manual, which holds little respect for internationally-recognised rules of conduct, infiltrated numerous police departments across the USA. Even the typical look of the American police officers began changing to resemble that of a combat soldier in full gear. The growing Israeli role in shaping the American security state allowed Israel to push its political priorities past its traditional stronghold over the US Congress to individual states and, eventually, to city councils across the country.
Even if some Israeli tactics that are currently applied by the US police are discontinued under the collective chants of ‘Black Lives Matter’, Israel – if not stopped – will continue to define Washington’s security priorities from Washington State to Texas, because the relationship – Obama’s ‘unbreakable bond’ – is much stronger and deeper than anyone could have ever imagined.
- Ramzy Baroud is a journalist and the Editor of The Palestine Chronicle. He is the author of five books, his latest being These Chains Will Be Broken: Palestinian Stories of Struggle and Defiance in Israeli Prisons
by Mohammed Cherkaoui
Retired general Khalifa Haftar stated that his ‘Libyan National Army (LNA)’ had a ‘popular mandate’ to rule Libya and vowed to press his assault to seize Tripoli. In a televised address on his Libya al-Hadath TV channel, he announced, ‘The general command is answering the will of the people, despite the heavy burden and the many obligations and the size of the responsibility, and we will be subject to the people’s wish.’ He also declared the ‘end of the Skhirat Agreement’, a 2015 UN-mediated deal that consolidated Libya’s government. Haftar vowed his forces would work ‘to put in place the necessary conditions to build the permanent institutions of a civil state’. However, he did not specify whether the House of Representatives in Tobruk, eastern Libya, would support his plans. Similar to the kind of declaration that Egypt’s Abdel Fattah al-Sisi made in 2013 to justify his coup against the democratically-elected president, Haftar’s unilateral ‘popular mandate’ and his intention to impose some de facto authority in Libya have serious ramifications, and indicate what could be a third legitimacy crisis in the last six years. His plans point to a further escalation of an open-ended crisis, which the UN Secretary General considers a ‘proxy war’. Another diplomatic puzzle is the future of the Libyan Political Agreement, or the ‘Skhirat Agreement’, signed on 17 December 2015 at a conference in Skhirat, Morocco.
After a 31-month tenure as UN special envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salamé submitted his resignation to the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, for ‘health reasons’, on 2 March 2020. His decision suggested deep frustration in his pursuit, for more than two and a half years, ‘to unite Libyans, prevent foreign intervention, and preserve the unity of the country’. The Trump administration refused to agree to the appointment of former Algerian foreign minister, Ramtane Lamamra, to replace Salamé. The US mission to the UN gave no explanation for opposing Lamamra, Algeria’s foreign minister from 2013 to 2017.
This paper examines what seems to be the dynamo factor, or driving force, of the Libyan conflict – fluctuation and reconstruction of political legitimacy. Since mid-2014, two legitimation crises have spoiled Libyan politics and weakened UN mediation, with two rounds of international recognition of one new political institution or another. Both institutions have required separate budgets, obtained from oil revenues, for the rival entities and their respective governments, which claimed distant interpretations of ‘legitimacy’ in the eyes of Libyans and the rest of the world. Moreover, most of the political process and interaction with the UN or foreign governments has been constrained by an ego-inflated dilemma of personal animosity between four figures with opposing views, scopes of power, and foreign affiliations.
This part 2 of the paper also probes the struggle of UN diplomacy, which had passed its eighth-year mark on 16 September 2019. It examines four main factors.
First, the construction of a double-edged legitimacy of two competing institutions: House of Representatives (HoR) in Tobruk with its government housed in Bayda, and the Government of National Accord (GNA) in Tripoli. Second, the foreign interference of certain states such as Egypt, the UAE, Turkey, Qatar, France, Russia and the US have unduly affected the already-fragile balance of power on the ground, pitting various countries against each other. Third, the Libyan conflict has been subject to several diplomatic initiatives by the African Union (AU), the Arab League (AL), the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the European Union (EU). For instance, the AU initiative opted for a policy not to remove the Qaddafi regime, but committed itself to a ‘’reform process and a political transition’. Fourth, the mismatch between the discourse of ‘national unity’ and that of ‘counterterrorism’ since General Haftar pledged to ‘cleanse’ the western part of the country of terrorists’.
Khalifa Haftar and commanders of the Libyan National Army [Getty]
The Libyan conflict is a prime example of how the scope of differences and the extent of external geopolitical interests in the country cannot be contained or overcome. I have often argued that if local stakeholders in Libya, Syria, Yemen or elsewhere could free themselves from foreign manipulation and focus on devising a sustainable solution on their own terms, the prospects of finding a compromise, by either their own initiative or UN mediation efforts, would be rewarding. The interference of certain regional states and of superpowers has solidified the obduracy of these conflicts. The Libyan prime minister, Fayyez Sarraj, stated that foreign interference ‘is making the situation more difficult. It is not helping Libyans sit down and find a solution.’
Haftar’s role has attracted increasing support by several Gulf and European states, and, recently, of Trump’s White House. The Libyan bazaar has displayed the rise of Islamist groups, threats of Jihadi militias in Derna, the fight over the Oil Crescent, waves of sub-Saharan migration, and possible future arms deals, should Haftar succeed in becoming minister of defence, or the leader of a new Libya. Between 14 and 25 June 2018, the UN noted that a collation of armed groups attempted to seize control of oil facilities in the Oil Crescent. The Libyan National Army announced it would transfer management of the oil facilities to a non-recognised national oil corporation. These developments have prevented some 850 000 barrels of oil per day from being exported, and caused a loss of more than $900 million for Libya.
The UN Panel of Experts received independent, corroborated reports from multiple confidential sources that ‘Egypt has conducted air strikes against targets in the oil crescent to support the recapture by LNA of a number of oil terminals. Egypt denied that the Egyptian Armed Forces carried out these strikes.’ Steven Cook of the US Council on Foreign Relations explains how certain states have decided to invest in Haftar’s military power: ‘Thus, the Egyptians, Saudis, Emiratis, Russians, and French have bet on Haftar to repress Islamists and establish stability. For the French, Haftar may also be helpful in stemming the flow of migrants to Europe and protecting their oil interests. Given the internal and external dynamics that are driving support for Haftar, he may be able to carry on his fight for a long time.’
During his visit to Moscow in August 2017, Haftar was welcome ‘like a foreign leader already in office, arranging meetings with high-ranking ministers as well as security officials.’ The Kremlin adopted a two-part strategy: empowering Haftar and providing logistical and technical support for his National Army, while avoiding any apparent violation of the UN arms embargo. Some reports revealed that Moscow ‘could send weapons through Egypt, a pro-Haftar neighbor that borders the Haftar-held parts of eastern Libya and is said to have hosted Russian Special Forces’.
National Libyan Army [Getty]
Turning west, Meanwhile US President Donald Trump’s position on Libya shifted from downsizing the US Libya policy. In April 2017, he said: ‘I do not see a role in Libya’ (except) ‘getting rid of ISIS. We’re being very effective in that regard.’ Two years later, he highlighted the Haftar factor in more than the area of counterterrorism and geopolitics, as evidenced during his famous phone call to Haftar on 15 April 2019. In the call, Trump and Haftar spoke about ‘the need to achieve peace and stability in Libya’, and Trump ‘recognized Field Marshal Haftar’s significant role in fighting terrorism and securing Libya’s oil resources, and… discussed a shared vision for Libya’s transition to a stable, democratic political system.’ This interaction between the two men amounted to an endorsement of Haftar’s five-year quest to establish himself as Libya’s leader.
Haftar’s political silhouette also gained greater significance in the eyes of the US military establishment. Then-acting US Defence Secretary, Patrick Shanahan, underscored that ‘a military solution is not what Libya needs’, and supported Haftar’s ‘role in counterterrorism’. He added that Washington needed Haftar’s ‘support in building democratic stability in the region.’ In the same week, both the US and Russia said they could not support a UNSC resolution calling for a ceasefire in Libya. One can argue that Haftar’s claim of combatting ‘terrorists’ in eastern Libya has been an oversold narrative to get the support of the USA and several European and Gulf states for his armed campaign to capture the capital, Tripoli. When the battle of Sirte had escalated against the Islamic State group (IS), Haftar’s rivals, the Misrata Brigades, fought alongside GNA forces to defeat IS, without Haftar’s support.
The French president, Immanuel Macron, hosted more than one meeting between Haftar and Sarraj in Paris, but several calls for an unconditional ceasefire were rejected by Haftar – until recently. After talks in November 2018, Macron’s office said he reiterated France’s priorities in Libya: ‘Fight against terrorist groups, dismantle trafficking networks, especially those for illegal immigration, and permanently stabilize Libya.’ The dominant view in French government circles is that strongman solutions are ‘the only way to keep a lid on Islamist militancy and mass migration.’
The French position seems to support the objectives of the UAE and Saudi Arabia, not only in military and economic terms, but also as part of a regional ideological battle across the region. Steven Cook notes, ‘None of these countries ever believed in the promise of the Arab uprisings to produce more open and democratic societies. Their view is that the uprisings have only empowered Islamists and sown chaos. They also regard the internationally recognized government as one that is aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood, Qatar, and Turkey – enemies of the governments in Cairo, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi.’
Four years after the signing of the Libyan Political Agreement (LPA) in Skhirat, Morocco, on 17 December 2015, Salamé repeatedly cautioned against the interference of regional and international powers in the Libyan conflict. He told the UNSC, ‘More than ever, Libyans are now fighting the wars of other countries who appear content to fight to the last Libyan and to see the country entirely destroyed in order to settle their own scores.’ He also bemoaned the delivery of weapons by foreign supporters as ‘falling into the hands of terrorist groups or being sold to them…This is nothing short of a recipe for disaster.’
Haftar remains the main player in the militarisation of the conflict, and a bulwark against Islamist groups, with growing external support. He managed to secure arms and maintenance for his military equipment despite the UN arms’ ban on Libya. He has also positioned himself as the saviour of post-Qaddafi Libya with the aim of assuming the presidency, and as the key figure in dealing with migration to Europe. ‘For the control of the borders in the south,’ he proposed, ‘I can provide human resources, but the Europeans must send aid, drones, helicopters, night-vision goggles and vehicles.’Responding to Haftar, Sarraj maintained that the Libyan civil war is not between Libya’s east and west, rather, ‘It is between people who back civilian government and those who want military rule.’
President Macron stands between Fayez Sarraj and Khalifa Haftar [Reuters]
From the onset of the Libyan conflict, several complexities caused by NATO’s military intervention in 2011, subsequent humanitarian and peacemaking missions, and other responses to regime change, have become entwined in the UN mediation process. This process has also coincided with competing diplomatic initiatives and distant trajectories pursued by the African Union (AU), the Arab League (AL), the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) and the European Union (EU). For instance, the AU initiative had opted not remove the Qaddafi regime, but was committed to a ‘reform process and a political transition’. As Edward Azar said, the Libyan conflict has the ‘propensity for involving neighboring communities and states, and even super powers.’ The 10th ministerial meeting of Libya’s neighbouring countries, held in Cairo, agreed on a ‘rejection of any external interference in the internal affairs of Libya’.
Libya remains a strategic supplier of energy for most southern European countries. France and Italy are at the top of the list of oil importers from the southern shore of the Mediterranean. Libya has the largest proven crude oil reserves in Africa at 48.4 billion barrels. It was producing around 1.6 million barrels per day before the collapse of the Qaddafi regime. A Libyan government audit conducted in 2017 estimated the total value of fuel smuggled out of the country at five billion dollars a year. Some observers highlight the fact that Paris has been quietly involved at least since 2015 ‘in building up the flashy uniformed baron of Benghazi as a strongman (that) it hopes can impose order on the vast, thinly populated North African oil producer and crack down on the Islamist groups that have flourished in the ungoverned spaces of the failed state.’
In January 2019, Italy’s deputy prime minister, Matteo Salvini, was blunt in expressing his criticism of Macron: ‘France has no interest in stabilizing the situation, probably because it has oil interests that are opposed to those of Italy.’ This statement provoked the anger of the Élysées, and caused a diplomatic row between Rome and Paris. The French government summoned the Italian ambassador for an explanation. Meanwhile, Haftar made little secret of modern French weaponry he had acquired, despite a UN arms embargo.
Macron had hosted a well-publicised meeting between Sarraj, Haftar, Aguila Issa, and Khalid al-Mishri in mid-2018, in Paris. It made news headlines with their ‘agreement’ on holding presidential and parliamentary elections in early 2019. France needed Haftar to be included in the dialogue because ‘he is in control of the Libyan areas where France’s interests lie, which means its oil wells in the Sirte Basin’, as Gabriele Lacovino of the Rome-based Center for International Studies explains. Macron described the accord as ‘historic’ and an ‘essential step towards reconciliation’. Representatives from EU countries, the USA and regional neighbours supported the agreement.
Transfer of arms into Libya despite the UN ban [Getty]
In early 2019, the AU called for an international conference on reconciliation in Libya. Three African nations – South Africa, Ivory Coast and Equatorial Guinea – introduced a draft resolution draft in October 2019 to appoint a joint AU-UN envoy for Libya, in an apparent attempt to replace Salamé. A leaked copy of the resolution draft expressed ‘deep concern over the security situation in Libya and the risk of a dangerous military escalation.’ It also called for compliance with the arms embargo and condemned ‘continued external interferences that are exacerbating the already volatile situation on the ground.’
The stalemate in the Libyan conflict resulted in a diplomatic showdown between Egypt and Qatar at the 74th UN General Assembly, in September 2019. Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a close ally of the UAE and a Haftar supporter, sought to play the counterterrorism card in justifying Haftar’s armed campaigns as a ‘fight against armed militias’ inside Libya. He told delegates of the 193 UN member states, ‘We need to work on unifying all national institutions in order to save our dear neighbor from the ensuing chaos by militias and prevent the intervention of external actors in Libya’s internal affairs.’ Five months earlier, during a visit to the White House, Sisi reportedly spoke to Trump at length about the need to support Haftar and not ‘leave him out in the cold’. However, Qatar’s emir, Shaykh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, accused Haftar’s forces of war crimes with the support of countries that were undermining the GNA and UN peace efforts. He told the UNGA, ‘The latest military operations on the capital Tripoli have thwarted the holding of the comprehensive Libyan national conference.’
Earlier, I addressed what seems to be UN diplomatic fatigue in securing a sustainable truce between Haftar’s forces and the GNA military. Other interpretations have called it ‘diplomatic paralysis’. The International Crisis Group indicated that, in 2019, the UNSC was, more than in previous years, ‘divided and unable to call for a cessation of hostilities, mostly owing to US opposition to a draft resolution that would have done just that. The US claims it resisted the draft resolution because it lacked a mechanism to ensure compliance, but its stance more likely reflected White House sympathy for Haftar and for his Saudi, Emirati and Egyptian supporters.’
In his testimony before the US House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Middle East, North Africa, and International Terrorism, Thomas Hill, senior programme officer at USIP, explained the causality of the struggling UN mediation in Libya. ‘If “Plan A” was to allow the United Nations to resolve the Libyan conflict, that experiment has failed. The United Nations was not able to constrain external actors who frequently sought to advance narrow self-interest at the expense of peace and stability in Libya. The United Nations was not given the resources or mandate necessary to fulfill its charge; in retrospect, a political mission did not have the coercive power to constrain internal spoilers and external actors.’
Thomas Hill senior program officer at USIP delivering his briefing at Congress [Reuters]
This medley of international and cross-Mediterranean initiatives of diplomacy adds to the complexity of the Libyan conflict. The UN mediation seems to be sandwiched between thick layers of the hidden agendas and strategic interests of outside stakeholders. This overlap of interventions and the variety of political agendas of several states – France, the USA, Egypt, UAE, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and others – have greatly undermined the possibility of reaching a permanent political solution for Libya. Accordingly, the UN may need to return to the drawing board and affirm the singularity of its mediation process i.e., one track of UN mediation to be reflected in UNSC resolutions.
Since early 2015, Haftar has positioned himself as Libya’s driving force in counterterrorism, while leading his self-proclaimed Libyan National Army on his ‘Operation Dignity’. He has often sugar-coated his fierce military attacks in eastern Libya and, later, western Libya, with the alleged ‘pursuit of eradicating jihadi groups’. Besides external support, he has also galvanised the allegiance of several armed groups, including the 106th Infantry Brigade, the Tarhouna-based 9th Infantry Brigade, Chadian and Sudanese rebels, and some elements associated with Qaddafi’s son, Saif al-Islam. Haftar experimented with his anti-terror venture by targeting Ansar al-Sharia, a jihadist group in Benghazi, in 2015, before zooming in on the town of Derna and extending his armed campaign towards Tripoli with a rebranded ‘End of Treachery’ Operation in 2019. In April 2019, he asserted, ‘We hear your call Tripoli. It is now the time for the great victory. March forward.’ A senior French official said support for Haftar was partly driven by the imperative of preventing the supply of arms and funds to jihadist groups threatening fragile governments in Niger, Chad and Mali, which are backed by France’s Operation Barkhane.
One of the worst single atrocities of the Libyan Civil War occurred in July 2019, resulting in the deaths of at least fifty-three refugees at a detention centre near Tripoli. The incident is one of many attacks launched by Haftar’s forces with foreign logistical support. UN arms’ experts suspected the involvement of ‘foreign fighter jets’. Former British ambassador to Libya, Peter Millett, pointed out that ‘the only two countries with capacity and motive to mount the strike were the UAE and Egypt.’ He called on the UNSC to discuss, at ambassadorial level, how outside powers were prolonging the conflict in Libya and extending the suffering of the Libyan people. For instance, the UAE has plans to dominate shipping lanes, including in the Mediterranean Sea, and considers Libya’s geographical position important for this project. The Emiratis aspire to exploit Libya’s huge energy resources and need for reconstruction.
In 2019, Haftar’s role and political status gained momentum on account of three moves by three powerful states.
In the eyes of those governments, Haftar’s anti-terror narrative has overshadowed the ferocity and vengeance of his troops against Islamist groups and GNA supporters. One Libya observer explained Haftar’s history of ‘repackaging failed military coups as “wars on terror” to justify excessive use of force whilst gaining international legitimacy and political support in the process.’ In a mocking comment on Haftar’s power in Libya, Osama al-Juwaili, the leading commander of the GNA forces, told the New York Times, ‘Why all this pain? Just stop this now and assign the guy [Haftar] to rule us!’
The political turmoil has entered its ninth year in Libya, while perpetuating a complex intrastate conflict with no apparent light at the end of the tunnel. The Libyan Political Agreement is stuck in a protracted limbo with no hope of reconciliation. Between the high point of peacemaking in 2015 when the parties signed the LPA in Morocco, and the low point of military offensives and counter offensives around Tripoli in 2019, UN diplomacy has shifted to backpedalling on several issues, notably the elections and the new constitution project. There is also a sense of loss and despair among elites and ordinary individuals, both inside Libya and in the Libyan diaspora. The balance of power between Haftar’s forces, the HoR, GNA and other stakeholders is fluid, and the GNA, the UN-recognised government, does not have much control in the country.
There was little optimism in the new round of talks in March in Berlin. German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, warned that the Libyan civil war could spiral into a larger conflict, much like the one in Syria. The nightmarish scenario of a huge influx of migrants across the Mediterranean is imminent should the country slide into a larger civil war. One cannot belittle the skills and reputation of those world diplomats at the UNSMIL headquarters in Libya, or at various capitals, who remain sincere is their search for a political solution for Libya. There is always the same high degree of optimism prior to every meeting about Libya, whether in Tunis, Skhirat, Paris, Palermo, or Berlin. There has been no viable prospect of securing the commitment of the five top men of new Libya - Haftar, Saleh, Sarraj, Mishri, and Swehli - to any sustainable political formula.
The UN process of mediation should not compete with any parallel initiatives proposed by other international bodies or countries, or any latent manipulation of the status quo in favour of one group over another. There is consensus among most Libyan observers that a permanent political solution is not possible ‘if external actors and nation-states continue to intervene in Libya in ways that prioritize their own interests over those of the Libyan people.’ This paradox of UN mediation and foreign manipulation by several external actors defies the wisdom of envisioning a political settlement of the Libyan conflict. All international diplomatic gestures need to be aligned and coordinated via the UN platform, with a well-defined trajectory, rather than any zero-sum equation or realist calculation. UNSMIL’s mandate can be inclusive of such coordination.
Former UN envoy to Libya Ghassan Salamé [Reuters]
* Dr. Mohammed Cherkaoui is a Professor of Conflict Resolution at George Mason University in Washington D.C. and former member of the United Nations Panel of Experts.
** This article was first published b y Al Jazeera Centre for Studies
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by Mohammed Cherkaoui
Several puzzling questions have emerged in the volatile Arab geopolitical environment after two major developments occurred within less than forty-eight hours of each other in the last week of April.
First, Yemen’s main southern separatist group, the Southern Transitional Council (STC), decided to establish self-rule in areas it controlled, to impose emergency law in the city of Aden and in all southern governorates, and to take control of Aden’s port, airport and other state institutions such as the central bank. The Saudi-backed government warned that these measures would have ‘catastrophic consequences’. An armed unit of the STC fought to wrest control of Socotra’s provincial capital, Hadibo, from forces loyal to President Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, who is backed by Saudi Arabia.
Second, retired general, Khalifa Haftar, asserted that his Libyan National Army (LNA) had a ‘popular mandate’ to rule Libya, and vowed to intensify his assault to seize Tripoli. In a televised address on his Libya al-Hadath television channel, he announced, ‘The general command is answering the will of the people, despite the heavy burden and the many obligations and the size of the responsibility, and we will be subject to the people’s wish.’ He also declared ‘the end of the Skhirat Agreement’, a 2015 UN-mediated deal that consolidated Libya’s government. Haftar vowed his forces would work ‘to put in place the necessary conditions to build the permanent institutions of a civil state’. He did not specify whether the House of Representatives in Tobruk, eastern Libya, would support his plans.
These moves represent two strategic shifts in Yemeni and Libyan geopolitics, amidst global health concerns of the coronavirus pandemic, and despite the religious norms of a truce during the fasting month of Ramadan. The moves by Yemen’s STC and Libya’s Haftar suggest the strong role of certain regional powers, rather than simply internal differences between local stakeholders. The fragile balance of power seems to be proceeding along the strategy of some regional players, notably the United Arab Emirates (UAE), which have pursued an opportunistic form of political realism. The UAE has relied on the logic of military power by supporting armed proxies, and has ignored international agreements and diplomatic efforts of the UN to reach solutions that would be accepted by all parties in the Yemeni and Libyan crises.
The UAE appears to be accelerating the pace towards full control of southern Yemen and its ports, especially Aden and Socotra, to help enhance its maritime trade and expand its influence in the Red Sea region. It also hopes to expand its political investment in oil-rich Libya, and its strategic position on the southern shore of the Mediterranean Sea. It competes with another regional power, Turkey, which has supported the Government of National Accord (GNA) led by Fayez Sarraj in Tripoli, and has provided technological and tactical backing for GNA-aligned militias. In early May 2020, armed clashes in western Libya stopped Haftar’s forces from advancing, and reversed their course of action in certainstrategic areas.
Haftar’s unilateral declaration of a ‘popular mandate’ – similar to a declaration by Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el-Sisi when he announced his coup against a democratically-elected president – and intention of imposing de facto authority in Libya, have serious ramifications, and indicate what could be a third legitimacy crisis in the last six years. Haftar’s plans further threaten to escalate the crisis, which the UN Secretary General regards as a ‘proxy war’. Another diplomatic puzzle is the future of the Libyan Political Agreement, also known as the Skhirat Agreement, signed on 17 December 2015 in Skhirat, Morocco.
After a 31-month tenure as UN special envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salamé submitted his resignation to the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, for ‘health reasons’, on 2 March 2020. His decision implied deep frustration in his pursuit of more two and a half years ‘to unite Libyans, prevent foreign intervention, and preserve the unity of the country’. The Trump administration has refused to vote for the appointment of former Algerian foreign minister Ramtane Lamamra to replace Salamé. The US mission to the UN gave no further explanation for opposing Lamamra, who served as Algeria’s foreign minister (2013-2017) and as African Union commissioner for peace and security (2008-2013). He also served as Algeria’s ambassador to the United Nations and the United States in mid-1990s. He is considered an experienced diplomat and has been a mediator in several African conflicts, notably in Liberia.
This two-part paper examines what seems to be the dynamo factor, or driving force, of the Libyan conflict: fluctuation and reconstruction of political legitimacy. Since the summer of 2014, two battles over legitimacy have spoiled Libyan politics and weakened the UN mediation with two rounds of international recognition of one new political institution or another. Both institutions have required separate budgets for the oil revenues for their rival entities and their respective governments, and claimed distant interpretations of ‘legitimacy’ in the eyes of Libyans and the rest of the world. Moreover, most of the political process and interaction with either the United Nations or foreign governments have been constrained by an ego-inflated dilemma of personal animosity between four particular figures with opposite views, scopes of power, and foreign affiliations.
The paper also probes into the struggle of the UN diplomacy, which passed its eighth-year mark on 16 September 2019. It examines four main factors. First, the construction of a double-edged legitimacy of two competing institutions: House of Representatives in Tobruk with its government housed in Bayda versus GNA in Tripoli. Second, the foreign interference of certain countries, like Egypt, UAE, Turkey, Qatar, France, and Russia, and the United States have pursued tilting the already flimsy balance of power on the ground in favour one player against another. Third, The Libyan conflict has been subject to several diplomatic initiatives by the African Union (AU), the Arab League (AL), the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC), the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC), and the European Union (EU). For instance, the AU initiative opted for a non-removal policy of the Qaddafi regime, but committed to a ‘reform process and a political transition’.Fourth, the mismatch between the discourse of ‘national unity’ and the discourse of ‘counter-terrorism’ since General Haftar has pledged to ‘cleanse’ the western part of the country from the perceived ‘terrorists’. The paper draws on my study of the Libyan case among other Arab conflicts, my previous writings, and fieldwork while serving on the UN Panel of Experts.
Bargaining with bullets
Libya has endured bloody confrontations, foreign manipulation, uncompromising diplomacy, and an open-ended stalemate. These challenges seem to have exhausted the UN nine-year diplomatic manoeuvring of the Libyan conflict. The overall scene presents Libya as synonymous with violence, lawlessness and statelessness, while lurking at the border between a ‘fragile state’ and a ‘failed state’. Libya represents a typical scenario of the gap between the normativity of the UN mediation and the realist strategic bet of foreign stakeholders on their armed proxies in the field. The nine-year UN mediation has been outperformed by cycles of diplomatic overtures in Tunis, Skhirat, Geneva, Paris, Palermo, Abu Dhabi, Moscow, and Berlin, followed by new rounds of fierce infighting on the ground between the Tripoli- Tobruk camps. In his book ‘International Mediation in Civil Wars’, Timothy Desk points to the transnational flow of weapons, resources, and ideas, which ‘means that when civil wars today end, they are more likely to do so at the negotiating table than on the battlefield’.
In the early 1990s, Edward Azar, one of the forefathers of Conflict Resolution, developed his nuanced theoretical framework of Protracted Social Conflict (PSC) as a culmination of four main clusters which leads to violent conflict: ‘communal content’, ‘human needs’, ‘governance and state’s role’, and ‘international linkages’. He expects these conflicts to occur ‘when communities are deprived of satisfaction of their basic needs on the basis of the communal identity. However, the deprivation is the result of a complex causal chain involving the role of the state and the pattern of international linkages.’ Consequently, the interests of foreign players tend to suppress the desire for reconciliation among internal contenders. In most instances, those international linkages dictate the internal policy along two types of subordination: economic dependency and client relationships.
Prior to the UN General Assembly held in New York in September 2019, Haftar’s forces faced tough resistance in their attempt to capture the capital, Tripoli, from the Government of National Accord. The World Health Organization (WHO) reported that the fighting between pro-GNA and pro-Haftar forces killed at least 1 093 people, wounded 5 752, and forced some 120 000 into displacement. Former UN envoy Ghassan Salamé told the UN Human Rights Council the conflict had spread outside Tripoli with air and drone attacks against the port city of Misrata, Sirte, and Jufra in central Libya. He expressed concern as ‘the conflict risks escalating to full-blown civil war… It is fanned by widespread violations of the UN arms embargo by all parties and external actors.’
Consequently, the philosophy of the UN Resolution 1973 (March 2011) which established the United Nations Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL), has gone astray. UNSMIL emerged with the aim of ‘find[ing] a peaceful and sustainable solution’ to the crisis, and, most recently, Resolution 2376 (2017), has extended the mission mandate for mediation and provision of good offices, including (since December 2015) supporting the implementation of the Libyan Political Agreement. There have been recurring themes of ‘promising’ dialogue and ‘imminent’ reconciliation, proposed by six consecutive UN special envoys: Abdelilah Khatib (2011), Ian Martin (2011-2012), Tarek Mitri (2012-2014), Bernardino León (2014-2015), Martin Kobler (2015-2017), and Ghassan Salamé (June 2017- March 2020).
The struggle of the United Nations diplomacy in Libya represents one of several challenges of international mediation in contemporary Arab conflicts. The protracted Libyan conflict remains a snapshot of several deadlocks, which have undermined the United Nations mediation and desired political transition in the North African oil-rich country after the fall of Qaddafi regime. In his concluding chapter in the 2018 Davos edition ‘The Future of Politics’, politician-turned-Harvard scholar, Nicholas Burns, wrote: ‘Nearly all of the Middle East’s twenty-two Arab countries are worse off, not better off… Stability and hope in the region are in very short supply. Four important Arab countries – Libya, Yemen, Iraq and Syria – are essentially “failed states”. Libya’s warring tribes continue to contest for power with the outcome doubtful.’
UNSMIL as a wishful platform of UN mediation
The most recent SC Resolution 2486 (2019) was adopted on 12 September 2019, to keep UNSMIL operational until 15 September 2020, and recognised that ‘since 30 March 2016 UNSMIL has gradually established a consistent presence in Libya, and welcomes UNSMIL’s progress in re-establishing a presence in Tripoli, Benghazi and other parts of Libya, as security conditions allow. This presence inside Libya was impossible for nearly eight years of UNSMIL’s existence. The United Nations peace-making efforts between the two rival parliaments and governments gained some short-lived momentum after brokering, as mentioned earlier, the power-sharing Libyan Political Agreement, in December 2015. Yet, the deal soon ran into difficulties and ushered in a new phase in the conflict.’
The frequency of infighting between the western and eastern camps, not ignoring several rogue militias, has derailed both political and humanitarian progress, if one considers the dilemma of slavery, detention, and abuse of sub-Saharan migrants. So far, UN diplomacy remains sandwiched between the interpretative legitimacy as a political construct, bestowed on the former by the international community under the Skhirat process, and the claimed military ‘determinism’ of the latter.
In his briefing to the Security Council on 4 September 2019, then-UN envoy, Ghassan Salamé, stated, ‘Many Libyans feel abandoned by part of the international community and exploited by others.’ He also warned of two ‘highly unpalatable scenarios’ if the Council and broader international community fail to support an immediate end to the conflict — either a persistent and low-intensity conflict with continued fratricide among Libyans, or a doubling down of military support to one side or the other by their external patrons, resulting in a sharp escalation and regional chaos.
UN chief, António Guterres, has publicly condemned ‘the descent of Libya into political uncertainty and armed hostilities during the reporting period as deeply alarming.’ He also remains concerned about the impact on civilians of the shelling of residential areas and about the reports of targeted attacks and the destruction of vital infrastructure. By the end of 2019, Salamé was cynical of the external support, which was ‘instrumental in the intensification of airstrikes’, and ‘imported weaponry is being accompanied by foreign personnel working as pilots, trainers and technicians’. In Europe, four well-publicised meetings were held, one in Paris and another in Palermo, to reach a Libyan reconciliation in 2018, a third in Moscow and a fourth in Berlin in early 2020. However, they failed to bring about any diplomatic breakthrough.
Detractors of the UN in Libya
With the open-ended cycle of violence, the death toll, and civilian suffering in Libya, new questions arise now about the pragmatism of intervention: can the United Nations, at this point, avoid more civilian fatalities, provide humanitarian assistance for millions of internally-displaced persons and refugees, or guide any mechanism of peaceful transition into stability in Libya, and other those failed states like Yemen, Syria, and Iraq? What would be the minimum expectation from the UN now?
There might be some alternative approaches to what I term a good-enough paradigm of conflict management, however, affected civilians and concerned public opinion are hopeful of effective frameworks of conflict resolution and peacebuilding. In January 2018, in his remarks to the Security Council, Salamé explained how the complexity of the Libyan crisis pivoted around a conflict over resources. He then reiterated his UNSMIL team’s commitment to three fundamental objectives: a) adopting a new constitution as a permanent legal framework, b) reformulating a Libyan national polity, and c) holding general elections while more than two million Libyans have put their names on the electoral register. As stated previously, ‘the majority of Libyans feel less enthusiastic and believe the current deadlock is too strong to make any real political overtures. The only political momentum in Libya at present is the United Nations’ search for a new impetus among rival centres of power, including the militias. However, leaders of political and military rival groups are reluctant to engage in the UN process or to commit to any final decision.’
UN diplomacy seems to be undergoing a period of fatigue. It has apparently exhausted its energy in searching for efficient formulas of conflict transformation, in fact, on fully-fledged conflict resolution. The UN literature asserts, ‘When an effective mediation process is hampered, other efforts may be required to contain the conflict or to mitigate the human suffering, but there should be constant efforts to remain engaged so as to identify and seize possible windows of opportunity for mediation in the future.’ So far, six UN envoys have experimented with a variety of mediation techniques and combined their institutional guidelines with their personal touch in managing the Libyan conflict. Any revision of these approaches should take into consideration four main challenges:
As mentioned in the introduction, two battles over legitimacy, or two legitimation crises, have spoiled Libyan politics and UN mediation with two rounds of international recognition of one new political institution or another. German philosopher and sociologist, Jurgen Habermas, conceptualises a legitimation crisis as ‘an identity crisis that results from a loss of confidence in administrative institutions, which occurs despite the fact that they still retain legal authority by which to govern.’
I joined the UN Panel of Experts on Libya less than three months after the general elections of June 25, 2014, which gave birth to the House of Representatives in Tobruk, and later, the first government in Bayda led by Prime Minister Abdullah al-Thani. The turnout was very low at 18 per cent, while most candidates ran as independents. Nationalist and liberal factions gained momentum by securing the majority of seats, whereas the Islamist groups’ representation shrunk to around 30 seats. There was common interpretation that the Islamist forces faced ‘a devastating loss at the ballot box, and now face a genuine existential threat’. The ballot results triggered several reactions nationally and internationally. The majority of Libyans, the new parliament, and the international community, would expect the Islamists ‘to accept the will of the Libya people expressed through the ballot box, and to refrain from using unorthodox tactics, such as using armed militias to influence the political process.’
The United Nations swiftly recognised the HoR as ‘the only legitimately elected legislature’. Then-UN envoy, Tarek Mitri, attended its inaugural session in Tobruk on 4 August 2014, and later expressed some regret in his report to the Security Council. He wrote, ‘Many efforts, including ours, to arrive at an agreement over procedural and related issues failed to ensure full participation of all elected members. A number of representatives decided to boycott the sessions. Underlining the importance of safeguarding Libya’s fragile transition, with the House of Representatives as the only legitimately elected legislature, we affirmed that every effort must be exerted towards enabling parliamentarians, who boycott the House of Representatives, to join their colleagues.’
However, the political elite of the west and their Misrata fighters’ supporters, with links to Operation Dawn, did not accept the emergence of HoR as Libya’s new legislative assembly in lieu of the Tripoli-based General National Congress (GNC). A new war of narratives erupted between the two political camps, and the conflict over the constitutionality of HoR became a wider legal battle before the Supreme Court. Throughout the summer of 2014, the gap deepened between the two de facto parliaments and rival governments over political legitimacy and control of the country’s vast energy reserves. In ancient Greece, Aristotle argued that the legitimacy of the government relied upon constitutionalism and consent, but also posited that political stability relied upon the legitimacy of rewards.
In early November 2014, the Supreme Court invalidated the election of the HoR, and stated that the Election Law Committee ‘had violated Libya’s provisional constitution’. The Court verdict led to celebrations in the streets of Tripoli, as it meant the non-constitutionality of HoR in Tobruk. Nouri Abusahmain, then-head of GNC, told reporters, ‘We, the General National Congress, call for dialogue. A dialogue serves national reconciliation, stability and development.’ However, HoR rejected the Court’s decision arguing it was made ‘at gunpoint’ with the court being controlled by armed militias. The UNSMIL team was taken by surprise, and the gist of its reaction was ‘an urgent need for all parties to forge consensus on political arrangements’. Consequently, the Tripoli-Tobruk political rivalry and emergence of Haftar, as the ‘strong man’ of the east, have had a negative impact on the UN mediation efforts.
A second reconstructed legitimacy emerged between November 2014 and October 2015. The UN mediation focused on multi-track, cross-elite, cross-tribe negotiations held in Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco. Bernardino León, then-head of UNSMIL, engaged in some shuttle diplomacy between HoR and GNC around a compromise with Sarraj. By mid-October, he secured the initial acceptance of both sides of a revised version of a framework of power sharing. The diplomatic breakthrough was celebrated on October 17 in Morocco by signing the new Libyan Political Agreement.
The new agreement established a nine-member Presidency Council and a seventeen-member interim Government of National Accord, with the aim of holding new elections within two years (October 2015-October 2017). It also maintained the continuity of HoR as a legislature and advisory body, to be known as the ‘High Council of State’. This shift represented the best possible scenario of national unity and positive engagement of several stakeholders. The Agreement introduction reads, ‘Members from all these three legislative bodies made very important contributions to the dialogue process and to the conclusion of this agreement. Other independent stakeholders participated as well. The armed groups, municipal councils, political parties, tribal leaders, and women’s organizations contributed to other elements of the dialogue to promote a genuine and stable reconciliation.’ The Security Council announced its support of the Government of National Accord as ‘the sole legitimate government of Libya’, and stressed, ‘a Government of National Accord that should be based in the capital Tripoli is urgently needed to provide Libya with the means to maintain governance, promote stability and economic development.’
In the following two years, the military open-ended Karama (Dignity) operation, led by General Haftar, has scaled back the diplomatic hopes of the United Nations. The battle over legitimacy is not only political Tobruk and Tripoli, but also entails the complexity of the military-civilian relations in the country. Haftar is a good example of how certain military figures tend to flex their muscles in the field, intimidate the political will of Sarraj, and impose their fait accompli at every turn of the negotiating process. By mid-December 2017, he declared the Skhirat agreement ‘void’. So far, Haftar’s intention is ‘to seize, rather than share’, as he believes that ‘power can come as no surprise’.
Several factors have solidified these disputing constructs of legitimacy: electoral legitimacy, international legitimacy, military legitimacy, and others. The International Crisis Group has noticed that, ‘While international rifts and competing regional ambitions remain an overarching conflict driver, locally, interlocking competing narratives of political and military legitimacy, a battle for power, tribal rifts and recriminations, and a deeply polarized media are making the war even more intractable.’
Part 2 of the paper will address the impact of international links in Libya, the question of parallel or rival diplomacies, what is behind the counterterrorism discourse, and some concluding remarks.
* Dr Mohammed Cherkaoui is a professor of Conflict Resolution at George Mason University in Washington DC and former member of the United Nations Panel of Experts.
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By Jonathan Fenton-Harvey
Crashing oil prices and further economic woes from the coronavirus outbreak are hitting the Middle East region hard, with many countries already in need of external support, and even long-standing Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) heavyweight Saudi Arabia, facing a backlash.
Yet this pandemic could tell a different story for the United Arab Emirates, as Abu Dhabi’s cunning and power-hungry Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed (MbZ) has presented his country as a key protagonist in the fight against coronavirus, with humanitarian gestures and communication established with powerful regional actors and international bodies. Ultimately, these stronger ties and a further polished international image could help MbZ’s bid to establish the UAE as a dominant powerhouse in the region. As the UAE has traditionally used aid to justify its interventions in Libya, Yemen, the Horn of Africa and elsewhere, it has now adapted this strategy to the coronavirus pandemic.
By March, Iran had the worst coronavirus outbreak in the region, and the UAE moved by offering Tehran assistance by sending several rounds of aid, building on their already warmer ties from the second half of last year. Abu Dhabi claimed to forge ‘a roadmap to boost stability in the region’, suggesting that political differences would be forgotten during the coronavirus outbreak. On 26 April, Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and his Emirati counterpart Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al Nayhan discussed the coronavirus outbreak and other regional ‘issues of mutual interest’, showing an increased forging of their alliance.
This ties in with the UAE’s interests in Syria, where it increasingly supports Bashar al Asad’s regime as a bulwark against its ongoing regional rival Turkey – a supporter of Syria’s opposition. Bin Zayed called Asad on 27 March, declaring that the UAE ‘stands’ with the Syrian people amid the Covid-19 outbreak. In reality, this helps the UAE bolster its ties with the Syrian government, which it perceives as a vital strategic partner. Abu Dhabi’s coordination with Tehran becomes helpful here, given the latter’s strong influence in Syria since 2013, and its support for Asad during the civil war.
Following a bolstering of ties with Tehran and Damascus, Abu Dhabi has turned to China, another regional actor whose strong ties it depends upon. Having strengthened regional cooperation with Beijing last year, the UAE in February sent China medical supplies as the virus spread there, prompting Lin Yaduo, a diplomat at the Chinese Embassy in Abu Dhabi to praise the UAE’s efforts of solidarity. Their ties subsequently grew, and UAE’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al Nahyan, and State and Foreign Minister of China, Wang Yi, discussed how both states’ cooperation was effective in countering the coronavirus, offering a mutual ‘exchange of expertise’ and anti-virus equipment. For the UAE, riding on Beijing’s growing influence in the Middle East and Africa helps solidify its own geopolitical clout. Winning favour with another global power aside from the United States could also grant the UAE further international impunity for its controversial involvement in Yemen, Libya and elsewhere regionally.
Such cooperation could also help ease any differences between the two countries over their operations in the Horn of Africa, where the UAE also seeks to secure control over Red Sea shipping lines for its international maritime trade, while Beijing built rival ports there. After all, the UAE had delivered tonnes of medical aid to Somaliland by 8 April, showing its ambitions to consolidate control over the autonomous region in the Somali Peninsula are still alive, despite recent setbacks such as President Muse Bihi Abdi’s decision last September to turn Abu Dhabi’s military airport in Berbera into a civilian airport.
It also delivered medical equipment to Somalia’s central government, a surprise move considering it had fallen out with Mogadishu in 2018, following opposition to Abu Dhabi’s port development projects in Somaliland and Somalia’s refusal to sever ties with Qatar and Turkey. The UAE is likely being more pragmatic in reviving ties with Mogadishu, seeking to gain influence with Somalia to secure its port influence, and shifting away from its previous ‘divide-and-rule’ strategy.
Yet as the UAE continues its covert support to rogue Libyan warlord Khalifa Haftar’s ongoing military campaign to capture Libya’s capital Tripoli and the entire country, it is clear the UAE’s foreign policy is not being driven by a humanitarian agenda. A continuation of Libya’s war, which looks increasingly likely by the day, risks exacerbating the country’s Covid-19 crisis.
Despite Abu Dhabi’s ulterior motives, it is already gaining international approval for its anti-coronavirus initiatives. The World Health Organisation (WHO) praised the UAE’s efforts to help Iran, while Abu Dhabi’s aid deliveries have largely been in cooperation with the WHO. MbZ recently tweeted of the UAE’s growing communications with David Beardsley, Director of the World Food Program, concerning ways to cooperate over helping people affected by the virus. Bin Zayed also communicated with Bill Gates, a prominent advocate for a Covid-19 vaccination, to discuss ways in which Emirati humanitarian organisations could cooperate with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Such efforts not only bolster Abu Dhabi’s international credentials, but would also thicken the smokescreen of international impunity under which its zealous foreign policy operates.
Though the UAE faces economic losses, like much of the world and its close ally Saudi Arabia, the traditionally divided nature of the Emirates means Abu Dhabi and bin Zayed’s own interests would be relatively better off. The loss of international investment and travel could leave tourist hotspot Dubai more vulnerable, creating the prospect of another financial bailout and more purchasing of its stakes from Abu Dhabi, as occurred following the 2007-2008 global financial crisis and subsequent recession. Such an outcome would further shift the power balance towards Abu Dhabi, bolstering MbZ’s position as the UAE’s figurehead.
As Saudi Arabia faces economic uncertainty, along with a failing foreign policy and a deteriorating international image, the UAE’s increasingly pragmatic foreign policy has the potential to drive it into a stronger position than Riyadh in a post-coronavirus world.
* Jonathan Fenton-Harvey is a freelance journalist
By Ran Greenstein
When the Israeli Parliament dissolved itself in December 2018 and scheduled elections for April 2019, no one expected that it would take a full year to form a new coalition government. But it is only now that such a government is coming into being, based on an agreement between the right-wing Likud headed by Prime Minister Netanyahu, which has been in power since 2009, and the new centre-right Blue-White party headed by General Benny Gantz, a newcomer to the political scene. Signed on 20 April 2020, the agreement was ratified by Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, in the first week of May, after Israel’s supreme court ruled against challenges to the deal.
This development came after three rounds of elections in less than a year, which reflected the same balance of forces that made the formation of a stable coalition impossible. Although right-wing Jewish nationalist and religious parties gained a majority each time (65 out of 120 seats in April 2019, 63 seats in September 2019, and 65 again in March 2020), the Israel Beitenu hard-right secular party led by Avigdor Lieberman refused to join Likud and its partners, thus depriving them of a majority. The deadlock was finally broken when Gantz made a deal with Netanyahu to form a government, in which the prime minister will retain his post for eighteen months while Gantz acts as his deputy, after which they will switch roles. All other positions will equally be divided between the two sides.
Even before it was finalised, the agreement caused a split in the ranks of Blue-White: half of its Knesse representatives joined Gantz, while the others vowed to remain in opposition. The rationale for forming Blue-White as a broad centrist front in the run-up to the April 2019 elections was the need to pose a viable alternative to Netanyahu, seen as a corrupt and unreliable leader. The total rejection of Netanyahu was the glue holding its different components together. Ditching that goal was a betrayal of the core promise to its voters. We can safely set aside the official excuse for the move – that the coronavirus crisis created an urgent need for national unity – because nothing in the agreement is relevant to health policy. Much of it, in fact, is devoted to entrenching Netanyahu’s control over the judicial system and protecting his family’s access to state benefits.
How can we make sense of this development and its implications? To answer that question, we must go beyond party-political considerations that occupy the media and much public opinion and look at a crucial background factor: Israel’s self-definition as a ‘Jewish state’ and the role of Palestinian citizens in its political system.
A key feature of the last two electoral rounds was that the anti-Netanyahu bloc won a majority and yet could not form a government. Beyond agreeing on the need to get rid of Netanyahu, due to his personal failings and corruption charges, there were no common positions unifying the bloc. Getting Lieberman to work with the Palestinian-led Joint List proved impossible, and Blue-White too included factions opposed to such cooperation. Many who were appalled by Netanyahu’s fraudulent behaviour and unrestrained greed and lust for power had no problems with his party. Their preference was to work with a Likud led by someone else, not to make radical changes to Israel’s ethnocratic regime. The imperative of removing Netanyahu from office was never strong enough to allow new alliances that would contest the boundaries between adherents of Israel as a ‘Jewish Democratic State’ and those challenging that principle.
As things now stand, the coalition will include Likud, the religious parties, Blue-White and the Labour Party, once the central pillar of the Israeli state but now reduced to two Knesset members (MKs) attached to Gantz’s bloc. The opposition is divided between those who oppose Netanyahu personally, but have no problem working with Likud (just over 20 MKs), and those who offer a principled challenge to policies pursued by Israel over the last decades. The latter group includes representatives of liberal Zionism (four MKs), and the Joint List (15 MKs), the only force independent of Israel’s political-military establishment.
Formed in 2015 as a united front of Palestinian citizens, the Joint List extended its dominant position among them (gaining 85-90 per cent of their votes). Suffering a dip in April 2019 due to internal bickering, it regained support in subsequent rounds. Unity in the face of exclusionary state policies is a stance clearly valued by the constituency of the Joint List, but internal unity need not come at the expense of external cooperation. Following the March 2020 elections, the party expressed its willingness to work with all parties that offered an alternative to Likud, even if only on a limited basis. Nothing emerged from that, due to Gantz’s fear of being accused of collaboration with ‘terrorist supporters’. He was worried that without a Jewish majority any government he might form would not be seen as legitimate by Jewish Israelis. A mere majority in Parliament was not enough for those operating within the framework of Jewish ethnocracy. Still, the move signified an important reaching out by the Joint List to the Jewish mainstream, without relinquishing its independence.
As the only major force offering resolute opposition, not just to Likud but to the entire course of ethnocratic policies since 1967, if not 1948, the Joint List is at the core of any progressive alternative to existing relations of domination. However, its growth potential is constrained by its rootedness in a specific constituency – Palestinian citizens of Israel, who are a minority in relation both to the majority-Jewish Israeli population and to the majority non-citizen Palestinian population. To overcome this limitation, it needs to form tighter links with progressive Israeli-Jewish activists and movements, as well as Palestinian movements operating outside the boundaries of Israeli citizenship. Such an expansion may push it in opposite directions, a dilemma that is likely to occupy it in coming years.
One option would be to strengthen its appeal to liberal-left Jews who may adhere to Zionism as an ideology but are open to moving beyond it in practical matters: putting an end to the occupation, reversing settlement activities, extending rights to Palestinian citizens, and so on. The past year saw the electoral fortunes of this group rapidly dwindling (with less than six per cent of the vote in 2020) with little prospect of revival. But we must keep in mind that only five years ago, close to a million Israelis (23 per cent of the vote) voted for parties criticising, to varying degrees, Likud’s hard-right policies. Many of them shifted to Blue-White in order to topple Netanyahu, but they did not disappear as a potentially-progressive constituency. Of course, most of them are far from breaking with mainstream Zionist policies, but a useful long-term strategy could engage them in joint initiatives on shared practical concerns.
What can we expect from the new government? It has not yet come up with concrete plans, with one crucial exception: from 1 July 2020, Netanyahu will be able to submit an agreement reached with the Trump administration for extending Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank – in other words, its annexation to Israel – to his cabinet or to the Knesset. Needless to say, Palestinian or other Arab and international agreement with that development is neither required nor desired by Netanyahu. As far as he is concerned, it is a matter that involves only the USA and Israel.
The implications of such annexation require a longer discussion than can be offered here. But briefly: a formal move from military rule to civilian control over the West Bank would mean a radical change in the legal status of the occupation, and transition into a full-fledged apartheid system, not just de facto (as has been the case for decades) but de jure as well. This will present new problems for Israel. Even if support by the Trump administration were guaranteed, the US president may not remain in office for a second term. In any event, the USA alone cannot re-create international law. Resistance by local Palestinians and neighbouring countries is likely to intensify, and global condemnation will follow. For all these reasons, Netanyahu may well prefer not to make that move, and retain the option as a threat for the future. In all likelihood, the picture will become clearer in the next couple of months.
* Rand Greenstein is an associate professor in the Department of Sociology, University of the Witwatersrand
By Ali Fathollah-Nejad *
Iran’s 21 February parliamentary (Majlis) elections, which took place amid massive internal and external challenges to the state, ended with an all-too predictable result: the conservative camp – the so-called ‘principlists’ (osoul-garâ), consisting of conservatives and ultra-conservatives – emerged victorious, not least because of the mass disqualification of most reformist and moderate contenders (including eighty sitting MPs) by the ultraconservative Guardian Council that vets candidates for elections. As a result, the reformists had refused to endorse candidates in twenty-two of the country’s thirty-one provinces, including the capital Tehran where thirty seats were up for grabs.
Although these elections, the most uncompetitive in years, signalled the hardliners’ bold willingness to seek the monopolisation of power within the Islamic Republic’s institutions, the historic low turn-out has dealt a major blow to the legitimacy of the regime, and reflected the low level of people’s confidence toward it. As such, the elections’ outcome may complicate the realisation of such ambitions for power monopolisation, potentially constituting a Pyrrhic victory.
Against this backdrop, various scenarios regarding the domestic distribution of power can be envisaged, especially in view of presidential elections set for June 2021 – from monopolisation of power by hardliners all the way to a reformist comeback for the sake of regime survival. In foreign policy, the conservatives’ increasingly tight grip on all institutions – contrary to conventional assumptions of further hardening the fronts between Iran and the USA – might actually facilitate an arrangement with Washington.
Many candidates, little participation
These elections assembled a few superlatives compared to the eleven parliamentary elections held under the Islamic Republic since 1979: While a record number of people applied to run (around 16 000), the Guardian Council only approved a record low number (forty-four per cent of applicants); in total numbers, three times as many were disqualified in 2019 as compared to the last elections in 2016; and the number of approved candidates was the highest ever. The Guardian Council, whose members are directly and indirectly approved by the Supreme Leader, is responsible to vet candidates for parliamentary, presidential and Assembly of Experts elections. Most of those disqualified in these elections were reformists, undermining the Council’s allegedly non-partisan claim that most were excluded because of pending financial corruption charges.
Another superlative is the historic low voter turnout. It was officially put at 42.6%; yet, in reality, it is believed to be much lower, with some estimating it to be half as much. In the 2016 parliamentary elections, the official turnout was 61.8%. The hardliners are usually believed to represent only 15% of the population, who remain loyal to the system because of ideological persuasion and/or material benefits. Thus, a high turnout has usually benefited reformists.
The low turnout this time around is a major blow to the regime as a whole, but especially to the Supreme Leader who had argued that the election results will define the ruling system’s very ‘prestige’. The reduced participation was despite an unprecedented campaign led by state media and the Supreme Leader to urge people to vote, portrayed as a national and religious duty to protect the nation from its omnipresent enemies; despite various coercive elements conventionally deployed by the state to persuade people towards the polling stations (from bussing in military conscripts to hidden fears by segments of society that not voting will negatively impact their access to state allocations and job prospects); and despite the voting period being extended by several hours. Hence, the low turnout is a reflection of a general public mood toward a ruling system seen by many as increasingly illegitimate, incompetent, and anathema to the interests of many citizens.
The low turnout was rationalised by Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani-Fazli as reflecting the prevalent social mood in the country and people’s deep discontent and disillusionment following the nationwide anti-regime protests of January 2018 and November 2019, and, more recently, the January 2020 downing of a passenger jet, killing all 176 on board, with authorities having lied about their responsibility for three days.
The Conservative victory
Conservatives won 230 of the 290 parliamentary seats, including all 30 in Tehran (where not a single MP was re-elected), while reformists won sixteen seats. The Hope Faction, which supports President Hassan Rouhani and is headed by reformist Mohammad-Reza Aref (who had topped the Tehran results in the 2016 parliamentary elections, but decided not to run this year) is believed to have lost more than 90% of its MPs (with only seven MPs in the next parliament instead of the current 120), while the entire moderate camp is believed to have won a maximum of fifty seats. The parliament will thus completely be transformed, with less than one fifth of sitting MPs represented in the next Majlis.
In the capital, Mohammad-Bagher Ghalibaf, a former Tehran mayor with higher political ambitions, topped the list with over a million votes. In contrast, in 2016 all Tehran MPs got more than a million votes, indicating the widespread stayaway in the capital city in 2020. The victors in Tehran were, thus, the conservative camp and Ghalibaf.
The wider conservative camp, composed of numerous factions, emerged victorious, with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) as its most powerful institution expected to further gain ground and Ghalibaf, the most successful conservative candidate, well positioned for higher political offices. With its new power over the parliament, the IRGC could extend its current dominance in the military, intelligence, and economic spheres onto the political one, making the military-rule component in the Islamic Republic more pronounced.
The mass disqualifications and the low turnout may signal a miscalculation on the part of the ultraconservatives, as well as their sense of hubris – due to a large extent to the moderate camp’s weaknesses and failures. The miscalculation is because this election could end a rather well-functioning safety net meant to channel public discontent, and a mechanism for regime resilience, namely, offering the choice – as many Iranians refer to it – between a lesser and a greater evil (i.e., the moderates or reformists against the hardliners). However, despite the conservative camp’s victory, its sense of hubris ahead of the elections had allowed for fiercer confrontations and contradictions within it openly, which might play out in the next years. The conservative camp includes three main factions, which both compete and cooperate with each other:
Ghalibaf future president?
The most prominent figure emerging from the elections is Ghalibaf, whose Proud Iran (Iran-e Sarboland) list, uniting many principlists and critics of the Rouhani administration, had fielded thirty candidates. He ranked first in Tehran, and is thus poised to assume the powerful position of parliamentary speaker, which he could use to position himself as the next president. Ghalibaf had failed to win the presidency thrice: 2005, 2013, and 2017. He began his career in the security-military establishment, then delved into the economic and political spheres – most of which was closely connected to the IRGC. During the Iraq-Iran War, he held chief commander positions in several brigades and divisions. After the war, he became managing director of the IRGC’s engineering arm, Khatam-ol Anbia, the main economic entity of the Guards since then-president Rafsanjani integrated them into the post-war reconstruction economy, and which has developed an economic empire of its own. Ghalibaf was later appointed by Khamenei as the commander of the IRGC air force (1997-2000); became chief of police (or the Law Enforcement of the Islamic Republic of Iran, or NAJA, 2000-2005); more recently, mayor of Tehran (2005-2017); and is currently the Expediency Council’s Economic Commission Deputy. In 2001, he obtained a doctorate in political geography from Tarbiat Modares University in Tehran, with a dissertation entitled Analysis of the Local State in Iran.
With a security background, Ghalibaf’s political agenda combines economic populism, technocratic management (he was largely seen in this light during his twelve years as Tehran mayor) and militaristic nationalism (during the parliamentary campaign, he played on his close friendship with the late head of the IRGC’s Quds Force, General Qassem Soleimani, during the Iraq-Iran War). Given more extremist elements within the conservative camp, he will have a good chance of becoming president as a ‘’lesser evil’ option.
Facilitating talks with Washington
For Iran’s regional and international friends and foes, the historic low turnout, which did not escape their attention, indicated the depth of the regime’s legitimacy crisis, while the hardliners’ victory signalled the political trajectory to be expected. There is little chance of foreign policy changes as a result of these elections. Until the 2021 presidential elections, it is likely that there will be a duality of voices from Tehran: a moderate one from the Rouhani administration and a hardline one from other institutions (the IRGC and, now, the Majlis). Both voices operating in tandem have usually demonstrated their usefulness for the regime and the Supreme Leader.
Contrary to conventional thinking, the hardliners’ increasing grip on power might actually help facilitate talks with the USA; such talks are indispensable given Iran’s desperate need to unshackle itself of US sanctions for the sake of regime stability. One major reason for such a scenario, which may play out only after the US and Iranian presidential elections, is that a key impediment to hardliners’ rejection of an opening with the West or negotiations with Washington would be removed. Currently, hardliners’ concern is that an opening to the West, a process which will be negotiated by their rival elite moderate forces if the president is from that camp, would endanger or not sufficiently guarantee their politico-economic and ideological interests. Such concern may just be the result of paranoia; after all, the Supreme Leader supervises and controls any such process of negotiations, thus acting as a guarantor of his hardline allies’ interest.
No redistributive measures
There might be more bold attempts by the future conservative parliament to unseat important figures of the moderate administration, but this is unlikely to be supported by the Supreme Leader – given the aforementioned benefits for the balance of a duality of elite voices. Regarding state-society relations, the gulf between the two sides will likely widen, given the unlikelihood that people’s socioeconomic demands will be met in the short term, with US sanctions continuing unabated, and no major economic policy changes or redistribution of wealth on the horizon. Thus, the conservative camp’s victory may only be a Pyrrhic one for the Islamic Republic as a whole, and will probably prompt some soul searching within its strategic circles about how to deal with such widespread public alienation and disenchantment.
Ideally, a unified hardline camp could offer some socioeconomic relief to lower strata of the population, by utilising its unrivalled access to state and semi-state resources (which they largely control), even in the absence of US sanctions relief. The timing of such redistributive measures will be important: Doing so before next year’s presidential elections might inadvertently polish the tarnished image of the moderate Rouhani administration, increasing the moderate/reformist camp’s chances for his succession and thus diminishing their own. Thus, it is more probable that the hardliners’ parliamentary victory will further explicitly deepen the lame-duck performance of the current administration – soon entering its last year in office – in order later to increase their own political fortunes.
Down the road, the emerging dominant line in Iranian politics could be a kind of right-wing populism, i.e., promoting a discourse around delivering social justice without actually engaging in a redistribution of wealth, while the ideological role of nationalism will continue to rise relative to Islamism, potentially opening up some space (e.g., on the mandatory headcover for women) to absorb some public pressure, while repression against protests and civil society activism will continue unabated. In other words, the IRGC acting – or pretending to act – as iron-fisted modernisers. Be that as it may, a de facto military dictatorship will also have a hard time satisfying the population’s desire for more social equality and political freedoms. A key variable would be if any emerging political regime can maintain the current gulf between the lower classes and the middle class by playing their respective priorities against each other. In the meanwhile, as long as the coronavirus crisis rages in Iran, it is likely to impede the re-eruption of large-scale popular mobilisation, especially by the middle class, thus entrenching the feeling of resignation and despair among many.
The election results also reinvigorated discussions about the fate of reformism in Iran, most notably about whether the moderate and reformist camps’ losses could spell the ultimate demise of the already crisis-ridden reformists; in other words, whether their losses will be the kiss of death for the reformist-conservative duality within the Islamic Republic’s political establishment. Over the years, Iran’s reformists have experienced a significant loss of legitimacy among the social bases that had previously supported them, as a result of not only of the hardline camp’s combined opposition, repression and sabotage against them, but, also, and more importantly, of their own shortcomings to deliver on their political and economic promises. This has led to the belief that rather than constituting an agent of change from the top, the reformists have squarely positioned themselves within the establishment and against large sections of the population. In fact, for the first time, during the nationwide anti-regime protests since December 2017, they have been subjected to popular anger equally with the conservatives.
Against this backdrop, the future of reformism may involve two scenarios.
Such a move by conservatives to reintegrate the reformists could be deemed even more necessary if public perception would be that even a more powerful post-parliamentary election conservative camp had failed to address people’s grievances. In fact, the mass disqualification of reformist candidates led to disunity in the reformist camp, from some boycotting the elections to others participating (e.g., the former reformist president, Mohammad Khatami, whose public activities since the 2009 Green Movement have been heavily restricted by regime hardliners but who was shown casting a ballot in these crucial elections), potentially a signal of some among the reformists willing to forge a coalition with the conservative camp, or, at least, with those closest to the moderates.
by Yara Hawari
The first measures taken against COVID-19 in the West Bank occurred in early March after the confirmation of seven cases in Bethlehem that were linked to a Greek tourist group. The Palestinian Authority (PA) declared a state of emergency and imposed a lockdown on the city, banning all entry and exit, and enforcing a curfew on residents. The PA also announced restrictions across the West Bank, including prohibitions on travel between governorates, and the shuttering of public spaces and education facilities. On 22 March, following a steady increase in cases, the PA declared a curfew.
In the Gaza Strip, in mid-March Hamas authorities and UNRWA began converting schools into quarantine centres and clinics in preparation for a possible outbreak. On 21 March, two Gazans returning from Pakistan tested positive for the virus and were immediately hospitalised. Twenty-nine people were identified as having come into contact with them and they were all placed in quarantine.
At the time of writing, the total number of confirmed cases in the West Bank is 247 and twelve in Gaza. Although the figures are relatively low, the worry is that the limited number of testing kits available means that the number of infected people is most probably much higher.
The West Bank and Gaza Strip are confronting COVID-19 under the gun and with the reality of Israeli military occupation. This substantially weakens the ability of the Palestinian authorities and the Palestinian people effectively to respond to the deadly virus. While many health care systems around the world are struggling to deal with the pandemic, the fifty-three-year occupation has seriously depleted medical capabilities in the West Bank and Gaza. The donor-dependent system has shortages in equipment, medication, and staff due to such issues as military raids and restrictions on imports. In the Gaza Strip in particular – deemed unliveable by the UN as a result of over thirteen years of blockade and multiple Israeli-imposed wars – the health care system had already struggled to deal with medical cases before the pandemic. Indeed, Gaza currently has only seventy-eight ICU beds and only sixty-three ventilators to service a population of two million.
Meanwhile, daily manifestations of the occupation persist, such as the continued demolition of Palestinian homes and military raids on Palestinian villages and towns. There have also been direct Israeli attacks on Palestinian attempts to confront the virus, such as the destruction of a COVID-19 clinic in the Jordan Valley, and the arrest of Palestinian volunteers attempting to distribute supplies to impoverished communities in East Jerusalem. The Israeli occupation authorities are also failing to take any preventative measures to protect Palestinian political prisoners, who are being illegally incarcerated within a military prison system that fails to meet even basic health and sanitation standards.
The Israeli regime is using the global coronavirus crisis not only to distract from its ongoing violations of human rights, but also as a political tool to gain diplomatic leverage. Indeed, international bodies have been commending Israel for its ‘cooperation’ with the PA during this crisis; the UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, Nickolay Mladenov, referred to such coordination as ‘excellent’ during a recent speech. In reality, however, Israeli ‘cooperation’ includes the Israeli Coordination of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) ‘allowing’ a minimum of internationally-donated medical supplies to reach the Occupied Palestinian Territory, as was the case with a shipment of 3 000 tests and 50 000 masks from the World Health Organization (WHO) to the PA. This is far below the actual needs of the West Bank.
Those commending the cooperation also point to the presence of the thousands of Palestinian workers in Israel. In an attempt to prevent mass movement and the potential spread of the disease, Israel and the PA reached an agreement that, as of 18 March, Palestinian workers’ continued employment in Israel would be conditioned on them staying in Israel for several months rather than returning to the West Bank. Yet the workers were not only deprived of proper protective equipment, Israeli authorities also dumped workers who they suspected of having being infected by the virus at checkpoint entrances to the West Bank – without informing the PA. The Palestinian prime minister, Mohammad Shtayyeh, reversed the decision on 25 March, and ordered Palestinian workers in Israel to return home. The serious concern, however, is that the PA will not have the capacity to test people upon their return, and Israel has so far not offered to test them.
In effect, the Israeli regime, which maintains a violent military occupation and has depleted the capabilities of the Palestinian health care system, is being praised for allowing scraps of medical supplies to enter from international donors, despite its responsibility under international law as an occupying power to provide the supplies itself. It is essential that international actors not only support vital humanitarian efforts for immediate medical relief in Palestine, but that they also insist on Israel’s responsibility to finance Palestinian medical needs.
It is also imperative to shift the narrative from cooperation, and to highlight the Israeli occupation as an instrument of comorbidity. In other words, not only does the occupation exacerbate the conditions that increase Palestinians’ susceptibility to infection, it is also directly responsible for those conditions. It is therefore disingenuous to argue that now is the time for cooperation and dialogue between Israel and the Palestinian authorities to confront the pandemic. Now is the time, as it was before, to demand the lifting of the blockade on Gaza and the end of the military occupation of the West Bank.
* Yara Hawari is a Senior Palestine Policy Fellow of Al-Shabaka: The Palestinian Policy Network. She completed her PhD in Middle East Politics at the University of Exeter, where she continues to be an honorary research fellow.
Amid the outbreak of the global coronavirus pandemic, countries in conflict, such as Syria, are in the spotlight. The UN called for an immediate ceasefire in Syria in light of the pandemic after Turkey and Russia announced a ceasefire agreement in the northwestern Idlib province on 5 March. Idlib, a province largely controlled by Al-Qa'ida offshoot Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), has been under heavy bombardment by the Syrian regime, supported by Russian airpower over the past year. The bombardment has pitted the Syrian regime against Turkish and Turkish-backed forces stationed across the province in observation posts set up in May 2017 under the Astana agreement signed by Russia, Iran and Turkey.
Since February, the regime bombardment has resulted in the deaths of over thirty Turkish soldiers in Idlib, with Turkey threatening a massive retaliation. These escalations saw Turkey and Russia agree to a ceasefire on 5 March that includes joint patrols along the strategic M4 highway. The M4 is one of the two most strategic motorways in Syria, running from Latakia to Saraqib, parallel to the northern border with Turkey. The highway’s strategic route also links Syria’s commercial centre Aleppo with Mosul in Iraq, making it important for trade between the two countries.
The 5 March ceasefire agreement followed a series of ceasefire agreements that Turkey and Russia had signed since the Astana de-escalation deal. It is the second of its kind since the beginning of this year. The first was announced on 9 January 2020, after a Syrian regime offensive forced 300 000 Syrians towards the Turkish border, with many living under trees in already overburdened refugee camps. The January agreement did not hold for long as Russia and the Syrian army soon advanced against rebel groups in the province, capturing strategic towns along the M4 and M5 highways. The latter motorway, also called the Damascus-Aleppo highway, is the second most important highway in Syria, beginning in southern Syria near the border with Jordan, and linking the country’s four largest cities: Damascus, Homs, Hama and Aleppo, near the Turkish border. It intersects the M4 in Idlib. The route is crucial for the Syrian economy, and used to transport around $25 million worth of business each day before the war. Turkey, which controls twelve observation posts in the province under the Astana agreement, repeatedly warned of escalations as the offensive intensified until Turkish soldiers were killed by regime bombardment in February.
On 15 March, Turkey and Russia conducted their first joint military patrol along the M4, but were forced to stop these after protests by residents. Civilians living in areas along the M4 highway demonstrated against the presence of Russia, and condemned the ceasefire agreement. People opposing the ceasefire agreement called for the halt of Russian-sponsored patrols, and for displaced people to be allowed to return to their homes in Idlib. Russia dismissed these protests as ‘terrorists using civilians as shields’, while Turkey chose to ignore them completely.
Ankara’s approach of ignoring the protests highlights Turkey’s miscalculations in Idlib. Its backing of opposition groups such as Free Syrian Army (FSA), which, together with other groups, has morphed into an umbrella structure now called the National Liberation Front (NLF), as well as its indirect coordination with the HTS (formerly an Al-Qa'ida affiliate called Jabhat Al-Nusra), has yielded both problems and solutions. The groups had assisted Turkey in its operations against Kurdish forces in northeast Syria, helped coordinate its demilitarised zone in Idlib to keep refugees from flocking to the Turkish border, and some of their members have agreed to be deployed by Turkey to Libya to fight against warlord Khalifa Haftar. After the 5 March agreement, these groups defied Turkish orders to stay clear of the demilitarised zone created in 2018. This as speculation rises that the Syrian army and Russian forces will soon resume the offensive in Idlib, ending the almost one-month-long ceasefire agreement with Turkey. With these disagreements, Turkey is struggling to keep its 5 March ceasefire promises to Russia. Russia argues that jihadist groups such as HTS must be eliminated before military operations can be halted in Idlib.
Turkey is also hesitant directly to confront HTS, even though it designated the group a terrorist organisation in August 2018. Turkey had supported HTS and other similar groups earlier in the Syrian civil war, and it is apprehensive about fighting a group with which it had previously coordinated operations. The situation is further complicated by these groups launching attacks against Turkish soldiers in Idlib. Two Turkish soldiers were killed by a rocket attack that Turkey believes was launched by HTS or one of its affiliates on 19 March, two weeks into the ceasefire agreement. Although Turkey said it had retaliated against the perpetrators, it was not clear how the retaliation actually took place. Compounding Turkey’s predicament were protests by Turkish-backed groups since the start of April in Ras Al-Ain and Al-Hasakah areas in the northeast, as well as in parts of rural Raqqa where many Turkish soldiers remain stationed.
Moving forward, the form of Turkish cooperation with rebel groups in Idlib is uncertain, as Russia remains adamant that these groups, in Syria’s last rebel bastion, must be destroyed. The 5 March ceasefire is nearing its end as regime and Russian forces prepare for another round of heavy bombardment of the province, which has already displaced over 300 000 people, most of whom fled towards the Turkish border and its overcrowded refugee camps. Turkey is in a difficult situation, fearing it will face heavy repercussions if it confronts jihadi groups that could launch attacks inside Turkey through inactive cells. Further, attacking the rebel groups could jeopardise its own operations in the province, and its attempts to prevent refugees fleeing the regime bombardment from flocking to Turkey where over three million refugees already reside. Turkey’s predicament is worsened by the fact that it does not want to upset its relationship with Russia, which has allowed Turkey to carry out numerous military campaigns in northeast Syria against Kurdish forces. Despite rollercoaster Turkey-Russian relations over the past few years, Turkey regards Russia a necessary ally as its relations with both the USA and Europe remain precarious.
The 18 February 2020 attack on Tripoli’s main seaport is the latest in a series of measures by Libyan warlord, General Khalifa Haftar, to secure a military victory over his rivals, the UN-recognised Government of National Accord (GNA). His self-styled ‘Libyan National Army (LNA)’ also seized the port city of Sirte in January, and halted shipments of Libyan oil in an attempt to weaken the Tripoli-based GNA. The Tripoli seaport attack ended UN-brokered ceasefire negotiations between the two sides. Haftar, who is supported by the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and France, among others, has been emboldened by the lack of censure for his actions. His decision not to endorse a January 2020 ceasefire agreement mediated by Turkey and Russia was rewarded by the UAE with two fighter jets.
The February port attack followed increased Turkish support for the GNA, enabling it to force back LNA troops to pre-April 2019 battle lines. Thus, apart from Haftar’s capture of the strategic city of Sirte in January 2020, his ten-month siege of the capital, Tripoli, which commenced in April 2019, has resulted in limited gains. This despite the fact that his forces have had an enormous military hardware advantage, having received arms from the UAE and Egypt, with Chadian, Sudanese, and Russian mercenaries being attracted to support his advance. To break the military stalemate, Haftar imposed an oil embargo in an attempt to strangle the GNA, which relies on oil revenues to provide services and compensate militias. Haftar has not attempted to resell the oil, but his control of most of Libya’s oil and water resources – which are located in the country’s east – allows him great leverage.
Between January and February this year, the UAE provided Haftar with over 4 600 tons of military equipment, allowing him to snub UN and Turkish-Russian mediation efforts. Turkey, on the other hand, supports the GNA. Ankara enhanced this support in recent months by deploying Syrian rebels and Turkish Special Forces to Libya after Haftar captured Sirte. Ankara and the GNA also concluded a maritime border agreement in 2019, strengthening Turkish claims over natural gas in the Mediterranean, and undermining the claims of Greece and Cyprus. Ankara thus regards support for the GNA as critical to its national interests, and will likely further augment its support, despite suffering dozens of casualties among its soldiers. It is noteworthy that Syria and the eastern House of Representatives, which Haftar is influential over, concluded an agreement in March jointly to confront Turkey; the two will likely soon exchange diplomatic representatives. The HoR followed the UAE and Bahrain in re-establishing ties with Syria, which were severed following the start of the Syrian uprising.
Meanwhile, the UN continues to be hamstrung by divisions within the Security Council. Haftar’s continued obduracy has been encouraged by support he receives from France, a permanent member of the UNSC, and, more recently, Russia, another permanent member. His march on Tripoli, a week before a UN-sponsored national conference scheduled to be in Libya (which was subsequently cancelled), and his issuance of an arrest warrant for the head of the GNA, Fayez al-Sarraj, elicited little censure from the UNSC, despite the UN’s now-former special envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salame, labelling the move a coup. In addition, Haftar’s shutting down of oil terminals also resulted in no repercussions, despite UNSC Resolution 2510, which affirms the need to resume oil production.
Further, the UN has had an obsessive focus on elections as a means out of the conflict, and has not given much attention to consensus-building and bottom-up negotiations, which were hallmarks of the initial phases of the 2015 Libyan Political Agreement and the subsequent Skhirat agreement. The UN had planned for elections to be held in 2018, but these have continually been postponed. In February, UNSC Resolution 2510 ratified the January 2020 Berlin Roadmap calling for a full ceasefire and an arms embargo on Libya. Implementation of the resolution will be difficult, however, especially since Russia, a key Haftar supporter, abstained from the vote, indicating it is unlikely that it will support the implementation of the resolution.
A 13 January 2020 ceasefire agreement, mediated by Turkey and Russia, failed because Haftar refused to endorse it, while a fifty-five point roadmap endorsed by most roleplayers in Libya, including the UAE, Turkey, and France, in Berlin on 19 January is also proving difficult to implement. Ceasefire talks between five military officials from each of the two sides in February in Geneva agreed on a tentative ceasefire, but the two rival governments overruled this. Another seemingly-useless initiative is the EU’s February endorsement of a new mission to complement its Operation Sophia, which seeks to enforce the Libyan arms embargo, but which fails to account for the fact that this will not hamper Haftar since most of his weapons come through Egypt. France, which had despatched forces to support Haftar from 2014, and which had vociferously advocated for the new mission, opposes Turkey’s support of the GNA.
The current stalemate suggests that a political solution is the only real way out of the crisis. However, it is doubtful that Haftar will enter into negotiations in good faith; he has continually acted to scupper any talks that might limit his power. On the sidelines of the Berlin conference, he insisted that talks to form a government could only occur after Tripoli was disarmed, supporting an earlier LNA statement that a militarily-imposed solution was the only way to ensure security. His attitude is hardened by the support he continues to receive from regional and global powers, which emboldens him, even though consolidating control over Tripoli and the country’s western regions has proved more difficult when compared to his rapid march through the South in early 2019. Haftar’s recent announcement of a humanitarian ceasefire was a result of pressure from the USA, and is unlikely to lead to real change. Already, the LNA has undertaken attacks in Tripoli, killing two.
By Ramzy Baroud
Israeli Prime Minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, must be channelling the spirit of Houdini as he continues to plot his escape from one of the most convoluted political dilemmas in Israel’s history. It is no secret that Netanyahu’s political behaviour is almost entirely shaped by his desire to survive in office for as long as possible in order to avoid possible jail time. But how long will the Israeli escape artist manage to survive, now that a date for his trial has been set?
After months of bargaining with the country’s political elite, on the one hand, and pleading to his own right-wing constituency on the other, Netanyahu has failed to create the necessary momentum that would render him immune from prosecution and secure his position at the helm of Israeli politics.
Failing to form a government after the April 2019 elections, Netanyahu masterfully linked his fate as prime minister to all of Israel’s affairs, internal and external. Nevertheless, there is little evidence to suggest that Netanyahu’s diplomatic and financial conquests have yielded his hoped-for result of augmenting his support among ordinary Israelis, especially as Benny Gantz, who heads the Kahol Lavan (Blue and White) party, has continued to venture further to the right, thus slowly undermining Netanyahu’s support in every facet of Israeli society. The September 209 election demonstrated Gantz’s ability to overcome the Likud leader’s various political advantages in the eyes of Israeli voters.
On 2 March, Israelis are scheduled to return to the polling booths to vote in their third general election in less than one year. In that short period of time, Gantz, a former chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Forces, managed to repeatedly alter his political positions to be even more right-wing than they had been, while still presenting himself as a centrist who is willing to engage with the ‘left’ in order to build a future government coalition.
Knowing that the noose has further tightened around his neck since the first elections in April 2019, Netanyahu resorted to Washington and US president Donald Trump, asking for the release of Trump’s ‘Deal of the Century’. Indeed, the ‘Middle East plan’ - as Trump calls it – was revealed ahead of schedule in order to provide the despairing Israeli leader a final lifeline that would help him win his multiple battles in a decisive blow.
Alas, for Netanyahu, things did not work out as planned.
The Netanyahu strategy was meant to unfold in a manner that would increase his support among Israelis and help stave off prosecution. Trump’s administration was to reveal the ‘plan’ that would give Israel everything Palestinian and give Palestinians nothing. Netanyahu would, of course, take full credit for this, his greatest achievement in office, and he would follow that by annexing all illegal Jewish settlements in the West Bank, as well as the entire Jordan Valley.
This, however, play out as he and his American benefactor had hoped, resulting in Netanyahu, on 4 February, reversinghis earlier decision to annex much of the West Bank before the scheduled elections. Instead, he told a campaign rally that such annexation was conditioned to his victory in the March elections. While many in the media parroted, without evidence, that the postponement of the annexation was a direct result of a request from Washington, the real reason was likely related to Netanyahu’s domestic political woes.
The Israeli prime minister must have been aware that Trump’s ‘Deal of the Century’ and the annexation of the West Bank cards were his last hope to secure a comfortable election victory, to be granted immunity, and to avoid serving jail time for corruption. But if he annexed parts of the West Bank and then failed to win the elections, the embattled Israeli leader would have no more wiggle room and zero political advantage for a future plea bargain. This explains the sudden halt in Netanyahu’s annexation plan, especially as the he had, at a recent campaign rally, presented annexation in the form of a political barter.
‘When we win,’ he said, ‘we will extend sovereignty over all the Jewish communities in Judea and Samaria,’ referring to the annexation of the occupied Palestinian West Bank. As a consolation prize and to avoid angry reactions by the country’s far right constituency, especially the politically well-organised Jewish settlers, Netanyahu announced on 20 February that he would revive a long-dormant plan to construct 3 000 new homes for illegal Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem.
‘Today I approved the construction in Givat Hamatos of 3 000 homes for Jews,’ Reuters reported, with 2 000 more homes expected to be built in the Har Homa illegal settlement as well.
These moves are particularly significant, for such construction will completely isolate the Palestinian city of Bethlehem from occupied East Jerusalem, thus killing any hope for Palestinian territorial contiguity in any future state. Netanyahu’s adversaries in the opposition, in the government, and in the Supreme Court are, of course, aware and wary of Netanyahu’s shenanigans. While Gantz often responds to Netanyahu’s opportunistic moves largely by altering his own political position to match or even surpass his opponent’s position, the prime minister’s support in the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, is lukewarm at best. In fact, on 28 January, Netanyahu was forced to withdraw his request for immunity, knowing that the request would not receive the required support.
Meanwhile, the legal proceedings regarding Netanyahu’s corruption cases continue unabated. According to the Israeli Justice Ministry, Netanyahu will be obligated to attend his trial in the Jerusalem District Court, even as prime minister, and regardless of what transpires in the 2 March elections. A three-judge panel will hear the case, forcing Netanyahu to divide his time between running Israeli affairs and fending off accusations of his corruption.
This is an uncharted territory for Israel. Never before in Israel’s history has the ruling elite been faced with such legal and political dilemmas. Since Israel continues to operate without a constitution, and because this is the first time that a sitting prime minister will face a trial, the Supreme Court is the only authority that is able to interpret the country’s laws in order to advance the legal proceedings. But even that is problematic.
Ayelet Shaked, the controversial and often vulgar former justice minister, is already attempting to derail that possibility, openly warning the Supreme Court judges that any involvement in the political process would be ‘tantamount to a coup’. Israelis now find themselves at the cusp of a new era, one that is defined by the breakdown of the country’s legal system, prolonged political crisis and never-ending social instability.
– Ramzy Baroud is a journalist and editor of The Palestine Chronicle. He is the author of five books, his latest being These Chains Will Be Broken: Palestinian Stories of Struggle and Defiance in Israeli Prisons.
Egypt is reportedly furious at Hamas’ leader Ismail Haniyeh after he and a delegation from Gaza attended the funeral of slain Iranian Quds Force commander, Qassem Soleimani. Haniyeh headed a Hamas delegation out of the besieged Gaza Strip on 2 December 2019, the first time that Egypt allowed him to leave the enclave since his election as leader of Hamas in 2017. He was meant to visit a number of countries as part of an international relations tour. Egypt approved the countries he would visit; Iran was not on the list. Haniyeh, however, attended Soleimani’s funeral and was the only non-Iranian to speak at the event, where he referred to the Iranian general as ‘the martyr of Jerusalem’. The Egyptians have allowed other members of the delegation to return to Gaza, but it is unclear whether Egypt will allow Haniyeh to leave again, when he returns. Hamas is also cagey about when its leader will make his way back or whether he will visit other countries not approved of by the Egyptians.
Egypt and Hamas relations become stronger after the fall of Hosni Mubarak’s regime during the 2011 uprisings. The one-year presidency of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi, from June 2012 to July 2013, saw flourishing relations between the Egyptian government and the authority in Gaza. Morsi had ordered the permanent opening of the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza. Palestinians from Gaza were thus able to travel in and out of the territory without hindrance, and there was also an increase in trade, after years of prohibition. In a July 2013 coup, General Abdel Fattah El Sisi overthrew Morsi and accused Hamas of being a co-conspirator against the security and the stability of the Egyptian people. Reversing Morsi’s decision, he tightened the blockade on Gaza.
Relations improved in 2017 when Hamas elected a new leadership mostly based in Gaza, unlike the previous leadership that was based mostly in Qatar and headed by Khaled Mesha'al. Haniyeh quickly started talks with Egypt after he election. Hamas delegations frequently visited Cairo for reconciliation talks with other Palestinian factions, notably Fatah, facilitated by Egypt. Egyptian officials have also frequented Gaza for negotiations with Hamas over ceasefires with Israel and to discuss blockade restrictions imposed by Israel and Egypt. Relations further strengthened when Egypt agreed to a buffer zone between Gaza and the Sinai to prevent Islamic State (IS) group militants retreating into Gaza.
A critical aspect of Egypt’s relations with Hamas is the former’s strong ties to Israel and to the USA. In 2018, US President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and adviser, Jared Kushner, discussed with Egypt the creation of a trade zone and industrial projects in the northern Sinai and in Gaza as part of Trump’s touted ‘deal of the century’. To realise this plan, Egypt agreed that it would coordinate economic projects with Hamas. In 2019, Qatar announced that it would begin distributing funds to families in Gaza and pay for fuel for electricity generation as part of its National Committee for the Reconstruction of Gaza project. This followed indirect negotiations between Hamas and Israel, mediated by Egypt, which brought relief to 2 million besieged Gazans. This agreement had been concluded during a twenty-four day trip to Cairo by a Hamas delegation headed by Haniyeh in February 2019. It became clear that Egypt was willing to allow Haniyeh to travel out of Gaza but only for meetings in Cairo; he swiftly returned to the strip after every trip.
For his current trip, Haniyeh left Gaza on 2 December 2019 for Cairo, where he attended a number of meetings with Egyptian officials to negotiate a longterm ceasefire with Israel. This followed an exchange of fire between groups in Gaza and Israel, after Israel assassinated one Islamic Jihad (Bahaa Abu Al-Ata) leader in Gaza. After these meetings, Haniyeh’s delegation departed for his first international trip as Hamas leader. The trip’s schedule was agreed upon with Egypt, and included Qatar, where many former and current Hamas leaders are based, as well as Turkey and Malaysia.
The Egyptians told Haniyeh not to attend the Kuala Lumpur Summit in Malaysia on 18 December, following Saudi Arabia’s insistence. The Saudis viewed the Summit as Malaysia’s attempt to set up an alternative to the Organisation for Islamic Cooperation (OIC), which Saudi Arabia currently heads. Haniyeh obliged and sent a high-level delegation instead. Unimpressed, Egypt nonetheless conceded that Haniyeh had not violated the agreement. Egypt’s conditions included Haniyeh’s not visiting Iran.
When the head of the Quds Force unit of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, Qassem Soleimani, was killed by an American airstrike on 3 January, Egypt further warned Haniyeh not to attend his funeral. Haniyeh, however, defied the order. He also met with the newly-appointed Quds Force commander Esmail Ghaani, and, together with Islamic Jihad leader for an international relations trip, visited Soleimani’s home to express condolences.
Haniyeh’s trip to Iran angered the Egyptians to such an extent that they may not let him back into Gaza after he completes his trip, or prevent him leaving the territory again. Egypt also, in retaliation for Haniyeh’s insubordination, temporarily blocked the transfer of gas into Gaza. This resumed only after talks on 9 February. After these talks, little was mentioned about what the Egyptians had said about Haniyeh, who is still in Doha.
Although Hamas has denied that Egypt had been furious over the Iran visit, it is clear that relations between the two parties have been shaken. Egypt believes that since 2013 it has largely managed to exercise control over Hamas, in line with the wishes of Israel and Egyptian allies Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Haniyeh’s Iran visit was, thus, an embarrassment for Egypt. Although Haniyeh’s trip to Iran might have been strategic from a Hamas point of view, it, however, throws the existing relationship with Egypt into murky waters. Egypt might further restrict the movement of goods and people through the Rafah crossing, in a form of collective punishments against Gaza’s residents.
The US assassination, on 3 January 2020, of Major-General Qasem Soleimani, head of the Quds Force unit of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), greatly intensified tensions in the MENA region, taking it, by some accounts, to the brink of war. Iran responded five days later with attacks on American troops in Iraq, and will likely use its allies and proxies to undertake further attacks on US soldiers stationed in Iraq, thus maintaining a low-level war of attrition, less intense in the days after Soleimani’s assassination, but a longer-term strategy.
The assassination followed and intensified a series of incremental and escalating indirect attacks by Iran and the USA on each other’s interests in the MENA region, especially after the 2018 US withdrawal from the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (the 2015 Iran Nuclear deal), and more so after around March 2019, when Iran decided to respond more assertively to the US withdrawal. The USA subsequently accused Iran of increasing its support to armed groups in Iraq, Syria and Yemen; and of being involved in the May 2019 Fujairah sabotage of four oil tankers, and an attackon Saudi Aramco facilities in Al-Qaiq and Khuraise in September 2019. Both the tanker and the Aramco attacks were blamed on Iranian-backed groups. Contributing to a tense situation, The USA deployed a carrier strike-group to the gulf in May 2019, increased its troop presence in the region, and resolved to no longer grant oil wavers to countries purchasing Iranian oil.
However, neither Iran nor the USA wants an all-out war. Instead, the USA will continue pressuring Iran through current and further sanctions, while Tehran and its allies will conduct numerous low-level actions aimed at disrupting US operations and interests. Further, two of Iran’s main rivals in the region, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, have stretched their resources over the Middle East and North Africa, and have realised that they cannot rely on the USA to fight their battles with Iran. Both have thus made overtures to Tehran, especially after the tanker and Aramco operations; Riyadh advocated de-escalation after Soleimani’s assassination, and is negotiating an end to the Yemeni conflict.
Roots of current tensions
Iran and the USA have had long-standing tensions, heightened after the US role in the coup against Iran’s democratically-elected president, Mohammad Mosaddegh, in 1953. The ouster was supported, financially and diplomatically, by the CIA and the Eisenhower Administration. The Shah, whose powers were then strengthened, making him an absolute ruler, was subsequently propped up by successive US administrations through the 1960s and 1970s.
Relations between the two states further deteriorated after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, which forced the Shah out of power and into exile. He was granted asylum in the USA, prompting Iranian students to storm and besiege the US embassy in Tehran in November 1979, holding US diplomats hostage for 444 days. The USA imposed an economic embargo on Iran, and US sanctions have progressively been strengthened over the past forty-one years. Washington also actively supported Saddam Hussein in Iraq’s eight-year war against Iran, which sought to overthrow that country’s new government, and resulted in a million deaths.
In 2011, the USA, prodded by Israel, added sanctions on Iranian oil as a means of pressurising Iran to halt its nuclear programme. Since Donald Trump’s entry into the White House in 2016, relations between USA and Iran have mainly been related to or a consequence of Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 Iran Nuclear Deal or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). The American president hoped to pressure Tehran to negotiate a more comprehensive agreement with him, to also address its support for groups such as the Houthi and Hizbullah, and the Syrian regime, as well as Iran’s ballistic missile capability. US allies Saudi Arabia and the UAE have used their economic clout, purchasing large quantities of American weapons, to convince Trump to maintain pressure on Iran. The Saudis successfully slowed down the initial JCPOA negotiations in 2013 by using its arms’ purchases to lobby France to demand more restrictions on Iran’s Arak reactor and on Tehran’s stockpile of uranium.
In 2018, after pulling out of the JCPOA, the USA began instituting new sanctions on Iranian companies, and, more significantly, decided not to issue new waivers on the import of Iranian oil, a key source of foreign exchange for Iran. These waivers previously allowed certain countries, such as Turkey, South Korea, Japan and India, to purchase Iranian oil. Then, in April 2019, Washington declared the IRGC a terrorist organisation, the first time the administration had labelled an entire military arm of another state in this way. Trump also deployed an additional 3 000 troops to the region, including an aircraft carrier and destroyer group. He imposed additional sanctions on Iran and Iranian officials, including on Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and on its chief diplomat, Iran’s foreign minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, severely limiting his ability to travel within New York.
With an economy ravaged by the sanctions, rebellion from hardliners within the regime, and because of the failures of the EU’s proposed special purpose financial vehicle, which was supposed to facilitate the circumvention of US sanctions, the Rouhani administration began to incrementally reduce its compliance with the JCPOA, hoping to pressure the EU to comply with its side of the agreement and to ease trade and investment with Iran. This series of violations is what Iranian deputy foreign minister Abbas Araqchi referred to as a ‘rebalancing’ of, rather than a withdrawal from, the JCPOA. Tehran will still allow International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) officials to inspect its uranium enrichment facilities, has not (yet) increased the level of enrichment to twenty per cent, and has not sought to repurpose the design of its Arak nuclear reactor to process plutonium. This suggests the country wants to salvage the JCPOA, but wants compliance form other partners, especially the EU.
The EU responded by declaring a dispute under the JCPOA. Little will result from this, since any decision on imposing sanctions on Iran will need to be adopted by the UNSC in which Russia and China, both Iranian allies, hold veto powers. A key factor in Iran’s favour is that it has not enriched uranium to twenty per cent – the level which would radically decrease the time and effort required to enrich to weapons-grade ninety per cent.
Tehran has deployed mobile short-range missiles on naval vessels in the Gulf, in Iranian waters, in response to Washington’s deployment of an aircraft carrier and destroyer group to the region. Iran also used its proxies, especially the Hashd al-Shabi (Popular Mobilization Forces/Units) in Iraq and the Houthi in Yemen to attack US troops and interests in the region, and in June 2019 Tehran shot down an American Global Hawk surveillance drone, one of only four the USA possessed at the time.
Soleimani assassination – on a knife edge
On 3 January 2020, the USA military assassinated Soleimani and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, one of the most influential leaders of Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Forces (PMF), largely supported by Iran. The assassinations, widely recognised by international scholars – including the UN Special Rapporteur for Extrajudicial, Summary or Arbitrary Executions, Agnès Callamard – as being illegal under international law, and even domestic US law. The White House initially claimed the assassination was a pre-emptive strike because Soleimani had been planning ‘imminent attacks’ on US interests, including American embassies in the region. This claim proved to be hollow, with even the US Defense Secretary, Mark Esper, stating that no evidence existed around the imminence and targets of the supposed plans.
Soleimani’s influence and popularity meant that the assassination was especially contentious for both Iran and the USA. He had been the key person involved in providing advice, training and weapons to Iran’s allies in Syria and Iraq, and coordinating between Iran and various PMF forces in Syria and Iraq, as well as with Hamas and Hizbullah. He was also revered by many Iranians who credited him with preventing the Islamic State group (IS) gaining a foothold in Iran. But he was also despised by many Syrians and Iraqis for his role in protecting regimes in their countries. Critics also blame him for Russia’s entry into the Syrian civil war, arguing that his July 2015 meeting with Russia’s president, Vladimir Putin, secured Moscow’s aerial support for the Syrian regime, without which it might have fallen. In Iraq, Soleimani consolidated support in the past few months for the Adel Abdul Mahdi administration, which has been accused of corruption and ineptitude, and which has violently cracked down on protests, killing hundreds.
Soleimani had previously worked with the USA in Afghanistan and Iraq. In the former, Soleimani coordinated certain activities with the USA in the fight against the Taliban, which both viewed as an enemy. The ‘relationship’ broke down, however, after then-US president, George W Bush, named Iran as part of an ‘axis of evil’ in 2002. Later, in Iraq, Soleimani was the point person dealing with the USA for Iran, including in discussions to form the Iraqi governing council, which took office in July 2003, and in 2009-10 to install the Nouri al-Maliki government.
After Soleimani’s assassination and funeral, which millions of Iranians and Iraqis participated in, Iran had to respond to the US aggression. Tehran decided on a two-pronged approach: a direct attack, in its name, on US troops, and a longer war of attrition with the USA through its partners and proxies. The direct response was through the attacks on the Ayn Al-Asad Airbase, west of Baghdad, and on the Irbil base, which host US troops, using around twenty Fateh and Qaim ballistic missiles on the 8 January 2020. Before the attack, the Iranians stressed that they would target only US military interests. They also informed the Iraqis which bases would be targeted. The warning, coupled with the fact that Iran conveyed a message to the USA, first via a Swiss back channel and later publicly, that this was the totality of its response, suggests that Tehran sought immediate de-escalation. The ‘indirect’ responses began soon after, in Iraq, with rockets launched at bases hosting US troops and even a the American embassy, but ensuring there were no casualties. Such attacks will likely continue, in Iraq and perhaps also in Syria and Yemen, targeting either US interests or those of its allies.
Run-up to the assassination
Before Soleimani’s assassination, regional tensions had been increasing. On 12 May 2019, four oil tankers belonging to Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Norway, were sabotaged off the UAE port of Fujairah; two days later, Houthi drones damaged Saudi Arabia’s reserve oil pipeline in Riyadh province, forcing its closure. While no one claimed responsibility for the tanker attacks, the Norwegian insurer alleged that the shrapnel from the explosions displays similarities to shrapnel from IEDs used by Houthi fighters in Yemen. Further, a Saudi-UAE-Norwegian investigation alleged ‘state involvement’ in the sabotage.
A month later, Iran shot down an American drone that had entered its airspace. Trump initially contemplated retaliatory airstrikes on Iranian missile defence systems, but later stood down. Then, in September 2019, precision drone and missile attacks on Saudi-Aramco oil facilities in Al-Qaiq and Khuraise forced a shutdown of over half of Saudi Arabia’s oil capacity, resulting in a loss of over two billion dollars. Although Yemen’s Houthi claimed the attack, a UN report suggests that the missiles originated from the north, likely from Iraq.
The USA and Israel responded by increasing attacks on Iranian troops in Syria, killing scores of people. US strikes were more limited than Israel’s, commencing in December 2019 after the death of an American contractor in a PMF attack on a military base in Iraq. Israel was more blatant, continually violating Lebanese and Syrian airspace, and launching missiles at Iranian assets in Syria. The USA also increased its troop deployment to the region, and dispatched more naval hardware to the Gulf.
Gulf countries, specifically Saudi Arabia and the UAE, shocked by what they saw as a lack of an adequate response by the USA to the tanker and Aramco attacks, and believing they could no longer rely on the USA for protection, responded through attempts at rapprochement with Iran. Riyadh sought to initiate indirect talks with Iran, having Iraq and Pakistan simultaneously acting as mediators. The UAE also sought to negotiate with Iran. In August 2019, in the aftermath of the Fujairah attack, a maritime border agreement was concluded between the UAE and Iran, regarding Abu Dhabi’s access to sea lanes. It is worth noting that the UAE’s Jebel Ali port is the largest in the region, while DP World, an Emirati port operator is the fourth largest globally. Abu Dhabi is thus invested in maintaining and enhancing sea lane access as a means of both economic growth and military influence.
In September 2019, Riyadh entered direct talks with the Houthi; Saudi coalition airstrikes in Yemen decreased by over eighty per cent in November 2019; and hundreds of prisoners, including around 130 in besieged Taiz, were exchanged between the two parties as a confidence-building measure. Further, the perceived lack of American support also saw Saudi Arabia commence negotiations to end the Qatar blockade, which Riyadh – along with the UAE, Bahrain and Egypt – imposed in 2017. Although differences still remain, the blockade has weakened at a diplomatic level with the Saudi, Emirati and Bahraini teams attending the Gulf Cup in Qatar in November 2019, and Qatar’s prime minister, Abdullah bin Nasser bin Khalifa Al Thani, attending the annual GCC Summit in Saudi Arabia in December 2019. A ‘cold peace’ between the two sides is likely soon to emerge.
It seems that both the USA and Iran, and regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia, do not want an all-out confrontation, especially since Iran possesses powerful military assets that can cause real damage, and Iran seems willing to use these. Saudi Arabia called for calm after Soleimani’s assassination, while Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, shortened his trip to Greece and returned to Israel in an attempt to prepare for any Iranian response. Further, both the Iranian and American governments have cautioned against a war, even though Soleimani’s assassination had the potential to cause events to spiral out of control.
With 2020 being a presidential election year in the USA, Trump is unlikely to want a war (especially one that could result in a large number of American casualties) when a key promise of his 2016 campaign was to halt America’s wars and remove American troops from the Middle East. Even though he has not succeeded in this regard, Trump would not want the negative publicity that another war would bring, unless his popularity rapidly drops and he requires something to create a rally-around-the-flag effect.
For the moment, it seems as if Iraq will bear the brunt of these tensions, serving as a key battleground between the USA and Iran, especially since it is dependent on both countries, and because it is seen by Tehran as falling within its sphere of influence. Soleimani was assassinated in Iraq, and Iran’s response was to target American troops in Iraq. The Iraqi protests over unemployment, corruption and for a restructuring of the political system have thus been overshadowed. The protests, which saw tens of thousands gather in December 2019 in opposition to the government, waned after the US attacks on PMF forces in Iraq in late December. More recently, the larger protests have been those calling for US troops to leave, rather than the earlier ones which called for Iranian influence in Iraq to be decreased.
By Afro-Middle East Centre and Palestine Chronicle
US President Donald Trump finally unveiled his ‘Middle East Peace Plan’ on Tuesday, 28 January 2020, during a media conference in Washington, as the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, stood by his side.
The entire document, called ‘Peace to Prosperity: A Vision to Improve the Lives of the Palestinian and Israeli People’ consists of 181 pages, including a political plan, ‘The Trump Economic Plan’ (that Washington had already introduced last July, during a conference in Bahrain) and sections on security, border crossings, water, refugees, and Gaza. The economic plan vowed to set up a $50 billion fund to help revive the Palestinian economy, with Jordan, Egypt, and Israel also receiving shares of the proposed financial aid. Trump hopes to raise this money from Arab states, but little funding has thus far been pledged to turn the Bahrain plan into action.
Trump’s Washington announcement is considered the political component of what he and his advisers had termed the ‘Deal of the Century’. The plan creates a fictitious Palestinian state, which should be demilitarised and have no control over its own security, borders, waters, and foreign policy, ceding most of these to Israel. Such a ‘state’ would, in effect, have less power and control than the bantustans created by apartheid South Africa in the 1970s. Certainly, Lucas Mangope or General Oupa Gqozo, leaders of the Bophutatswana and Ciskei bantustans respectively, had more power over the territories they ostensibly controlled than the ‘government’ of Trump’s envisaged Palestinian ‘state’ would have.
Yes to settlements
According to the long-delayed plan, the USA will officially recognise Israel’s Jewish settlements in the occupied territories. All the settlements, housing around 600 000 settlers, are illegal under international law. The document is also an encouragement to Israel to seize as much Palestinian land as it wants before the plan is operationalised.
According to the document, ‘[Israel] will not have to uproot any settlements, and will incorporate the vast majority of Israeli settlements into contiguous Israeli territory. Israeli enclaves located inside contiguous Palestinian territory will become part of the State of Israel and be connected to it through an effective transportation system.’
No to Palestinian State
Although Trump’s plan refers to a ‘Realistic Two-State Solution’ and the creation of a Palestinian state, it delineates that entity as a series of individual enclaves connected by tunnels and bridges, and comprising only around nine per cent of what was British Mandate Palestine in 1947. It also imposes ‘limitations of certain sovereign powers in the Palestinian areas’ which strips the new entity of the powers, rights and duties of a normal state. The ill-defined Palestinian ‘state’ is also conditioned on the Palestinian leadership meeting a number of conditions, including the rejection of ‘terror’.
‘The State of Israel, the State of Palestine and the Arab countries will work together to counter Hezbollah, ISIS, Hamas... and all other terrorist groups and organizations, as well as other extremist groups,’ the document says. Clearly, ‘other extremist groups’ does not refer to Netanyahu’s Likud party or the myriad armed, violent racist Jewish settler groups that daily attack Palestinians, their livestock, farms and other possessions.
The ‘state’ will not be allowed to have any military or paramilitary capabilities, and will ‘not have the right to forge military, intelligence or security arrangements with any state or organization that adversely affect the State of Israel’s security, as determined by the State of Israel.’ The document contains a list of security capabilities that the Palestinian ‘state’ will not be allowed to have, including mines, heavy machine guns, and military intelligence. And, in the event that the Palestinians violate any of these prohibitions, Israel ‘will maintain the right to dismantle and destroy any facility’. Israel will also have the right to undertake any measures to ‘ensure that the State of Palestine remains demilitarized and non-threatening’ to Israel.
Yes to Jerusalem as capital – for Israel
The plan refers to Israel as a ‘good custodian of Jerusalem’, ‘unlike many previous powers that had ruled Jerusalem, and had destroyed the holy sites of other faiths.’ It also commends Israel ‘for safeguarding the religious sites of all and maintaining a religious status quo’, completely ignoring the reality of Israel’s destruction of and ongoing attacks on Christian and Muslim religious sites for the past seven decades.
Jerusalem, according to the plan, is envisioned as the ‘undivided’ capital of Israel, as already declared by the Trump administration on 6 December 2017. The plan does, however, propose to give Palestinians limited sovereignty over a few neighbourhoods that are adjacent to the Israeli apartheid wall that is built illegally in occupied East Jerusalem. ‘The sovereign capital of the State of Palestine should be in the section of East Jerusalem located in all areas east and north of the existing security barrier, including Kafr Aqab, the eastern part of Shuafat and Abu Dis,’ the document says, making clear that the Palestinian ‘state’ will not have control over any part of Jerusalem itself, especially not the old city of Jerusalem or the important religious sites such as the Al-Aqsa Mosque or the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. In a seemingly-generous concession, it suggests that the neighbourhoods identified ‘could be named Al Quds or another name as determined by the State of Palestine’. Essentially, Palestinians can have their capital in Jerusalem, as long as their Jerusalem is not in Jerusalem.
Yes to Gaza as part of Palestinian state, if...
With not a single reference in its 181 pages to the fourteen-year-long brutal Israeli siege on Gaza, and the various Israeli military onslaughts on the territory in that period, the document asserts that the people of Gaza ‘have suffered for too long under the repressive rule of Hamas’. It is irrelevant that Hamas was democratically elected by Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza in 2006, but has been subjected, along with two million Palestinians, to the hermetic Israeli siege in the impoverished Gaza Strip.
Despite Palestinians in Gaza having ‘suffered for too long’, for Gaza to be included in any future ‘peace agreement’, it would have to be demilitarised and to fall under the control of the Palestinian Authority or any other party that Israel chooses to recognise.
No to refugees
As expected, the plan repeats Israel’s rejection of Palestinian refugees’ right, under international law, to return to their homes and their country. ‘There shall be no right of return by, or absorption of, any Palestinian refugee into the State of Israel,’ it stipulates. What is described as the ‘refugee problem’ should be solved by Palestine’s ‘Arab brothers’, who ‘have the moral responsibility to integrate them into their countries as the Jews were integrated into the State of Israel’. Even the possible ‘absorption’ of Palestinian refugees into ‘the State of Palestine’ is subject to limitations. The plan envisages a committee ‘of Israelis and Palestinians’ being formed to ensure that the ‘rights of Palestinian refugees to immigrate to the State of Palestine shall be limited in accordance with agreed security arrangements’.
The document calls for a ‘just, fair and realistic solution to the Palestinian refugee issue’, but then equates it with ‘the Jewish refugee issue’, referring to Jews who left Muslim countries to settle in Israel, calling also for a ‘just, fair and realistic solution for the issues relating to Jewish refugees’.
Yes to security – for Israel
Israel’s security is a key thread running through the document, with one subheading clearly stating ‘The Primacy of Security’. Israel will, in fact, have ‘overriding security responsibility over the State of Palestine’, and will be responsible for ‘security at all international crossings into the State of Palestine’, meaning the new state will have no control over any of its borders. Israel will also ‘continue to maintain control over the airspace and electromagnetic spectrum west of the Jordan river’.
Even aspects of foreign relations of the Palestinian ‘state’, according to the document, will be the responsibility of Israel. ‘The State of Palestine will not have the right to forge military, intelligence or security arrangements with any state or organization that adversely affect the State of Israel’s security, as determined by the State of Israel,’ it asserts.
Yes to more ethnic cleansing
Another worrying section of the plan concerns Palestinian communities within Israel who live in an area referred to as the ‘Triangle’. Regarding these communities – in Kafr Qara, Ar’ara, Baha al-Gharbiyye, Umm al-Fahm, Qalansawe, Tayibe, Kafr Qasim, Tira, Kafr Bara and Jaljulia, the document ‘contemplates the possibility… that the borders of Israel will be redrawn such that the Triangle Communities become part of the State of Palestine’. The goal, then, is to politically relocate these communities of around 350 000 people, stripping the individuals of their Israeli citizenship and dumping them into the Palestinian bantustan. The plan is effectively proposing yet another way of helping to ethnically cleanse Israel of its Palestinian population.
Palestinians, seemingly without exception, have rejected the Trump plan. A number of Palestinian political formations the day before the plan’s unveiling to express their united opposition to it. This is not surprising, considering the provisions of the document. The reality, however, is that, in many respects, Trump’s plan only attempts to legitimate the status quo. Much of what the document talks about as a future ‘Vision’ is already the Palestinian reality.
The question now is how Palestinian groups will actualise their opposition as a resistance project that confronts not only the Trump Plan, but also the Israeli occupation and annexation project as a whole.
Despite the resignation of Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi on 30 November 2019, protests in Iraq endure, with protester demands having evolved to include calls for a restructuring of the political system. An indication of how serious the situation is, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani has become more vocal, calling, on 20 December, for immediate new elections. The protesters’ call for a revamp of the political system means that there is little possibility, in the immediate future, for the demands of the protesters to be met and for the uprising to end, since the likelihood of finding a compromise candidate who will be acceptable to protesters, and protect the country’s entrenched political actors, is remote. Instability is likely to intensify as the different actors continue jostling to instrumentalise the protest movement, especially in light of the attack on protesters securing the Sinak Bridge in Baghdad earlier this month, which killed over twenty people. What is certain, however, is that Iran’s role in the country, both as influencer and mediator, is increasingly being threatened.
The demonstrations, which consolidated into their current form in early October, were mainly a protest against the country’s endemic corruption and high unemployment rate, especially among graduates. Despite Iraq’s possessing the fourth-largest oil reserves in the world, around a quarter of Iraqis live on less than a dollar a day, and youth unemployment stands at between fifteen and seventeen per cent; Transparency International names it the twelfth worst country on its 2018 corruption perception index. These protests are a continuation of the July 2018 protests in Basra and other southern and central provinces, and have been spurred by grievances over corruption and poor public services. However, the movement has expanded in 2019 to include Baghdad.
Significantly, the 2018 and 2019 protests both have been mainly comprised of Iraqi Shi'a, who, despite being the majority in the country, had been marginalised during Saddam Hussein’s reign, but whose influence increased in 2005, during the US occupation. Previous popular protests, especially in 2013 and 2014, had largely comprised of disillusioned Sunnis, and thus were more easily dismissed by the new (Shi'a) political elite. They were also mainly restricted to majority Sunni provinces such as Anbar and Ramadi; the perceived sectarian composition meant that they did not seriously threaten the survival of the regime.
The Abdul Mahdi administration had acknowledged the legitimacy of protesters’ demands, and had resolved to enact electoral reform. However, as with its response in 2018, the government simultaneously attempted to violently quell demonstrations, killing over 400 and injuring around 8000 since October, mostly in Baghdad and in southern provinces such as Nasiriyah. This inflamed tensions further, with many now seeking a full overhaul of the country’s political structure.
The situation has been worsened by attempts to instrumentalise the protests, especially by the influential cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, whose main support base is in the south, the epicentre of the protests, and who, in recent weeks, has dispatched armed personnel to protect protesters. Sadr had also previously advocated a general strike. Attempts to find a compromise between the different political blocs were bearing fruit in late October, following meetings between Sadr and the the Hashd Shaabi (Popular Mobilisation Forces) leader Hadi Al-Ameri. However, Iranian mediation stunted the effort. An agreement was concluded by most of the blocs, including Sadr’s, with Tehran’s mediation to protect Abdul Mahdi and to stall the protests, but protester anger rendered this impossible to implement. Protesters have since become more vociferously against Iran’s role in the country, and Iranian consular buildings were attacked in Najaf and Karbala in November.
Iraqi politics is largely dominated by blocs of veteran politicians, many with links to Iran or its clerical establishment. A 2005 Constitution divides power among Sunnis, Shi'as and Kurds. The 2018 parliamentary election saw no political bloc gain a majority. Sadr’s influence was, however, enhanced; his party received the highest number of seats but had to rule in coalition with the Hashd al-Shaabi, in a deal brokered by Iran. The established blocs, including Sadr’s, benefit from the current political configuration, hence. That is why, though Sadr and Ameri first agreed on the need for Abdul Mahdi’s resignation, they later closed ranks behind him following the Iranian mediation.
Protester demands were given a boost in November after receiving direct support from the country’s most influential cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, whose criticisms of the government’s will to implement reforms was the main factor influencing Abdul Mahdi’s eventual resignation. Sistani has also been increasingly critical of Iran’s role in Iraq, and he has asserted that the formation of an Iraqi government had to be accomplished between Iraqis without outside meddling. Sistani’s support has provided further legitimacy for the protests, widening their appeal and dividing the Hashd, many of whom now support the protests, after Sistani’s criticisms of the government, while other Hashd groups take their cue from Iran. Sistani does not usually comment on party political matters, and is revered by most political actors in the country. His occasional political calls usually get implemented, such as his call for early elections in 2003, for the removal of Nuri al-Maliki in 2014, and for the taking up of arms against the Islamic State group, which resulted in the formation of the Hashd, were all largely implemented.
Tensions are boiling over, with suspicion intensifying in the protest camps. This has not been helped by the current stalemate between the government and protesters and is engendering a power vacuum, which can easily be exploited by different actors. Two attacks on 7 December on protesters camped on the Sinak bridge in Baghdad (which killed over twenty), and on Sadr’s home in Najaf, add to the potential for protests to become militarised, especially since Sadr’s supporters possess arms and the Iraqi military is in flux, after Abdul Mahdi’s resignation. Some have accused Sadr of being involved in the attack, but this is unlikely, since his supporters were helping secure the bridge and the drone attack was aimed at him. It is thus more likely that the attacks, especially on Sadr’s residence, were instigated by one of the Hashd groups opposed to the protests.
Following Abdul Mahdi’s resignation, the country has until 16 December to nominate a new candidate for prime minister, but the events of the past few weeks have impeded the impetus and abilities for the different actors to find a consensus, even though this failure will likely weaken their positions. No names have been put forward to replace Abdul Mahdi, with Sadr’s bloc, Sairoon, insisting that a new prime minister be chosen by the anti-government protesters, and that no previous minister or anyone that might be rejected by the protesters is a suitable candidate. Protesters have already been circulating their own lists for who should succeed Abdul Mahdi. Sistani, meanwhile, issued his own statement on 20 December, calling for immediate elections. The prime minister’s resignation has left a power vacuum and limited accountability, especially since the Abdul Mahdi government can only act in a ‘caretaker’ role for the next thirty days, curtailing both its powers and longevity to see any process through.
Sistani supports the UN Assistance mission in Iraq’s (UNAMI) November road map, which calls for constitutional change, electoral reform, the release of protesters, job creation and investigations into the deaths of protesters. It is probably the only means of exiting the current impasse. However, its implementation will weaken the powers of the entrenched political blocs, and the likelihood oof its success is therefore limited. Iran’s failure to mediate, like it did in 2018 with Abdul Mahdi’s appointment, might suggest its diminishing influence in Iraq; Sistani’s vailed criticisms of Iran could further weaken Tehran’s position, which remains strong.
By Larbi Sadiki
On 13 October, the election of retired constitutional law professor, Kais Saied, as Tunisia’s new president triggered a wide array of reactions and energised hopes for a promising Arab democracy. During his campaign as a low-profile candidate with no established political affiliation, he asserted, ‘I am independent and will remain so until the end of my life.’ Some analysts paid close attention to the inverse relationship between, on the one hand, the presumed ‘effectiveness’ of political institutions and parties and, on the other, citizen participation. Saied’s victory implies several ironies in a country that was the cradle of the 2011 MENA uprisings and from where four civil society organisations were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2015.
Saied’s status as a new political rock star in both Tunisian and Arab contexts has nurtured optimism for the second wave of Arab democratisation in the new millennium. In his acceptance speech, he thanked his young supporters ‘for turning a new page’ and vowed to try to build a ‘new Tunisia.’ According to the Sigma polling institute, about 90 per cent of voters between 18-25 years-old voted for Saied, compared with 49.2 per cent of voters over the age of 60.Nearly nine years after the 2011 uprising, the revolutionary ethos appears alive and well in Tunisia. Voters issued a strong rejoinder to establishment politicians and parties, reminding observers and the political elite alike that freedom, dignity and social justice remain unfulfilled aims. The 2019 presidential race was marred by accusations of corruption, incarceration of a front-runner candidate, the return of some ancien regime figures and expectations of voter apathy.
In this article, I examine the unfolding of Tunisia’s democratic transition with special reference to the 2019 presidential – and, to a lesser extent, parliamentary – elections. I begin with an overview of the crowded presidential field, which narrowed in the second round to a contest between newcomers, Nabil Karoui and Saied. Proceeding to a critical assessment of the salient features of this election season, I then examine the predicament of Ennahda. Finally, I look ahead to the political and economic challenges facing Saied, a newcomer with no political experience, no political party to serve as the legislative counterpart to his agenda and an enthusiastic youth cohort that has re-entered formal politics with a relish.
This significance of the 2019 election goes beyond Huntington’s measure of consolidated democracy where two peaceful transfers of power occur,a measure that Ennahda’s leader, Rached Ghannouchi, seems to have accepted in celebrating these elections as Tunisia’s democratic ‘graduation.’ More important, perhaps, is the remarkable smoothness of the early elections, brought on by the death of the former president Beji Caid Essebsi. The Independent High Authority for Elections (ISIE), the national elections commission headed by Nabil Bafoon, deserves much of the credit for the quality of the elections. ISIE re-scheduled both the presidential and parliamentary polls and even delayed the presidential runoff to ensure that Karoui would be released from prison before it took place on 13 October – another first for the Arab world. Arab commentators have been effusive in their admiration of Tunisia’s presidential-parliamentary-presidential election trilogy over the past few weeks, not least for its outcome that seems to have revived the revolutionary ethos and a faith in change-inducing democracy itself.The moment of excitement may, however, be short-lived. Soon, the realities of governance will set in: a fragmented parliament that requires cobbling together some sort of coalition, possible legal challenges from Karoui’s team and the daunting economic challenges that spurred this ‘protest vote’ in the first place. Yet, Tunisians have impressed once again.
The race begins in a crowded field
A brief comparative look is in order. Voter turnout was higher than expected at 55 per cent, but lower than the 60.1 per cent turnout of the second round of the 2014 presidential elections. Saied’s vote share of 72.71 per cent, compared to Karoui’s 27.3 per cent, is as close to a ‘landslide’ result as possible. His majority surpassed Essebsi’s 55.68 per cent vote share five years earlier, when Moncef Marzouki’s garnered 44.32 per cent of the votes in 2014.
In a fragmented field of twenty-six, but later trimmed to twenty-four, candidates, the 2019 presidential race attracted the influence of money and the attendant drama. Football mogul Slim Riahi, owner of Club Africain, was dogged by questions over the source of his wealth and he dropped out of the race on the eve of the first round. From the outset, the wealthy Karoui proved serious competition for both Youssef Chahed, the incumbent prime minister since 2016, and even Ennahda, thanks to his charity work with the marginalised in the country’s interior regions. Karoui, whose candidacy would have been denied under the modified election law that Esebssi failed to sign before his death, was in custody on charges of tax evasion and money laundering from 23 August until two days before the runoff on 13 October.
In a democratising political system where judicial independence is yet to be entrenched, Chahed sounded disingenuous in his insistence that Karoui’s arrest, which was duly condemned by fellow candidates, was not politically motivated. During the parliamentary campaign and into the second round of the presidential race, all candidates except Chahed called for Karoui’s release, seeking a more even-handed race. Repeating the claim that he was ‘not in a race against anybody,’ Saied put his money where his mouth was and, in solidarity with Karoui, suspended campaigning during the last week.
Abir Moussi performed poorly in the first round of the presidential race, securing less than 5 per cent of the vote. Yet, as leader of the Free Dustour party, she made a dent on the election scene. Moussi considers ‘revolution’ a misnomer for the transformation set in motion in 2011 and unabashedly hearkens back to the days of ousted dictator, Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Moussi’s well-worn habit of attacking Islamists – referring to Ennahda only as ‘al-Ikhwan’ – as a putative threat to democracy and the Tunisian way of life was not her only campaign issue. She adopted the language of development and responsiveness to citizens’ needs as indicative of the failures by ruling parties, elites and the larger post-2011 ‘rotten’ politics. Her affiliations to Ben Ali and anti-revolution stances may have deterred most Tunisians, but not all; her party won seventeen parliamentary seats. Moussi is sure to be a dogged naysayer, a persistent challenger to whatever coalition is hammered out.
Another political newcomer to the presidential race was Saifeddine Makhlouf, spokesperson for Etilak al-Karamah (Dignity Coalition), representing former post-2011 parties, such as Justice and Development and al-Mu'tamar (Congress), and independents, including bloggers and academics. Despite his seeming overconfidence, Makhlouf failed to advance to the runoff. An attorney, he was something of a lightning-rod figure, deemed ultra-conservative by even Tunisian Islamists. He ran on a platform of representing the ‘thawrah damir’ (revolution consciousness) of the country to reclaim Tunisian dignity from the creeping security tentacles of the state and reclaim Tunisian sovereignty from interference by outsiders. Perhaps too argumentative for a presidential personality in an increasingly fragmented country, Makhlouf demanded an official apology from France for colonialism and continuing postcolonial exploitation in natural resource contracts and visa requirements into France or the EU. Despite his failed presidential bid, he remains an important figure on the political scene, as Etilaf al-Karamah nabbed twenty-one seats in the parliamentary election.
As the post-2011 Minster of Defence and former Minister of Health under Ben Ali, Abdelkarim Zbidi might have been closest to the West’s preferred candidate for leadership in Tunisia. He would have stood between the Islamists and key ministries, overseeing the intelligence and security portfolios in consultation with Western military and political elites. Yet Zbidi did not go far, emerging fourth with less than 10 per cent of the vote.
Chahed, running on a ‘pragmatic’ anti-corruption platform and paying lip service to the untapped potential of the country’s largely-unemployed and restive youth, insisted that he would renegotiate Tunisia’s agreements with the EU. He also promised to give up his French citizenship, per the constitutional requirement for presidential contenders, surprising many Tunisians who were unaware of his dual citizenship. Nevertheless, over the past three years, he has administered Tunisia’s US$2.9 billion loan from the IMF, with austerity strings attached. His unpopular policies sparked recurring protests in the capital as well as the country’s west and south. Construction workers and doctors were the latest groups to threaten strike action. Chahed’s record did not inspire confidence among voters that he would reverse Tunisia’s descent into economic dependency or limit profiteering by foreign corporations at the expense of local economic gains. His constant spouting of numbers – hundreds of thousands of families receiving aid from the state and a GDP growth rate inching towards 3 per cent – did not mask the unemployment rate of over 15 per cent (more than double the rate in some governorates and among youth), skyrocketing prices and public debt soaring to over 70 per cent.
While Chahed failed miserably in his presidential bid, his Tahya Tounes party surprised many by winning a substantial fifteen parliamentary seats. Whether or not Chahed joins the Ennahda-led coalition remains to be seen, but his ambition does not appear to have been dampened. Chahed even had the gall to comment on Saied’s win as proof that Tunisians are sick of ‘corruption,’ his own campaign issue that landed Karoui in jail. Chahed does not seem to recognise that he was the head of the very government that Tunisians voted against.
Candidates under the spotlight
The Tunisian media’s role in voter education and providing dispassionate and ‘neutral’ information left much to be desired. The media has undoubtedly benefitted from privatisation and decreased concentration of ownership and proliferation,but the notion of ‘authoritarian resilience’is not far-fetched when considering the congruence, or lack thereof, between media development and democratic transition. Major television networks – including Nessma TV, belonging to billionaire and presidential contender Karoui; Hannibal TV, formerly owned by businessman Larbi Nasra, an independent presidential candidate; and especially Zaytouna TV – tended to side with the Islamist Ennahda Party. The polarising role of media continued in the 2019 elections, in both presidential and parliamentary elections, with candidates planning their appearances accordingly. Nessma TV’s media ‘voice’ was unsurprisingly partisan. It maintained clear solidarity with its owner, Karoui, after his arrest, including frequent appearances by his wife, Salwa Smaoui.
However, in line with directives by the High National Independent Authority on Audio-Visual Communication, television and radio stations alike offered equal media time to presidential candidates through the 2019 election season. This included not just television stations such as Al-Tasi'ah and Al-Tunissia, but also radio stations such as MozaiqueFM, ShamsFM and others, which took turns hosting the different candidates and extended invitations to Karoui’s campaign when the Nessma owner was in jail. The country’s youth, however, swiftly mobilised to decry instances of one-sided television coverage. For example, when Al-Hiwar al Tounsi aired fierce attacks on Saied, it prompted a social media campaign where one million people un-subscribed from the channel’s Facebook page.
The media highlight has been the presidential debates,when millions of Tunisians tuned in. During the first round, the debates were broadcast three nights in a row (7-9 September) to provide an opportunity to all twenty-six candidates.Questions to candidates addressed security, national defence, foreign policy, as well as a range of other ‘public issues,’ from gender equality to economic woes facing citizens. The series of televised debates, a first for the Arab world, provided a welcome opportunity for voters and other Arab observers to view up-close the respective personas of the presidential hopefuls. This ‘test’ of candidates’ improvisational skills, including the ability to construct pithy responses in ninety seconds, was a chance for them to declare their stances on various political issues, including some controversial topics, such as relations with Syria or the EU and inheritance laws.
Other issues and positions, such as ‘economic diplomacy’ and the imperatives of regional development, revealed more commonalities than differences between the candidates. The hosting duos for each debate – a man and a woman from the public and private media sectors – competently ensured that candidates followed the rules, stuck to the allotted time and engaged – more or less – in respectful, if not particularly incisive, dialogue. In the second debate, a case of ‘cheating’ by two candidates who brought in forbidden supplementary materials – a notebook and a phone – did not upset the equanimity and seriousness of this novel deliberative platform.
The final debate between the recently-released Karoui and Saied may or may not have been a decisive factor, assuring the latter’s landslide victory less than two days later. In the final showdown between the last two presidential hopefuls, the moderators’ questions could have been more hard-hitting, instead of recycling questions from the first round of debates. For instance, they could have asked pointedly how each of the candidates could bring Tunisians together in a highly polarised political climate with no clear winner after the parliamentary elections. It would have been the opportunity to press candidates on the gap between their ambitious pledges – Saied’s ‘empowering the people’ and Karoui’s ‘caring for the poor’ – and the narrow constitutional powers of the president. Still, the debates were a positive step toward the constructive public deliberation that complements formal institutional processes in a democracy. Democratic learning is ongoing; the performance of both moderators and candidates will likely improve with time.
The debate did, however, bring to the fore differences between the two personalities and some of their policy inclinations. It left a perhaps indelible impression of an eloquent, commanding and honest Saied sparring with a soft-spoken and relatively inarticulate Karoui. Failing to convince in his denial of hiring a public relations firm run by an ex-Israeli intelligence officer, Karoui waffled on the question of normalising relations with Israel.
The 2019 elections sustained the continual change of the political party landscape that began five years earlier. In the 2014 elections, the bulk of the political parties or alliances that contested the 2011 National Constituent Assembly election dissolved. Unsurprisingly, in 2019, the voting public took the two largest parties, Ennahda and Nidaa, to task for their ‘consensus’ coalition. Throughout the 2019 campaigns, the two parties played the blame game for the failures of the tawaafuq (consensus government) in dealing with chronic unemployment and underdevelopment.
Only Ennahda withstood the meltdowns of the post-2011 parties. Still, it not only failed to advance its candidate to the second round of the presidential poll, but its clout has also been largely diminished in the parliamentary elections. Nidaa Tounes has been buried with its founder Essebsi and its members have dispersed into a number of spin-off parties including Chahed’s Tahya Tounes. The remnants of the Tunisian left, including Hammami’s Popular Front, have been all but scattered to the wind. This may be a post-ideological moment, albeit dizzying in its fragmented uncertainty.
Moneyed elites are not unique to the Arab Middle East; they influence politics globally.Like Riahi in the 2014 elections, Karoui had a finger in every pie in 2019. The presidential election was only one front, as his new Qalb Tounes party came second in the parliamentary elections, winning thirty-nine seats. The nexus of politics and wealth in party formation is a phenomenon deserving of systematic study. This ‘gentrification’ of politics in Tunisia has come under close scrutiny and critics argue it could undermine the country’s transition.Public disaffection with political parties in general may explain the rise of independent candidates, whose share of the vote in the municipal elections of 2018 rose markedly.The 2019 elections cemented this trend and yet, the tycoons who have run for the presidency since 2011 have not succeeded so far. Perhaps buying votes does not work.
Karoui embraced the cheeky moniker ‘Makrona’ (pasta) during his post-defeat press conference. Defiant, he noted that his opponents’ use of the label to poke fun at him and his party left him unfazed: Qalb Tounes cared about the poor and Tunisia would be a much better place if everyone received a plate of macaroni, he insisted.But voters in the second round disagreed, pointedly turned away from big money and the stench of corruption – whether for the campaign or vote buying. Instead, Tunisians opted for a candidate who spent no money campaigning, rewarding Saied with nearly three times as many votes as Karoui, who owned a television channel and spent three years working with the poor as a springboard for his presidential bid. What does that say about oligarchy and democracy?Perhaps newly-democratised developing countries are not necessarily doomed to choose the Berlusconis or Trumps of this world.
The Islamist Ennahda party can rightfully claim an instrumental role in Tunisia’s post-revolutionary transition. It relinquished power once the constitution was adopted by the National Constituent Assembly in January 2014 and again in October 2014. The moderate Islamist party displayed a rare willingness to concede defeat, which bodes well for the future of democratic transition in Tunisia.It is through the repetition of these exercises of consolidation, self-enforcing rules of competition and compliance that democracy is gradually constructed. Thereafter, five years of Ennahda’s tawafuq (consensus) agreement with former rival Nidaa, hailed by so many including Western onlookers, may have ensured some modicum of stability within government. But to what end? As it governed alongside Essebsi’s party under Chahed, Ennahda failed to rise to severe policy challenges, particularly the dire economic situation. Its convergence with – or capitulation to – Nidaa on such issues as the so-called Reconciliation Law,austerity measures and tax hikes incited public dissatisfaction, protests and campaigns, such as ‘Manish Msameh’ (I am not forgiving).
For the country’s most organised political party, known for its fixed support base usually estimated at about 35 per cent of the voting public, Abdelfattah Mourou’s failure to advance in the elections should come as a piercing wake-up call. The outcome forces difficult questions about voting discipline within Ennahda. The myth of a united and coherent movement-party has been shattered. Endorsing Kais Saied in the second round, Ennahda soon jumped back on the ‘revolutionary’ bandwagon as it campaigned for parliamentary seats. The party’s fifty-two seats in parliament, down from sixty-nine in 2014, only confirmed Tunisians’ sinking faith in Ennahda. While it has the biggest share of seats, Ennahda is nowhere close to forming a government.
The party’s leadership should take this electoral beating as an opportunity for deep soul-searching. After Mourou’s loss, Ennahda’s founding duo should have seized the moment to hold themselves accountable to the party’s members, its base and all of Tunisia. They did not. Instead, Ghannouchi sought to make up for years of empty ‘consensus politics’ by invoking regional inequality, economic development and the unemployment crisis in two weeks of parliamentary campaigning. But the Tunisian public appears to have recognised the difference between delayed rhetoric and actual policy-making, punishing Ennahda and the rest of the political establishment at the polls. Ennahda, like Nidaa and the other post-revolutionary parties that preceded it, was saved from being completely buried by its relatively stable support base over the last eight years. This support base is now a much-diminished political force. This phenomenon is both fragmentary and, concomitantly, a pluralising dynamic. Nonetheless, for the Islamists, much reflection is in order.
What has Ennahda offered to Tunisians since helping to hammer out the constitution of the second republic, their crowning achievement, five years ago? When Ennahda joined hands with Essebsi and came up with its ‘consensus’ innovation, did the party downsize itself? Is Ennahda’s entire project a failure, sunk by the Tunisian electorate? Or, alternatively, were the tactical and strategic mistakes in a poorly administered ‘consensus’ due to two men and not their parties?Many predicted that this election season would allow Ghannouchi to make a graceful exit from politics, especially after Mourou failed to advance to the second round of the presidential. Handing over the party’s leadership to the younger generation is long overdue.
Yet the Shaykh appears to have ignored dissenting voices within Ennahda and, more broadly, the larger Tunisian population. The possibility of Ghannouchi as Prime Minister – if one goes by the rumour mill – seems to be a dubious political arrangement when Ennahda is in the throes of an existential crisis. For five years it was neither a majority nor opposition party and since 2016, it has distanced itself from political Islam. Eight years after the revolution, who and what is Ennahda? The next five years will be full of trial and error. With no formal political experience, Ghannouchi’s rumoured venture into the premiership will be deleterious not only to the country, but also to his own political legacy-in-the-making.
The puzzle of Kais Saied
The result of 2019 presidential election has raised the youth’s hopes of reclaiming a margin of existence and a space for rekindling the memes of the 2011 revolution, namely, ‘the people want.’ All eyes are now focused on how the youth’s chosen saviour, ‘KS,’ will translate this slogan into freedom, dignity and, above all else, jobs. The country’s youth have made an about-turn from their political apathy documented in the years since the revolution.Young people have proven that they not only protest and work in civil society, but they also vote. Exit polls estimate that 90 per cent of eligible 18-35 year-olds and 83.3 per cent of 26-44 year-olds cast their vote for Saied.For many youth, the choice was between decency, integrity, honesty (Saied) and corruption (Karoui). Saied inspired youth voluntarism, as well as formal political participation, getting the revolution back on track, by some accounts.
However, question remains as to how Saied’s victory is going to mark a ‘turning point’ when economic management does not constitutionally come under the purview of the president’s duties. Despite this election’s hype and the victory of a ‘clean’ and non-establishment figure, how will a president constitutionally restricted to matters of foreign affairs and security address his voters’ domestic and economic concerns? Saied’s task is further complicated by the future influence of the amorphous non-partisan youth movement (hirak) that aided his success in the runoff vote. The youth hirak rebelled not only against Ennahda, whose ‘defectors’ supported Saied, but also against the entire political establishment that has run the country since the National Constituent Assembly elections in October 2011. There is an element of a general protest movement against parties and leaders, who the voting public deem to have strayed from the principles of the uprisings. This public backlash not only explains the dramatic results during the 2019 elections, but the disintegration of entire establishment organisations – including from within the left, the biggest loser in these elections – in favour of unknown parties and candidates who could claim affinity with Tunisia’s ‘indignants.’
How has an unconventional populist,who makes up for his lack of political identity or anti-authoritarian struggle with fervent grassroots backing,won the presidential race? Saied defied conventional wisdom and focused on lingering problems that were ignored over the last eight years by inexperienced and power-hungry political forces and leaders. Saied’s candidacy was an outlet for people to vent their political disillusionment. His 72 per cent share of the vote is not an accurate political barometer. Instead, the first round results where Saied was allotted 18.4 per cent of the vote and Karoui 15.58 per cent, with Ennahda’s Mourou coming in third, offer a more accurate snapshot, as confirmed by the parliamentary elections where no party even approached a majority. Tunisia’s political mosaic is far from monism. Thus, Saied’s overwhelming majority should not be flagged as a test of his popularity. At judgement day, Tunisians handed down a sentence to the post-Ben Ali establishment, including Islamists. He was democratically elected as the polity finds itself at a kind of nadir. How someone without a party and without a political base finds himself in high office is a political puzzle that will be unfurling over the next five years.
Most striking about Saied is his ‘contre-pouvoir’, his anti-system sensibility. Saied was at his most fiery in the presidential debates discussing his attitude toward Israel, railing against the ‘high treason’ of dealing with the Zionist state – not Jews as such – that had ‘displaced [the] entire [Palestinian] people…many of whom remain in tents today.’In this exchange he was also at his most populist, sounding more ideological than presidential in proclaiming that war was the ‘normal’ state of affairs with Israel. It is one thing for celebrating crowds to shout ‘the people want a free Palestine!’, but the formal discourse of a presidential candidate should sound more sophisticated. Saied could have offered a more credible position through a juridical take on the ‘deal of century’ by stressing, for instance, a prioritisation of Palestinian interests in line with international law and UN Security Council Resolutions. While he purports to be the upholder and respecter-in-chief of sovereignty, his political lexicon remains wanting, a deficiency that some political experience and reflexivity may remedy.
Populist discourse invoking ‘general will’ is, however, anachronistic at best. Whose popular will? Over two hundred years of democratic theory and practice across the world has problematised a single, spontaneous iradah 'ammah. Why attempt to overhaul the country’s constitution that Tunisians deliberated on for four years, in pursuit of a new political system approximating direct democracy (‘from the local to the regional to the centre’), complete with recall mechanisms? The constitution itself sanctions and potentially empowers local and regional governance; the problem has not been simply a lack of implementation and political will, but also a dearth of public funds. Informal actors – activists, politically unaffiliated youth, unions, etc. – must be included in policy planning, especially in the realm of development.
Saied correctly argues that political – not just economic – marginalisation of youth is a glaring deficiency in a country whose political establishment has veered off the revolutionary track. Yet his promise to ‘empower the people,’ especially the youth, to ‘rise to the level of decision-making’ to implement their own will smacks of digression from real issues. He has offered very few concrete solutions to reviving the ailing economy. Talk of a greater ‘social role’ for the state, echoing the spirit of the 1960s. may sound appealing, but that was nearly six decades ago, before Habib Bourguiba’s turn to liberalisation, before the IMF was breathing down Tunisia’s neck demanding greater austerity and fiscal discipline, before unemployment reached over 30 per cent in some regions and before the return of harqa (illegal boat migration) as a dystopian dream for hopeless youth. While Tunisian elites struggle to solve unrelenting problems, the solution already exists in the country’s political repertoire, identified by Bourguiba himself: al-tanmiyah al-jihawiayyah (regional development). There is no need to reinvent the wheel, merely to offer leadership on creative yet feasible solutions.
The political challenges and economic woes facing Saied are daunting,but fragmentation need not be a death-sentence; it can be productive. Sustainable democratisation feeds on pluralism and it is far preferable to party hegemony. Diversified governance means more partners, more ideas and dispersed responsibility and power. If Ennahda loses more seats in the next parliamentary election, that may bode well for Tunisia’s sustainable democratisation. Tunisia’s consistent electoral contests have been turned into tests of democratic consolidation and learning processes. Through these processes, the Maghrebi country is progressively building civic capital and its young people are engaged in democratic learning. As a resource-poor country, Tunisia can capitalise on its fledgling democracyto become an Arab leader in developing holistic policies that promote sustainable democracy in line with both global and regional standards.Its incipient entry into the international ‘democratic club’ is a golden opportunity to cultivate diplomatic, economic and even cultural relations with other democratic countries. Such confidence and capacity building will allow Tunisia to shine in international organisations, including but not limited to its temporary seat on the UN Security Council in 2020, to become a highly respected global citizen amongst the community of nations.
Thorny foreign policy issues face the incoming president. How will Saied’s populism face real-world problems, such as the country’s bases being used for US military operations with little to no information-sharing with the Tunisian government, let alone oversight?Will Tunisia, a defender of international sovereignty, continue counter-terrorism cooperation with the US while these operations are kept secret for its undoubted unpopularity among the public?Importantly, it remains to be seen whether Tunisia’s democratisation will translate into inclusive economic growth and regional development. For sustainable democratisation to be converted into a resource, the newly elected leaders must prioritise policies and programmes geared towards the welfare of all citizens.
After making good on his promise to visit Algeria, Saied should also travel to neighbouring Morocco. Islamists, including Ennahda, have often flocked to Paris and Washington on official visits. For inspiration, Saied can break this mould and make trips to fellow small states, including Singapore, which has an impressive record in developing a knowledge economy,and Costa Rica,which has enjoyed more than six decades of democracy, despite its relative poverty.Like Tunisia, these countries are resource-poor but rich in human capital and have become success stories in refashioning their politics to provide for their people.
Improving the welfare of citizens may be the solution for increasing economic productivity, which is badly needed for enhancing well-being, eradicating marginalisation, alleviating poverty and creating jobs.If the new leadership fail to capitalise on this opportunity, it would render sustainable democratisation a form of ‘resource curse’ for Tunisia: a country endowed with expanding civic capital and democratic learning, but unable to make effective use of its democratic resources.
Over the last eight years, elected governments and parliaments in Tunisia have laboured under the duress of corruption, low rates of economic growth, a devalued Dinar, polarisation, high unemployment and public debt soaring to over 70 per cent, including a dependence on international lenders.Democracy may not reverse corruption fully, but it furnishes the legal means of combatting it. It may not be a panacea for all ills, but it builds the civic and democratic capital needed for unleashing initiatives consistent with improved social and distributive justice, regional development and a wider scope for economic growth.
Conclusion: Democratic learning in challenging times
In 2019, as in 2014, the main democratic breakthrough has been the consolidation of free elections as the foundation for a constitutional, orderly, non-violent, periodic and rule-based alternation of power. The practice, regardless of who emerged victorious in the landmark election, is key to democratic learning.Ennahda and Nidaa Tounes set the scene for a process of electoral ‘habituation’ for minor political parties’ alliances and their followers. The skills required to generate information, partisan propaganda, campaigning, media management and connecting with the public are all newly-acquired and were on full display during the 2014 and 2019 elections. That Tunisian political parties and elites, both new and old, play by the rules of the democratic game is a strong indication of a level of ‘civic’ maturity allowing for electoral rules to be enforceable. Across a wide body of democratic theory, compliance with electoral rules and results is integral to the understanding of democracy and democratisation.In 2019, voting has become routinised political practice, even if only among 55 per cent of eligible voters. The revolution has struck back, but through the ballot box.
* Larbi Sadiki teaches international affairs at Qatar University. He is author of Rethinking Arab Democratizationand editor of the Routledge Handbook of the Arab Spring.His forthcoming book is The Routledge Handbook of Middle East Politics: Interdisciplinary Inscriptions.
* This article was first published by Al Jazeera Centre for Studies
By Ramzy Baroud
On 16 September, I visited South Africa, a country where many Palestinians have always felt welcomed, if not overwhelmed by the degree of genuine and meaningful solidarity. While having the honour to address many audiences in six major cities, I have also learned a great deal. An important and sobering lesson is that while apartheid laws can be dismissed in a day, economic apartheid and massive inequality can linger on for many years. Thanks to my interactions with many South African intellectuals, activists and ordinary folk, I learned not to romanticise the South African struggle, a crucial lesson for those of us fighting to end Israeli apartheid in Palestine.
My hosts at the Afro-Middle East Centre ensured that I met with diverse audiences, including top members of the African National Congress, the leadership of the country’s two major trade union federations, anti-apartheid scholars and activists, and a large number of students and other people throughout the country.
The main, obvious, conclusion from all these meetings and interactions is that South Africans are serious about their solidarity with Palestine, and that they see themselves as partners in the Palestinian struggle for justice and peace. While South Africans are always ready to take their solidarity with Palestine to a whole new level, however, there is a general feeling that decisive political moves can prove costly for South Africa.
True, the South African government has taken several steps in the right direction. On 14 May 2018, Pretoria recalled its ambassador to Israel, Sisa Ngombane, to protest the killing of hundreds of unarmed protesters taking part in the Great March of Return in besieged Gaza. On 5 April 2019, it began to actively downgrade its ties with Israel, in response to a call made by the ANC conference in December 2017.
While these steps are significant, South Africa is yet to take the kind of action that, when combined with others measures of international solidarity, could finally force Israel to dismantle its system of Apartheid in Palestine. The problem is not the lack of willingness nor that of diplomatic doublespeak. There is a growing, and justifiable, sense that Arab governments no longer see the liberation of Palestine as a common objective. While the Arab peoples remain committed in their support of Palestinians, Arab governments have fallen into warring camps and political divisions.
Yet, a top ANC leader told me that South Africa’s policy regarding Palestine is guided by the agendas of the Arab League and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). Sadly, neither the Arab League nor the PLO are serving the roles they were entrusted with decades ago. The former is mired in divisions, and the latter has been effectively replaced by the provisional, factional Palestinian Authority in Ramallah. Using ineffectual organizations as a legal and moral frame of reference is hurting South Africa’s chances of converting its solidarity with Palestine into tangible political assets.
The other dilemma is that the African continent itself is no longer united regarding Palestine. Israel has successively driven a wedge between African countries, which, at one point, were united in their unconditional support of the Palestinian struggle against Israeli military occupation and Apartheid.
Israel’s successes in Africa, especially through the penetration of the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), have made Tel Aviv a political player on the African continent. Boosted by the welcome he received from various African leaders, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu had hoped to hold the ‘Israel-Africa Summit’ in October 2017. Thanks to the efforts of African countries like South Africa and Algeria, the conference was postponed indefinitely.
If Israel continues to score political victories while facing little resistance, however, it will eventually dominate the African continent. The absurdity of this goes beyond the struggle in Palestine. A continent that was ravaged by colonialism, racism and apartheid should not embrace the likes of Israel, the exemplification of the very ills that have cost Africa so dearly for hundreds of years.
In fact, the issue of solidarity with Palestine and the pressing need to block Israel’s scourges in Africa are intrinsically linked. In this very link, South Africa can find a way to reclaim its natural role as a vanguard against racism and apartheid everywhere.
My suggestion to the ANC was that South Africa should update its frame of reference, moving away from tired clichés of a defunct, two-state solution and such, to a whole new way of thinking. And it should not go about doing it alone; all of Africa and all Palestinians should be part of this effort.
I strongly believe that South Africa is ready to counter Israel’s efforts on the continent by initiating an Africa-Palestine Conference, a major gathering that aims to harness all the solidarity for the Palestinian people throughout all African countries. Whether such a conference is held under the auspices of the African Union (AU) or independently by a single member state (or even a political party), the gathering of like-minded African and Palestinian leaders, parliamentarians, scholars and civil society leaders can develop a new frame of reference, which South Africa, the African continent, and, in fact, the rest of the world can use as a guiding principle of new thinking on Palestine. Based on the call made by Palestinian civil society in 2005 to boycott, divest from and sanction Israel, the Palestinian people have been demanding and expecting this new thinking for at least fifteen years.
Those who might find the idea that Africa can lead the way on forming a new, global understanding on Palestine far-fetched need to remember that it was the Organization of African Unity’s resolution 77 (XII) of August 1975 that recognised and condemned the ‘organic link’ between ‘the racist regime in occupied Palestine and the racist regime in Zimbabwe and South Africa’. That very resolution served as a major frame of reference used in UN Resolution 3379 of November 1975, which determined that ‘Zionism is a form of racism and racial discrimination’.
Africa must reclaim its position as a global leader in the fight against racism and apartheid, and South Africa is very qualified to spearhead these efforts, because, after all, as iconic South African leader Nelson Mandela once said, ‘We all know too well that our freedom is incomplete without the freedom of the Palestinians.’
*Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of The Palestine Chronicle. His most recent book is The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story, and his forthcoming book is These Chains Will Be Broken: Palestinian Stories of Struggle and Defiance in Israeli Prisons. Baroud has a Ph.D. in Palestine Studies from the University of Exeter. In September 2019, he spent ten days in South Africa on a book tour hosted by the Afro-Middle East Centre
By Larbi Sadiki
The Tunisian presidential race is heating up. With several front-runners and twenty-six candidates, the upcoming early elections on 15 September reflects a great deal of party and ‘party family’ fragmentation. This article examines the travails and challenges of the north African country’s second democratic presidential elections since the 2011 revolution. The presidential race is unfolding more as a personal political contest rather than a clash between competing political visions for a country weighed down by steep unemployment, deep socio-political marginalisation and massive foreign debt in a conflict-ridden region.
Many parties, three political currents
These elections come at a time when Tunisia’s main political parties are embroiled in political strife. From incumbent Prime Minister Youcef Chahed’s departure from Nidaa Tounes – party of the late president, Beji Caid Essebsi – and the formation of his new Tahya Tounes party, to intensifying factionalism within the Ennahda party, internal divisions have expanded the field of candidates, including several independents, in a wildly dynamic polity.
The current political scene is a far cry from the 2014 race, which was dominated by the veteran politician Essebsi, who stood head and shoulders above the other candidates from within the state machinery. Meanwhile, the fuloul, ‘remnants’ of former president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali’s regime, were still shaken to the core by the 2011 revolution.
Over the last few weeks, the wide field of candidates have vied to win over voters from Tunisia’s main three political bases: The fulool or azlam of the former Tajammu’ and Destourians parties, made up of loyalists to Ben Ali’s regime, now claiming the legacy of Tunisia’s first president, Habib Bourguiba; Islamists; and left-leaning voters.
The struggle for influence over these three voting blocs has brought to the fore contradictions that may revitalise an increasingly politically apathetic Tunisian populace. Many Tunisians had hoped that the presidential campaign would produce some degree of party consensus, narrowing the field to one candidate per party ‘current’. In fact, the opposite has happened.
The candidates and campaign’s political melee
Ennahda’s candidate, Abdelfattah Mourou, will be challenged for the Islamist vote by an independent candidate, and former post-2011 prime minister, Hamadi Jebali. Boasting few political accomplishments, Moncef Marzouki, first president of the Second Republic who relied on Ennahda voters in his advance to the second round of the 2014 elections, may have exhausted his political capital. The so-called Destourian ‘family’ offers not only Chahed, but also former Minister of Defence and Ben Ali ally, Abdelkarim Zbidi, as well as ex-Nidaa member, Mohsen Marzouk. Other candidates, including lawyer Mohamed Abbou, unionist Abid Brikiand former communist Hamma Hammami, do not appear to be strong contenders.
The plethora of candidates induce a cacophony of claims, counter-claims and contradictions in the elections’ rhetoric. Parties are no longer a clear frame of reference for either political identities or programmes. While several candidates have promised to be a ‘president for all Tunisians,’ this pledge appears to be increasingly unrealistic within Tunisia’s polarised political climate. The 2014 constitution outlines the Presidency as a non-partisan role, but candidates are speaking in two tongues, at once seeking to win over their political bases and appealing to ‘all Tunisians.’ The result is a sort of discomfort with political identity and membership during this first round.
The elections attract the influence of money and the attendant drama. Football mogul Slim Riahi, owner of Club Africain, now with Nidaa, has been dogged by questions over the source of his wealth. The wealthy businessperson and owner of Nessma TV, Nabil Karoui, is serious electoral competition for both Chahed and, thanks to his charity work with marginalised people in the country’s interior regions, possibly Ennahda. Karoui, whose candidacy would have been denied under the modified election law that Essebsi failed to sign before his death, was arrested on 23 August, and remained in custody on charges of tax evasion and money laundering.
Yet Karoui, the leader of Qalb Tounes, remains in the race. In a democratising political system where judicial independence still leaves much to be desired, Chahed’s insistence that the arrest was not politically motivated has been unconvincing, especially as fellow candidates have expressed condemnation. Chahed is more or less using Karoui’s arrest to build steam for a failing anti-corruption ‘crusade.’
Then there is the Free Dustourian Party, led by Abir Moussi. Unabashedly hearkening back to the days of Ben Ali, she considers ‘revolution’ a misnomer for the political transformation set in motion in 2011. Moussi has made an entire campaign out of attacking Islamists, referring to Ennahda only as ‘al-Ikhwan’, a putative threat to democracy and the Tunisian way of life, vowing to chase them out of politics through restored presidential powers.
Abdelkarim Zbidi is perhaps the least eloquent candidate whose stumbling during interviews has drawn attention. Inept communication has not prevented the experienced government minister from becoming a frontrunner. Zbidi might be the West’s preferred leader in Tunisia, having overseen the Ministry of Defence and been privy to security operations. He could be labelled the quasi-American candidate, standing between the Islamists and key ministries, while overseeing the intelligence and security portfolios in close contact with Western military and political elites. In an affront to proponents of the 2014 constitution, who consider it to be a crowning achievement of the revolution, Zbidi has promised constitutional amendments to consolidate the powers of the presidency.
Zbidi, Mourou and Chahed have all attempted to channel Bourguiba, vowing to uphold Tunisia’s foreign policy ‘neutrality.’ Without fail, they rail against the ‘axis politics’ (siyasat al-mahawir) tearing the region asunder. What that means in practice remains unclear.
Absence of vision and substance
Equally vague is the well-worn promise to rejuvenate the country’s ‘economic diplomacy.’ Chahed, running on a ‘pragmatic’ platform of anti-corruption and paying lip service to the untapped potential of the country’s largely unemployed and restive youth, insists that he will renegotiate Tunisia’s agreements with the EU. (He recently renounced his French citizenship, per the constitutional mandate for presidential contenders, surprising many Tunisians who were unaware of his dual-citizenship.) Despite Chahed’s attempts to model himself after Bourguiba-era prime minister Hadi Noueira, he has over the last three years administered Tunisia’s US$2.9 billion loan from the International Monetary Fund (IMF), with austerity strings attached. His unpopular policies have sparked recurring protests in the capital, as well as the country’s west and south. Construction workers and doctors are the latest groups to threaten an impending strike.
The prime minister’s record does not inspire confidence that he will reverse Tunisia’s descent into economic dependency or limit profiteering by foreign corporations at the expense of local economic gains. His constant spouting of numbers – hundreds of thousands of families receiving aid from the state and a GDP growth rate slowly inching toward 3 per cent – does not mask an unemployment rate of over 15 per cent (more than double the rate in some governorates), skyrocketing prices and public debt soaring to over 70 per cent. Tunisia’s exacerbating socioeconomic marginalisation has prompted many ‘revolutionaries’ of 2011 to opt out of formal politics altogether.
Islamists for presidential elections, not for presidency
Unlike the 2014 elections, the Islamists have thrown their hat into the presidential ring. Notably, their candidate is not party leader Rached Ghannouchi, but co-founder of the Ennahda movement and Vice President of Parliament Abdelfattah Mourou. According to their election slogan, Mourou is ‘the best Ennahda has to offer’ and, given the party’s base of 500 000 supporters, could conceivable advance to round two.
But for those drawing inevitable comparisons with Egypt in 2012, some important differences emerge. Mourou is not a candidate to win the presidential elections. Landing the presidency would be a real predicament for Tunisian democracy and Ennahda itself, which could sweep the board in the November parliamentary elections. Democratisation will buckle under a concentration of power. Here lies the secret of the durability of the Tunisian experiment: it continually produces and reproduces some form of political equilibrium and balance. This balance prevents any one political force from prevailing and continues to be Tunisia’s most important political specificity: the state will be shared as a function of political partnership, in a model close to consociational democracy. There are winners all around, but no losers – almost.
Perhaps Ennahda has reached political maturity as it competes for the presidency, with an eye on the bartering to come (muqayadah)? Short of winning, a strong and competitive presidential candidate will give Ennahda an edge in the wheeling and dealing of the second round, moderating the tempo of democracy to distribute patronage within the Tunisian political system.
By staying true to his word to avoid the presidential race, Ghannouchi can enjoy the status of the sole political elder after Essebsi. That would be a better position, lofty and distant from the travails of the most difficult post in Tunisia politics – that is, if he stays out of the next Parliamentary race for prime minister too.
Since the revolution in 2011, Tunisian premiers have left behind carcasses of battered heads of government. With varying degrees of success, all have failed to deliver the promised goods of development and political stability. Ghannouchi has never tried his hand in civil service or government posts. A late-comer to executive politics at a time of political strife, he would face socioeconomic challenges that would swiftly end his career on a low note. A better outcome for Tunisia’s democratisation would see Ghannouchi as a seasoned interlocutor politician, a moderator who may be needed to negotiate bargains to keep an entire country and democratic experiment on track.
Beyond the election ‘fetish’
All candidates for the presidency need to transcend the election fetish of using Tunisia’s fledgling and durable democratic process into a personality contest. Politicians need to find shared spaces to work together and collectively contribute to democratic and social success, as well as knowledge transfer. Even if Tunisia is democratic, it remains a poor country. It needs more than periodic elections and none of the candidates have offered convincing attempts to address this pressing issue. How can the candidates harness the abundant human capital and knowledge in the country to take advantage of the democratic moment?
Those looking for a leader to rekindle Tunisia’s revolutionary flame and its twin aims of huriyyah and karamah will be hard-pressed to find them among this year’s line-up. Instead, candidates clamour to prove their ‘stability’ credentials, such as Mourou’s claim that he will be the ‘affectionate father’ for Tunisians or Zbidi’s emphasis on strong states, which he extends so far as to pledge restoring full diplomatic ties with Damascus. Are we back to the all-too-familiar political discourse of patrimonialism? Whether or not such discourses still resonate with a divided public is for Tunisians to decide, as they interpret the outcome of the country’s televised presidential debates, a first in Tunisia and the Arab world, before casting their ballots on 15 September.
For the first time in Tunisian history, will we see a ‘deep state’ candidate (Zbidi) face off against an Islamist (Mourou)? Stay tuned for more twists and turns. Nothing stays the same for long in Tunisia’s democratising politics.
By Ramzy Baroud
On 1 September, the Lebanese group Hizbullah, struck an Israeli military base near the border town of Avivim. The Lebanese attack came as an inevitable response to a series of Israeli strikes that targeted four different Arab countries in the matter of two days. The Lebanese response, accompanied by jubilation throughout that country, shows that the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, may have overplayed his cards. However, for Netanyahu it was a worthy gamble, as the Israeli leader is desperate for any political capital that could shield him against increasingly emboldened contenders in the country’s 17 September general elections.
A fundamental question that could influence any analysis of the decision to strike Syria, Lebanon, Iraq and Gaza is whether the strategy originated from the Israeli government or the limited personal calculations of Netanyahu himself. I contend that the latter is true.
Israel has already violated the sovereignty of all of these states and territories, bombing some of them hundreds of times in the past; but striking all at once is unprecedented. Since neither Israel nor its US allies offered any convincing military logic behind the campaign, there can be no other conclusion than that the objectives were entirely political. One obvious sign that the attacks were meant to benefit Netanyahu, and Netanyahu alone, is the fact that the Israeli prime minister violated an old Israeli protocol of staying mum following this type of cross-border assault. It is also uncommon for top Israeli officials to brag about their country’s intelligence outreach and military capabilities. Israel, for example, has bombed Syria hundreds of times in recent years, yet has rarely taken responsibility for any of these attacks.
Compare this with Netanyahu’s remarks following the two-day strikes of 24-25 August. Only minutes after the strikes, he hailed the army’s ‘major operational effort’, proudly declaring that ‘Iran has no immunity anywhere’. Regarding the attack in the southeast region of Aqraba in Syria, Netanyahu went into detail, describing the nature of the target and the identities of his enemy.
Two of the Hizbullah fighters killed in Syria were identified by the Israeli army, which distributed their photographs while allegedly travelling on the Iranian airline, Mahan, ‘which Israel and the United States have identified as a major transporter of weaponry and materiel to Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies in Syria and Lebanon,’ according to the Times of Israel.
Why would Israel go to this extent, which could surely help the targeted countries to uncover some of Israel’s intelligence sources? The Economist revealed that ‘some…in Israel’s security and political establishments are uncomfortable’ with Netanyahu’s tireless extolling of ‘Israel’s intelligence-gathering and operational successes in surprising detail.’
The explanation lies in one single phrase: the 17 September elections.
In recent months, Netanyahu has finally managed to wrestle the title of israel’s longest-serving prime minister, a designation that the Israeli leader has earned, despite his chequered legacy dotted with abuse of power, self-serving agendas and several major corruption cases that implicate netanyahu directly, as well as his wife and closest aides.
Yet, it remains unclear whether Netanyahu can hang on for much longer. Following the 9 April elections, the embattled Israeli leader tried to form a government of like-minded right-wing politicians, but failed. It was this setback that resulted in the dissolution of the Israeli Knesset on 29 May and the call for a new election. While Israeli politics is typically turbulent, holding two general elections within such a short period of time is rare, and, among other things, demonstrates Netanyahu’s faltering grip on power.
Equally important is that, for the first time in years, Netanyahu and his Likud party are facing real competition. Their rivals, led by Benjamin Gantz of the Blue and White (Kahol Lavan) party, are keen to deny Netanyahu every possible constituency, including his own pro-illegal settlements and pro-war supporters.
Despite Gantz’s attempt to project his party as centrist, his statements in recent months are hardly consistent with the presumed ideological discourse of the political centre anywhere. The former Chief of General Staff of the Israeli army is a strong supporter of illegal Jewish settlements and an avid promoter of war on Gaza. Last June, Gantz went as far as accusing Netanyahu of ‘diminishing Israel’s deterrence’ policy in Gaza, which, he said, ‘is being interpreted by Iran as a sign of weakness’. In fact, the terms ‘weak’ and ‘weakness’ have been ascribed repeatedly to Netanyahu by his political rivals, including top officials within his own right-wing camp. The man who has staked his reputation on tough personal or unhindered violence in the name of Israeli security is now struggling to protect his image.
This analysis does not in any way discount the regional and international objectives of Netanyahu’s calculations, leading among them being his desire to stifle any political dialogue between Tehran and Washington, an idea that began taking shape at the G7 summit in Biarritz, France. But even that is insufficient to offer a rounded understanding of Netanyahu’s motives, especially because he is wholly focused on his own survival, as opposed to future regional scenarios.
However, the ‘Mr Security’ credentials that Netanyahu aimed to achieve by bombing multiple targets in four countries might not yield the desired dividends. Israeli media is conveying a sense of panic among Israelis, especially those living in the northern parts of the country and in illegal Jewish settlements in the Occupied Golan Heights. This is hardly the strong and mighty image that Netanyahu was hoping to convey through his military gamble. None of the thousands of Israelis who are currently being trained to survive Lebanese retaliations are particularity reassured regarding the power of their country.
Netanyahu is, of course, not the first Israeli leader to use the military to achieve domestic political ends. The late Israeli leader, Shimon Peres, did so in 1996 and failed miserably, but only after killing over 100 Lebanese and United Nations peacekeepers in the Southern Lebanese village of Qana.
The consequences of Netanyahu’s gamble might come at a worse price for him than simply losing the elections. Opening a multi-front war is a conflict that Israel cannot win; at least, not any more.
Ramzy Baroud is a journalist, author and editor of The Palestine Chronicle. His latest book is The Last Earth: A Palestinian Story, and his forthcoming book is These Chains Will Be Broken: Palestinian Stories of Struggle and Defiance in Israeli Prisons. Baroud has a PhD in Palestine Studies from the University of Exeter. His website is www.ramzybaroud.net
When Donald Trump was elected the forty-fifth president of the USA in November 2016, the Turkish president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, was among the first world leaders to congratulate him. His congratulatory phone call echoed Erdogan’s ambition to strengthen US-Turkish relations, which had gone cold over the US Syria policy under Barack Obama. On 17 May 2017, Trump hosted the Turkish president in the first official meeting between the two leaders. Before the meeting, both leaders were still in honeymoon mode, despite diplomatic tensions, such as the US decision to support Kurdish militias in Syria and the unresolved matter of the Turkish request for the extradition of Fethullah Gulen. The honeymoon quickly ended as waves of diplomatic spats drastically changed the relationship.
The USA introduced sanctions on Turkey in 2018 over the detention of a US pastor, Andrew Brunson, indicating rapidly escalating tensions between two countries that had had a complicated history of diplomatic relations. While tensions calmed somewhat after Brunson’s release, Turkey’s purchase of the Russian S-400 air defence system significantly ruptured the relationship between the two North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) allies, with the crisis likely to deteriorate over other tensions pertaining to Syria. In August, Turkey’s refusal to cancel the S-400 deal saw the USA freezing the Turks out of its F-35 joint strike fighter programme. Despite this, a US delegation was sent to Ankara early August to help set up a ‘safe zone’ in north-eastern Syria. Both Turkish and US commitment to create the safe zone appears to have staved off a Turkish military campaign against Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) fighters, who are aligned to and supported by the USA. Despite making some headway in terms of Syria, Turkey’s improving relations with Russia, exemplified by the S-400 deal, and the Turkish request to extradite Gulen from the USA present ongoing sticking points in this long-standing and complicated diplomatic relationship.
History of USA-Turkey relations
The USA and Turkey have enjoyed several decades of diplomatic relations on the political, economic and military fronts. Soon after the creation of the Turkish Republic in 1923, Turkey established relations with the USA by signing the Economic and Technical Cooperation agreement in 1947. In 1952, Turkey was admitted as a member of NATO, forging a closer relationship with the USA on military and political-diplomatic fronts. Bilateral relations remained relatively smooth until April 1975, when the US Congress pushed to recognise the mass killings of Armenians in 1915 as a genocide. Turkey protested, but failed to convince US lawmakers to rescind the decision.
When the Justice and Development Party (AKP) came into government in Turkey in 2002, US-Turkish relations were on shakier ground than ever before. During the first years of the AKP government, diplomatic relations moved from friendly, with the US president, George W Bush, hailing the AKP as a ‘powerful voice in the Muslim world’, to moderately hostile following the USA-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Souring relations led Turkey to refuse a US request to allow US forces to use Turkish territory to open a front against Saddam Hussein in Iraq. Despite the NATO alliance, the two countries saw relations deteriorate, eventually taking a turn for the worse at the start of the MENA uprisings in 2011, quickly followed by the Syrian civil war. USA-Turkey hostilities escalated after July 2016, when Ankara blamed a failed coup attempt on Turkish cleric Fethullah Gulen, who lives in self-imposed exile in the USA.
Gulen and the Gulenist split with AKP
Fethullah Gulen is a Turkish Muslim cleric and businessperson who enjoys a large support base in Turkey and previously shared a close relationship with the AKP. Gulen’s following is estimated to be between three and six million people worldwide, with charities, schools and businesses in many countries, including the USA,. Now a staunch critic of Erdogan and the AKP, Gulen had close relations with Erdogan and later with the AKP after its founding in 2001. Both men opposed the secular Kemalist forces in Turkey, and the Gulenists (or Hizmet, as they call themselves) quickly supported the AKP’s rise to power. Gulen has significant influence, that has been nurtured over decades, in the Turkish police force and judiciary, and his supporters are believed to have been behind the Ergenekon and Sledgehammer investigations and trials. These looked into alleged plots to overthrow the AKP government and Erdogan in 2003, and resulted in mass arrests of police officers and military officers – most of whom were eventually freed in 2014. The cases were part of Gulen’s power struggle with Erdogan. In 2016, a court found that Gulenists within the judiciary had fabricated evidence, and dismissed all charges against the suspects.
The relationship between Erdogan and Gulen began to fray after the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010. The ship, owned by the Turkish Humanitarian Aid Foundation (IHH), was part of the Freedom Flotilla that was headed to the besieged Gaza Strip in Palestine. The IHH vessel was forcefully boarded by Israeli forces, leading to the death of nine Turkish activists, including one with dual USA-Turkey citizenship. Gulen criticised Erdogan’s harsh response to Israel following the incident, signalling a growing rift between the two. Erdogan and Gulen again clashed over negotiations, on Erdogan’s instructions, between a senior Turkish intelligence official and jailed Kurdistan Worker’s Party (PKK) leader, Abdullah Ocalan. Gulen and his supporters argued that Erdogan should not have negotiated with PKK ‘terrorists’. Gulen also disapproved of Erdogan’s chief negotiator in the matter, Hakan Fidan, who was close to Erdogan and who Gulen accused of secretly profiling his supporters in government institutions. The Gulen-Erdogan conflict reached its apex in 2013, when corruption allegations were levelled against Erdogan’s cabinet ministers and his son Bilal. Erdogan blamed the allegations on Gulen supporters in the police force and judiciary and accused Gulen of trying to form a parallel state in Turkey. He began a purge in government institutions of officials suspected to be Gulen loyalists and closed schools and charities linked to Hizmet. The impasse continued as several National Intelligence Organisation investigations were conducted against Gulen and his supporters.
Soon thereafter, Gulen’s supporters faced major crackdowns by the AKP-led government, and the relationship broke down irretrievably. This culminated in the attempted coup in 2016, with the AKP blaming the Gulenists for orchestrating. The failed July 2016 coup attempt was carried out by elements within the Turkish military that mobilised air and ground forces to seize political power. The attempted coup exacerbated an already polarised political climate in Turkey and led to the mass dismissal of members in the judiciary, public officials and journalists, all accused of having links to the Gulen movement. Gulen denied allegations that he played a part in the coup attempt, after Turkey called on the USA to extradite him to Turkey to face charges.
Since then, Gulen has remained an obstacle in USA- Turkey relations. Turkey has officially filed papers and applied diplomatic pressure for Gulen’s extradition over the attempted coup, but the USA has refused to comply, worsening diplomatic ties. Under Obama, the USA referred the extradition issue to the Treaty on Extradition and Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters of 1980, which both countries signed. The treaty required Turkey to submit compelling supporting evidence for Gulen to be extradited and tried in Turkey for the alleged crimes. In August 2016, Erdogan said Turkey had sent about seven boxes of evidence to show Gulen was implicated in activities to undermine the state. Despite Turkey’s efforts, the USA has not acceded to their demands, with US officials insisting there was insufficient evidence supporting Turkish claims. After a serious diplomatic row over the release of a US pastor in 2018, Trump told Erdogan he would look into the issue of Gulen’s extradition, but has since remained mum in spite of ongoing Turkish requests.
US pastor Andrew Brunson
Erdogan’s diplomatic efforts to convince the USA to extradite Gulen continued under the Trump administration. In the 2018 case of US pastor Andrew Brunson, Turkey sought to exchange Brunson for Gulen, despite Trump’s calls to release the detained pastor. Brunson had been imprisoned by Turkey on terrorism charges relating to the July 2016 attempted coup. Turkey accused Brunson of having links with both the PKK and the Gulen movement, but he denied all accusations and called for the USA to intervene on his behalf. In late 2018, Trump called on Ankara to release Brunson, and when Turkey refused, the USA applied economic sanctions on Turkey, sending its economy into chaos. Soon thereafter, in October 2018, a Turkish court ordered the Brunson’s release in what was perceived to be Ankara’s attempt to rescue its economy. Despite Turkey releasing Brunson, the USA refused to engage Ankara on the issue of Gulen’s extradition, even after numerous appeals by Erdogan. Diplomatic relations between the two countries had already suffered immensely amidst contradictory positions regarding YPG fighters in Syria.
Syrian civil war and Kurdish fighters
After the outbreak of the Syrian civil war, Obama’s policy sat uncomfortably with the Turks and this strained ties in 2012, when the USA turned down an appeal for military intervention in Syria after Syria’s violation of Obama’s self-proclaimed ‘red-line’. Turbulent diplomatic relations between Ankara and Washington took a further dive when Obama rejected Erdogan’s proposal for humanitarian intervention and the introduction of a no-fly zone in northern Syria to protect fleeing refugees. The rejection of efforts to alleviate the Syrian crisis became a cocktail of tensions when Obama announced that the Kurdish YPG in the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) were America’s best option to defeat the Islamic State group (IS). US support for Kurdish fighters in the Syrian conflict, which continues to this day, has seen the two NATO allies on opposite sides of the fence. Turkey sees the YPG as an affiliate of the PKK, which has waged an insurgency against Turkey since 1984 and has been declared a terrorist organisation by both the USA and Turkey. Thus, US support to the YPG is seen as an affront by Turkey, which has launched several attacks against YPG fighters in Syria and PKK in neighbouring Iraq.
Since the start of the Syrian war, Turkey launched two cross-border campaigns into Syria. Both focused on Turkey’s fight against the YPG from areas inside Syria bordering Turkey. Starting with Operation Euphrates Shield along the eastern bank of the Euphrates River in August 2016, Ankara launched a military campaign aimed at clearing out IS and YPG fighters from Syrian areas bordering Turkey. The campaign took the border town of Jarablus on the Euphrates river and an area stretching 100 kilometres from the border, moving south to Al-Bab village. Turkey’s operations angered the USA, which had already begun supporting Kurdish fighters against IS. In January 2018, Turkey announced it would undertake a military campaign, Operation Olive Branch, in Syria’s Afrin province against the YPG, after receiving permission to use Syrian airspace from Russia. Although the operation again angered the USA, they did not intervene, despite calls from YPG fighters who felt that their allies were abandoning them under Turkish bombardment. Following this escalation, talks between the USA and Turkey quickly followed and the two sides agreed on a roadmap, including the creation of a buffer zone between YPG fighters in Manbij, northern Syria, and Turkish troops.
Despite agreements for military patrols in Afrin and Manbij, Turkey still presses for US implementation of a roadmap, already agreed to in June 2018, to disarm the YPG once the fight against IS has been completed. Recognising US hesitancy, Turkey’s strategy appears to be to pressure the USA to coordinate ‘safe-zones’ in northern Syria, which would become Turkish areas of control to maintain security. This strategy was already visible in Afrin, where Turkey transferred its allied fighters to operate as a security force, and where Turkey financially invested in rebuilding houses, schools, and hospitals. This strategy seems to be Turkey’s new export to northeastern Syria via a recent cooperation agreement with the USA to establish a safe-zone in Syrian areas bordering Turkey along the eastern Euphrates.
Recent talks between US and Turkish officials appear to have yielded some mutual gains for Ankara and Washington, although the lack of agreement on details quickly casts a shadow over the possibility of a way forward. Following the August talks, the USA has averted a Turkish attack against the YPG east of the Euphrates in northern Syria. The announcement of the agreement implies that Washington will acquiesce to some of Ankara’s demands.
Despite disagreement on intricate details, both the USA and Turkey have taken steps to set up joint coordination centres in Urfa and Ankara. This coordination will see the establishment of a peace corridor stretching from the Turkish border with Syria into areas of northeastern Syria, although there is disagreement about the size of the corridor. Turkish drones have been spotted in Syrian areas along the east Euphrates since the arrival of a US delegation in southern Turkey on 13 August. Although no timeline has been set for the coordination, a recent statement by the head of the YPG-led SDF, Mazloum Kobani, welcoming the deal for a buffer zone in northeastern Syria shows that Turkey might make gains in this process. The YPG’s acceptance of the safe zone deal between Turkey and the USA is largely due to the YPG’s concern that it might lose areas under its control if a military clash with Turkey were to erupt.
Playing the ball to Turkey is a US strategy to avoid losing allied forces on the ground ahead of their troop withdrawal from northern Syria that was announced by Trump earlier this year. There is a general fear that a Turkish military campaign against the YPG might allow an IS resurgence, eradicating US gains in eliminating the group from large parts of Syria. Although a safe zone is intended to be a corridor of safety in conditions of war, the USA-Turkey safe zone in northeastern Syria will have adverse effects, as seen in Afrin, where the operation saw a major displacement of civilians and numerous causalities. The northeastern Syria operation too is likely to lead to the displacement of people already suffering under dire humanitarian conditions caused by the eight-year-long Syrian conflict.
S-400 deal with Moscow
A more recent, and, arguably, more serious, dispute between Ankara and Washington is over the former’s purchase of the Russian S-400 missile defence system in 2018. The USA opposes the purchase, stating that the S-400 clashes with the Lockheed Martin F-35 programme used by NATO allies. Further, the USA fears that F-35 technology could be accessed by Moscow through the S-400, a claim Erdogan denies. In July, Turkey received its first shipment of S-400 parts from Russia, with the rest of the shipment expected to continue until 2020. After months of Washington threatening to apply sanctions on Ankara should the S-400 deal go through, the USA responded by kicking Turkey off the F-35 programme, despite Turkey manufacturing certain parts used in its production. Turkey’s removal from the programme will have severe economic consequences for the country, as Turkish F-35 personnel have been forced to leave the USA and return home. Further, the projected losses for Turkey amounts to $9 billion that it would have gained for supplying materials.
Turkey has dismissed the US threat of sanctions, despite previous sanctions over the Brunson row in 2018. The S-400 deal continues to fuel tensions between the USA and Turkey, and Trump has not ruled out the possibility of applying further sanctions. The 2017 Sanctions Act mandates the USA to apply upto twelve different types of sanctions to any state involved in a large arms deal with Russia. If applied, the sanctions would have a detriment on the already-troubled Turkish economy. The Turkish Lira plummeted in the last two years, losing 40 per cent of its value, after the 2018 sanctions. Further US sanctions could cripple the Turkish economy, threatening Erdogan and the AKP’s hold on power, especially after they suffered massive electoral losses in the 2019 local elections. It seems Erdogan is gambling on Trump’s hesitance to apply new rounds of sanctions on Turkey, despite the looming possibility.
The USA and Turkey continue to be neither friends nor foes after years of protracted diplomatic rifts and alliances. The two states remain NATO members, despite Turkey’s recent ousting from the F-35 programme used by all NATO members. Further, Turkish requests for the extradition of Fethullah Gulen have cast a shadow over the already complicated diplomatic relations between the countries. Recent cooperation for the creation of a safe-zone in northeastern Syria by both countries has managed a temporary peace between the Turkish military campaign and US-Kurdish allies in Syria. The lack of agreement over specific details regarding the safe zone, however, threatens this cooperation, and could see an escalation of already-heightened tensions. Despite this cooperation in northern Syria, Ankara and Washington disagree over the Russian S-400 missile defence system. Trump warned he could slap sanctions on Turkey if it went ahead with the S-400 deal with Moscow. Turkey called Trump’s bluff and received the first equipment shipment from Russia in July and the second shipment in August. If Trump forges ahead with the sanctions, the already strained Turkish economy would suffer, leaving Erdogan with the option of not assembling the S-400, despite receiving its parts, if he wants to salvage relations with Washington.
July began with a major shake-up in the Syrian military and intelligence apparatus. In an attempt to consolidate power after regaining territorial control over most of the country, Syrian president, Bashar al-Asad, seems to be focusing his attention internally within his regime, while still battling to retake the last swathe of opposition-held territory in the northern Idlib province. Asad removed formerly powerful and influential figures in Syria’s intelligence agencies and promoted individuals with close ties with Russia. Iranian influence is a major casualty of the shake-up, with a close Iranian ally, Major-General Jamil al-Hassan, resigning days after he walked out of a secret meeting between Syrian, Israeli and Russian military officials in Quneitra, near the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. With the ousting of Iranian allies, officials with ties to Russia have been promoted into key positions, signalling Asad’s consolidation of military and intelligence structures, and distancing his regime from Iran. The sidelining of Iranians and their allies appears to have Israeli fingerprints, after a secret meeting between Russia, Israeli officials and Syrian military generals in southern Syria on 30 June. The shake-up also signals Russia’s efforts to reform the Syrian military and intelligence services to ensure its interests override Iran’s.
Biggest reshuffle in seven years
The 7 July reshuffle of Syria’s intelligence apparatus is the most significant shift in personnel since July 2012, when senior security service personnel were moved after a bombing of the national security headquarters in Damascus left four generals dead. Since then, many of the people that filled these powerful positions in the intelligence apparatus have been implicated in the Asad regime’s atrocities across the country, with some personally accused of committing crimes against humanity. Last month’s reshuffling began Hassan, who headed the Air Force Intelligence Directorate, handed in his resignation. Despite his ill health and inability to carry out his duties effectively, his resignation was unexpected as his contract had recently been renewed for another year. Adding to the mystery is the fact that his deteriorating health was not cited as the major reason behind his resignation, and there have been reports of his having been treated in a hospital in Syria run by the Lebanese Hizbullah.
Hassan was replaced by his deputy, Major-General Ghassan Ismail, a close Russian ally. Ismail has been a key partner of the Russians for front-line operations at the Russian Hmeimim airbase near the city of Latakia. All four Syrian intelligence agencies – Department of Military Intelligence, Political Security Directorate, General Intelligence Directorate, and the Air Force Intelligence Directorate – experienced leadership changes. Another reshuffling of leadership positions occurred in the General Intelligence Directorate, now headed by Major-General Hussam Louqa. Louqa, who hails from Aleppo, was a key Russian intelligence intermediary in Homs, and worked closely with Syrian military commander Brigadier-General Suhail Hassan, who also has close relations with Moscow. Another intelligence veteran and senior Asad advisor, Ali Mamlouk, has been promoted to the position of Vice President for Security Affairs. The Syrian president appears to be grooming Mamlouk for the position of deputy president, returning to his father’s tradition of reserving the deputy president post for a Sunni candidate. Mamlouk’s former position has been filled by Mohammed Deeb Zeitoun, known for his role in strengthening Russia’s links with the State Security Directorate over the past two years.
A number of other figures appointed into new positions on 8 July are also believed to share close links with Russia, including General Nasser Deeb, recently appointed to the strategic post of head of the Criminal Security Directorate. His appointment is viewed as indicative of Asad’s strategy of deploying Russians and their allies within the security apparatus to deal with the growing insurgency in the south, notably in Dara'a, which has seen a number of political assassinations of key opposition figures and those linked to the regime over the past year, since the government retook control of the area. As director of criminal security, Deeb is also tasked with containing the spread of shabbiha gangs, led by members of Asad’s extended family who have carved out territories of personal control in Latakia. The Russians see this post as critical to root out corruption and patronage links between the military and outsiders, as they attempt to herald a political solution to the war-torn country.
Another significant 8 July appointment, without media fanfare, suggested that the shake-up is not limited to the military and intelligence apparatuses. Ali Turkmani, son of a commander killed in the July 2012 bombing of national security headquarters, was promoted to the position of presidential security advisor, while another key political figure, Bahjat Suleiman, a former intelligence chief and former ambassador to Jordan, was reappointed to a key position in the political intelligence bureau. These appointments bear the hallmarks of growing Russian influence in Syria, seemingly at the expense of the Iranians.
Russia and Iran vying for influence in Syria’s military
Since the beginning of the war in 2011, both Russia and Iran’s influence in the Syrian military and intelligence apparatuses have strengthened, and have been critical to the regime’s victories over various rebel groups across the country. Russia’s continuing reform process inside the Syrian military and intelligence apparatuses began with its 2015 military intervention, an attempt to stamp its influence in the country, as shown by the creation of the Fourth Corps under joint Russian-Syrian command. The fractured and beleaguered Syrian military has been weakened over time, while coming under the growing influence of Iran and Russia. Iran wields considerable influence in the military and intelligence apparatus in both lower and higher level structures. Furthermore, the presence of an array of Iran-linked militia, supporting the regime, has created a familiarity between generals and commanders through training and combat operations.
On the other hand, Russia entered the fray when the Syrian military was experiencing significant desertions and fractures in the intensifying war against rebel formations, and at a time when the regime had lost a significant amount of territory to the variety of rebel groups, including the Islamic State group. After the creation of the Fourth Corps in 2015 and the Fifth Corps in 2016, Russia set its sights on creating a single unit of command to integrate paramilitaries loyal to the regime into the Republican Guard. To effect this integration, Moscow has tried to exert greater control over the inner workings of the military and intelligence agencies through training and shifting personnel in key leadership positions. The latest reshuffle is an outcome of this process that intensified in late-2018, after the Syrian regime regained control of major territories lost to rebels since 2011.
Russia’s disagreements with the Iranians is not new. Although Iran continues to exercise considerable influence in the Syrian military and intelligence apparatuses, it has cause for concern as Russia seeks to placate Israeli demands to oust Iranian-linked militia from Syria, especially from the south of the country. In July 2018, as the Syrian regime began an offensive to oust rebels from Dara'a in southern Syria, Russia called for ‘foreign’ forces to withdraw from the southern areas, echoing Israel’s demand for Iranian fighters to retreat from areas close to the Golan Heights, the Syrian territory that Israel has occupied since 1967. In the Astana negotiations process, led by Russia, Iran reportedly condemned Russia for allowing Turkey to launch operations against Kurdish fighters in Afrin in northern Syria in early 2018. In Idlib, the Russians have been dissatisfied with what they see as Iran’s lack of enthusiasm to assist in the regime-led offensive against rebels.
The security reshuffle, just over a week after a tripartite meeting in Jerusalem between Russia, the USA and Israel, also indicates the increasing role of Israel in the outcome of the Syrian conflict. On 25 June, Israel hosted US and Russian officials for a security conference that focused heavily on the question of countering Iranian influence. In the meeting, Israel urged Russia to assist with ensuring Israel’s security, which involves diminishing Iranian influence in Syria.
Russia was also told by Israel and John Bolton, the national security advisor to US president Donald Trump, that Iran needed to be rooted out of Lebanon and Iraq as well. Seemingly in agreement, Russia soon facilitated a 30 June meeting between Israeli and Syrian military and intelligence officials in Quneitra. The meeting was attended by General Jamil Hassan, accompanied by members of Syria’s Fifth Corps, which is funded, trained and commanded by Russia. Other attendees included leaders of certain rebel groups based in southern Syria, including the Ababil Houran Army, Alaa Zakaria al-Halqi and the Shuhada Inkhal Brigade. The meeting was also attended by the commander of the former Syrian Revolutionaries Front, Ahmed Hamaidi al-Moussa, who had been released from a regime prison days earlier, as a result of Russian pressure.
The Quneitra meeting was arranged as part of Russia’s cooperation with Israel for military operations in southern Syria. Israel demanded at the meeting that Hassan integrate the Fifth Corps into regime military forces, remove Iranian militias from the south of Syria (Dara'a and Quneitra) and maintain a distance of least fifty-five kilometres from the Golan Heights. In exchange, Israel and Russia offered to fund operations to combat rebel militia in Syria’s southern provinces.
Hassan reportedly refused to marginalise the Iranians, hailing them as supporters of the Syrian people. Although presented by Israel, the demand to integrate the Fifth Corps into the Syrian military has been an objective of Russia’s ongoing reform process within Syria’s military and intelligence apparatuses. The sacking of Hassan and other senior leaders in the 8 July reshuffle is the most recent part of the Russian reform process, which began after the formation of the Fourth Corps ‘storming brigade’ in October 2015.
Despite (or, perhaps because of) increasingly close coordination between Israel and Russia, the Israeli military has continued its bombardment of areas in southern Syria, targeting particularly Iranian positions near the Golan Heights. The Israeli bombardment also included Iraq, where several Iranian targets were hit by airstrikes. The frequency of Israeli strikes in Syria has increased, and can be expected to continue in Iraq, as suggested by the Israeli Regional Cooperation Minister, who boasted on 21 July that Israel was the only country that was killing Iranians.
Preparing for a new political era
On 13 July, Asad approved the appointments to the UN-guided constitutional committee, composed of regime officials and opposition figures selected by the regime, opposition groups and the UN. The formation of the committee has dragged on for seventeen months, as the UN struggled to establish consensus on the membership of the committee as demanded by the various actors. Geir Pedersen, the UN envoy to Syria, had failed to reach an agreement with the Syrian government on the opposition figures proposed by the UN until a breakthrough on 13 July, after the 8 July reshuffle. Asad and Pedersen announced the agreement on the formation of the committee, and said that talks were expected to continue between the regime and the opposition.
However, there are still disagreements over the constitutional review process. The regime wants to amend the constitution; the opposition has called for a complete redrafting. The latter’s view is supported by the USA, which has believes that a new constitution could see an end to the bitter conflict. It remains unclear whether this position is shared by Russia, which has largely left this process to the UN. For now, the Russians are focused on security sector reform in Syria, while continuing to pursue the Astana political process with Turkey and Iran. With the regime regaining control over most of Syria’s territory, it is expected that the Syrian participation in the Astana process will grow; Asad sent his foreign minister and several high-level security officials to the Astana meeting on 1-2 August.
The ceasefire agreed between the Syrian regime and rebel groups in Idlib on 1 August demonstrates preparation for a new era as combat dwindles. To accelerate this process, Russia intervened and deployed ground troops to assist the regime in Idlib, and this ceasefire is seen as a direct Russian intervention. Russia is therefore on a path of crafting an outcome to the Syrian conflict that is directed and led from Moscow, with regional players – such as Iran and Turkey – playing a mere supporting role.
The security reshuffle in the Syrian military and intelligence apparatuses demonstrates Asad’s intention to consolidate power as he looks towards rebuilding the country while battling the final rebel bastion in Idlib. With his internal consolidation under way, the regime is simultaneously engaging with the UN and beginning talks with the opposition to review the constitution. To do this, the Syrian president has recognised Russia as his most important partner by strategically placing Russian-allied figures in senior positions and allowing Russian training of special forces in the Syrian military. Iran, which continues to enjoy considerable influence in the military and intelligence agencies, is, in the process of the cosying-up with Moscow, seemingly being sidelined. While Tehran and Moscow tussle for influence in Syria, other actors, such as Israel and the USA, continue to play significant roles. Israel’s co-ordination with Russia has been evident in its repeated airstrikes in Syria, with Russia either turning a blind eye or assisting. Israel’s demands to integrate the Fifth Corps, created by Moscow, into the Syrian army to curb Iranian influence in the intelligence apparatuses signals greater Israeli-Russia co-ordination in Syria. Many Russian-trained units, such as the Fourth and Fifth Corps, are being integrated into the Syrian army, while figures allied to Iran, such as Jamil Hassan, are being pushed out. In short, the reshuffle signals that Asad has given Moscow the green light to rebuild Syria’s fractured security apparatuses to secure his future power, even if it comes at the expense of its long-time ally Iran.
Sudan lies in the hotbed of the Horn of Africa, a region that has been plagued by decades of instability and ruin as a result of intense conflicts perpetuated by post-colonial vestiges, ethnic rivalries and competition for key resources. The region is centred along three geostrategic crossroads, flanked by the Bab el-Mandab strait in the Red Sea, positioned in close proximity to the Arabian Peninsula and the Gulf of Aden; at the meeting point of the White and Blue Nile; and a transit point between Africa and the Mediterranean. Neighbouring countries beleaguered by failing states, civil wars and counter-revolutionary dictatorships render the regional stability fragile.
While Sudan is not new to conflict and transformation, the recent revolutionary movement has shaken the foundations of power and forced Sudanese to revaluate and question the legitimacy of the power structures. The civil uprising and the demand for changing the course of history is indicative of a new, youthful yearning for a future devoid of the authoritarian system designed to quell the voices of the people.
As Sudanese come to terms with the brutal crackdown on protestors on 3 June 2019 and revel in the euphoric hopes for a peaceful transition, on a macro level, these developments have ushered in a significant shift in the balance of powers in the region and has resulted in the adoption by global actors of aggressive tactics to secure their interests. At the core of the competing agendas lies hegemonic ambitions of the USA, China and Russia; while Middle Eastern players appear to have found a new front to stage their rivalries.
Until recently, the USA was unrivalled in its exertion of influence over the region in the name of the War on Terror, under the authority of AFRICOM, through which it sought to “neutralize transnational threats” advance American interests and build defence outposts, namely Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti. Pariah status was conferred on Sudan, designated as a State sponsor of Terror, with comprehensive sanctions imposed until 2017. Soon after the removal of former President Omar Al Bashir from power, a senior American delegation was deployed to Khartoum for engagement with the Transitional Military Council. Last month, the State Department confirmed that Donald Booth has been named as Special Envoy for Sudan, tasking him with leading US efforts to support a political solution to the current crisis.
With the proliferation of Chinese military and naval facilities in the Horn of Africa initially on the pretext of anti-piracy, and now in line with the Belt and Road Initiative, American influence seems to be waning. The People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) deployed to the Gulf of Aden receives strategic support from their base in Djibouti. The base is seen as a vital part of the String of Pearls network of military and commercial bases throughout the Indian Ocean Rim. Chinese economic interests in Sudan are deeply entrenched, with Chinese investments in infrastructure projects, as well as trade. In 2018, China was the only country to transfer arms to Sudan. At the start of the uprisings in Sudan, China maintained a cautious silence on the developments until former President Omar Al Bashir was officially removed from power. The Chinese are now carefully monitoring developments to ensure that their economic interests are secured.
Countries in the European Union traditionally portrayed themselves as the peace-makers in the region, offering capacity and institution-building in post-conflict reconstruction and development, often with condescension of “we know and you know not”. As increasing numbers of Africans began to traverse great distances to escape their war-torn homes or to seek refuge and economic prosperity in Europe, the EU’s focus on Eritrea and Sudan altered significantly. Sudan stood as a buffer zone between refugees/migrants and the crossing points along the Mediterranean. Sudanese troops were deployed to the border regions with Eritrea and Libya to prevent the movement of people. With the advent of the revolution, the EU is watchful of developments and how this may impact on their quest to curb migration from Africa.
Russia is a relative newcomer to Africa but seems to be developing a firm foreign policy to counter-balance American and European/French neo-colonial ambitions. Russia and Sudan cultivated an alliance between 2017 and 2018, as the two countries cooperated in brokering a peace deal in Central African Republic. Indications are that Russia seeks to advance its presence in Africa by building relations with several countries, including Sudan. The Russian military presence in CAR not only provides access to the region, but also presents Russia with an opportunity to enhance its economic footprint through acquiring lucrative mining deals. During a visit to Russia in 2017, former President Al Bashir intimated that Sudan could be the key for Russia to enter Africa. During that visit, a concession agreement for gold mining was signed. Reports have emerged that Russian forces were deployed to Sudan to train Sudanese security officials shortly thereafter.
Recent leaked documents allege that in 2018 Russia drew up a programme for economic reform in Sudan, designed to keep Omar Al Bashir in power. Upon recognising the inevitable ousting of Al Bashir, the document was altered and Russian advisors urged the TMC to suppress activists by toughening penalties for participating in unauthorised meetings and gathering, freezing independent media, improving the quality of pro-government media and limiting the influence of opposition press, increasing the costs of newsprint to control print media, detaining coordinators and leaders of protests, define the concept of a “foreign agent”, and monitoring social media.
By Peter de Clercq
In addition to the standard measures to overcome the crisis, the leaked document suggests the discrediting of protestors by disseminating information on the arson of a mosque, hospital, kindergarten, and the theft of grain from the state repository or to cast the protesters as “enemies of Islam and traditional values” by spreading fake news about meetings with LGBTQ flags. This tactic would be designed to provoke conflict between protest groups and disorganise the protests. Finally, the leaked dossier alleges that plans were designed to punish those responsible for the protests, seen to be traitors to the Motherland; and suppression of activists through “minimal but acceptable loss of life”.
Perhaps the most interesting interventions in respect of the Sudanese uprisings have come from the Middle East. Concerns arose shortly after the massacre in June that Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were responsible for the adoption of violent tactics by the TMC, as just days before, leaders of the TMC met with the Saudi and UAE leadership, securing an aid package of $3 billion, 66% of which would be allocated to military and security expenditure. The Saudi-UAE alliance has relied heavily on Sudanese troop deployment as part of the Saudi-led coalition in the war in Yemen. Apart from the proxy war between Saudi Arabia and Iran playing out in Yemen, Sudan has also been central to rivalry, as Saudi Arabia urged Sudan and Eritrea to sever ties with Iran.
The clout of the Gulf States lies in their oil-rich economies, enabling them to buy influence beyond their borders and assert themselves as players in the international arena. As the war in Yemen enters its fourth year, Saudi Arabia and the UAE have recognised the strategic value of military outposts across the Red Sea. The UAE is the most aggressive in securing contracts for the establishment of bases in the Horn of Africa. It is projecting itself to dominate the maritime domain, having begun with training and development of anti-piracy forces in Puntland and later with securing contracts for the establishment of bases in Somaliland and Eritrea, from which it has launched attacks on Yemen. The UAE aims to develop and control ports along the Arabian peninsula and the Red Sea, thereby projecting its influence throughout the region.
The projections by the UAE and Saudi Arabia in the Horn of Africa are also influenced by the rift within the GCC, as the blockade countries (UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Bahrain) seek to limit Qatar’s reach. Qatar had strong relations with Sudan in the past, as it acted as mediator and host of negotiations between the Sudanese government and representatives of the Darfur region. Qatar had enjoyed cordial relations with Eritrea and other regional partners. Investments from the GCC were initially focussed on food security, with the purchase of large tracts of agricultural land. As the rift within the GCC intensified, Saudi Arabia and the UAE exerted greater political influence in the Horn, through the brokering of the rapprochement between Ethiopia and Eritrea and with outreach to Sudan. These moves also coincided with the strategic need for partners in the region close to Yemen.
Qatar’s influence in the region has decreased since the blockade against it led by Saudi Arabia and the UAE. Last month, reports emerged that the TMC snubbed the Qatari Minister of Foreign Affairs who requested a meeting with the Sudanese interim leadership. Qatar, together with Turkey have a contract to rebuild Suakin Island port on the Red Sea coast that was aimed at boosting tourism but would have a dual purpose of acting as a military base for Turkey.
Egypt, allied closely with Saudi Arabia and the UAE is Sudan’s immediate neighbour. The Egyptians will be watching closely the developments in Sudan, for fear of another uprising the likes of the Arab Spring. Egypt would also be concerned as to how the situation in Sudan would impact on the water security as it pertains to the Nile and the debates by the Nile riparian states for increased shares to the nile waters.
The Egyptian example must remain prominent in the minds of the interim Sudanese leadership. Transitions from revolutionary movements to civilian governments are not palatable to those who seek control and power. Most of the global players may find comfort with dictators and could potentially implant the ideas that Africans and Arabs cannot self-govern and therefore should be led by the military. Whilst the negotiations on the constitutional declaration appear to be gaining momentum and there are calls for peaceful democratic transfer of power to a civilian-led government, the Sudanese people must be cautious and wary of saboteurs. Deals are already being struck away from the negotiating table and lobbyists are positioning themselves to secure contracts that could be detrimental to Sudan, whilst lining the pockets of corrupt officials.
Lucrative offers will certainly continue to present themselves as Sudan enters the transitional period. Investments of the nature outlined above may appear very attractive for those seeking to address the economic challenges facing Sudan, however most of the deals come with hefty prices that may threaten the sovereignty and security of Sudan. Advantages and disadvantage would have to be weighed, bearing in mind the disproportionate relationships. The revolution must not be sold to the highest bidder and the integrity of the struggle for freedom must be paramount.
WE LEFT SUDAN
In the late 80’s and 90’s
Indeed, my generation of educated Sudanese professionals are scattered around the globe
(Out of 200 medical graduates from Khartoum University in 1992, 20 remain in the Sudan)
We never lost contact with the country and our friends and families
We followed the news closely
And reacted in exaggerated ways to every small change – as compensation perhaps to make up for being physically distant
But to a great extent, we “disconnected”
We appeared to have abandoned the ideals we embraced in our university years
We had different reasons for leaving
Extreme economic hardships
Overt persecution and other forms of disadvantage
For myself personally, I found the social restrictions as a women suffocating – when I was denied a promotion at work because I needed to sign a document stating that I would abide by “proper” dress forms, that became the final push I needed to leave
WE BUILT LIVES FOR OURSELVES ELSEWHERE
We spent many years trying to advance professionally
For many of us, these were journeys of tears and sweat and incredible struggle
We also committed time to building up our communities in the diaspora
And tried to integrate with our host communities
We debated what kind of a relationship we should [or shouldn’t] have with our embassies
We sometimes organised protests in front of the Sudanese Embassies
And amused our foreign friends when we had meals with the ambassador and his family a few weeks later
In many countries, our communities became polarised into “the opposition” and the “kiyzaan” (pro-government, pro-Islamist)
It must be added, that after the December revolution erupted, and specifically after the June 3rd massacre, there was no more doubt in our minds where we stand with regards to anyone or anything that represents the previous regime and its current extension as represented in the Transitional Military Council (TMC)
LINKS WITH THE HOME COUNTRY
Some of us bought land in the home country
We bought properties, furnished them and spoke about returning
Indeed, many properties, in prime locations remain empty awaiting the return of those abroad
We struggled with elderly parents being alone back home
Many of us brought our parents to live with us – despite their resistance
AND THE YEARS PASSED
Before long, years had passed
10 years, twenty years, and more
We initially used to discuss our return
We debated how a new generation of Sudanese should bring up children and how we could help in the creation of a new Sudanese identity while not being physically in the Sudan
We debated whether a Sudanese identity relied on a geographical location or whether it could be nurtured elsewhere
We debated what was good in our culture and compared ourselves to other cultures and debated what we should rather adopt
When of some our children started escaping to join ISIS (in the period 2015-2016), we were temporarily shaken out of our complacency… what is our generation in the diaspora getting wrong?
We reached the age where we started debating whether we would retire in our host countries or perhaps go back home
And life went on in a tedious and predictable routine
We thought this was how our lives would continue, and end…
THEN THE REVOLUTION ERUPTED
Our lives completely changed with the start of the protests in December 2018
For months, we have been glued to our phones – at critical times, we could not sleep
It was a responsibility, we declared, for us to become the voice of those leading and maintaining the struggles internally
We were fascinated by the youngsters who adopted the slogan peaceful (silmiya) and just fall (tasgot bas), and were absolute resolute and articulate in their vision for a non-racist, non-sexist future Sudan – referring to the revolution as a “revolution of awareness” (thawrat waay)
We were inspired by the youth-led revolution and the slogan “the whole country is Darfur” (kul al balad Darfur) and when the revolutionary spirit erupted in a beautiful avalanche of music, art, poetry – and “re-branded” as a cultural and social revolution
We took pride in the fact that the protestors were disciplined and non-violent at every stage of the revolution
We were concerned when the time extended to months, and we were then reassured as we felt that the long stretch of time had allowed for better organisation and conceptualisation of a way forward
We re-grouped and devised ways in which we could support and actively participate
Through the guidance of the Sudan Professionals Association (SPA), we re-connected as engineers, architects, medical doctors, lawyers, and other professions
We started working on bringing back to life the dismantled professional unions and associations
We devised methods of lobbying support, recording information, designed logos, assisted with communications and raised funding
Though few of us were professional journalists, many of us became involved in trying to develop media and communication strategies
We issued media statements and bugged journalists and human rights activists when no one wanted to cover the Sudan, and we then struggled to respond to media requests when everyone wanted to report on the Sudan
“Sudan is subjected to multiple marginalisation – too African for the Arabs and too Arab for the Africans.”
When the protestors occupied the space around the Military Complex for two months, we followed everything and everyone closely; we memorised the protests songs, we knew the people who protected the barricades in name, the artwork was imprinted in our minds and hearts
We wrote articles documenting the site and its activities believing that the site was a microcosm of the envisioned future Sudan of “freedom, peace and justice” (huriya, salaam, aadala)
We sent money to clean the space, to erect the tents, provide the mattresses, to furnish the classrooms and clothe the homeless children who found refuge at the site; we sent money to provide water, food and to erect shade structures
Indeed, I have also labelled this as a revolution of legendary Sudanese generosity
We broke down when the sit-in was violently dispersed and had to explain to journalists to please forgive us as we are not really politicians or reporters
We used the hashtag #mediacoveragesaveslives when the killings intensified and we wrote academic articles which aimed to assess exactly how many people had died throughout the protests
Having focused on our personal lives, professions and livelihoods for so many years, we were thrown into a new role that we were little prepared for, but wholeheartedly embraced
We were devastated when we saw the janjaweed militia (Rapid Support Forces RSF) take power and optimistic when we felt that agreements might be reached
We started to again believe that maybe we will return…
THE MAIN ISSUES FOR ME AS AN ARCHITECT
The new global realities – beyond geographic borders: the “city” and the “nation” as concepts have been “unsettled and reorganised in global time and space: the nation has also become increasingly detached from the formal territory of the nation-state through “long-distance nationalism” and the spaces of “diasporic citizenship”” (Crysler, 2003); the relationship between those in the country and those outside of it has come to the fore. Technology has allowed for this new reality.
The Generational Gaps; the movement has exposed tensions between the different generations; this has been incredibly evident in my own work with the engineering and architectural professional communities; the engineering groupings are split into two, one of the groups very evidently representing “young blood” and the other claiming to be representative of the “authentic” unions before they were dismantled by ElBashir; while they are now working together and have established a combined steering committee to take the profession forward in unity, neither group wants to abandon its name and identity and it is obvious that their modes of operation, communication methods and vision differ.
Gender representation has also come to the fore: while the movement seems to have been influenced and led by many young women, their exclusion