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Egypt’s leaderless revolution

  • 20 April, 2015
  • Published in Egypt

By David Ottaway and Marina Ottaway

The 25 January Egyptian uprising always had scant possibilities of success. The country’s secular and Islamist revolutionaries were odd bedfellows from the beginning. They agreed on forcing President Hosni Mubarak from power, but harboured different dreams and notions of a new Egypt, and often followed conflicting strategies. Other political forces, including the revolutionary youth, were weak and poorly organised. In the end, the uprising led to a totally different outcome than what the millions who took to the streets had envisaged, and by early 2013 it had run its course.

If the possibility for success was limited, the uprising was not completely doomed from the start. For over a year following the forced departure of Mubarak, different choices by leaders and political organisations might have led to a degree of success, although not likely to a full-blown democracy.

We should begin by stipulating what the term ‘success’ meant in the Egyptian political context of the 2011-2013 period. Both secular and Islamic activists held up placards demanding ‘Bread, Freedom, and Dignity’, sometimes substituting ‘social justice’ for the last word. What they pushed for immediately, however, were authentic free and fair elections, freedom of speech and assembly, and an end to authoritarian rule. The key components of their ideal new political order included a multiparty democracy, a parliament with real powers, an independent judiciary, and unfettered media – including social media. In the end, most Egyptians probably would have settled for less. But no group, regardless of ideological and theological differences, would initially have considered the restoration of authoritarian rule to be anything but complete failure. Only with the advent of Islamist rule under the Muslim Brotherhood did Egypt’s old upper class, including the so-called liberals, come to redefine success to the point of welcoming the return of military rule.

The Egyptian drama from authoritarianism to uprising and back to authoritarianism unfolded in four distinct phases: 1) the unsettled period preceding the uprising; 2) the eighteen days of mass demonstrations leading up to Mubarak’s departure; 3) the subsequent year under the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF); and 4) the brief period of Muslim Brotherhood rule under President Mohammed Morsi.

Cusp of revolt

In late 2010, the social and economic situation was exceedingly ripe for revolution. An economic boom starting six years earlier had doubled Egypt’s Gross Domestic Product to $218 billion but widened the gap between the poorest and richest, and put the middle class in an economic cramp. Ahmed Nazif, who became prime minister in 2004, had lifted constraints on the private sector with the backing of Mubarak and, above all, of the president’s two businessmen sons, Gamal and Alaa. The result was the rise of a class of nouveaux richeled by a small number of oligarchs. However, the middle class and the five million civilian government employees did not benefit from the boom and came under increasing financial stress. Inflation had reached thirteen per cent while the official minimum wage had remained the same since 1984, at about seven dollars a day. And forty-four per cent of Egyptians were living on less than two dollars a day.

Most dangerous politically was the plight of twenty million Egyptians between the ages of eighteen and twenty-nine who constituted the ‘youth bulge’ and accounted for ninety per cent of the country’s jobless. A 2010 United Nations report noted that Egypt faced an ‘ever growing supply of unemployed graduates’. (The year of the uprising, a further 343 500 Egyptians graduated with university degrees.) By 2008, a report by the United States Agency for International Development was already warning of trouble. ‘Accelerated growth juxtaposed with persistent poverty can generate social tension and instability as people become frustrated by insufficient opportunity for upward mobility,’ the report said.

The frustration was most evident within Egypt’s labour force affected by the privatisation of numerous state-run industries which caused massive job reductions. Just as vexing were persistent low wages in both the private and public sectors. The extent of labour unrest came to public notice in 2006 with the strike of 27 000 workers over wages and conditions at the state-run Misr Spinning and Weaving Company in Mahalla El-Kubra. By 2010, unemployed workers were camping out day and night outside the parliament building in the capital. A report by the American Federation of Labor-Congress of Industrial Organization (AFL-CIO) called it ‘the largest social movement Egypt has witnessed in more than half a century’, and estimated that 1.7 million workers had engaged in more than 1 900 strikes or other protests between 2004 and 2008.

Persistent labour unrest gave rise in 2008 to the first attempt by a pro-democracy civil society group to link discontented workers to the struggle for political reform. On 6 April that year, young pro-democracy activists from Cairo went to Mahalla to express support for striking workers as part of a national protest. Thus was born the April 6 Youth Movement that would play a central role in January 2011. Its Facebook page quickly attracted tens of thousands of supporters. The link between the workers’ economic demands and the young protesters’ political ones was never firmly established, however; and this became a weak point of the uprising.

Meanwhile, Egypt was preparing for the succession to Mubarak. In office since 1981, he was ailing and his future uncertain, but the country’s power elite was deeply divided over who should replace him. Mubarak’s rumoured plan for his son, Gamal, to succeed him in elections scheduled for 2011 had roiled the leadership of the ruling National Democratic Party (NDP). The old guard wanted to see Hosni Mubarak run for a sixth term while younger modernisers championed Gamal. The issue became more acute after Mubarak was flown to Germany in March 2010 for a gall bladder removal. Gamal’s presidential bid was opposed not only by the NDP old guard, but, most importantly, by the military. Every president since the 1952 revolution led by Gamal Abdel Nasser had been a military officer; Gamal Mubarak had never served in the army and had made no effort to cultivate ties with its leadership.

Another factor in the unsettled succession equation was the February 2010 return of Mohamed ElBaradei, the long-time head of the International Atomic Energy Agency in Vienna and 2005 Nobel Peace Prize winner. He immediately launched a bold campaign against the Mubarak regime, demanding authentic free and fair elections and an end to the twenty-nine-year-old state of emergency. Although he never declared the intention to run for the presidency, he was widely viewed as the most viable candidate to wrest power from the Mubaraks. His supporters set up the National Association for Change, which began gathering one million signatures on a petition demanding all kinds of constitutional and other reforms. The staid diplomat warned Egypt had become a ‘time bomb’ and advocated street protests and civil disobedience to press for reforms. His appearance on the political scene galvanised the opposition as never before, with leftist parties, civil society groups, and the Muslim Brotherhood rallying to his cause. Finally, ElBaradei laid down the gauntlet calling for a boycott of parliamentary elections in November 2010 with the declared aim to ‘deprive’ the Mubarak regime of its legitimacy.

Those elections primed the pump for the uprising. The NDP had one goal: to drive the Muslim Brotherhood – whose candidates running as independents had won eighty-eight seats in the People’s Assembly – entirely out of politics. In the run-up to the elections, it arrested 1 200 Brotherhood organisers, broke up its rallies, and blocked a number of its candidates from running. So it came as no surprise that in the first of two election rounds on 28 November, the NDP won 209 seats outright and the Brotherhood not even one. In reaction, both the Brotherhood and the liberal secular Wafd Party decided to boycott successive rounds, allowing the NDP to win more than ninety per cent of the seats. ElBaradei described the elections as a national ‘tragedy’ and ‘the straw that broke the camel’s back’. He called for a boycott of the presidential election scheduled for 2011.

Altogether, nearly all developments that took place throughout 2010 were extremely favourable to igniting an uprising. The level of public discontent with economic conditions was spreading from the working to the middle class; Mubarak was in failing health; and the ruling party was divided over whether to back him or his son Gamal. Both the military and pro-democracy groups were opposed to another Mubarak as president. The November elections had seriously alienated not only the Muslim Brotherhood, but also secular opposition parties and pro-democracy civil society groups. A credible alternative presidential candidate, ElBaradei, was openly challenging the established elite for the first time in contemporary Egyptian political history.

But conditions were less favourable to the transformation of an uprising into a sustained movement for change. Egypt lacked strong political organisations other than the outlawed but tolerated Muslim Brotherhood. The April 6 Movement had failed either to forge an alliance with labour, or to build bridges to the Muslim Brotherhood. ElBaradei’s National Association for Change had not gone beyond collecting signatures. Nor had civilian pro-democracy activists made any contact with the military even though both opposed another Mubarak as president.

Taking the Square

The scope and initial success of the street protests on 25 January caught everyone, including its organisers and the security services, by surprise. The April 6 Movement had been gearing up to launch a nationwide protest mid-2011 to contest the expected nomination of Gamal Mubarak as the NDP’s candidate in the presidential election. But the flight of Tunisia’s President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali on 14 January emboldened Egyptians by demonstrating that even a ubiquitous police state was vulnerable to the street. Wael Ghonim, the Egyptian activist working for Google, mused on Facebook on the day of Ben Ali’s departure, ‘If 100 000 take to the street, no one can stop us…I wonder if we can?’ Most unexpected was the readiness of virtually all segments of Egyptian society, including entire families from the middle class and even some from the upper class, to swell the crowds gathering in Tahrir Square and on streets of cities from Alexandria in the north to Minya in the south. Muslims and Christian Copts stood side by side defending one another against the repeated attempts of security forces to clear the square. Women came out in huge numbers. Muslim Brotherhood youth fought alongside soccer fan toughs known as Ultras, first in the name of ‘Bread, Freedom, and Dignity’, and then ‘The people want the overthrow of the regime’.

Also favouring the uprising’s success was the collapse of the 325 000-person Central Security Forces that disintegrated under the stress of night and day confrontation with hundreds of thousands of protesters. Chaos ensued as protesters turned their ire on NDP party offices across the country and set ablaze its headquarters in downtown Cairo. They assaulted police stations everywhere, besieged the Interior Ministry in Cairo, and freed 23 000 prisoners – many of them Muslim Brotherhood leaders and members – from Wadi El-Natroun prison. Following the 28 January ‘Day of Rage’ protest, Mubarak dismissed Prime Minster Nazif and his government, while the interior minister, Habib El-Adly, submitted his resignation, declaring his security forces could no longer contain the uprising.

What finally and irrevocably turned the tide against Mubarak, however, was the refusal of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces to order the military to participate in suppressing the uprising by the use of force. On 31 January, SCAF issued a statement acknowledging ‘the legitimacy of the people’s demands’, and stating that the armed forces ‘have not and will not resort to the use of force against this great people’. It would take another eleven days of pressure before Mubarak yielded and gave up power. But it was not the revolutionaries in the streets who finally forced Mubarak to resign on 11 February after nearly thirty years in office. Rather, it was his General Intelligence chief, Omar Suleiman, and SCAF leaders. In the end, Suleiman too was sidelined and power passed to SCAF, leaving the military in charge of the country’s fate.

With Mubarak’s departure, the uprising had achieved its first and most pressing objective. The massive street protests had established for the first time in contemporary Egyptian politics the principle of ‘revolutionary legitimacy’. However, the rapidity with which the uprising had succeeded created a new set of thorny issues distinctly unfavourable to a transition toward democracy. No charismatic civilian leader had emerged to take charge. Even ElBaradei, the best placed to fulfil that role, had retreated to the sidelines when confronted with the chaos and dangers of the street. Not until 7 February, four days before Mubarak’s ouster, was the ‘January 25 Revolutionary Youth Coalition’ set up, comprising ten leading activists in what was meant to be a collective leadership. Wael Ghonim’s description of the uprising seems pretty accurate: ‘A revolution without a leader and without an organising body.’

Another unfavourable development during those eighteen days of revolutionary fervour was the failure of secular activists to develop a working alliance with the Egyptian Federation of Independent Trade Unions, which sprang up on the fifth day of the uprising – in defiance of the government-controlled ones – to launch strikes across the country. The federation quickly grew to encompass 1.6 million workers organised in 100 unions. Strikes paralysed public transport in and around Cairo on 7 February, and workers in Suez Canal service companies went out as well. On 9 February, the new independent unions held a nationwide strike. But these strikes were mainly driven by grievances over wages, job security, and union rights – workers seemed more interested in taking advantage of the uprising to press their own demands than toppling Mubarak. No alliance between political and labour activists emerged from the uprising.

Strained relations between secular activists and the Muslim Brotherhood were to prove even more consequential to the course of subsequent events. Members of the Brotherhood’s youth wing had been deeply involved in the uprising from the beginning, and four days later the leadership exhorted its 600 000 members to join the protests. This immediately raised fears among secular protesters that Islamists were moving in to ‘hijack’ their revolution. So much suspicion of the Brotherhood’s intentions arose that on 7 February the Revolutionary Youth Coalition felt obliged to issue a statement reassuring Egyptians that Islamists had not taken over Tahrir Square.

A final heavy legacy of the uprising was the absolutely central role played by the military in ousting Mubarak. It had done this without consulting any of the civilian groups involved in the uprising. Secular and Islamist groups found themselves equally sidelined, highly dependent on what SCAF might do next, and as suspicious of the military and its motives as they were of each other. Both were suddenly aware that SCAF was in a position to dictate the outcome of their respective bids for power.

The year of SCAF
In the almost eighteen months between Mubarak’s removal by the military, and the election of Morsi, the contradictions that would eventually doom the uprising started emerging. It was a period of constant turmoil, with political battles played out partly in the streets and partly at the polls and in the courts.

The military was determined to follow a formally democratic political process, leading to the formation of a civilian government that would allow the military to resume its preferred role of exerting influence behind the scenes, rather than governing directly. The military, the Islamist parties, the secular parties, and revolutionary youth groups all agreed that Egypt had to move quickly toward restoring political due process. That meant holding elections for a new parliament and president as well as writing a new constitution.

There was no agreement at all, however, on the sequencing of these steps. A commission appointed by SCAF quickly revised the most controversial articles of the old constitution and submitted them to a referendum on March 19. Secular parties opposed the referendum, arguing that more discussion was needed, but everybody else supported it, including the Muslim Brotherhood. SCAF then incorporated the articles into a Constitutional Declaration issued on 30 March. With this interim charter in place, Egypt would then hold parliamentary and presidential elections, to be followed by the writing of a new constitution. Secular parties again opposed the plan. First, they wanted to postpone the elections for as long as possible, claiming that early elections would give the Muslim Brotherhood, which had been organising for years, undue advantage. (It is worth noting that one of the most important secular parties, the Wafd, had existed longer that the Brotherhood.) Secular parties also wanted to be sure that the new constitution would not be shaped by Islamist parties and thus did not want it to be written by an elected body, where Islamists were bound to be well represented.

The proposed compromise solution was that all political parties should agree on a set of irrevocable ‘supra constitutional principles’ that would bind whoever wrote the constitution. The idea gained acceptance, but different groups – from Al-Azhar, the historic centre of Islamic learning, to the government itself – set forth their own sets of such principles. They were extremely contradictory, with secularists insisting Egypt must be a civil state and Islamists demanding an Islamic state with shari'ah the main source of legislation.

The most controversial of these sets of supra constitutional principles was the one proposed by the deputy prime minister for political affairs, Ali Al-Silmi, on behalf of the government and the military in November 2011. The document reflected SCAF’s demands in stipulating that the military and its budget remain outside any form of civilian oversight. It also reflected those of secular parties in proposing the constitution be written not by an elected body, but by an eighty-member committee based on corporatist representation: seats would be allocated for political parties, labour unions, and business associations as well as for social and religious groups like workers and peasants, Muslim and Christian authorities, and even ‘people with special needs’. The document was rejected in the midst of angry street protests demanding that SCAF speed up the election process and return to the barracks. The principles and process it spelled out endured, however, and became the basis for the writing of the 2014 constitution.

Meanwhile, the growing imbalance between secular and Islamist political forces was becoming more and more apparent. The Muslim Brotherhood was well organised and so too, to the surprise of all Egyptians, were the newly formed Salafi parties, above all the Al-Nour Party. On the other hand, the youth groups that had led the uprising seemed to abhor strong, hierarchical organisation on principle, favouring instead egalitarianism and loose networks held together by Twitter, Facebook, and cell phones. While these means had worked well in mobilising street protests, they failed to give youth groups any traction in organising for elections or influencing policy decisions.

The mainstream political parties were also ineffective in generating public support and knew it. They responded by trying, unsuccessfully, to postpone elections. When the parliamentary elections in late 2011 and early 2012 confirmed their worst fears—with Islamists winning seventy percent of the People’s Assembly seats and secular parties of all ideological colorations combined only thirty percent – secularists simply rejected the new parliament.

Instead, they turned to various state institutions, particularly the courts controlled by the old elite, and used them to oppose the newly-elected parliament and later the presidency. The main battle was waged between the Supreme Constitutional Court on the one side and the Islamist-dominated parliament and constituent assembly on the other. The result was the permanent dissolution of parliament and of the first constituent assembly, while the second one survived but remained under imminent threat of court-ordered dismissal.

The possibility the parliament would be disbanded by a court decision, as eventually happened, convinced the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood to present a candidate for upcoming presidential elections, reversing an earlier decision not to do so. The decision was controversial even within the organisation, where many considered it ill-advised, while other political parties saw it as an attempt to dominate Egyptian politics and impose their own form of authoritarian rule.

The presidential election was hard fought, with the second round of voting coming down to a close contest between Muslim Brotherhood candidate Morsi and Ahmed Shafik, a former air force commander and Mubarak’s last prime minister, who was favoured by the old elite and military. Many had predicted SCAF would not allow an Islamist victory, but the military council took another tack instead. On the eve of the run-off vote, it issued an amended Constitutional Declaration that specified all legislative power would remain in SCAF’s hands until a new parliament was elected, thus hemming in the president. When Morsi won the elections by a narrow margin, SCAF accepted the victory, confident that the new president would have limited power.

In summary, this second phase of the unfolding Egyptian revolution ended in a draw. SCAF had allowed a Brotherhood leader to win presidential elections, though it still sought to hold onto legislative power. The Islamists had shown that they could muster widespread electoral support, but still had to demonstrate they could parlay that asset into institutional power. The secular parties had found out just how little popular support they could mobilise, but discovered a way to compensate by enlisting the judiciary for their cause.

Only the revolutionary youth groups could be said to have suffered a clear defeat as they had failed to translate their claim to ‘revolutionary legitimacy’ derived from the street into ‘constitutional legitimacy’ based on democratic elections. Constant resort to street protests had had a positive impact in keeping the demand for change alive, but also engendered a sense of fatigue among many Egyptians increasingly yearning for a return to normal life.

Brothers in office
After Morsi’s election, the Brotherhood tried to play by the rules. It decided to accept the Supreme Constitutional Court’s authority and thus the dissolution of parliament, although the decision was based on somewhat flimsy legal grounds. However, it successfully repealed the supplementary Constitutional Declaration issued in June transferring all legislative powers to SCAF. It also continued working on the new constitution through a constituent assembly, the composition of which had been negotiated with the military and the old elite. The effort to produce a constitution acceptable to all sides proved futile, however, after most secularist members of the assembly refused to participate in its work. In Tunisia, Islamists and secularists fought over the new constitution article by article, word by word. In Egypt, secularists stayed home, and most battles were fought between the Muslim Brotherhood and the fundamentalist Salafis. In the meanwhile, a swirl of lawsuits threatened the Brotherhood. Some were aimed at dissolution of the constituent assembly, others at the banning of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party or of the Brotherhood itself. The cases were never adjudicated, but hearings were repeatedly postponed, thus prolonging the threat. Playing by the rules was an uphill battle. Although the Brotherhood theoretically controlled both executive and legislative power, its hold on the country was extremely flimsy because of the constant legal challenges and because it did not control either the military or the bureaucracy. Accused by its adversaries of having ‘brotherised’ the state, the Brotherhood in reality remained on the margins of a state apparatus that had been shaped by three decades of Mubarak rule and was still largely controlled by his people.

Morsi appeared briefly to have won a major victory in August 2012 when he fired minister of defence and SCAF chair Field Marshal Mohamed Hussein Tantawi, and Army chief of staff Sami Anan, replacing them respectively with General Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and General Sidki Sobhi. Because Tantawi and Anan had controlled SCAF and governed Egypt directly or indirectly since Mubarak’s overthrow, their dismissal was initially seen inside and outside Egypt as a shift in the balance of power between military and civilian. Sisi, many concluded, owed his appointment to Morsi and would accept his leadership. In reality, the Tantawi’s removal had been negotiated between Morsi and Sisi, the main beneficiary of the change.

Morsi was convinced, erroneously as it turned out, that the military was now on his side and he tried to exercise, even in small ways, his prerogatives as commander-in-chief of the armed forces. One example was the 6 October annual celebration marking the 1973 crossing of the Suez Canal into Israeli-occupied Sinai. Morsi invited to the traditional parade Islamist leaders who were utterly unacceptable to the military because they had been involved in the assassination of President Anwar Sadat on the same occasion in 1981. The provocative gesture infuriated Sisi personally, and made the rift between the two unbridgeable.

Morsi worsened matters by issuing on 22 November 2012 his amendment to the Constitutional Declaration, putting the constituent assembly and himself above the reach of the courts – above the law, as it was generally interpreted. The provision, a last ditch attempt to prevent the courts from dissolving the constituent assembly, would only remain in effect until the new constitution was enacted, which happened a month later. But the damage was done. From that point on, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood lost whatever legitimacy they had left in the eyes of a growing portion of the general public. Their credibility had already been severely eroded by a combination of a deteriorating economic situation, secularist fears that the Brotherhood would try to impose strict Islamic law, and hostile media. The ever-squabbling secular parties, which had been trying for months to forge alliances that appeared to dissolve the day after they were announced, were sufficiently provoked by Morsi’s amendment to finally come together in a National Salvation Front.

From then on, the situation worsened. The revolutionary mood had been replaced by a longing for stability and jobs. The revolutionary youth groups had no sense of direction and even less of organisation. A new movement, Tamarod, emerged, apparently intent on renewing the revolutionary fervour of 2011, but, in reality, with a totally different agenda and sponsor.

Tamarod, or Rebellion, declared itself in late April 2013. It claimed to be a youth group whose main aim was to collect signatures on a petition demanding Morsi’s removal. Whether or not the movement was genuinely started by young people acting on their own, as its leaders claimed, it was soon taken over by state security. In a matter of weeks it spread to almost all governorates in a well-orchestrated campaign that required extensive organisation and resources way beyond the capacity of such a small new group to have mustered. Soon Tamarod started calling for a massive anti-Morsi demonstration on 30 June, the day he had come into office a year earlier. It was those demonstrations, again engaging millions of Egyptians, which provided the military with the political cover to arrest Morsi on 3 July. The number of protesters clamouring for Morsi’s removal certainly did not reach the thirty or forty million claimed by the organisers, but the demonstrations were nationwide, massive, and more widespread than those during the 2011 uprising. They left no doubt that public sentiment had turned against the Muslim Brotherhood.

A Failed transformation

The dream of idealistic youth groups, the intelligentsia, and many secularists and Islamists of establishing a parliamentary-based democracy in place of military-backed authoritarianism vanished in July 2013. The initial uprising had begun as a spontaneous happening loosely coordinated by cyberspace-connected networks of would-be revolutionaries. Islamists had soon superseded the original organisers as the emerging political force. But Egypt had eventually been taken over by a much more powerful and well-organised coalition of the military, security services, judiciary, and state bureaucracy, all determined to bring down the Brotherhood and restore the old order.

The uprising was not doomed to complete failure from the beginning, but it quickly faced shortcomings in leadership and organisation, and the widening divide between secularists and Islamists. Major political actors bear much responsibility for the failure: certainly the Muslim Brotherhood, but also leaders of the so-called liberal parties who, after their debacle in the 2012 parliamentary and presidential elections, turned their backs on the democratic process and looked to the courts and the military for their salvation – even at the cost of renewed authoritarianism. Ironically, secularist fears that Islamic rule would mean ‘one man, one vote, one time’ turned out to be true, but not because of the Muslim Brotherhood. Secular liberal parties in alliance with the military and state institutions were primarily responsible for Egypt’s return to authoritarianism.

In retrospect, it is clear that Morsi’s election did not represent the triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood, but the second step in its undoing. The first step had been its overwhelming victory, together with the Salafi al-Nour Party, in the parliamentary election. This mobilised the judiciary and, more broadly, the old secular elite into action to deprive the Brotherhood of power. Morsi’s election then reinforced the secularist resolve to halt the Muslim Brotherhood by switching from the polls to the courts and state institutions. The Brotherhood made one last attempt to move the fight back to the electoral arena by calling for new parliamentary elections in April 2013, but the Supreme Constitutional Court aborted this plan by rejecting the proposed election law twice, even after it was amended to meet the court’s demands.

Muslim Brotherhood leaders were extremely slow to understand that the political dynamics had radically changed. Perhaps because they had invested so much in the formal political process, they remained convinced that elections conferred upon them unassailable ‘constitutional legitimacy’. They confused legitimacy and effective power, which continued to reside with the military and state institutions where the Brotherhood had a minimal presence. Even their legitimacy in the eyes of the Egyptian public was quickly dissipating as a result of their poor decisions and under a relentless propaganda campaign in the media.

Muslim Brotherhood leaders made many mistakes and provoked their adversaries unnecessarily, but in the end they succeeded in bringing about almost no change. They did not ‘Islamise Egypt’ or ‘brotherise’ the bureaucracy; they simply did not have the power or the time to commit the outrages of which they were so roundly accused. What they did was less important than what they represented: a counter-elite with a different value system and a threatening alternative to the old liberal and military establishments. Their own missteps made it easier for the military and the deep state to engineer their downfall, but a competent, well-managed government led by the Muslim Brotherhood would have been even more threatening to the old political elite and military.

That elite must share responsibility for the revolution’s failure. Weighed down by a sense of class entitlement, it made little effort to fight for popular support, the sine qua non for success in a democratic system. Instead, from the beginning its leaders complained of the unfairness of elections held before they had time to organise. Time was not their major problem, however. Secularists had been divided and disorganised before the 2012 parliamentary elections, but they were still that way when Morsi called for new elections in April 2013. Indeed, they appeared to be just as riven by personal rivalries among competing leaders and just as disorganised in the run-up to the planned 2015 parliamentary elections.

Mohamed ElBaradei, who emerged at various time as the great hope of Egyptian secularists, stands out as an apt symbol of the old elite’s political failings. He refused to run for president on the ground that Egypt was insufficiently democratic, but did little to make it more democratic. Nor did he seem upset when his supporters tried unsuccessfully to convince the military to name him president, skipping elections. He launched the Destour Party but did little to build it into a viable force. After the July 2013 military takeover, he readily accepted an appointment as Sisi’s vice president. But ElBaradei resigned six weeks later, after the military dispersed pro-Morsi demonstrators in Cairo at a high cost in lives – Human Rights Watch reports that at least 817 were killed – apparently appalled by the violence that had been predictable ever since his appointment. Whatever ElBaradei’s commitment to democracy in theory, he was never ready to lead secularists in the hard struggle to make it a reality and was all too ready to accept unelected high positions in government.

The overwhelming victory of Islamist parties in the 2012 parliamentary and presidential elections doomed the revolution. Afterward, any hope for an Islamic-secular governing coalition such as evolved in Tunisia vanished, and polarisation between the two opposing forces became unstoppable. No interposing third party emerged to mediate between Islamists and military, reflecting the persistent inability of secularists to get their own house in order. The failure of leadership on the part of the Muslim Brotherhood, secularists, and revolutionary youth made the return to military rule inevitable.

*David Ottaway is a senior scholar at the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He worked for the Washington Post as a foreign correspondent in the Middle East, Africa, and Southern Europe and later as a national security and investigative reporter in Washington for thirty-five years. He is the author of The King’s Messenger: Prince Bandar bin Sultan and America’s Tangled Relationship with Saudi Arabia. His forthcoming book is Anatomy of the Arab Revolution.

**Marina Ottaway is a senior scholar at the Middle East Program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and a long-time analyst of political transformations in Africa, the Balkans, and the Middle East. She is the author of numerous books, including Democracy Challenged: The Rise of Semi-Authoritarianism; Africa’s New Leaders: Democracy or State Reconstruction?; and South Africa: The Struggle for a New Order.

***This essay originally appeared in the Spring 2015 edition of the Cairo Review of Global Affairs, the quarterly journal of the School of Global Affairs and Public Policy at the American University in Cairo, and is published by AMEC with permission

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By Francis A Kornegay Jr

US President Barack Obama, in his struggle to fashion a transformative foreign policy by reshaping the balance of America’s relationships in the Middle East, faces formidable resistance from Israel’s right-wing Likud government allied with the most reactionary Republican-controlled US Congress in recent memory. There are, however, two missing dimensions that must be inserted into Obama’s equations regarding Iran and Israel within the context of the framework accord between Tehran and the P5+1 (US, UK, France, China, Russia, and Germany): the Palestinians, and the level of black support for Obama’s Middle East policy.

Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, cynically uses an alleged Iran nuclear existential threat to distract international attention from Israel’s main problem: the Palestinian national question. This despite his intelligence establishment regarding the Iranian nuclear programme with much less alarm. At the same time, the US African-American political establishment within Obama’s Democratic Party constituency appears to be ‘missing in action’ instead of acting as a core base of support for Obama’s attempt at a complicated resetting of Middle East policy.

The absence of American black political leadership in the debate over Obama’s Middle East change agenda focusing on an Iran nuclear deal must seriously be considered within the context of the polarised balance of political forces confronting Obama. These include a powerful Likud-Republican Party alliance that has successfully destabilised a once solid bipartisan Israel lobby dominating the US Congress; a congressional Democratic Party divided over whether to support Obama’s Iran diplomacy or to follow the Likud-Republican lead aimed at undermining the nuclear deal; a powerful minority of billionaire plutocrats financing the Likud- Republican alliance (and rightwing Republican presidential hopefuls for 2016). Yet, as powerful as these forces are, the Israel lobby has never been as vulnerable as it currently is, and this is mainly because of Netanyahu. His belligerent intransigence in blocking a peace agreement with Palestinians, and his abrasive opposition to any nuclear accord with Iran, coupled with his exploiting partisan polarisation in American politics – including implacable anti-Obama hatred among Republicans – is unintentionally exposing how detrimental the Israel lobby is to US interests, and emphasising that the interests of the USA and Israel are not identical.

Netanyahu, in the process, has divided the Jewish community, drawing rebukes from some of its leading Senate members. He has also managed to sharply divide Israelis. This almost cost him the re-election; he was saved by his last-minute renouncing of an Israeli-Palestinian two-state solution, and his racist pandering to a constituency fearful of Arab voter mobilisation in Israel. Revealingly, the opprobrium caused by Netanyahu’s fear mongering among many Americans and Israelis over how this would impact the close US-Israeli relationship was not shared by Republicans. Little wonder since Republicans are seized with anti-black and anti-Hispanic voter suppression that is backed by a Supreme Court that has gutted the Voting Rights Act.

Given this unique set of converging circumstances, a concerted mobilisation in support of Obama’s Iran diplomacy could reshape the domestic politics of US Middle East policy that is currently dominated by the Israel lobby. A critically important consideration in this dynamic is how the intensity of political polarisation instigated by Netanyahu and his Likud-Republican alliance over an Iran deal has rendered ineffective accusations of anti-Semitism against those opposed to the confrontational anti-Iran and anti-peace policies of Tel Aviv. Netanyahu’s oppositional coalition to Obama, and the disrespect he and Republicans exhibit toward the US president, are substantial enough in the USA to overcome accusations of anyone being anti-Israel or anti-Semitic.

Keeping in mind that a major aim of Netanyahu in opposing any diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear programme is to distract the USA and the international community from focusing on the urgency of an Israeli-Palestinian resolution, there are a number of openings emerging to challenge current Middle East policy. This requires identifying the weak links and potentialities in devising an Obama-Iran support strategy that resonates in other areas of Middle East policy as well, principally in supporting an Israeli-Palestinian resolution. The weak link in the Netanyahu coalition is the congressional Democratic Party. This is where pressure could be exerted on Obama’s behalf with a strategic insertion of black political support for him on Iran, accompanied by pressure to shift policy emphasis toward the plight of Palestinians and Arab citizens of Israel.

The nexus between exerting pressure on congressional Democrats and black mobilisation in support of Obama on Iran is underlined by the strategic role of Jewish Democrats in the House and Senate linked to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), and the need for the Congressional Black Caucus to erect a political firewall of support around Obama that promotes an alternative Middle East policy agenda. New York senator Chuck Shumer, the likely successor to Nevada senator Harry Reid as Senate minority leader, has already expressed support for a bill requiring any Iran nuclear deal to be approved by Congress – in violation of the president’s constitutional prerogatives in conducting US foreign policy. Should a final deal be reached in June between Iran and the P5+1, it will not be a treaty subject to Senate ratification. Shumer’s support for this anti-Iran deal breaker could prove decisive in a Senate bid to override Obama’s certain veto.

The liberal activist community has already mobilised in support of Obama. Does the Congressional Black Caucus have the courage to lead this battle in batting for America’s first black president on this legacy issue and, in the process, turn it into a policy challenge to Netanyahu and the Israel lobby on the issue of Palestine? A visible black intervention would heighten contradictions for Democrats looking to jump on the Netanyahu-Republican bandwagon. If Shumer and other Democrats join Republicans in a bid to undermine Obama’s Iran policy, thereby isolating the USA internationally, the Caucus must devise a counter strategy that not only publically supports an Iran nuclear deal but goes beyond to:

  • call on the USA to support a nuclear-free zone in the Middle East; and
  • prevail upon Israel, as a nuclear weapons’ state, to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty as Iran has done.

As a corollary to an Iran deal aimed at promoting peace in the Middle East, the Obama administration should more closely align its policy on Israel with that of its European allies, some of whose parliaments are recognising Palestinian statehood. In that vein, since Netanyahu has tried to ‘walk back’ his statement that there would never be a two-state solution as long as he is prime minister, the Obama administration must:

  • require Tel Aviv to make good on this by ceasing all settlement building and expansion in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, failing which the USA will refrain from using its UN Security Council veto to shield Israel from criticism; and
  • support a French UN Security Council resolution laying out the terms and parameters of a two-state solution based on 1967 borders, Jerusalem as the shared capital of Israel and a Palestinian state and a just solution for Palestinian refugees.

Meanwhile, the Congressional Black Caucus should elevate its support for Palestinian statehood to be on par with its anti-apartheid South African solidarity campaign. It should:

  • support the international Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel’s illegal occupation of the West Bank and settler expansionism;
  • initiate exchange visits with Joint List members of the Israeli Knesset, and act as a bridge between Arab Knesset members and US Congress members;
  • partner with Iranian-Americans, Palestinians and other progressive stakeholders in convening a congressional conference on an alternative US Middle East policy; and
  • mobilise black communities, institutions and organisations as well as university student constituencies in support of these positions.

African Americans have largely been invisible in the debate over Obama’s foreign (and domestic) policy and national security strategy. Yet there is a close interrelationship between a transformative foreign policy and the domestic agenda Obama has tried, with difficulty, to advance in shaping his legacy over implacable Republican and rightwing reactionary resistance. Black America has a stake in helping Obama advance a progressive agenda on Iran and the Palestinians, issues which provide the Caucus with an opportunity to enhance its relevance.

* Francis Kornegay is senior fellow at the Institute for Global Dialogue-University of South Africa, a global fellow at the Woodrow Wilson International Centre of Scholars, and a former staffer of Congressional Black Caucus members.

By Afro-Middle East Centre

In early April 2015, sudden fighting broke out in the Yarmouk refugee camp between groups affiliated to the Islamic State group (IS) and Aknaf Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM), which is linked to Hamas. The already dire humanitarian situation in the camp has since worsened for about 15 000 Palestinian civilians still besieged there, out of the population of over 150 000 before the Syrian war began.

Overall situation in Yarmouk Camp

Suqur al-Joulan was forced out by a number of groups, led by ABM, inside the camp. They consisted exclusively of Palestinians, with most being Hamas members. Later, the situation developed in such a way that two main groups controlled most of the camp: ABM and Jabhah al-Nusra. For the past eighteen months there have been many initiatives seeking to maintain the camp’s neutrality and ending the siege. These involved the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) and a number of other Palestinian factions and popular committees. However, all these initiatives failed.

Meanwhile, the Syrian regime refused to allow the evacuation of civilians trapped inside the camp and allowed the entrance of only a limited amount of aid sent by European convoys, United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and some local NGOs. The presence of civilians led to a cautious truce between the regime and the opposition, which did not gain from subjecting the camp to bombardment or act in a way that would deprive it of aid. It was also not in the regime’s interest to be accused of targeting Palestinian refugees.

This equation ensured a state of relative ‘calm’ for about two years for regime forces in al-Qa'ah region overlooking Yarmouk’s northern entrance, which was the first flashpoint between the regime and opposition south of the capital. One of the reasons, therefore, that initiatives to keep the camp neutral had failed was that any settlement allowing civilians freedom of movement would remove the Yarmouk ‘buffer zone’ between regime and opposition lines south of the capital.

yarmouk map 2

Yellow: Altadamoun Groups; Brown: IS; Green: Aknaf; Ahrar Alsham; Red: Assad Regime

Recent developments

In the past five months there has been a wave of assassinations inside Yarmouk Camp which targeted a diverse group of individuals. They were all killed professionally and mysteriously, and included activists affiliated to Fatah, Hamas and other Palestinian factions. This wave was finally confronted with the assassination of Yahya Hourani (aka Abu Suhaib), a former Hamas official in Yarmouk, and a leading medical aid worker.

ABM first accused IS in the nearby al-Hajar al-Aswad area of orchestrating the murder, then detained IS members. Within twenty-four hours, IS raided the camp and besieged the Diaspora Office which is run by ABM. IS quickly took control of most of the southern parts of Yarmouk, which had previously been under the control of al-Nusra Front, sparking suggestions that there had been a prior agreement between the two groups about allowing IS in.

ABM subsequently clashed with IS in several parts of the camp. On the first two days of April violent fighting took place at a flashpoint along Nouh Ibrahim Street, which divides eastern Yarmouk nearly in half, and in 'Atta al-Zeer Street. On the third day, IS advance, thanks to its large contingent of around 1 000 fighters and adequate weapons supplues, while the Nusra Front prevented any reinforcements for ABM from entering the camp and advancing from the south.

As ABM retreated to the northern part of Yarmouk, forces from Fatah al-Intifada backed by regime forces and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine-General Command (PFLP-GC) advanced and seized an area in the north of the camp. This strengthened the regime’s presence along Palestine Street, and tightened the siege on ABM, which by the fifth day had retreated to a strip of 400 metres.

This development sparked panic among Yarmouk’s refugee population, especially after IS beheaded two young men and dumped their bodies in the street. Meanwhile, the humanitarian situation worsened as IS captured the only water distribution point in the camp, close to the Palestine Mosque, and all attempts to bring in food aid were suspended.

On the sixth day, ABM was able to rally a number of its members in the southern part of the camp, and it attacked IS positions, retaking the Cultural Centre area and a hospital. The next day a small group of defected Palestine Liberation Army fighters led by Colonel Khalid al-Hassan attempted to provide support to ABM in the northern part of the camp, launching a counterattack against IS. Hassan was killed in the fighting, and the current situation sees ABM under siege by IS and Nusra Front on one side, and by regime forces on the other.

Possible scenarios

In light of these developments, and the clear military advances by IS, scenarios for the future of Yarmouk will be linked to the future of the armed groups there. Some of these scenarios are:

  1. ABM continues to fight until its fighters runs out of ammunition. IS will advance and take control of the whole camp, and will detain or kill surviving ABM members and other fighters supporting them.
  2. ABM re-takes the initiative, advances into the centre of the camp, recaptures the whole camp or large parts of it.
  3. ABM makes a deal with one of the other parties, allowing it to withdraw from Yarmouk. There are several possibilities for such withdrawal:
    1. A deal with the Syrian regime to allow ABM to withdraw through regime-controlled areas to specific destinations: Khan al-Sheeh camp, west of the capital; Tadamon neighbourhood; near the Damascus countryside; or to the Dara'a countryside.
    2. A deal with ISIS and Nusra Front to allow ABM to pass through territory they control and withdraw towards Yalda, Babila, and Beit Sahem suburbs south of the camp.
    3. There is a possibility of a withdrawal that could be effected without any such deals, in the direction of Tadamon neighbourhood. There are various reasons, however, why this scenario is unlikely.

The withdrawal scenarios all look completely unlikely in the event the first or second scenarios pan out. In addition, attempts at a deal with ISIS and Nusra Front have already failed. There is also no appropriate mediator, whether Palestinian or foreign, that can assist in this regard. In the event that a withdrawal does happen, it will likely take place through a deal with the regime and with Palestinian or international guarantees, similar to the withdrawal of the fighters from Homs nearly a year ago. Although the issue of Yarmouk has reached the UN Security Council, discussions have centred on the humanitarian aspect, without any discussion about the fighters.

The most plausible scenario is that the ABM will manage recapture the initiative, and be able to rearm and resupply itself, with a view to seizing back control of Yarmouk or part of its northern area. The regime may allow this if it would result in a restoration of the status quo that had been in place for the past two years. It is also possible that ABM could co-opt Ahrar al-Sham, which controls a western part of Yarmouk, if the latter’s concerns regarding IS and Nusra Front are addressed.

Whatever scenario unfolds for the Palestinian fighters, Yarmouk Camp’s future looks bleak, irrespective of whether IS controls it fully or partially, or whether it is recovered by the Palestinian groups – either ABM or some faction loyal to the Syrian regime. Palestinians in Yarmouk will continue to pay a heavy price until the Syrian crisis reaches a stable and permanent outcome, or major changes take place in the battlefield in southern Damascus. If IS remains in control of parts of the camp, an increasing number of civilians will attempt to leave, as IS’s indifference to the popular sentiment will alienate more people and make their daily lives even more miserable.

* This article was first published by Al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations

By Afro-Middle East Centre

With the 31 March deadline for the conclusion of a framework agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme with the P5+1 looming, stakeholders have increased contact visits and interested actors have become more wary. Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, have begun building a unified bloc to respond to the negotiations, while Israel has ratcheted up its rhetoric and used its congressional support in the USA to lobby against a deal. However, convergences – especially those resulting from US and Iranian attempts to defeat the Islamic State group (IS) and the tactical astuteness of the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani – have increased the probability of an agreement. To paraphrase the German minister of foreign affairs, Guido Westerwelle, more has been achieved in the past few months than in the previous ten years of negotiations.

By Nick Rodrigo

The closeness of the elections was matched only by their bizarreness. As Herzog and Netanyahu went into the final weeks neck and neck one Likud campaign video likened those who complained about the economy to Hamas terrorists. It is possible that this fear mongering played a large role in mobilising support for Likud and engineering the nationalist party’s victory. Netanyahu went so far as to argue that the “left” posed an existential threat to Israeli democracy, as they were bussing in Israeli Arabs to vote; an ironic statement not lost on many political commentators. In light of Likud’s victory at the polls liberal supporters of the Palestinian quest for security, justice and human rights have taken to the airwaves to express their lamentations. Where is the chance for a peaceful resolution to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict when such a militaristic hawk is at the helm of Israel?

Netanyahu’s alienation of the more left wing members of his last cabinet means that he is likely to cobble together the most nationalist and right wing coalition in Israeli history. “Bibi” as he is affectionately known by Likudniks, has already opened talks with Naftali Bennet, leader the Jewish Home party and chairman of the Yesha Council; an umbrella organisation of Israeli settlement councils. Bennet was granted the economics ministry in the last coalition government and enjoyed huge public support during the summer offensive on Gaza, calling for the besieged strip to be invaded and occupied. Netanyahu has also approached Avigdor Lieberman of Yisrael Beitinu, who was head of the foreign ministry in the last government coalition, engaging in constant diplomatic missions to Africa to sell Israeli military hardware. In the run up to the elections Lieberman stated that disloyal Arab citizens of Israel should be beheaded. Netanyahu will head a coalition that will oppose any Palestinian state and ratchet up pressure on Palestinians with Israeli citizenship to declare allegiance to Israel.

With the prospect of cabinet positions being held by nationalistic zealots, it is little wonder that sympathizers of the Palestinian struggle are pouring out tweets and statuses of disdain. Even Barack Obama has indirectly expressed his frustration with the prospect of dealing with Netanyahu, passing on responsibilities to John Kerry. However, what was the alternative to Bibi?

Netanyahu’s main opponents were the “Zionist List”, a coalition comprised of the historic Labor party and the liberal Zionists Hatnuah (The Movement). Lead by Isaac Herzog, Labor had seen a renaissance in recent years, capitalising on public outrage at corruption and housing crisis and side stepping to the right several paces with regards to the free market. Having met repeatedly with Palestinian Authority Abu Mazen, Herzog backs reviving the peace process. By rebranding Labor as a party to the “Zionist Camp” with Hatnuah, the two liberal Zionist parties made direct appeals to the centre swing voters of the Israeli electorate, jettisoning past campaign tactics of alluring those on the left. Herzog’s partner Tzipi Livni of Hatnuah is one of the more enigmatic Israeli politicians. Livni’s position on the peace process is that a dual state resolution is necessary for Israeli democracy and blames settlements for blocking a resolution, even proposing a cut to state expenditure on settlements.

Yet documents leaked by Al Jazeera in 2011 detail her rejecting an offer by PA leaders to agree to Israeli annexation of all but one of the settlements built in East Jerusalem. Her position remained unbroken in the lead up to the elections, and was not a sticking point with Herzog. Throughout the elections the peace process was downplayed but the official Zionist Union line was any solution would include full Israeli annexation of the major settlement blocs of Gush Etzion, Ma’ale Adumim and Ariel settlement blocs, with the Jordan River becoming security border and security cooperation with any future Palestinian state. There were no olive branches in the Zionist Union platform for the besieged Gaza strip, promising to maintain the pressure on Hamas until it complies with Israeli demands. For the 1.8 million Palestinians living there this means maintenance of a siege which will render the coastal enclave unliveable by 2020 unless Hamas give up their right to self defence.

Perhaps the most striking issue surrounding Herzog’s campaign is his reluctance to bring up the peace process in any tangible way, both Hatnuah and Labor refrain from mentioning any of the core components needed for a viable Palestinian state such as borders and access to resources. Analysis of the facts on the ground in line with what policy has been divulged can paint a truer picture of how the Joint Zionist List views these issues and how they will impact a Palestinian state.

The inclusion of Jordan valley as a security buffer would need major access roads splicing any Palestinian state in half. Israeli control over it’s “undivided capital Jerusalem” would mean the annexation of huge settlement blocks and impede the free movement of goods/services/peoples from the commercial centres of Hebron, Bethlehem, Ramallah and Nablus, stifling economic growth. The annexation of Jerusalem would be a setback for the Palestinian people in an immeasurable way and throw the fate of over 370,000 Palestinian Jerusalemites into uncertainty. Israel is highly dependent on the water resources within the OPT’s, as they constitute 60% of its water supply. Many of the large settlement blocks, which would have been annexed by any Zionist Union peace plan, are dependent upon water supply from the West Bank. From Begin to Olmert, the precondition of a Palestinian state has been complete Israeli control of Palestinian water use and extraction, much of which is earmarked for Israeli settlement use.

Since 1970’s the UN General Assembly has affirmed the Palestinian’s right to self determination and control of its resources within the a sovereign state predicated on 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital. Added to this there a must be a just solution for the Palestinian refugee issue based on UN resolution 194. Across the Israeli partisan spectrum, aside from the marginalised Meretz party and United Arab List, there is scant political will for adhering to any of these prerequisites for a lasting peace with most parties advocating for even more annexation, more settlement construction and more plundering of Palestinian resources. Netanyahu is the bloodiest of butchers, his actions in Gaza and the West Bank and his fiery rhetoric towards his own Palestinian population with Israeli citizenship has been well documented. However the theft of land, the brutal military occupation and the plundering of resources are not Likud policies. These actions are structural policies and are a theme of the Zionist colonial project and predates expulsion of two thirds of historic Palestine’s population in 1948: it is within the DNA of the Israeli national project. As stated by one enthusiastic Zionist to his son in 1937

“We can no longer tolerate that vast territories capable of absorbing tens of thousands of Jews should remain vacant, and that Jews cannot return to their homeland because the Arabs prefer that the place [the Negev] remains neither ours nor theirs. We must expel Arabs and take their place.”

This Zionist pioneer was David Ben Gurion, who went on to hold the office of Prime Minister, and founded the Israeli Labor party, he is also considered the godfather of the state of Israel.

* Nick Rodrigo is a researcher on Palestine at the Afro-Middle East Centre in Johannesburg and holds an MA in the Theory and Practice of Human Rights.

By Afro-Middle East Centre

On 15 February 2015, an armed group calling itself the Tripoli Province of the Islamic State and claiming affiliation with the Islamic State group in Iraq (IS) posted a video on the internet of what looked like the execution of twenty-one Egyptian Copts. The incident likely occurred on the beach of the city of Sirte. That evening, the Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, delivered a hasty speech condemning the incident and warning that Egypt had the right to respond. He convened a late night meeting of Egypt’s Supreme Defence Council. The next four Egyptian Air Force fighter jets twice bombed targets in Darna (instead of Sirte), claiming Darna was controlled by IS.

The raids followed a massive inflammatory media campaign by regime-supporting Egyptian media, and ignited controversy in various quarters. Many people questioned whether Sisi would use the incident to justify a large-scale military intervention in Libya, thus militarily involving Egypt on the side of its allies in the Tobruk government and forces loyal to the renegade colonel, Khalifa Haftar.

Hasty response

Libya is host to a large Egyptian community of workers, which was threatened after Sisi expressed support for the Tobruk government and for Haftar. After the Coptic Church became a strong supporter of the Egyptian regime, there have been kidnappings and murders of Egyptians, especially Copts, in Libya. The people supposedly executed by the Sirte militants in February were kidnapped two months earlier, but there is no evidence that Egyptian authorities had exerted concerted efforts to communicate with the kidnappers and ascertain their demands, or to try to secure the lives of the abductees. It is also difficult to ascertain whether all those in the video were Egyptians and Copts.

The video greatly embarrassed the Egyptian regime, both because it had done so little over the past two months to secure the release of the abductees, and because the event targeted Egyptian Copts at a time when the Egyptian Church had become the strongest supporter of the Egyptian coup regime. More importantly, the video was posted when the regime was embroiled in crises and amid waning political support from sectors that had initially welcomed it. The deepening economic crisis and leaked recordings from Sisi’s office have negatively impacted his public image and his relations with allies in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). Thus there had to be a response to the Sirte incident, to prevent a heavy political cost for Sisi. Hence the rapid retaliation, within a few hours of the Supreme Defence Council’s meeting ending.

However, the retaliatory raids did not target the Tripoli Province group in Sirte, on Libya’s west coast. Rather, they struck at targets in Darna, east of Benghazi, that cannot easily be identified as being under the group’s jurisdiction. A group called Ansar al-Shari'ah exists in Darna, but there is ambiguity about whether it has pledged allegiance to IS or to al-Qaeda. Ansar al-Shari'ah is part of the Darna Mujahideen Shura Council, and is loyal to the General National Congress, the Tripoli Transitional Government and the Fajr Libya (Libya Dawn) command. Little is known about the Tripoli Province which surprisingly and suddenly emerged in Sirte. It is unclear whether the group consists of Libyans only, or if it is a mixture of Libyans and foreign fighters, and what its military strength is.

That Egypt targeted Darna and ignored Sirte suggest that the Egyptian military decided on an easy target, and one closer to the Egyptian border. This choice also reflects Darna’s status in the Libyan conflict. The city, which Haftar’s forces failed to seize, constitutes a strategic obstacle that impedes coastal communications between Tobruk and Benghazi. Haftar’s forces are engaged in a bitter battle to take control of Libya’s second largest city, Benghazi, and he is forced to avoid Darna and to use a long desert detour to send supplies to his troops in Benghazi.

Egyptian intervention: extent and conditions

Egypt has one of the largest armies in North Africa, one of the few armies in the region with operational experience of fighting in a desert environment. Apart from the Tobruk government’s and Haftar’s pleas for Egypt to intervene militarily, Libya represents a huge market for Egyptian labour and products, and can be a source of cheap oil for Egypt. It is not unlikely that Cairo decided to intervene in Libya for these interests, and that the United Arab Emirates, a close ally of the Egyptian regime and of Tobruk and Haftar, will shoulder the financial costs. The regional and global sympathy with Egypt, as a result of the execution of the captives, and the consequent outpourings of anger and disapproval in Egypt, Libya and across the Arab region and the world, suggest that the Sisi regime can intervene militarily in Libya and avoid any diplomatic fallout.

However, there are significant constraints to any such intervention. Despite the size of the Egyptian army, there is considerable doubt about its efficiency and ability to conduct a major military operation outside its own borders. It has not engaged in a real battle since 1973, and it is widely believed that the economic activities of the military have corrupted large segments of the officer corps. Further, the army lacks significant experience in fighting against paramilitary armed groups, or fighting inside cities and residential areas. In fact, the Sinai armed groups, with only a few hundred fighters, have inflicted significant losses on Egypt’s military forces in northern Sinai over the past eighteen months. Equally importantly, despite their repudiation of jihadi groups, most Libyans would reject Egyptian military interference in Libyan affairs.

Furthermore, the Egyptian army’s operations abroad in the past few decades do not instil much confidence. Indeed, it suffered huge losses and painful defeats during the Palestine War at the end of the 1940s, and the Yemen Civil War in the early 1960s. The defeat in Palestine was a cause of the July 1952 coup. Similarly, losses in Yemen had a profound impact on Egyptians’ support for Nasser. In fact, it is believed that the Egyptian intervention in Yemen contributed to weakening its army and to its grave failure in the third Arab-Israeli War in June 1967.

Algeria and Cairo have been competing for influence in Libya, and Sisi is aware that a direct large-scale military intervention in Libya without Algeria’s approval could cause Algiers to extend support to rebels and to the Tripoli government. Among the many condemnatory statements about the hostage killings, Algeria’s official statement included an emphasis on the need for continuous and concerted efforts to reach a ‘political solution’ to the Libyan crisis.

It is therefore likely that Egyptian direct intervention will be limited to the raids carried out on 16 February, and that the Egyptian Air Force will not strike again unless the Tripoli Province group undertakes new provocative actions. Egypt’s involvement could also include indirect intervention. It is no secret that Cairo provided military aid to Haftar’s forces over a year ago, including training and military equipment, believed to be funded by the UAE. The extent of such indirect intervention may become larger in the next few months.

Arab, international intervention?

Cairo’s growing concern over the Libyan situation, the inability of Haftar’s forces to achieve tangible progress to resolve the dispute, and the difficulty of Egypt’s solo intervention raise two other possibilities: a collective Arab intervention, or an international intervention involving Egyptian or other Arab forces. Arab intervention would require an Arab League resolution and broad Arab support. The Sisi regime was expected to appeal to the Arab League for such a resolution after the Sirte incident. It did not do so because it knew that Algeria would not support Arab military intervention. While some GCC states might back Arab intervention, it is uncertain whether Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Oman and Sudan would support it. Those countries that are likely to support such intervention lack the military capabilities to do so.

International intervention will require a UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution, and the willingness of a number of major western countries to participate. The UNSC held an emergency meeting on Libya after the Sirte incident, but no member state has yet announced that it will submit a new draft resolution on Libya. If a member state submits a draft resolution to provide international cover for military intervention, the draft could be limited to fighting the Tripoli Province group, or expansive enough to allow for large-scale intervention aiming to forcefully rebuilding a unified Libyan state. It is unlikely that such a draft resolution will secure sufficient support, especially given Russia’s traditional rejection of western military intervention in other countries’ domestic affairs.

Whatever the UNSC’s position on international military intervention in Libya, an intervention of this magnitude would be difficult without US participation. There are indications that Italy and France have become more willing to intervene in Libya, but the 2011 NATO intervention provided sufficient evidence that European countries cannot, without US participation, bear the burden of a large-scale and long-term military operation, and are unwilling to stay in Libya for a long period to enforce peace and rebuild the state. Various western countries, including the USA, affirmed their commitment to a peaceful resolution of the Libya issue on 17 February, after the Sirte executions, thus seemingly rejecting foreign military solutions.

Risks of intervention

In the first months of 2015, the UN Envoy to Libya, Bernardino Leon, succeeded in engaging most parties to the Libyan crisis. Indicating some progress in the dialogue effort, Libyan groups agreed to move the venue of the dialogue from Switzerland to Libya, albeit for one day. The first dialogue session has already been held in Libya. However, the Sirte incident, the Egyptian air strikes, and increasing calls for foreign intervention from the Tobruk government and from Haftar have cast doubt on the dialogue’s future.

After months of fighting on various fronts, with a decline in Libya’s financial capabilities, and an increasing number of refugees, there is no longer disagreement that the solution to the Libyan crisis must be reached through negotiations. Foreign military interventions, whether Egyptian, Arab or western, will increase the complexity of the crisis and the pain of the Libyan people and deepen their losses. Such interventions could also cause significant harm to the Egyptian army, and to any other intervening military forces, which in turn would provide more fertile ground for the growth of militant groups, and aggravate the crises instead of solving them.

By Afro-Middle East Centre

The 15 February Islamic State group (IS) video showing the beheadings of twenty-one Egyptians raised concerns both about the possibility of the group’s influence growing in Libya (and North Africa more generally), and about the subsequent Egyptian airstrikes inside Libya, ostensibly against IS targets. Condemnation of IS has been widespread; however, Egypt’s attempt to further militarise the Libyan conflict should be equally concerning, and could help grow IS and increase its reach.

The video was another suggestion of increasing IS assertiveness in Libya. In December 2014 the group attacked a military base in the country’s South, killing fourteen soldiers; in January 2015 an attack by IS supporters on the Corinthian Hotel, used by many politicians and diplomats, resulted in the deaths of eight people. However, the publicity given to these operations masks the extent of IS influence and impact in Libya. Competing with larger militant organisations such as the Salafi Ansar al-Sharia in Libya (ASL), and more mainstream Islamist militia such as Fajr Libya (Libya Dawn), IS’s membership numbers a few hundred, which has remained constant over many months. Its links and allegiance to IS in Syria and Iraq are tenuous, making it likely that if IS was defeated in Syria and Iraq, members in Libya will defect to other groups.

The group’s minimal influence was best illustrated in its response to the thirteen Egyptian airstrikes on the town of Darna. There were no retaliatory operations against Egyptian interests in Libya or Egypt; instead, IS set off bombs in the eastern city of Qubba, killing forty-two, and attacked the house of the Iranian ambassador in Tripoli. This retaliation indicates, first, that the group does not possess the capability to project power beyond Libya’s borders. (Thus threats to attack Europe will remain just threats, at least in the short term.) Further, that it was unable to coordinate attacks with the IS affiliate in Egypt, Ansar Bayt al-Maqdis, illustrates that little coordination and tactical links exist between IS affiliates in North Africa. Second, it indicates that the group’s greater focus is domestic. Qubba is the closest town to Darna, which is controlled by renegade general Khalifa Haftar, and the attack on the ambassador’s residence was more related to IS being forced out of Sirte by Fajr Libya.

The international community responded in a measured and balanced manner. While condemning the attacks, the USA, Britain and France stressed that a political solution was required. This despite intercepted letters between IS recruiters which referred to Libya as a ‘gateway’ to Europe. Even Italy, which in 2014 received over 170 000 Sub-Saharan and Middle Eastern refugees through Libya, had revoked its offer to lead a multinational force against IS, and supported a political solution. Wariness over the consequences of Gadhafi’s overthrow, coupled with their own economic sluggishness, has resulted in most foreign countries being disinclined to intervene, especially since efforts are under way to weaken IS in Syria and Iraq.

Egypt, on the other hand, used the beheadings to legitimise activities it had been conducting for a while. The Egyptian military regime has attempted to influence Libyan politics from early 2014, because of the attractiveness of Libyan oil reserves, and weapons’ smuggling from Libya into Egypt’s Sinai. Already in March 2014 the Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, advocated international action in Libya. With the United Arab Emirates, Egypt has also assisted the Libyan government in Tobruk with logistical and intelligence support, in order to weaken the Tripoli-based General National Congress (GNC) government. In October 2014, Egypt conducted airstrikes in Benghazi, deep into Libyan airspace, to support Haftar.

Its recent airstrikes resulted in a number of civilian casualties, and it subsequently called for the United Nations to provide it ‘political’ and ‘military’ support for the strikes. The strikes violate international law, and Egypt’s supplying weapons to the Tobruk government violates the UN arms embargo on Libya. Egypt has therefore called on the UN to lift the embargo. Its requests to the international community were unsuccessful, however, leading Sisi to advocate for the creation of an inter-state Pan-Arab military force. This too is unlikely to occur, with both Qatar and Saudi Arabia sceptical about such moves.

Despite the fact that the mess in Libya has been created partly as a result of international intervention, the international response in this instance is correct. The growth of IS (and other militant groups) in Libya is a direct result of the power vacuum created by Muammar Gadhafi’s overthrow, and the consequent deteriorating security situation and political gridlock. Dealing with IS alone will merely address symptoms of the problem, and could generate increased sympathy towards the group. The United Nations initiative to broker a political solution and form a government of national unity presents the best future scenario, and must be strengthened. It complies with the hopes of neighbouring states such as Tunisia and Algeria. The latter released a peace plan which cautions against military intervention and advocates developing consensus between the two Libyan governments.

While political posturing of the different groups sometimes sees one or another boycotting talks, all parties must be enticed into the negotiations’ process, and foreign military interference must be prevented. Allowing such military adventures, and not pressing forward with a political solution could see Libya breaking up into enclaves, and groups such as IS proliferating.

By Afro-Middle East Centre

The situation in Yemen is rapidly deteriorating. President Mansour Hadi, formerly under house arrest in Sanaa, has now escaped to the city of Aden and could set up an alternate government there in competition with the one in Sanaa. Also, a number of embassies have already shut down, and international investors have withdrawn, signalling a growing isolation for the country whose new de facto rulers in Sanaa (even if not recognised as such by the rest of the world), the Zaidi-Shi'a insurgents from the northern part of the country, the Houthis, will find difficult to manage. The United Nations has not given up on Yemen yet; its envoy, Jamal Benomar, brokered a deal between the various political foes on Friday, 20 February, before Hadi’s escape, while the UN Security Council called on the Houthis to relinquish power and allow Hadi to return to his position. However, militias aligned to Hadi and antipathetic to the Houthis took matters into their own hands and seized key government buildings and institutions. Meanwhile, al-Qa'ida, which was previously being targeted by a US-Hadi security alliance, has continued with its campaign against military instalments, citing fear of a Houthi takeover.

By Afro-Middle East Centre

The death of Saudi King Abdullah on 23 January, and the ascension to the throne of his half-brother Salman have generated a flurry of discussions and speculation globally. Much attention has being paid to gestures of condolences, and comments about Abdullah’s legacy and achievements (including some western leaders’ assertions of Abdullah as a ‘reformer’). The conversations have also included reflections on royal succession and the potential for Saudi domestic and foreign policy changes. The issue of succession has been feverishly discussed for the past few years, dogged by the question of who among the grandsons of the founder of the Saudi monarchy, Abdulaziz al-Saud, would reign and when that might happen. Among many commentators there is an impression that this succession question has been resolved because Salman’s appointment of Muhammad bin Nayef as the new deputy crown prince was seemingly accepted without dissent by members of the royal family.

Such a view, however, misses the rumblings within the Saudi family that run deeper than the supposedly calm process that preceded the announcement of the new deputy crown prince, and which could lead to major fault lines developing between the royals. An indication of this is the intrigue that surrounded the announcement and Abdullah’s funeral, and attempts by Salman to shift influence within the royal family in a manner that could have important foreign policy implications.

Internal machinations

When Salman was confronted by some royals regarding his announcement of the new deputy crown prince, he revealed that he had already consulted the Allegiance Council, the body appointed by Abdullah and having the responsibility of approving the selection of a crown prince. In fact, before announcing his decision, Salman had individually lobbied various members of the council and obtained their support for bin Nayef’s appointment. He did this while keeping the new crown prince, Muqrin, and the former secretary of the royal court under Abdullah, Khalid al-Tuwaijri, in the dark. Salman’s stealth indicates that he does not see eye to eye with Muqrin, and that he regards Muqrin and Tuwaijri as part of an opposition camp. They both would have preferred Abdullah’s son and the current minister of the National Guard, Mu't', to be appointed as deputy crown prince. It is rumoured that Tuwaijri, who was Abdullah’s main confidante and the person making domestic and foreign policy in the last few years, is under house arrest and will likely quietly disappear from the political scene.

Family Tree LowRes Saudi Royals

Apart from bin Nayef’s appointment, Salman rapidly announcing other appointments, such as the dual elevation of his son, Muhammad bin Salman, to the position of defence minister – replacing Salman, and as secretary general of the royal court, in Tuwaijri’s stead, are an attempt to marginalise the Abdullah circle within the ruling elite of Saudi royals. Further evidence of this was the removal of two of Abdullah’s sofrom their positions as governors of the Riyadh and Makkah provinces. The governorship of Makkah was returned to Khalid bin Faisal, from whom it was taken away by Abdullah two years ago, while Riyadh is now in the hands of Faisal bin Bandar. Similarly, another third generation Saudi royal who was close to Abdullah, Bandar bin Sultan, who had been increasingly at odds with bin Nayef over their different approaches to the Syrian crisis, was removed from his roles as the secretary general of the National Security Council and advisor to the king. Additionally, the National Security Council was dissolved, and Salman formed two new councils, the Council for Political and Security Affairs and the Council for Economic and Development Affairs; the former is headed by bin Nayef, and the latter by Salman’s son Muhammad.

Clearly, a battle is developing within the royal family, pitting the families of King Salman and of the late Nayef (the second crown prince appointed by Abdullah) against the families of former king Abdullah and of the late Sultan (the first crown prince appointed by Abdullah). Muqrin is believed to be in the Abdullah-Sultan camp, and there is a suspicion that, within a few months, as Salman consolidates his power, the crown prince will also get the sack, and either Muhammad bin Nayef or another of Salman’s brothers will be appointed crown prince.

Foreign policy shifts?

With Salman attempting to move away from certain of Abdullah’s policies, a shift in some foreign policy aspects is likely to become visible in the next few months. Some of this is based on his desire to change Abdullah’s policy; but other factors include his political sympathies which differ from Abdullah’s, and his personal relationships with other political figures in the region. As a result, while Saudi policy on Syria is unlikely to change, the rest of this year is likely to witness a change in Saudi Arabia’s support for the post-coup Egyptian government, and in its formerly close alliance with the United Arab Emirates. One indication of this change was Salman’s communication to both the Egyptians and Emiratis that the Egyptian president, Abdel Fatah el-Sisi, and the UAE crown prince, Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, would not be welcome at Abdullah’s funeral, while he warmly welcomed their rival, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who remained in the kingdom for an extra day to discuss regional security matters with the new king. Salman even received Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif at the funeral.

On Egypt, Salman has indicated that aid from Saudi Arabia to that country’s military government will cease. The Saudis have already given Egypt between ten and twenty billion dollars in aid over the past eighteen months. His decision seems to be based partly on his discomfort with propping up the Egyptian regime further, and partly due to a very negative relationship that has developed between him and Sisi. The negative relationship intensified over the past few months, particularly with Sisi’s comments to various people that he and the Emiratis would like to see a rapid transfer of power after Abdullah’s death to Muqrin, effectively bypassing Salman. Furthermore, Sisi also, prior to Abdullah’s death, sent messages to Tuwaijri supporting Muqrin’s ascension to the throne, and even committed Egyptian troops to ensure that the ascension would be smooth, if the need for such a step arose. The relationship between Salman and Sisi will thus be difficult to repair. In Salman’s eyes, bin Zayed is also part of this alleged conspiracy. Furthermore, the new deputy crown prince, bin Nayef, has a severe dislike for bin Zayed, originating from comments the latter made and revealed by WikiLeaks, where he severely insulted bin Nayef’s father.

Another area of policy change, though unlikely to be very visible, is the new Saudi government’s attitude towards the Muslim Brotherhood (MB). In March 2014, Saudi Arabia followed the UAE in designating the Brotherhood a terrorist organisation. At the time, Salman had indicated to some Brotherhood leaders that he personally did not regard the movement as ‘an enemy’. Although it is unlikely that he will suddenly change that designation, there will probably be an increased tolerance of the MB by the Saudis. Bin Nayef, who is responsible for the Saudi role in the war against the Islamic State group (IS), also believes that tolerating the Brotherhood could assist in that war because the MB is less dangerous than the IS. This perception has been reinforced by the surge in IS’s popularity in Saudi Arabia, and IS’s habit of accusing Saudi Arabia of being close to western powers and Israel, and of supporting dictatorial oppression in the Middle East. And this week Saudi foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, said, ‘There was no problem between the Kingdom and [Brotherhood] movement,’ and that the problem was only with a few MB. Apart from the political reasons, Salman also has a good relationship with Erdogan and a fifteen-year-long close relationship with Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the former emir of Qatar, and father of the current emir. Both the Turkish and Qatari leaders have sympathies for the MB. Indications are, therefore, that Saudi Arabia, under Salman, will look to mend its ties with the MB-affiliated versions of republican Sunni Islam, such as Erdogan’s AK Party in Turkey and Hamas in Palestine, and others that support them, such as Qatar, at the expense of those who are unwilling to accommodate them. Qatar is, it seems, reading the situation in this manner, and has indicated that it will allow back into the country senior MB leaders that had previously been asked to leave as a result of Saudi and Emirati pressure.

One area of the new Saudi foreign policy which remains unclear is the relationship with Iran. There are pressures on Salman both to improve relations with Iran and to maintain the status quo. The pressure to better their relationship comes from, first, the possibility of an impending deal between Saudi ally, USA, and Iran on the nuclear and other issues. If such a deal happens in the next few months, there will be pressure from the USA for Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Iran to work together in the region to maintain a balance of power. Second, the dire situations in Syria, Iraq and Lebanon call out for an end to the cold war between regional hegemons Saudi Arabia and Iran, and the current conjuncture points to the need for a cooperative relationship in order to develop a joint strategy for confronting the IS threat. On the other hand, Salman and bin Nayef are close to conservative sections of the Saudi clergy, which are virulently anti-Shi'a and for whom restoring relations with Iran is anathema. Further, if Saudi Arabia mends relations with Iran it might reinforce the perception that the regime is a puppet of imperialist powers, and provide grounds for IS sympathies to spread. Salman will seek to cleverly navigate these imperatives, but it is difficult to predict the future direction of this relationship.


Saudi Arabia, then, could see some serious changes within its ruling and policymaking structures, and its domestic and foreign policies. The public silence of the Saudi family cannot be taken as an indicator of the level of internal fighting. However, while the family is known for its secrecy, the younger generation of royals is becoming more vocal in criticising the old guard. All of this is likely to create a more robust debate over the future of the kingdom, albeit behind high palace walls. While it may be slow in coming, one can be sure that the Abdullah-aligned faction must be contemplating an appropriate riposte to Salman’s machinations. However, those who expect rapid and sudden changes in policy will be disappointed. Saudi Arabia is a large and difficult ship to steer. Sudden changes rarely occur, and amendments to policy usually are preceded by wide turns rather than sharp jerks.

By Afro-Middle East Centre

tunisia cabinetTunisia’s parliament last week ratified the cabinet of the prime minister, Habib Essid, in a sign of the country’s preference for consensus building. It points to a desire for democratic consolidation, but could portend trouble for, and even fragmentation of, the ruling Nidaa Tounes party.

The cabinet comprises four parties, including the three largest parties in the legislature, Nidaa Tounes (with eighty-six seats), Ennahda (sixty-nine seats) and the Free Patriotic Union (sixteen seats). The ratification of the cabinet was a formality and over seventy-five per cent of voting parliamentarians (166 out of 204) endorsed its formation. This augurs well for Tunisians; the vast economic and security challenges the country faces requires the adoption of difficult measures, supported by a large constituency. Key amongst these is a reduction in subsidies, especially on fuel, which benefit mostly the middle and upper classes; and combating militancy without disillusioning religious Tunisians.

By Al-Jazeera Centre for Studies

Late on Sunday, 25 January 2015, hundreds of protests broke in various Egyptian cities and towns, followed by attacks on public administration buildings and branches of the Interior Ministry; the burning of dozens of police and security vehicles; blocking of roads and railways all over the country; and even armed attacks on security patrols, with security personnel being ambushed and attacked at roadblocks. Some of these activities continued well into the following morning, with the death toll including more than twenty-five civilians and four security personnel, and with hundreds injured and hundreds more in custody.

This article is an initial reading of the events of that day, and their implications for the futures of both the popular opposition and the regime. It also discusses how regional and global forces view the regime.

Growth of the popular movement

Given the sheer number and spread of protests around the country, it would be nigh on impossible to estimate the number of participants in the popular movement with any measure of accuracy. It is clear, though, that Egypt last week witnessed the largest popular anti-regime gatherings since the sits-in at Rabaa al-Adawiya and al-Nahda squares were quelled in August 2013.

There are various reasons behind this escalation by the opposition, not least of which is the prevailing political climate in the country more than one and a half years after the birth of the 3 July 2013 regime. It has also became apparent just how big a reversal Egypt has suffered, from an unstable but free democratic situation to one of oppression, where the iron fist of security routinely slams down on opposition and strangles political freedom, with no sign of stability on the horizon. The acquittal, and subsequent release, of several figures of the Mubarak regime, including Mubarak and his two sons, only reinforce the general feeling that Egypt is rapidly slipping back under the old regime, even if the names of those at the helm have changed. Moreover, the devaluation of the Egyptian pound and the continuing deterioration of the economy have resulted in the strengthening belief that the regime, despite considerable financial support from certain GCC states, is no longer able to contain the runaway economic crisis.

In this climate, different sectors of the population are increasingly joining the opposition movement. But the situation is not confined to growth in the popularity of the movement. In the larger cities, especially Cairo, there are growing signs that some political groups, such as the April 6 movement, the radical left, and opposition student movements have become more willing to take to the streets and participate with the anti-coup National Alliance Supporting Legitimacy in popular demonstrations.

On the other hand, the successive changes in the leadership structure of the Muslim Brotherhood, both within the country and abroad, have boosted confidence among the Brotherhood’s rank-and-file, bolstering the ability of the movement and its sympathisers to mobilise, and reinvigorating its determination to continue its activities against the regime.

However, despite the massive mobilisation, and the sheer number and spread of the demonstrations, it would be premature to suggest that the balance of forces between the opposition and the regime has tilted in favour of the former. A significant majority of Egyptians is still wary of participating in the opposition, either out of fear of the regime and its oppressive machine, out of a collective desire to see a return to stability, or because of support for the regime. Some have been disillusioned by the lack of a viable alternative after the failure of the first attempt at democratic change and the crumbling of the revolutionary masses, while others actually support the regime fearing that Islamists might return to power. In other words, large swathes of the population have yet to reach a sufficient level of discontent to prompt them to go out to the streets and demand the downfall of the regime.

The armed option

The change in the disposition of the popular movement opposing the 3 July 2013 regime is undeniable. Even though the Muslim Brotherhood (the main force behind the anti-coup alliance that has led the opposition throughout the past nineteen months) and its partners in the alliance have adhered to completely peaceful methods in their opposition to the regime, there are some groups in various parts of the country that are resorting to different methods. The subtle indicators of this shift began to appear about a year ago, but by 25 January 2015 they had grown so strong that they can no longer be ignored.

These indicators fall into two main categories:

  • Vandalism and the destruction and arson of government institutions, police and security stations and vehicles, telecommunications towers, and electric power transformers, as well as the cutting off of roads and railways. More recently, the banking sector was targeted, with calls for people to withdraw their money from various banks.
  • Organised armed attacks on police and security stations and checkpoints, and attempts on the lives of security officers, judges, prosecutors and informers thought to be involved in the crackdowns.

The goal of the first category is to compromise the regime’s ability to govern and to cripple the state, while the motives of the second are revenge and settling of scores.

There are three groups that have openly claimed responsibility for such actions at different times. The first, Ajnad Misr (Soldiers of Egypt), went public a year ago with a black flag that resembles that of the Islamic State (IS) group. If a relationship, whether direct or indirect, between Ajnad Misr and IS can be confirmed, the group, which operates mainly in the governorates along the Nile Valley, would be the second to declare its allegiance to IS and its jihadi-oriented interpretation of Islam. The first was Ansar Bait al-Maqdis (Supporters of the Holy House), which is active in northern Sinai.

The second group, Harakat al-Iqaab al-Thawri (Revolutionary Retribution Movement), announced itself on 24 January 2015, claiming to have active cells in fifteen of Egypt’s twenty-seven governorates. Despite the obvious difficulties in verifying that claim, the wording of the announcement seemed free of the usual hallmarks of jihadi discourse, suggesting that the group has no jihadi leanings. However, the sheer magnitude of operations for which the group has claimed responsibility is astounding, since these occurred throughout the country, including in Cairo, Alexandria and cities along the Suez Canal.

Both Ajnad Misr and Harakat al-Iqaab al-Thawri appear to have no qualms about carrying out deadly attacks and bombings using triggered devices and time bombs, either targeting specific people or randomly killing security and police personnel. Despite the glaring contrast in discourse between the two, they clearly share the belief that armed violence is part and parcel of dealing with the regime, and that violence is the only course of action to bring about change in Egypt.

The third group, Al-Muqawama al-Shaabiya (Popular Resistance), emerged about six months ago. The wording of its statements suggests a generally jihadi leaning, with close ties to the popular movement. Al-Muqawama al-Shaabiya is inclined more towards vandalism and road-blocking. To date, it is not known to have executed any armed attacks on security forces, even though it has been known to protect protesters from attacks by groups of thugs and criminal gangs believed to be affiliated with the regime’s security apparatus.

Unlike northern Sinai, which has witnessed almost open warfare between the armed forces and Ansar Bait al-Maqdis since the 3 July coup, the magnitude and frequency of vandalism and armed attacks in the governorates along the Nile Valley have not yet reached sufficient intensity to be described as an armed struggle. Unlike in Syria, where the popular movement receded as the armed struggle escalated, armed resistance in Egypt has not even reached a level that it could cripple the state or negatively impact the popular movement. Nevertheless, the magnitude and scale of events that took place on 25 January 2015 did cause the regime’s leaders serious concern.

The illusion of stability

The military officers who led the 3 July coup, and most of the civilian politicians who supported them, were hardly oblivious to the fact that they were desecrating the democratic process, nor were they unaware that their actions were – at least at the time – unwelcome to Egypt’s US and European allies. Washington and various European capitals certainly wanted to tame the rule of President Muhammad Mursi, but they also wanted the change to come about legally and constitutionally. On the other hand, the leaders of the 3 July regime were betting on the huge financial, economic and political support of some GCC countries, especially Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the UAE, as well as Israel’s welcoming of the coup. The generals gambled on the probability that these countries would eventually help change the western stance and build legitimacy for the regime. They also wagered that they would quickly be able to establish stability, thus providing a climate for continued Arab support and a gradual shift in the western stance. It would be safe to say that that objective of achieving stability as rapidly as possible became such a high priority for the regime that it made the ill-advised decision to brutally break up the Rabaa and Nahda sits-in in an attempt to end the manifestations of popular opposition and social discord.

During the past eighteen months, the pro-regime GCC governments have pumped more than US$40 billion into the Egyptian treasury and economy. With support from the West, these countries helped the regime to gradually normalise its relations with the USA and Europe. Over the past few months, the regime appeared to be slowly but surely achieving its aim of building an image of stability for the country, despite the repressive actions of the security sector and the tyranny of the judiciary which is aimed at quelling the opposition. But the events of 25 January 2015 demonstrate that the dream of stability is far from being a reality, that the regime is no longer capable of breaking, or even containing, the popular political opposition, and that the country is entering a phase of worsening tension that could be far more destructive than anything it has witnessed over the past year-and-a-half.

Western media outlets have generally displayed substantial interest in that Sunday’s events. Spokespersons for the US State Department, the European Union and a number of European countries expressed concern over the death toll among protesters. The impression of instability will make European governments hesitant to offer Egypt direct financial or economic assistance. Likewise, there are growing signs that the enthusiasm with which some Gulf countries offered direct financial assistance to Egypt has waned since a year ago, either because of the proverbial black hole of corruption that exists deep within the structure of the Egyptian state (as the UAE believes), or due to the rapid, successive changes in the country’s political leadership (as Saudi Arabia has just experienced), or because of the dramatic decline in oil prices (as Kuwait fears). The decline in direct financial support is the only explanation behind the Central Bank’s inability to keep propping up the value of the national currency, and the subsequent dramatic freefall of the Egyptian pound’s value against the US dollar.

Losing control

Since 3 July 2013, the Egyptian regime has repeatedly gambled on the security option to quell opposition and impose stability, and on the financial support of some GCC states to shore up the economy. However, at the fourth anniversary of the uprising, it finds itself staring down the barrel of instability, with more and more segments of the populace trying to cripple the state’s control of the country, and with a rapidly dwindling cash lifeline from the Gulf, which has weakened the Egyptian pound, causing buying power to drop and prices of imported goods to skyrocket, and making the lives of ordinary Egyptians increasingly difficult.

The bottom line is that the growing violence of the opposition and the state’s dwindling ability to build a popular base will inevitably lead to more unrest and lawlessness, which in turn will chip away at the state’s institutions and pave the way for violence to tear into the very fabric of society.

*This article was published in terms of a partnership agreement between Al-Jazeera Centre for Studies and AMEC

By Afro-Middle East Centre

The dismissal of two cabinet ministers, Yair Lapid and Tzipi Libni, by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and the subsequent dissolution of parliament (the Knesset) is the latest in a string of events pointing to an extreme rightward shift in Israeli politics. This constant movement provides little room for optimism for Palestinians (including those who are Israeli citizens), the Israeli poor, and the dead ‘peace process’.

By Afro-Middle East Centre

Tuesday’s attack on a synagogue in West Jerusalem has not only elicited a strong wave of condemnation from western political leaders, but also harsh calls for reprisals from Israeli politicians, including the prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu. He revived the policy of house demolitions, and ordered the demolition of the homes of the two Palestinians responsible for the synagogue operation, and of the home of another Palestinian who had driven into and killed two Israeli pedestrians in October. In both instances, the perpetrators were killed at the scene of the incident, yet the Israeli government decided to avenge itself against their families and neighbours, continuing with its collective punishment against Palestinians.

Ennahda’s post-election future

  • 14 November, 2014
  • Published in Tunisia

By Afro-Middle East Centre

During the four years following former president Ben Ali’s ouster in January 2011, Tunisians have experienced tumultuous changes: the economy has stagnated, security has worsened, and increased freedoms have wrought a resurgence in public expressions of religiosity. On the political scene, four governments have been formed, two politicians have been assassinated, and a new constitution has been adopted in its fourth draft.

Crisis in northern Sinai worsens

  • 07 November, 2014
  • Published in Egypt

By Afro-Middle East Centre

On 24 October 2014, an armed attack on an Egyptian security detail in the Sheikh Zuweid area of Egypt’s North Sinai Governorate left more than thirty soldiers dead and dozens wounded. Details of the attack are still unclear, but the Egyptian government immediately declared a three-month state of emergency in the governorate, and deployed additional military and security troops to the region, adjacent to Egypt’s eastern border with Gaza and Israel.

Cairo also indefinitely closed the Rafah Crossing with Gaza, and postponed indirect negotiations between Hamas and Israel, scheduled for the end of October in Cairo. Subsequently, the Egyptian authorities began establishing a buffer zone along Egypt’s border with Gaza, ranging from 400 metres to two kilometres, thus forcing thousands of residents in the area from their homes and agricultural lands.

By Afro-Middle East Centre

The battle for the Kurdish Syrian town of Kobane, resulting from a siege of the city by the Islamic State group (IS) since 2 July, has become the iconic battle in the USA-led international coalition’s war against IS. Despite IS having fought its way to within a few kilometres of Baghdad, a city of far more strategic importance than Kobane, the latter has become the focus of international media attention. There are various reasons for this. First, the initial inaction and the subsequent hyperaction by the USA have generated much discussion and criticism. Second, the Kurdish population in Turkey, Iraq and Europe have successfully kept Kobane in the headlines for weeks through methods such as large, widespread protests. Third, the use of women fighters, even as suicide bombers, by Kurdish militias has also sparked more than a few conversations. However, the most significant aspects of the battle for Kobane relates to the geopolitical dimension of the conflict, especially in the way it intersects with the interests of Syrian and Iraqi Kurds, Turkey and the USA.

By Abdul Latif al-Hanachi


Tunisia’s political elite overcame various obstacles during the initial stages of democratic transition, and successfully revived several constitutional institutions,[1] thanks to the spirit of rapprochement and the concessions made by major political players. The Constitution of the Second Republic that was finalised earlier this year is comparable to the constitutions of mature democracies, and superior in some respects.[2] The constituent assembly also issued a law governing elections and referenda,[3] and elected nine members to the Higher Independent Electoral and Referendum Commission to oversee the legislative and presidential elections scheduled for 26 October 2014 and 23 November 2014 respectively, concluding the third phase of democratic transition.

By Afro-Middle East Centre

The striking advances of Houthis in Yemen, having already taken de facto control of the capital Sana'a last month, has implications for Yemen as well as for the greater Middle East. Within Yemen, they signal the return to political prominence of the Zaidi-Shia, who had been marginalised since 1962, and a divergence from the federalist future that was being contemplated for the country by President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. Regionally, in addition to becoming part of the cold war confrontation between two hegemons, Iran and Saudi Arabia, the Houthi gains also affect the manner in which al-Qa'ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) positions itself against its various enemies.

By Afro-Middle East Centre

Air strikesaimed at the Libya Dawn militia in recent months could further escalate and regionalise the conflict in Libya. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) is widely reported as having launched the air strikes, but the bombings seem to be part of increasing intervention in Libya by various regional powers in spite of their calls for non-intervention. If allowed to continue, the involvement of the UAE, Egypt and Qatar, in pursuit of their own interests, could provoke a full-scale civil war in Libya, and prevent Libyans from finding political solutions to the current impasse.

By Afro-Middle East Centre

In a much-anticipated speech on Wednesday, US president Barack Obama unveiled his strategy for confronting the Islamic State group (IS). He emphasised the need for an international coalition supporting the efforts of Iraqi forces and Syrian rebels through airstrikes and logistical support inside Iraq and Syria. The US administration had already been working on the formation of an international coalition. The recent NATO summit resulted in a ten-nation alliance against IS, and US secretary of state, John Kerry, has also been trying to build an Arab consensus against IS. That move was pre-empted by an Arab League resolution earlier this week announcing Arab states’ willingness to support international efforts against IS. Additionally, the United Nations Security Council had unanimously adopted resolution 2170 in August, which called on member states to prevent the movement of terrorists and their obtaining arms or finances.

By Omar Shaukat

With the release of another video showing the beheading of American journalist Steven Sotloff, held hostage by the Islamic State (IS, also variously known as Isil, or Isis), IS’s confrontation with the US has become a hot topic of discussion throughout the world.

However, what such discussions typically miss is the manner in which IS has not only found enemies in the US but also within the Muslim world and the jihadist circles that at some point supported it. In fact, these internal divisions are so deep that a former ally of IS, and the US’s previous public enemy number one, al-Qaeda, too finds itself engaged in mortal combat with IS.

By Basheer Nafi’

A truism that is valid for almost all revolutions – including the English, French, and the European revolutions of the mid-nineteenth century, the Iranian Revolution and east European revolutions after the Cold War – is that every revolution has an associated counterrevolution. A common thread through most modern revolutions is that they expressed the desire of the people in a nation to restrain the modern state either by demanding constitutional rights and democracy, confronting authoritarianism and the hegemony of the ruling elite, or by demanding a just social system that would be based on the redistribution of economic burdens and wealth. The success of a revolution, however, has never been guaranteed. In the past few decades, the countries that have experienced relatively easy transitions to democracy have been those that had been part of broader regional systems, or which had received support from regional bodies such as the European Union. Even such countries were not always spared counterrevolutionary retaliations.

Afro-Middle East Centre invites you to a symposium with the theme: Unravelling Syria's civil war; exploring future scenarios.

Radwan Ziadeh
David Lesch
Ibrahim Mousawi

Women in Conflict

By Zeenat Adam

‘When women are violated like men who but for sex are like them – when women’s arms and legs bleed when severed, when women are shot in pits and gassed in vans, when women’s bodies are salted away at the bottom of abandoned mines or dropped from places into the ocean, when women’s skulls are sent from Auschwitz to Strasbourg for experiments – this is not recorded as the history of human rights atrocities to women...When things happen to women that also happen to men, like being beaten and disappeared and tortured to death, the fact that they happened to be women is not noted in the record books or human suffering…What happens to women is either too particular to be universal or too universal to be particular, meaning either too human to be female or too female to be human.’ – Catherine McKinnon, ‘Are Women Human?’

By Jane Duncan

In the past few weeks, the South African media have been dominated by the unfolding catastrophe in Gaza and South Africans have had to rely largely on foreign coverage of this issue to understand it.

The mainstream US media continued parroting the Israeli line that the country was acting in self defence, or insisting on its right to be ‘free from tunnels and rockets’, in Secretary of State John Kerry’s words, but Israel is clearly meting out collective punishment to Palestinians. At a deeper level, though, Israel’s motivation might well be to scupper Palestinian unity (albeit strained) after years of bitter conflict between Hamas and Fatah, and the killing of three Israeli teenagers provided a pretext to do just that. A united Palestine would be deeply threatening to Israeli interests.

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