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Who is Egypt’s Mysterious New Pharaoh?

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Egypt’s new de facto pharaoh, General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi, is a man of mystery. Is he an Islamist, or a nationalist? Is he a person of high principle, or a lowly opportunist?

And in a land which has known five thousand years of mainly centralized, one-man rule, with limited experience of democracy, when have we seen his type before, and where will he lead the troubled, ancient nation now?

These questions are crucial to knowing how the U.S. should react to al-Sisi’s removal of Egypt’s first “freely elected” president, Mohamed Morsi on July 3 in answer to overwhelmingly massive street protests demanding that he do so, and to the ongoing bloody crackdown on Morsi’s group, the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), that began on August 14. Citing the ongoing, actually two-way violence in Egypt, President Barack Obama’s administration has now suspended much of our annual $1.6 billion aid to the country, save for money needed to maintain security operations along the Israeli border in Sinai and to directly support the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty.

Earlier, the administration had stopped the scheduled delivery of four out of twenty F-16s to Egypt, cancelled the bi-annual “Bright Star” joint training exercises that had been set for September, and launched a review of the bi-lateral relationship. There has now been a delay in paying the final $585 million tranche of this year’s aid package, pending that review, according to an October 9 report by the global strategic analysis firm, Stratfor.

However, the administration has been careful not to classify Morsi’s removal a “coup,” which under U.S. law would require an immediate cut-off of all of our aid to Egypt. That assistance is vital to the U.S.’ favored access to the Suez Canal, maintenance of the 1979 Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty and crucial bi-lateral security cooperation against international terrorism. Nonetheless, the latest move puts the entire alliance at great risk, and plays into popular demands that Egypt switch to a more independent stance, or even adopt Russia as chief military supplier instead of the U.S., an idea made more enticing by Washington’s apparent weakness in surrendering its interests in Syria to Moscow, and its seeming haste to make concessions to Cairo’s post-MB regional antagonist in Tehran over the latter’s nuclear program.

Yet along with a number of key Congressional leaders and most of the mainstream media, Obama has been far more critical of al-Sisi and his use of force against a group that our government wrongly supported while in power under the illusion that it was “moderate,” than they have been of the violence and mayhem of the MB.

Meanwhile, the MB’s “peaceful demonstrators” have been busy burning scores of Christian churches and schools along with hundreds of Christian businesses while attacking other citizens, museums and public buildings, the police and the army, and waging an open war against the state in Sinai and around the country. As the total number of deaths in the past nearly two months of confrontations climbs toward the thousands, the MB clearly hopes to use its own “martyrs” (as both sides call their fallen) to generate sympathy for their unaltered goal of restoring Morsi to power. So far, however, it’s not working. Despite a surge in turnout at demonstrations it organized to coincide with the State’s grand celebrations of the 40th anniversary of the 1973 war on October 6, fewer and fewer people have been joining its protests, which have been tiny compared to the unprecedentedly-huge demonstrations against the Islamists.

THE SECRET THESIS

But what besides the obvious hard realities pushed al-Sisi to act when he did? What does he believe, and what does he want? A quiet man known for saying little and keeping his own counsel, in his year of study at the U.S. Army War College in 2006, al-Sisi produced a research paper or brief thesis on his views of Islam and the state. That document was first exposed by Robert Springborg, an expert on Egypt’s military, in a July 28 article in Foreign Affairs.

Springborg predicted that al-Sisi, who has sworn to swiftly restore democracy after a nine-month transition, intends to keep real power for himself. Furthermore, Springborg warned of his “Islamist agenda,” saying that he would not likely restore the “secular authoritarianism” practiced by Mubarak, but would install “a hybrid regime that would combine Islamism with militarism.” Intriguingly, though it holds no state secrets, the document was classified, and was only released under a Freedom of Information Act request by Judicial Watch on August 8.

In it, al-Sisi declares, “There is hope for democracy in the Middle East over the long term; however, it may not be a model that follows a Western Template” (sic). By that, al-Sisi makes plain, he means that Middle Eastern democracy must be based not on secularism, but on Islam.

However, in an August 16 profile of the previously obscure general published by The Daily Beast by Mike Giglio and Christopher Dickey, those who know al-Sisi (few of whom will talk much about him) say that he grew up in a family that was both religiously conservative—not radical—but extremely nationalistic. And indeed it is that sense of nationalism which seems to have had the upper hand in motivating the actions he’s taken thus far.

The chaos, economic calamity, and political upheaval that have rocked Egyptian society since a much more limited popular uprising against longtime president Hosni Mubarak resulted in Mubarak’s ouster by the military on February 11, 2011 (at Obama’s thinly-veiled urging the night before)—and which led in part to al-Sisi’s move against Morsi—have all been seen before.

THE RETURN OF GENERAL HOREMHEB?

In 1952, the widespread corruption, resort to political assassination, and the burning of the most elegant parts of downtown Cairo (both of the latter done, it is thought, mainly by the MB) led a group of so-called Free Officers to overthrow Egypt’s last king, the feckless Farouk—with covert aid from the U.S.[1]—in a coup, and to declare a republic the next year. Though the move was clandestine and confined to the army, it gained massive popularity and created a mythic hero (who was really an epic failure), Colonel Gamal Abdel-Nasser, the movement’s charismatic leader, himself initially a mystery—and to whom al-Sisi is often compared today.

Or perhaps he will be more like Anwar al-Sadat, another Free Officer, who in 1970 succeeded Nasser—the father of one of Egypt’s greatest military defeats, in the war of 1967. Sadat partially made up for Nasser’s many economic and political blunders by launching a successful surprise attack against Israeli forces in Sinai in 1973 (though it culminated in yet another defeat), partially repealing Nasser’s reckless state socialism, trading an alliance with the Soviet Union for one with the United States, and daring to make peace with Israel—though it cost him his life when Islamists shot him down on the anniversary of that “victory” in 1981.

Al-Sisi has rapidly returned to the direct and confident military cooperation with the Jewish State that Morsi reviles, in order to prevent al-Qa’ida-affiliated groups (believed to have cooperated with the Muslim Brotherhood) from staging deadly incidents along the sensitive border.

However, much less reassuringly, al-Sisi has begun to flirt with both Russia and China, and is known to have neither much affection for the U.S., or patience with Obama’s pro-MB policy. But going back even further, to 1805, al-Sisi could turn out to be like Mohamed Ali Pasha—Farouk’s first direct royal forebear, an Albanian-Kurdish mercenary who used popular discontent against Egypt’s oppressive Ottoman governor to replace him in office.

Mohamed Ali would briefly revive Egypt’s long-lost military glory, and more relevantly, would do so by breaking with his own patrons in Istanbul–a possible cautionary tale for Washington now. And yet, plumbing much more deeply the currents of Egyptian history, al-Sisi may really most resemble Horemheb, the last king of the fabled 18th Dynasty.

Horemheb served as head of the army under Akhenaten (ruled 1353-1336 B.C.), the “heretic king” who became the first ruler of any country to embrace something close to monotheism, a fanatic who threw out the traditional pantheon of ancient Egyptian gods in favor of worship of the Aten, the disc of the sun. Akhenaten’s navel-gazing neglect of the nation’s economy and security while he persecuted the believers of other deities and—like Morsi—inserted his own followers everywhere in the bureaucracy, led to massive unrest and perhaps prompted his most trusted lieutenant, Horemheb, to overthrow him—though his exact fate is unknown.

Born a commoner, Horemheb did not seize the throne until its last royal claimant, Tutankhamun, had died—as well as the boy-king’s aged tutor Ay, who had married his widow. But when he did take it, he promptly stamped out the hated Aten cult and brought back that of the suppressed Amun-Ra, leading to a century of initially strong and stable rule by people mainly bearing the name of his successor and military protégé, a man called Ramesses.

As a soldier, Horemheb was no doubt angry that Akhenaten allowed Egypt’s hard-won empire in the Near East to largely slip away without a fight. The nation’s sacred prestige fell for the first time in centuries, and had to be reestablished so that ma’at—meaning everything from truth to order to righteousness, bound up with Egypt’s well-being–could reign once again. And that he quickly set out to do.

Here is a degree of parallel with al-Sisi, who reportedly had been enraged by Morsi’s actions that led not only to a loss of Egypt’s international prestige but also damaged her national sovereignty. This he saw not only in Morsi’s apparent covert cooperation with militants who had killed and kidnapped many Egyptian troops in Sinai, but also in his release of numerous terrorists convicted of murdering their fellow Egyptians plus members of the army, police and foreign tourists. Two symbolic acts by Morsi also not only raised eyebrows, but a sense of alarm about his intentions.

The first was Morsi’s decision not only to invite Tarek al-Zomor, a member of the terrorist organization, al-Gama’a al-Islamiya (the Islamic Group), who took part in the assassination of President Anwar al-Sadat on the eighth anniversary of his 1973 brief but psychologically crucial triumph over Israel in Sinai, but to place him in the front row during the commemoration of the day on October 6 last year. The second was Morsi’s June 2013 appointment of Adel Mohamed al-Khayat, a leader of al-Gama’a al-Islamiya, which waged a civil war against the Mubarak regime in the 1990s, killing scores of foreign tourists as well as hundreds of security officials, politicians and Egyptian civilians, to be governor of Luxor—where its most violent attack killed 58 foreigners and four Egyptian police and tourist guides (who died trying to defend the others) in November 1997.

Moreover, in late June this year, Morsi threatened to declare jihad on the embattled Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria in which the military had no interest. Al-Sisi was similarly piqued that Morsi allowed some in his cabinet to make threats to attack a controversial dam in Ethiopia that it is feared will lessen Egypt’s accustomed share of the Nile’s vital waters. And he was reportedly appalled that Morsi had evidently even told Sudan’s Islamist president, Omar Bashir, whom the U.N. has accused of genocide in Darfur, that he would consider giving that country land which lies in dispute between them on their common border.

To Egyptians since antiquity, to yield any part of the nation’s territory is an unforgivable heresy.

“BUT I LOVED EGYPT MORE.”

Perhaps worst of all, the MB calls for the establishment of a new caliphate, and lately demanded that its capital be in Jerusalem, which would not only mean a war to the death with Israel for which Egypt is not prepared, but—if successful–would obliterate the nation’s independence. Misr al-Mahrusa—”God-Guarded Egypt,” an ancient epithet for the country–would be no more.

Though the general wrote nostalgically in his U.S. War College paper of the caliphate that united the Islamic world for seventy years after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632, he stated as well that only extremists were calling for its immediate return now. And if it does come back, he would undoubtedly want it to be based in Cairo.

Adding to all this was Morsi’s rapid and relentless attempt to turn Egypt into a one-party Islamist dictatorship, and how it had destroyed both tourism and foreign investment while turning formerly rather small, if persistent protests by scattered secularist groups in an historically pious society into the largest demonstrations the world had ever seen.

On October 8, The Washington Post ran an AP story that quoted the first of a three part interview of al-Sisi by the respected Egyptian daily, AlMasryAlYoum, in which the general-turned-king breaker recounts for the first time what led to his actions on July 3:

El-Sissi said the turmoil of the past three months could have been avoided if Morsi had resigned in the face of the protests that drew out millions against him, starting on June 30. Days after the protests began, el-Sissi said, he met with senior Brotherhood figures, including the group’s strongman Khairat el-Shater.

He said el-Shater warned him that the Brotherhood, which made up the backbone of Morsi’s administration, would not be able to control retaliation by Islamic groups in Sinai and other areas if Morsi were removed.

“El-Shater spoke for 45 minutes, vowing terrorist attacks, violence, killings by the Islamic groups,” el-Sissi told the paper. “El-Shater pointed with his finger as if he is shooting a gun.”

He said el-Shater’s speech “showed arrogance and tyranny,” adding: “I exploded and said … ‘What do you want? You either want to rule us or kill us?”

Addressing Islamists now in the wake of Morsi’s fall, el-Sissi said, “Watch out while dealing with Egyptians. You have dealt with Egyptians as if you are right and they are wrong … (as if) you are the believer and they are the infidels. This is arrogance through faith.”

In the first part of the interview published Monday, el-Sissi said he told Morsi in February, “your project has ended and the amount of antipathy in Egyptians’ souls has exceeded any other regime.” He added that the military’s move against Morsi was driven by fears of civil war.

Given all this, could it be any wonder that the highly-patriotic, if also pious general with whom Morsi had replaced the aged Mubarak holdover Mohamed Hussein Tantawi because of his seemingly solid Islamist credentials had—after long hesitation—eventually felt that he had to act for the sake of his country? Ironically, al-Sisi was born and raised in the old Islamic quarter of Cairo called Gamaliya, the native district of Egypt and the Arab world’s first (and so far only) Nobel laureate in literature, Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006).

Mahfouz, despite a very strict Islamic upbringing, was from his youth a pharaonist—someone who placed Egypt’s unique national heritage above anything else, including Islam, in defining her identity—as well as his own. One of Mahfouz’s most prescient works is his peculiar 1983 novel-in-dialogue, Before the Throne. In it he hauls about three score of the nation’s rulers–from Menes in the First Dynasty to al-Sadat—before the Osiris Court, the divine tribunal which in ancient Egyptian belief judged the souls of the dead. Before the Throne features many cycles of tyranny, rebellion, chaos and restoration, which presage the events of the past three years in uncanny ways.

In the afterlife trial of Horemheb, there is an exchange between the general who turned on Akhenaten and the addled religious zealot himself that could well have taken place between al-Sisi and Morsi, though without the intense mutual affection, no doubt:

“I loved none of my followers more than you, Horemheb,” Akhenaten reproached him. “Nor was I as generous with anyone as much as I was with you. My reward was that you betrayed me…”

“I deny nothing you have said,” replied Horemheb. “I loved you more than any man I’d ever known—but I loved Egypt more.”

(This writer has explored this novel’s uncanny relationship to the overthrow of Mubarak in a May 2011 E-Note, “Egypt’s Revolution Foreseen in Fiction: Before the Throne by Naguib Mahfouz.”)

Time will tell if al-Sisi, currently calling the shots behind an all-secularist civilian government of technocrats of his choosing, is truly more nationalist than Islamist—whether he will restore ma’at or shari’a (Islamic law)—and if he will guide Egypt back into stability (or fails to do so) as a democrat in uniform, or as a martinet behind a “democratic” curtain. A key clue will be if he pushes for a new Constitution that omits the central problem with the one rammed through by Morsi, which not only made shari’a the main source of legislation (as it was before)—but which also empowered the clerics of al-Azhar, the highest authority in Sunni Islam, to interpret all laws to ensure compliance with it.

A draft of the new Constitution, released on August 21, would reinstate the Mubarak-era ban on religious parties, throw out the most offensive aspects of Morsi’s Islamist Constitution from the point of view of religious tolerance, and ban the formation of religious parties—a very good sign. The fifty-member commission (headed by former Arab League chief and presidential candidate, Amr Moussa), that is now reworking the draft, in coordination with the panel of experts that produced it, may entirely rewrite the Morsi-era charter.

The only Islamist group to join the body and to play any part in the transition, the Salafi al-Nour Party, has protested against the removal of the shari’a provision—but the secularists, including the commission’s spokesman, head of the Arab Writers’ Union Mohamed Salmawy, seem to control the process so far. However, the August 21 draft specifically outlawed the removal of the president by popular protest, reserving that right for parliament (the lower house of which has been dissolved due to violations of elections laws since June 2012)—to the outrage of the activists who fought to bring down both Mubarak and Morsi.

A recent decree replaces the oath that members of the armed forces formerly took to the nation’s president, Constitution and laws with a declaration of loyalty solely to the country’s military leadership. As the experience not only of Egypt both before and under the Brotherhood, but also Pakistan under its own generals, Gaza under Hamas and even Turkey under the more stealthily Islamist Recep Tayyip Erdogan has shown, only a separation of mosque and state with civilian control of the military can deliver anything like real democracy.

In Egypt, arguably the most religion-obsessed country on earth all through her world’s-longest history (and one of the most authoritarian as well), we should not expect to see either genuine democracy or even its prerequisite, a strong degree of secularism, with or without the new Constitution—or al-Sisi himself–anytime soon.

Yet at least Egypt will not be ruled by the MB—which threatens not only the world’s oldest nation, but us all–thanks to this enigmatic character from the heart of Old Cairo:General Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi.

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Middle East

The battle for Libya: The UAE calls the shots

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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This week’s inauguration of a new Red Sea Egyptian military base was pregnant with the symbolism of the rivalries shaping the future of the Middle East as well as north and east Africa.

The inauguration took on added significance as rebel Libyan Field Marshall Khalifa Haftar, backed by United Arab Emirates crown prince Mohammed bin Zayed and Egyptian general-turned-president Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, snubbed Russian president Vladimir Putin by refusing to agree to a ceasefire in the Libyan war.

Mr. Haftar’s refusal thwarted, at least temporarily, an effort by Mr. Putin and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan to structure the ceasefire so that it would align opposing Russian and Turkish interests, allow the two parties to cooperate in the exploitation of Libya’s energy resources, and protect a Turkish-Libyan maritime agreement creating an Exclusive Economic Zone that strengthens Russian-backed Turkish manoeuvres in the eastern Mediterranean.

The manoeuvres are designed to thwart a Greek-Cypriot-Israeli agreement to build a pipeline that would supply gas to Europe, reducing European dependence on Russian gas in the process.

Critics charge that the maritime agreement that would limit Greek-Cypriot Israeli access to hydrocarbons in the Eastern Mediterranean, violates the Law of the Sea.

Warning that it would block European Union backing for any Libyan peace deal as long as the Turkish-Libyan maritime agreement was in place, Greece was one of the countries Mr. Haftar visited in the days between his rejection of a ceasefire and a conference on Libya hosted by Germany that is scheduled to be held in Berlin on January 19.

Mr. Haftar’s rejection came as Turkish troops arrived in Libya to bolster forces of the internationally recognized government of prime minister Fayez al-Sarraj defending the capital Tripoli against an eight-month old assault by the field marshal’s rebel Libyan National Army (LNA) that is backed by Russian mercenaries with close ties to the Kremlin, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Prince Mohammed’s presence at the inauguration of the Egyptian naval base underlined the UAE’s influence in Egypt since it backed Mr. Al-Sisi’s 2013 military coup that toppled the country’s first and only democratic elected president and the Emirates’ determination to counter Islamist forces as well as Turkish influence in Libya and the Horn of Africa.

UAE and Egyptian backing of Mr. Haftar is not just about countering jihadist and non-jihadist Islamists as well as Turkey, but also Qatar, Turkey’s ally, which also supports the Libyan rebels.

The UAE-Turkish-Qatari proxy war in Libya is increasingly also coloured by Prince Mohammed and Mr. Al-Sisi’s opposition to efforts to resolve divisions among the Gulf states that spilled into the open with the declaration of a Saudi-UAE-led diplomatic and economic boycott of Qatar in 2017.

Saudi Arabia has hinted in recent months that it may be amenable to an easing of the boycott, a move that is believed to be opposed by the UAE as long as Qatar does not make significant concessions on issues like freewheeling broadcaster Al Jazeera and support for political Islam.

The new naval base’s location symbolizes Egypt’s conundrum that also poses a problem for the UAE at a time that Egypt is at odds with Ethiopia over the operation of a giant dam that Ethiopia is building on the Blue Nile.

Stepping up involvement in Libya risks Egypt becoming embroiled in two conflicts at the same time.

Egypt claims the dam puts a million Egyptian jobs, US$1.8 billion in economic output annually and electricity valued at US$300 million at risk.

The base is aimed at “securing the country’s southern coasts, protecting economic investments and natural resources and facing security threats in the Red Sea,” according to a spokesman for Mr. Al-Sisi.

The president has warned that Egypt would take all the necessary measures to protect its rights to the Nile waters.

So far, Egypt is banking on mediation helping it avoiding being trapped between a rock and a hard place by achieving a ceasefire in Libya that would keep Egypt’s hands free to deal with Ethiopia were a conflict to erupt.

The question is whether Mr. Haftar, who without signing the ceasefire agreement reportedly told German officials that he would adhere to its terms, and the UAE are willing to play ball.

The proof will be in the pudding. German Chancellor Angela Merkel raised the stakes by insisting in advance of the Berlin talks that they ensure “that the weapons embargo is adhered to again.”

The United Nations has accused the UAE together with several other countries, including Turkey, of violating the UN embargo.

As a result, it may be the UAE rather than Mr. Haftar who has a decisive voice in Berlin.

Said North Africa expert Ben Fishman: “Until Abu Dhabi pulls back its drones, operators, and other crucial military support, the prospects for Libya’s stability will remain dim. Besides the fact that they provide the greatest advantage to Haftar’s forces, focusing on the Emiratis also makes sense because the other foreign players currently have reasons to de-escalate on their own.”

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Berlin Conference on Libya

Giancarlo Elia Valori

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What are the strategic, military and political differences between the war in Libya of  2011-2012 and the current conflict in post-Gaddafi Libya?

There are many differences. The first one is that the powers that started the clash between an ambiguous Cyrenaic “entity”, with strong jihadist connotations (it should be recalled that, also with Gaddafi, Cyrenaica was the greatest geographical area from which the jihadists of the Afghan and Central Asian wars originated) and the Tripolitan entity were, at the time, separate and almost all Western entities. Currently, those who command and rule on the ground in Libya are only formally subject to a droit de regard of other powers outside the Middle East or Asia.

Due to its sloth, the whole of Europe is about to disappear from the Maghreb region and, in the future, from Africa. Moreover, the latter would be the “complementary continent” of the Eurasian peninsula.

 The proxy war between Colonel Gaddafi who, in any case, acted proudly alone, except for a limited Chinese and East Slavic support, and the Jihadist friends of the West in Cyrenaica – where the tradition of specific Islamic radicalism (the Senussite brotherhood) was still strong – was the last operation of the unfortunate and foolish U.S. project of the “Arab Springs”, based on the techniques of “unorthodox, but non-violent and mass warfare” developed at the time by the Albert Einstein Foundation, an association promoted by Gene Sharp in 1983.

As a CIA Vice-Director said, the idea of the “Arab springs” was “to avoid any contact between the Arab crowds and Al Qaeda” and hence to make the Arab crowds turn against the jihad.

Needless to add anything else, History has already taught us its lesson.

Currently the great proxy war has turned into a great operation in which the major points of reference for the forces on the ground in Libya are not ahead, but are strategically following their forces of reference on the ground in Libya.

Because power relations count on the ground while, as Giacomo Leopardi taught us, the “belle fole” are ineffective and illusory.

In the Berlin Conference, General Haftar – the strong man of Cyrenaica’s Government – presents himself with a never fully completed and unsuccessful advance towards Tripoli, in spite of the fact that the UN-sponsored government of al-Sarraj had important defections from the qatibe group of Misrata and that the forces of former Colonel Gaddafi have now reached Tripoli suburbs, as well as in spite of the fact that the financial and operational support from  Egypt – especially now-from the Russian Federation, the Emirates and Saudi Arabia has never ceased.

Due to his poor health and to “keep” its troops under control, which could disperse exactly as those of al-Sarraj, General Haftar needs a symbolic, but also politically effective and quick victory against the people of Cyrenaica, once hated by the people of Tripolitania.

 King Idriss II, the last Libyan monarch before Gaddafi’s coup, organized by the Italian intelligence Services, boasted of “having never been to Tripoli”.

Hence Khalifa Haftar, the man who was harshly punished by Colonel Gaddafi himself for his clumsy operation in Chad – the long and decades-long Libyan operation in the South to repel the pro-French forces of Tombalbaye and Hissene Habrè – has not yet won and cannot fail to win in a short lapse of time. Otherwise he becomes irrelevant to its supporters and will lose his social and economic credibility, which is essential in this type of war.

However the Russian Federation, which has openly supported him and which still holds him in high esteem, does not want rash decisions and presses for an agreement with Turkey enabling Russia to act as a real mediator, since Westerners still talk about irrelevant issues with the representatives of al-Serraj, the man still surrounded in his palace on Tripoli’s port, at which h arrived – just appointed by the United Nations without any particular rational reason – by sea, because he knew that he would immediately be taken out or killed in Tripolitania’s airport of Mitiga.

Russia wants to exploit – in a short lapse of time – the strategic void that is on the ground and in Western decision-makers’ minds.

Therefore, it needs a quick agreement between the Libyan parties to exploit the central role played by Russia and hence dictate its own conditions to Italy, Germany, France and Turkey, with which there are other Russian outstanding issues, as well as with the other players in the Gulf, who still do not know how to make the most of the new tension on the ground between the United States and Iran, which could start operating again in Libya through Qatar and, possibly, with its own expeditionary force, organized by the new leadership of the Al Quds Force, full of Syrian Shiites and former collaborators of the Pasdaran Iranian forces in Syria.

Exactly the same as Turkey is doing, by sending – from the Northern Syrian areas currently acquired by Turkey –  the Syrian “Turkish” jihadists, who were created and trained by MIT, i.e. Erdogan’s intelligence Services, to support the “Muslim brother” al-Sarraj.

 In other words, it is the division and/or availability of the proxy players, the fighters on the Libyan ground, which determines the behaviour of their “great” points of reference, not vice versa.

 Furthermore, in the Russian Federation, the new political configuration of the country’s leadership is not irrelevant to Russia’s engagement in Libya.

With his new reform of the representative system and the Russian government, announced on January 16, President Putin wants to reassure himself of the possibility of appointing his future successor, without particular contracts and agreements with other Russian power groups and lobbies.

 The Russian power, which has long been firmly in Vladimir Putin’s hands, now finds itself more divided and less malleable in the hands of the current Kremlin’s nomenklatura.

The latter is changing its skin and is probably also using the street riots against President Putin to push for a new power struggle between Putin’s “heirs apparent”, thus forcing him to make unavoidable choices even in foreign policy.

In the future President Putin probably wants to concentrate on Europe and on the economic transformation of his country and he will be ever less interested in embarking on peripheral adventures than in his primary goal, which will be the internal economic and social reconstruction and the stability of his Near East.

Nevertheless the former Head of the Russian intelligence Services no longer has in his hands – smoothly and without discussion – his old “power elite”, whom he wants to radically reform, also with the pretext – or perhaps the real intention – of eradicating “corruption”.

Therefore even President Putin cannot play all his cards in the Berlin Conference.

France almost explicitly says it wants to extend the truce in Libya, waiting for better times, which will never come. It also wants small hegemony over the possible agreement between al-Sarraj and General Haftar.

 Even if there were an agreement, it would not be determined by France or Italy, but by the real forces on the ground, that is to say by the actual power of the local military organisations, all of which are almost in non-European hands.

 Even if there were an agreement, the fact of stating at first want you want shows the existence of suicidal ideation.

 What does France really want, whose intelligence services are at the origin of the first scenes of the insurgency, supported by a phantom section of the Parisian “association for human rights”, Libyan section – and which today, for the most part, is still behind General Haftar? Certainly, for obvious anti-ENI reasons.

 First of all, France wants – from General Haftar- the management of the oil reserves between the East, Sirte and the first part of Tripolitania in favour of France, as well as strategic control of the Libyan South for further exploration by Total, which should achieve the objective No.1 of the French presence in Libya since 2011, i.e. the taking of ENI and Italy’s total expulsion from the Maghreb region.

 Russia instead wants-at the very least – to reach the goal of a military base in Cyrenaica, which should change Russia’s whole strategic equation vis-à-vis the EU, although Europe is not yet aware of this.

  This is not fully incompatible with certain Italian interests, which could play Russia against France.

 Russia is not interested in those who control Libyan oil from the Eastern and central areas of the country, but in those who supply it to it better and at a lower price.

 Moreover, France wants to hegemonize the new “interposition force” that should be established by the United Nations.

 Here the Italian government’s ambiguities have been dangerous and sometimes funny.

 Firstly, there was the idea of entrusting everything to Europe, an organization that certainly has a “deep void” as Foreign Affairs Commissioner – albeit I am not referring to the current Commissioner Borrell – but neither does it have any credible political and military organization for out-of-area operations.

 Which EU structure should deal with the pacification of Libya?

 The political and military Group? The European Union Military Committee (EUMC), which “provides military advice to the CFSP” (the EU Foreign Affairs Commissioner) and is currently chaired by the Italian General Graziano?

 It is not suitable to command and control, but only to ask the EU Member States what they want to do with their individual Armed Forces.

Furthermore – just to use a metaphor – when there are always many of us at lunch, we must always know who pays.

The Italian idea of replicating Unifil II, the 20-year-old adverse possession of a large part of South Lebanon, which was not even able to stop Hezbollah’s “little war” of August 2006 against Israel is not a model, but just naivety.

Unifil is something different from an area ban or an Interposition Force. It is a political-military platform for the whole Middle East, where everyone talks to everyone, but sheltered from everyone, which could not be the case for a Force between al-Sarraj and Haftar.

 I also have the strong impression that, after the statements made by Italian Prime Minister Conte and Foreign Minister Di Maio regarding the fact that the Italian soldiers (Who? Those recalled from other African or Middle East positions, connected to Libya and no less important than it?) “will never be engaged, for any reason, in armed actions”, all the other EU Member States got a good laugh out of it.

 So what does Italy want to do with the Interposition Forces, whose Rules of Engagement are also inevitably drawn up by the United Nations, not by Italy?

  Probably, the idea is for it to be a sort of unarmed security guard for some international judges, who will verify without being able to notify the truce breaks. Hence it would be like the global export of the “Clean Hand Operation”, the judicial probe which is at the origin of Italy’s poor “Second Republic”, rather than the development of a smart Italian policy for the Maghreb region.

From the very beginning, Italy- intoxicated from its supposed Kantian ethicality, but still proud of its “Article 11” of the Constitution – has declared, as a country defeated in World War II, that it still wants to be so and to remain so sine die.

 The Armed Forces of any country are like the bank deposit of any foreign policy.

 If decisions are taken without the Forces’ cash that serves to put them into practice and, above all, to force the others to accept the geopolitical stare decisis, hence decisions or blank checks are issued.

Hence what does Italy want from Libya and from the next Berlin Conference?

 To be expelled from North Africa, which is essential for its energy and material-military security, as well as for civilian and military communications.

 Italy now plays the role of the geopolitical waiter, a role not far from some of the professions actually carried out by some of the current decision-makers until a few years ago.

Just to use again a metaphor, currently Italy prefers to pick up crumbs and concessions – which will not be there – from the African meal of others.

Moreover, in a context where – as is right -the following countries have been invited to the Berlin Conference: Algeria, which we have also lost; China, which is very interested in the Libyan reconstruction business; the African Union, which will represent above all the interests of the sub-Saharan countries; the Arab League, which will set great store by a stable pacification of the jihad with the rest of the African Muslim community, so as to take the jihad out of Westerners’ hands; the Republic of Congo, ready to play an important role for its internal energy and economic reconstruction needs; Egypt, which wants to take General Haftar out of the other Middle East players’ hands to use him as a force for redesigning Egypt’s Western security and against the expansion – through Turkey – of the Islamic Brotherhood, i.e. enemy No.1 of Al Sisi’s power; the United Arab Emirates, which want to obtain the maximum economic and political leverage from their new and unusual position in the Maghreb region, designed to exclude much of “Old Europe”.

 Saudi Arabia – also central to General Haftar – does not want to go against the United States and Israel, thus increasing its commitment to the Tobruk government that organizes Haftar’s policy, but it also wants to maintain a sound hegemony over the Maghreb region against Turkey (but without harming its good relations with Russia and the United States, still essential for its regional Wahhabi wars). Hence support to General Haftar, but wisely and with discretion.

What does Turkey want? Currently it strongly supports al-Sarraj, backed  also by the Muslim Brotherhood, whose primary point of reference is Qatar, an ambiguous correlator between Saudi Arabia and Iran, with whom it has decisive economic relations. Erdogan wants a Tripolitania that has fallen into Turkey’s hands because Italy has not been able – or rather has not wanted – to support it militarily, possibly also with a real interposition force – not a newly-armed escort for the Maghreb “Clean Hand Operation”.

Turkey also wants strategic continuity between its very recent oil and gas agreements with Tripolitania – primarily maritime continuity, but which needs a very efficient land coverage.

 Even this redesign of the SAR and the Maritime Control Areas, which are by nature bilateral agreements, will see Italy excluded from the direct control of its ENI oil networks from central Libya to the Libyan coast. And this is no coincidence, considering that Tunisia – a possible Italian alternative to the restriction of ENI’s Libyan area – has not yet been invited to the Berlin Conference of January 19, 2020.

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Middle East

Iran crisis: A high-stakes bet on who blinks first

Dr. James M. Dorsey

Published

on

Two sets of US government cables suggest that Iran hawks in and outside the Trump administration appear to have the upper hand as European countries give hardliners a helping hand by attempting to force Iran to seek a diplomatic solution to a crisis that threatens to engulf the Middle East in yet another military conflict.

Disclosure of the cables advocating a military strike such as this month’s killing of Iranian general Qassim Soleimani coupled with the withdrawal of a US State Department olive branch that was intended to reassure Iran about the Trump administration’s intentions appear designed to persuade the Islamic republic to back away from its strategy of gradual escalation.

The strategy aims to engineer a situation in which a return to negotiations on the basis of the 2015 international agreement that curbed Iran’s nuclear program is the only way to avoid an all-out war. The Trump administration withdrew from the accord in 2018 and has since imposed ever harsher economic sanctions on Iran.

Hardliners in Washington believe Iran’s accidental downing of a Ukrainian airliner that sparked anti-government protests days after millions of Iranians came out to mourn Mr. Soleimani’s death in what Iranian leaders project as a rallying around the regime is a proof of concept of their approach.

The hard-liners’ strategy was spelled out in a series of unclassified memos sent by David Wurmser, a close associate of John Bolton, while Mr. Bolton was serving as national security advise to President Donald J. Trump. The memos projected a US military operation on the scale of the killing of a Mr. Soleimani as a way of destabilizing the government in Tehran.

Mr. Wurmser’s advice was in line with proposals for destabilizing Iran presented to the White House by Mr. Bolton in the months before his appointment. Mr. Bolton was fired by Mr. Trump in September of last year.

“Iran has always been careful to execute its ambitions and aggressive aims incrementally to avoid Western reactions which depart from the expected. In contrast, were unexpected, rule-changing actions taken against Iran, it would confuse the regime. It would need to scramble,” Mr. Wurmser wrote.

 Such a U.S. attack would “rattle the delicate internal balance of forces and the control over them upon which the regime depends for stability and survival… Iranians would both be impressed and potentially encouraged by a targeted attack on symbols of repression,” Mr. Wurmser added.

The leaking of Mr. Wurmser’s memos coincided with a cable from the State Department to US diplomatic missions worldwide that walked back an instruction earlier this month by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to limit contacts with Iranian opposition and exile groups in a bid to reassure Iran that the Trump administration was not seeking regime change in Tehran.

The Pompeo cable seemed to be a first step at bridging the gulf of distrust between Washington and Tehran that makes a resolution of the two countries’ differences all but impossible. Iran has long been convinced that regime change is the main driver of US policy since the 1979 Islamic revolution.

Mr. Pompeo’s instruction came on the heels of Mr. Trump’s decision not to respond to Iranian missile attacks on US forces in Iraq in retaliation for the killing of Mr. Soleimani.

With the government in Tehran on the backfoot as a result of the downing of the Ukrainian airliner and renewed anti-government protests, leaders of Britain, France and Germany, cosignatories of the 2015 nuclear accord, appear to be buying into the strategy of the Washington hardliners.

The Europeans, responding to Iran’s gradual withdrawal from its commitments under the accord as part of its strategy of gradual escalation, this week triggered its dispute resolution mechanism, that could put Iran’s actions on the agenda of the United Nations Security Council and lead to a re-imposition of international sanctions.

British prime minister Boris Johnson further raised the stakes by telling the BBC that he would be willing to back an as yet non-existent proposal by Mr. Trump for a new agreement with Iran. “If we are going to get rid of it (the nuclear accord), then we need a replacement,” Mr. Johnson said.

The proof will be in the pudding whether the two-pronged stepping up of US and European pressure on Iran will be sufficient to engineer a breakthrough in efforts to avert escalating tension and a return to the negotiating table.

So far, Iran’s response suggests tensions may have to further escalate before parties, all of whom do not want an all-out war, pull back from the brink.

In a first, Iranian president Hassan Rouhani, insisting that all foreign forces should leave the Middle East, warned, in response to the European move and statements, that British, French and German troops may be in danger.

“Today, the American soldier is in danger, tomorrow the European soldier could be in danger,” Mr. Rouhani told a Cabinet meeting.

Said a Western diplomat, spelling out European thinking: “This allows us to buy time while making clear to Iran that they cannot continue on this path of non-compliance with no consequences.”

For now, it’s a high stakes poker bet on who blinks first.

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