Egyptian general-turned-president Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi won a second term virtually unchallenged in what is widely seen as a flawed election. The run-up to the poll, including a soccer protest, suggests, however, that it will take more than a democratic whitewash to get a grip on simmering discontent.
The protest in early March signalled that militant soccer fans who played a key role in the 2011 toppling of President Hosni Mubarak may be down but not out.
To be sure, the differences between 2011 and 2018 could not be starker. Mr. Al-Sisi presides over the worst repression in recent Egyptian history that has targeted even the slightest form of dissent, making Mr. Mubarak’s rule look relatively benign.
Potential challengers in the recent election were either jailed or persuaded, sometimes in a heavy-handed manner, to withdraw their candidacy.
They included serving and former military officers as well as Mortada Mansour, a controversial member of parliament and head of starred Cairo club Al Zamalek SC. It was Mr. Mortada’s withdrawal that prompted a last-minute race to find a non-threatening challenger who could muster the endorsement by at least 26 members of parliament and 47,000 voters in time to meet the nomination deadline.
Mousa Mostafa Mousa, a largely unknown politician who had earlier declared his support for Mr. Al-Sisi, registered 15 minutes before the deadline, ensuring that the government could claim that the election would be competitive. Mr. Moussa secured three percent of the vote, while Mr. Al-Sisi won a 92 percent landslide.
Among Egypt’s estimated 60,000 political prisoners are scores of militant supporters of soccer clubs who were not only prominent in the 2011 uprising but also in subsequent anti-government demonstrations, including a wave of student protests in the wake of the 2013 coup that initially brought Mr. Al-Sisi, when he was still serving as Egypt’s top military commander, to power.
The student protests, that turned the country’s universities into security fortresses, were brutally squashed by law enforcement forces abetted by the adoption of a draconic anti-protest law, tight control of the media, and a crackdown on non-governmental organizations.
The seeming revival of the ultras comes at a time that soccer is re-emerging in Egypt as one of the few, if not the only valve for the release of pent-up frustration and escape from daily worries in an economic environment of austerity that has improved macro-economic indicators while fuelling inflation and making it harder for many Egyptians to make ends meet.
In the latest incident, seventeen supporters of storied Cairo club Al Ahli SCS, which traces its history back to the early 20th century when it was founded as an anti-monarchical club whose supporters played an important part in the 1919 anti-British revolution that paved the way for Egyptian independence three years later, were reprimanded in custody earlier this month.
The fans stand accused of participating in protests and clashes with security forces towards the end of a Confederation of African Football (CAF) Champions League match in Cairo that pitted Al Ahli against Gabon’s CF Mounana. They reportedly chanted slogans against the police and in favour of freedom.
As an international competition, the match was one of the few games exempted from a ban on public attendance of soccer games that has been in place for much of the last seven years in a bid to prevent stadiums from re-emerging as potential venues of anti-government protest.
The incident threatens to delay plans to lift the ban that has been enforced uninterrupted since early 2012 when 72 Al Ahli supporters died in a politically loaded brawl after a match in the Suez Canal city of Port Said.
The potential charges against the fans include being part of a group that incites disregard of the constitution and the law, preventing state institutions and public authorities from carrying out their work and threatening the safety and security of society.
Public investigators said the detainees included members of the outlawed Muslim Brotherhood that won Egypt’s only free and fair election in 2012 but was toppled a year later by Mr. Al-Sisi.
Ultras Ahlawy, the club’s militant support group, denied involvement in the protest. It said those involved did not represent the group and that it did not want the incident to be construed “in a political way.”
Phd student Hesham Shafick, however, described the CAF match as a return to the days prior to the 2011 revolt in which militants fans or ultras dominated the stadium with their highly artistic, choreographed support for their club that was often laden with overt and covert political tones.
“Their famous flames lit up the stadium and their famous song ‘liberta’ resurrected the moribund spirit of the January 2011 revolution,” Mr. Shafick wrote.
Mr. Shafick’s description and pictures of the Cairo stadium during the match suggest that the ultras as a group staged the choreographed support for their club. The staging defied a 2015 court ban of all ultras groups even if individuals rather than the group itself may have been involved in the last-minute protest.
In a statement, Al Ahli president Mahmoud El-Khatib seemed to take the Ultras Ahlawy position into account by asserting that “a few people interfered with our great supporters and did these shameful acts. They wanted us to return back to the past years that witnessed the team playing behind closed doors.”
Mr. Al-Khatib was among a host of club presidents and athletes that attended a news conference hosted by the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) to endorse Mr. Al-Sisi’s candidacy in a seeming violation of a ban on mixing sports and politics, arbitrarily imposed by world soccer body FIFA.
The revival of soccer as a release valve was evident in a Cairo coffeehouse on the second-day of Egypt’s three-day election where men had gathered to watch a friendly match between Egypt and Greece.
“Our voice is heard when we cheer and make a difference to the players, who are also doing something for the sake of this country. But if we go and vote in the election, our voice does not count — it makes no difference,” 28-year-old Hassan Allam told an Arab News reporter.
“There was no real competition against Al-Sisi and many of the people I know were harassed by security forces for their political affiliations. The only safe route for us to support the country is by cheering on our national football team; we have nothing else to do,” Allam added.
It is that sentiment that Mr. Al-Sisi will want to turn to his advantage, much like Mr. Mubarak tried with at best mixed results when he sought to either polish his tarnished image by identifying himself with the success of the national team or at times manipulate soccer emotions into a nationalistic frenzy that involved rallying around the leader.
To succeed, Mr. Al-Sisi will have to do more than support the team, which this year qualified for the World Cup for the first time in 28 years or adopt a nationalist approach by creating a fund that would incentivize players to play for Egyptian rather than foreign teams.
Mr. Al-Sisi will have to ensure that economic reform trickles down to the ordinary Egyptian, get the upper hand in an Islamist insurgency in the Sinai, and ultimately loosen his grip on power to create space for political groupings and individuals to voice alternative and dissenting opinions. So far, there is little indication that Mr. Al-Sisi is rethinking his approach along those lines.
Gulf countries pivot towards Israel: Can Arab recognition be foresighted?
The visit of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Oman surprised the entire world and delivered a message of smoothening of relations between Oman and Israel. This event has marked the first ever visit by any Israeli leader to Oman in 22 years. The Israeli Prime Minister and the Sultan discussed ‘Ways to enhance the peace process in the Middle East’ as well as other issues of ‘joint interest’. For Netanyahu, a milestone was achieved in the form of Oman recognition of Israel as normalizing relations with fellow regional states is one of the important clause of Netanyahu’s policy. Moreover, an Israeli Minister Yisrael Katz attended an International Transport Conference in Oman and proposed a railway link to connect Persian Gulf with the Mediterranean Sea. However, the railway link isn’t confirmed yet, it was just proposed in the conference. In parallel, Israeli Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev attended Abu Dhabi Grand Slam 2018 in United Arab Emirates, where for the first time in history the national anthem of Israel was played. Similar approach was adopted by Israel towards Qatar. These changing dynamics can foresight the future of Gulf politics, that is, gulf countries can align with Israel to counter the influence of Iran in the region and for this purpose gulf countries may recognize Israel.
An important thing to notice is that the countries smoothening their relations with Israel are members of GCC, where Saudi Arabia is at the top of hierarchy- the major decision maker in Middle East- which means without Saudi Arabia’s willingness and its interests, GCC countries cannot take such a big decision. Now here a question arises, why would Saudi Arabia allow this approach?
The main reasons are; firstly, the crown prince Mohammad Bin Salman have cordial relations with Israel’s top leadership and he(MBS) is seen as a potential ally by Israel in Middle East, the major reason why Israel demanded US to side by Saudi Arabia in Khashoggi murder case. Second, it would be very difficult for Saudi Arabia- the self-proclaimed leader of the Sunni Muslim world- to recognize Israel while other states in the region still oppose the existence of a Jewish state in Middle East. Recognition of Israel by other GCC countries would make it far easier for Saudi Arabia to recognize Israel or at least to melt ice. Lastly, the Khashoggi murder case have already deteriorated the international image of Saudi Arabia, at this point of time the country cannot afford to bear another blame as Muslim countries think it would be injustice to Palestinians if Israel is recognized.
So will Saudi Arabia follow the suit and recognize Israel? The question still remains ambiguous, but since Saudi Arabia haven’t opposed these action of GCC countries and a continuous diplomatic support from Israel to Saudi Arabia have been visible although both countries do not have diplomatic relations, it can be predicted that something is going on, between both of these states which they have chosen not to disclose now. Coming to Qatar, since Qatar is also involved in this process of developing diplomatic relations with Israel, it can prove to be a catalyst in the troubled Saudi/Qatar relations as helping Saudi Arabia to develop relations with Israel while other Arab states are doing the same can lift up the entire blame from Saudi Arabia. Maybe the sanctions over Qatar will be lifted or just become less intensified. Qatar sees it as an opportunity to regain the similar status in the region as well as to reconstruct relations with the other Arab countries.
Turkish Newspaper Implicates UAE’s Crown Prince in Covering Up Murder of Khashoggi
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman al-Saud, and UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, are close friends and allies, who jointly lead the war against Houthi-led Yemen. On Sunday afternoon, November 18th, a leading Turkish newspaper, Yeni Şafak, reported the two leaders to have also collaborated in hiding the murder on October 2nd in Istanbul of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi.
Yeni Şafak headlined “Dahlan ‘cover-up team’ from Lebanon helps hide traces of Khashoggi murder” and reported that on October 2nd, “A second team that arrived in Istanbul to help cover-up the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was dispatched by Muhammed Dahlan, UAE Crown Prince Muhammed bin Zayed’s chief hitman in the region, … according to an informed source who spoke to Yeni Şafak daily on the condition of anonymity.”
On November 16th, the Washington Post had headlined “CIA concludes Saudi crown prince ordered Jamal Khashoggi’s assassination”.
Bin Salman and bin Zayed are U.S. President Donald Trump’s closest foreign allies other than, possibly, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. All four men are determined that there be regime-change in Shiite Iran. This anti-Shia position bonds them also against the Houthis, who are Shiites, in Yemen, where bin Salman and bin Zayed lead the war, and the United States provides the training, logistics, and weapons. Both bin Salman and bin Zayed are fundamentalist Sunnis who are against Shia Muslims. Israel and the United States are allied with these two princes. Saudi Arabia’s royal family have been committed against Shia Muslims ever since 1744 when the Saud family made a pact with the fundamentalist Sunni preacher Mohammed ibn Wahhab, who hated Shia Muslims. Thus, Saudi Arabia is actually Saudi-Wahhabi Arabia, with Sauds running the aristocracy, and Wahhabists running the clergy.
In 2017, in Saudi Arabia’s capital of Riyadh, Trump sold, to the Saudi Crown Prince, initially, $350 billion of U.S.-made weapons over a ten-year period (the largest weapons-sale in world history), and $110 billion in just the first year. That deal was soon increased to $404 billion. For Trump publicly to acknowledge that Salman had “ordered Jamal Khashoggi’s assassination” would jeopardize this entire deal, and, perhaps, jeopardize the consequent boom in America’s economy. It also would jeopardize the U.S. alliance’s war against Shiites in Yemen.
Revisiting the Qatari crisis
In 2017 the dispute between Qatar and a number of its neighbours Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the UAE and Oman has considered as the most serious crisis since years and could escalate in the future to destabilise an already turbulent region. The Qatari support to the extremist parties and terrorist entities in the region is the apparent reason, however, conflicting of interest between Qatar and the other states about the Iranian relations, the political Islam and the competition over the regional leadership are the main reasons. Egypt, Oman and the UAE with the leadership of Saudi Arabia withdrawing diplomats, closing borders, announcing a number of Qatari citizens as terrorist supporters and place an embargo on Qatar and most of its interests and businesses in the region.
The primary reason for the Saudi’s camp blockade is the Qatari politically and financially support for violent extremist groups often affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood which considers as a real threat for the other GCC states in particular because of the ability of these group to create a secretive organisation with extreme religious behaviour. However, Qatar is relatively weaker in terms of politically and militarily than the Saudi’s camp, but it has continued to support its Islamist allies for many reasons: ideological sympathy; a believe that political Islam could reflect into Qatar’s influence in the region; a desire to challenge the traditional regional influence especially Saudi Arabia and its followers. In addition, Qatar has used its owned media tool the Aljazeera channel to magnify the Muslim Brotherhood influence and to criticise leaders in Cairo, Riyadh and Abu Dhabi which has been the major thorn in the relations.
The Qatari-Iranian close tie is the second source of tension which seen by other GCC states as a threat to the stability and even the existence of the Sunni majority states in the Gulf. The growing Qatari Iranian relation is evident in many occasions such as the Qatari voting against the UNSC resolution that calling on Iran to stop its nuclear enrichment project and the signing of Qatari Iranian agreement in counterterrorism cooperation which is a Qatar approach to benefit from the Iranian forces due to the modest Qatari military capability. Moreover, the Amir of Qatar called the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and congratulated him on his re-election on April 2017. Finally, Qatar paid the amount of $700 for Kataab Hezbollah Iraq (Iranian baked militia) for the exchange of a member of the Qatari royal family who has been a hostage in Iraq, (probably falsely) was the act that irritated most of the GCC states and triggering the crisis.
The Trump’s administration policy in the region gives Riyad, Cairo and Abu Dhabi the green light to punish Qatar for its support to the Islamic movement. Trump expressed a passive acceptance to the Saudi and its allies in an attempt to contain the greedy Iranian strategy in the region and to confront the rising of the radical Islam. However, it seems that Saudi and its allies are unqualified for such a containment scheme to Iran the giant regional power. Trump also took credit on Twitter and describe the Qatari Amir as “high-level founder of terrorism.” Thus, the blockade can see as an attempt from the Saudi’s camp to push Qatar back to the line, an opportunity to satisfy their allies in Washington and to shift the public opinion to the Qatari issues instead of many internal issues and shortcoming.
The crisis involved a number of unpredictable stakeholders with huge interests in the region which could turn the situation into uncontrollable in many ways. The blockade camp clearly desires that Qatar recognise how serious they are, rapidly back to the line and admit unambiguously their list of demands which include shutting down Aljazeera, end the cooperating with Iran, stop supporting the Islamic parties and recognise the Saudi leadership in the GCC region. On the other hand, Qatar with its relatively small population 300,000 citizens and fund over $300 billion ensures the state will never face a serious financial issue in the future. Moreover, Qatar is the home of the U.S. air base Al-Udeid which is a critical component of the U.S. campaign in the Middle East. Therefore, Qatar knows that the U.S. has an immediate interest in emphasising the stability and the security in Qatar in particular while the U.S. does not have an alternative to Al-Udeid base to support its strategy in the Middle East. The Saudi’s camp is unlikely to abandon their demands. The crisis shows how much the GCC leaders are threatening and in a confusing situation toward support specific radical Islam movements and relation with Iran. In addition, the blockade camp can maintain the sanctions for a long time rather than take a military action due to its economic cost and the lack of suitable capabilities to conduct such a war. For instance, the Saudi campaign in Yemen now and after three years, shows a significant failure to achieve its strategic goals.
The current situations for both sides show that the crisis could easily continue for more years which is a critical concern to all the stakeholders in the region. Now Iran and Turkey are playing a significant role in supporting Qatar needs of foods and goods to minimise the inconvenient of the embargo. Also, Ankara is considering enhancing its military presence in Qatar which seen as a direct threat to Saudi Arabia the major regional compotator for the Turkish influence. That also shows a high possibility of an Iranian Turkish large-scale involvement in case of a military confrontation.
The U.S. mission should focus on balancing the support to the Gulf States and their core interests as well as supporting the stability by avoiding encouraging them from adopting a risky diplomatic offensives options that can backfire into the whole region. It seems that the U.S. should adopt nuanced diplomacy to end the crisis which is not that simple for the current U.S. administration. Since the conflicting parties of this crisis will not likely find a comprehensive solution on their own, the U.S. should make it a priority to help them do so before the costs of the dispute continue to escalate in unpredictable ways.
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