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The Turning Tides of Egypt

Abukar Arman

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Overcoming tyranny is neither easy nor impossible. The Egyptian people know this very well as Egypt is still living through a decade of hope and disenchantment. In that defining period, Egyptians have deposed a corrupt despot- Hosni Mubarak. They elected their first president—Mohamed Morsi—in a fair and internationally monitored election. And within 365 days, they cheered their military for executing a coup d’état that installed Abdel-Fattah el Sisi, then Egypt’s Minster of Defense, in power; and things have never been the same.

Since July 3, 2013, mass imprisonment and sporadic massacring of targeted civilians became widely tolerated phenomena. Crimes against humanity were committed in a broad daylight at Rabaa Square when the military and security forces killed more than 800 peaceful anti-coup protesters who belonged to the Muslim Brotherhood. It was a horrific mortal campaign that the Human Rights Watch called “one of the world’s largest killings of demonstrators in a single day in recent history, “though the Western ‘guardians of democracy’ mostly took position between apathy and equivocation.

Extreme Manipulation of Power

Sisi consolidated power and developed reputation for extreme ruthlessness. His government assumed absolute control of the flow of information which rendered any and all objective political discourse and power scrutiny of any kind criminal enterprise. Jingoism and contempt toward the Muslim Brotherhood became a national duty.

Mindful of what he has done in order to get to where he is, he relied on projecting himself as Egypt’s sole savior from the ever-present threat of terrorism. As a man who never sought power, but had to act because Egyptians demanded it. So, under the pretext of ‘eradicating political Islam’ by any means, the Arab Spring has withered.  

Egyptians had to undergo a long painfully cathartic period to learn a hard lesson and discover the real Sisi- an incompetent, corrupt man of countless broken promises. His publicly most ridiculed promise is his most repeated: he will uphold democracy and would not stay in power an extra second should he fail to deliver and Egyptians see him unfit. Sisi handpicked his own loyal parliamentarians who ultimately amended the constitution for him so he could rule Egypt at least till 2034.

Due to the negative effect of such constellation of false promises and the ruthless nature of his dictatorial rule, Sisi found hyper-militarization of Egypt is his best protection. He has built military barracks in virtually every neighborhood like police stations. He also built over 3 dozen mega prisons. Fighter jets routinely hover over Cairo to remind the public of an ever-present threat and to keep the average citizen’s psyche profoundly submissive.

Spark That Ignited Public Outrage

As Egyptians seemed paralyzed by political depression, there emerged a man who shook up the conscience of the nation. Mohamed Ali who is currently hiding in Spain has set in motion an avalanche of videos that exposed how Sisi, his close generals, and oligarchs have taken government corruption to new heights.

Ali was straight forward with the disenchanted and disgruntled masses. From the outset, he made it clear that he was not a formally educated man, that he was not motivated by moral rectitude, quest for redemption, or the desire to tip the scale in favor of one political party, religious faction, or another. He confessed that he was a construction contractor who has been receiving lucrative contracts from the notoriously corrupt military apparatus for 15 years. These contracts were routinely awarded without any bids to a favorite few who would be willing to play ball with the military.

For weeks, Ali has been releasing spontaneous, colloquially delivered, messages with irrefutable details and figures: Sisi is a hypocrite who was squandering the meagre resources of a nation suffering from mass unemployment, hyper-inflation, deteriorating education and health, and experiencing extreme deprivation resulting from economic austerity. He has commissioned, among other things, the construction of five massive presidential palaces for himself at a time when he was telling the public to tighten their belts because Egypt is a “very poor” nation.

His messages simply resonated with the average Egyptian who had enough of the military taking over almost every industry of the economy. In addition to the construction industry, the military has monopoly on construction materials such cement and paint, agriculture production, packaged foods, and now pharmaceutical industry- a project driven by Mahmoud el-Sisi, the president’s son.

Ali became an overnight folk hero, and his no-holds-barred videos have become popular in Egypt among Arabic-speaking peoples. And Mohamed Ali Secrets channel became the go-to platform for facts and figures. As someone who did not belong to any political, intellectual, or religious group at a time of broad-based cynicism, he became the unifying force that Egypt so desperately needed.

Futility of Resistance

So serious were the charges it compelled the state media—virtually all that are operational in Egypt since Sisi came to power—to switch to a higher gear in delivering their daily propaganda. They went back to their old playbook and set in motion their favorite play, the 3D or deny, discredit, and demonize.

Initially, the impact of the Mohamed Ali phenomenon and the massive protests it inspired in various cities was denied any coverage. Once the international media started to cover those events, Egypt’s state media started to discredit the organizers as cowards who would not show up at demonstrations   but would misguide others to march into harm’s way. When that didn’t work, they started accusing the demonstrators as traitors who were funded by the Muslim Brotherhood and foreign elements.

So implicating were these allegations and subsequent public outrage that it compelled Sisi to immediately respond. His message was tri-faceted. To his most credulous base, he had this:“To all elderly mothers who believe me and pray for me, I would like to tell them: your son is honorable.” To the outraged masses, he had this: So what? “Yes, I have built presidential palaces, and will continue to do so”.

The Crumbling Walls of Fear

After six years of iron fist grip, indoctrination, and being counted as people who ultimately succumbed to fear, the Egyptian people have proven to themselves and the rest of the world that they are far from being down and out.

September 20 has gone down in Egypt’s history as the day the tides turned against Abdel-Fattah el Sisi. Outraged masses defied Sisi’s zero tolerance for anti-government expression and protested across Egypt. They chanted anti-Sisi and anti-Military slogans and tore up the pictures of President Trump’s “favorite dictator” in public. This time, the outraged could not be dismissed as a conspiracy led by that all too familiar boogieman, the Muslim Brotherhood.

Sisi’s paranoia impulse started gauging in the red zone. The military and the security forces were ordered to setup strategic checkpoints where people are stopped to undergo strict searches. They are ordered to hand over their identifications, mobiles, and computers so the government forces could check how have they been getting their news, who have they communicated with, and what have they been filming.

Over two thousand people were arrested in what Amnesty International referred to as the “largest wave of mass arrests since (Sisi) came to power.” Many others were kidnapped by pro-government hired hoodlums known as Baltajiyah and the whereabouts are not known. Those arrested include well-known secular academics, journalists, political leaders, and activists. They also included foreign students who were arrested and tortured into a uniformed confession of being Muslim Brotherhood cells on a mission to create unrest in Egypt. Their confessions were televised by Amr Adeeb, one of the most notorious defenders of Sisi. Interestingly, 3 of those ‘foreign saboteurs’ were freed after their respective governments took issue with the false charges. One of them—a Sudanese student—revealed that he was physically electrocuted and psychologically threatened with death.

The following week, while Cairo was in shutdown to keep anti-government demonstrators away, pro-government demonstrators who were mostly government employees, military and police cadets, and paid people were unabashedly bused to the site, all holding up portraits of Sisi.

While that may give the impression that Sisi’s repressive modus operandi is still working and that the anti-government protesters are permanently silenced, it is too naïve to assume that this latest outrage has fizzled. Sisi’s repression and corruption have afflicted millions of households across the political, economic, social, and religious divides.

Egypt is at a turning point, and this time the protesters are equipped with great deal anger, experience, and unity of cause. If Sisi continues his tyrannical rule and good elements within the military remain passive, a volcano of public wrath is likely to erupt in Egypt around January 25-the ninth anniversary of the Egyptian revolution that ousted Hosni Mubarak.

Abukar Arman is a former diplomat, serving as Somalia's Special Envoy to the US. As a widely published analyst, he focuses on foreign policy, Islam, the Horn of Africa, extremism, and other topics. Twitter: @Abukar_Arman or reach him via e-mail: abukar_arman[at]yahoo.com

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Has Assad succeeded in overcoming the Syrian crisis?

Mohamad Zreik

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A series of revolutions swept through the Arab region. The first torch was from Tunisia when protester Mohamed Bouazizi burned himself in opposition to the regime of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. This wave of revolts led to the overthrow of many Arab regimes and leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and other Arab countries. There has been a state of destruction, displacement and economic collapse in the countries affected by the revolutions, a lot of killing, torture and political division, as well as the penetration of terrorist groups in the Arab world.

The revolution began in the form of peaceful protests, but soon developed using violence between the Syrian army and opposition groups. Over time, the Syrian opposition was divided into a peaceful opposition aimed at overthrowing the Assad regime through diplomatic means and the armed opposition, which was divided into several factions: the Free Syrian Army, Jabhat al-Nusra and ISIS, as well as other armed factions.

This difficult situation brought the Syrian regime into a stage of internal popular and military pressure, which led to a request for military assistance from Russia. Russia responded to Assad’s request and defended the Syrian regime in earnest. Russia, which had good relations with the Libyan regime, did not veto the UN Security Council in favor of the Gaddafi regime. In the Syrian crisis, however, Russia and China have vetoed the UN Security Council in favor of the Assad regime, and they defended the Syrian regime in international forums.

Russia, which has historical ties with the Syrian regime, regards Syria as an extension of its strategic interests in the Middle East. Evidence of this is the presence of Russia’s military base in Syria, which is Russia’s only military base in the Middle East. Iran also stood by the Syrian regime in its war, and there was constant coordination between the Syrian and Iranian leaderships. On the other hand, the United States, Saudi Arabia and Turkey demanded that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad step down and replace the existing regime with a new regime. The United States has repeatedly threatened military intervention to strike the Syrian regime, but the American threat has always been matched by a Russian willingness to retaliate, creating a balance of power on the Syrian battlefield.

Russia’s active support of the Syrian regime and its allies’ support led to Assad’s steadfastness, despite widespread international dissatisfaction with this outcome. Syria’s political position has not yet changed, but the Syrian-Russian-Chinese-Iranian alliance has been strengthened. Many military analysts believe that what happened in Syria cannot be repeated with other countries. The most important reason is Syria’s strategic geographic position and the need for a regime like Assad to govern Syria for the time being.

The Assad regime has not collapsed, but there has been an internal and international resentment that did not exist in the past. This is expected to happen because of the nature of the Syrian regime’s alliances and the division of the region between an eastern and a Western axis. But the Assad regime has been able to withstand and maintain its position in the face of the severe crisis in Syria.

The Syrian regime must work hard to involve the Syrian opposition in government and form a government that includes all strata of Syrian society so as not to feel a large segment of the Syrian people injustice, and must increase the margin of freedom in the country. These steps should change the perception that prevailed towards the Syrian regime, and lead to its acceptance internally and internationally in the next stage.

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Landing in Riyadh: Geopolitics work in Putin’s favour

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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When Russian President Vladimir Putin lands in Riyadh this week for the second time in 12 years, his call for endorsement of his proposal to replace the US defense umbrella in the Gulf with a multilateral security architecture is likely to rank high on his agenda.

So is Mr. Putin’s push for Saudi Arabia to finalize the acquisition of Russia’s S-400 anti-missile defense system in the wake of the failure of US weaponry to intercept drones and missiles that last month struck key Saudi oil installations.

“We are ready to help Saudi Arabia protect their people. They need to make clever decisions…by deciding to buy the most advanced S-400 air-defence systems. These kinds of systems are capable of defending any kind of infrastructure in Saudi Arabia from any kind of attack,” Mr. Putin said immediately after the attacks.

Mr Putin’s push for a multilateral security approach is helped by changing realities in the Gulf as a result of President Donald J. Trump’s repeated recent demonstrations of his unreliability as an ally.

Doubts about Mr. Trump have been fuelled by his reluctance to respond more forcefully to perceived Iranian provocations, including the downing of a US drone in June and the September attacks on the Saudi facilities as well as his distancing himself from Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu following last month’s elections, and most recently, the president’s leaving the Kurds to their own devices as they confront a Turkish invasion in Syria.

Framed in transactional terms in which Saudi Arabia pays for a service, Mr. Trump’s decision this week to send up to 3,000 troops and additional air defences to the kingdom is likely to do little to enhance confidence in his reliability.

By comparison, Mr. Putin, with the backing of Chinese president Xi Jinping, seems a much more reliable partner even if Riyadh differs with Moscow and Beijing on key issues, including Iran, Syria and Turkey.

“While Russia is a reliable ally, the US is not. Many in the Middle East may not approve of Moscow supporting Bashar al-Assad’s regime, but they respect Vladimir Putin for sticking by Russia’s beleaguered ally in Syria,” said Middle East scholar and commentator Mark N. Katz.

In a twist of irony, Mr. Trump’s unreliability coupled with an Iran’s strategy of gradual escalation in response to the president’s imposition of harsh economic sanctions in a bid to force the Islamic republic to the negotiating table appear to have moderated what was perceived as a largely disastrous assertive and robust go-it alone Saudi foreign and defense policy posture in recent years.

While everyone would benefit from a dialling down of tensions between Saudi Arabia and Iran, Mr. Trump’s overall performance as the guarantor of security in the Gulf could in the longer term pave the way for a more multilateral approach to the region’s security architecture.

In the latest sign of Saudi willingness to step back from the brink, Saudi Arabia is holding back channel talks for the first time in two years with Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen. The talks began after both sides declared partial ceasefires in the more than four year-long Yemeni war.

The talks potentially open the door to a broader Russian-sponsored deal in the context of some understanding about non-aggression between the kingdom and Iran, in which Saudi Arabia would re-establish diplomatic relations with Syria in exchange for the Islamic republic dropping its support for the Houthis.

Restoring diplomatic relations and reversing the Arab League’s suspension of Syrian membership because of the civil war would constitute a victory for Mr. Al-Assad’s main backers, Russia and Iran. It would grant greater legitimacy to a leader viewed by significant segments of the international community as a pariah.

A Saudi-Iranian swap of Syria for Yemen could also facilitate Saudi financial contributions to the reconstruction of war-ravaged Syria. Saudi Arabia was conspicuously absent at last month’s Rebuild Syria Expo in Damascus.

Mr. Putin is likely to further leverage his enhanced credibility as well as Saudi-Russian cooperation in curtailing oil production to boost prices to persuade Saudi Arabia to follow through on promises to invest in Russia.

Saudi Arabia had agreed to take a stake in Russia’s Novatek Arctic-2 liquefied natural gas complex, acquire Sibur, Russia’s largest petrochemical facility, and invest an additional US$6 billion in future projects.

Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak predicted that “about 30 agreements and contracts will be signed during President Putin’s visit to Saudi Arabia. We are working on it. These are investment projects, and the sum in question is billions of dollars.”

In anticipation of Mr. Putin’s visit, Russia’s sovereign wealth fund, the Russian Direct Investment Fund (RDIF), said it was opening its first overseas office in Riyadh.

RDIF and the kingdom’s counterpart, the Public Investment Fund (PIF), are believed to be looking at some US$2.5 billion in investment in technology, medicine, infrastructure, transport and industrial production.

The Russian fund is also discussing with Aramco, the Saudi state-owned oil company, US$3 billion in investments in oil services and oil and gas conversion projects.

Saudi interest in economic cooperation with Russia goes beyond economics. Ensuring that world powers have an increasing stake in the kingdom’s security is one pillar of a more multilateral regional approach

Said Russian Middle East expert Alexey Khlebnikov: “Clearly, the recent attacks on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities have changed many security calculations throughout the region.”

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No peace for Kurds: Rojava still under attack

Silvia Fornaroli

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The Amazon is still on fire. The “lungs of the Earth” are hardly breathing while the flames are threatening people and nature reserves. As long as we do not see with our own eyes the burnt trees, the endangered species and the indigenous tribes fighting to save their dying forest, we seem incapable to understand the actual consequences.

Thousands of miles away from this environmental catastrophe, a different kind of tragedy is waiting to happen. Rojava-Northern Syria Federation — the self-declared autonomous region that Kurdish people managed to carve out in northeastern Syria during the Civil war — is burning again.

On September 24, Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan made a controversial speech to the United Nations General Assembly and proposed to create a “safe zone” in the north of Syria, in order to resettle up to 2 million Syrian refugees. He is hoping to establish a peace corridor with a depth of 32 kilometers and a length of 480 kilometers, which would easily turn the area into the world’s largest refugee camp. Despite the seemingly humanitarian purposes, this might represent the umpteenth attempt to destroy the Kurdish dream of an independent democratic enclave.

It is undeniably clear, in fact, how Turkey could take advantage of the situation: Erdoğan’s spokesman Ibrahim Kalin has already claimed that Ankara’s aim is also to clear the borders from “terrorist elements.”

The People’s Protection Units and the Women’s Protection Units (YPG/YPJ), which — along with the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) — played a key role in the fought against the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), are the official army of Rojava but currently designated as terrorist organizations. These armed groups, in fact, are considered as an extension of the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK), the far-left militant and political organization founded in 1978 by Abdullah Öcalan and  often involved in armed clashes with Turkish security forces.

Kurdish people are about to be left alone once again and the recent decisions of the White House trigger alarm in the whole Middle East.

On October 7, president Donald Trump announced that the United States  — so far the main financer, trainer and supporter of Kurds — would start pulling troops out of those territories, although it would not constitute a full withdrawal.

Pentagon spokesman Jonathan Hoffman said that “The Department of Defense made clear to Turkey — as did the president — that we do not endorse a Turkish operation in Northern Syria,” and that “The US Armed Forces will not support, or be involved in any such operation.”

Mazlum Kobanê, the commander in chief of the SDF, announced that they will protect Syrian’s borders and fight back against Ankara’s army. Since the majority of Kurdish cities are located in this area, it is not difficult to understand how potentially devasting this ongoing operation could be.

Turkish assault is going to begin from the city of Gire Spi/Tell Abyad, once controlled by the so-called Caliphate and captured in 2015 by the YPG during the Tell Abyad offensive. The cities of Qamishli, Derek/Al Malikiya, Tell Tamer and Kobanê/Ayn al Arab are next to become target of air strikes and artillery fire as well.

It is no coincidence that shortly after the siege of Kobanê, Kurdish forces directed their efforts towards Tell Abyad, being such a strategic site for ISIL militias. The city, in fact, was better known in the West as the “Jihadi Highway”, a de-facto corridor for foreign fighters. In the chaos caused by the fighting, jihadists would surely try to regain strength and Turkish move is serving the cause.

At the Al-Hol camp — a huge detention female camp near Al-Hasakah — numerous riots have occurred in the past few weeks, and the managers of the structure believe that the women held in the prison — former jihadi brides — might be the vehicle for renewed forms of radicalization.

In view of the fact that US officials confirmed that they will not intervene nor will they seize control of those prisons, Kurdish forces called Washington’s move “a stab in the back”. Meanwhile in Raqqa, ISIL militants are still carrying out suicide bombing attacks against SDF positions.

Shervan Derwish, official spokesman of the Mambij Military Council, has expressed his concern with a very touching message on Twitter.

The YPG and YPJhave fought in many historical battles and their solitary resistance during the last Turkish Afrin offensive in January 2018 became a symbol of their resilience.

On the other hand, Turkey’s army will be backed by their well-known rebel allies:  “The Turkish military, together with the Free Syrian Army (FSA), will cross the Turkish-Syrian border shortly, “wrote Fahrettin Altun — Turkey’s communications director — in a Washington Post column. Numerous military groups are active in the region and, although their nature is still debated, there are evidence of many connections with jihadi-inspired organizations.

Working in cooperation with the SDF, Rojava’s cantons are ready to resist and defend their independence, but Trump’s decision sounds like a betrayal.

If forests are burning, so will be democracy in Syria. The Rojava project is in imminent danger, and this time there will be no mountains for the Kurds to seek refuge in. Here in the West we are blessed not to directly witness the destruction of both tragedies, but it is still up to us whether to look those flames in the eye or remember them as the unique environments they actually were.

In loving memory of Mehmet Aksoy, who dedicated his life to the Kurdish cause.

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