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The death of the Second Republic: Understanding the spark for social mobilization in Lebanon

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Felt across the Mediterranean on August 4th, 2020, some 2,750 tones of ammonium nitrate stored in the port of Beirut exploded, killing at least 190 people and injuring at least 6,500, resulting in an estimated $10–15 billion USD in property damage, and leaving an approximately 300,000 people homeless. The ammonium nitrate gas had been stored in a warehouse without proper safety measures in place for the previous six years, after having been confiscated by the Lebanese authorities from the cargo ship MV Rhosus that had docked in Beirut and been declared unseaworthy. The official cause of the detonation is under investigation.  Yet the ruling elites’ failure to address the presence of the material in the port and the subsequent explosion perhaps signifies the apex of political corruption and public negligence.

In addition to daily disruptions in terms of social service provision, public inefficiency and corruption, the global financial crisis and the rise in influence of Hezbollah, investment, aid, and remittances has starkly declined. This has been coupled with enhanced sanctions against Hezbollah from neighboring Gulf states and the United States, making future investment in Lebanon unattractive at best.  Months prior to the protests, Lebanon itself was also inching towards an economic collapse. The economy grew a meager 0.2% in 2018, possessing the third highest public debt burden in the world. Its credit rating was downgraded earlier this year, and unemployment had reached 20% according to the IMF, which also noted the systemic corruption in Lebanon and the government’s inability to implement reforms. By late September, the circulation of US dollars plummeted, with people unable to withdraw USD from Lebanese ATMs, seriously impacting companies importing gas, wheat and medicine, “all of which needed to pay in dollars but sold their goods for Lebanese pounds.”[1]

Buckling under these pressures, on October 17th of 2019, Lebanon erupted into a series of demonstrations, increasingly known as the October revolution, amassing somewhere between 1-1.5 million protestors in the streets and mobilizing Lebanese expats in 35 countries around the world in 90 cities.[2]These protests are believed to have been triggered by the state’s failure to adequately put a stop to the worst wildfires in decades, which burned large swathes of the countryside on October 15th, as well as a proposed tax on WhatsApp calls, and the impending economic crisis. The movement mobilized Lebanese citizens of all sectarian backgrounds, ages and classes across the country, beyond typical locations of social contestation (primarily Beirut), demanding the removal of the political elite, an end to rampant corruption and, for the first time an overhaul of the entire political system.

In a structure of governance characterized by traditional alliances of patronage and clientelism, bolstered by sectarianism, corrupt practices have thrived. Existing literature largely attributes this dynamic to the sectarian power-sharing system governing Lebanon since its independence.  Yet, corruption appears to have reached levels in the post-civil war era that is unmatched, at least in the perceived experience of Lebanese. The revolutionary movement exhibited narratives surrounding corruption that highlighted its linkages to other forces in the system, offering alternative explanations.  The events of October 17th provide an opportune moment to interrogate the mechanisms that have allowed corruption to reach the intolerable levels one observes in Lebanon today. In studying the response of Lebanese citizens to the current uprisings, we can begin to understand why Lebanese citizens now refuse to tolerate it in its the current state.

Structural inequalities and the spark

After years and years of swelling corrupt political practices, economic exploitation and the marriage of these two forces, signs of a potential dollar liquidity crisis began to materialize in September of 2019.[3] The looting of state funds created conflict, not between rich and poor but rather generated a reaction against the perceived predatory behavior of the political and economic elite in rent-seeking. In addition to the very real concerns for survival and ensuring their livelihoods, the driver for many Lebanese was a call to restore their dignity. The theft and ensuing deprivation had reached unprecedented levels.  The crony neo-liberal and the confusion of public and private sectors facilitated corruption and sectarianism, which was also reproduced by these mechanisms.  Echoed in many of the discussions and interviews I conducted while carrying out research Lebanon in December and January of 2020, the lack of access to basic services and the consistent interruption of quotidian life compounded by long-term, structural social inequality pushed some to drop political clientelism and go down in the streets. Therefore, this movement triggered a struggle to reclaim basic fundamental rights surrounding daily needs and by extension—dignity.  Anger over the hi-jacking of this dignity manifested itself in the discourse surrounding the ever-increasing brain drain, personal status laws[4], citizenship laws[5], youth unemployment, increasing emigration and declining remittances. Consequently, a popular campaign expressed throughout the movement was جنسيتي كرامتي or “My nationality, my dignity.”

The spark for the popular reaction can be found in the uncontrolled forest fires and the WhatsApp tax proposed in the days leading up to October 17th.  The Lebanese are no strangers to taxes with this scale of impact.  However, the proposed tax on WhatsApp calls reverberated throughout the country for both its symbolic significance but also the timing of its discussion.

Following these fires (which the state was unable to address due to its failure to carry out maintenance of the required emergency helicopters), and as the WhatsApp tax was announced and discussions ensued, a post on social media circulated that perhaps best embodies the larger meaning imbued in the reaction to the tax.  In the post, an individual speaks of his experience as a young Lebanese living abroad in the diaspora.  He recounts how his mode of communication with his family and friends in Lebanon is primarily through WhatsApp, common for the vast majority of Lebanese. He speaks of a bitterness for being unable to participate in this turning point that is the result of “decades of culminated degradation.”  Family and friend WhatsApp group chats are often the most effective window into both daily life back home, but also understanding current events on the ground as many do not trust traditional media outlets. Photos and videos of solidarity protests across the diaspora are all sent back through these chats in support.  The individual who authored the text describes families scattered across the world, as well as a friend, a recent graduate working in Dubai out of necessity rather than choice.  He goes on to add that the nation is “fragmented due to the sectarian divides maintained by politicians who have more interest in money laundering and less in public affairs.”  He asserts that this political fragmentation transcends to the familial and social level, citing the lack of sufficient telecommunication infrastructure (i.e. results of political disputes) preventing Lebanese from calling their loved ones abroad as a prime example. Significant life events, achievements and memories have been reduced to digital communication, and yet even this option was threatened on October 17th. Therefore, he concludes that this is not about “protesting a WhatsApp tax; (they) are protesting all the factors that have resorted (their) feeling of belonging to the realm of virtual reality.” 

The ties that bind

This testimony situates this moment of social contestation in a context of meaning beyond the tax itself.  As argued by Erica Simmons, threats to norms and values in a society leave room for the possibility to mobilize across typical points of division.  Therefore, the implications of the WhatsApp tax relate to their larger meaning as a threat to an imagined community and the failure to protect this community.  In addition to the added cost the tax would impose, it signifies the greed of the political class.  First, this tax and its invasive nature into Lebanese daily life reminded citizens of financial decadence of the political class and their inability and incompetence to find alternative methods of extracting state revenue that would not punish or burden the working class. Rather than investigating theft, corruption or inflated public salaries, the elites turned immediately to further dispossess their own people. It also illustrates the way in which the political class continues to overstep and exploit without facing significant consequences. Secondly, this proposed tax symbolized both total control over the destiny of the citizen and the complete indifference on the part of the political elite to the plight of their constituents. The most basic right to communicate with one’s community, family and the larger world was instantly threatened and devalued. Even on the precipice of economic collapse, with thousands forced to leave the country in search of a better life, the audacity of the powers responsible for this crisis attempted to sever one of the only tools remaining that connects individuals to their home. Therefore, the tax highlighted more broadly the violation of fundamental principles that are consistently denied to the Lebanese citizen, which infringes upon their dignity and welfare that is carried out with callousness and disregard.

Class Divisions

The mobilization was by no means consistent across different social stratifications in Lebanon. As the weeks went on, it became evident that two types of individuals either possessed the privilege or the imperative to revolt.  The former is able to protest due to privileges such as not having children, their age, or possessing a foreign passport. The latter is so poor that they no longer have anything to lose. As a result, the majority of those I observed participating as the movement progressed were youth (typically unemployed), students, activists and individuals from the poor, working classes. Those residing between these two segments may or may not have expressed sympathies towards the revolution. However, either due to their own savings or family that face the risk of a chaotic transition or threat to their position in society, the consequences of upheaval did not seem worth upsetting the secure, status quo. However, the two segments visible in the street possessed similar grievances and demands, both frequently speaking of theft and stolen money. They also highlighted the need for the removal of the ruling political elite, the need to fight corruption and push for an independent judiciary and technocratic government, calling for the fall of the sectarian regime.  Whether compelled by poverty or the dearth of viable futures for graduates and the youth, both linked these grievances to what one artist and activist would label as the political elite maintaining a façade masking what is really “neo-liberal sectarianism” driven by greed and corruption.  It seemed that those who refused to support the movement or were unable to participate were partially motivated by fears surrounding escalation and violence, due to very recent memories of civil war traumas.  However, the generations born after this era and those with nothing to gain from the status quo proved to be liberated of this apprehension. In this case, the significance of the infringement on virtual communication is two-fold:  for the working poor, this serves as the final blow after decades of mismanagement, underdevelopment and neglect.  For youth, this tax reminds them that if they are forced to leave, their bonds will be tested, and the political class is failing to entice them to ever return.

Generational trauma

The movement and reactions to this social mobilization also revealed resilient generational divides.  Older generations with more recent memories of conflict were quick to take stock in conspiracy theories, mistrust of the movement and a victimization narrative regarding foreign interference. In one interview, a participant highlighted how older Lebanese often trace roots of corrupt practices to the deeply rooted Ottoman and French style kinship-based structures in the Levant, which ultimately serves as another form of exoneration of current leadership. During the clashes between security forces and protestors in downtown Beirut in the “week of rage,” I had a conversation with a woman from Jounieh[6], who upon observing the protestors fighting more forcefully with the security forces and damaging property, lamented what she saw as the demise of the revolution.  Disturbed by the violence she was witnessing, she quickly placed blame on “Muslim Brotherhood” extremists coming from Tripoli to infiltrate the protests.  This claim evolved into a critique of the Sunni leadership more broadly, specifically Hariri and the Future movement. These examples in which people divert responsibility to other religious communities or political dynasties other than their own or consistently across the entire political class illustrate an infantilization of the generations affected by the height of sectarian politics—violent conflict along religious lines. I argue this infantilization is carefully crafted by the ruling elite as a means of maintaining their hold on their respective constituents. However, through a new, common struggle, younger people in particular began to shed this mentality, instead adopting an outlook of increased autonomy to seize and claim their rights. Efforts to shed this mentality appear to signify foundations for new-found trust between citizens, but also in the institutions laid to waste during the civil conflict.  Calls to end foreign interference from all external powers categorically is a departure from the rhetoric of previous generations. Additionally, though not universal, there was an emergence of a budding political consciousness.

The clientelist bargain

The mobilization, particularly of the two segments most active indicate an alteration of the sort of bargain Lebanese citizens are bound by in the consociational, post-Taif system.  In this bargain, the citizen is forced to pledge allegiance to the Zaimor respective political leader representing their community or sect.  This leader promises protection to his community in what he portrays as a treacherous political arena, in which their position will be precarious without his leadership.  In return for loyalty and submission, citizens will have access to social services and connections depending on their level of demonstrated allegiance. This relationship calls on the citizen to overlook or disregard corruption and impunity in their own political community due to the lack of any viable alternative in the political and social system where these connections are essential for survival.  Additionally, some citizens have internalized a narrative of infantilization and genuine fear of the chaos that would ensue if they deviate from their Zaim. This bargain in recent years proved to no longer benefit most citizens, leading many to social mobilization, triggered by the WhatsApp tax. Daily life had become so unbearable in terms of basic needs not being met but also the repeated violation of peoples’ dignity visible in social injustice. Therefore, the payoff no longer outweighed the corruption inherent to this relationship.  Such a reaction to the sparks (WhatsApp tax, the fires) perhaps underscores a struggle for dignity and pride in citizenship, that is universal, as such factors do not possess sectarian dimensions, but threaten the lives of all.

The Shia population in Lebanon has historically been the most disadvantaged, despised and deprived.  After decades of political activism by Musa Sadr and the Amal movement and in recent years through Hezbollah, this community can obtain services and social support through these entities.  This provision comes at the price of authoritarian and mafia like behavior in asserting control in these areas and demands for unwavering loyalty, at times through coercion.  In Tripoli however, the historically privileged Sunni populations during the Ottoman era have not been afforded the same sort of bargain. With over half the population living below the poverty line and infrastructure crumbling, the city exemplifies state neglect and indifference, despite possessing some of the wealthiest political representatives in the country. This city also became infamous for political violence and recruitment into extremist organizations, due in part to the impact of the Syrian conflict.  Naturally, the call to rise on October 17th reverberated strongest with citizens of Tripoli.

The bargain is broken

Consequently, social grievances and the absence of strong institutions or an independent judiciary were highlighted frequently throughout the demands of the protest movement in and beyond Tripoli. With the economy on the verge of collapse, no one individual outside the core political elite can run or hide from the disruption of basic routines by unbridled corruption. One interviewee went so far to say that this sort of bargain between the Zaim and the citizen illustrates an abusive relationship with the state.  The polity endures the abuse because it is convinced of the need for its partner to protect them.  The state or political elite act as this protector, all the while extracting and exploiting more and more. At a certain point, this dynamic becomes so unbalanced that the abused—the people—snap in defiance demanding their dignity and humanity. In the discourse regarding the movement, corruption was discussed and perceived as part and parcel of the economic system and vice versa.  As a result, a common reverberation of anger over these forces led to the empowerment of the individual, but also mass mobilization. The individualization of political agency and the mobilization of society marks a rearrangement of trust in individual leaders or political parties to trust in a more widespread and diffused social community, but also in stronger institutions in the future. Though increasingly compelling for only certain segments and classes in society, for those galvanized to enter into the streets, the fear of consequences associated with such calls had virtually disappeared. Renouncing the tax and state policies in recent months and years, consequently, symbolizes the delegitimization of the system and the status quo that is unable or refuses to ensure basic rights to its citizens.


[1] Sullivan, Helen, et al. “The Making of Lebanon’s October Revolution.” The New Yorker, www.newyorker.com/news/dispatch/the-making-of-lebanons-october-revolution.

[2] “The Lebanese Revolution – Reporting the Lebanese Revolution of 2019.” The Lebanese Revolution – Reporting the Lebanese Revolution of 2019, www.lebaneserevolution2019.com/.

[3] Deutsche Welle. “Lebanon Faces Race against Time to Avoid Financial Collapse: DW: 01.10.2019.” DW.COM, www.dw.com/en/lebanon-faces-race-against-time-to-avoid-financial-collapse/a-50655866.

[4] Civil marriage is not recognized in Lebanon, and family courts are left to the respective religious sect of the community in question. These courts often put women at a disadvantaged in regards to marriage, divorce, the custody of children, and inheritance. “Lebanon: Laws Discriminate Against Women.” Human Rights Watch, 2 Jan. 2019, www.hrw.org/news/2015/01/19/lebanon-laws-discriminate-against-women.

[5] As the law stands, Lebanese woman are unable to pass their citizenship on to their children. “Lebanon: Discriminatory Nationality Law.” Human Rights Watch, 14 Nov. 2019, www.hrw.org/news/2018/10/03/lebanon-discriminatory-nationality-law.

[6] Jounieh is a coastal town 16 km from Beirut. The greater area is overwhelmingly Maronite Catholic, the home of the Patriarch of the Maronite Catholic Church and Harissa, a shrine of Mary and pilgrimage site called Shrine of Our Lady of Lebanon. 

Marie-Christine Ghreichi is a recent graduate of Sciences Po, Paris specializing in International Security with a focus on Diplomacy and the Middle East Region. After completing her studies in the United States where she supported a transitional justice research collaborative, she worked with Catholic Relief Services in Beirut, Lebanon before then coming to Paris to pursue her master’s degree. She is passionate about international conflict resolution, human rights, accountable governance, gender rights and the Middle East.

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The US-Iran deal and its implications for the South Caucasus and Eastern Europe

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The ongoing meetings between the US and Iran since the beginning of April in Vienna show new signs of progress. Abbas Araghchi, Iran’s chief negotiator and Deputy Foreign Minister, in the last days suggested that a ‘new understanding’ is being shaped. Any possibility of reaching an agreement and the US returning to the deal once abandoned by former US President Donald Trump, will result in a new state of affairs in wider Eurasia. New opportunities may also emerge for the South Caucasus and Eastern Europe creating new sources for security and development.

The nuclear deal, also known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), signed between Iran and six world powers – the USA, Russia, China, France, the UK and Germany – back in 2015 was envisaged to bring Iran’s nuclear enrichment process under stricter international inspection and monitoring. In response, the US and other participants of the deal pledged to lift sanctions imposed on Iran. 

However, in May 2018 the process was mostly undermined by former US President Donald Trump, whose administration decided to withdraw from the deal. The withdrawal was followed by a new wave of sanctions and targeted assassinations of a few prominent Iranians, among them General Qasem Soleimani, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ Quds Force, killed by an American drone strike in Iraq in January 2020. All the efforts of the Trump administration to dismantle the Iranian regime and its ambitions resulted in the resumption of the nuclear enrichment program. Upon his election, President Joe Biden expressed his sincere interest in returning to the deal. This led to the recent negotiations between Tehran and Washington in the Austrian capital. 

The fact that Iran and the US are mutually interested in the restoration of the JCPOA can be explained in a number of ways. The most apparent aspect is the US return to the international arena which it, to some extent, left under Trump’s isolationist policy. The American active engagement in the nuclear deal with Iran is aimed at various targets. In reviving the deal, Washington may hinder the hardliners’ return to power in Iran during the upcoming presidential elections this summer. Besides, Iran is becoming a regional bastion for China, which uses Iran’s economic vulnerabilities to maximise its gains. Finally, the rapprochement of Turkey and Russia creates another danger for US interests in the region, prompting it to reconsider its politics in the Middle East. In other words, the US and Iran need this recovery in relations for reasons stemming from the core principle of Realism, the balance of power; in order not to allow dramatic shifts in the geopolitical landscape, not only in the Middle East but also in central Eurasia. 

Russia’s strengthened stance in the South Caucasus following the second Karabakh war can primarily be explained by its emerging relations with Turkey, which were described by Russia’s chief diplomat, Sergei Lavrov, as ‘sui generis co-operation and competition’. This odd couple could dismantle hopes of peaceful settlement in Nagorno-Karabakh under the auspices of the OSCE Minsk Group co-chaired by the US, France and Russia. The Russian-Turkish duo have created the vast majority of the broader region’s flash points ranging from Libya to Syria and Karabakh. Russia’s rapprochement with Turkey is in Moscow’s favour and is aimed at disuniting NATO. On the other hand, Turkey’s bold politics speak about its global ambitions and desire to set its own course. Both behaviours are in direct contradiction of American vital interests, which is reflected in harsh criticism of the Kremlin and Ankara. In the case of Moscow, this reached a historic post-Cold War peak – Biden’s recent scandalous statement on Putin, calling him a ‘killer’, has inflamed relations between the two countries. 

The USA is actively supporting any activities aimed at decreasing the influence of Russia and China in various parts of the world. One of such projects is the so-called ‘Three Seas Initiative’. Created in 2015 by the presidents of Croatia and Poland, this project brings together the twelve states of Eastern and Central Europe located between the Baltic, Adriatic and Black Seas. The main goal is to counter the growing Russian and Chinese influence in the region, which is less developed than Western Europe and more open to foreign direct investments. Aimed at developing infrastructure, energy co-operation and digitalisation, the initiative seeks to create ”North-South” energy and infrastructure corridors. Given the US ambitions to reduce the region’s dependence on Russian energy supplies, the nuclear deal with Iran opens new opportunities. The fact that the Chinese Silk Road is heading to Europe via Central Asia and Turkey, it could be better to allow Iran to export its gas through Armenia and Georgia to Eastern Europe under the Black Sea. Firstly, this would solve the European dependence on Russian energy supplies. The export of natural resources has been traditionally used by the Kremlin as a foreign policy instrument. The reduction of dependence on Russian commodities will ultimately reshape the Kremlin’s behaviour abroad making it more predictable and constructive. The fear that this may plunge Russia into China’s orbit, turning it a puppet state for Beijing, are groundless given the Russian bear’s historical caution of the Chinese dragon. The second important contribution of the Iranian pipeline will be to increase the energy security of Ukraine, which is trying to integrate itself into European infrastructure and move come closer to EU standards at the same time as coping with Russian energy blackmail.

The Iranian pipeline is able to solve the economic and energy independence of the Eastern and Central European EU member states which participate in the ‘Three Seas Initiative’. It may liberalise the energy market of the region and will boost economic development, reducing its gap with Western Europe. 

Finally, the US-Iranian possible rapprochement may also change the state of affairs in the South Caucasus region. The increased Russian presence and active Turkish involvement in the region are aimed at keeping other external actors – and first and foremost the West – out of it. In the long run, this will threaten Georgia’s European dreams in the same way it has harmed Armenia’s democratic aspirations. Alternatively, the vision of being a transit route for Iranian energy pipelines to Europe, whilst also helping to connect India and Eastern Europe, could elevate the security of Georgia and Armenia to a new level.

Therefore, the US-Iran agreement is essential for restoring the balance of power in the region, in order not to allow the main competitors to maximise their gains. This deal promises new opportunities for Central Eurasia, creating room for manoeuvre for the region’s small and fragile countries.

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The Mediterranean: Will Turkey be successful in pulling Egypt to its side?

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The Mediterranean acts as a channel connecting Europe, the Middle East and Asia. The region has, however, become a bone of contention due to varying political setups, religions and cultural values, economic resources, and the existence of crisis situations. The maritime dispute between Turkey and Greece is highly contentious, developing new complexities that worries the international community. Greece prefersinternational arbitrationwhile Turkey favors the option of bilateral negotiationsconstituting asthe main cause of friction between the two countries.

Historically, root of the crisis also lies in conflicting claims by Turkey and Greece concerning maritime boundaries and Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ), threatening Ankara’s “Blue Homeland”doctrine. To further aggravate the situation, the dispute has now been intertwined withdisputes in the eastern Mediterranean among Turkey and a coalition of countries including France, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates that are doused in geopolitical tensions, energy disputes and Libyan conflict.

Gas discoveries in eastern Mediterranean have increased Turkey’s greed for hydrocarbon exploration. Turkey aims to solve its longstanding economic challenges and reduce its energy dependency due to which the country has increased its energy-related exploration activities in the region resulting in a major gas discovery thus shaping the region towards resource competition. Moreover, Turkey seeks to establish itself as an energy hub for Europe and has signed several oil and gas pipeline deals with Azerbaijan, Iraq, Iran, and Russia. However, its aspirations have significantly remained unsuccessful, and the gas discoveries have deepened its concerns of being left out from the region’s emerging energy and security order due to the creation of the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF).

Conflict in the Mediterranean has unwittingly pushed Libya into a proxy war. Scuffle between Libyan National Army (LNA) and Government of National Accord (GNA) has pushed Turkey to increase its support for GNA by sending troops and weapons to Libya which is a move directly affecting the ongoing situation in the region. GNA signing its EEZ agreement with Turkey while Greece turning to LNA and signing an agreement with Egypt have contributed to exacerbating the dispute. Not only this, but major European powers have shown keen interest in the region that patently require Turkey’s support in terms of migration and counterterrorism. If the conflict between the Turkish-backed GNA and the LNA stabilizes, this would result in an ordered flow of migrants to Europe.

Moreover, Europeans do not wish to abandon a 2016 German-brokered deal between Turkey and the European Union (EU) that allows Turkey to maintain a considerable control over refugee movements into Europe. On counterterrorism, France to fight against the terrorism in southern Libya and Benghazi, allied with Haftar against Turkey, despite recognizing the GNA’s sovereignty.  France has developed security partnerships with UAE and Egypt, who are opponents of Turkey in the region.

Egypt’s possession of two liquefication facilities, making the country act as both an exporter and re-exporter of LNG including a potential Cyprus-Egypt pipeline beneficial to Egypt in terms of economic stability, and help establish itself as a regional power. Cyprus-Egypt pipeline will allow Cyprus to export gas from the Aphrodite gas field to Egypt for liquefaction and Egypt would then reexport LNG to the European market. Turkey, however, argues that revenue generated from the process must be shared with the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus (TNRC). Turkey’s continuation on the belligerent course will bring consequences for Egypt making its support for Greece more prominent. Turkey also stands with Mediterranean cooperation through initiatives like the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum that focuses on exploitation and regional energy resource sale.

Turkey is keen to become a regional gas trade hub thus looks forward to the initiative of a Trans-Anatolian Natural Gas Pipeline (TANAP) which transfers from Azerbaijan to Europe through Turkey. Reducing the region’s reliance on Russian gas could certainly achieve the goals. Talks between Israel and Turkey of a pipeline from Israel to Europe were also initiated, however relations between Turkey and Israel have deteriorated following Erdogan blatantly supporting Palestine. This led Israel to work with Cyprus and Greece on the EastMed pipeline, stemming in devaluation of the Trans-Anatolian pipeline.

Most of the Middle Eastern countries have recalibratedtheir foreign policy following Joe Biden’s presidential win in the United States. Similarly, both Turkey and Egypt have begun to revise their foreign policies as well. The two countries have initiated a series of new diplomatic dialogue including Turkey and Greece signing a maritime delimitation agreement in August 2020.Nonetheless Egypt did not accept Greece’s thesis of having claims over islands in the south of Aegean Sea and it also announced a new oil and gas exploration bid with taking Turkey’s coordinates of the continental shelf into consideration. Moreover, Egypt began to change its Libya policy and improve relations with GNA. Turkey has stated that it is willing to negotiate dialogue with Egypt and focus on common interests.

Understanding the new developments, it is suggested to continue to alleviate tensions as the two countries enjoy same moral values at cultural level, given their shared past and historical ties. That is only possible if the expansionist pan-Islamistproject stops with Erdogan and does not continue with future Turkish governments. Cairo and Ankara must move together on the issues concerning Palestine, Libyan conflict, and the eastern Mediterranean. Despite possible pressure from the Democrats in the Biden administration, Egypt seems reluctant to consider convergence on Islamic synthesisand integration of Muslim brotherhood. Complete normalization of relations between the two sides may take time therefore to establish trust in one another, all parties must take certain confidence-building steps.

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Israel and Turkey in search of solutions

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Twelve and eleven years have elapsed since the Davos and Mavi Marmara incidents, respectively, and Turkey-Israel relations are undergoing intense recovery efforts. They are two important Eastern neighbours and influence regional stability.

Currently, as in the past, relations between the two countries have a structure based on realpolitik, thus pursuing a relationship of balance/interest, and hinge around the Palestinian issue and Israel’s position as the White House’s privileged counterpart. However, let us now briefly summarise the history of Turkish-Jewish relations.

The first important event that comes to mind when mentioning Jews and Turks is that when over 200,000 Jews were expelled by the Spanish Inquisition in 1491, the Ottoman Empire invited them to settle in its territory.

Turkey was the first Muslim country to recognise Israel in 1949. Israel’s first diplomatic Mission to Turkey was opened on January 7, 1950 but, following the Suez crisis in 1956, relations were reduced to the level of chargé d’affaires. In the second Arab-Israeli war of 1967, Turkey chose not to get involved and it did not allow relations to break off completely.

The 1990s saw a positive trend and development in terms of bilateral relations. After the second Gulf War in 1991 -which, as you may recall, followed the first Iraqi one of 1980-1988 in which the whole world was against Iran (with the only exception of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, Syria, Libya and the moral support of Enver Hoxha’s Albania) – Turkey was at the centre of security policy in the region. In that context, Turkey-Israel relations were seriously rekindled.

In 1993, Turkey upgraded diplomatic relations with Israel to ambassadorial level. The signing of the Oslo Accords between Palestine and Israel led to closer relations. The 1996 military cooperation agreement was signed between the two countries in the fight against the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) in Turkey, which provided significant logistical and intelligence support to both sides.

In the 2000s, there was a further rapprochement with Israel, due to the “zero problems with neighbours” policy promoted by Erdoğan’s Justice and Development Party. I still remember issue No. 3/1999 of the Italian review of geopolitics “Limes” entitled “Turkey-Israel, the New Alliance”.

In 2002, an Israeli company undertook the project of modernising twelve M-60 tanks belonging to the Turkish armed forces. In 2004, Turkey agreed to sell water to Israel from the Manavgat River.

Prime Minister Erdoğan’s visit to Israel in 2005 was a turning point in terms of mediation between Palestine and Israel and further advancement of bilateral relations. In 2007, Israeli President Shimon Peres and Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas spoke at the Turkish Grand National Assembly one day apart. High-level visits from Israel continued.

On December 22, 2008, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert came to Ankara and met with Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. In that meeting, significant progress was made regarding Turkey’s mediation between Israel and Syria.

Apart from the aforementioned incidents, the deterioration of Turkish-Israeli relations occurred five days after the above stated meeting, i.e. Operation “Cast Lead” against Gaza on December 27, 2008. After that event, relations between the two sides were never the same as before.

Recently, however, statements of goodwill have been made by both countries to normalise political relations. In December 2020, President Erdoğan stated he wanted to improve relations with Israel and said: “It is not possible for us to accept Israel’s attitude towards the Palestinian territories. This is the point in which we differ from Israel – otherwise, our heart desires to improve our relations with it as well”.

In its relations with Israel, Turkey is posing the Palestinian issue as a condition. When we look at it from the opposite perspective, the Palestinian issue is a vital matter for Israel. It is therefore a severe obstacle to bilateral relations.

On the other hand, many regional issues such as Eastern Mediterranean, Syria and some security issues in the region require the cooperation of these two key countries. For this reason, it is clear that both sides wish at least to end the crisis, reduce rhetoric at leadership level and focus on cooperation and realpolitik areas.

In the coming months, efforts will certainly be made to strike a balance between these intentions and the conditions that make it necessary to restart bilateral relations with Israel on an equal footing. As improved relations with Israel will also positively influence Turkey’s relations with the United States.

Turkey seeks to avoid the USA and the EU imposing sanctions that could go so far as to increase anti-Western neo-Ottoman rhetoric, while improved relations with Israel could offer a positive outcome not only to avoid the aforementioned damage, but also to solve the Turkish issues related to Eastern Mediterranean, territorial waters, Libya and Syria. Turkey has no intention of backing down on such issues that it deems vital. Quite the reverse. It would like to convey positive messages at the level of talks and Summits.

Another important matter of friction between Turkey and Israel is the use of oil and gas in the Eastern Mediterranean reserves between Egypt, Israel, Greece and Cyprus (Nicosia).

This approach is excluding Turkey. The USA and the EU also strongly support the current situation (which we addressed in a previous article) for the additional reason that France has been included in the equation.

The alignment of forces and fronts in these maritime areas were also widely seen during the civil war in Libya, where Turkey, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, France, as well as other players such as Russia, Italy, etc. came into the picture.

Ultimately, a point of contact between Turkey and Israel is the mediation role that the former could play in relations between Iran and Israel, especially after the improvement of Turkish-Iranian relations.

Indeed, in the aftermath of the U.S. airstrike in Baghdad – which killed Iranian General Qassem Soleimani on January 3, 2020 -the Turkish Foreign Minister stated that the U.S. action would increase insecurity and instability in the region. He also reported that Turkey was worried about rising tensions between the United States and Iran that could turn Iraq back into an area of conflict to the detriment of peace and stability in the region. There was also a condolence phone call from President Erdoğan to Iranian President Rouhani, urging him to avoid a conflictual escalation with the United States following the airstrike.

Consequently, it is in the Turkish President’s interest to maintain an open channel with Iran, so that he himself can soften the mutual tensions between Israel and Iran, and – in turn – Israeli diplomacy can influence President Biden’s choices, albeit less pro-Israel than Donald Trump’s.

Turkey is known to have many relationship problems with the United States – especially after the attempted coup of July 15-16, 2016 and including the aforementioned oil issue – and realises that only Israel can resolve the situation smoothly.

In fact, Israel-USA relations are not at their best as they were under President Trump. President Erdoğan seems to be unaware of this fact, but indeed the Turkish President knows that the only voice the White House can hear is Israel’s, and certainly not the voice of the Gulf monarchies, currently at odds with Turkey.

Israel keeps a low profile on the statements made by President Erdoğan with regard to the Palestinians- since it believes them to be consequential – as well as in relation to a series of clearly anti-Zionist attitudes of the Turkish people.

We are certain, however, that President Erdoğan’s declarations of openness and Israeli acquiescence will surely yield concrete results.

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