An interesting article by Israeli journalist Ophir Winter leads us to express some considerations on the role played by Egypt and Israel in the Mediterranean region.
On January 15, 2020 Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz and his Egyptian counterpart, Tarek al-Mula, announced the start of the natural gas flow from Israel to Egypt.
The joint statement marks a milestone in the relations between the two countries and further shows the increasing importance recently taken on by the Mediterranean region in Egypt’s and Israel’s foreign, security and economic policies.
This trend was also evident in the agenda of the World Youth Forum (WYF) held in Sharm el-Sheikh in December 2019, after the first one organized there in November 2017. In 2019, the WYF met in Sharm el-Sheikh under the auspices of Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, with the participation of about seven thousand young people from around the world.
The topic of the Forum’s discussions, which Egypt organised from 2017 to 2019, was to strengthen cooperation between Mediterranean countries in a variety of areas, including energy, employment, climate, science, illegal immigration and the fight against terrorism.
The Forum’s meetings were dedicated to both the Mediterranean countries’ concrete interests and to “softer” aspects, including the common historical and cultural denominators that link the peoples inhabiting the Mediterranean shores. The WYF agenda focused on Egypt’s foreign, security and economic policies and its attempts to position itself as one of the main Axis countries in the region.
Israel was mentioned in the Forum as a vital partner in gas deals with Egypt and as a full member on its side in the Eastern Mediterranean Gas Forum (EMGF), established in Cairo in January 2019 with the participation of Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Jordan and the Palestinian National Authority.
Israel’s role, however, remains marginal on Mediterranean issues going beyond the gas sector. Therefore,it needs to define a comprehensive Mediterranean policy that will enable it to seize further opportunities to develop its ties with Egypt and other countries in the Mediterranean basin.
In recent years Egypt has attached increasing importance to the Mediterranean region in the light of three main developments:
a) the discovery of the gas field that meets most of Egypt’s gas needs;
(b) the establishment of the EMGF in January 2019paving the way for Egypt to become the regional energy hub, including its objectives of establishing a regional gas market, developing resources and infrastructure, and deepening coordination and dialogue among Member States;
c) the threat posed by Turkey to the promotion of regional gas cooperation due to its refusal to recognise Cyprus’ maritime borders. The tension between Egypt and Turkey over the maritime boundary demarcation deal signed between Turkey and Fayez al-Sarraj’s Government of National Accord (GNA) in Libya has even escalated since November 2019.
A paper published by the Egyptian Center for Strategic Studies (ECSS) on the WYF has noted that gas discoveries in the Eastern Mediterranean create new regional dynamics, including the establishment of economic blocs, multilateral ties, alliances and counter-alliances.
It has also explained that Egypt offers Israel and Cyprus the cheapest alternative to exporting gas to Europe and other markets due to its liquefied gas infrastructure, which can be expanded at a relatively low cost when needed. Egypt, for its part, is interested in raking in a share of profits and strengthening its strategic position as a gas export hub in Europe.
In addition, the Union for the Mediterranean – an intergovernmental organisation bringing together 42 countries from Europe and the Mediterranean basin plus Libya as an observer -has discussed ways to tackle the employment crisis in the region, which has 12.5% of its residents unemployed (mostly young people from Southern Mediterranean countries), and environmental challenges including a global warming level which is about 20% higher than the global average.
Another regional challenge is illegal immigration across the Mediterranean. Egypt has highlighted its success in preventing the emigration of illegal migrants from its territory to Europe since 2016. At the same time, it has been argued that there is a need to increase cooperation between the ‘young’ countries of the Southern Mediterranean region (where around 60% of its inhabitants are under 30 years of age) and the ‘ageing’ countries of the Northern Mediterranean region so as to provide an integrative response to the labour market needs in the region.
From Egypt’s perspective, the response includes a series of legal migration flows from the Southern Mediterranean countries to Europe, along with strengthening the security and stability of the Southern Mediterranean countries in a way that makes it easier for them to attract investment and create jobs in their States.
In recent years, Egypt has also been working on building a Mediterranean identity, which is presented to the young Egyptian generation as one of the pillars of the Egyptian personality.
The nurturing and cultivation of a Mediterranean identity expresses Egypt’s desire to project itself in and out of a regional ethos that will serve as a platform to increase interactions in the Mediterranean region and expand its mark of what has been called for millennia the Mother of Nations, the meeting point of continents, countries, religions and civilisations, i.e. the cultural and historical foundations that make the Mediterranean a region and its peoples a community. Israel is not absent from the Mediterranean storytelling promoted and conveyed by Egypt, but its place has so far remained marginal on issues going beyond gas interests.
According to Egypt, the Egypt, Greece and Cyprus triangle is at the heart of Mediterranean cooperation, while Israel is a secondary partner whose role is limited. An ECSS publication has made it clear that Israel could not take part in the periodic military manoeuvres conducted by Egypt, Greece and Cyprus, although it shares a similar security concept with the three countries. It has also suggested that its presence would make it difficult to enhance multilateral cooperation in the region.
Despite the traditional political reservations that accompany relations between the two countries, the Mediterranean has long been a new opportunity for Israel to deepen its ties with Egypt. Firstly, it must continue to expand cooperation in the gas and energy sector through its Egyptian partner and develop bilateral resources and infrastructure, multilateral coordination and the EMGF dialogue between government officials, companies and experts from both sides.
Egypt, Israel, Italy, Cyprus, Greece, Jordan and Palestine signed the EMGF Statute on September 22, 2020, turning the Forum into a regional international organisation based in Cairo, aimed at facilitating the creation of a regional gas market in the Eastern Mediterranean region and deepening collaboration and strategic dialogue between natural gas producing, transit and consuming countries, in an area that is confirmed to be full of great opportunities. France joined as a full member on March 9 2021, with the United States, the EU and the United Arab Emirates as permanent observers. Countries such as Turkey and the Lebanon are not participating in the Forum due to the persistent tension with Greece and Cyprus and the presence of Israel, respectively.
Apart from the aforementioned agreement, however, Israel needs to develop a comprehensive Mediterranean policy with the aim of expanding the range of common interests with Egypt and other countries beyond the gas sector. To this end, the provision of Israeli inputs to Mediterranean issues such as the environment, renewable energy, water desalination, emergency preparedness, education, science and employment should be explored.
The Union for the Mediterranean can serve as a useful platform for Israeli integration in such regional projects, and Israel should consider allocating more resources and manpower to increase its influence within it.
Furthermore, Israel – like Egypt – can benefit from nurturing and cultivating a Mediterranean identity, emphasising common denominators for the countries of the region and values of mutual openness, tolerance and acceptance of the others.
Finally, the Union for the Mediterranean itself has the power to encourage interaction between the Mediterranean peoples, as well as youth meetings and cultural exchanges that contribute to shaping the common area.
After 10 years of war in Syria, siege tactics still threaten civilians
The future for Syria’s people is “increasingly bleak”, UN-appointed rights experts said on Tuesday, highlighting escalating conflict in several areas of the war-ravaged country, a return to siege tactics and popular demonstrations linked to the plummeting economy.
According to the UN Commission of Inquiry on Syria, the country is not safe for refugees to return to, after a decade of war.
The panel’s findings come amid an uptick in violence in the northwest, northeast and south of the country, where the Commissioners highlighted the chilling return of besiegement against civilian populations by pro-Government forces.
“The parties to the conflict continue to perpetrate war crimes and crimes against humanity and infringing the basic human rights of Syrians,” said head of the Commission of Inquiry, Paulo Pinheiro. “The war on Syrian civilians continues, and it is difficult for them to find security or safe haven.”
Scandal of Al Hol’s children
Professor Pinheiro also described as “scandalous” the fact that many thousands of non-Syrian children born to former IS fighters continue to be held in detention in dreadful conditions in Syria’s north-east.
“Most foreign children remain deprived of their liberty since their home countries refuse to repatriate them,” he told journalists, on the sidelines of the 48th session of the Human Rights Council in Geneva.
“We have the most ratified convention in the world, the Convention on the Rights of the Child, is completely forgotten. And democratic States that are prepared to abide to this Convention they neglect the obligations of this Convention in what is happening in Al Hol and other camps and prison places.”
Some 40,000 children continue to be held in camps including Al Hol. Nearly half are Iraqi and 7,800 are from nearly 60 other countries who refuse to repatriate them, according to the Commission of Inquiry report, which covers the period from 1 July 2020 to 30 June 2021.
Blockades and bombardment
The rights experts also condemned a siege by pro-Government forces on the town of Dar’a Al-Balad, the birthplace of the uprising in 2011, along with “siege-like tactics” in Quineitra and Rif Damascus governorates.
“Three years after the suffering that the Commission documented in eastern Ghouta, another tragedy has been unfolding before our eyes in Dar’a Al-Balad,” said Commissioner Hanny Megally, in reference to the siege of eastern Ghouta which lasted more than five years – and which the commissioners previously labelled “barbaric and medieval”.
In addition to the dangers posed by heavy artillery shelling, tens of thousands of civilians trapped inside Dar’a Al-Balad had insufficient access to food and health care, forcing many to flee, the Commissioners said.
Living in fear
In the Afrin and Ra’s al-Ayn regions of Aleppo, the Commissioners described how people lived in fear of car bombs “that are frequently detonated in crowded civilian areas”, targeting markets and busy streets.
At least 243 women, men and children have been killed in seven such attacks over the 12-month reporting period, they said, adding that the real toll is likely to be considerably higher.
Indiscriminate shelling has also continued, including on 12 June when munitions struck multiple locations in Afrin city in northwest Syria, killing and injuring many and destroying parts of al-Shifa hospital.
Insecurity in areas under the control of the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) in northeast Syria has also deteriorated, according to the Commission of Inquiry, with increased attacks by extremist “remnants” and conflict with Turkish forces.
The Commissioners noted that although President Assad controls about 70 per cent of the territory and 40 per cent of the pre-war population, there seems to be “no moves to unite the country or seek reconciliation. On the contrary.”
Despite a welcome drop in the level of violence compared with previous years, the Commission of Inquiry highlighted the dangers that continue to be faced by non-combatants
The senior rights experts also highlighted mounting discontent and protests amongst the population, impacted by fuel shortages and food insecurity, which has increased by 50 per cent in a year, to 12.4 million, citing UNFPA data.
“The hardships that Syrians are facing, particularly in the areas where the Government is back in control, are beginning to show in terms of protests by Syrians who have been loyal to the State,” said Mr. Megally. They are now saying, ‘Ten years of conflict, our lives are getting worse rather than getting better, when do we see an end to this?’”
IAEA Director General reaches agreement in Tehran, as Biden’s clock is ticking
A meeting to resolve interim monitoring issues was held in Tehran on 12 September between the head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, Mohammad Eslami, and the Director General of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Rafael Grossi. Grossi was on a visit to Tehran to fix roadblocks on the stalled monitoring of Iran’s nuclear program, which is ever more challenging in a context where there is no diplomatic agreement to revive or supersede the JCPOA. Grossi said in a press conference on 12 September that the IAEA had “a major communication breakdown” with Iran. But what exactly does that mean?
The IAEA monitoring equipment had gone three months without being serviced and Grossi said he needed “immediate rectification” of the issues. He was able to get the Iranian side to come to an agreement. The news from Sunday was that the IAEA’s inspectors are now permitted to service the identified equipment and replace their storage media which will be kept under the joint IAEA and AEOI seals in Iran. The way and the timing are now agreed by the two sides. The IAEA Director General had to push on the terms of the agreement reached in February 2020.
Grossi underlined on Sunday that the new agreement can’t be a permanent solution. Data from the nuclear facilities is just being stored according to what commentators call “the continuity of knowledge” principle, to avoid gaps over extended time periods but the data is not available to inspectors.
When it’s all said and done, basically, it all comes down to the diplomatic level. The American withdrawal from the JCPOA nuclear agreement in 2018 keeps undermining the Iran nuclear inspections on the technical level. All the inspection activities have been stalled as a result of the broken deal. The IAEA’s strategy in the interim is that at least the information would be stored and not permanently lost.
Everyone is waiting for the JCPOA to be restored or superseded. As Vali Nasr argued in the New York Times back in April this year, the clock is ticking for Biden on Iran. Iran diplomacy doesn’t seem to be on Biden’s agenda at all at the moment. That makes the nuclear inspectors’ job practically impossible. Journalists pointed out on Sunday that the Director General’s visit found one broken and one damaged camera in one of the facilities. Grossi assured it has been agreed with Iran that the cameras will be replaced within a few days. The IAEA report notes that it was not Iran but Israel that broke the IAEA cameras in a June drone attack carried out by Israel. Presumably, Israel aimed to show Iran is not complying by committing the violations themselves.
Grossi’s visit was a part of the overall IAEA strategy which goes along the lines of allowing time for diplomacy, without losing the data in the meantime. He added that he thinks he managed to rectify the most urgent problem, which is the imminent loss of data.
The Reuters’s title of the meeting is that the agreement reached on Sunday gives “hope” to a renewed Iran deal with the US, after Iran elected a hardliner president, Ebrahim Raisi, in August this year, but that’s a misleading title. This is not the bit that we were unsure about. The question was never on the Iranian side. No one really expected that the new Iranian president would not engage with the IAEA at all. Earlier in November 2019, an IAEA inspector was not allowed on a nuclear cite and had her accreditation canceled. In November 2020, Iranian lawmakers passed a law that mandated the halt of the IAEA inspections and not to allow inspectors on the nuclear sites, as well as the resuming of uranium enrichment, unless the US sanctions are lifted. In January 2021, there were threats by Iranian lawmakers that IAEA inspectors would be expelled. Yet, the new Iranian President still plays ball with the IAEA.
It is naïve to think that Iran should be expected to act as if there was still a deal but then again, US foreign policy is full of naïve episodes. “The current U.S. administration is no different from the previous one because it demands in different words what Trump demanded from Iran in the nuclear area,” Khamenei was quoted to have said in his first meeting with President Raisi’s cabinet.
“We don’t need a deal – you will just act as if there was still a deal and I will act as if I’m not bound by a deal” seems to be the US government’s line put bluntly. But the ball is actually in Biden’s court. The IAEA Director General is simply buying time, a few months at a time, but ultimately the United States will have to start moving. In a diplomatic tone, Grossi referred on Sunday to many commentators and journalists who are urging that it is time.
I just don’t see any signs on Biden’s side to move in the right direction. The current nuclear talks we have that started in June in Vienna are not even direct diplomatic talks and were put on hold until the outcome of Iran’s presidential elections were clear. US hesitance is making Grossi’s job impossible. The narrative pushed by so many in the US foreign policy space, namely that the big bad wolf Trump is still the one to blame, is slowly fading and reaching its expiry date, as Biden approaches the one-year mark of his presidency.
Let’s not forget that the US is the one that left and naturally is the one that has to restart the process, making the parties come back to the table. The US broke the deal. Biden can’t possibly be expecting that the other side will be the one extending its hand to beg for forgiveness. The US government is the one that ruined the multi-year, multilateral efforts of the complex dance that was required to get to something like the JCPOA – a deal that Republicans thought was never going to be possible because “you can’t negotiate with Iran”. You can, but you need skilled diplomats for that. Blinken is no Kerry. Judging from Blinken’s diplomacy moves with China and on other issues, I just don’t think that the Biden Administration has what it takes to get diplomacy back on track. If he follows the same line with Iran we won’t see another JCPOA in Biden’s term. Several weeks ago, Biden said that there are other options with Iran if diplomacy fails, in a White House meeting with Israel’s new prime minister Bennett. I don’t think that anyone in the foreign policy space buys that Biden would launch a military attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities. But I don’t think that team Biden can get to a diplomatic agreement either. Biden and Blinken are still stuck in the 2000, the time when others would approach the US no matter what, irrespective of whose fault it was. “You will do as I say” has never worked in the history of US foreign policy. That’s just not going to happen with Iran and the JCPOA. To expect otherwise is unreasonable. The whole “Trump did it” line is slowly and surely reaching its expiry date – as with anything else on the domestic and foreign policy plane. Biden needs to get his act together. The clock is ticking.
Elections represent an opportunity for stability and unity in Libya
With just over 100 days until landmark elections in Libya, political leaders must join forces to ensure the vote is free, fair and inclusive, the UN envoy for the country told the Security Council on Friday.
Ján Kubiš, Special Representative of the Secretary-General and Head of the UN Support Mission in Libya (UNSMIL) briefed ambassadors on developments ahead of presidential and parliamentary elections due to take place on 24 December.
They were agreed under a political roadmap stemming from the historic October 2020 ceasefire between Libya’s rival authorities, and the establishment of a Government of National Unity (GNU) earlier this year.
At the crossroads
“Libya is at a crossroads where positive or negative outcomes are equally possible,” said Mr. Kubiš. “With the elections there is an opportunity for Libya to move gradually and convincingly into a more stable, representative and civilian track.”
He reported that the House of Representatives has adopted a law on the presidential election, while legislation for the parliamentary election is being finalized and could be considered and approved within the coming weeks.
Although the High National Election Commission (HNEC) has received the presidential election law, another body, the High State Council, complained that it had been adopted without consultation.
Foreign fighter threat
The HNEC chairman has said it will be ready to start implementation once the laws are received, and will do everything possible to meet the 24 December deadline.
“Thus, it is for the High National Election Commission to establish a clear electoral calendar to lead the country to the elections, with support of the international community, for the efforts of the Government of National Unity, all the respective authorities and institutions to deliver as free and fair, inclusive and credible elections as possible under the demanding and challenging conditions and constraints,” said Mr. Kubiš.
“The international community could help create more conducive conditions for this by facilitating the start of a gradual withdrawal of foreign elements from Libya without delay.”
Young voters eager
The UN envoy also called for countries and regional organizations to provide electoral observers to help ensure the integrity and credibility of the process, as well as acceptance of the results.
He also welcomed progress so far, including in updating the voter registry and the launch of a register for eligible voters outside the country.
So far, more than 2.8 million Libyans have registered to vote, 40 per cent of whom are women. Additionally, more than half a million new voters will also be casting their ballots.
“Most of the newly registered are under 30, a clear testament to the young generation’s eagerness to take part in determining the fate of their country through a democratic process. The Libyan authorities and leaders must not let them down,” said Mr. Kubiš.
He stressed that the international community also has a responsibility to support the positive developments in Libya, and to stand firm against attempts at derailment.
“Not holding the elections could gravely deteriorate the situation in the country, could lead to division and conflict,” he warned. “I urge the Libyan actors to join forces and ensure inclusive, free, fair parliamentary and presidential elections, which are to be seen as the essential step in further stabilizing and uniting Libya.”
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