Sunday, 27 April 2014

Israel-Palestine: The End of the Affair

So this is how it was all fated to end – not with a bang, but with a whimper.  No triumphant three-party gathering on the White House lawn, no media coverage of an historic handshake between Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, presided over by a beaming US President Obama, as the infinitely long-running dispute between Israel and the Palestinians was finally resolved. Not even a media conference at which US Secretary of State John Kerry presented the world with a carefully constructed “framework agreement”, under which Israel and Palestine agreed to continue talking beyond the original nine-month deadline.
Nothing like that.  Instead a sudden meeting in the Gaza Strip between Fatah and Hamas, the so-far irreconcilable wings of the Palestinian body politic – a meeting with no prior warning, which takes Washington by surprise – and the announcement of an “historic” reconciliation which is to result in a united Palestinian government within five weeks, and presidential and parliamentary elections within six months.

The inevitable result was an immediate cessation of the peace negotiations. President Abbas “can have peace with Israel,” said Netanyahu in a TV interview on the BBC, “or a pact with Hamas he can't have both. As long as I'm prime minister of Israel, I will never negotiate with a Palestinian government that is backed by Hamas terrorists that are calling for our liquidation."

So the peace talks have come to an abrupt end, less than a week before April 29, when the official nine months allotted to them expires.  The current phase of efforts to reconcile Israel and Palestine is at an end. 

In point of fact, PA President Mahmoud Abbas has always had a straight choice – beat Hamas or join them.  Since the moment in 2007, when Hamas reneged on its pledge to form a united government with Fatah, and instead chased them from the Gaza Strip in a bloody fratricidal coup, the two organizations have been at daggers drawn. 

How could it be otherwise?  Even if the final aims of the two entities are precisely the same – a Palestinian state “from the river to the sea”, in other words the whole of British mandated Palestine – while Fatah has decided that embracing the two-state solution is the best tactic to achieve their ultimate objective, Hamas, utterly rejecting Israel’s right to exist, has committed itself to Israel’s destruction.
So Hamas opposed Abbas’s bid at the United Nations for international recognition of a sovereign Palestine, because the logical corollary of recognizing a sovereign Palestine within the pre-1967 borders would be recognition of Israel beyond them.  Moreover, it has subjected Abbas to seven years of unremitting harassment – indeed, until the recent meeting in Gaza, they refused to recognise him as PA president at all, on the grounds that his presidential mandate, granted in 2005, was for a four-year term which has long expired.  Hamas has, moreover, consistently attempted to undermine his PA administration by forming militant cells within the West Bank aimed at launching attacks on Israel.

The terms of the “historic” reconciliation between the two have not been made public, and it is unlikely that they will see the light of day in their entirety.  Statements from leaders of the PA, including Abbas himself, seem to imply that the inclusion of Hamas in a government of national unity will make no difference to the Palestinians’ aim of achieving a sovereign state based on the two-state solution.
“There is no incompatibility,” Abbas is quoted as saying, “between reconciliation and the talks”. But this can scarcely be correct.  Putting the two together is like mixing chalk and cheese.  Hamas’s visceral opposition to the very existence of Israel is a basic tenet of its founding philosophy, and jihad against Jews in general, and Israel in particular, is basic to its existence. 

So it is legitimate to wonder how the three principles for Israel-Palestine peace, outlined by the Middle East Quartet (the United Nations, the European Union, the United States and Russia), would be met by a Palestinian government including Hamas.  These are: recognizing the State of Israel, without prejudging what various grievances or claims are appropriate; abiding by previous diplomatic agreements; and renouncing violence as a means of achieving goals.

“The government reports to me,” says Abbas, “and follows my policies. I recognize Israel and so will the government. I renounce violence and terrorism, and I recognize international legitimacy, and so will the government.”

Hamas would have to turn somersaults to adhere to these requirements.  Is it prepared to do so?  And can the “reconciliation” stick?

Past numerous attempts to paper over the gaping differences between Hamas and Fatah have failed again and again.  Admittedly Hamas has been considerably weakened by recent reverses suffered by the Muslim Brotherhood across the Middle East, but it seems inconceivable that it would sit round a cabinet table, with Abbas at its head, and agree to discuss how a sovereign Palestine might live side by side with an Israel finally recognized as a permanent presence in the region.

Perhaps Hamas is hoping that, out of the promised elections envisaged for the whole of the Palestinian territories including Gaza, it will emerge much strengthened a not unlikely scenario.  It will then have achieved, by democratic means, the control over the West Bank that it has been seeking since 2007.  Moreover, Abbas is in his 80th year; he cannot go on forever.  With increased political power, Hamas might be able to ensure a new president more to its liking.  The result would be a renewal of terrorist activity, probably much heightened, on the Palestinian side rockets emanating not only from Gaza, but from the West Bank and increased efforts to contain it on the Israeli.  In short, further limitless conflict.

Meanwhile, for the next six months while elections are being prepared, Abbas might be able to maintain control of his new administration.  Despite his declared wish to continue the peace talks, the conditions he is imposing to do so, together with the fact that Hamas will be included in his administration, make the prospect of Israel agreeing virtually non-existent. 

Much more likely is a renewed diplomatic intifada by the PA an attempt to gain recognition for Palestine by the United Nations as a virtual sovereign state, and admittance to a much wider range of United Nations organizations than the fifteen Abbas recently applied to.  Increased efforts to delegitimize and isolate Israel through the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement are not unlikely, as are moves to indict Israel or Israeli officials through the International Court of Justice.

 It is now apparent that US Secretary of State  John Kerry, Tzipi Livni for Israel and Saeb Erekat for the Palestinians  the prime movers in this latest effort to bring peace to this troubled region have spent the best part of nine months constructing a house of cards which has collapsed around them.  If peace is ever to be achieved, a different, more robust, edifice must be devised an edifice constructed on deep, strong foundations.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 30 April 2014:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 27 April 2014:

Monday, 21 April 2014

A Moscow-Cairo-Jerusalem axis?

Being played out on the world stage, in this early part of 2014, is what might superficially be taken as a repeat of the communism versus capitalism Cold War of the 20th century.  It is nothing of the kind. There is no clash of political philosophies here.  The drama now being enacted, with Russia’s President Putin in the lead role, is the far older tale of lust for power.  The story, as it unfolds, has added poignancy because this generation of world leaders has forgotten two vital lessons: How to oppose the ruthless pursuit of dominance, and the fact that in international politics might is so often right in other words, strength is respected and weakness despised.

It is now clear that Putin is determined to re-establish Russia as a major force in world politics.  It took some time for the realisation to sink in, and there has accordingly been little attempt to obstruct him. In Winston Churchill’s memorable words, US President Obama and his administration have consistently reacted with “jaw jaw rather than war war” – forgetting that this was far from Churchill’s attitude in the 1930s to Adolf Hitler’s insatiable appetite for power and territory.  While Obama havered and wavered, the relative balance of influence began to tilt against the United States and the West, while the world in general, and the Middle East in particular, started to reassess where its best interests lay.

Take the Syrian civil conflict.  From the start Russia and the United States stood on opposing sides.  Russia had a close working relationship with Syria’s President Bashar Assad, for under a 1971 agreement a permanent naval facility, Russia’s only Mediterranean fuelling, repair and replenishment base, was sited in Syria’s second largest port city, Tartus.  Accordingly, when a political movement dedicated to establishing a democratic alternative to the corrupt Assad regime surfaced in Syria, Russia backed Assad.

The US and the West, on the other hand, attempted to give some backbone to the loose, disparate and ineffective opposition.  During the early stages of the civil conflict there was a window of opportunity when effective military support for the domestic opposition might have resulted in Assad’s overthrow.  No such support was forthcoming, and the window soon closed.  Instead, the conflict attracted wild-eyed extremists of all sorts with agendas of their own, far removed from any attempt to replace Assad with a democratic alternative. 

Determined to cling to power by whatever means, in 2013 Assad resorted to using chemical weapons against the opposition and any civilians who chanced to get in the way. Obama had repeatedly threatened an immediate and salutary response to their use, but in a diplomatic coup Putin brokered an agreement with Assad to dispose of his chemical arsenal.  Obama gave way. No punishment was meted out to the guilty Assad, and in the event the disposal of Assad’s chemical weaponry is far from achieved, for recently further chemical attacks notably the use of chlorine gas have been reported in Syria.     

A short time afterwards Putin duplicated this diplomatic triumph by successfully spiking any threat of an attack by the US or Israel on the nuclear facilities of his ally, Iran.  By brokering negotiations nominally aimed at preventing Iran achieving nuclear weapon capability – another opportunity for avoiding military action seized on avidly by the US, the EU and the West – Russia again stood tall on the world stage.  And again, there is every reason to believe that Iran’s capacity to build atomic bombs has been little affected by the negotiations. 

   The pattern had been set – bold, self-interested and successful political action by Russia matched by abject and week-kneed political reaction by the West.

   Putin crowned his series of political achievements by violating Ukrainian sovereignty and engineering the annexation of Crimea.  Huffing and puffing by the West, the imposition of sanctions and the threat of more, had little effect on Russia. which proceeded to take the same course of action in the Russia-supporting eastern provinces of Ukraine.  A fragile agreement aimed at both sides exercising restraint, even if it holds, will not alter the fact that any plans the West might have had for binding Ukraine into the EU and NATO have been successfully scuppered.  By the ruthless exercise of power politics, Russia has swallowed Crimea whole, and successfully asserted its influence over the future of Ukraine.

   This resurgence of Russian power has not gone unnoticed in the Middle East.

   Early in April a 19-member Russian military delegation arrived in Cairo, the third visit in less than two months. The move followed a report that the White House was imposing a partial aid and weapons freeze on Egypt, as punishment for the military coup led by al-Sisi, and the crackdown on former president Mohamed Morsi and his supporters.  According to senior Egyptian sources, Field Marshal al-Sisi has concluded an arms deal with Russia that includes advanced aircraft, monitoring equipment and other sophisticated weapons to be used fighting Islamist terrorism in Sinai.

Now, the fight against Islamist terrorism in Sinai has turned into a closely coordinated effort by Egyptian and Israeli forces, who are currently cooperating in unprecedented ways, bypassing treaty restrictions on the battlefield deployment of Egyptian military forces and arms. Informed Israelis also speak of unprecedented Israeli-Egyptian intelligence cooperation in the area, "beyond anything dreamed of during Mubarak's rule."  So Israel is supporting al-Sisi, while the US is still reluctant to do so, on the grounds that democratically elected Muslim Brotherhood President Morsi was overthrown by something akin to a military coup engineered by al-Sisi.

This comparatively minor divergence of interests between Israel and the US was exacerbated by Israel’s "neutrality" over Russia's invasion of Crimea. Senior US officials were shocked at Israel’s lack of support on the Ukraine crisis, and especially at Israel's abstention from the UN General Assembly vote deploring the Russian invasion and expressing support for the territorial integrity of Ukraine.

Ever since, intense efforts have been deployed to try to mend fences.  At a series of meetings Israel has explained to the United States that taking a public stance against Russia over the invasion of Ukraine could cause real damage to its security interests.  “We are close to the chemical weapons in Syria,” Israeli officials are reported to have told their US opposite numbers, “and to the Iranian nuclear program, over which Russia has a decisive influence, and so a clash with Moscow could hurt our security.” 

If Israel has indeed adjusted its relationship towards Moscow and Cairo, the change may be significant, but it is not substantive. The community of interests between the US and Israel is too great to be seriously threatened by these minor upsets.  

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 22 April 2014:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 21 April 2014:

Sunday, 13 April 2014

Who succeeds Mahmoud Abbas?

Lurking in the backwoods of Palestinian politics is a man whom 79-year-old President Mahmoud Abbas recognizes as his deadly rival.  Thirty years younger than Abbas, he has been a thorn in the President’s flesh from the moment of his election, continually criticizing him for weak leadership and corruption, a charge he extends to Abbas’s two sons.  In response, Abbas has had him and his followers expelled from the Fatah party and exiled from the West Bank, and has hurled a barrage of  accusations against him, including that of colluding with Israeli agents to poison the revered ex-Palestinian leader, Yasser Arafat.

This 52-year-old hate figure – hated and feared not only by Abbas, but by all within the Fatah movement with aspirations to succeed the ageing President – is Mohammed Yusuf Dahlan.

Born in the Khan Yunis refugee camp in the Gaza strip in 1961, Dahlan became politically active as a teenager, and in 1981 helped to establish the Gaza branch of the Fatah Youth Movement, “Fatah Hawks”.  His CV contains the necessary passport to political acceptance in Palestinian circles – time spent in an Israeli jail for terrorist activities.  Between 1981 and 1986, he was arrested no less than 11 times.  In 2007, consistent with his pro-Fatah – and therefore anti-Hamas – stance, Dahlan assisted in an abortive US plan to overthrow the Hamas administration that had seized power in Gaza in a bloody confrontation with Fatah.

To fund this operation, reports have it that he extracted from the US government a huge sum – estimated at $1 billion – but though he never delivered, he refused to refund the money. That is one US count against him. Another is that he has thrown in his lot with Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the interim Egyptian government under Field Marshal (soon to be President) al-Sisi, and is supporting their offensive against the Middle East policies of US President Obama.

This Palestinian renegade acquired his formidable political status by way of UAE Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Zayed Bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who is one of al-Sisi’s most generous bankers, and who stands at the forefront of the Saudi-UAE life-and-death campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood. Now Dahlan has established himself in Cairo, within al-Sisi’s inner circle of advisers on the Palestinian question –which explains the extraordinary diatribe spouted by Abbas, a few weeks ago, to a closed meeting of the Fatah Revolutionary Council. During an hour-long harangue he accused Dahlan, along with Khaled Islam, a former economic adviser to Arafat, and ex-PA minister Hassan Asfour, of acting as spies for Israel.  He had knowledge, he claimed, of ties between Dahlan and Israeli leaders.

He followed this up by asserting that Dahlan and his followers were involved in the assassination of Salah Shahadeh, the leader of Hamas’s military wing, who was killed by an Israeli airstrike in 2002.  Then he topped the list of accusations by again hinting, as he had done some years ago, that Dahlan and his associates – “the three spies” Abbas dubbed them – were involved in the death of Yasser Arafat.

Dahlan, declared Abbas, would never be allowed back in Fatah, nor, he suggested, was there room in the party for those still loyal to him.

In response, Dahlan asserted on his Facebook page that Abbas’s speech was “full of lies and deception” which he proposed one day to disclose. Meanwhile senior Hamas figures like Taher al-Nunu, and Salah el-Bardawil, demanded a full and transparent enquiry into the assassination of Salah Shahadeh. On his Facebook page, al-Nunu wrote: “if there is truth to the matter, why has [Abbas] kept his silence and appointed Dahlan to high-level positions? How do we know that Abbas did not know about it?” 

In short, it is clear that the relationship between Abbas and Dahlan has reached an all-time low, while Dahlan himself seems to be riding high. Fueled by millions in Gulf aid dollars, raised in part by himself from business people and charities in the UAE, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere, he seems to be orchestrating a comeback that could position him as a possible successor to Abbas.

Like all potential candidates for high office, Dahlan modestly denies that he is seeking it. In a recent newspaper interview,Dahlan said he was “not looking for any post” after Abbas retires, but during an interview on Egyptian TV on March 16, he declared: “The Palestinian people can no longer bear a catastrophe like Mahmoud Abbas.”

That Abbas may retire following the virtual failure of the current peace process is certainly on the cards.  Putting aside his age and other political considerations, his personal status as President is questionable.  He was elected in 2005 for a four-year term, but 2009 came and went, his presidency was extended by diktat, the Hamas-Fatah feud has precluded any elections, and here we are in 2014 with Abbas still clinging to office.

Besides Dahlan who is in the running?  There is the man whom Hamas declare is the legitimate acting Palestinian President according to the constitution - Abdel Aziz Duwaik, Speaker of the Palestinian Legislative Council since January 2006.

Duwaik, once a professor of urban geography, has never been accused of involvement in terrorism and has told journalists that he views Hamas's call for the creation of a Palestinian state in all of Palestine, including Israel, to be "nothing but a dream, and unrealistic." He might be a preferred presidential successor from Israel’s point of view, but is unlikely to command popular support.

The Palestinian politician with the broadest appeal, according to the polls, is 54-year-old Marwan Barghouti, a charismatic Palestinian leader currently convicted of  murdering four people during terrorist operations in 2001 and 2002, and serving multiple life sentences in an Israeli jail.  The polls, by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, show that Barghouti would easily come out on top of a three-way race involving also Abbas and Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of Hamas.  An ardent supporter of the two-state solution and Palestinian resistance, he is considered top contender for the presidential post, and perhaps the only figure who can reunite the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

The PA is demanding Barghouti’s freedom as part of a deal to save the peace talks from collapse. If he is released, as part of some last ditch rescue attempt, he becomes a formidable alternative to Dahlan. If Israel keeps him in prison, then Dahlan is well placed to sweep Mahmoud Abbas aside and become the next Palestinian president.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 13 April 2014:

Sunday, 6 April 2014

Israel-Palestine peace talks: the endgame

Who defined the art of successful politics as “keeping abreast of changing circumstances, and turning each change to your advantage”?  They might have had John Kerry, US Secretary of State, in mind. No astuter politician is currently operating in the global arena. But even the wiliest operator can be overwhelmed by events and, with the end of April looming, an air of desperation has pervaded what might be called “the peace camp”.

            Kerry’s brief from newly re-elected President Barack Obama, just starting his second term in January 2013, was to give high priority to achieving a final-status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.  Obama had had a first shot at this, back in 2010, and had indeed succeeded in bringing the two principals Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the Palestinian Authority’s President Mahmoud Abbas to the negotiating table.  Optimism had been high, all the building blocks necessary to construct a full accord had been identified, and all the parties present pledged to have an agreement in place within a year. 

In the event, the initiative was dead within a month, sunk on the insistence by Abbas that Israel’s 10-month freeze on construction in the West Bank be extended a demand that was impossible for Netanyahu to grant, given the fragile nature of the coalition that sustained his government.
        Nothing daunted, Obama on being re-elected charged his new Secretary of State, John Kerry, to get the Israelis and Palestinians face-to-face again.  His motives in twice biting into this Middle Eastern hot potato, as part of a wider and woefully misguided global strategy, would merit a book in itself – and columnist Jonathan Rosenblum has made a insightful first step in this direction.  But Kerry accepted the brief, and succeeded.  So it was that, on 29 July 2013, under his benign eye, peace negotiators Tzipi Livni for Israel, and Saeb Erekat for the PA, shook hands in Washington to launch "sustained, continuous and substantive" talks aimed at reaching agreement on the long-sought final status between Israel and Palestine talks with the declared objective of establishing a sovereign Palestine side by side with Israel.
        Optimism was, if anything, even higher than in 2010, for this time all declared that no more than nine months was necessary as the gestation period to achieve a deal.  Talks started formally on 29 July 2013, and the agreement would be born by 29 April 2014.

That the discussions would be long, complex and difficult could have been  foreseen.  Many groups and individuals on both sides some with crucial political clout had no interest in achieving a two-state solution to the long-running dispute, and opposed the initiative from the start. Even those who supported it would scarcely have believed, at the start of the process, that the stark irreconcilabilities of the two parties would scupper the original timetable.

But finally it became abundantly apparent that no final status agreement was conceivable within the widely announced nine-month period. Acknowledging the impasse. the optimistic Kerry turned the altered circumstances to his advantage by adroitly shifting the goalposts. In a master stroke the objective of the nine-month negotiations was altered.  No longer were the parties striving to achieve a peace deal within that constricted timeframe.  Now Kerry announced that that this first nine-month phase would be used to produce a “framework agreement”, endorsed by both parties, which would encapsulate the principles including areas of non-agreement that would form the basis of on-going discussions.

With every likelihood that such a document would merely be a re-statement of the obvious, it was not a very inspiring prospect. But if the end-result was something signed by both sides, and if both sides had agreed to continue talking, Kerry would have snatched a brand from the burning.

It was not to be.  As March 2014 ended, yet more political ducking and diving was called for. According to the agreement originally brokered by Kerry the agreement that underwrote the peace negotiations Israel undertook to release around 100 Palestinian prisoners in four batches, the last batch on March 29, 2014.  However, by the due date no negotiations had taken place between the two sides since November 2013, and in the interim the PA president had flatly refused to consider acknowledging Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people, and had sought and obtained the endorsement of the Arab League to the same refusal.  He had also indicated that he had little interest in continuing peace talks beyond the April 29 deadline.  It seemed that Abbas proposed to accept the final batch of released prisoners, and forthwith end the negotiations. So Israel balked at that final commitment. 

The reaction of Abbas was to renege on his undertaking not to seek membership in international bodies until the April 29 deadline.  In a heavily publicized event, he formally applied to join 15 international agencies, a move aimed at gaining the benefits of statehood outside the negotiation process.

The result?  Kerry cancelled a planned return to the region during which he had expected to complete an agreement aimed at extending negotiations into 2015. In that emerging deal, rumour was that the United States would release Jonathan Pollard, convicted of spying for Israel some 30 years ago, while Israel would free hundreds of Palestinian prisoners and slow down construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

So turmoil marks the final days of Kerry’s original nine-month timetable.  The endgame is chaos, confusion and disarray as Kerry’s right-hand man – Middle East envoy Martin Indyk shuttles back and forth between the Palestinian and Israeli negotiating teams in an ever-more desperate effort to snatch some sort of victory from the jaws of defeat.  Telephone lines between Washington, Jerusalem and Ramallah must be red-hot, as Kerry attempts to persuade or cajole Netanyahu and Abbas to give way on some modest elements of their demands, so as to allow a compromise of sorts to emerge.  The US President and his Secretary of State have invested so much time, effort and prestige in this Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative that total failure would be a major humiliation – one that they may indeed be gearing themselves to face.

Stark reality seems to dawning even on the persistent, canny John Kerry. “There are limits to the amount of time and effort that the United States can spend,” he is reported to have said, “if the parties themselves are unwilling to take constructive steps to move forward.  We’re not going to sit there indefinitely. So it’s reality check time.”

Published in the Eurasia Review, 7 April 2014:

Tuesday, 1 April 2014

Egypt's new president: Nasser or Sadat?

The Egyptian Army’s Department of Morale Affairs (morale, please note, not moral, which it probably isn’t), has been doing a great job since the overthrow of the last administration. 

The Department is responsible for managing the public image of the Army. Ever since the coup, led by then-General Abdul-Fattah al-Sisi, it has been assiduously encouraging a cult of personality around him.  His recent promotion to Field Marshal provided it with a field day.  Its media campaigns have resulted in his face appearing frequently on Egyptian state television and in state-run newspapers, on posters and billboards, and even on memorabilia ranging from chocolates to underpants. 

The skilful propaganda projection of him as an upbeat officer who is at the same time a devout Muslim, harbouring traditional respect for women and Christians, goes some way to explaining the high regard in which he is held.  His popularity rating is also due, in no small measure, to the popularity of the military, which continues to be the most trusted institution in the country. Around 90 per cent of Egyptians support it. 

Until Wednesday, March 26, 2014 al-Sisi was Egypt’s deputy prime minister, the minister of defense and the commander-in-chief of Egypt’s armed forces.  On that day he resigned all three offices, and announced that he would be standing for election as Egypt’s new president in a ballot whose date has yet to be set. After three years of upheaval Egypt yearns for a strong leader. Even though al-Sisi remains something of an enigma within the country, his public idolization is so great that he is virtually certain to emerge, some time during the summer, as Egypt’s new president.

What sort of president will he make?  He often appears alongside images of the late presidents Gamal Abdel Nasser and Anwar Sadat.   Some commentators suggest that he will take one or other of these predecessors as his model. He certainly followed both by pursuing the “political track” within the Egyptian military, and in particular the infantry the corps which produced both Nasser and Sadat.

Although very different in temperament and outlook, the two late presidents had one thing at least in common both took Egypt into direct combat with Israel.  In this, at least, it is highly unlikely that al-Sisi will emulate his predecessors.  Nor are we likely to see him follow Sadat in popping into Jerusalem to address Israel’s parliamentarians his predecessor’s untimely end would no doubt inhibit any such  whim.  But he has already indicated considerable pragmatism by cooperating with Israel in combating the jihadist terrorism current rampant in Sinai, fostered by the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas, and threatening both Egypt’s nascent régime and Israel’s security.

And it is on counter-terrorism, according to Professor Robert Springborg, an expert on the Egyptian political scene, that al-Sisi’s pre-presidential campaign has concentrated so far – both in Sinai, and much closer to home.  In pursuit of this policy, he has outlawed the Muslim Brotherhood within Egypt and maintains a ruthless crackdown on its activists and supporters. 

As for al-Sisi’s economic policy, it is shrouded in ambiguity. Negotiations with the IMF have been suspended, since the conditions they would impose for a loan would be political suicide.  He continues to rely on huge subsidies from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states, while he attempts to persuade capitalists in exile to return to Egypt with their money.

Meanwhile the economic crisis intensifies, reflected in government debt, rising unemployment, poverty, inflation, power outages, and an absence of tourists. “For all of this,” writes Professor Springborg, “Field Marshal Sisi has avoided any direct blame, skilfully shuffling that off onto Prime Minister Hazem Beblawi and his hapless cabinet, which resigned on 24 February.”

Springborg believes al-Sisi wants to project a presidential image of a new, “believing" Nasser (Nasser was somewhat of a secularist), although the profound changes since the 1950s within and beyond Egypt make his aim a near impossibility.  The concept of Pan-Arabism, for example, is dead. There are, however, one or two areas in which he might make a Nasser-like mark – rekindling nationalist pride is one. Turning towards Russia for support is another. Al-Sisi’s trip to Moscow in mid-February 2014 to complete an arms deal, in reaction to the US’s lack of enthusiasm for the coup he engineered against Mohammed Morsi, evoked memories of Nasser's rejection of the West in favour of the Soviets.

Al-Sisi would seem to be emulating Nasser in one further respect. He is already identifying his forthcoming presidential era as one of grand projects, just as Nasser had done with the Aswan Dam. Al-Sisi’s project is the proposed development of the Suez Canal area, being heavily promoted as the key to Egypt's future.

Anwar Sadat followed Nasser into power, shoehorned into the presidency by Nasser's supporters, who regarded Sadat as a transitional figure that they believed could be manipulated easily. He was to prove them wrong.  Sadat  did not agree with Nasser’s distrust of Islamic influence on government and opposed his socialist inclinations.  He succeeded in instituting a "corrective revolution" which purged the government, political and security establishments of the most ardent Nasserists.  In addition Sadat actually encouraged the emergence of the Muslim Brotherhood, which had been suppressed by Nasser. He gave them "considerable cultural and ideological autonomy" (as author Gilles Keppel has it) in exchange for political support, little realizing the viper he was clutching to his bosom. In this, at least, al-Sisi utterly rejects the Sadat approach.

In 2006, al-Sisi was sent to the US Army War College to study for a master's degree.  In a research paper he warned that democracy in the Middle East was "not necessarily going to evolve upon a Western template".  He argued that "democracy, as a secular entity, is unlikely to be favourably received by the vast majority of Middle Easterners, who are devout followers of the Islamic faith". However, he did not talk about implementing Islamic law.

So President al-Sisi is likely to rule Egypt as an up-to-date version of the strong, near-authoritarian, leader, firmly grounded in his military background, but paying something more than lip-service to democracy although a democracy strongly flavoured with more moderate aspects of Islam.  With Egypt’s national interests in mind, he is likely to adopt a pragmatic approach to cooperation with Russia President Putin is anxious to counter US influence in the Middle East and with Israel, where collaboration in overcoming extremist terrorism in Gaza and Sinai is in both countries’ best interests.

And the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, brokered by Egypt’s President Sadat and Israel’s prime minister, Menachim Begin, will – short of some totally unforeseen catastrophe be in safe hands.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 2 April 2014:
Published in the Eurasia Review, 1 April 2014: