Tuesday, 20 December 2016

Egyptian-Israeli relations - signs of a thaw?


        Over the years neither the Egyptian public, nor its various leaders, have exhibited much enthusiasm for a genuine friendship with Israel – this despite the peace treaty, signed way back in March 1979 by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin. Yet, through thick and thin, the treaty has held. 

        Among its main features, drawn up following Sadat’s historic visit to Israel in 1977, was normalization of relations.  So ambassadors were exchanged, Egypt repealed its boycott laws, trade began to develop, regular airline flights were inaugurated, Egypt began supplying Israel with crude oil and, as part of the agreement, the US began a program of economic and military aid which over the years has subsidized Egypt’s armed forces by billions of dollars.

           Egypt paid a price for the benefits it won through the treaty. The Arab world condemned it root and branch, Egypt was suspended from the Arab League for ten years, and it led to Sadat’s assassination in 1981.

        The revolution in Egypt in 2011, which resulted in the election of a Muslim Brotherhood parliament and president, led influential voices within Egypt to call for the treaty with Israel to be revoked. The new government decided to abide by its international treaties, but the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt during 2012-2013 was a golden age for Hamas, the de facto government in Gaza. In preparation for its next conflict with Israel, missiles and massive quantities of ammunition moved through the tunnels dug between Egypt and Gaza, together with the materials needed to manufacture armaments.

        Egypt’s second revolution a year later, which replaced Mohammed Morsi with Fattah al-Sisi as president, turned the situation on its head. Sisi declared total war against the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and by extension its offshoot Hamas in Gaza. He designated both groups terrorist organizations, and was ruthless in rooting out their leaders and supporters. He shut down the crossing at Rafah through which armaments once flowed into Gaza, and destroyed more than a thousand tunnels running under the Egypt-Gaza border, Hamas’s secret conduit for supplies it could not obtain through Israel.

        The Brotherhood responded to its overthrow by mounting a full-scale terrorist campaign, in conjunction with Hamas, both within Egypt proper and in the Sinai peninsula, where terrorist groups roamed at will, committing atrocity after atrocity. These jihadi groups represented as great a threat to Israel as to Egypt, and the two countries began to cooperate more closely than ever before on military, security and intelligence issues.

        It was in July-August 2014, during Operation Protective Edge – Israel’s response to Hamas’s rocket attacks – that realization began to dawn in Egypt’s media and élite that Egypt and Israel were fighting shoulder to shoulder against a common enemy. Public figures began voicing support for Israel’s military operation in the Gaza Strip.

        "Thank you Netanyahu,” wrote Azza Sami of the Egyptian newspaper Al-Ahram, “and may God give us more like you to destroy Hamas!" Addressing Gazan Palestinians, Egyptian actor Amr Mustafa told them not to expect any help from Egypt. "You must get rid of Hamas,” he said, “and then we will help you." On a TV program Egyptian presenter Amany al-Khayat launched a scathing attack on Hamas. "Hamas is prepared to make all the residents of the Gaza Strip pay a heavy price,” she said. “We must not forget that Hamas is the armed branch of the Muslim Brotherhood terrorist movement." Egyptian ex-general Hamdi Bakhit actually expressed the hope that Israel would re-occupy the Gaza Strip.

        On May 28, 2015, prominent Egyptian historian Maged Farag, appearing on the Mehwar TV channel, openly called for his country to normalize relations with Israel and to ditch support for the Palestinian cause which, he said, has caused “nothing but harm” for Egypt. Referring to the rampant anti-semitism among the Egyptian population, he urged his fellow countrymen to leave “the old ideology and cultural heritage on which we were raised”, and to embrace Israel out of the national interest. The next day he made the headlines.

        This softening of attitude towards Israel at opinion-forming level proved no flash in the pan.

        For decades Egyptian TV soap operas, produced annually to entertain millions of Muslims breaking their fast during the holy month of Ramadan, were platforms for vitriolic anti-semitic and anti-Israeli propaganda. For example the 2002 show Knight Without a Horse, based on the notorious anti-semitic forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, almost caused Israel to withdraw its ambassador from Cairo. The 2012 series Naji Atallah’s Team portrayed Israel as deeply racist in its tale of an Egyptian group attempting to rob a bank.

        In Ramadan 2015, by contrast, a TV drama about the Jews of Egypt struck a significantly different note. The plot of Haret al-Yahood, or The Jewish Quarter, revolved around an historic love story between Ali, an Egyptian army officer, and Laila, a young Jewish woman. The Muslim Brotherhood was portrayed as a greater threat to Egypt’s unity and security than the Jews, and the series was a roaring success.

        In his last TV interview before his death in 2015, Ali Salem, the Egyptian writer, playwright and satirist, asserted – as he had done many times before – "Israel is not an enemy state, and poses no threat to Egypt's national security. I hope Egypt's political leadership will not be ashamed of the peace the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat established with Israel."

        If there has been a discernible shift in attitude towards Israel, at least among the intelligentsia, one figure in Egypt who deserves special credit is film-maker Amir Ramses. His recent two-part documentary The Jews of Egypt and End of a Journey explores the rise and demise of Egypt’s Jewish communities between the late-19th and mid-20th centuries. Ramses filmed the series during the Mubarak and Morsi eras, and was in constant conflict with the official censors. Yet last year, under the Sisi administration, Ramses’ films were screened in Egypt to critical acclaim.  

        Does all this presage the start of a genuine thaw in Egyptian-Israeli relations? Incidents at the 2016 Olympic games, when some Egyptian athletes refused – at least publicly – to acknowledge, or relate to, their Israeli counterparts, suggest that there is a long way to go in changing long-ingrained public antagonism. But perhaps green shoots are just beginning to show.

Published in the Jerusalem Post, 27 December 2016:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 27 December 2016:

Published in the MPC Journal, 27 December 2016:

                   [Next posting: Tuesday 3 January 2017 at 7.30 am GMT]

Sunday, 11 December 2016

Obama, Trump and the Middle East


        Where the Middle East is concerned - as in so many areas of policy, both domestic and foreign - ex-President Obama and President Trump are poles apart. 

        It was only slowly, but with growing clarity over the eight years of his presidency, that the political assumptions underlying Obama’s Middle East policy, and the strategic objectives shaped by them, emerged.

        Obama made no secret of the fact that he came into office feeling guilty about America’s strength and its political record, and that he believed much was wrong with his country. His apology tour began on April 3, 2009 in Strasbourg. Throughout the nation’s existence, he said, “America has shown arrogance and been dismissive even derisive” of others. If the power of the US could be reduced, he declared, then America would have the “moral authority” to bring murderous regimes such as Iran into the “community of nations”. So, based on this reading of America’s past, some claim that he set about reducing the strength and authority of the US.

        His mention of Iran at that early stage is significant. A widely-held view among political analysts is that the “signature issue of Obama’s diplomacy”, as political scientist Amiel Ungar puts it, has been transforming US-Iranian relations.

        Ungar traces this policy back to the 2006 Iraq Study Group headed by former US Secretary of State, James Baker, and former Democratic representative Lee Hamilton. The great struggle of the time was against al-Qaeda, the Sunni Islamist terror organization that had been responsible for the 9/11 attacks, and was then totally disrupting American attempts to reconstruct Iraq. Baker and Hamilton dreamed up the notion of fostering a working relationship between America and the two major Shia powers, Iran and Syria, and then to encourage them to fight al-Qaeda in pursuit of their own objectives, thus incidentally assisting America’s struggle.

        Ungar believes that this recklessly flawed analysis is what has been behind Obama’s willingness to accommodate Iran on the political front, and to offer it major concessions on the nuclear issue. When the Obama administration came into office, its overt aim seemed to be to eliminate Iran’s potential to produce nuclear weapons. But, some political analysts now believe, it was in fact working to a different and secret agenda based on the Iraq Study Group’s recommendations.

        During 2014 it emerged that in secret correspondence with Iran’s Supreme Leader, Obama actually attempted to engage Iran in the anti-Islamic State conflict. In November the Wall Street Journal reported that Obama had written to Ayatollah Khamanei concerning the shared interest of the US and Iran in fighting IS militants.

       “The October letter,” asserted the Wall Street Journal, “marked at least the fourth time Mr Obama has written Iran’s most powerful political and religious leader since taking office in 2009, and pledging to engage with Tehran’s Islamist government.”

        By 2016 it had become clear that, in the process of facilitating Iran’s journey into the comity of nations, the Obama administration had boosted Iran’s efforts to extend its influence across the Middle East. In consequence the US had lost the confidence, and much of the respect, of its erstwhile allies such as Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Egypt, all of whom had good reason to regard Iran as their prime antagonist.

        Did Obama’s placatory approach result in any softening of Iran’s visceral hatred of the “Great Satan”? Not one jot. “The slogans ‘Death to Israel’ and ‘Death to America’, “ proclaimed Iran’s Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, just after the nuclear deal was announced, “have resounded throughout the country.... Even after this deal, our policy towards the arrogant US will not change.”

        So much for the assumptions and vain hopes of the Iraq Study Group, and for the policy of appeasement. Taking every concession offered in the nuclear deal talks, and subsequently reneging in several vital respects on the final agreement, Iran’s leaders have not budged an inch on their ultimate ambitions, namely to become the dominant political and religious power in the Middle East, to sweep aside all Western-style democracies, and to impose their own Shi’ite version of Islam on the whole world.

        Two months after his Strasbourg speech, Obama chose Cairo University as the venue from which to address the Muslim world. Once again self-flagellation was the order of the day. Based perhaps on the Muslim influences of his father’s family and his own childhood in Indonesia, he spoke of past "colonialism" and the cold-war use of Muslim nations as "proxies". He recognized past “humiliation”, and spoke of future "dignity" and "justice". In a long passage on Israel-Palestine, Obama spoke of "Palestine", not a "future Palestinian state."

        Although he condemned Muslim antisemitism and Holocaust denial as "baseless … ignorant …hateful", condemned the terrorist methods employed against Israel by Hamas, and urged the Muslim and Arab world to embrace democracy and women's rights, he was, in effect, attempting to put the US-Muslim relationship on a new footing. His tragedy is that for the rest of his presidency he chose the wrong methods and the wrong partners for this bold enterprise. His reluctance to deploy effective military action when it was clearly demanded – as in Syria, when Assad indiscriminately deployed chemical weapons, regardless of the effect on his own civilian population – and his backing of Iran and the Muslim Brotherhood, both sworn enemies of what might be termed “the stable Sunni world”, undermined America’s standing to an unprecedented degree.

        Into the power vacuum swept Russia’s President Vladimir Putin, eager to enhance his influence on the world stage, to regain the USSR’s clout in the Middle East, and to bolster Russia’s interests in Syria, a long-time ally.

        President Trump, a great admirer of Putin, has no time for “reducing America’s power” (quite the reverse), or Iran, or the nuclear deal that was a keystone of Obama’s administration. Whether he can “tear it up”, in his own words, is debatable, but he can certainly ensure that the Iranian regime observes the terms of the agreement meticulously – negligence in this area is something the Obama administration has been criticised for.

        Trump admires Putin, and hopes to forge a new understanding between the US and Russia. Putin admires Trump, and is highly unlikely to allow his working alliance with Iran to stand in the way of consolidating Russia’s new powerful position in the Middle East with the backing of the USA. 

        An old Chinese curse is said to run: “May you live in interesting times.” Curse or blessing, interesting times is what the future seems to hold in store. 

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 11 December 2016:

Published in the Eurasia Review, 12 December 2016:

Published in the MPC Journal, 13 December 2016:

Tuesday, 6 December 2016

Reconfiguring Arab-Western relations


Exactly five hundred years ago, in 1516, the renowned English statesman and social philosopher Sir Thomas More published “Utopia”, a novel in which he pictured an imaginary island where a totally just government had created the perfect society. More, however, was under no illusion that paradise is attainable in this wicked world – which is why the two Greek words from which “Utopia” is constructed translate as “nowhere.”

        In the real world, where imperfect societies abound, it is certainly incumbent on everyone to strive to eliminate injustice and improve life for humanity in general. But it is also necessary to recognize who your friends are – imperfect though they may be – and which are the malign forces that seek global power and domination.

        On December 6, 2016 Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May, travelled to Bahrain to meet members of the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) gathered in the capital, Manama, for the organization’s 37th summit. The GCC, established in 1981, consists of Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and comprises around 15 percent of the Arab world.

        Individually the member states of the GCC are far from Utopia – some further than others. But collectively, and with certain reservations, they are friends of the West. Assuredly none seeks regional hegemony or world domination. Nonetheless when Theresa May’s visit was announced it aroused a storm of protest both within the UK and beyond.

        Iran’s propaganda medium, PressTV, broadcasting in English around the clock, was quick to publicise the objections of the Islamic Human Rights Commission (IHRC), a UK-based hard-line Khomeneist non-governmental organisation. Earlier in 2016 this group bestowed their ‘Islamophobe of the Year’ award to the murdered staff of Charlie Hebdo. At their awards ceremony the IHRC joked about what a shame it was that none of the staff of Charlie Hebdo were around to collect it.

        It is not likely, therefore, that Mrs May took much notice of the letter that arrived at 10 Downing Street, urging her to cancel her projected meeting with GCC Arab monarchies because it “shows a glaring disregard for human rights and also a dangerous message of approval to the leaders of GCC regimes who continue to perpetrate human rights abuses against their own and other citizens.”

        It is no surprise that the IHRC took a swipe also at Saudi Arabia for the military coalition it is leading in Yemen, where it is countering the efforts of the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels to overthrow the legitimate government. The Saudi effort is backed by the US and the UK. Also roundly condemned by the IHRC was Britain’s continued support for Saudi Arabia and Bahrain by way of weapons and intelligence.

        The IHRC is playing the long-established game of using the tools of democracy to destabilise democracy itself. Amnesty International (AI) is a non-governmental organization founded in the UK in 1961 whose self-assigned purpose is to draw attention to human rights abuses, and to mobilise public opinion to put pressure on governments that let abuse take place. It is therefore to be expected that AI puts under scrutiny the value and independence of two UK-supported human rights institutions set up in Bahrain. The bodies, the Ombudsman of the Ministry of Interior, and the special investigations unit within the public prosecution, were established in 2012 following a fierce crackdown by the Bahraini government on protests the previous year.

        Whereas the British Foreign Office believes the two institutions show the government in Manama is willing to respond to western pressure, and the then foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, told the House of Commons in January 2015 that Bahrain was “a country which is travelling in the right direction”, AI’s head of policy and government affairs, Allan Hogarth, said: “It was a welcome move when Bahrain set up these two bodies back in 2012, but it’s utterly disingenuous of the UK government to pretend they’re delivering substantial human rights reform in Bahrain. Instead of acting as overexcited cheerleaders for Bahrain’s woefully inadequate reforms, UK ministers ought to be confronting the awkward reality that these UK-backed institutions are seriously flawed and widely seen as a PR tool of the Bahraini government.”

        Amnesty International is fulfilling its self-imposed remit by pressing Bahrain to improve human rights within the kingdom. It can do nothing about an outside pressure group like the IHRC, with its strong Iranian links, jumping on the bandwagon for its own, less savoury, purposes.

        An important aspect of Theresa May’s visit to the Gulf has been to rebuild relations with the Middle East, following the truly disastrous results of the Obama administration’s policies in the region. Obama began his presidency by trying to reassure the Muslim world of America’s respect for Islam and his intention to avoid its past “colonialist” interference. He ended by having empowered the Arab world’s greatest enemy, Iran, through the deal that ensures that Iran will become a nuclear power within 10-15 years. He consistently supported the Muslim Brotherhood, declared a terrorist organization by Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states. His refusal to engage wholeheartedly against the enemies of stability in the Middle East, such as President Assad of Syria and Islamic State (IS) in Syria and Iraq, left a power vacuum which Russia’s President Vladimir Putin was quick to fill. As a result confidence in, not to say respect for, the USA has been severely shaken in the Arab world.

        As regards the UK, the Gulf states, always strongly Anglophile, found their sympathies severely strained by the British government’s support for the Iran deal. If in the future Theresa May takes a more hardline approach towards Iran, she would ease this tension – and indeed she is likely to do so, if only to align British foreign policy with that of President-elect Trump.

        With foreign policy hawks such as General Mike Flynn, Trump’s new National Security Advisor, occupying senior posts in the next administration, the Iran deal – or at least the way it is currently being administered – is unlikely to survive. Amending the Iran deal, or at least imposing rigorous compliance with its terms on Iran, would help Washington repair relations with traditional allies such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, to say nothing of Israel, alienated by Obama’s pro-Iranian policies. 

        It seems pretty certain that a reconfiguration of relations between the West and the Arab world is in the offing. Utopia it will not be, but it may result in a more harmonious and balanced situation in which friends are supported, and malign forces are opposed not appeased.

Published in the Jerusalem Post on-line, 5 December 2016:

Published in the MPC Journal, 6 December 2016 as
"Reconfiguring Orient-Occident Relations":