Saturday, May 26, 2012

Enough Talking, Kofi

It’s time for the world to stop hiding behind Kofi Annan's skirts. We gave diplomacy a chance in Syria; now we must accept that diplomacy has failed.


                                                     Kofi Annan

Fourteen years ago, Kofi Annan, then the U.N. secretary general, embarked on a desperate mission to Baghdad to persuade Saddam Hussein to allow U.N. weapons inspectors back in the country. Miraculously, he succeeded. And for his pains he was awoken in the middle of the night and browbeaten by U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who worried that he had caved to Saddam. When he returned to New York he was mocked for saying that he could "do business" with the Iraqi dictator. Serving as interlocutor-with-evil is a thankless job.
I mention this, of course, because Annan is now in the midst of another such mission, this time as U.N.-Arab League special envoy to Syria, where he has been trying for the last three months to put an end to the mass killing of civilians by the regime of President Bashar al-Assad. Assad has made Annan look like a naïve devotee of peace-at-any-price by first accepting his six-point plan and then systematically trampling on its terms. But Annan is taking a beating in Damascus for the same reason that he once did in Baghdad: The major powers don't know what else to do, and are hoping that he'll save them from their own irresolution.
I have known Kofi Annan for as long time, and it is true that he has a temperament peculiarly well-suited to situations of powerlessness. He is a gentleman who speaks ill of no one, and thinks ill of only a few. He does not wear his dignity on his sleeve, or anywhere visible at all. He does not upset apple carts, a habit which may have contributed to his inactivity in the face of slaughter in Bosnia and Rwanda when he was the head of U.N. peacekeeping. It's the part of him I admire least.
But for a U.N. diplomat, powerlessness is a fact of life; it's much easier to represent a superpower. In the summer of 2004, I watched Annan sit quietly in a blazing hot office in Darfur while Sudanese officials piled one inane lie on top of another. Didn't he know they were jerking him around? Of course he did, he told me wearily. But what was the point of delivering threats? "I don't," he said, "see anybody rushing in with troops."
And that's the real point. Albright and the Clinton administration let Annan go to Baghdad when they saw how little appetite there was in their own base for airstrikes against Iraq (though they launched a few strikes later that year when the deal Annan negotiated fell apart). And years later, Annan tried to speak reason to Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir because the Security Council wasn't prepared to punish him for mounting a campaign of ethnic cleansing and murder in Darfur.
Now Annan is exhorting Assad to do what he manifestly will not do -- withdraw his security forces and heavy weapons from the cities where the opposition is concentrated -- because nobody is rushing in with troops, or airstrikes. When I asked Ahmad Fawzi, a former U.N. official who serves as the spokesman for the mission in Syria, why Annan was still shuttling between capitals even as Assad's forces continued to shell civilians, he said, "It's the only game in town at the moment." Fawzi made only the most modest claims for the mission's success: Violence goes down while inspectors occupy a given space, though often returns to previous levels once they leave; civilians might "start having faith in the presence of the observers." But it was still better than the alternative -- even more killing.
Annan is no pacifist. In the late 1990s, he championed the doctrine that came to be known as "the responsibility to protect," which stipulates that when states fail to act to stop atrocities, other states have an obligation to do so. But Annan does believe that sometime atrocities can be halted, or prevented, with diplomacy rather than with force. He and others did just that when they mediated between the opposing sides after a disputed election in Kenya in late 2008 led rival tribes to slaughter one another. That was an effort worth making; so was his high-wire act in Baghdad in 1998; so was the mission to Damascus. But is it still? Or is he now simply helping Assad to buy time?
Annan is about to return to Syria. "He feels the time is now ripe," Fawzi says, "to sit down with the president and assess where we are." That's an extremely dubious proposition. The Syrian opposition, military and political, won't relent until Assad leaves, but Assad almost certainly won't leave unless he feels that the only alternative is death. And that moment is still very far away. The Obama administration understands this well, but views all the available alternatives as even worse than the current one -- talking while Assad keeps killing. I was at a recent lunch with U.N. Ambassador Susan Rice, who responded to a volley of questions about humanitarian corridors, airstrikes, and the like by saying, "There is a risk it ends in more violence, which is why the last peaceful game in town is one worth pursuing, even if it's a low-probability game, which we readily admit it is."
The question is: When do you stop pursuing this low-probability game? When, if at all, do the risks of action become greater than the risks of inaction? The international community kept talking with the Serbs until the massacre at Srebrenica in July 1995 finally provoked a NATO bombing campaign. In Sudan, as in Rwanda, nothing happened until it was too late to make much of a difference. Annan knows this history all too well; it is his history. "He's been there before," says Fawzi, "and he will know when the time has come to pull the plug." Or maybe he won't. Maybe he'll recoil from the alternative.
It has now become very hard to imagine any solution to the Syria crisis which is not a terrible one. Though fewer people are dying per day than was true earlier this year, when security forces were besieging the town of Homs, the violent scenario to which Rice alluded is already a reality. According to recent reports, the rebels have begun to receive significant quantities of weapons from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, and the Syrian Muslim Brotherhood as well as training and equipment from Turkey. The Obama administration has admitted only to supplying communications equipment and other nonlethal assistance, but is said to be clandestinely helping direct arms to rebels forces. The White House, that is, appears to be reluctantly accepting the inevitability of civil war.
Fawzi says that no Plan B is on offer, but the fact is that an impromptu Plan B appears to be taking shape: Turkey will provide its territory for the training and organization of the Free Syrian Army, the United States will provide logistical and command-and-control assistance, and Gulf states will supply the hardware. Everyone, including Annan and the U.N., will labor mightily to keep the Syrian National Council, the political organ of the opposition, from collapsing into utter chaos, as it now threatens to do, and to persuade the SNC, the rebel army, and the Local Coordinating Committees inside Syria to work together.
We mustn't delude ourselves about Plan B's likelihood of success. The air war which destroyed the Qaddafi regime in Libya was relatively swift and thoroughly decisive, but Libya now teeters on the edge of anarchy. Syria hardly looks more encouraging. If the rebels step up the pace of attacks, Assad is likely to respond with yet more violence, possibly provoking the Gotterdammerung of all-out sectarian war. And as foreign jihadists increasingly infiltrate the rebel forces, and pervert their goals, the chances of creating an unarguably better Syria than the one that existed before the uprising will recede. Syria poses such a terrible problem because it is not about finding the political will to do the right thing, but rather trying to find some way of doing more good than harm.
But the time has come -- or perhaps has very nearly come -- for the world to stop hiding behind Kofi Annan's skirts. We gave diplomacy a chance; now we must accept that diplomacy has failed.
-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 25/05/2012
-James Traub is a fellow of the Center on International Cooperation

Friday, May 25, 2012

Syrian Opponents Agree Lebanon Must Stay Stable

By Hugh Naylor from Beirut

Lebanese security forces supervise the opening of a street blocked by Shiite Muslims in a southern suburb of Beirut, Lebanon, Tuesday, May 22, 2012, to protest against Syrian rebels kidnapped of 12 Lebanese Shiite pilgrims in the Syrian northern province of Aleppo. The leader of Lebanon's Hezbollah militant group Shaikh Hassan Nasrallah has appealed for calm following the abduction of 12 Lebanese Shiites in Syria.

Concerned about Syria's uprising spilling beyond its borders, countries which back opposing sides in the rebellion against Damascus seem to agree on supporting the stability of Lebanon.
Officials from Moscow to Riyadh have expressed alarm that Syria's crisis has fuelled sectarian clashes in Lebanon's north and gun battles in Beirut.
But fear of chaos in Lebanon is about as close as world powers will get to consensus over the 15-month uprising against Syrian President Bashar Al Assad, according to analysts. If anything, they say, these divisions will likely produce more problems for Lebanon.
"So long as there is a lack of international consensus over what to do in Syria, and so long as that fuels polarisation and division, that will directly feed into the political debate in Lebanon and will most likely seep over and cause further instability in Lebanon," said Julien Barnes-Dacey, a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, a think tank.
This week the primary backers of Syria's rebels and its regime - Saudi Arabia and Russia, respectively - weighed into the Lebanon debate with similar expressions of concern.
Russia's foreign minister, Sergei Lavrov, warned that Syria's crisis could result in a "very bad ending" for Lebanon's often feuding religious communities. Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah urged Lebanon's president to stay out of Syrian affairs.
But neither side shows any sign in compromising over their competing interests inside Syria.
Russia, which maintains a naval base in Syria, considers its allies in Damascus valuable for projecting its influence in the region. Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, views supporting Syria's Sunni-led rebellion as a way to diminish the regional influence of Damascus' main partners, Iran and the Lebanese Shiite movement, Hizbollah.
This would not only fuel fighting in Syria, analysts say. It also makes Lebanon a useful arena for the competing interests of outside powers.
Saudi Arabia, along with Qatar and indirect support from the United States, is reportedly using Sunni allies in Lebanon's north to funnel support to Syrian rebels. That in turn is sounding alarms in Damascus and with its supporters. The arrest this month of a little-known Sunni Islamist in Tripoli was seen by many here as a result of growing pressure from the Syrian government to clamp down on rebel supporters in the area.
Still, most Lebanese do not want the Syria conflict to destabilise their own country, said Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut. They are loath to see a repeat of their 15-year civil war.
The problem is that this unity falls apart when it comes to the fight inside Syria, he said. Lebanon's religious communities are divided over whether to support the government or rebels, which in turn makes them convenient tools by outside powers.
A key question, Mr Khashan said, is how far Saudi Arabia and its allies, as well as Iran and Russia, want to push their Lebanese contacts.
"These outside powers expect a degree of instability in Lebanon because, in a sense, Lebanon has always been somewhat unstable," Mr Khashan said.
"But what they want to do is avoid doing things here that will turn instability in Lebanon into an uncontrollable militant and combative kind of instability."
-This report was published in The National on 26/05/2012                     

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Syria's New Jihadis

Meet the terrorist group that's ruining the revolution.


Syria suffered its worst terror attack in decades this month when two car bombs exploded near a military intelligence branch in Damascus, killing 55 people and wounding hundreds more. Syria's state-run news agency was quick to publish gruesome pictures of the victims of the attack, which President Bashar al-Assad's regime pinned on "foreign-backed terrorist groups."
At first, the Syrian regime seemed to have evidence to back up its case. On May 12, a video was distributed on YouTube, purportedly from a Palestinian branch of the jihadist group Jabhat al-Nusrah ("The Victory Front" or JN), claiming credit for the attack. But the release turned out to be a fake: On May 14, JN released a statement denying that it was behind the video. At the same time, it did not deny conducting the attack. Rather, JN's media outlet said it had yet to hear from JN's military commanders if they perpetrated the bombings.
Whether or not JN was involved in the Damascus attack, the organization has become a real force in recent weeks -- and one that threatens to undermine the Free Syrian Army (FSA), the loose network of defectors and local militia fighting the government. Its main goals are to awaken Muslims to the atrocities of the Assad regime, and eventually take control of the state and implement its narrow and puritanical interpretation of Islamic law. To that end, in the past month alone, JN has perpetrated a series of suicide bombings and IED strikes -- and the pace of attacks seems to be growing.
JN originally announced its existence on Jan. 23 in a video released to global jihadi forums, featuring the group's spokesperson, al-Fatih ("The Conqueror") Abu Muhammad al-Jawlani. In addition to repeating the usual jihadi platitudes, Jawlani accused the United States, the Arab League, Turkey, Iran, and the West in general for collaborating with the Assad regime against (Sunni) Muslims. The video shows tens of individuals training with AK-47s in unknown desert and wooded locations and posing with large flags similar to the banners used by Sunni fundamentalists across the Middle East, featuring the shahadah (the Muslim testament of faith).
While JN's attacks might pack punch, they represent a miniscule portion of the Syrian rebellion and have no known association to the FSA. But members of al Qaeda's premier online forums have been elated over the creation of a new jihadist organization in Syria. In addition to its online grassroots supporters, JN has gained the stamp of approval from key jihadi ideologues, including Shaykh Abu Sa'd al-‘Amili (a prominent online essayist), Shaykh Abu al-Mundhir al-Shinqiti (one of the most influential ideologues worldwide), Shaykh Abu Muhammad al-Tahawi (a prominent Jordanian Salafi), and Shaykh Abu al-Zahra' al-Zubaydi (a popular Lebanese jihadi). All have called on Muslims to support JN's cause by aiding them financially or joining them on the battlefield.
This level of excitement, which has not been seen in jihadi circles since the height of the Iraq war, can partly be attributed to the sectarian nature of the struggle: Jihadis do not see the Assads as true Muslims because they are Alawites -- members of a heterodox version of Shiism. As such, jihadis view their role in repressing a Sunni Muslim majority as particularly reprehensible. "Oh Allah made it possible for our brothers in Jabhat al-Nusrah, and bless them and make the hearts of the people join them," one online jihadi enthused.
Unable to quell Syria's domestic uprising, Assad still maintains that Syria is fighting foreign terrorists. And, although Syria's homegrown protest movement clearly makes up the overwhelming majority of the opposition, there are a multitude of reports -- see here, here, here, here, and here -- of non-Syrian Muslims going off to fight Assad. Fighters from al Qaeda in Iraq have also reportedly crossed the border to assist their Sunni compatriots -- presumably by way of the same networks they have long used to smuggle people and goods from Syria into Iraq.
Although there is no hard evidence that these fighters are joining up with JN, there is circumstantial evidence to suggest new recruits -- either foreign or local -- are bolstering its capabilities. While JN only conducted three operations from January through mid-April, the pace of its attacks in the past month has raised the specter of fresh support. On April 20, it conducted a suicide attack on a Syrian military unit allegedly responsible for a massacre in al-Latamina, a village outside Hama. A few days later, on April 24, JN bombed the Iranian Cultural Center in Damascus. Then on April 27, JN claimed responsibility for a suicide attack during Friday prayers in the Midan neighborhood of Damascus. And those aren't the only attacks that JN has attempted: From April 20 to May 5, it planted sticky improvised explosive devices to cars in a series of attempted assassinations against Syrian officials, and also detonated two IEDs under trucks at the Syrian military headquarters on Damascus's Revolution Street.
JN has also released three other videos since the message announcing its existence. The first video, which was posted on jihadist forums on Feb. 26, claimed responsibility for a twin suicide car bombing at a Syrian security forces building in Aleppo earlier that month, as well as an attack in early January in central Damascus. Appealing to the broader Syrian society, JN explained that it executed the attacks to safeguard the women of Syria, who have been brutalized and raped by Assad's security forces. The next video, which was uploaded in mid-April, contained a sermon exhorting individuals to join the jihad against Assad and his Alawite followers.
JN's most recent video was published in late April and provided yet another emotional appeal for individuals to take up arms to join its cause. It showed anti-Assad demonstrations in the cities of Deraa and Homs, the Assad regime's brutal destruction of Homs, and widows and mothers wailing over the deaths of their sons and husbands. JN spokesman Jawlani claimed responsibility for a "revenge" attack against the Syrian forces in Homs, and the video showed "martyrdom" messages from two of its suicide bombers. Jawlani linked JN's cause to that of 'Omar ibn al-Khattab, the second caliph, who completed the conquest of Syria that the Prophet Mohammad started in the 7th century. Jawlani's mention of 'Omar is notable because Shiite tradition considers him a traitor to Muhammad and a usurper of the right of Ali, Muhammad's cousin, to become caliph. Jawlani undoubtedly understands this, and his words are sure to stoke more sectarian tensions.
Syria's nascent jihadist organization has also bitterly opposed Kofi Annan's attempts to orchestrate a ceasefire between rebel and government forces, calling his efforts "deception" and a "magician's trick." JN called out Annan for his failure to prevent massacres in Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and it said the proposed truce with the Assad regime was merely a way for Western countries to undermine the Syrian people's ability to defend themselves while allowing the Assad regime to continue to shell its citizens. As a result, its argument goes, one cannot trust the West to provide assistance in the fight against the regime. Rather, it is imperative that Muslims join JN's battle, since it is the only true defender of Syrians and the Sunni community.
It is noteworthy that JN has focused solely on military targets in its insurgency against the regime. Perhaps it has learned from the experience of AQI, which found that killing civilians alienates potential supporters. Nevertheless, even if JN may be recruiting individuals at a higher rate, its vision for Syria's future remains far outside the mainstream. As such, it will continue to be a nuisance not only for the Syrian regime, but also to the FSA, which is attempting to bolster its international legitimacy in order to gain supplies and weapons from supporters of its cause. Amid the chaos in Syria, it represents a spoiler in a conflict with no foreseeable end.
-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 22/05/2012
-Aaron Y. Zelin is the Richard Borow Fellow in the Stein Program on Counterterrorism and Intelligence at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy

The Good Felool

If Amr Moussa wins Egypt's presidential election, is the revolution over?


                                                                                      Amr Moussa

Amr Moussa stood on a rickety stage, battling the summer heat and feedback from a defective microphone, promising the Egyptian people the world. "We're making a Second Republic, a renaissance for Egypt," he told the audience of several hundred. "It is the time to rebuild the country, to fight poverty and unemployment, which has resulted from mismanagement."
He went on in that vein, ticking off the boxes of socioeconomic development: health care, education, wages. Children played with posters featuring the visage of the former Egyptian foreign minister and Arab League secretary-general and a simple message: "Create jobs."
It was the spectacle, not the speech, that counted. Moussa's campaign bus had been joined by a convoy of honking cars as it entered the town; a makeshift band played on the back of one pickup truck. Moussa's first stop was to the town's mosques, where he prayed briefly among the crush of locals trying to get close to him. Outside one mosque, the crowd thronged around the door in anticipation of his exit, cheering expectantly. A man from the town exited before Moussa and waved to the masses. "Thank you, thank you," he joked. "Yes, I am the prime minister."
It was just one stop in a frenetic campaign that has taken Moussa to seemingly every village and hamlet in Egypt. The night before, Moussa had taken part in Egypt's first-ever presidential debate, which concluded after 2 a.m. His campaign bus left Cairo at 9 a.m., and he was still shaking hands and kissing babies 12 hours later. "He's like the Energizer Bunny," said Ahmed Kamel, his exhausted media advisor, at the end of the day.
Beni Suef, a predominantly rural governorate of approximately 2.6 million people south of Cairo, appeared at first glance to be a strange place for Moussa to stump for votes. It is the home of Muslim Brotherhood Supreme Guide Mohammed Badie and has by and large stood behind his political vision. In Egypt's most recent parliamentary elections, the Brotherhood's political wing won a majority of the votes in the governorate, followed closely by the Salafi al-Nour Party.
But there was Moussa -- an emphatically non-Islamist candidate and a consummate establishment man in a country supposedly in revolution -- barnstorming across the governorate. And it is working: Moussa remains the front-runner in the presidential race set to kick off on May 23. A recent poll released by the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies, a government-linked think tank, placed him at the top of the heap, garnering the support of 31.7 percent of voters, while a Brookings Institution poll had him a close second behind Islamist candidate Abdel Moneim Aboul Fotouh. If none of the candidates wins more than 50 percent of the vote, the election will move to a runoff between the top two vote-getters on June 16 and 17, where Moussa would likely be in the strongest position to forge a winning coalition.
But what does Moussa's success say about the state of Egypt's politics? The word "revolution" has been thrown about for the past 16 months to describe the upheaval in the country; a victory by the 75-year-old veteran of internecine battles within Hosni Mubarak's regime and the old Arab order suggests something closer to a course correction. Moussa, for better or worse, is not the culmination of anything approaching a revolution.
Many Egyptians recognize this, and resent it. Dissenters trail the crowds of cheering supporters at Moussa's every campaign stop. His earnest speech in Beni Suef was interrupted when a youth of no more than 20 burst into the tent to denounce him as felool -- a derogatory term for "remnants" of the old regime.
Mahmoud, who would only give his first name, was wearing a violet T-shirt featuring an image of a skull adorned with a top hat and holding a rose between its teeth. The words "King of Kings" ran below the skull. "He's a member of the old regime; he will reproduce the old tyranny," he said outside the rally, after being ushered out. "He will never change things. He will steal from us like they did. He never did anything at the Arab League."
"Who among us here would vote for Amr Moussa?" he yelled to the crowd of young men who had assembled around him outside, trying to rally support. The crowd stared at him quietly, in trepidation.
Egypt's broken transition to democracy, however, has caused many to answer Mahmoud's rhetorical question in the affirmative. Violent protests have racked the country since Mubarak's fall, threatening Egyptians' sense of security and bolstering support for law-and-order candidates. Meanwhile, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, the ruling military junta, has pledged to unilaterally amend the Egyptian Constitution before the presidential poll, bypassing the elected parliament. In this chaotic environment, Egyptians have looked to candidates who would restore the basics of governance before those who represent an embodiment of last year's revolution.
It's not only Moussa who has benefited from this dynamic. Mubarak's last prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq, has surged ahead in the polls, going from also-ran to legitimate contender. And Omar Suleiman, Mubarak's former intelligence chief, quickly jumped to the top of polls in April after throwing his hat in the race (he was later disqualified) -- a fact attributed to his skill at bringing security, if not democracy.
"If you had to sketch out an ideal transition, you probably wouldn't have the military taking over and then the prime minister of the previous regime running for president," said Nabil Fahmy, the dean of American University in Cairo's School of Public Affairs and a former ambassador to the United States, referring to Shafiq. "But this is where we are."
In the absence of a political road map, Moussa has touted his ability to serve as a bridge between the old regime and the hoped-for democracy. He has pledged to serve only one term and to appoint a vice president who would represent the youth. Once he sets the country on the right path, the pitch goes, he will pass power to a new generation of Egyptian leaders.
Moussa has also tried to remake himself as a critic of Mubarak, whom he pledged to vote for before the revolution. "The road was not easy with President Mubarak at junctures," he said shortly after announcing his intention to run for president. In a recent interview, he also made the case that the decline of Mubarak's government began around 2005, when "every day it was getting worse" -- an effort to draw a distinction from the final years of the regime and his tenure there.
Mubarak did eventually kick Moussa up to the toothless Arab League when the tensions between the two -- largely over how hard to push their Israeli interlocutors -- became too great. "It was only a matter of time," said Fahmy, who served as Moussa's political advisor in the Foreign Ministry for seven years. "It was like two players playing different tunes. Mubarak was more concerned with domestic issues and wanted Moussa to tone it down. But that wasn't who he was."
"Omar Suleiman, Ahmed Shafiq, and Amr Moussa have never been considered part of the corruption side of the Mubarak regime. But they were not vocal on the issue of reform, no matter what they say," said Abdel Moneim Said, president of the Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies and a member of the former ruling party's Policies Committee. "I was there, and I never really found one of them saying what's going on is wrong."
"I saw him a lot of times after he left the Foreign Ministry, very close with Mubarak on a human basis," Said continued. "There were some differences at some times.… But I think the difference between Mubarak and Amr Moussa was quantitative -- it was not qualitative."
Moussa's strategy for rebutting the felool charge is to present himself as an experienced statesman. His decade-long tenure as foreign minister, from 1991 to 2001, earned praise from Egyptians for the aggressive manner in which he stood up to Israel, particularly in a debate with then Israeli Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami. To this day, the release of a schlocky pop song titled "I Hate Israel and I Love Amr Moussa" is seen as the moment when Mubarak became leery of Moussa's growing popularity and resolved to remove him from the Foreign Ministry.
"[He] was good in two parts of diplomacy," Said noted of Moussa's tenure. "Being nice and reconciling -- and at the same time he can be a son of a bitch of the first order. He can be tough."
The record bears that out. One of the defining political moments of Moussa's career came during the 2000 Camp David summit, which ended in failure after Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat could not reach a settlement on the core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. During that time, Moussa repeatedly and publicly batted away American requests to pressure the Palestinians to reach an agreement. "Are we supposed to pressure President Arafat to make concessions on Jerusalem?" he asked. "This is not our job."
Like Arafat, Moussa proved willing to walk away from the talks, the failure of which paved the way for the Second Intifada. "Let me put it this way: If there is no deal, the fallout will be bad; in the case of a bad deal, the ramifications will be worse," he said as the talks were ongoing.
But Moussa is no irreconcilable foe of Israel. As with all other issues, he bobs and weaves, positioning himself for the best possible deal. During a massive campaign rally, he made headlines when he declared the 1978 Camp David Accords "dead and buried," saying there is "no such thing" as the agreement. The line bolstered his reputation among anti-Israel Egyptians, but few noted that Moussa's claim was technically true -- it's the 1979 Egypt-Israel peace treaty that officially defines the relationship between the two states. And fewer still dwelled on what Moussa said next: "There is an agreement between Israel and Egypt that we will honor as long as Israel honors it."
Moussa has also proved himself capable of having functional, even friendly, relationships with top Israeli officials. Israeli President Shimon Peres once recounted the then foreign minister's attempt to get a look at the site of Israel's suspected nuclear weapons program: "You know, once Amr Moussa … asked me: 'Shimon, we are good friends; why don't you take me to Dimona and let me have a look at what's going on there?'" (Peres politely demurred.)
Moussa's campaign has released an 86-page political program that lays out technocratic, good-government solutions to everything from Egypt's widespread poverty to deficits in the pension system to the stagnation in the agricultural sector. It is his past, however, that offers a clearer preview of his prospective presidential administration: He would try to cut deals with Egypt's diverse poles of power in an attempt to reconsolidate the fractured Egyptian state. He would try to be the leader who went to Tahrir Square during the revolution and the one who says the Egyptian military "has been in charge for 60 years -- you can't just lock them out and say goodbye."
It will be no easy task. Egypt's next president will be forced to balance the interests of a powerful military establishment with that of an Islamist-dominated parliament, all the while meeting the Egyptian people's sky-high hopes for economic development. If Moussa succeeds at restoring stability to the Egyptian state, it will be the magnum opus of an official who has spent a career perfecting the art of political compromise. Just don't call it a revolution.
-This commentary was first published in Foreign Policy on 22/05/2012
-David Kenner is an associate editor at Foreign Policy

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Avoiding The Containment Trap With Iran

By Michael Singh

                                                                                 U.S. President Barack Obama

In one of the most memorable lines of his March 4, 2012, speech on the Middle East, President Obama declared, "Iran's leaders should understand that I do not have a policy of containment; I have a policy to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon." However, containment is rarely a policy one prefers, with its implication of preventing a bad situation from getting worse. Instead, it tends to be the policy one is left with once other realistic options have been exhausted.
Avoiding containment, therefore, has less to do with declarations about the future, and far more to do with sound strategy today: We must prevent ourselves from being maneuvered into a corner where we have little choice other than to accept containment as our de facto Iran policy. Instead of emphasizing what we may do if Iran obtains a nuclear weapon, or is on the cusp of doing so, the U.S. should focus on denying Tehran the necessary building blocks to reach that point -- in other words, a nuclear weapons capability.
North Korea provides a case in point. It would surprise most Americans to learn that the United States provided North Korea with over $1.3 billion in assistance from 1995 to 2008. This aid, along with other benefits, such as North Korea's removal from the list of state sponsors of terrorism and the unfreezing of key assets, was provided even as the U.S. and its allies spent countless dollars more defending themselves from the dangers emanating from Pyongyang, and as North Korea made steady progress toward a nuclear weapon, culminating in a pair of nuclear tests in 2006 and 2009.
The North Korean regime was given relief, not in exchange  for irreversible denuclearization, but for "confidence-building measures" (CBMs), which stopped short of addressing Washington's core concerns. The net effect, however, is that diplomatic confidence has instead been undermined due to the North's reversals, and Pyongyang has reportedly assembled a nuclear arsenal despite withering international pressure. While Iran and North Korea are different in many regards, these outcomes should nevertheless be bracing for those involved in the nuclear negotiations with Tehran, into which similar language regarding interim agreements and CBMs has crept.
In order for the talks resuming this week in Baghdad to provide a path to Iran's denuclearization -- rather than a slippery slope towards containment -- the Obama administration should avoid three key mistakes.
First, the U.S. should not provide relief from sanctions in exchange for anything less than the full suspension of uranium enrichment by Tehran, and other hard-to-reverse steps such as the removal of Iran's enriched uranium stocks and dismantlement of its key fuel fabrication facilities.
This is necessary for three reasons: First, it prevents Iran from using the talks simply to derail the pressure campaign against it, only to renege on its commitments later, as it has done in the past. Second, it prevents Iran from legitimizing its uranium enrichment program and thereby gaining technical mastery of the enrichment process, which would be a boon should the regime later kick out inspectors. Finally, it would simplify the task of detecting Iranian cheating. If Iran is permitted a legitimate enrichment program, then the IAEA and Western intelligence agencies must seek to detect diversion of uranium or other material and personnel to a possible parallel, clandestine program, whereas if Iran is not permitted such activities at all, any enrichment-related work would be a red flag and a cause for punitive action.
Second, the U.S. must take care not to reward Iran for provocations. Decision-makers in Tehran cannot help but be pleased that the international community is now focused on Iran's 19.75 percent enrichment work and treats its 3.5 percent enrichment as a fait accompli, or that their once-secret facilities at Natanz and Arak seem likely to remain in operation in the nuclear proposals put forward by the P5+1.
Washington has tended to focus its energies on each marginal advance by Tehran, such that what the U.S. now appears willing to do in return for a limit on Iran's enrichment activities is equivalent to what had previously been offered for a full suspension of enrichment. This constant re-drawing of U.S. redlines may seem sensible in the diplomatic heat of battle, but the perverse effect is not to cap Iran's activities, but to encourage further nuclear progress.
Finally, the U.S. must not neglect the bigger picture. It is a common fault of policymakers -- or any decision-maker, for that matter -- that near-term costs and benefits are given a disproportionate weight relative to longer-term ones. For example, there is a great deal of analysis of the impact of military action against Iran on the price of oil, but little on the long-term effect of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon or of a policy of containment on oil prices.
Any nuclear deal which stops short of fulfilling the U.N. Security Council's repeated demand for the full suspension of uranium enrichment by Iran, among other things, holds the possibility of eroding U.S. influence in the Middle East, undermining U.S. deterrence broadly, strengthening the Iranian regime, and damaging the integrity of the global non-proliferation regime. Washington tends to exaggerate the benefits of a deal with Iran, given the short lifespan of past agreements, and underestimate these long-term costs.
Too often, a compromise on Iran's nuclear program has been presented by its advocates as a Hobson's choice -- accept a bad deal, or invite military conflict. The real choice is between ineffective diplomacy which provides Tehran with much-sought relief, yet leaves Washington's concerns unresolved and U.S. policy on a slippery slope towards containment -- or a firmer approach which provides Tehran with no benefits until it yields its nuclear weapons capabilities irreversibly. Negotiations and agreements are useful insofar as they advance our national security interests, but should never be seen as ends in themselves. The leverage the U.S. has built up has been hard-won, but can be easily lost, and should not be yielded too readily.
-This commentary was published first in Foreign Policy on 22/05/2012

Syria's War Comes To Beirut

Sunday's spasm of violence bodes ill for Lebanese stability. But the real problem is that there's nobody in charge.

BY MITCH PROTHERO from Beirut, Lebanon
The streets of Beirut's working-class Sunni neighborhoods started filling up with all the signs of trouble by about 9 p.m. on Sunday night. Young men on scooters clustered together, barricading their neighborhoods with burning tires and overturned dumpsters. But even cynical observers of Lebanon's descent into chaos couldn't predict how bad it would get.
The youths' fury stemmed from a killing earlier in the day of two prominent Sunni religious figures from north Lebanon, who died in a hail of bullets at an army checkpoint. But how and why the two men -- strong supporters of the Syrian rebellion just over the border -- were killed quickly became moot in the eyes of the frustrated young men of Beirut. The Army, long a symbol of national unity in a country torn apart by religion, now appears to have become their enemy.
Tensions between Lebanon's political movements, which are divided between supporters and enemies of the Syrian regime, are nothing new. Just last week, the northern city of Tripoli witnessed clashes after a Lebanese security agency arrested a popular Islamist activist. But what happened on Sunday night went well beyond Lebanon's normal dysfunction.
It all began when a group of openly armed men attempted to close the office of the Arab Movement Party, a Sunni group allied with Hezbollah. The party members in the office were armed but badly outnumbered, and they confronted the group of furious young men on the street, forcing the Army to intervene. Usually, the presence of the Lebanese Army calms such incidents. But not this time.
I was on the corner of Beirut's Tareeq Jdeideh neighborhood when things turned bonkers. Attackers opened fire with multiple automatic weapons on a group of arguing men and soldiers. The soldiers ducked for cover along with the civilians: A young soldier and I fell behind a Volkswagen sedan for cover as scores of kids sprinted down the street away from the gunfire. Several were hit in the back as they fled.
It was impossible to see the source of the gunfire, although it was direct and very close. As rounds bashed into the car and ground around us, the young solider and I decided we were far too close to the front. Waiting for a lull in the firing, we both counted off "one, two, three" and he stood up to run back toward better cover.
The soldier stood up with his M-16 ready to spray covering fire for our retreat when he was promptly shot through the shoulder. He paused and stared down at me with a confused look on his face. "Run, man, run," I hissed at him, deciding that he was better off running wounded down the street to his mates, while I was now much more comfortable laying where I was for the time being.
He ran, and I could see him get into a Humvee, his wound serious but not life-threatening.
Bad as it was at the front of the street, where I appeared to be the only one without a weapon, the block we were trying to reach wasn't much safer. Armed kids on scooters were using the anarchy to try to assassinate soldiers from behind. One boy even drove up the street with a face mask on, pulled a pistol, and pumped a few rounds into the back of a soldier who was returning fire down the street in the other direction. I heard the pistol shots and saw the soldier fall, and my colleague witnessed the gunman casually drive away and hand his mask to one colleague and the gun to another, who zipped away into the night.
At least three people were killed and more than a dozen wounded in the mayhem. As tensions mount between Sunnis and the pro-Syrian neighborhoods of Tripoli, fears that the rage would spread to Beirut were realized in force Sunday night.
How did it all unravel so quickly? The May 20 violence was the culmination of a steady drumbeat of humiliation for Lebanon's Sunnis that stretches back for years. In May 2008, militiamen belonging to Hezbollah and its allies ended a long-simmering political crisis by invading Sunni neighborhoods of West Beirut. Then, as the Arab Spring unfolded across the Middle East, the main Sunni leader, Saad al-Hariri, was forced from the premiership by a Hezbollah-led coalition. And now, as a primarily Sunni rebellion rages against President Bashar al-Assad, Lebanon's Sunnis are once again outraged at their government's efforts to clamp down on their attempts to aid their co-religionists across the border.
Unusually, yesterday's violence didn't spread outside of traditional Sunni strongholds. Tareeq Jdeideh lies alongside the Shiite neighborhood of Chiya, and the fear was that the chaos would draw in gunmen from Hezbollah and its chief ally, Amal. But Sunday night seemed more about revenge toward the army for the earlier shootings, months of pent-up frustration from being saddled with a government perceived to be doing Syria's bidding, and an effort to cleanse Sunni neighborhoods of proxy parties aligned with the Syrians and Hezbollah.
Moreover, the experience of May 2008 has shown that the Sunnis are nowhere near capable of tangling with Hezbollah's well-trained and equipped fighters. By 11 p.m., I was in a Shiite neighborhood just a few hundred meters away, talking to sources who described a mobilization by Hezbollah and its allies for a potential conflict. While that skirmish never arrived, Hezbollah forces did mount an operation late at night to extract the beleaguered staff of the Arab Movement Party -- sending in several SUVs to make sure their allies got out.
Despite being one of Lebanon's largest communities, the Sunnis have never been able to match Hezbollah's street power -- another fact that has added immeasurably to their humiliation.
"The government kills us. Hezbollah can do anything they want without thinking. They can take the entire country over if they like," moaned one Sunni partisan on why they weren't pushing the fight toward their main rivals. "The Sunnis have nothing."
That's actually a pretty fair assessment. Lebanon's Sunnis don't hold real political power in Beirut today: Prime Minister Najib Mikati, a Sunni, is by all accounts a decent and honest man, but he is forced to walk a tightrope between his pro-Assad coalition partners, who are responsible for elevating him to the top seat, and his friends in the Syrian regime who have repeatedly threatened to invade parts of the north if the Lebanese Army does not get tough on smuggling to the rebels. Whether he's a colorless technocrat doing his best in a tough situation or a Hezbollah and Syrian stooge, he can hardly be seen as a representative of the Sunni street.
It's this complete lack of real political leadership that bodes ill for Lebanon. Since Hariri's departure last year, no Sunni political leader has gained the respect and national patronage machine -- critical to getting anything done in Lebanon -- to take his place.
Rafiq al-Hariri, Saad's father and the country's longtime prime minister, once held the community together through force of personality and generous financial backing from the Saudis. However, his death in 2005 -- allegedly at the hands of men affiliated with Hezbollah -- has left a hole his son hasn't been able to fill with anything beyond money. And it would appear the Saudis have withdrawn their backing for Saad as he waits out events abroad.
"The Shiites have [Hezbollah leader Hassan] Nasrallah and [Amal leader Nabih] Berri to tell them when to fight and when to stop, and their people listen," one frustrated Beirut Sunni told me late in the evening as he checked the casualty reports on his phone. "The Sunnis? We have a poster of a dead man."
As Lebanon descends into lawlessness, it's hard to see what would assuage the anger of this proud community, which feels alienated from its own government and caught between a regional civil war.
It's only going to get worse: The government's response to the violence will almost certainly be the tightening of pro-Assad forces' control over the Army, police and intelligence services. There's already been a quiet movement within the ministries to stack the bureaucracy with those sympathetic to Hezbollah and its allies, and the arrests of Sunday night's partisans had already begun by Monday morning.
But as Lebanon drifts further into Syria's orbit, a large community of very angry people began rebelling Sunday night. And the path ahead is neither clear nor safe.
-This commentary was published first in Foreign Policy on 21/05/2012
-Mitchell Prothero is a writer and photographer based in Beirut

Monday, May 21, 2012

Warda Gave Us A Soundtrack For The Arab Spring

The Algerian singer died in Cairo on 17 May, but her pleas for freedom and democracy will live on across the Arab world

By Nabila Ramdani
Warda al-Jazairia funeral
Mourners at the funeral ceremony of Warda al-Jazairia in Algiers on 19 May 2012. Photograph: Zohra Bensemra/Reuters

Every revolution has its soundtrack, and right now it is the music of Warda al-Jazairia that is dominating the Arab world. The 72-year-old singer died on 17 May, following a career that not only encompassed popular music and film but was also deeply enmeshed in politics. Her pleas for freedom and democracy for the Arab people could be as melodic as the love songs that first propelled her to international fame. Little wonder, then, that classics like Listen to Me have been adopted and adapted by demonstrators from Damascus to Tunis as they try to make themselves heard.
There is a particular poignancy to the passing of Warda here in Egypt, her adopted country. She moved to Cairo in the 1970s, when the capital was the heart of the Arab world's cultural scene, and it is now at the centre of its political aspirations. Hugely important presidential elections take place on 24 and 25 May, when it will be the first time that Egyptians can choose a leader. It is not only them but democrats the world over who want to see the hope and idealism of the Arab spring translated into representative government.
Last year Tahrir Square became the tangible symbol of such aspirations as hundreds of thousands packed into it to demand change. An 18-day revolt not only ended the dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak, but galvanised protestors throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Wandering around the busy traffic island translated as "Liberation Square" today ,you do not get anything like the same feeling of history, but still the sound of Warda is everywhere. It belts out of cheap transistor radios in torn tents, just as it is played constantly over the sound systems of upmarket western hotels, restaurants and cafes. On Friday I even heard a national prayer being said for Warda at the Al Hussein Mosque as worshippers eulogised a woman they loved and respected.
Nobody is pretending that the elections are the solution to Egypt's future. Secular voters fear that Mubarak's autocracy will be replaced by an Islamic one. The military remains as powerful and sinister as ever, with humans rights groups accusing them of murder and torture. International monitors have arrived to oversee the poll, but they are already complaining of interference, and vote-rigging remains a major concern.
Warda was as aware as anyone of how democratic ideals could be as far away from reality as her poetic lyrics. She was the daughter of an Algerian father and a Lebanese mother, and as a child sang nationalist Algerian songs in her father's Paris cafe. Collections were made to fund the FLN, Algeria's National Liberation Front, which spearheaded the bloody colonial struggle against the French. Warda's family were eventually deported for their links with terrorism (arms were found hidden alongside the coffee bags), and ended up in civil-war ravaged Beirut. There Warda's anger about all forms of oppression was further stirred up by meetings with Palestinian refugees and militant political exiles from every corner of the Arab world.
Given such radical fervour, it is almost comical to consider that the relatively anodine My Times Are Sweeter With You was Warda's first huge hit in Cairo. She recorded some 300 other songs, sold more than 100m albums around the world, and took the lead role in five feature films, proving that brutal realpolitik need not be translated into abject cynicism. Her anthem We're Still Standing was recorded to mark the 50th anniversary of Algerian Independence this year for good reasons beyond Warda's banal nickname of "Algeria's Rose". It had been the same when President Nasser of Egypt involved her in his grand Pan-Arabism project, inviting her to sing in an indisputably idealistic (if schmaltzy to some) opera called My Greater Homeland.
Warda started her life singing on behalf of Algerian independence, and gradually built up her repertoire to encompass the Arab world. She, of all people, would have appreciated the high drama of exiting at the tail-end of the Arab spring. She got some things very wrong (there was a flirtation with the hair-brained nationalistic ideology of Muammar Gaddafi), but she knew that popular culture was crucial to popular political action. Her role was ultimately that of an artist using words and melody to instill hopes for a better future for all. Warda's life work was never likely to change the world, but as long as Arabs call for real change, she will be singing alongside them for a long time to come.
-This commentary was published in The Guardian on 21/05/2012
-Nabila Ramdani is a Paris-born freelance journalist and academic of Algerian descent. She specialises in Anglo-French issues, Islamic affairs, and the Arab World. Nabila is also particularly interested in America's War on Terror in the Muslim world. She was named a Young Global Leader 2012 by the World Economic Forum and was a winner of the inaugural European Muslim Woman of Influence Award in 2010

How To Avoid A War With Iran

It won’t be easy -- but it sure beats the alternative.


Observers would be forgiven for dismissing negotiations over Iran's nuclear program as Kabuki theater. Despite years of on-again, off-again efforts, after all, fears of war continue to simmer.
Such frustrations are understandable -- but they may not be entirely justified. Despite real obstacles, there is a serious chance for progress if both sides come to the table willing to compromise and focused on a step-by-step approach that gives each side real gains, builds confidence, and allows more time for talks on the harder issues. The next round of negotiations between Iran and world powers, slated for May 23 in Baghdad, is crucial -- though only the start of a long road.
No one could claim these negotiations will be easy. Iran and the United States have been locked in mutual hostility since Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, and this enmity has produced deep mistrust and tough political constraints on both sides. In a U.S. presidential election year, compromise will be difficult, as no candidate can be seen as "soft" on Iran -- and in Iran, which has a presidential election next year, no faction can be seen as advocating retreat in the face of Western pressure. For a deal to work, both sides have to see it as genuinely serving their national interests.
Nevertheless, as an American and an Iranian, both of us patriots, we believe that a negotiated deal is possible. Although genuine clashes of interests are at stake, we believe our countries would be better served by such a pact, however imperfect, than by continued stalemate or military conflict. For Iran, the status quo means ongoing sanctions, limited access to foreign investment and technology, and the looming danger of military strikes. For the United States, stalemate means no negotiated limits on the Iranian nuclear program, continued high oil prices (reflecting the risks of conflict), and no resolution of U.S.-Iranian disputes over terrorism, Israel, and more.
If the confrontation deteriorated into a military conflict, it would be a disaster for both countries' security. Strikes by the United States or Israel would risk an unpredictable regional conflagration and could convince Iran to redouble its nuclear efforts and build covert sites that would be hard to find and strike.
To open the path to an accord, the parties must combine the realism of small initial steps with a vision of a long-term rapprochement. Early steps should be designed to build confidence on both sides that it is worth continuing the process, and to buy time for further talks.
There are a number of ways both sides could bolster confidence in the negotiating process. Iran should offer to halt its enrichment of uranium to 20 percent U-235, its buildup of larger stocks of 5 percent enriched uranium, and its acquisition of ever-more centrifuges as long as the talks are making progress. As in past proposals, the United States and Europe should offer to provide low-enriched fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor in exchange for Iran's agreement to ship a substantial portion of its enriched uranium out of the country. And Iran should agree to implement the International Atomic Energy Agency's Additional Protocol, which allows for broader international inspections of nuclear facilities, as long as cooperation is moving forward.
At the same time, the United States and Europe should offer to lift the new oil and banking sanctions now going into effect -- again, as long as the talks are making progress. Such initiatives would allow each side to say to skeptics in its own camp: Things are no longer getting worse; give us more time.
As an early gesture, the United States and Europe could also allow the shipment of desperately needed spare parts for Iran's civilian aircraft, which have been blocked under sanctions for decades, and allow Iranian airliners to refuel and receive normal services in Europe. Iran could commit to prevent any arms or other assistance from flowing to armed groups in Iraq or Afghanistan. The sides could also negotiate a pact to prevent inadvertent clashes in the Persian Gulf and work together to stop the flow of heroin from Afghanistan into Iran.
None of these interim steps, of course, will be able to produce a breakthrough unless both Iran and the United States share a long-term vision of forging a more productive relationship. The nuclear deal that would be a part of this vision would inevitably involve some level of continued enrichment in Iran under agreed-upon constraints. Iran would agree to far-reaching inspections and transparency, including resolving concerns about past work that the West suspects may have been weapons-related. The United States and its negotiating partners would agree that Iran's admissions about past activities will not be punished.
As part of a nuclear agreement, the United States and Europe should help Iran replace the aging Tehran Research Reactor with a modern facility outside densely populated Tehran -- and Iran should agree to suspend construction of the Arak heavy-water reactor, which the West fears is well suited for plutonium production, as it would no longer be needed.
It's not only the nuclear issue that divides Iran and the United States. The two countries will have to talk directly to address the many other issues that divide them, including terrorism, sanctions, regional security, and more. All participants, including the United States, should assure Iran that they will not attack or threaten to overthrow Iran's government as long as Iran complies with the nuclear deal and does not commit or sponsor aggression. Iran, for its part, proposed a nonaggression pact with its Persian Gulf neighbors after the Iran-Iraq War.
Both sides are likely to fear that the other will cheat on its commitments in such a deal. Both will have to take some risks for peace, while seeking commitments that are clear and verifiable. But there may be a chance to build a virtuous cycle: Once the benefits begin to flow, it will likely be harder for those who would call for ripping up the deal and returning to confrontation to win the argument.
As difficult as it is, both sides must come to Baghdad this month ready to offer clear, verifiable first steps on the path toward compromise -- and away from the abyss of armed confrontation.
-This commentary was published in Foreign Policy on 21/05/2012
-Matthew Bunn, an associate professor at the Harvard Kennedy School, is a former nonproliferation advisor in the White House's Office of Science and Technology Policy
-Abbas Maleki, an associate professor of energy policy at Sharif University of Technology in Tehran and Robert Wilhelm fellow at the Center for International Studies at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, is a former deputy foreign minister of Iran

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Thirtieth Anniversary Of Sinai’s Liberation Marked By Libyan Arms, Bedouin Militancy And A Growing Rift with Israel

By Andrew McGregor

Though Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula has just marked its 30th anniversary of liberation from Israeli occupation, the region is perhaps less integrated with the rest of the Egyptian state now than at any time since the Camp David Accords returned sovereignty of the Sinai to Cairo. An influx of arms from Libya and elsewhere is fuelling a growing insurgency amongst an alienated and disenfranchised population and deteriorating relations between Egypt and Israel are threatening to once more make the Sinai borderlands a battleground between these regional rivals.
Egyptian security authorities blame most of the scores of attacks on police since the January 25, 2011 Egyptian uprising on Gaza-based Palestinian militant groups such as Jaljalat, Jaysh al-Islam, Izz al-Din al-Qassam and the local al-Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula (Egypt Independent, May 1).  [1] However, while radical Islamism and close ties to Palestinian militants in Gaza play an important role in the unrest, there is little question that the core of the Sinai insurgency consists of armed Bedouin who exist largely on the fringes of Egypt’s Nile and Delta-based society.
Law enforcement has declined in the Sinai to the point that the police exist mainly to protect police installations that increasingly resemble improvised fortresses protected by large sand berms and steel walls to repel RPG attacks. The security situation is not helped by continuing protests against the military government by disgruntled police across Egypt, including in the towns of the northern Sinai. The Bedouin tribesmen have little fear of government authorities – security checkpoints are routinely attacked and security men and soldiers assassinated.
The Bedouin Factor
Tribal chiefs have issued demands for the establishment of a free trade zone and open passage for trade between Gaza and the Sinai, a move that would provide much needed employment and opportunity for local tribesmen, but which is unlikely to ever receive the necessary approval of Israel (MENA, April 21). It is estimated that 90% of the Bedouin population is unemployed and prevented by law from seeking employment in either the security services or the resorts of southern Sinai. The Bedouin are demanding the right to participate in the local security apparatus, but the idea has met resistance in Cairo where lingering questions about Bedouin loyalty to the state have deterred providing the Bedouin with modern arms and training. The release of Bedouin prisoners seized before last year’s Egyptian Revolution and the right to own land are also high on the Bedouin agenda.
The military government used the Liberation Day holiday to announce the commitment of $66 million to development projects in the northern Sinai, the largest project involving an upgrade to the port at al-Arish (Ahram Online, April 25). Further agreements to initiate a labor-intensive extension of water supply lines in north and south Sinai were signed the next day (Bikya Masr [Cairo], April 26). However, there is little chance of significant progress being made until after Egypt’s presidential elections, a multi-staged process which will begin on May 23.
The Sinai as an Election Issue
As the elections approach, it has become clear that local issues in the Sinai have become irretrievably interwoven with Egypt’s changing relationship with Israel, as revealed by an examination of the platforms of several leading candidates:
Moderate Islamist candidate Muhammad Salim al-Awa has called for negotiations with Israel to amend the Camp David treaty in areas “that go against Egypt’s interests, like dividing the Sinai into three demilitarized zones, allowing Israelis into the Sinai without visas and other privileges given to Israel that should stop immediately” (Al-Ahram Weekly, May 10-16).
Amr Moussa, a secular candidate and former chairman of the Arab League, has called for a new agreement with Israel for the export of Egyptian natural gas across the Sinai based on current global market prices, adding that Israel must abandon its “policy of intransigence, threatening, [development of] settlements, occupation and [allow] the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state” (Business Today Egypt, May 8).  Moussa has promised to restore stability in the peninsula, end the marginalization of the Bedouin tribes and overturn the prohibition against Bedouin owning land in the Sinai (Ahram Online, April 21).
Neo-Nasserist candidate Hamdeen Sabahi (Karame Party) has promised to create a new local police force that is in tune with the rights and traditions of the Bedouin as part of an effort to turn the Sinai into “a paradise.” Nonetheless, his recent visit to the peninsula was cut short after receiving threats on his life from a Salafist group in the northern Sinai town of Shaykh Zuwayid despite promising to release all Bedouin political prisoners and suspected militants without conditions if elected (Ahram Online, April 21; April 29).
Muhammad Mursi, the head of the Muslim Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party, has called for urban development in the Sinai and the resettlement of millions of Egyptians in the sparsely inhabited region as Egypt’s population surges towards the 90 million mark, far more than can be comfortably supported in the Delta region and the slim fertile strip along the Nile (Ahram Online, April 29). A message from Muslim Brotherhood leader Muhammad Badi on April 26 said that the Mubarak regime had persecuted the Bedouin as criminals when they were, in fact “patriotic citizens.” Badi added that a mass transfer of Egyptians to the Sinai from other parts of Egypt would “frustrate Zionist ambitions to seize Sinai once again” (, April 27).
However, these pledges have had only limited resonance with the Sinai Bedouin.  As North Sinai Bedouin writer Ashraf Ayoub put it, “Sinai doesn't need promises – what it really needs is reconciliation between the locals of Sinai and the rest of Egypt which looks at them like foreigners who plot against the country. We are more than a group of people who live in a strategic location" (Ahram Online, April 29).
In the meantime there is growing evidence that Libya’s looted armories are now being used to equip militants in the Sinai much as they have provided modern weaponry to militants in parts of North and West Africa. Egyptian security forces reported the seizure on May 10 of a large quantity of weapons being transferred to the Sinai for use against Egyptian security forces by a convoy heading east from the Mediterranean port city of Mersa Matruh. Among the weapons were 50 surface-to-surface rockets, 17 grenade-launchers, seven assault rifles, a mortar and a large quantity of ammunition. The three smugglers arrested were reported to be Sinai Bedouin (Daily Star [Beirut], May 10; AP, May 10).
Israeli authorities announced on April 5 that one or two rockets possibly of Libyan origin had been fired at the Israeli Red Sea port of Eilat from the Egyptian Sinai, though Egyptian spokesmen claimed Israel was only “spreading rumors” (Al-Quds al-Arabi, April 7; NOW Lebanon, April 10; AP, May 10). Israel is preparing to link Eilat to an early-warning system in anticipation of further rocket attacks from Egypt.
Israel sees the hand of Shiite Iran behind the turmoil in the Sunni Sinai. According to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: “The Sinai is turning into a kind of “Wild West” which ... terror groups from Hamas, Islamic Jihad and al-Qaeda, with the aid of Iran, are using to smuggle arms, to bring in arms, to mount attacks against Israel” (Voice of Israel Network B, April 24). Egyptian security sources are reported to have expressed their own suspicions of Iranian funding for weapons transfers from Libya to Sinai, though Iran has denied any such activities (al-Sharq al-Awsat, May 8). Egypt and Iran have not had diplomatic relations since Egypt’s recognition of Israel in 1980, though efforts have been underway to re-establish relations since the overthrow of Mubarak.
Severing Israel’s Natural Gas Supply         
A persistent irritant in Egyptian-Israeli relations are the long-term contracts for the supply of Egyptian natural gas to Israel at below market rates negotiated by corrupt businessmen within the inner circle of former president Hosni Mubarak. With the pipeline to Israel having been blown by Sinai-based militants 14 times since Mubarak was deposed in January 2011, Egypt finally announced on April 23 that the natural gas agreement had been scrapped. The pipeline, which has not been operational since March 5, was last bombed on April 9 when militants mistakenly believed it had been returned to use after noting the Interior Ministry had sent some 2,000 Special Forces officers to guard it (Ma’an News Agency, April 9; April 15). A dispute over missing payments appears to have been the main cause for the termination of the contract.
An official in Egypt’s oil ministry commented: “It was a popular demand to call off this treaty, as we export gas to [Israel] cheaper than market prices… Their error was not to pay on time, and we have taken the opportunity to stop this shameful deal” (Bikya Masr [Cairo], April 23).
According to an official of the East Mediterranean Gas Company (EMG), Egypt has the right “to cancel its contract with the company as… [Israel] has not paid its commitments for several months…” (al-Hayat, April 29). EMG was founded by fugitive financier Hussein Salim, a former crony of Mubarak. However, international shareholders in the EMG are trying to paint the cancellation as a political move as the basis for an $8 billion lawsuit (Ahram Online, May 3). A statement from the shareholders claims that the Egyptian Natural Gas Holding Company (ENGH) failed to protect the pipeline, though the latter describes the repeated bombings of the pipeline as a force majeure situation and insists that it was non-payment for gas received that led to the cancellation of further shipments in line with the terms of the contract (al-Hayat, April 27).
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has tried to downplay suggestions that Egypt’s cancellation was a form of aggression against Israel by confirming the decision was part of a “legal-commercial dispute” that would not have long-lasting effects due to the development of natural gas resources in the Mediterranean that would make Israel “a major exporter of natural gas in the world” (Voice of Israel Network B, April 24).
A Greater Threat to Israel than Iran?
Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman recently described Egypt as “more troubling than the Iranian issue” and advised Prime Minister Netanyahu to move three to four divisions up to the Sinai border, complaining that the seven Egyptian battalions currently operating in the Sinai “aren’t carrying out real antiterrorism activities” (Ma’ariv [Tel Aviv], April 22). Though offered several opportunities to do so, Lieberman has not backed away from his assessment that Egypt will commit a major violation of the 1979 peace treaty after the upcoming presidential election in order to unite the nation around a common enemy.
The publication of Lieberman’s remarks was followed by an immediate request by Egypt’s foreign minister Muhammad Kamel Amr for “clarification” on their accuracy (Ahram Online, April 24). Lieberman’s assertion was also challenged by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak: “The Iranian threat is a threat with existential potential. At the moment this is not the case [with Egypt]…” (Globes Online [Rishon Le-Zion], April 25).
Israel’s Counterterrorism Bureau  issued a warning on April 21 for all Israelis in the Sinai to leave the region and return to Israel after it claimed to have determined that terrorists were planning an attack against resorts in the southern Sinai that are highly popular with Israeli tourists (Ahram Online, April 21). However, the warnings appear to have had little resonance with Israeli holiday-makers in search of a cheap vacation, with border authorities reporting more Israelis entering Egypt than leaving and resort owners in South Sinai reporting that most hotels were fully booked (Jerusalem Post, April 23). South Sinai Governor Major General Khalid Fouda suggested that Israel spread rumors of imminent terrorist attacks whenever Egypt’s tourism industry showed signs of recovery from the low point reached during the 2011 revolution (Ahram Online, April 21).
Members of the largely Bedouin “Sinai Revolutionaries Movement” attempted to strike a symbolic blow against Israel on Liberation Day by planning to paint an Israeli memorial in the Sinai to ten Israeli soldiers killed in a helicopter crash during the Israeli occupation with the Egyptian colors (al-Youm al-Saba’a [Cairo], April 25).  The effort was prevented by Egyptian security forces who are obliged to protect the memorial under the terms of the Camp David agreement. Israel in turn maintains a memorial to fallen Egyptian troops in the Negev Desert. A spokesman for the northern Sinai tribes, Abd al-Mun’im al-Rifa’i, said the people of the Sinai reject this provision of the treaty and cited a “need to demolish the rock [i.e. the memorial in the form of a large rock] because it stands as a provocation” to the Sinai tribes who “do not want any memorial for the Zionist entity on their land” (al-Hayat, April 27). The movement cites Israel’s reluctance to agree to a greater Egyptian security presence in the Sinai as a principal cause of the region’s instability (Ma’an News Agency [Bethlehem], April 12). Annex 1 of the Camp David Accords divides the Sinai Peninsula into four zones running roughly north-south (“Zones A to D”), with the Egyptian security presence in each zone decreasing as they grow closer to the Israeli border. Any change to these deployments must be made with the agreement of the Israeli government, severely limiting Cairo’s ability to meet security challenges in the Sinai.
A state-controlled Egyptian media source suggested it was time to “change the rules of the game” imposed on Egypt by the Camp David agreement:
It is no longer acceptable to tolerate tipping the balances of power in favor of the Israeli enemy. It is no longer possible to submit to conditions of capitulation that undermine Egypt's sovereignty or allow its resources to be stolen. It is no longer possible to be tolerant with Israel's conspiracies against Egypt's interests in the waters of the Nile (al-Akhbar, April 29).
In an effort to permanently cut off Hamas-governed Gaza from Egypt, Israel is constructing a new security barrier along its border with Sinai that is expected to be finished later this year. The new fence will be five meters high, covered in barbed wire and augmented by dozens of radar installations. 120 km have been finished so far, with work continuing on a further 100 km (Jerusalem Post, April 25). After five failed attempts, the new fence was successfully breached by Bedouin smugglers using hydraulic tools in early May, though the infiltrators were quickly caught by the Israeli Defense Force (IDF) (Arutz Sheva [Tel Aviv], May 2; Times of Israel, May 2).
Israel is also increasing its military presence along the border. The IDF’s 80th “Edom” Division has experienced significant upgrades since it was redeployed along the Sinai border following cross-border attacks last August (Ma’ariv [Tel Aviv], April 6). In addition, the IDF announced call up orders for an additional six battalions to man the Sinai and Syrian borders on May 3 (Arutz Sheva [Tel Aviv], May 3).
Last month, Egypt’s Second Army commenced Nasr-7, one of the largest live-fire exercises carried out in years in the Sinai. The commander of the Second Army, Major General Muhammad Farid Hijazi, announced that the Egyptian military was fully capable of defending the Sinai against attacks from any quarter (MENA, April 23). Field Marshal Muhammad Hussein Tantawi, the head of Egypt’s military government, adopted a belligerent tone during the exercise, telling troops of the Second Army: “We will break the legs of anyone who dares to come near to the borders” (Ahram Online, April 23).
International Peacekeepers under Pressure
Attempting to ensure that the security provisions of the Camp David agreement are maintained is the Multinational Force and Observers (MFO), consisting of some 1400 soldiers and civilians from 12 nations, including 800 Americans operating as a sub-unit known as “Task Force Sinai.”
With the parties of the 1978 peace treaty having failed to obtain backing for a UN peacekeeping force, the MFO was created in 1981 as an alternative, equipped with a mandate to supervise the security provisions of the treaty and to use its influence to prevent treaty violations. Financing for the force is divided three ways between the United States, Israel and Egypt. The MFO deployment began on April 25, 1982, as Israel withdrew from the Sinai and returned sovereignty to Egypt. Increasingly, however, the MFO is finding its ability to carry out its mission restricted by growing levels of militancy in the Sinai.
In mid-March, some 300 Bedouin armed with automatic rifles surrounded a MFO base holding hundreds of U.S., Colombian and Uruguayan troops to pressure Cairo to release five tribesmen facing possible sentences of death or life in prison for their alleged role in the 2005 bombings of the Sharm al-Shaykh resort in southern Sinai (Ahram Online, March 15). On May 7, ten Fijian soldiers belonging to the MFO were kidnapped along the Auja-Arish highway in northern Sinai by Bedouin demanding the release of several tribesmen from prison. The Fijians were released later that day following negotiations with Egyptian authorities in which the kidnappers were assure their demands would be met (Ahram Online [Cairo], May 7; AFP, May 7).
While Egyptian relations with Israel continue to cool, the interim military government in Cairo has no wish to become involved at this point in a military confrontation with Israel sparked by the activities of militant groups in the Sinai. While Field Marshal Tantawi talks tough about defending Egypt’s borders, he and the rest of the military command are aware that even defensive clashes with the IDF could jeopardize ongoing U.S. funding of the Egyptian military, particularly in a sensitive election year in the United States. At the same time, Israeli demands for greater security in the peninsula cannot be met without revisions to those parts of the Camp David treaty governing the number of troops and types of military equipment that can be deployed there. Most important, however, is the need to address the long-standing grievances of the indigenous Bedouin population who find themselves unhappily trapped on a traditional Egyptian-Israeli battleground while held in suspicion by both parties. In the absence of meaningful efforts to resolve their economic and social issues, the Bedouin will continue to find themselves attracted to militancy, a situation that has the potential of igniting a new Middle Eastern conflict.
-This report was published in the Terrorism Monitor, Volume: 10, Issue: 10, on 18/05/2012
-Andrew McGregor is Director of Aberfoyle International Security, a Toronto-based agency specializing in security issues related to the Islamic world
1. For al-Qaeda in the Sinai Peninsula, see Andrew McGregor, Jamestown Foundation Hot Issue, “Has al-Qaeda Opened a New Chapter in the Sinai Peninsula?,” August 17, 2011