The 25 January Egyptian uprising always had scant possibilities of success. The country’s secular and Islamist revolutionaries were odd bedfellows from the beginning. They agreed on forcing President Hosni Mubarak from power, but harboured different dreams and notions of a new Egypt, and often followed conflicting strategies. Other political forces, including the revolutionary youth, were weak and poorly organised. In the end, the uprising led to a totally different outcome than what the millions who took to the streets had envisaged, and by early 2013 it had run its course.
US President Barack Obama, in his struggle to fashion a transformative foreign policy by reshaping the balance of America’s relationships in the Middle East, faces formidable resistance from Israel’s right-wing Likud government allied with the most reactionary Republican-controlled US Congress in recent memory. There are, however, two missing dimensions that must be inserted into Obama’s equations regarding Iran and Israel within the context of the framework accord between Tehran and the P5+1 (US, UK, France, China, Russia, and Germany): the Palestinians, and the level of black support for Obama’s Middle East policy.
With the 31 March deadline for the conclusion of a framework agreement on Iran’s nuclear programme with the P5+1 looming, stakeholders have increased contact visits and interested actors have become more wary. Gulf states, led by Saudi Arabia, have begun building a unified bloc to respond to the negotiations, while Israel has ratcheted up its rhetoric and used its congressional support in the USA to lobby against a deal. However, convergences – especially those resulting from US and Iranian attempts to defeat the Islamic State group (IS) and the tactical astuteness of the Iranian president, Hassan Rouhani – have increased the probability of an agreement. To paraphrase the German minister of foreign affairs, Guido Westerwelle, more has been achieved in the past few months than in the previous ten years of negotiations.
On 15 February 2015, an armed group calling itself the Tripoli Province of the Islamic State and claiming affiliation with the Islamic State group in Iraq (IS) posted a video on the internet of what looked like the execution of twenty-one Egyptian Copts. The incident likely occurred on the beach of the city of Sirte. That evening, the Egyptian president, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, delivered a hasty speech condemning the incident and warning that Egypt had the right to respond. He convened a late night meeting of Egypt’s Supreme Defence Council. The next four Egyptian Air Force fighter jets twice bombed targets in Darna (instead of Sirte), claiming Darna was controlled by IS.
South Africa has been put on terror alert following reports that IS-linked suspects could be heading to the country. Reports suggest that 11 international terrorists might be considering using the country as an operational base. Na'eem Jeenah, the Executive Director of the Afro-Middle East Centre, gives his analysis.
The situation in Yemen is rapidly deteriorating. President Mansour Hadi, formerly under house arrest in Sanaa, has now escaped to the city of Aden and could set up an alternate government there in competition with the one in Sanaa. Also, a number of embassies have already shut down, and international investors have withdrawn, signalling a growing isolation for the country whose new de facto rulers in Sanaa (even if not recognised as such by the rest of the world), the Zaidi-Shi'a insurgents from the northern part of the country, the Houthis, will find difficult to manage. The United Nations has not given up on Yemen yet; its envoy, Jamal Benomar, brokered a deal between the various political foes on Friday, 20 February, before Hadi’s escape, while the UN Security Council called on the Houthis to relinquish power and allow Hadi to return to his position. However, militias aligned to Hadi and antipathetic to the Houthis took matters into their own hands and seized key government buildings and institutions. Meanwhile, al-Qa'ida, which was previously being targeted by a US-Hadi security alliance, has continued with its campaign against military instalments, citing fear of a Houthi takeover.
Tunisia’s parliament last week ratified the cabinet of the prime minister, Habib Essid, in a sign of the country’s preference for consensus building. It points to a desire for democratic consolidation, but could portend trouble for, and even fragmentation of, the ruling Nidaa Tounes party.
The cabinet comprises four parties, including the three largest parties in the legislature, Nidaa Tounes (with eighty-six seats), Ennahda (sixty-nine seats) and the Free Patriotic Union (sixteen seats). The ratification of the cabinet was a formality and over seventy-five per cent of voting parliamentarians (166 out of 204) endorsed its formation. This augurs well for Tunisians; the vast economic and security challenges the country faces requires the adoption of difficult measures, supported by a large constituency. Key amongst these is a reduction in subsidies, especially on fuel, which benefit mostly the middle and upper classes; and combating militancy without disillusioning religious Tunisians.
After the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa region, Political Islam took centre stage in many respects, as numerous actors in the region claimed their Islam as the inspiration or basis of their political activity. This manifested during various elections, coups, and civil wars. Perhaps the most recent of these has been the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria, which seeks to undo the post-Ottoman Sykes-Picot architecture of the MENA region.
These developments over the past four years have resulted in the MENA region, and the Muslim world more generally, experiencing a profound conceptual rethinking, including a re-evaluation of notions of global ethics, citizenship and democracy, capitalism and economic development, imperialism, and liberation.
Tuesday’s attack on a synagogue in West Jerusalem has not only elicited a strong wave of condemnation from western political leaders, but also harsh calls for reprisals from Israeli politicians, including the prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu. He revived the policy of house demolitions, and ordered the demolition of the homes of the two Palestinians responsible for the synagogue operation, and of the home of another Palestinian who had driven into and killed two Israeli pedestrians in October. In both instances, the perpetrators were killed at the scene of the incident, yet the Israeli government decided to avenge itself against their families and neighbours, continuing with its collective punishment against Palestinians.
On 24 October 2014, an armed attack on an Egyptian security detail in the Sheikh Zuweid area of Egypt’s North Sinai Governorate left more than thirty soldiers dead and dozens wounded. Details of the attack are still unclear, but the Egyptian government immediately declared a three-month state of emergency in the governorate, and deployed additional military and security troops to the region, adjacent to Egypt’s eastern border with Gaza and Israel.
Cairo also indefinitely closed the Rafah Crossing with Gaza, and postponed indirect negotiations between Hamas and Israel, scheduled for the end of October in Cairo. Subsequently, the Egyptian authorities began establishing a buffer zone along Egypt’s border with Gaza, ranging from 400 metres to two kilometres, thus forcing thousands of residents in the area from their homes and agricultural lands.
Tunisia’s political elite overcame various obstacles during the initial stages of democratic transition, and successfully revived several constitutional institutions, thanks to the spirit of rapprochement and the concessions made by major political players. The Constitution of the Second Republic that was finalised earlier this year is comparable to the constitutions of mature democracies, and superior in some respects. The constituent assembly also issued a law governing elections and referenda, and elected nine members to the Higher Independent Electoral and Referendum Commission to oversee the legislative and presidential elections scheduled for 26 October 2014 and 23 November 2014 respectively, concluding the third phase of democratic transition.
In early April 2015, sudden fighting broke out in the Yarmouk refugee camp between groups affiliated to the Islamic State group (IS) and Aknaf Bayt al-Maqdis (ABM), which is linked to Hamas. The already dire humanitarian situation in the camp has since worsened for about 15 000 Palestinian civilians still besieged there, out of the population of over 150 000 before the Syrian war began.
The Afro-Middle East Centre (AMEC) and Al-Zaytouna Centre for Studies and Consultations invites you to a conference titled: Palestinian Reconcilliation: Prospects and Challenges.
The conference will discuss the factors affecting Palestinian schism and possible solutions, while shedding light on international paradigms of reconciliation and transitional justice. A selection of Palestinian and international political figures, experts, academics and intellectuals will be participating in this conference.
The 15 February Islamic State group (IS) video showing the beheadings of twenty-one Egyptians raised concerns both about the possibility of the group’s influence growing in Libya (and North Africa more generally), and about the subsequent Egyptian airstrikes inside Libya, ostensibly against IS targets. Condemnation of IS has been widespread; however, Egypt’s attempt to further militarise the Libyan conflict should be equally concerning, and could help grow IS and increase its reach.
Against the backdrop of a South African couple liquidating their assets to travel to Iraq to join the extremist Islamist organisation, the Islamic State, which has established a caliphate in northern Iraq and Syria that it governs by sharia law, SACSIS caught up with Middle East expert, Na'eem Jeenah and put the question to him: "What would it take to defeat ISIS?"
Jeenah contends that it will take more than a military response. What is needed to properly defeat ISIS is an ideological battle and Muslims themselves need to take the lead in challenging ISIS' theological arguments. Sadly, however, he argues that the world is going to be stuck with ISIS for quite some time.
Na'eem Jeenah is the Executive Director of the Afro-Middle East Centre (AMEC) in Johannesburg. He is interviewed by SACSIS' Executive Director, Fazila Farouk.
The death of Saudi King Abdullah on 23 January, and the ascension to the throne of his half-brother Salman have generated a flurry of discussions and speculation globally. Much attention has being paid to gestures of condolences, and comments about Abdullah’s legacy and achievements (including some western leaders’ assertions of Abdullah as a ‘reformer’). The conversations have also included reflections on royal succession and the potential for Saudi domestic and foreign policy changes. The issue of succession has been feverishly discussed for the past few years, dogged by the question of who among the grandsons of the founder of the Saudi monarchy, Abdulaziz al-Saud, would reign and when that might happen. Among many commentators there is an impression that this succession question has been resolved because Salman’s appointment of Muhammad bin Nayef as the new deputy crown prince was seemingly accepted without dissent by members of the royal family.
Late on Sunday, 25 January 2015, hundreds of protests broke in various Egyptian cities and towns, followed by attacks on public administration buildings and branches of the Interior Ministry; the burning of dozens of police and security vehicles; blocking of roads and railways all over the country; and even armed attacks on security patrols, with security personnel being ambushed and attacked at roadblocks. Some of these activities continued well into the following morning, with the death toll including more than twenty-five civilians and four security personnel, and with hundreds injured and hundreds more in custody.
The dismissal of two cabinet ministers, Yair Lapid and Tzipi Libni, by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and the subsequent dissolution of parliament (the Knesset) is the latest in a string of events pointing to an extreme rightward shift in Israeli politics. This constant movement provides little room for optimism for Palestinians (including those who are Israeli citizens), the Israeli poor, and the dead ‘peace process’.
During the four years following former president Ben Ali’s ouster in January 2011, Tunisians have experienced tumultuous changes: the economy has stagnated, security has worsened, and increased freedoms have wrought a resurgence in public expressions of religiosity. On the political scene, four governments have been formed, two politicians have been assassinated, and a new constitution has been adopted in its fourth draft.
The battle for the Kurdish Syrian town of Kobane, resulting from a siege of the city by the Islamic State group (IS) since 2 July, has become the iconic battle in the USA-led international coalition’s war against IS. Despite IS having fought its way to within a few kilometres of Baghdad, a city of far more strategic importance than Kobane, the latter has become the focus of international media attention. There are various reasons for this. First, the initial inaction and the subsequent hyperaction by the USA have generated much discussion and criticism. Second, the Kurdish population in Turkey, Iraq and Europe have successfully kept Kobane in the headlines for weeks through methods such as large, widespread protests. Third, the use of women fighters, even as suicide bombers, by Kurdish militias has also sparked more than a few conversations. However, the most significant aspects of the battle for Kobane relates to the geopolitical dimension of the conflict, especially in the way it intersects with the interests of Syrian and Iraqi Kurds, Turkey and the USA.
The striking advances of Houthis in Yemen, having already taken de facto control of the capital Sana’a last month, has implications for Yemen as well as for the greater Middle East. Within Yemen, they signal the return to political prominence of the Zaidi-Shia, who had been marginalised since 1962, and a divergence from the federalist future that was being contemplated for the country by President Abd Rabbuh Mansur Hadi. Regionally, in addition to becoming part of the cold war confrontation between two hegemons, Iran and Saudi Arabia, the Houthi gains also affect the manner in which al-Qa’ida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) positions itself against its various enemies.