Conflicts Forum Weekly Comment 19 – 26 July 2013

Conflicts Forum

The next (perilous) phase in the repression of the Brotherhood in Egypt is due to unfold today.  In case anyone had doubted it, General Sisi made very clear who is in charge of Egypt (at least in his view): “I ask that next Friday all honest and trustworthy Egyptians mustcome out (to demonstrate on the street)”.  “Why come out?” “They [are] to come out [in order] to give me the mandate and instruction that I should confront violence and potential terrorism.”  No mention of  any ‘government’ role: just a demand to give him the sanction to repress the Brotherhood.   According to Israeli sources, when the US administration demurred, gravely warning of the risk of civil strife, General Sisi remained obdurate, telling the Americans that ‘inaction’ constituted the by far greater risk.

The Brotherhood is set to put its protesters on the street today too.  They must realize that this sets up the Brotherhood – whether today or later – for the old Mubarak tactic of inserting violent provocateurs amongst otherwise peaceful demonstrators, so as to give General Sisi precisely the pretext he needs to escalate the crack down.   That the Brotherhood should indicate their intent to counter-protest today anyway, suggests a strong sense of fatalism that the coming confrontation seems to them inevitable, by one route or another.

Indeed, we now know a little more about the Brotherhood’s ‘truth’ of events leading up to the coup from Esam al-Amin, who has always proved reliable narrator.  It is a story which reaches back to the beginnings of the  disturbances in 2011:  On 11 April, Mohammad bin Zayed (UAE Crown Prince) accompanied by his security chiefs, starkly warned the Saudi King that unless the popular uprisings were effectively preempted and de-fanged, none of the Gulf monarchies would survive.  This blunt message was then repeated three weeks later, at the emergency GCC summit called specifically to address bin Zayed’s apocalyptic warnings.  Out of this summit, emerged the decision that bin Zayed and Prince Bandar should be tasked with executing the necessary plans.  Later, Jordan joined these counsels, whilst Qatar was excluded (because of its perceived Brotherhood leanings).  Ahmad Shafiq, the pro-Mubarak, defeated Egyptian Presidential candidate subsequently moved to UAE, and assumed the role of ‘plan strategist and co-ordinator’; whose role was firstly to re-group the elements of the ‘deep-state’, and also to unite the opposition under a secular/liberal umbrella (billionaire Sawiri was the opposition funder, together with UAE and Kuwait).  By November 2012, the plans to topple Morsi – through de-stabilising the situation, and fomenting popular agitation – were firming up.  Bandar later informed the CIA, but the latter neither offered their endorsement, nor objected.  (Other reports suggest that the US was conflicted by its irreconcilable aims both to maintain stability and its connections with the army; but also by its desire to support democracy – and thus was paralyzed).  From the outset, a key element in the Bandar/bin Zayed planning was the requirement to neutralize any US or European objections to the coup – a task undertaken (with success by El-Baradai in the case of the EU) and (with lesser success) by Tony Blair with the media. The components to destabilization were constructing the narrative of MB incompetence and arrogance (and on this there was something to build); co-ordinated fuel shortages; electic outages; polls showing Morsi’s popularity shredding, and Avaaz-style populist petitioning.  And why, according to this MB narrative, did Morsi not react?  According to the well-placed al–Amin, Morsi believed the assurances coming both from Sisi and the US Ambassador, and thought somehow he could assuage the forces ranged against him.  In short, he was naive.

Whether this Brotherhood narrative is accurate in every respect is immaterial.  It is their ‘truth’; it is quite plausible, and more importantly suggests exactly why the Brotherhood should be so sanguine that events are moving toward a bloody repression.  MB leaders (those that are not detained) are insisting on the restoration of ‘legitimacy’, rather than on Morsi, per se (see here); but what the Europeans and Americans are urging on them is effectively a return to the status quo ante Mubarak’s departure: that is, continued legality for the party, NGO status for the movement (and acquiescence to the coup – and, most likely – to the Mubarak tradition of fixed elections).

The path to political escalation in Egypt, whether it happens today, or in the ensuing weeks, seems set.  So too, it seems is the economic crisis.  Hassan Heikal, an Egyptian businessman, writes that Egypt presently is losing a billion Egyptian pounds a day, or US$ 2 billion per month. During the past two years, Egypt has lost $40 billion from its cash reserves, and its debt has risen to $50 billion (whilst the poverty rate – families earning less than $2 per day remains above 40%).  According to Heikal’s estimates, Egypt is still in need of $50 billion (over and above that already pledged by Gulf states), together with international aid of $25 billion, if it is to extract itself from the economic mire.  It remains to be seen whether Gulf states will contemplate such a huge commitment.

Events in the areas populated by the Kurds are complex to fathom; but important nonetheless – as they carry a potential for direct military intervention by Turkey in Syria (against the PYD) – an outcome, which should it occur, is likely to have far-reaching consequences.  Two occurrences have precipitated the present tension one is the military defeat inflicted by the PYD, the Syrian wing of the PKK, on the al-Nusra Front in northern Syria – thus ending al-Nusrah’s control of key border crossings linking the Kurdish areas of Syria with those of Turkey – and the parallel announcement by the PYD of some (cautious) moves towards autonomy in the Kurdish areas of Syria.  The Turkish leadership, (and especially Erdogan) sees these twin events as potentially disastrous.  The defeat of al-Nusrah, for which the Turkish government held hopes of it controlling north-eastern Syria (rather than for the Kurds to be controlling it), means that Kurdish Syria now runs contiguous with Kurdish areas of Turkey,  and therefore contains the seeds of contagion from autonomy-aspirant Kurds in Syria, to their Turkish brethren – thus giving Erdogan a major domestic headache.  Further, the Syrian PYD have wrested control of the main border crossing from Syria to Iraq away from Barsani’s (more Turkish-friendly) hands (thus opening a passage from Iraq for the PKK).  (The PYD is at odds with Barsani’s Kurdish party, having arrested many of its membership in Syria in May).   Of particular significance to Erdogan however, is the possible repercussions on the dialogue with Abdullah Ocalan – the imprisoned Kurdish leader.  Erdogan does not have enough votes in parliament to promote himself – through altering the constitution – from Premier to executive President, when his term as Premier comes to its end – and to which office, he cannot be again re-elected.  It is thought, both by Kurds and Turks alike, that the only path by which Erdogan can achieve his goal of amending the constitution (to provide for an executive President) is to pass it through parliament as part of a package deal that would include changes to the constitution that answer to Kurdish demands on language and education (at minimum) and which would result from a successful ‘peace process’ with Ocalan.  The rise of separatist dynamics in both Syria and Iraq might sink Erdogan’s hopes to continue in politics as President, once his term as PM ends.

This continues a series of challenges facing the Turkish PM: his Syria policy is widely held to have been miscalculated; his self-appointed role as the source of emulation and model for Muslim Brothers has taken a humiliating knock after Cairo, and the public demonstrations in Turkey and his arrogant response to them has, to say the least, taken the shine from his image both in the West, and in the region.

It is back to the Peace Process for the US, Israel and a rather solitary Abu Mazen.  It is ‘back to the MEPP’ in another sense:  It is so redolent of the US approach of the late 90s, with America back to chairing the various strands to negotiations.  Incredibly, if reports are to be believed, it will be the same people leading this ‘new’ process, who have been so associated with the one-sided approach that led to failure then. Abed Rabbo negotiating for Abu Mazen and ex-AIPAC Martin Indyk (!) and Rob Malley riding-shot gun with a retired American Marine general, as usual, to ensure Palestinian security compliance.   There is too, the usual Israeli/US narrative that this time its different: this time Netanyahu is ‘really enthusiastic’ and serious.  There is no doubt that the Palestinian leadership (of all hues) has never been weaker or more dysfunctional, but Netanyahu knows too that most Israelis will  see no need to offer the weakened Palestinians any concessions.  Why should they?  Israel (in the general perspective amongst Israelis), is a spectator to the region tearing itself to bits; Palestine barely rates on the Arab agenda, and thanks to Obama, Israel has never been stronger militarily: so why offer them anything – unless of course they are ready simply to ‘wave the white flag’.

And shades of deja vue — the US is accompanying all this with (yet again) the re-building of a moderate Sunni alliance that will protect Israel.  No doubt it is this latter chimaera that weighed heavy in the balance, when the US decided to ‘move on’ after the Cairo coup and ‘deal with reality’.

As the EU prepares to humiliate the new Iranian President’s inauguration by keeping their representation at the ceremony to the lowest level possible (diplomats already in post in Tehran),  President Putin, by contrast, will be visiting Tehran to meet the then President Rowhani on 12 August.  After Putin’s muscular stance on the Syria conflict, it would be no surprise were Putin now to take a lead over Iran’s nuclear issue.   His visit comes at time when the Daily Telegraph (UK, Conservative) reports that Syrian insurgents are beginning to give up and accept  the Syrian government’s offer of amnesty, and that refugees are starting to return to their homes in government controlled areas.  This sense that the war to oust President Assad has failed and is coming to an end is strongly present in Damascus.  And, if this proves to be so, it will have major strategic implications – as will any serious initiative to resolve the Iranian nuclear file.  A combination of both issues coming to a culmination, would tip the region.  Iran, Iraq and Syria are due to start the technical preparations for the $10b gas pipeline linking the South Pars field to the Mediterranean next month – a project, which if it comes to fruition will leave Qatar and Turkey out in the cold. It seems improbable that Putin will not wish to integrate this possibility into Russia’s own gas and oil strategy – and for Russia, the commercial opportunities that re-construction in Syria, and investment in the Iran/Iraq/Syria axis might offer would be huge – especially as Europe effectively has counted itself out from participating in this oil and gas rich axis.



  1. As usual, an excellent comprehensive analysis!!!
    Thank you,

  2. Tony Simpson wrote:

    Another informative briefing. Many thanks.

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