November 23, 2009

Too Little, Too Late?!

The resumption of a beautiful friendship? (AP photo)

Ever since Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyib Erdogan walked out of the Davos Summit meeting in protest of Israel's war on Gaza, Israeli-Turkish relations have undergone a steady downward spiral. Erdogan was, in fact, furious at Israel's unilateral campaign that undermined progressing Israeli-Syrian peace talks under Ankara's mediation. Tel Aviv did not take kindly to Erdogan's action, and asked Ankara to more or less mind its own business. Since then Turkey withdrew from scheduled NATO military maneuvers in the Mediterranean citing Israel's participation as the reason, and wishes to cancel orders for Israeli-made Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. Erdogan, furthermore, stated his preference for dealing with Omar Al-Bashir, Sudan's president, over Benjamin Netenyahu. This comes at a time, when Turkey is pursuing a policy of mending relations with all of its neighbors, including Armenia, Syria, Iraq and Iran.

When Netanyahu said Turkey would no longer be a mediator of Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations, observers assumed he had just hammered the last nail in the coffin of Turkish-Israeli relations. This judgement might turn out to be premature, however. First, the alliance between the two non-Arab Middle Eastern states is well-established; it is likely to supersede the reign of Erdogan's AKP party. The Turkish military, known for its remarkable autonomy, has had frequent contacts with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Private companies on both sides have made substantial investments in their counterpart's economy. Second, a recently-launched charm offensive by Israel's Industry, Trade and Labor minister, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer may cool the tempers on both sides. On his trip to Ankara, Ben-Eliezer was accompanied by a number of Israeli businessmen seeking to buttress the two countries' trade. Ben-Eliezer went so far as to contradict his prime minister and emphasize Turkey's importance in mediating the conflict between Tel Aviv and Damascus.

Though Turkey's deputy prime minister stressed the need to improve bilateral ties, obstacles to a resumption of the status quo ante abound. Speaking to Israeli newspaper Yadi'ut Yahranut, Israeli foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman described Ben-Eliezer's visit as "important, but not coordinated with the foreign ministry." Additionally, Turkish public opinion has been turning sharply against Israel following the war on Gaza which left 1400 Palestinians dead, mostly civilians.

It remains to be seen whether the Israeli minister's visit constitutes a thaw in otherwise chilled relations or would prove to be too little too late. I am inclined to argue Turkish-Israeli relations are unlikely to return to their pre-Gaza status.

November 19, 2009

Update: Football War!

(Cartoon from Al-Quds Al-Arabi)

Amid rumors of attacks on Egyptian fans in Khartoum, Cairo has taken the shocking (un)diplomatic step of withdrawing its ambassador from Algiers. The Egyptian foreign ministry had earlier summoned the Algerian ambassador to hand him a letter of protest over the behavior of Algerian fans.

Meanwhile, the Sudanese foreign ministry rejects reports in the Egyptian media of widespread Algerian attacks on Egyptians in Khartoum following the game. FIFA is going to investigate the attack on Algeria' national team in Cairo. Egypt is likely to be fined over the incident.

November 16, 2009

Soccer Politics!

(Give them bread and soccer!)

Egyptian economist Galal Amin once wondered in palpable remorse: "Whatever happened to the Egyptians?!!" Amin traced in the book that bears the same title the devolution of etiquette and gentlemanly behavior among Egyptians. Following the pre-Egypt vs. Algeria World Cup qualifier game, I personally wondered: "whatever happened to the Egyptians?!" Though Egyptians are generally known for their hospitality towards foreigners and strong pan-Arab convictions, Cairo over the last week morphed into an anti-Algerian hub. Egyptians' vexing animosity towards their Jewish neighbors might have just been replaced by anti-Algerian sentiment.

It all comes down to soccer politics (or more aptly sucker politics.) The soccer match held in Cairo last Saturday was going to determine which of the two Arab and predominantly Sunni Muslim nations was going to qualify to the South Africa 2010 World Cup. Both countries have not qualified in at least a decade. A war of words between sports commentators quickly developed into sporadic attacks on Algerians in Cairo, and a stoning of the Algerian national team upon their arrival.

The Algerians predictably cried foul and asked the FIFA to intervene. Egyptian police ludicrously claimed the Algerian players had attacked themselves. Hours later, high-level Algerian officials were on the phone with their Egyptian counterparts. The promise of violence between the two nations' fans loomed large over the game. Luckily for the Egyptians (and perhaps the Algerians who attended the game) Egypt won by two goals.

For those who watched the game on television, another disturbing show was on. Tens of thousands of Egyptians painted their faces in red, white and black, or simply wrapped themselves in their country's flag. They chanted demeaning and offensive songs of their North African counterparts. It was a show of (uncharacteristic) super patriotism and perplexing hatred of Algerians. These displays were uncalled for, to put it mildly. Indeed, a number of commentators found it hard to decipher where this is coming from. Egypt and Algeria have traditionally enjoyed a harmonious relationship, since Nasser aided the anti-colonial liberation movement in Algeria. This support prompted a retaliatory invasion of Egypt in 1956 by France (Britain and Israel partook in the aggression for different reasons) that proved costly.

So, where is this coming from? Let me suggest a couple of possibilities. First, Egyptians' fixation over soccer has little to do with their excessive love for the sport (and it is excessive indeed). Despite a backdrop of growing political oppression, strategic frustrations, economic stagnation, rising unemployment and societal upheaval, soccer offers Egyptians an opportunity to win. In an age when Egyptians feel hopeless, soccer is their only hope; Abu Trika is their new prophet.

Second, keenly aware of its own unpopularity and shortcomings, the Mubarak regime is desperate to use soccer to make itself more palatable. Not only does the Egyptian president proclaim himself the "guardian of Egyptian sports," (a title only cited when Egyptian teams are victorious), but his son, and presumed successor, Gamal attends the game in the stadium to beef up his "ordinary citizen" credentials. If Mubarak's son is to inherit the presidential palace, he has to also inherit the guardianship of Egyptian sports. Every time the Egyptian team scored, the camera would cut into footage of a celebrating Gamal Mubarak. In short, the Mubaraks have a vested interest in the elevated tension and anticipation surrounding the game. It is an opportunity to advertise Gamal Mubarak to as many Egyptians mesmerized to their television sets as possible.

Algerians have counter-attacked by destroying Egyptian properties in Algiers and harassing Egyptian citizens. Little do they know that Egyptians' anti-Algerian tirades emanate not from antipathy, but from exasperation with the prevalent socio-economic and political conditions in Egypt. Soccer riots in Egypt are the continuation of politics by other means.

November 12, 2009

Lebanon United...?!

Deal or no deal?! Berri, Al-Hariri and Nasrallah.

After several months of stalled talks, Sa'd al-Hariri, the prime minister-designate of Lebanon, was finally able to form a unity government. Al-Hariri heads the "14 Azar Movement," a pro-Western parliamentary coalition that won the majority in this summer's elections. Although 14 Azar's victory exceeded most expectations, cracks did show within the coalition. First, Waleed Jumblat's Druze party defected to the Hizbullah-led opposition. Second, Amin Al-Jemail's "Lebanese Brigades" publicly denounced Hariri's decision to appoint only one minister from the Brigades in the ineffectual Social Affairs ministry. The Lebanese Brigades also called for a review of the structure of the coalition. These protests emanate from a growing sense of irrelevance among Maronite Christians and Muslim Druze, two minorities whose demographics and political clout have been diminishing vis-a-vis the Sunnis and the Shi'a.

The new government is more or less the fruit of a deal between Hizbullah and Hariri's Future party. The deal was arguably made on their behalf during King Abdullah's visit to Damascus in October. This episode reveals three things about Lebanon. First, external patrons still call the shots. Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia are all heavily invested in domestic Lebanese politics. Second, the power of arms (Hizbullah via Iran and Syria) and the power of money (14 Azar via Saudi Arabia and some Gulf countries) dictate the relative balance of power among the sectarian political actors. In the annual conference of the Middle East Institute in Washington, Sami Al-Faraj, the head of the Kuwait Center for Strategic Studies openly bragged about the financial influence of the Gulf Sheikhdoms in determining the outcome of the Lebanese elections. Finally, the Shi'a and Sunnis growing populations have indeed eclipsed those of other sectarian groups, most notably the Druze and the Maronites.

But there is hope yet for a stable Lebanon. The new government not only enjoys the support of Saudi Arabia and Syria, it also enjoys the support of Hizbullah. Lebanese president Michell Souleiman threw his lot behind it too. This could indeed bode well for the stability of Lebanese politics for the foreseeable future. To be sure, national unity governments often avoid tackling controversial and divisive issues whose mere discussion may well bring down the coalition government. This is why such issues as reforming electoral laws and Hizbullah's arms are not likely to be addressed by this government.

More trouble can come yet from the southern borders. Israel claims to have intercepted an Iranian arms shipment bound for Latika, Syria. The missiles are alleged to have been sent for Hizbullah. A number of senior Israel Defense Forces figures have also warned Hizbullah of massive retaliation, should the Lebanese militia avenge the assassination of its military mastermind, Emad Moughneih. Hassan Nassrallah, the Secretary General of Hizbullah, speaking on "Martyr's Day" issued a stark warning for Israel not to launch a war on Lebanon, or risk the "crushing of its army." He neither affirmed nor denied the Israeli claim of his group's possession of 325 kilometer-range missiles, though he promised any land invasion to be nothing short of a quagmire. Hizbullah's political bureau chief Mohammed Qomati also warned that "all cities, military bases, factories, and settlements in Israel are within the organization's firing range." Qomati continued, "The enemy knows that any offensive initiated under the current conditions will ensure his total defeat, will change the balance of power in our favor, and will bring about the end of its entity."

Hizbullah's secretary general had select words for the Obama administration as well. After accusing Washington of deliberately backpedaling on the settlements stance, he admonished his followers that the Obama administration's "infinite" commitment to Israel's interests security is unprecedented. Nasrallah painted a pro-Israeli Obama administration that does not care about the needs of the Arab world. The Cairo speech was a scam, he implied.

As Hariri struggles to stabilize his country domestically, Lebanon's foremost challenge appears to be avoiding another devastating war with Israel. Neither Nasrallah nor Ashkinazi are helping.

November 3, 2009

The Best Defense is a Good Offense

Observers of Egyptian politics had predicted the annual convention of the ruling National Democratic Party would address the issue of "succession." Would Gamal Mubarak be annointed by his party as the presidential candidate for the upcoming elections in 2011? Would his father retire, and make sure the transition is smooth? Or would Hosni Mubarak assert himself as the president of Egypt until death do them part?

For the speculators, the convention appeared rather underwhelming. The anticipated speeches by the Mubaraks and Ahmad Ezz, the NDP's billionaire secretary-general of coordination, left the questions unanswered. The clouds surrounding the future of post-Mubarak Egypt still loom large. What most NDP officials did in their speeches, however, was wage scathing attacks on the opposition, with the popular Muslim Brotherhood receiving the lion's share. To be sure, Hosni Mubarak's speech amounted to no more than a statement rehashing his old cliche's about Cairo's paramount regional influence. The others did the dirty work.

The attacks on the Muslim Brothers were unprecedented, and visibly prearranged. Having arrested many senior members of the Islamist group, including prominent moderates, the Mubarak regime seems to be turning up the heat even further. The convention included threats to arrest the group's supreme guide, confiscate its possessions, block its media access and ban the organization from partaking in the next parliamentary elections. This escalation does not seem to be justified by any recent conduct on the part of the Ikhwan. On the contrary, Mahdi Akef's tenure as a supreme guide is characterized by timidity and indecisiveness. The Brothers did not react meaningfully to the arrest of many of their senior members. They have even ruled out the possibility of contesting the 2011 presidential elections. So, what is this all about?

Two reasons come to mind. First, the Mubarak regime has been studiously working to pave the ground for Mubarak, Jr. to assume power after his father. The NDP-dominated Egyptian parliament introduced a constitutional amendment guiding presidential elections that is custom-tailored for Mubarak's son. The presumed successor has also made numerous trips to Western capitals, most notably Washington D.C. to reportedly win their support for him. The Muslim Brotherhood, as the largest, best-organized and most popular opposition group in Egypt, constitutes the single foremost obstacle to the Mubaraks' plan. The regime is wary of their reaction to the prospective succession, and would rather not make deals with them to facilitate the process. By waging a verbal offensive on the group, the NDP hopes to neutralize them out of the upcoming transfer of power. The idea is that the Islamists would opt for their classic model of social charity rather than active political participation. If the Brothers refrain from intervening, there will be no strong hurdle to the Mubaraks remaining in the 'Orooba presidential palace.

Second, the Ikhwan are undergoing internal turmoil. Having not taken noteworthy measures to protest the arrest of leading members, many cadres are starting to question the leadership, a hitherto taboo within the 91 year-old organization. Additionally, Akef surprised the groups' members by announcing his intention to retire from the supreme guide position, a decision not made by any of his predecessors. Speculation is aplenty regarding the person who would replace Akef. The NDP wishes to capitalize on this sense of uncertainty within the organization, and force them to be preoccupied with their internal affairs for a while.

The NDP's recent escalation against the Muslim Brothers seems to be driven by anxiety about the prospects of ensuring a smooth power transition from Hosni Mubarak to his son as much as by the Islamists' weak leadership. The plan misses two critical aspects about Egyptian politics, however. First, the Muslim Brothers will continue to remain the most potent and popular political force in Egypt for the foreseeable future, thanks in no small measure to the services they provide to the populace. Second, Mubarak and his son are profoundly resented by Egyptians who are exasperated with their ever-declining living standards, and diminishing political freedoms. The Muslim Brotherhood may be neutralized when the transition occurs, but will Egyptians?