Egypt’s chaos/ West Bank realities
Feb 14, 2013
Update from AIJAC
February 14, 2013
Number 02/13 #03
This Update features two pieces related to the increasing street violence in Egypt, and the Muslim Brotherhood-led government’s response to it, plus an important piece on the sad reality behind the Palestinian Authority’s state building efforts in the West Bank, led by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
First up is author and scholar Lee Smith, who warns that by many measures, Egypt already appears to be heading in the direction of becoming a failed state. He looks at the street violence, the poor economic situation and high probability that things will get worse, the jailing of much of the technocratic class, the divisions in the society, and concludes that the problem is not the Islamist government but Egyptian society as a whole. He says that the only small upside is that fears that the Muslim Brotherhood will spread their model across the region appear to be unfounded, because no one would deliberately imitate what is going on in Egypt now. For Smith’s complete argument, CLICK HERE. Plus, Canadian activist Ben Stiller describes the “Christian Winter” being experienced by Egypt’s Coptic minority in the current unrest.
Next up comes some worrying reports, compiled by veteran Israeli journalist Khaled Abu Toameh, that the Muslim Brotherhood is turning to Hamas militiamen from Gaza to shore up its rule in the face of the increasing street unrest. According to stories from Egyptian opposition publications, as well as some reports from other Arabic newspapers from the Persian Gulf region, as many as 7,000 Hamas fighters could be involved and the activities may be funded by the Qatari government. Abu Toameh does note that these claims are being strongly denied by Hamas leaders, but that if the stories are accurate, a Hamas presence would likely anger many Egyptians and protesters are already starting to torch Hamas and Qatari flags. For this potentially explosive story, if confirmed, CLICK HERE. More comment on this story’s implications comes from Jonathan Tobin.
Finally, American columnist and thinktank head Cliff May reports from the West Bank following a meeting with Palestinian PM Salam Fayyad. May is convinced that Fayyad is the kind of leader Israel could make peace with – but only if he could bring most Palestinians with him, something it is very clear that he could not do, having minimal popular support, and lacking the militia which stands behind most other Palestinian political players. May notes that, given the current realities – with Palestinians divided between a rejectionist Hamas and a vacillating Fatah, and Islamistsseemingly on the rise everywhere – it is very hard to see how we get from where we are to a negotiated two-state peace. For May’s important insights into what is preventing progress toward peace despite the efforts of moderates like Fayyad, CLICK HERE.
Readers may also be interested in:
- Noted Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami blames the poisonous legacy of the Mubarak era for Egypt’s current plight.
- A good analysis of the implications of the visit of Iranian President Ahmadinejad to Egypt this week from Israeli academic expert Hillel Frisch.
- Barry Rubin describes how a prominent Egyptian human rights activist sees Washington’s policy toward Egypt – and it is not a complimentary portrait.
- Reports that, despite their government’s relationship with Hamas, the Egyptian military is moving to close Gaza’s smuggling tunnels by flooding them.
- A piece speculating on a possible Iranian role in the North Korean nuclear test.
- A useful summary of what is known about Israel’s alleged airstrike on Syria two weeks ago and its aftermath.
- More on the case for banning Hezbollah, especially in Europe, from Washington Institute terrorism expert Matthew Levitt and Israeli diplomat Ron Prosor. Plus, Israeli security correspondent Ron Ben Yishai describes Hezbollah’s strategic plan for its next war with Israel – including beginning with a very intense barrage of missiles at Tel Aviv.
- Some comment on the resignation of Pope Benedict, the relationship with the Jewish people during his Papacy, and how Benedict’s possible successors may affect this – here and here.
- Israeli PM Netanyahu gives a speech to an American Jewish group re-affirming his commitment to “two states for two peoples”.
- Isi Leibler writes about the need to quickly resolve Israel’s coalition talks and about Argentina’s highly questionable deal with Iran to establish a joint “truth commission” regarding the AMIA bombing of 1994 which, he notes, amounts to ” inviting the murderer to participate in a murder investigation”.
- Some examples from the many stories and comments now appearing at AIJAC’s daily “Fresh AIR” blog:
- what media stories about the Beitar Jerusalem controversy miss about Israeli soccer. Also, a look at the diverse crop of fresh political faces in Israel’s new Knesset (parliament).
- Talia Katz draws some conclusions from a Palestinian activist living in Gaza who acknowledges the supermarkets are full, but complains Gaza is suffering from too much high-quality Israeli food. Plus, she discusses new revelations about the mistaken claims made about WMD prior to the 2003 Iraq war.
- Sharyn Mittelman explores the findings of the second report of the Turkel Commission into the Mavi Marmara affair, prepared with the assistance of Australian expert Prof. Tim McCormack, and evaluating and seeking to improve Israel’s system for investigating claimed human rights violations. More on the significance of this report comes from noted American academic Prof. Michael Curtis, and Israeli academics
- what media stories about the Beitar Jerusalem controversy miss about Israeli soccer. Also, a look at the diverse crop of fresh political faces in Israel’s new Knesset (parliament).
Egypt Against Itself
A society on the edge of chaos
This week marks the second anniversary of the fall of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. Two years after the refrain “the people want to topple the regime” filled Tahrir Square, it is now Egypt itself that is toppling. Street violence has pitted various groups against each other—anarchists against Islamists, policemen against protesters, men against women—and has left scores dead throughout the country.
The economy is hemorrhaging reserves and incapable of securing foreign investment, while Egypt’s currency tumbles to record lows. The international community, captivated two years ago by the revolution, has little confidence that Egypt’s new rulers can make peace between the country’s feuding factions. If the conventional wisdom among Western policymakers holds that Egypt is too big to be allowed to fail, the stark reality is that by many measures it is already failing.
A $4.8 billion IMF loan has been put on hold pending President Mohamed Morsi’s stabilizing the political situation. The catch is that the loan requires a host of reforms, like slashing subsidies for fuel and household staples, that will cause yet more suffering across a wide swath of Egyptian society, most likely bringing further instability. Much of Egypt’s technocratic class is in exile or in jail, charged, often spuriously, with corruption under the old regime. Any of the liberal reform measures that might actually help set Egypt back on its feet are associated with precisely those figures that the revolution sought to punish.
Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad promised to extend Egypt a line of credit last week during his visit to Cairo, the first by an Iranian leader since the 1979 Islamic revolution. However, Iran’s currency has taken an even steeper plunge than Egypt’s. Under heavy U.S. and EU sanctions, Tehran needs cheap agricultural imports to keep food prices down and unrest at bay, but Egypt doesn’t even feed itself.
During his tour of Cairo, Ahmadinejad was accosted by a Sunni Islamist who rapped him on the head with his shoe in a piece of Middle Eastern political theater that illuminates the key differences between Egypt and Iran. To be sure, the ruling regimes of the two countries share an abiding hatred of Israel, but the more important issue for both right now is the civil war in Syria, where Tehran needs to prop up Bashar al-Assad and Cairo is sickened by his regime, which has targeted tens of thousands of fellow Sunnis for death. Moreover, Iran has put Morsi in an awkward position by continuing to send arms to Hamas through the Sinai. As much as Morsi may want to join Hamas’s war against Israel, he can’t lest he forfeit American and European backing. There is no alternative superpower for Cairo to turn to. Inasmuch as Morsi is tied to Washington’s apronstrings, Iran’s active support of Hamas only highlights his impotence.
The good news regarding Egypt is brief, but noteworthy: Those forecasts auguring from the entrails of Mubarak’s demise the birth of a universal Muslim Brotherhood-run caliphate stretching from North Africa to the Persian Gulf were off by a very wide mark. The Islamist organization, which has been building its political base and waiting in the shadows to take power since its 1928 founding, turns out to be incapable even of governing Egypt.
Contrary to the reading of many Western academics, the Brotherhood did not win the presidency because of its long history of grassroots work, its social activism, or its political acumen and organization. Rather it came to rule Egypt simply because everyone else—from the secularists and liberals who kicked off the revolution to the military—was that much more incompetent. The fearful notion, still held by many in the West, that the Brotherhood plots to own the hearts and minds of the world’s billion-plus Muslims comports not with reality but only with the Brotherhood’s preening and now patently absurd self-image. Under Morsi’s stewardship, the Muslim Brotherhood model has been shown to produce poverty, hunger, instability, and violent internal conflict. Who among the umma would seek to unify under such a banner?
Understandably, some U.S. policy-makers want to wash their hands of Egypt. The White House, after Obama leased a place on the right side of history by demanding that Mubarak step down, has yet to tailor a policy suited to the changed circumstances. Egypt is no longer a pillar of regional stability but must itself be stabilized. Sen. Rand Paul wants to ban sales of advanced weapons—tanks, F-16s, etc.—to a country whose rulers allowed a mob to overrun the U.S. embassy and threaten our diplomats in September. Sen. James Inhofe just wants to suspend sales of those arms, but is perhaps the frankest in his appraisal of Egypt’s president. “Morsi’s an enemy,” Inhofe said during secretary of defense nominee Chuck Hagel’s confirmation hearings. Inhofe, the ranking member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has a point.
Since the signing of the Camp David accords in 1978, Egypt has been one of the cornerstones of the U.S. position in the Middle East. By lavishing arms, money, and political and diplomatic prestige on the largest and most influential of Arab states, Washington showed what prizes were in store for any Arab power that chose to make peace with Israel. Conversely, massive American airlifts to Israel during the 1973 war had shown what any Arab regime could expect if it chose to make war on the Jewish state.
Morsi threatens to undo this arrangement. Anti-Semitic remarks of his that have recently come to light, calling Jews the “sons of apes and pigs,” lend weight to the concern that the Egyptian government is looking for a way out of the peace treaty. In the aftermath of Israel’s operations in Gaza in November that degraded Hamas’s arsenal and decimated its leadership, the White House billed Morsi as a peacemaker, but that increasingly looks like wishful thinking. If Morsi doesn’t do more to shut down the smuggling tunnels from Egypt, Israel will soon be back in Gaza.
Moreover, it’s not clear that the second half of Inhofe’s assessment—Egypt’s “military is our friend”—is accurate, or that it matters. Last week, General Abdul Fattah al-Sisi, Egypt’s defense minister, spoke with outgoing secretary of defense Leon Panetta and affirmed Egypt’s commitment to the 1978 treaty. However, whether Egypt will adhere to the accord is subject to the same winds of fortune that have buffeted virtually every political decision Cairo has taken in the last two years. Sisi recently noted that “the struggle between political forces . . . may lead to the collapse of the state,” a statement some have read as a warning to Morsi: If the government cannot ensure stability the military will take over. But the last two years have shown that the military does not want to run Egypt and may be incapable of it. Even worse, a coup might leave the army split, like the rest of Egyptian society, and fighting itself.
Indeed, pitting the army and Morsi against each other would widen yet another fissure in a country that has long been at war with itself. Muslims against Christians. The regime and its security services against its own people. Urban against rural. Secularists against Islamists. Muslim Brotherhood against Salafists. It is hardly any wonder that the country’s first elected president evinced the same anti-Semitic sentiments that poison almost all of Egyptian society. Egyptians don’t like Jews, and they don’t much like each other either. Anti-Semitism has therefore functioned something like an escape valve, and blaming Israel, and/or the United States, for everything wrong with Egypt was the most practical way to keep Egyptians from each other’s throats.
The immediate cause of the recent violence is a court decision in January against the supporters of a soccer club. Last year, the fans of the Port Said team ambushed the fans of a Cairo team, Al Ahly, at a game in Port Said, killing 74. The Ahly supporters claimed that security forces were in on the plot, seeking revenge against them for their role in the revolution and their violent clashes with the police. (The Ahly supporters also played a large part in storming the Israeli embassy in 2011.) When the court handed out 21 death sentences to the 73 accused, including police officers, riots ensued, leaving 39 dead. The violence spread to nearby cities, like Suez, where 9 were killed, as well as Ismailia, which saw another fatality.
In Cairo, protesters fought with security forces and armed gangs, who also stormed hotels firing automatic weapons at tourists. The head of Al Azhar, the mosque-university that for hundreds of years has served as a seat of authority in Sunni Islam, convened a meeting between Morsi’s representatives and the opposition. It’s a useful first step but probably won’t change the fundamental antagonisms. The opposition believes that Morsi has too much power, and the Brotherhood believes that the opposition just wants to seize on the streets the power it couldn’t earn at the polls.
Morsi is not the problem, then, he is merely the president of the problem, which is Egyptian society itself. After two years of upheaval, the question is, how long can this go on? Will Egypt explode at a certain point? If so, what will touch it off and what will be the repercussions?
Already, a friend from Cairo laments, Egyptians are growing accustomed to daily violence. The problem is not just the people who are committing the violence, he says, but that everyone else is gradually acclimating himself to chaos and failure on a massive scale.
Lee Smith is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard.
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The Hamas-Egyptian Alliance
by Khaled Abu Toameh
Gatestone Institute, February 8, 2013 The collapse of the Mubarak regime has been a great blessing for Hamas, which has emerged as a major player. Now Hamas knows that it can always rely on Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood to stay in power and increase Hamas’s influence.
Did Hamas dispatch 7,000 militiamen from the Gaza Strip to Egypt to protect President Mohamed Morsi, who is currently facing a popular uprising?
Reports that appeared in a number of Egyptian opposition media outlets in the past few days claimed that the militiamen entered Egypt through the smuggling tunnels along the border with the Gaza Strip.
The reports quoted unidentified Egyptian security officials as saying that the Hamas militiamen had been spotted in the Egyptian border town of Rafah before they headed toward Cairo, to shore up the Muslim Brotherhood regime of Morsi, which Hamas may have feared was in danger of collapse.
The officials claimed that the Hamas militiamen had been deployed in a number of sensitive locations in the Egyptian capital, including the Al-Ittihadiyeh Presidential Palace, as part of a plan to protect the Muslim Brotherhood regime.
Hamas, an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood organization, is a staunch supporter of the Morsi regime.
This week, a Gulf newspaper Akhbar Al-Khaleej published what it described as “secret documents” proving that Hamas, with the financial backing of Qatar, had plans to send hundreds of militiamen to Egypt to help Morsi’s regime.
One of the classified documents, signed by Hamas’s armed wing, Izaddin al-Kassam, talks about the need to send “warriors to help our brothers in Egypt who are facing attempts by the former regime [of Hosni Mubarak] to return to power.”
The reports about Hamas’s alleged involvement in the Egyptian crisis have been strongly denied by Hamas officials.
Hamas leader Mahmoud Zahar lost his temper during an interview with an Egyptian TV station; he said the reports were lies intended to tarnish Hamas’s image.
Zahar accused supporters of the Mubarak regime of being behind the reports depicting Hamas as a terrorist organization helping President Morsi to kill Egyptians.
But this was not the first time that Egyptians had accused Hamas of meddling in their internal affairs.
In August 2012, reports in the Egyptian media suggested that Hamas was involved in the killing of 16 Egyptian border guards near the border with the Gaza Strip. The perpetrators have never been caught.
Egyptians have also accused Hamas of involvement in a terror attack against a church and attacking prisons in Egypt.
Although the talk about Hamas’s involvement in terror activities on Egyptian soil may in some cases be exaggerated, repeated accusations against Hamas show that many Egyptians continue to see the radical Islamist movement as a threat to their national security.
Hamas has further been accused by some Egyptians of helping other Muslim fundamentalist groups turn Sinai into a base for jihadis from all around the world.
During last week’s street clashes in Cairo, anti-Morsi demonstrators torched Hamas and Qatari flags. They also chanted slogans condemning Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood organization for bringing Hamas militiamen to suppress Egyptian protesters.
There is no doubt that Hamas is prepared to do its utmost to help Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood organization stay in power, even at the cost of killing and torturing Egyptian civilians. The downfall of the Mubarak regime has been a great blessing for Hamas, which has since emerged as a major player in the Palestinian and regional arena.
Thanks to Morsi, an Egyptian prime minister visited the Gaza Strip for the first time ever last November to express solidarity with Hamas during Israel’s “Pillar of Defense” military operation. Such a visit would have been unthinkable under Mubarak, who did everything he could to weaken Hamas and stop it from meddling in the internal affairs of Egypt.
But now Hamas knows that it can always rely on Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood to stay in power and increase Hamas’s influence. In return, Morsi apparently expects Hamas to reward him by sending its men to defend his palace.
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Letter from the West Bank
By Clifford D. May
There are those here who seek peace and prosperity. The odds are against them.
Jewish World Review, Feb. 8
RAMALLAH— It’s difficult not to like Salam Fayyad. The prime minister of the Palestinian Authority has an avuncular demeanor and old-fashioned professorial charm. He boasts a doctorate in economics from the University of Texas at Austin and remains loyal to the Longhorns. He speaks in charmingly accented, rapid-fire English. In a spacious conference room in the palatial government complex where he maintains his offices, he is generous with his time, answering questions from me and other members of a delegation of American national-security professionals on a wide range of issues.
One need not agree with everything Fayyad says to appreciate that he is the kind of Palestinian leader with whom Israeli leaders could make peace — if Israeli leaders could negotiate with him, and if he could deliver a majority of Palestinians willing to accept a compromise solution to the conflict. Fundamentally, here’s what that would mean: Palestinians would have to unambiguously recognize Israel’s right to exist within secure borders. In exchange, Israel would do everything possible to facilitate the development of a free and viable Palestinian state.
What are the chances that Fayyad can achieve that? Roughly zero to none.
Fayyad has few supporters in the West Bank — and even fewer in Hamas-controlled Gaza. He was not elected prime minister; he was appointed in 2007 by Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas who claimed the power to do so on the basis of “national emergency.”
As for Abbas, he was elected to his position in January 2005. His four-year term ended in 2009. New elections have been postponed indefinitely. Similarly, the Palestinian Legislative Council, which sits in Gaza, was elected to a four-year term in January 2006. The following year, Hamas staged a bloody coup against the P.A. in Gaza. New legislative elections also remain unscheduled.
American and European diplomats value Fayyad’s skills and trust his integrity. So long as he is prime minister, they feel better about pouring in aid — more per capita than to any country in Africa, Asia, or Latin America — that keeps the P.A. afloat. Israelis respect Fayyad, too. You do understand that all this makes him less popular — not more — with the broad Palestinian public?
Of course, popularity is not the only source — or even the primary source — of power in the Palestinian territories. But Fayyad does not command a militia. And, presumably because he is seen as a moderate, he receives no financial backing from such oil-rich Muslim countries as Iran and Qatar.
Hamas leaders — who do receive support from both Iran and Qatar — openly detest Fayyad. Finally, though Fayyad was appointed by Abbas, he is not close to Abbas, who, in addition to heading the Palestinian Authority, leads the Fatah faction of the Palestine Liberation Organization which holds the reins — more or less — on the West Bank.
Halfway through our conversation, Fayyad asked not be quoted, so I’ll respect that. But I’m revealing nothing new if I say he gets that Hamas’s openly declared threat to exterminate Israel is not conducive to peace processing. He understands, too, that there is a desperate need for political reform and institution-building in the Palestinian territories. He has been working toward that goal determinedly, if not entirely successfully.
As we leave the prime minister’s offices, we see that demonstrators have gathered outside, mostly civil servants peacefully protesting the fact that it has been a long time since they have received their paychecks.
Ramallah, the de facto capital of the West Bank, lies six miles north of Jerusalem in the Judean Mountains. By the standards of non-oil producing Middle Eastern countries, it is neither depressed nor depressing. Buildings are of white Jerusalem stone with red tile roofs. There are mosques with tall minarets and green domes; palm trees and stone walls; modern hotels and good restaurants that serve cold, locally brewed beer. A fair amount of new construction is underway, but there also are empty lots, strewn with rubble. In some of them, goats graze.
Ramallah may not be the ideal Palestinian city of the future, but, as it happens, an attempt to build that metropolis is underway on hilltops less than six miles to the northwest. It’s called Rawabi and it’s the first planned city in the West Bank, a project that will cost $1 billion, most of which is coming from Qatar. The first residents are to begin moving in within a year. In five to seven years, it is to have homes for 10,000 Palestinian families, as well as a commercial center, a cultural center, medical facilities, stores, cafes, and a giant amphitheater.
Bashar Masri, the elegant and eloquent entrepreneur behind this project, acknowledges that, to succeed, Rawabi will need businesses and jobs — high-tech would be his preference. That will require foreign investors confident that their money will not end up in the foreign bank accounts of corrupt officials. It would help, too, if Rawabi and all of what Masri calls Palestine were to enjoy not just peaceful but cooperative relations with the little start-up nation to its west.
Both Masri and Fayyad favor that outcome — of that I have little doubt. But with Palestinian power divided between a jihadist Hamas and a vacillating Fatah, and with Islamists who are committed to Israel’s extermination ascendant throughout much of the Middle East, I have no idea how they get there from here.
Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, a policy institute focusing on terrorism.