The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

Posts tagged diplomacy
MB figures to be ambassadors?

Muslim Brotherhood figures seek Egypt diplomatic posts - Politics - Egypt - Ahram Online

The nomination of Ahmed Mekki, former vice president, to head Egypt’s diplomatic mission in the Vatican this week might be a precedent by which the president would use his legal prerogative to appoint selected non-career diplomats to head some of Egypt’s key diplomatic missions overseas.

The diplomatic corps law grants the president a maximum of 10 head of mission postings to be appointed from outside the diplomatic corps each time nominations requests for heads of missions are issued by the state.

According to sources at the presidency, the foreign ministry, and the Muslim Brotherhood, topping the list of aspiring ambassadors is leading figure of the Brotherhood and its political arm, the Freedom and Justice Party, Essam El-Erian.

El-Erian is eyeing the head of Egypt’s mission in Ankara, a key capital for Egypt under Brotherhood rule. The tenure of current Ambassador to Turkey Abdel-Rahman Salah should come to an end this summer.

Other posts that the Brotherhood appear to be eyeing are also countries with “special rapport” with the Muslim Brotherhood. These include Qatar, to which Egypt sent an ambassador a year ago.

Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s ambassador to Doha (he shares the same name as the Egyptian president) sent a written complaint to the foreign ministry in Cairo complaining that he is “mostly uninformed about the ongoings" of bilateral relations between Egypt and Qatar.

The complaint was written following a recent visit to Cairo by Qatari Prime Minister Hamad Ben Jassim of which the Egyptian ambassador knew nothing.

Interesting report. Some will no doubt cry Brotherhoodization but it's normal in many countries for a president to appoint political allies as ambassadors. Except in those cases they tend to have quiet postings to charming seaside countries like the Bahamas. Not appointments to key allies where you need an experienced hand.

P.S. In the case of Essam al-Erian, it might simply be an attempt to get rid of him inside of Egypt.

Egypt's new foreign policy

I'm working on a piece on this topic, but today's Reuters' interview with Morsi acts as a kind of inauguration for the subtle but distinct foreign policy change taking place in Egypt. I would not start getting all alarmist about it (seem some recent WINEP pieces and other agitations of the Lobby), but it points to an attempt to project a more balanced approach to a domestic audience, not necessarily achieve that much in the short term. More on that later.

Do listen to the husky voice of Laila Fadel reporting on this in her new gig at NPR, featuring the baritone gravitas of Michael Hanna and more.


Qatar, the GCC, and the Arab Uprisings

The Arab League’s deadline for Syria to stop the “bloody repression” has passed, paving the way for stronger action after the League’s surprisingly hardline stance towards the Assad regime. Jenifer Fenton looks at what is motivating the GCC states, most notably the one taking the lead in the new regional diplomacy, Qatar. 

Qatar, with its progressive foreign policy, is publicly driving the Gulf’s response to Syria and carving out a role for itself as a country that can quickly adapt to the sweeping changes resulting from the Arab spring, but the regional weight it carries and its motives are more nuanced. 

The six countries that make up the Gulf Cooperation Council  - Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman and the United Arab Emirates - and the majority of Arab League member states agreed that there was a limit to the violence unleashed by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad it could tolerate.  The United Nations puts the death toll since the unrest began at well over 3,500 people. Last week, the Arab League decided to suspend Syria’s participation and to impose political and economic sanctions against the Syrian government.  

The decision approved by 18 members, Lebanon and Yemen objected and Iraq abstained, was “a difficult one,” the Prime Minister and Foreign Minister of Qatar Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim bin Jabor Al Thani said  .

Bilateral trade between Syria, whose GDP is $60 billion, and the Arab countries amounts to roughly $8 billion, according to Abdulaziz Sager, chairman of the Gulf Research Center.  But 40 percent of Syria’s non-oil trade is with Iraq so Iraq’s abstention is significant, he said. 

The Arab League decision was overdue. “It was the right one,” said Khalid Al-Dakhil, professor of political sociology at King Saud University. “They needed to not allow Syria to use the Arab cover to continue with its brutal crackdown on the Syrian people and the Syrian regime has to know that this must stop.”

The Arab body had to show they are decisive, that they do not just bark but bite also, according to Abdulkhaleq Abdullah, a professor of political science at UAE University. But there is “no doubt in my mind… what is driving all this is the GCC, especially Qatar, especially the UAE. Saudi Arabia… are giving all the green lights Qatar needs at this moment. In essence, as I see it, Qatar is just speaking for Saudi Arabia which is usually a timid player. They don’t want to be in the front so Qatar is having all the backing from Riyadh.”

It is clear that visionary Qatar and the old order of Saudi Arabia do not always see eye-to-eye  (for years they had uneasy relations), but if Saudi Arabia actively challenged a Qatari foreign policy decision - which recently it does not appear to have done - it seems unlikely that Qatar would not heed Saudi Arabia’s wishes.

In late January, while Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was still in power, Saudi Arabia defended the status quo and strongly condemned the protests. “No Arab and Muslim human being can bear that some infiltrators… have infiltrated Egypt, to destabilize its security and stability and they have been exploited to spew out their hatred in destruction, intimidation, burning, looting and inciting a malicious sedition,” Saudi King Abdullah said at the time, according to the Saudi Press Agency. Tunisia’s deposed Zine El Abidine Ben Ali took refuge in the Kingdom as well. 

Compare Saudi’s actions to Qatar, which was the first Arab country to recognize the National Transitional Council as the legitimate government of Libya and it contributed planes to assist the Nato-led operation. 

While the GCC nations may not agree on aspects of foreign policy “at least there is minimum coordination,” Al-Dakhil said.  “I think there is a misperception about the Saudi position regarding Egypt or any of the Arab revolutions,” he added. “Basically Saudi Arabia is not different from the rest of the Arab states. They don’t like the idea of revolution, but at the same time they are pragmatic enough… They are willing to get along with what the Egyptian people want in Egypt. I mean if they want to make a revolution… that is their country, that is their right.” That sentiment Al-Dakhil believes is also the Saudi position with respect to Tunisia and Libya. 

Saudi Arabia is willing to accept the changes, but they are less willing to accept the unknown - so the Kingdom is taking a wait-and-see policy, while Qatar is getting out ahead. But by allowing Qatar to be the public face of the Gulf leadership, Saudi Arabia is also spared the negative repercussions and close scrutiny that publicity brings. 

However, Qatar’s grand vision is unclear. “Qatar is dancing on all floors to be able not miss the boat and make sure that they keep their link open to everybody whether they are Islamist, or liberal or conservative,” Sager said. It is also hard to reconcile Qatar’s physical size, it is smaller than Connecticut, and small national population, some 300,000 people, with such ambitious regional and international interests. A lot of people are questioning if Qatar is acting to a degree on behalf of an international agenda: with the United States with whom it is very close, or Iran with whom it shares economic interest, or Saudi Arabia and the other GCC countries, Sager said.  It is certain though Qatar is “filling a gap also because other regional powers are not acting, they’re not moving for their own reasons.” Iran, Sager believes, wants to keep their link with Syria, but not necessarily al-Assad. Qatar also does not want to upset Iran because they know Iran has spheres of influence with other Arab countries, he added. So it is difficult to asses the Syria-Qatar-Iran dynamics with certainty.  

In Libya, Qatar even went ahead of the UAE. The Emirates, before contributing military power to Libya, wanted first to get Western assurances that the GGC’s deployment of troops in Bahrain would not be characterized by the West as a step in the wrong direction, according to retired UAE Maj. Gen. Khaled Abdullah Al-Buainnan whom I spoke to earlier this year. Qatar did not wait for that scaling back of Western condemnation. 

With respect to Bahrain, the GCC has been accused of a double standard - supporting the government against  an opposition that has legitimate grievances. Consistency is not a very common aspect of foreign policy, Rami Khouri, director of Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs said.  “The Saudis will act differently, the Qataris will act differently in Bahrain then they might in Libya…Foreign Policy is not an ethics based process, it is an interests based process,” he said.

Khouri agreed there is greater Gulf activism, which includes the dynamism of Qatar and the UAE, but thinks there are several different currents at work. “The Saudis are against these revolutions, they don’t like them. They don’t like populist revolutions,” Khouri said. What the Qataris are doing is hard to tell, perhaps the state is just giving into reality, he added. What is interesting is that popular opinion in the Arab world is now driving the response of the Arab governments, including the Gulf, and the Arab League realized that it was on the verge of being irrelevant, Khouri added. Some aspects of the Arab League’s work is starting to reflect a semblance of Arab opinion and the major world powers are not playing a major role, and in a weird way they are kind of following the lead of the Arab League, he added.  

However, public opinion in the Gulf is a bit of a mystery. But each leader in the region that falls acts an unnerving reminder to powers in the Gulf that their rule is not unquestionable. Right now it is about Syria, but “the winds of changes are banging on everyone’s door,” Abdullah said.  

US aid and diplomacy budget cut, except...

In the US, both the House of Representatives and the Senate are working on bills that would make deep cuts to the US foreign aid budget. These cuts will undermine the Obama administration’s policy of relying more on such aid as a completement to US power, reduce the ability to open consulates and finance international organizations, and make any idea of a “Marshall Plan” for the post-uprisings Arab world completely moot. But of course there is an exception:

The Republicans also attach conditions on aid to Pakistan, Egypt and the Palestinians, suspending the latter entirely if the Palestinians succeed in winning recognition of statehood at the United Nations. However, one of the largest portions of foreign aid — more than $3 billion for Israel — is left untouched in both the House and Senate versions, showing that, even in times of austerity, some spending is inviolable.

Can't say I'm surprised that Israel, a relatively wealthy country, will remain untouched while more worthy humanitarian aid will be slashed.

With regard to the balance between diplomatic and defense budgets, I have just started reading the provocative new book by Stephen Glain, State vs. Defense, which chronices the rise of militarism in the US and resultant paltry spending on diplomacy. So far, it really looks good.

Breaking the US-Egypt-Israel triangle

It may be time to reflect a little on US Middle East policy post-Arab Spring, and towards Egypt in particular. I've just taken part in a seminar where I presented a paper on the issue, and I'll be expanding some of my main points in the next few weeks here. The main gist of it, however, is that US policy in the region has not been a great success for the last 20 years of American hegemony, is seen as tremendously destructive by local populations, and that the US should refrain from trying to shape the outcome of the ongoing transformations the region is experiencing. It should first re-assess what its priorities are and take stocks of its limitations, particularly considering the current imperial overstretch and budgetary tightening.

Nor do I think Washington needs to interfere in the internal developments of individual countries, but rather reassess its strategic posture region-wide and try to create the multilateral mechanism to handle the crises that will no doubt come up as the transformations continue. For me, this means something modelled on the Concert of Europe, which would rely on regional powers to offer solutions and mediation. I'll say more on that later.

One of the major issues the US will have to contemplate is Egyptian-Israeli relations, and the ongoing collapse of the Camp David framework that created a trilateral relationship between Egypt, Israel, and the US. Washington should not resist this: it will only make situation more brittle, and instead show the flexibility to reimagine its role in a post-Camp David Middle East.

One aspect of this is that aid and other aspects of relations between each country should be handled bilaterally. The aim should be to salvage peace between the two countries, but without the appendages and pressure on Egypt to support Israeli aims we saw in the last decade, when the Bush administration used the Mubarak regime's internal weakness (due to the succession struggle, in part). This might mean, for instance, giving the Egyptians room to remove or alter these aspects of the relationship:

  • The sale of oil and gas to Israel, now universally seen by Egyptians as a symbol of high-level corruption;
  • The level of diplomatic relations between the two countries;
  • Economic agreements such as QIZs that artificially induce Israeli-Egyptian economic cooperation;
  • Limits on Egyptian sovereignty in eastern Sinai, notably the ability to deploy troops and certain equipment there.

There is a real risk to the US' focus on the Israeli angle in its approach to Egypt: that it will repeat the same mistakes as before and contribute to the return of autocratic governement for the sake of Israel. We have already seen a US administration that has been silent about most of the post-Mubarak human rights abuse (12,000 cases to military tribunals, etc.) and the shoddy transition process put in place by SCAF, whereas it is willing to make statements on the Israeli embassy raid.

What I fear most is that concern over Camp David will lead Washington straight back to the relationship it had with Egypt under Mubarak. That relationship allowed both Egypt and Israel to escape the consequences of their actions, to the detriment of stated US policy goals in the region, while dragging the US further and further into complicity in the occupation of the Palestine (notably the joint US-Egyptian training program for US security forces, which effectively made Washington a partner in the policing of the West Bank.) It also created considerable resentment of the US for backing Mubarak, and made incoherent policies of democracy promotion. It is better to have an anti-Israel democratic Egypt than a pro-Israel autocratic one, particularly as in any case Egypt cannot afford, and does not want, conflict with Israel. What it does need is the ability to play the regional role it aspires to, and that might mean withdrawing an ambassador when something the like of the Gaza or Lebanon wars take place.

Indeed, there is an opportunity in an Egypt that is more assertive over Israel: since the US has proven, for political reasons, to be incapable of being assertive over Israel itself, it could lead to a less unhinged foreign policy from Tel Aviv. It could make policies that the US nominally supports, such as the Arab Peace Initiative, finally worth considering by Israeli politicians. The lesson here for all actors the US interacts with is that actions have consequences: for Israel, this means the occupation and its doctrines of collective punishment; for Egypt this should mean that a military caste cannot continue to effectively blackmail Washington over its attitude to Israel.

The same line of thinking should extend to US military aid and other measures: no disbursement of funds while the transition is as shoddy as it is now. Washington should show it has learned something from the Arab uprisings, and aid conditionality should become a standard. True, Congress will continue to be used by the Israeli lobby to either punish or reward Egypt's government. That is unavoidable. But an administration otherwise hampered by domestic politics in its ability to deal with Israel in a rational fashion can take the lead and do its best to disentangle its relationship with Egypt from its relationship with Israel.

Naturally, the Israel lobby in America is concerned about these developments. Robert Satloff of WINEP, the influential pro-Israel think tank, has penned a piece urging Barack Obama to take stock of the situation in Egypt and take a lead in sending a clear message to Egyptian political forces and the SCAF. Here's the core of what he's worried about:

No matter which path the Egyptian revolution takes, Egypt-Israel peace, in any tangible sense of the term, is almost surely a victim. While the Egyptian authorities recognize that a formal break with Israel runs against their interests, peace has already been denuded of virtually all its content. Even before Mubarak fell, peace had only four real elements left: the gas pipeline to Israel, the operation of several qualifying industrial zones, severely limited diplomatic relations, and well-defined counterterrorism and intelligence cooperation vis-a-vis Islamist extremists. And, already, much of that is gone or transformed beyond recognition. Al-Ahram reported yesterday, for example, that prior to the attack on the Israeli embassy, Egypt asked Israel to keep its ambassador to Cairo on an extended holiday in Tel Aviv, fearful that his presence would be a lightning rod for protests. (The Israelis sent him back to Cairo nonetheless.) On the current glidepath, Egypt-Israel relations are headed toward a situation of "no war, no peace." Some Egyptians may believe this is politically optimal, but in practice it is a high-wire act almost impossible to sustain. 

And here is what he suggests:

  • That the US should offer a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) to Egypt as a token of the long-term commitment to bilateral relations;
  • That Barack Obama should visit Cairo to deliver a message to Egypt's interim leaders and its political forces, along the following lines:

As Egypt's elections approach, the likely results range between bad and worse. Liberal, reformist forces will not have a majority; the question is how large a plurality will be achieved by illiberal Islamist groups. In this environment, the administration has little to lose (and perhaps much to gain) from engaging Egyptians in a respectful but clear discussion about the consequences -- in terms of their relationship with the United States, Western nations, and international financial institutions — should they opt for leaders whose raison d'etre is fundamentally anti-U.S. and anti-West.

The irony in Satloff's first proposal — which I have no problem with except that it will be very difficult to get it past Congress (never mind the nitty-gritty of negotiations, notably over intellectual property rights, pharmaceuticals and textiles) — is that it would end the need for the QIZ agreement whereby Egypt exports goods with Israeli content to the US. I really don't see why US-Egypt trade should be tied to Israel, so I'm all for it, although as a matter of principle I would prefer it (as a US citizen) if Washington entered into FTAs for economic rather than political reasons.

As for the second proposal, I'm not sure that the same Barack Obama who honored Hosni Mubarak by visiting him in Cairo in June 2009 (for his speech to the Muslim world) has that much credibility here. But while Satloff envisages dangling carrots and sticks over the Israel issue, if any message from Washinton should come, it is that the old trilateral relationship is over. Let the Egyptians deal with Israel as they want, and vice-versa, and focus instead on bilateral relations. That should mean that there will be consequences for the old Mubarak-style bullshit (human rights abuses, the brouhaha over foreign funding, permanent emergency law, etc.), and that while Washington wants to turn a new page (as Obama said in his May 19 speech) it can only do so with a legitimate government.

The bigger picture here is that it is time to treat both Israelis and Egyptians like adults rather than petulant children, and let them sort out their own problems: if they don't like each other, fine. It's better to sacrifice the Camp David framework, which constrained Egypt to breaking point, to salvage the peace both sides want to maintain. Satloff's idea of peace constituting of these goodwill measures is wrong: peace consists of the absence of war. Friendship can wait for more auspicious times.