“We don’t have a strategy yet”. These were the shocking words of president Obama yesterday. Today (30 August) Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah Bin Abdulaziz responded by warning that the threat of terrorism will reach Europe and America if the world does not unite to confront it.
Sickened by the images coming in daily from the Islamic State (IS) in Iraq and Syria, citizens from all over the world tend to believe the Saudi King. Differences in origin, conviction or faith vanish in the face of so much barbarism. These extremists much look like the thirteen-century Mongolian incursion in the Middle East and its attempt at wiping out civilisation itself. Much like a new Dzjengis Khan, the self-proclaimed caliph Abu Bakr Al Baghdadi instituted a reign of terror sparing nothing and no one.
The Islamic State is indeed not some distant newsworthy event. Extremist jihadists have already threatened violence in the West on multiple occasions. The murderous attack on the Brussels Jewish Museum demonstrated this is within the realm of the possible. There’s the issue of “our boys” joining IS. Moreover IS is rapidly approaching the borders of Turkey, a NATO ally. And these are most probably just a few rain drips compared to the thunderstorm that might follow.
But even regardless of any direct threat to Europe or the US, the question arises whether it is at all acceptable to have an area the size of the UK being terrorised by barbaric inhumanity. So what should be done? First of all, it is clear, there’s no talking to such fanatic warriors. Condemnations from Islamic and Christian origin bring no avail. IS followers are convinced they alone are right and that all others are infidels and must therefore be killed.
So, unfortunately just one option remains. We shall have to speak the only language these extremist fighters understand: armed intervention. For all intents and purposes Europe is already at war with IS. The European Council of Foreign Ministers authorized the UK and France to support the US in airstrikes on IS and to supply weapons to the Peshmerga, the Kurdish troops in Iraq. These attacks were of big importance as the jihadists were closing in on Erbil, Iraq’s Kurdish capital. Moreover, thousands of Yezidis were on the brink of starvation. Psychologically too, these attacks were important because they shattered the image of invincibility of IS warriors.
However, to stop IS madness we will have to go further. And we must avoid the mistakes of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As such, it is crucial that neither NATO nor any other western alliance takes the lead in fighting IS. That would be a godsend for these jihadists, claiming the Christian West is again starting a new crusade, for which they could attract new recruits. Therefore it is crucial for a regional coalition to take the lead. Ideally neighbors Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Turkey step up. Iran’s involvement is necessary too, to prevent Shia groups from profiting from IS’ loss as is regretfully often the case around Bagdad today.
Focussing only on Iraq would be another mistake. The US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Dempsey said a few days ago that it would be an illusion to think we can defeat IS in Iraq without dealing with them in Syria too. And just as Maliki in Iraq, Syria’s Assad is not the solution but the problem. Syria too needs an inclusive, democratic and therefore anti-sectarian government. During negotiations in Geneva, it became very clear that Bashar Al Assad is not interested whatsoever in such a solution. Meanwhile, more and more evidence of Assad’s complicity in the rise IS is surfacing. Without Bashar Al Assad ISIS would have never been what it is today.
Former US Ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, concluded we should empower and arm the moderate rebels. For the past nine months, they have been the only ones to systematically fight IS(IS). The fact that the Free Syrian Army and the Kurdish troops in Syria now want to join forces to take on IS only increases their credibility as a partner. In the end, Ford claims, only a stronger rebel army will be capable of forcing the Syrian regime to negotiate and to come to an anti-sectarian unity government.
Nobody wants to live under a reign of terror. It would be a mistake to think Syrians or Iraqi live enthusiastically in the Islamic State. The population of the Northern Syrian city Azaaz was the first to oust the occupiers. Today resistance is emerging in Raqqa and Mosul. It is time to act and to come to the rescue of these people. Even more, a well thought through strategy against the barbaric Islamic State could well be the key to peace in Iraq and Syria.
Therefore the world indeed needs to unite against the Islamic State. A coalition must be built to support an alliance of Middle Eastern countries to fight IS, to empower and arm the Peshmerga, to reunite and arm the Free Syrian Army and other moderate rebel groups. The goal of these efforts is clear: to get red of fanatic and sectarian forces in Iraq and Syria and form the only alternative: two democratic and inclusive unity governments that can make a new start.
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With thanks to Kristof Debergh
R.I.P. Iraq. The country is no more. Iraq has ceased to exist. That is my conclusion after a short, but intensive visit to Erbil, the capital of Iraqi Kurdistan. It is not the declaration of the “Islamic State” on 29 June that marks the turning point. It will rather be the soon-expected declaration of independence by the Iraqi Kurds which will prove irreversible.
Few paid attention two weeks after the parliamentary elections of 30 April 2014 when Masoud Barzani, president of Iraqi Kurdistan, threatened to boycott a new government led by Iraqi PM Nuri Maliki. Barzani said he had enough of the authoritarian way in which Maliki has governed.
The dispute between Erbil and Baghdad dates back a long time. One elements is that the referendum on disputed areas such as Kirkuk, promised in the constitution of 2005, never came to be. The referendum was to determine if these areas would be part of Kurdish Iraq or not.
Since the end of 2013 the friction between the two capitals has seriously aggravated.
In November 2012, Erbil signed a historic agreement with Ankara to use the Turkish pipeline to the port of Ceyhan. Baghdad claims the Kurds have no right to do it independently. This reaction is comprehensible as one third of Iraq’s oil reserves are located in Kurdistan.
On top of that, new gas resources have been found and might soon be ready for exploitation. The Kurds insist that the constitution gives them the authority to exploit and sell their own hydrocarbons. They already exported crude oil secretly by trucks to Iran and Turkey. But a pipeline is a different matter.
Maliki reacted furiously and to cut the monthly budget transfer to Erbil. The Iraqi constitution stipulates that Baghdad should allocate a share of 17 percent of the budget to the Kurds. Falah Mustafa, the foreign minister of the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG), told me that Baghdad never allocated more than 11 percent anyway. But in January 2014 Maliki blocked the whole thing.
The consequences have been disastrous. With 70 to 80 percent of Iraqi Kurds working for the regional government in one way or another, all of them stopped getting paid. The KRG had to take loans from Turkey in order to restart paying a part of people’s salaries in March. It only served to deepen the resentment of the Kurds to the central government in Baghdad.
This resentment, together with the sectarian and authoritarian rule of Maliki, prompted Kurdish president Barzani to make his harsh comments in May 2014. “Those who cut the budget of Kurdistan are going to pay the price of that decision,” he said at that time.
Barzani and his fellow Kurds knew there would be no support for their demand for more autonomy, not to speak of independence. But all that changed drastically and suddenly on 10 June 2014, when the exterme jihadists of the Islamiq State of Iraq and Sham (ISIS) captured Mosul and a great part of the province of Nineveh.
The Kurds had predicted trouble. They warned Baghdad that Baathists, people linked the former regime of Saddam Hussein, and extremist groups were forming an alliance to organise a Sunni Muslim revolt.
The Shia Muslim Maliki has not only neglected the Kurds, but all the more so the Sunni population of Western Iraq. He also changed the US-trained “inclusive” Iraqi army into a Shia militia loyal to himself. At the time of the ISIS attack, just 5 percent of Iraqi soldiers were Sunni and 2 to 3 percent were Kurdish.
Selected on sectarian grounds instead of merit, these soldiers saw no reason to die to defend a Sunni region against Sunni fighters. Small wonder the Iraqi army let the ISIS-led alliance capture Western Iraq without resistance.
The events have transformed the mood in Iraqi Kurdistan. The Peshmerga, the Kurdish forces, captured Kirkuk, cheered on by every Kurdish person. Kurds everywhere declared their readiness to join the force and to fight for Kurdish territory and independence.
A Kurdish journalist told me that being a soldier in the Peshmerga is now considered the most prestigious job in Kurdistan. He said that for people who haven’t been paid for months by Baghdad “it is more honourable to be a fighter, than a doctor or an engineer”.
The KRG believes it has a window of opportunity.
Rudaw, a media centre funded by Kurdish PM Barzani, is feeding the independence movement. It recently interviewed constitutional experts from Quebec, a separatist province in Canada, who advised Kurds to break away immediately.
Barzani also formed a new coalition government on 19 June. All the Kurdish parties agreed to put aside their differences to work together for the same goal.
It should have caused little surprise when he told CNN journalist Christiane Amanpour on 23 June that: “The time is here for the people of Kurdistan to determine their future and the decision of the people is what we are going to uphold.”
His biography gives an insight into the developments.
He was born in 1946 in the Republic of Mahabad, or the Republic of Kurdistan. It was the only independent country the Kurds ever had and it lasted one year. Barzani’s father, Mustafa, was its military chief. But when Iran crushed the republic, the Barzanis fled to Erbil. Asked by Amanpour if he felt his “life’s work is about to be accomplished”, he answered: “I really hope that is the case”.
All the Kurds I spoken to on my visit, from artists and journalists, to diplomats and KRG ministers, gave the same message: this is our moment and we will not let it pass.
Everything seems to be in place.
With the oil up and running, they have stable revenue. With Kirkuk, they have their disputed territory back. All the parties are united in one government. The Peshmerga is highly motivated and unchallenged by Iraqi forces.
The one question that remains is what will be Barzani’s strategy?
Government sources told me a decision has not been made yet. One of the main reasons is the question of international support. But now that Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu and officials in the Turkey’s ruling AKP party have endorsed Kurdish independence, there is little to stop the Kurds from going ahead.
While the world talks about what to do with the Islamic State, we might well see a Kurdish State emerge sooner than we thought.
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Yesterday, on April 30, we buried our dear friend Bassem Sabry in Cairo. He died in an accident. He was only 31. Since the revolution in 2011 Egyptian activists have buried many friends. But somehow the news of Bassem’s death left many people more devastated than ever before. Me too.
Bassem was the best Egypt had to offer. Talking to him felt like entering an oasis in times of destruction and insanity. When leaving his conversation and his oasis the desert looked greener, more hopeful. For outsiders it’s perhaps hard to grasp how difficult it is in revolutionary times not to be taken by waves of emotion and populism. Bassem always stood firm, keeping the right intellectual and emotional distance. He had this rare capacity of always focussing on what really matters: a free and democratic Egypt where human rights are the main pillar.
I was always amazed on how Bassem succeeded in writing the one brilliant analysis after the other, working full-time in producing movies, organizing his party, advising top politicians, explaining Egypt to ambassadors and international visiters and always taking enough time for his wide circle of friends. I felt privileged to be one of them.
The first time he sat at the dinner table in my apartment we were discussing the presidential elections of 2012. No-one had an idea of who would reach the second round. Suddenly, Bassem said: ‘What if the second round is between Morsi and Shafiq?’ We all looked shocked. That would be the nightmare scenario for Egypt’s revolution. So we pushed the idea away. But the nightmare scenario became reality. Bassem was right. Again.
We not just lost a very dear friend. We lost the most important face of a group of Egyptians that fights for a different Egypt. An open Egypt, where everyone can have his place but where no-one can impose his conviction upon the others. He was the main voice of the real liberal Egypt. Of a progressive Egypt based on ideas and facts instead of slogans and rumours. He had the potential of a future prime minister or even a future Taha Houssein, the main liberal voice of Egypt in the 20th century.
Bassem Sabry was for me the most important representative of a generation that made me never lose hope in a better future for Egypt and the entire Arab world. Luckily he was not alone. On his funeral I saw many people determined and capable of pushing the dream of Bassem and so many Egyptians forward. There is enough reason to be hopeful that one day that dream will become reality. But yes, the liberal dream lost one of its brightest sons.
Our common project to create a think tank in Cairo was almost becoming reality, after three years. I promised you to give you a tour in Belgium. And just one week ago we planned to have dinner, to catch up. I cancelled it and postponed it to next week. Now there is no next week. And even no next month. There is only one promise: your friends will do whatever is in their strength to realize your dream for Egypt. Even though without you it will be a lot harder.
We will miss you dearly, my friend.
On Wednesday 23, Tony Blair gave a speech at Bloomberg articulating his vision on the Arab world. On one point I fully agree: the world must engage itself in the region. We must do more in the Arab world, especially in Libya and Syria. And our commitment should indeed be based on values like open-mindedness and human rights. That’s the easy part. Problematic is the vision on which Tony Blair wants to base this commitment. He divides the Arab world in two groups: close-minded Islamists and open-minded secularists. Declaring the Islamists as the enemies of the world. This is not only a simplistic view of the Arab world, it is above all a dangerous, Manichean way of dividing the world in black and white, good guys and bad guys. It is the kind of vision that made the war in Iraq such a disaster.
After three years living and working in the Arab world I learned things are slightly more complex. Just one example is that Saudi Arabia, the bad guys in the eyes of Blair, are supporting Egypt’s military presidential candidate, who is a good guy for Blair. It is indeed just one example that the battle of ideas in the Arab world is not just one between dangerous Islamists and good secularists. In reality there are many battles going on, with often shifting alliances. Let me single out three of – what I think are – the most important ‘battles’ going on in the Arab world. Each one of the three are complex battles, with a long history and deserve many pages of explanation.
The first one is indeed a battle of ideas between Islamists and ‘secularists’. It dates back to the 9th century, during the Abbasid Caliphate in Bagdad. It came to an end in the 12th century, but revived in the 19th century after the invasion of Napoleon in Egypt in 1798. Many Arabs realized that Europe was far ahead. There were two different reactions to this realization: one was that Arabs had to learn from Europe and implement European modernity in an Arab way. The other analysis was that the Arab world was behind because it deviated from the right Islamic path and so that only by returning to true Islamism, the Arab world would revive. It is in this camp that Salafis, Muslim Brothers, Saudi Arabia, mullah Iran and AKP find themselves and share the same point of view. Of course the actions of Al Qaeda and Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIS) are despicable and barbarian. But they are only a very small and extremist part of the larger Islamist movement. Calling all Islamists terrorists would be the same as calling all socialists dangerous communists.
The second battle – between Muslim Brothers and nationalists – goes back to 1882 and to the First World War. In 1882 Britain invaded and occupied Egypt while crushing the democratic revolt lead by Colonel Orabi. In 1881 France already invaded Tunisia. Later, after the Arab Revolt (with the British soldier Lawrence of Arabia) pushed back the Ottoman Empire, Britain and France betrayed the Arabs by occupying their land, breaking the promise of independence. The colonial occupation of the Arab countries led to two different reactions. The first one is nationalist. The best-known example is the Wafd movement of Saad Zaghloul in Egypt, combining nationalism with liberalism. The second reaction was pan-Islamism. The most important pan-Islamic movement was and still is the Muslim Brotherhood. The main goal of the Brotherhood was the reinstallation of the abolished Caliphate and kicking the Western colonial powers out of the Arab world. Since the very start in 1928 the nationalists saw this pan-Islamic Brotherhood as a security threat to the very existence of their state. This is why Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Kuwait and the Emirates fight the Muslim Brotherhood and its supporter Qatar.
The third battle is the one between Iran and Saudi Arabia which started at the very beginning of Islam. This battle is partly religious – between Sunni and Shia – but mainly about power. Persia has always been an important regional power. Iran wants this status back and is dreaming of a greater Persia. That’s why Iran makes surprising alliances. It for example supports the Muslim Brotherhood dictatorship of Al Bashir in Sudan and Hamas in the Gaza strip, both Sunni. It also supports the Shia in Iraq as well as some extreme Sunni fighters in Syria in order to destabilize the more moderate opposition. This battle is also the reason why Saudi Arabia refused its seat in the UN Security Council as it thinks the US is making a major mistake in negotiating with Iran.
Understanding these three battle lines helps to explain why the deeply Wahabi Saudi Arabia is supporting the Salafis in Egypt but also the nationalist Field Marshall Sisi, why it is uniting the Gulf countries against Qatar, why it is at the same time supporting all kinds of rebels in Syria and why there is an intelligence cooperation with Israel when Iranian arms are on their way to Gaza. It also helps to explain why Erdogan is supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt against the Saudis, but is cooperating with the Saudis against Assad in Syria. And it clarifies why Egypt under Morsi was working on a rapprochement with Iran, but supporting the Syrian opposition, while Egypt under Sisi is not talking to Iran, but doesn’t want the Arab League to condemn Bashar Al Assad.
This overview of just three of the ‘battles’ going on in the Arab world is way too short and needs much more nuances in order to be correct. It’s only a short introduction to the complexity of the Arab world of today. Again, I fully support the call of Mr Blair for a real commitment in the Arab world. However, a commitment based on wrong and simplistic assumptions will only lead to a new disaster. It’s time to learn from the past and from all the mistakes the West has made in this region. And let us not forget that many of the problems in the Arab world of today are a result of a wrong and perfide policy of the West. Declaring Islamists the enemies of the world is repeating the same appalling mistake as after 9/11. It resulted in the illegal war in Iraq and destabilized the Arab world. But also, back then it created a vicious Islamophobia of which all secular Muslims became victim as well. It also made our Western societies more close-minded, leading to a certain victory for the far-right parties in the European elections on 25 May. Frankly, Mr Blair, I cannot believe you are doing it again.
 For the full text of the speech: http://www.tonyblairoffice.org/news/entry/why-the-middle-east-matters-keynote-speech-by-tony-blair/
Tomorrow, on January 22, 2014, the Geneva II conference will start. After some deplorable miscommunication on the invitation of Iran, all main actors decided to participate. The aim of the conference is to find a way to end the devastating war in Syria. Up untill a few weeks ago the main issue on the table was how to build a transition government towards elections and whether or not Bashar Al Assad could be part of it. Now the paradigm has changed into the question how the world can get rid of the Al Qaeda linked Jihadists of ISIS, the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (Shams).
However, the most surprising shift of the last weeks is the fact that Assad is back in the game. More and more people start to wonder if there is any alternative for Assad to fight Jihadism in Syria. Didn’t he always warn the world for the dangers of Al Qaeda if his regime would fall? The Assad regime might be bad, but a Caliphate under the leadership of the emir of ISIS is – no doubt – a far worse nightmare. Aren’t Assad and his forces the only guarantee against a full-fledged sectarian war expanding over the entire region? And didn’t Assad fulfil his promise and fully cooperated in destroying his chemical weapons? That at least seems the conviction of some European intelligence agencies that apparently already started to share information on Jihadist forces with the intelligence services of Damascus.
By bringing Bashar Al Assad back in the game, we tend to make abstraction of what was really happening in Syria since the revolution broke out on March 15, 2011. Even though there were no armed rebels during the first months of the revolt, Assad kept on repeating that the protesters were nothing more than terrorists and extremists. He must have been very happy when in January 2012 finally the first Jihadist group, Jabhat Al Nusra, appeared. He could use them as the reason for bombing Baba Amr (Homs) to the ground in February 2012 and (falsely) blame them for having perpetrated the massacre of Houla (Homs) in May of the same year.
The Assad regime must have been even happier when ISIS appeared as a force in Syria in April 2013. Now he could accuse them of his chemical attack in Ghouta in August 2013. With the help of Moscow many even believed it. It was this doubt that made the US and the UK change their mind on attacking Syria and using Russia’s proposal to destroy Syria’s chemical weapons as a scapegoat. Suddenly Assad became someone we can make deals with, while the rebel forces and the political opposition remained divided and inefficient.
But even if we assume that ISIS and Al Qaeda are behind all these crimes against humanity, we should ask ourselves why it is that Assad is not fighting harder against them? Instead of throwing barrel bombs on neighbourhoods in Aleppo, he could attack Raqqa, the stronghold of ISIS. But he doesn’t. Instead of using a large amount of soldiers to starve out twenty thousand Palestinian refugees in Yarmouk, he could use these troops to fight Jihadists in the province of Deir Ezzor. But he doesn’t.
It is not Assad, but a coalition of rebel groups and the Free Syrian Army that decided to fight against ISIS and liberate towns and cities from their reign of terror. It is not Assad but the inhabitants of these towns who started to revolt against the rule of Al Qaeda. So, Syrian citizens and Syrian rebel groups are the ones who are taking a stance against the foreign fighters of ISIS, not Assad. It is equally remarkable that ISIS used much more suicide attacks against the coalition of rebel forces than against the regime.
In the search for a solution it is clear that dismissing everyone connected to the current regime would be a severe mistake. People of the current administration and army are absolutely needed to create the necessary stability and to rebuild the country. But thinking we should keep Bashar Al Assad in place as a partner against Al Qaeda and other affiliated Jihadist groups would be a historical error. This scenario is not only inacceptable for at least half of the Syrians. It would be a signal to all dictators that the more innocent citizens you kill, the more sectarian violence you instigate and the more extremism you accept, the more chances you have the world will forgive you.
There should be no misunderstanding: keeping Bashar Al Assad in place is the best guarantee that the war, the slaughter, the starvation and the torture will continue for many years to come. It will further expand the conflict throughout the region and will increase the amount of refugees worldwide. They will not come back when the reason for their misery stays put. A so-called leader who bombs his own people with SCUD rockets is no leader and never will be.
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Many Europeans were baffled when they saw the recent images from Kiev’s Independence Square, or, as it is now being called, the EuroMaidan: Hundreds of thousands of people taking to the streets, defying the cold and the police warnings, to wave EU flags and to chant “Europe!”
How is it possible?
Not one EU citizen would even consider going to stand on a snowy square with a European flag in his hand to ask for more European integration or a bolder European foreign policy. No. The mood in the EU is one of scepticism, cynicism and indifference. The trend is one of scaling down and of being everything but ambitious.
The result is that the European Union is driving with the handbrake on. It does take measures, but they are always too little and often too late in order to solve the problem or meet the challenge. One example is the financial and economic crisis. Another is the Neighbourhood Policy, which is becoming an unprecedented disaster.
Not only Ukraine broke off the negotiations on its Association Agreement with the EU. Armenia did the same thing in September. Instead, it decided to join the Russian Eurasian Economic Community’s “Customs Union.” Ukraine appears to be following the same scenario. The reality is that Russia bought them out.
A similar scenario is unfolding in the Union’s southern neighbourhood. In the Arab world the main player is not Russia but the Gulf countries, however. Since July, Egypt has turned its back towards the EU and the United States, while receiving billions from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the Emirates. Jordan has a direct financial lifeline from Saudi Arabia. Qatar is playing a major role in Libya and Morocco is increasingly looking to the Gulf for a solution for its financial problems.
It is hard to overestimate what is happening. Talks about a customs union and a common currency in the Gulf have been going on for a long time without any progress. But this might change very soon. Just as European integration always moves faster when there is an external threat, Gulf integration is now moving faster because of the threat of Iran. This week the Gulf countries already decided to organise a common military command.
The Arab region is fearing that Iran is breaking its free of its isolation. Every Sunni Muslim country is now convinced that Iran, a Shia Muslim power, will do everything it can to further destabilise the region by supporting Shia Muslim protests. The fact that their old allies, the US and the EU, are the engines behind the new deal with Iran, makes them unreliable in the eyes of many Sunni leaders.
But the lack of a serious EU neighbourhood policy is probably the most visible in Libya. It is the only Arab Spring country where the Muslim Brotherhood did not win the elections. The hopes of the ruling government were set on Europe. Libya needs a lot of support to build a proper security apparatus, to deal with demands for autonomy and to organise a genuine national dialogue in which reconciliation is on top of the agenda.
What the EU is currently doing is far too little and the consequence is that Qatar is stepping in. It is supporting the Muslim Brotherhood in Libya. It is helping to push militias to threaten the government to adopt legislation like the Political Isolation Law and a law that forbids interest on bank savings. The goal is clear: preparing the ground for its own political puppets and its own Islamic banks. If you have both, you control the economy and the oil.
Many Europeans might not care about these regional struggles and shifting alliances. But many Egyptians, Libyans, Moroccans, Tunisians, Jordanians, Armenians, Georgians, Ukrainians and Azerbaijanis do care. This year I heard from all of them that they had strongly hoped the EU would step up. Even in Baku, everyone is asking for the EU to be more present as they feel squeezed between an increasingly confident Russia and Iran. The people of these countries know very well that the history of the European Union has been one of turning poor dictatorships into prosperous democracies.
Even those Europeans who are less interested in high ideals and the freedoms of other people, should think twice before they shrug their shoulders: A less stable neighbourhood means more illegal immigration. It also means the end of energy supply diversification, making the EU more dependent on the mood swings of Moscow and Riyadh.
These are crucial times for the European Union. In one year it might lose the alliances it has tried to build up for decades. It is time to wake up and to react quickly and firmly. At the same time, EU institutions are preparing for elections and for a change of the guard in almost every top position. But despite this, Europe cannot afford to let those hundreds of thousands of Ukrainians down. The outcome of the Ukrainian dilemma is going to determine how serious the EU is about spreading freedom and democracy. If it loses Ukraine, the EU might also lose its entire eastern and southern neighbourhood. The world is watching.
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“Yesterday the regime killed three of my close family members. They were in prison since one year. Now they were killed on the same day.” Salim Idriss, General Commander of the FSA, looked at me with glazy eyes. We met at the same place where he was holding talks with some of the rebel groups of the so-called Syrian Islamic Army. This new coalition of some fifty rebel groups in Syria was formed on 29 September 2013. A few days before this official announcement they already declared not to recognize the Syrian National Coalition and that the wanted the Islamic law as the basis for legislation.
If they are that strong, why would they decide to talk to the official FSA almost immediately after their foundation, I asked. The answer Idriss gave me was surprisingly obvious: they want more weapons and more money. The main group of the Islamic Army, Liwa al Islam is part of the Supreme Military Council of the FSA (SMC). And they, just like some other groups of this Islamic Army, are represented in the SMC. But most of all it is the timing that explains the formation: two weeks after the US decision not to attack the Syrian army but make a deal with Russia to remove Assad’s chemical weapons instead.
The frustration runs deep in the rebel camp. On the one side they see extremist groups like the Al Qaeda linked Jabhat Al Nusra and ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Al Shams) becoming stronger, better equipped and richer, while on the other side the promised arms and other support to the FSA by the West are nothing more than a joke. A few days before the US attack that never happened, Secretary of State John Kerry called to Salim Idriss to guarantee him an attack would happen. It would have changed so much indeed. The Syrian army was frightened to death while ISIS was moving their headquarters every day, as these Jihadists too were convinced they were to be bombed. It would have triggered a wave of defections. As a matter of fact the wave already started with former Syrian Minister of Defence, Ali Habib as the most symbolic one.
The result of the non-attack was immediately clear. Bashar Al-Assad appeared on Fox news as if he had already won the war. And ISIS started an attack on the strategic important city of Azaaz. Azaaz lies on the border with Turkey, controlling the way from Aleppo to Gaziantep. It is a stronghold of one of the FSA brigades, the Northern Storm. I met with them the first time I went into Syria. It must be said that this group does not consist of the most educated fighters and that they were not managing the liberated city as they should. They were also the ones who kidnapped the nine Lebanese pilgrims who were liberated last week. When ISIS attacked Azaaz it believed it would be welcomed as liberators from the Northern Strom ‘crooks’. Not so. Strong groups as Liwa Al Tawheed and Ahrar Al Shams came to stop ISIS, while the citizens of Azaaz started protesting against the presence of ISIS and the totalitarian rules it was imposing.
Six months earlier, in April 2013, I spent a few days on the headquarters of the FSA. It was just before ISIS was founded. I witnessed how from the early morning until after midnight FSA groups from all over Syria visited Salim Idriss. They all came with the same story: we can make progress but we need the right weapons. But instead of arms, President Obama decided to send hot meals. Again, ISIS did not exist and Jabhat Al Nusra didn’t represent more than five percent of the total of rebel fighters. With proper arms the FSA would not only have saved many lives, it would also have made the growth of these Jihadist groups impossible.
But here we are today, overseeing the mess we allowed to happen and wondering what we should do. Trying to forget our broken promises, we found a new one: Geneva II. Now every Western country repeats that the only way out for Syria is a political solution. The vast majority of the Syrians couldn’t agree more. But how on earth is this going to happen now? The West has been defeated on the Russian diplomatic chessboard. After the chemical weapons deal Assad feels victorious. Most of the world’s attention is now going to the so-called terrorists and is hardly reporting his atrocities anymore. Assad is more than happy that we will try to find a political solution on the same chessboard he and his Russian friends have won the last game.
At the same time there are serious cracks in the anti-Assad coalition. The new Egyptian government pulled out for internal reasons and made a common position of the Arab League as good as impossible. But even more important is the anger of Saudi Arabia. The Saudis were not only appalled by the sudden American-Russian deal, the non-attack and the rapprochement to Iran. They are even more angered by the fact that the US failed to inform the Kingdom on these crucial steps.
It is no coincidence that it is Saudi Arabia that is behind the formation of the Islamic army. Even though the new president of the Syrian Opposition Coalition (SOC) was a Saudi choice, it seems that Saudi Arabia has stopped its support for the SOC and is concentrating its efforts on the fighting groups on the ground. The statement of the Islamic Army of 24 September makes three things clear. First, no more support for the SOC. Second, by asking for sharia, but excluding ISIS and Jabhat Al Nusra, the Islamic Army is clearly meant as a counterforce against these two Jihadi groups. Third, as the main brigades are part of the SMC, it is meant as a wake-up call for the FSA.
Last week in Gaziantep I had a coffee with Mansour, an activist who spent one year in one of the worst prisons of the Syrian Air Force. Coming from a secular family he told me how one of his nephews joined Jabhat Al Nusra. Not because he believed in Jihad, but because he needed the money to buy food for his family. The big difference between Al Nusra and ISIS is that while all of the ISIS fighters are extremist Jihadists, a lot of the Al Nusra fighters are not. They join Al Nusra because they need the money. FSA brigades don’t pay as they have no money. I heard this story time and again, inside and outside Syria. This is the reason why Jabhat Al Nusra and ISIS split after a short period of joining forces. Most Al Nusra fighters couldn’t live with the ‘too extremist ISIS’ way of working. Also, ISIS is seen as non-Syrian and most of the foreign fighters are with them.
What should be done? If we put all pieces together, we must conclude that the situation is not that much different as it was six months ago. There is a military stalemate on the ground. The political opposition is divided. The Syrian army is not very strong and avoids fighting on the ground. Instead they are targeting the population by bombing from the air and long distance missiles. Six months ago we were fearing Jabhat Al Nusra, today we fear ISIS. And just like six months ago, Bashar Al Assad is not prepared to move one inch. The one thing that probably has changed is the perception the world has of the Syrian conflict. The propaganda machine of Assad has done a good job.
So, if we are serious about ending this catastrophic conflict, stopping the Jihadists and getting the most brutal dictator of the 21st century out, there are not too many options. A political solution will only be possible if the people around Assad – military or civilian – understand they can’t win anymore. They will be the ones that need to be convinced they will have a better future without Assad. But as long as Assad is in his current winning mood, this will never happen. Therefore there is no other solution than go back to square one: arm the FSA with weapons that can stop airplanes and long distance missiles. Give them money so they can pay their soldiers. Give them training so they stop committing war crimes and punish those who do. Make sure that humanitarian aid is reaching all Syrians, also those in liberated and disputed areas. Because only a stronger FSA will be able to unite forces and negotiate the so much needed political solution for Syria.
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I arrived back in Cairo late in the evening, during curfew. The streets were as good as empty and the soldiers at the checkpoints were fairly friendly. However, at a distant I could hear gunshots. Apparently, at some checkpoints soldiers fire in the air in order to warn people that a checkpoint is on their way. Another sign of the very tense situation. My taxi driver told me that his pro-Morsi friends will not stop fighting, a fact he deplores. In his opinion it is up to the Muslim Brotherhood to refrain from violence first.
Both the Muslim Brotherhood and the secular/military side are very much convinced of the truth of their story. Moreover, for many Egyptians the current battle is one of life and death. It is a struggle for the identity of their country and what they believe in. No wonder that the emotions run very, very deep. In the last two months it has wrecked many friendship and even families. Whoever makes a remark that goes against one of the two stories is rubberstamped as a traitor and an apologist of the rival camp. This state of mind – on top of the historical allergy towards any foreign interference – makes most Egyptians today oversensitive towards whatever remarks from the international community.
The result of this ‘you are either with us or against us’ mindset is that every country has been put in one of the camps. So far Turkey, Tunisia, Qatar, Malaysia and Germany have been put in the pro-Morsi camp. Saudi-Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain, Jordan, the UAE and Russia are part of the anti-Morsi camp. The United States is a kind of special case as both camps are convinced the US is supporting the other side. One can of course discuss if all this is fair or not, but what I am trying to do is explaining the current Egyptian state of mind.
An important question is who in the international community is left to mediate between the two camps? I only see the European Union as a possible candidate. EU High Representative surprised everyone with the access she received at both sides. It was General Sissi who granted her permission to meet with Morsi. It was through the EU that since April 2013 Egypt came close to a negotiated way out of the crisis. If Morsi would have accepted the first deal, he would still be president, be it of a united government. If the Army would have accepted the second deal (in August) the bloody dispersal of Rabaa on August 14 most probably would not have taken place.
Although I understand that for the voters back home it is good for the European governments to take some measures against Egypt, I think it is important for the EU to think about two questions: What is the impact of our decision and what are the consequences?
What is the impact? The European Union can take several measures. It can cut the budget lines of the EU Neighbourhood Policy. It can combine this with cutting the aid of the EU member-states. And it can cut or freeze the economic boost promised in November 2012. About how much money are we talking? The budget of the EU Neighbourhood Policy is less than 200 million euro a year. Combined with the national budgets for Egypt we are talking about more or less 600 million euro.
These are fairly small budgets. Moreover, seen the situation most of that money is currently not being spent. The economic boost budget would be 5 billion euro. This is of course a lot more, but we have to take into account that this amount is merely made by loans that have to be paid back. If we compare these amount with the 12 billion dollar promised by Saudi-Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE, we must admit that the impact of cutting these budgets is fairly limited. On top of that, Saudi-Arabia already promised they would step in and pay for every aid being cut by the West.
Other possible measures could be an arms embargo or a travel ban for certain personalities. Although the EU itself has of course no arm deals with Egypt, the national states do have. All arm contracts together are worth a few hundred million euro. The problem with an embargo, as well as with travel bans, is that it smells too much as what the EU did in Syria. The fact that Russia would be happy to take over these contracts sounds even more like Syria.
But even more important than the numbers is the fact that it is very unlikely that one of both camps will change its position or the way it works by any of these measures. No country likes to be punished, but if punishments do not change anything then why would we take these measures? Some say that remaining silent would even be worse. I agree, but I think we should first look at the possible consequences.
What are the consequences? The main consequence of taking tough measures against Egypt today could be that the EU will be put in the basket of the pro-Morsi camp. The EU can of course say that it remains neutral and just wants stop giving aid to a country that uses violence against its citizens. But that will not work for the anti-Morsi side. The most problematic consequence of this would be that the European Union would lose its neutrality and thus its ability to mediate. And as the EU is left as the only possible mediator, that could be problematic in the near future. Because there is no scenario for Egypt to stabilize and go forward without a solution between both camps.
To conclude, of course the EU can and should condemn the violence committed by both sides. The police reaction to the sit-in in Rabaa was disproportionate and thus unacceptable. But arming protesters and burning churches is not less unacceptable. The EU can add new conditions on its aid and economic boost package. It is necessary to get proof from the Egyptian government that it proceeds towards elections which are open for all and that human rights are respected. But if the EU wants to keep its important role as future mediator it should resist the calls from the public back home to go and take severe measures against Egypt right now.
Confusion all around in Egypt today. Everywhere discussions rage on whether or not the military did a coup, if June 30 was a second revolution or a protraction of the 2011 revolution. What to do with the Muslim Brotherhood, let alone president Muhamed Morsi who is being kept hidden somewhere for over two weeks? My cab driver declared going to a pro-Morsi protest although he absolutely did not want the Muslim Brotherhood or Morsi to reassume power. Confusing.
However, the deep feelings of hatred that surface these days, are more cause for concern than the confusion. Many hate the Muslim Brotherhood and are willing to do anything to break the backbone of the organization. They’re convinced the MB are religious totalitarians. Others hate the military, the police and all things linked to the old regime as manifestation of all that went so very wrong in Egypt over the last decades. As for the MB, they hate everything that remotely smells like secularism. According to them, June 30 and all that preceded it, was one big conspiracy.
Actually, all are somewhat right in a certain way.
Who are the Muslim Brothers?
The MB was founded in 1928 by a young Egyptian teacher, Hassan Al Banna. It is no coincidence that Mustafa Kemal Attatürk had abolished the Caliphate just a few years earlier. Al Banna was convinced that Egyptians were westernizing too much and that they had to become real Muslims again. He wanted to achieve his goal by two means: resistance to the British occupation of Egypt, but above all through education of the Egyptians themselves. For all intents and purposes, Al Banna was a kind of a missionary. He travelled all over Egypt, persuading as many Egyptians a possible to join his underground resistance movement.
The MB combined religious education and social aid to the poorest. It made them immensely popular in no time. Egyptian and British authorities were less enthusiastic. They saw the MB as a subversive movement and quickly took action to suppress it. The Brothers were violent and murdered the Egyptian prime minister in the forties. A year later Hassan Al Banna himself was murdered.
The average Egyptian never really completely trusted the MB and this for three reasons. First, there is the ambiguity regarding their ultimate objective. Do they aim to restore the Caliphate? Do they aspire worldwide domination? Do they seek to transform Egypt into some sort of Saudi Arabia? The second reason is congruent with the first: it being a secret organization. As with free-masons, there’s no public list of members and nobody knows their exact numbers. And although they deny it, the MB is organized on an international level. The secrecy has a lot to do with persecution but also gives way to all kinds of conspiracy theories
The third reason for mistrust is the fact that the MB used a lot of violence. Their most infamous act was the assassination of president Anwar Sadat. Despite the fact they have since disavowed violence, many are convinced that the Brothers are behind terrorist organizations as Gamaa Al Islamiya or Al Qaida. Al Zawahiri, Osama Bin Laden successor has a MB past. It is no coincidence that every Egyptian president was on a tense footing with the Brotherhood while simultaneously being forced to deal with them.
The 2011 revolution
When on January 25th the first mass protests filled Tahrir, MB executives declared that its members would not join. They choose evolution, not revolution. Nonetheless many young members joined the revolutionaries at Tahrir. On January 28th the MB realized that remaining on the side-lines was not an option and backed the revolution. That was important because if the organization is capable of one thing, it is raising huge crowds. That became apparent after Hosni Mubarak had fallen and the military leaders made some big errors. If Tahrir needed to be filled, the Brothers delivered. It have them an aura of good organizers that could speak for a large part of Egyptians.
After all, the MB had the aura of the revolution and of decades of resistance to the dictatorship. Muhamed Morsi was pretty used to be in jail and he and many other leader of the MB still were imprisoned on January 25. Besides, they enjoyed the image of being ‘good Muslims’ and therefore honest people, as opposed to the corrupt regime. A third advantage they held over other opposition forces: they had a plan, the so-called Ennahda.
The 2011 elections
Therefore, it was no surprise the MB won the November elections in a very convincing way, with nearly 50% of the votes. The other contenders were divided, badly organized and made quite some campaign mistakes. On the subway, someone explained very plainly why he voted MB. He said: “To marry I must buy an apartment. I can’t do that if I lose my job. The economy must reboot. The MB is our best guarantee for that.”
The enthusiasm in Egypt before, during and after the elections was enormous. People queued for hours to cast their true first vote. Politics and the meaning of the newly won liberty was discussed all over, the subway, the market, at the barber shop. After the elections huge numbers of Egyptians listened in on the sessions of parliament that were broadcasted live on radio. They did so in cabs, in the street, in tea houses. Every word was heard. That initiated the first downfall of the MB.
Every Egyptian heard how chaotic the parliamentary debates were. They heard elected MB and Salafis table the most insane propositions. There was the representative that proposed to make it legal to have sexual intercourse with a spouse up until six hours after she died. It infuriated the average Egyptian. They voted for the MB to improve the economy not to discuss Islam. Popular support for the MB sank rapidly.
The 2012 presidential elections
I was sitting down with a few young revolutionaries the day before the first round of presidential elections. One of them suddenly questioned: ‘What if the second round is between Morsi and Ahmed Shafiq?’ That off course would be every revolutionaries worst nightmare. But voting for Shafiq was out of the question. He was Mubarak’s last prime minister. If Shafiq were to become president, the revolution would have been in vain. To the astonishment of many Egyptians that nightmare choice became reality.
Although Morsi, and thus the MB, only got 25% in the first round, half the score of the parliamentary elections six months earlier, he got the most votes of any candidate. 75% didn’t vote MB, but that vote was divided. It was (and still is) the reality of the opposition: divided and lacking a common strategy. Yours truly suggested the revolutionary candidates endorsed Morsi in return for half the power and a veto right. It never came to an actual deal along those lines for lack of unity in the revolutionary camp.
Nonetheless Muhamed Morsi accepted the proposal, live in the most important TV show on air. He promised to be the guardian of the revolution, the president of all Egyptians and to share power with the liberal opposition. He further promised to appoint a Coptic vice-president and a woman. What were the options available for the revolutionary voter? Letting Shafiq win or reluctantly voting for Morsi, hoping the promises were not hollow words.
Morsi’s broken promises
I stood in the middle of Tahrir amidst a Muslim Brotherhood crowd when Muhamed Morsi was declared winner of the presidential elections and thus the first elected president in the history of Egypt. The relief among those present was indescribable. It felt as if 85 years of persecution fell of the Brothers shoulders. It was the week I published a piece stating Morsi had a choice between cooperating and disappearing. And that if MB failed to live up to their promises, Egyptians fear of them would quickly turn to hatred. That is exactly what happened the past year.
Still, Morsi was off to a good start. He deposed the hated military leader Tantawi and replaced him with the younger general Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi. Tantawi was the face of the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) that held all power in the days between Mubarak and Morsi. It was the same SCAF that deprived the president of power during the presidential election weekend by virtue of a hastily drawn up constitutional declaration. Having taken back that power in August Morsi was cheered on by many Egyptians. He had an approval rating of 80%.
Other promises proved harder to realize. In his campaign Morsi had promised to solve Cairo’s traffic problems in a hundred days. And clean up the city. Off course, a hundred days having come and gone, there was not one traffic jam or pile of rubbish less in one of the world’s most chaotic cities. His promise of a woman and a Copt vice president weren’t fulfilled either. Instead he did appoint a widely appreciated judge.
The beginning of the end: the mini-coup
None of these shortcomings were the reason the atmosphere in Egypt shifted all of a sudden. To everyone’s surprise in November 2012, Morsi –by way of his spokesman- issued a new constitutional declaration stripping constitutional court judges of all power. He appointed a new general prosecutor. He further declared that the drafting of the constitutions was to be concluded within the week and to be followed by a referendum in two weeks on a text written almost exclusively by Islamists.
Revolutionary and liberal Egypt was infuriated. Instead of implicating them in the political process, they got pushed aside together with the entire judicial power. Again masses took to the street, protesting “the MB coup”. The MB resorted to armed mobs to disperse the protesters. Some people got dragged into the presidential palace where they were beaten and tortured. Revolutionaries of the first hour declared Morsi to be the new Mubarak. The vice president resigned in protest, as did all independent presidential advisors.
The day after the so-called mini-coup I asked someone close to Morsi what was going on. He told me a incredible story. Morsi and the MB leadership were convinced of a major conspiracy orchestrated by opposition figures as Mohamed El Baradei, the media, judges, businessmen and elements of the old regime. Morsi and his brothers got entrenched in a bunker mentality of ‘us against everyone else’ they haven’t managed to let go since. It induced Morsi to commit mistake upon mistake. Dialogue had become impossible.
The tyranny of the majority
There were several attempts to restore dialogue. The first one was made by the new army commander, general Sisi during the protests against the mini-coup. Morsi refused Sisi’s invitation. Instead he organized his own dialogue between his advisors, the resigning vice-president and the opposition. By that time, the opposition had lost all faith. And it has to be said, the opposition was also divided to the extent that any strategy beyond boycotting seemed impossible.
But despite the divisions the opposition organized itself in the National Salvation Front, headed by Baradei. Once the interlocutors had become clear, the European Union endeavored a kind of compromise in order to share power between the MB and the opposition. Morsi should replace his prime minister and allow the opposition access to five cabinet positions. The electoral law should be adapted according to the remarks made by the Supremer Constitutional Court. The hated general prosecutor should be replaced. European diplomacy chief, Catherine Ashton herself came to Cairo to give this proposal a final push. All seemed to agree. But Morsi did not respond. The political leadership of the MB was divided…
Instead of trying to close the gap, a campaign was launched against leading political and media figures. Journalists were detained. Liberal politicians were accused of spying, of heresy, of conspiring. Even the very popular satirist Bassem Youssef was prosecuted and questioned. Morsi’s approval ratings fell from 80 to 30 percent in less than seven months. More and more people saw him as the president of the Muslim Brothers rather than the president of all Egyptians. Those that had voted for him felt cheated. In the presidential elections they had overcome their deep doubts and anxieties in the name of the revolution. Now they felt betrayed by Morsi.
The youth rises against Morsi
Atop of all the political mistakes, Egypt was doing ever worse economically. There were daily power an water cuts? Petrol shortages became a general nightmare, causing enormous traffic jams at every filling station. Living got a lot more expensive as Egypt’s pound fell. If it hadn’t been for financial aid from Qatar and Libya, Egypt would probably have gone bankrupt in January.
In April some youth had the idea of starting a petition demanding precipitated presidential elections. A big demonstration was planned for June 30th, the first anniversary of Morsi’s oath of office. To their own surprise the response to the petition was overwhelming. Pretty soon they had gathered 2 million signatures. The military realized: June 30 was going to be huge and dangerous. The hatred ran deep. The Army decided on contacting the founders of the Rebel movement (Tamarod) and offered to provide security on the condition of a peaceful demonstration.
Meanwhile the petition amassed an increasing and spectacular number of signatures (it is said that by the end there were 22 million), making everyone realize this would end in an enormous clash between those that saw Morsi as a new dictator (betraying all ideals of the revolution) and the MB (that insisted on respect for election outcome). The days leading up to June 30th already saw some skirmishes and casualties.
The role of the Egyptian Army
The army is highly respected in Egypt. Particularly because as all other institutions seem to fail, the military often appeared the only one that could get things done. Even as it holds a large chunk of the country’s economy (figures vary from 20 to 40 percent), it is considered the only factor to put the country’s interests first. During the 2011 revolution the army chose not to intervene, which meant choosing the side of the protesters in Tahrir. In the end, it was the military that deposed Mubarak.
Of course Morsi too saw June 30 approaching. But instead of searching for a solution, he was looking for ways to divert the people’s attention and to try to gather them behind him. All of a sudden there was the problem of the Nile dam in Ethiopia and the threat of war. The sentencing of NGO employees drew anger in Europe and the US. And suddenly, in front of a packed soccer stadium Morsi changed his Syria strategy and called for a jihad against Assad. At the same time Morsi refused to take tough measures to tackle the anarchy and violence in Sinai where several soldier were kidnapped.
Thus, in June the army saw the convergence of two phenomena. On the one hand a big clash between Morsi opposers and supporters with the potential to grow into a kind of civil war. On the other hand the army saw a president willing to risk national security for political reasons. And this even leaves out the economic consequences of all of this for a country already on the brink. General Sisi made multiple attempts to persuade Morsi to engage in dialogue with the opposition. Morsi not only refused to listen to him, the political office of the MB decided secretly to replace Sisi and a number of other generals. A similar fate was bestowed upon a bunch of ‘conspiring’ judges and journalists.
The finale: June 30 until July 3
The tension on the eve of June 30 was enormous. Everybody believed a massive and violent clash would ensue. Friends told me they were even prepared to die – or at least they were convinced that in the end that would be their fate. But when I went from Tahrir tot the presidential palace and back on June 30, I realized it was al over for Morsi. Never before had so many people taken the streets. Numbers varied from 15 to 33 million Egyptians. Whatever the correct figure, it was clear to all that this was far bigger than the 2011 revolution itself. The protests were too big to fail.
The question then was: what will the military do? Will it wait to intervene until the situation escalates completely into violence or will it try act preventively? General Sisi chose the latter. He gave Egyptian politicians (read: Morsi) 48 hours to come to a solution. Morsi rejected the ultimatum and gave a speech repeating allegations of conspiracies and foreign interference. The only ‘concession’ he made was the promise to hold parliamentary elections within six months.
The army intervened, backed by the liberal opposition, de Coptic pope and the head of Al Azhar, the most renowned institute of Sunni Islam. They advanced a transition plan that was verbatim the one the Rebel-movement had proposed two weeks earlier. I was in Tahrir square when it was announced Morsi had been removed for office and replaced by the presiding judge of the constitutional court. The mood was ecstatic. Millions of Egyptians partied, danced and sang in the streets all night.
Revolution or military coup?
Apart from MB themselves, few Egyptians consider the removal of Morsi a real military coup. Rather it is regarded as a second revolution with the military siding with the people, as was the case in the first revolution. Contrary to what it did in the first revolution in 2011, the army did not assume political control of the transition, but immediately presented a civil president and cabinet. However it is clear that the army continues to play an important role in Egypt, politically and economically, as it has for the past sixty years. Particularly in foreign policy it is and remains the military that sets out the boundaries.
The massacre committed by the military among protesting Muslim Brothers raises serious questions of accountability though. Can anyone hold the military accountable? Or does the army remain an untouchable state within the state? As was the case in Malaysia or Turkey, it will probably take considerable time for the Egyptian army to be reined in to its appropriate role.
The most important question however remains what will happen to the MB? Up until today, they refuse to accept Morsi’s removal as a fact and refuse to talk unless he is restored in his office. We will undoubtedly see more clashes in the weeks and months to come. Still overtures for talks – whether or not under the auspices of the EU – remain possible. In any case, for Egypt to make progress, it is necessary to find some sort of democratic modus vivendi. For this to happen, hate and mistrust will have to make way for something we learned to live with a long time ago in all democratic countries: compromise.
Everyone in Egypt woke up on Monday 8 July with the horrible news that the army had shot dead 51 Muslim Brothers near barracks in Cairo. Immediately, two different stories got propagated. Muslim Brothers claimed their people were unarmed, held a peaceful protest when suddenly the military opened fire. They even showed images purporting infant casualties. The armed forces –and its sympathizers- showed images of (what appeared to be) armed Muslim Brothers trying to attack the barracks. They claim the first casualty was a soldier. They also demonstrated that the images of dead children were old footage.
It is characteristic of the propaganda battle currently raging in Egypt. This battle over truth is extremely important. It sets the mood of the international community just as much as it does that of the Egyptians. A similar propaganda battle is fought over what actually happened on Wednesday July 3th: a military coup or a military intervention. This is no innocent word game but a crucial point that determines the future of Egypt and many Arab states.
To understand what is happening now, every detail of these last months is important. A brief overview. In August it was president Morsi that deposed the hated military leader Tantawi and replaced him by general Sissi. Morsi was convinced Sissi would never be unfaithful. People first took to the street in November, when Morsi grabbed all power while forcing a constitution on Egyptians. Back then it is army commander Sissi that called for dialogue. In the months that followed Sissi repeatly implored Morsi to transform his government to a coalition of national unity. Morsi refused.
When it became clear protests on June 30th would be massive, it was again the army by way of Sissi that asked Morsi to present a solution. When Morsi did exactly the opposite in a speech a couple of days prior to June 30th, even threatening the opposition, Sissi advised the president to resign in order to avoid spiralling violence. Morsi kept repeating he was legitimately elected and that nothing could ever change that. For Muslim Brothers the prevailing sentiment was that all would eventually pass.
The number of people that turned out on June 30th was surprisingly big. Google Earth counted 33 million. That more than a third of Egyptian population. Everybody in Egypt realised that very soon the situation would become untenable. Nonetheless, acting as an go-between, general Sissi sought a solution. He gave all Egyptian politicians 48 hours to come to an understanding. He himself was thinking of the organisation of a referendum.
He ran that idea by the powers that be: the Islamic university Al Azhar, the Coptic church, the opposition through the figure of Mohamed El Baradei and by the youth that was at the origin of the so-called ‘Rebel-campaign’, the actual organisers of the street protests. It was the youth that refused. They wanted Morsi resignation and nothing else. One of their leaders told Sissi: “I want to tell you sir, you might be the commander of the army, but for the moment the people are your commander. Now you must listen to the people and support us”. Apparently this was the decisive contribution that lead to the military intervention. The so-called transition plan advanced by the army was a copy-paste transcription of the plan the “Rebel-youth” had circulated earlier.
Coup or no coup, today Egypt has two presidents: one elected president supported by the Muslim Brothers and one appointed president supported by a large majority of the Egyptian people. No side wants to budge. This is the reason for the current violence in the streets. Up to and including the unacceptable violence of the military directed at pro-Morsi protesters.
What now? Either we enter a French Revolution scenario with one faction reckoning with and succeeding to another every year, finally ending in dictatorship. Or genuine talks recognising all political groups are initiated. Recent events clearly forfeit any scenario that includes Mohamed Morsi. What happened this week makes it increasingly obvious that a stable future is just as impossible with the military in the cockpit. The fact that almost none of the parties and factions of the new coalition agreed on the new constitutional declaration shows that the army can’t just do whatever they want.
The only valid script that can bring Egypt from chaos to order will have to be based on the very principles that got 33 million Egyptians in the streets. It’ll have to be an Egypt that allows everybody the freedom to be themselves. Whether they are Salafi, Muslim, Copt or even atheist. Every government or president that tries to curtail this freedom in one way or another will once again face a full Tahrir and a new revolution.
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(with thanks to Kristof Debergh for the translation)