CAIRO - 27 December 2018: The Middle East has been a hotspot since the outbreak of the Arab Spring - labeled by some “the Arab Autumn” - in 2011. After years of ascending violence and flourishing terror groups, stabilization has started in some countries in a context of deep political divisions and intervention by foreign actors.
Egypt Today sat with Former Dean of Political Science and Economics Faculty at Cairo University, and former Minister of Youth Ali El Din Helal to know his insight on the Middle Eastern status quo. Before starting questions, the political science professor gave a general analysis of the state of affairs.
“The general view of the region is plenty of disturbances and conflicts that involve internal, regional, and international powers. Those can be called proxy wars. Conflicts in the region are also pertinent to identity, sectarianism, and ethnicity. They became a hotspot for terrorist activities, and organizations that use violence and terrorism as a tool in political work. Given that, the Arab region is in crisis and going through a transitional phase.
There are countries that either suffer from civil wars and conflicts like Syria, Libya, and Yemen or just full of conflicts, although unarmed, such as Iraq or have divisive political crises like Lebanon that held elections but cannot form the government. There are other countries that have severe economic crises. Others that have crises in the decision-making process such as not realizing the repercussions of making a certain decision. As such, there is a number of Arab countries that fall under the categories of fail states, vulnerable states, and failing states.
There are two main outcomes. First, the role of non-Arab regional powers increased at the expense of Arab states. I am talking of course about Israel, Turkey, and Iran. There is almost no Arab role in Syria. Military powers there and parties that meet to resolve the issue are mostly non-Arab. Those are Russia, Turkey, Iran, the United States, and France. The other outcome is the amount of foreign and international intervention in some Arab countries embodied in direct military presence.”
How do you perceive the calls advocating for the return of refugees to Syria? And why does Russia adopt that viewpoint?
It is obvious that the regime in Syria will not collapse, and is not on the verge of collapsing. The parties that were calling for changing the regime backed off. There is acceptance that the regime continues. However, there is conflict over the formation of the constitutional committee.
As for refugees, there are two stances. The Russian stance adopting the return of citizens to secure areas controlled by legitimate authorities. Syria and Russia want to convey that the conflict is over. They are supported by countries that suffer from the presence of refugees such as Lebanon, Jordan, and Turkey. Each of those countries has 1.5 to 2 million refugees who compose a political, economic, and social pressure. The same applies to European countries unwilling to give refugees asylum.
The reason the United States and its allies reject the idea is that they do not want the impression that the regime achieved victory become clear. When refugees return, the reconstruction matter will rise to the surface, and there will be a moral pressure on the United States and Western countries to contribute. They do not want to take part in reconstruction before the issue of the future of the Syrian regime is resolved. The victim is refugees who do not get appropriate services.
What were the real goals of the European Union when it offered to establish refugees reception centers in North Africa?
The goal is halting migration to Europe. European countries used to provide aids for Africa to improve its economies with the aim of decreasing migration. They want to screen refugees to get the number they want whenever they want, and in the sectors where labor is needed. They first tried to stop the flow of the big numbers of refugees by controlling the Mediterranean, and by supporting the naval forces of Libya. On the other hand, those who would reach the shore were being isolated.
The core of such proposal is transferring the responsibility of confrontation with refugees from European countries to North African countries. It would have been their responsibility in case refugees arrived to Europe, if they have had accepted to be in charge of inhibiting them from leaving for the continent. That is why all those countries refused that offer because of the legal repercussions.
Egypt refused because it never accepts putting refugees in camps since King Farouk. Refugees are absorbed in the Egyptian society. Some neighborhoods may just have small communities of foreign nationalities.
What is the future of the Eastern Euphrates area in Syria having U.S. troops? And, what does Turkey want?
There is conflict between the Syrian regime backed by Russia on one hand, and the YPG forces backed by the United States on the other hand. That is in addition to Turkey that wants to control certain territories. That is manifested in attempts to liberate Idlib. You often get the impression that a war is going to happen, and then, you hear that there is an agreement between Russia and Turkey whereas the latter would revoke the heavy weapons from groups controlling the city and create a demilitarized zone that would deter them from launching attacks outside Idlib. That proves that such groups are affiliated with Turkey.
The warnings by Russia and Syria were just a way to exert pressure rather than a real intention to take action. On the other hand, there is a conflict between Turkey and the United States. The United States protects individuals and entities that Turkey considers terrorists, and related to the PKK. Thus, Turkey does not want them to have control. Turkey would not be able to enter Manbij without the green light by the United States.
Furthermore, there are differences between Russia and Iran. Russia coordinates with Iran, and also with its enemy Israel. Syria is not divided legally or constitutionally. There is eagerness for the Syrian state to continue. But practically, division took place. There are areas controlled by the Syrian armed forces representing less than 60 percent of Syrian territories, areas controlled by the Free Syrian Army and other militias, areas controlled by the Kurds, and areas controlled by the Islamic State and Nusra Front which will be liberated eventually by the other forces.
Turkey wants to secure its borders by resorting to allied forces such as joint patrols, and to cut communication between YPG and PKK. Syria and Turkey agree on this, and on not establishing a federal system for Kurds like in Iraq.
In 2001 and 2002, there were tensions between Syria and Turkey over borders and water. But under AKP, relations improved. Turkey’s relations with Egypt were not bad either.
Amid the Arab Spring, Turkey did foreign policy restructuring as the neo-ottomanism ideas appeared aiming at reviving the Turkish power in the region. It sold to the United States the concept of moderate Islamism and supported Islamist parties in the region.
What are the goals of Iran?
The current political regime in Iran is a mixture of Persian nationalism and Shiite religious concepts. There is an article in the Iranian constitution on Iran's mission to support the weak in the world. Iran's message is it would defend Muslims anywhere in the world, particularly Shiites for the purpose of protecting Iranian national interests.
Based on this diagnosis of the regime, it is a state having a political message, and that aims to propagate that message. The mechanism of propagating such message differs from one place to another. Thus, the mechanism used in states that have a Shiite majority or a large Shiite minority will differ from that implemented elsewhere.
Iran wants to present itself as a major Islamic power that competes or clashes with Saudi Arabia over who should represent Islam. Thus, its stance on Israel is rooted in its perception of the Palestinian cause as an Islamic issue. Iran targets infiltration into Shiite sects so they would adopt Iranian ideas. They organize conferences and invite intellects for that purpose. One of those is called Al al-Bait. It also works on promoting revolutionary ideas, and changing regimes in a way that matches the interests of the Iranian state.
Its first target has been the Gulf such as Bahrain in a hostile way and Kuwait to a lesser extent. Last year, a cell affiliated with Iran called Abdally was uncovered. However, Iran does not attack the Kuwaiti regime, and does not confront the Kuwaiti regime as it does with Bahrain because of the difference in circumstances and the size of the sect in each.
Very few people studied Iran's role in backing the creation of Hezbollah. Hezbollah, as a Lebanese party, would not reach the status it has got now without the Iranian support, although it originated from internal conditions and was founded by local leaders. That is in addition to the United States’ ignorance that paved the way for Iran to prey on Iraq.
In its hostility against Saddam Hussein, disintegration of the Iraqi army, and destruction of the Iraqi state, the United States forgot or disregarded that such political void would be filled by the state watching on the borders, and that has a strong social and popular back up embodied in the Shiites of Iraq. That is why the strongest non-Arab power on the Iraqi ground is Iran represented in people, merchants, banks, exchange offices. That has facilitated for Iran to form the Hashd Shaabi (Popular Mobilization) forces.
Furthermore, Iran has got a role in Syria by itself or through Hezbollah to support the incumbent regime that has acquired a sectarian character. Iran has also got a role in Yemen. If you look at the whole image, you will see (Iran's) influence is growing.
It aims at increasing its influence, promoting political and media messages, and decreasing the power of rivals and enemies. It wants to prove that it is a regional major power having political, economic and media influence, military power, and technology, and that it must be dealt with on that basis by states in the region and media.
What did President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi mean when he said that the security of the Gulf is part of Egypt’s national security?
The president always stipulates that the security of the Gulf is part of Egypt’s security and that the security of Egypt is part of the Gulf’s security. That is embodied in joint military drills with each of Saudi Arabia, United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain. That is in addition to Arab Shield drills with all Gulf countries. Also, there are political coordination with the Gulf, and excellent economic relations. So it is normal that Egypt wants stability in the Gulf, and the Gulf wants stability in Egypt.
Will the Qatari response to the boycott by the Arab quartet change?
The quartet had put forward 13 demands. Some of those can be met immediately, while others would take time to be satisfied. Qatar refuted them altogether. It filed international lawsuits and lost them. Those include lawsuits filed at the International Court of Justice, and the ICAO. Turkey and Iran rushed to help it. We have to look at two important indicators. First, the Saudi Crown Prince said that the Qatari economy is strong. Second, President Sisi said “we are eager that no Arab country falls including Qatar.” Are those statements separate or a hint that Qatar responded to some demands and that the current political climate necessitates a reconciliation? Time will clarify everything.
Would Houthis in Yemen be defeated in the near Future? Would Iran stop backing them?
The Houthis issue is an internal Yemeni issue. President Ali Abdallah Saleh waged six wars against Houthis. There was a conflict between the Yemeni state and its army on one hand, and political and militant uprisings by Houthis on the other hand in Saada, a Houthi stronghold.
What we are witnessing belongs to a chain of an internal Yemeni conflict. The founder of the Houthi movement was a member of the Yemeni parliament and was part of the ruling elite there. At some point he lived in Iran for a while and returned. A transformation occurred as Iran exploited the issue which is initially economic and social. In civil wars anywhere in the world, it is hard to end an issue by military force. The human price is usually very hefty like what is happening in Yemen, and the case of civil war in Lebanon that took place between 1975 and 1995 and that ended with the Taif Agreement. There was neither a winner nor a loser.
When would that happen (in Yemen)? It will happen when parties in the conflict realize that they would not be able to solve the matter in a military way. As long as each of them lives under the impression that it can defeat its rival, the conflict will continue.
It is not wise to think that the Yemeni issue would be solved militarily. There must be a differentiation between the Houthi community and Ansar Allah Party. A developmental, economic, and social alternative should be offered for Houthi tribes in Saada. In that case, Ansar Allah Party will have no one but extremist peers, and fellow Iranian agents. The rest would want to have a normal life.
Would the Islamic State reorganize itself in Iraq?
I do not think so.
So, why does the group launch attacks every now and then?
There are enclaves that are not cleared yet. It is hard for extremist terrorist individuals to surrender so they try to recompose themselves in Iraq and Syria on a small scale. Every 10 or 20 militants unite together. That is not the main issue. The main issue is that there are states that provide them with funds and arms. Those individual attacks require arms, and ammunition. Those who provide such support consider the remnants of the defeated Islamic State as a pressure card on the Iraqi government and political forces.
The other point is what did the Islamic State originate from? In 2012 and 2013, there were demonstrations by Sunni citizens in Anbar and other governorates because the regime back then adopted discriminatory policies against Sunni-majority governorates. The Islamic State seized that opportunity. The group will continue to exist, if the regime does not get rid of such policies, but I believe the regime will.
The Islamic State is an idea that exists in Libya, Tunisia, and others. Thus, they must be terminated ideologically by highlighting that their ideas have nothing to do with religion, and that those are deviated ideas.
Finally, what is the future of the rift in Libya?
There have been political divisions in Libya since the collapse of the regime of Muamar al-Gaddafi. Those divisions have geographical and tribal bases. There is also strong foreign intervention. There are two European countries which are France and Italy that intervene heavily politically and on the intelligence level. Both countries have a disagreement on the future of the country. France wants a fast solution and was contemplating to hold elections this December.
Italy thinks that would not work based on its knowledge of the country it had occupied before. There are two governments and two parliaments. Each government controls part of the land. The government that has a bigger military force is the one led by Haftar eastern Libya. The government in the capital, Tripoli, western the country has an international legitimacy but has no army. It just depends on militias confined to certain geographical areas.
The latter government has been bargaining with extremist militias. When they agree with (Fayez) al-Saraj, they ally with him. When they don't, they act differently like the attack on Tripoli airport in September.
The National Libyan Army is located in the east sharing borders with Egypt. That is where oil is located. Currently, the (National) Libyan Army liberates areas having oil which have been captured by terrorists. Legally, the Security Council prohibits sending arms to Libya. In reality, arms flow in from all directions. If that is not happening, there will be no fighting.
In a nutshell, the scene in Syria reveals that there is a reduction in armed conflict which would achieve a balance between different military powers. The same applies to Iraq where there is still confrontations with the Islamic State in the presence of U.S. forces, and an illegitimate Turkish military presence which has never been approved by the Iraqi government.
In Libya and Yemen, there is still neither military balance nor a desire to reach political solutions for different reasons. Most probably, the conflict will continue until each party realizes it is impossible to defeat the other militarily. This is the point where they will start looking for peace.
The major lesson is the necessity to reinstate the value of the nation-state concept in our Arab countries. In light of the absence of the nation state, there is no freedom, no democracy, no social justice, and no security. When a state and its institutions collapse, the law of the jungle dominates as militias and their funders get the upper hand. The nation state is the civil state whose essence its citizenship ensuring that all citizens are equal in terms of duties and rights regardless of religion, sect, domination, race, and gender.