mercredi 27 juin 2012

Egypt: who will be the next Pharaoh?

After dealing with Syria in my last post, let’s head southward today, for a quick review of the situation on the Egyptian border.

Israel took the Sinai Peninsula during the Six Day War, relinquishing it to Egypt against a peace treaty in 1979. On the ground, the Sinai (about 60 000 square kilometers), is a vast poorly-populated desertic area. This has enabled all kinds of traffics to develop over the years, from drugs to women and Sub-Saharan immigrants through weapons destined to the Hamas-controlled Gaza strip, traffics usually conducted by several powerful local Bedouin tribes.

Bombing of the Israeli-Egyptian pipeline in Sinai
Since the fall of the Mubarak regime at the beginning of 2011, the security situation on the ground has worsened. The pipeline transporting gas toward Israel has been blown up 14 times since then (it is now closed for reason we’ll shortly explain). Even worse, the absence of control has permitted terrorists from the Gaza strip to launch attacks on Israel from the Egyptian territory (most notably the August 18th attacks on route 12, who cost 8 Israeli lives), making Israeli retaliations close to impossible (during the same attacks, a couple of Egyptian border guards were caught in crossfire between Israeli soldiers and the commando and subsequently killed, prompting major protests from Cairo).

Facing these new challenges, Israel has taken two main measures:
-          -Allowing the Egyptian army to increase its presence in the peninsula, so far strongly restricted under the terms of the 79 peace treaty. It seems to be so far inefficient.
-          - Accelerating the building of a security fence along the border. By the way, the last cycle of violence in Gaza was launched by a deadly attack on the construction workers by a Palestinian jihadist group which infiltrated in Egypt before striking.
(A parallel challenge that should be kept in mind is the immigrant traffic from South-Sudan and Eritrea, many of them being kidnapped, tortured or enslaved by Bedouin tribes on their way toward Israel. For an excellent account of this traffic, see the article by Gideon Levy in Haaretz. And for a talk on the current immigration issue, there are articles in most Israeli news website virtually every day)

If all this was not enough, a national threat is emerging next to this rather localized one. As expected by most here, the “Arab spring” has been a pull factor for Islamic parties to take power. The Muslim Brotherhood (MB) has won 47% of the seats in the Parliament in November 2011, failing to get the absolute majority because of even more radical Muslims, the Salafis. An estimated total of 2/3 to 70% of the members of Parliament is from Islamic parties, with all what it means in terms of Human rights. Obviously, the recent dissolution of this Assembly by the SCAF (supreme council of the Armed forces) is supposed to change the story. It won’t: the army would also have liked to avoid having to deal with a MB president but Morsi was nonetheless elected. The paradox of weak tyrannies is that they somehow have to keep in touch with the people’s will to stay in power. And the people will has been quite clear these past few months: Sharia power. So, if the SCAF is bright enough, it will manage to compromise with the MB in order to keep influence on the economy, defense… if not, they’ll have to directly fight it at some point. In that very hypothetical case, either the MB succeed now through popular revolution to overthrow the SCAF or they are repressed for a few more years but will definitely be the symbol of the opposition to the new regime… until they themselves pick the low-hanging fruit when the time has come.

Riot in front of the Israeli embassy last September.

And what is the Muslim Brotherhood position toward Israel? Quite unclear, as usual when it comes to important points in the local political culture. Each time a party official has said that the peace treaty with Israel should and will be “revised”, another one says it won’t (lastly, the newly elected president is said to have held that kind of expression to an government Iranian press agency, though he denies). But first, this video is extremely interesting for what is says on the movement (it’s at the launching of the Presidential campaign. Morsi is not the one who is speaking but he is present and isn’t the least trouble). Then, we have an example of MB government: the Hamas is Gaza is an offshoot of this international Islamic movement. Not to mention its hostility toward Israel, the Hamas has lead a violent, repressive policy toward political opponents, journalists and religious minorities (aka Christians, who make up 8% of the Egyptian population and already suffer from violence from radical Islamic groups) in the Strip since it took power in 2005. Actually, the links between the two groups have been strengthened over the last months, with official visits on both sides. It has even been said, though not officially confirmed, that the MB ordered the Hamas to go on the offensive last week to help winning the election and sending a clear message to Israel. The Hamas indeed usually doesn’t actively participate in the missile launching against the Jewish state, letting more or less passively smaller and hence less responsible groups doing the job, maintain a friend-enemy scheme with the most powerful of theme which could threaten its rule (such as the Islamic Jihad). This time, Hamas did launch missiles on Israel proper.

Reaping the Israeli flag after the sack of the embassy.
More troubling, the Egyptian people, though they obviously have other things to think about right now, seem to be very hostile toward the 79 peace treaty, if not toward the existence of Israel. Sadate and Mubarak (almost owing him an Israeli escape when he resigned: defense minister Ehud Barak and member of Knesset Itzhak Herzog were known for publicly supporting the idea) knew what and where their interest was, but since March 2011, more and more Israeli flags have been burnt during demonstrations and the local Israeli embassy has literally been ransacked during a riot in October (since then the diplomats haven’t found anyone willing to let them a new building and so have considerably reduced their activity). Finally, last April, Egypt totally scrapped Israel gas supply by cancelling the contract between the two states. And I’m not even talking about the so-called "Mossad sharks" attacks (!!)...
Moral of the story: you can always make peace with political leaders, but when the people has been so much indoctrinated into hating you (even way after the peace treaty was signed: here is a popular song in the early 00’s), you’ll have a tough time making peace with it, all the more if the original regime is suddenly washed away.  

mardi 19 juin 2012

Intervention in Syria?

Our Northern neighbor, Syria, is being devastated by a bloody civil war for over a year now. UN estimates some 14 000 people already lost their lives. As pretty much everyone living in Israel, I’m happy that the Golan was not given back to Damascus in exchange of a peace treaty, for two reasons:
-          - This kind of peace more with a regime than with a country is quite fragile as we currently see with Egypt: since the fall of the Mubarak regime, calls to break the peace treaty with Israel have been more and more heard both in street demonstrations and among the Muslim Brotherhood candidates.
-          - The Golan offers us a strategic advantage, protecting Northern Israel as well as enabling us to monitor what is going on in the Syrian territory.

Whatever, observing the recent developments and reading a bunch of not-always-deep/interesting analysis on the question, I’ve been thinking more and more about the question of a Western/international military intervention in Syria to topple the Assad regime and bring back peace.

Obviously, the pros and cons are the usual ones:
-          - The Humanitarians claim that “we” have a moral responsibility to put an end to the horrific massacres that are going on and that it is the occasion to bring democracy, which is supposed to be, on the long run at least, a vector of peace, stability and development.
-          - On the other hand, the so-called Realists are aware of the failures of similar missions in the Middle East over the last decade or so: first and foremost Afghanistan and Iraq, but also Libya, as is seems that being Kaddafi-free isn’t enough to bring the country back to the right track. With the economic crisis not over, the West is even less capable of achieving its goals, without even taking into account the lack of popularity of those missions in post-modern societies. Furthermore, the local, Middle Eastern culture isn’t one of democracy and the alternative to current secular, post-panarab dictatorships seems to be a more or less radical Islamic theocracy (as seen for example in the Parliamentary elections in Egypt), which is not exactly the initial goal…

That said, I would like to add a certain argument to the debate, even though I wouldn’t pretend it is per se enough to push the balance on the side of intervention. So here it is: what underlies the realists’ argument is the fact that the Western armies have so far repeatedly failed to influence the new regimes they brought to power as much as it was pretended they could. Hence, we shouldn’t invest men and money in foreign wars that “we can’t win”. The real, epitomic, example is the late 80’s Afghanistan where massive cash/weapons were sent to the Mujahidin who fought against the USSR, part inevitably arriving in the hands of the Taliban which we are still fighting today. But leave this example of only indirect intervention aside for a moment and think the other way around: yes, maybe Libya will be a tribal/Islamic country. Maybe. But what if we hadn’t intervened? Would the situation be any better in the middle run? Probably not. At least, for a reasonable cost (that paradoxically could have been even more reduced had we launched a more open air bombing campaign against Kaddafi) we avoided massacres (yes, there were massacres, but they would have been for more extended had Kaddafi reached Benghazi, crushing the rebellion… for a few years before it would have reappeared from its ashes) and we do (or should I rather say could?) have a, if minimal, control on the future of Libya that we could use to our advantage. In any case, this influence is more important than if we had just waited and saw what was going on without doing anything. With a more prolonged civil war, the jihadists would probably have had much more power among the coalition of rebels (as what is going on is Syria, where, through their higher level of organization and popular fears, radical Islamists have a growing influence in the fight against the Assad regime), hence creating further needs for intervention if they were given the chance to turn the country into a jihadist formation camp at the gate of Europe.

Winston Churchill is known for having said once on appeasement with Nazi Germany: “you were given the choice between war and dishonor. You chose dishonor and you will have war.” Many among the humanitarians misuse this sentence (as it is unfortunately very often the case with quotations) to “argue” in favor of a “[moral] duty of intervention”, whatever the circumstances. This is probably not what the arch-twisted Conservative Prime Minister meant. I rather see him arguing first and foremost in favor of raising war against Germany in the name of the inevitability of such a war (hence the end of his sentence: there no price susceptible to be paid to avoid it), which then should rather be started when we’re ready for it instead of waiting for the enemy to attack first (remember the famous sentence from the battle of Fontenoy by the comte d’Anterroche [“messieurs les anglais, tirez les premiers”] wasn’t actually said in this form. There are rules in war (jus in bello), but no sports fair-play). Churchill hence probably wouldn’t have called for war against dictators under any circumstances, being highly aware of the complexity of geopolitical situations on the ground (a fortiori here: a civil war is too recurrent and too morally complex a phenomenon to intervene automatically. We’re not dealing with Hitler vs. Czechoslovakia here). But in a case such as Libya or Syria, in the middle of an “Arab spring” that is nothing of a joyous affair except for what some foolhardies in the West with no conscience of realities believe, well, then, maybe, we should take old Winston into account before saying massacres in Syria are none of our business. The true question is: is not intervening now a guarantee that we won’t have to intervene in the more or less near future? But then and again, mild lukewarm interventions are pretty much useless. It shouldn’t necessarily be a ground operation (even though the Syrian army, contrary to what some “pundits” have been saying, is, according to the Israeli army who beat the hell out of it several times, totally outdated) but it should definitely be full-fledged. Oh, and last but not least, choosing allies and decidedly taking sides is better for influence that just clapping hands when the game is over.

So, to sum-up:

    1): Internal uprisings, even such massive ones, are too recurrent and too morally complex a phenomenon to justify an automatic intervention.

-     2): But:
-  if, among the protagonists, there is an identifiable group susceptible to be supported (aka sharing basic values/interests) and on which  we can have influence on in the case it eventually wins, then an intervention can make sense.
- even if we are not sure of our future influence on the winner, an early intervention can break some easily foreseeable dynamics that are negative for the West, such as the ascent of radical Islamic groups in the course of the civil war.  

-   3): Finally, I would like to remind the reader that the “Syrian events” weren’t initially an open confrontation between various ethnic/religious groups. They consisted in demonstrations demanding, if not democracy at least some more basic freedom. It is the harshness of the security forces in mostly Sunni cities that created the much more dangerous and volatile current situation. Had the UN taken sanctions after the first massacres the evolution might have been different. But, obviously, that would suppose this organization would be what it was initially supposed to be, a coalition of free states, and not one which has for only goal to maintain for the longest possible the post WW2 equilibrium (giving too much power to France, UK and, more relevant for our case, Russia) paralleled by a sort of fair of the absurd in the (hopefully powerless) General Assembly.