For Hamas, Egypt is now the new “Israel”

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(Photo via Reuters)

For the Egyptian leadership and Hamas, February was a particularly bad month. The tension between the two sides has reached tipping point. The cascade of escalating events started with a court verdict listing Hamas’s armed wing as a terrorist organization and ended with another court verdict listing the entire Hamas group as a terrorist organization. This last verdict, however, is not final and may be subsequently squashed. Nonetheless, the possibility of immanent confrontation between the two sides seems close at hand. Despite this, the Egyptian leadership appears oblivious and ill prepared for such a scenario.

 After the ousting of ex-president Morsi, Egypt began to view Gaza as national security threat. Egypt accused Hamas of conspiring to overthrow the Egyptian regime and backing of al Qaeda-linked militant groups, which have stepped up attacks against security forces in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula. Since that time, the Egyptian military has embarked on creating a security zone at Egypt’s border with Gaza. The planned buffer zone was initially planned to be within 500 meters from the border, but was later doubled to 1,000 meters. The width of this buffer zone expanded after additional discoveries of longer tunnels across the border. In mid February, Egyptian security forces claimed it discovered the longest smuggling tunnel to Gaza yet, at 2.5 kilometers in length. Last Friday, a senior Egyptian officer was killed when one of those tunnels collapsed.

 Closing smuggling tunnels is also coupled with very limited opening times for the official border point between Gaza and Sinai, which further limits the flow of goods and passengers. This is worsening the already dire economic situation along the impoverished strip and fueling tensions.

 As Benedetta Berti and Zack Gold have written, Hamas nears the breaking point. This poses a tough question for both Hamas and Egypt, what’s next? In a Reuters report last January, Yasmine Saleh wrote how intelligence operatives, with help from Hamas’s political rivals and activists, plan to undermine the credibility of Hamas in Gaza and initiate protests against the group. An anonymous senior Egyptian security official was quoted in the Reuters report as saying, “We cannot be liberated from the terrorism of the Brotherhood in Egypt without ending it in Gaza, which lies on our borders.”

 Historically, ending Hamas’s role in Gaza has proven to be tricky. Looking forward, there are three possible options: Gazans turn against Hamas, Abbas take-over control of the strip, and/or protests and divisions increases among Hamas cadres. Thus far, none of these scenarios have yet materialized.

 Some have held out hope for the idea of a Gaza “spring” similar to the “Arab spring,” but this is absurd for many reasons. First, Hamas still has support inside Gaza. After all, the group has its social network spread throughout Gaza. It has indoctrinated its youth in a culture of resistance against Israel and also against any Arab regime that tries to undermine the movement. Second, while it is true that many in Gaza are fed-up with Hamas’s tight grip on the strip, will they risk protesting against heavily armed Hamas security forces? This is unlikely. Therefore, it will be daft for policy makers in Cairo to bank on any future “spring” in Gaza.

 In contrast, the possibility of Abbas regaining control of the Gaza strip, which looked plausible after last August’s truce agreement between Hamas and Israel, also did not happen. Months have passed and Mr. Abbas did not (or could not) even visit Gaza. There is even an Israeli report suggesting that the Palestinian Authority thwarted an international initiative supported by the United States, Europe, and Jordan to radically change governmental control in Gaza. President Abbas may want to rule Gaza, but he may fear even more serious percussions in the West Bank, where Hamas still has many supporters.

 The possibility of divisions within Hamas as mentioned in Berti and Gold’s piece is plausible, but any divisions will be irrelevant as long as Hamas’s military wing is intact. It has become increasingly clear during last year’s confrontation with Israel that the armed wing, not the diaspora leadership, has the upper hand in decision making. This will likely to continue in the future. It is hard to imagine how a group with thousands of armed men, who believe that defiance is the key to survival, will voluntary accept any dismantling of their own power and control. Hamas’s military wing has already released a video asking “Why O, Arab?” They clearly feel angry and betrayed by Egypt.

 Meanwhile, Egypt el-Sisi ’s visit to Saudi Arabia, which coincides with the Turkish president Erdogan’s visit, has raised speculations about possible Saudi mediation going between the two sides. It is well known that Turkey is the current main supporter of Hamas. Therefore, in theory, any improvement in the already tense relationship between the two countries can help the besieged Hamas in Gaza. Nonetheless, in reality, any rapprochement between Turkey and Egypt is highly unlikely. The gap between the two sides is very wide and difficult to bridge, despite any sincere Saudi efforts. The Turkish president wants to empower Hamas at any price, even at the expense of Egypt’s security concerns.

 Last August, I wrote about the potential of indirect Egypt involvement in Gaza. However, without Abbas in control of Gaza, it seems that the stage of indirect involvement has now passed. As Berti and Gold hinted, the stage is now set for overt confrontation.

 “ We will resist any Egyptian aggression, like we resisted the Israeli occupation,” a Hamas official to Ma’an news agency. For Hamas, regardless of the final Egyptian legal verdict on its status, Egypt is now the new “Israel.” This is a chilling thought that Egypt has to take seriously. The Egyptian army may struggle to deal with rebellious, hostile Hamas in Gaza, just as Israel did. If a functioning Hamas is a security threat to Egypt, a dying Hamas is no less a threat to Egypt.

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Egyptian Aak 2015 – Week 9 ( Feb 23 – Mar 1)

Members of the special forces police stand guard in front of the Supreme Constitutional Court in Cairo

(Members of the special forces police stand guard in front of the Supreme Constitutional Court in Cairo, March 1, 2015- via Reuters)

Main Headlines

 Monday

Tuesday

Wednesday

Thursday

 Friday

Saturday 

 Sunday

 Good reports

Good Read

Video

  • Sisi’s full 22 Feb 2015 speech
  • Mohammed Fahmy’s interview with Sky News

Plus:

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Egyptian Aak 2015 – Week 8 ( Feb 16 – 22)

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(Relatives of Egyptian Coptic men killed in Libya mourn in al-Our village, south of Egypt. (Photo by Asmaa Waguih/Reuters)

Main Headlines

 Monday

Tuesday

Wednesday

Thursday

Friday 

 Saturday

Sunday

 Good Reports

Good Read

Video

Timeline

Plus

Photo Gallery

Finally here are Jayson Casper’s prayers for Egypt

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Turkey Withdraws from Suleyman Shah: The Implications

Originally posted on Turkey Wonk: Nuclear and Political Musings in Turkey and Beyond:

What follows is a joint article with Michael Stephens, the Research Fellow for Middle East studies and Head of RUSI Qatar.

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Just days after finalizing an agreement to train a new rebel force inside Turkey to attack the Islamic State, Turkish forces moved into Syria to evacuate some 40 soldiers protecting the Suleyman Shah Tomb: a small Turkish enclave on the eastern bank of the Euphrates river, 30 kilometers from the Turkish border town of Karkamis. The operation included 39 tanks, 57 armored vehicles, and an estimated 572 military personnel. The soldiers removed the body of Suleyman Shah and transported his remains to an area just opposite the Turkish town of Esmeler.

The tomb lies on the M4 highway that runs West-East…

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ISIS digs out old grievances to attack Copts

The Islamic State has released a video of the beheading of Egyptian Christians in Libya. The chilling video surfaced following an article published in the group’s magazine Dabiq showing photos of twenty-one Coptic Egyptians kidnapped by militants in Libya. According to the Dabiq article, the kidnapping was “in revenge for Kamilia Shehata, Wafaa Constantine, and other sisters who were tortured and murdered by the Coptic Church in Egypt.” No political reasons were mentioned in the report. Interestingly, that key assertion was overlooked by many reports and analyses of the attacks. In fact, when Jen Psaki, the spokesperson of the U.S. department of State was asked about the status of minorities in the Middle East, her reply was [the kidnapping] “is more about Libya than it is about Egypt.”

Ms. Psaki is wrong in her assessment. Although the logistics of the kidnapping were directly linked to the disintegration of Libya and the arrival of ISIS to its cities, the ideological motives behind the kidnapping are rooted in the troubled relationship between Islamists and Copts in Egypt, which started some time ago and have continued since the 2011 revolution.

The two women mentioned in the Dabiq article, Wafaa Constantine and Kamilia Shehata, are examples of disputed conversions to Islam that were exploited for political reasons. For years, conversion to and from Islam used to happen in Egyptian society, but it was always discrete, away from the media and public sphere. The situation has changed, however, in the last decade of Mubarak’s rule. A combination of the rise of private TV satellite channels, increasingly assertive Islamist movements and a defiant Coptic Church have rendered what were previously private affairs into a matter of tense public debate.

Constantine’s story surfaced sometime between 2003-2004. She was a Coptic Christian woman and wife of a Coptic priest whom Egyptian Islamists claimed had voluntarily left Christianity and converted to Islam. Copts, however, asserted that she was kidnapped and forced to convert. Rumors and unconfirmed allegations then spread like wildfire in an increasingly polarized society, with people being easily seduced by shallow stories and religious zeal.

The fact that Wafaa Constantine later told Egypt’s general prosecutor that she had been “born Christian” and would “live and die” as such, did not tame the Islamists’ anger or dampen their convictions that she is a Muslim and not Christian. Ten years ago, I heard this chilling remark from an Islamist acquaintance during the peak of the flurry around Costantine, “They are playing with fire and one day it will burn them.” He loathed the Copts and their late Pope Shenouda. His voice rattled with anger while watching a video of an Islamist cleric portraying the cases as examples of “ how the honor of Islam is being raped by the Coptic Church.” I later spoke to some Salafis, and they were equally angry at Copts, blaming the Coptic Pope for her reversion to Christianity.

The other case of Kamilia Shehata is strikingly similar. Again, a Coptic woman, married to a Coptic priest, she later disappeared with conflicting allegations about what really happened to her. The difference, however, was that her case coincided with the removal of ex-president Mubarak and the security vacuum that followed. In May 2011, a group of armed Islamists attacked the St. Mina Church in Imbaba in Cairo, claiming that Kamilia Shehata was held in the church. A police search of the premises was not enough for the crowd and clashes erupted leading to at least ten deaths and 200 people being injured. A church video released of Shehata’s Christian confession fell on deaf ears.

Tension later eased, however, Islamists have continued to express their grievances about the alleged conversions of Constantine and Shehata. Here are some Arabic examples by Sheikh Mohamed Hassan, Abu-Ishaq al-Howaeini, and a report by Al-Jazeera Arabic.

It was their opinion that the women were Muslims and forced to reconvert to Christianity. The handling of the situation by the Egyptian government and the Coptic Church in both cases was less than perfect and shrouded with secrecy and a lack of transparency. However, Islamist obsession with these two cases unveils their bias and one-track thinking. While on the one hand they are critical of the Coptic Church’s protectionist approach toward conversion to Islam, they also on other hand, reject any conversion from Islam to Christianity and insist that it should be punished by death.

The assault on Egypt’s social fabric started long ago. For years, Islamists of various shades have created a deep pool of grievances, shared by both their violent and non-violent groups. It is no surprise that the Islamic State has dipped into that communal pool and used it to justify its barbaric behavior against Copts in Libya.

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Egyptian Aak 2015 – Week 7 ( Feb 9- 15)

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(IS’s photo of kidnapped Copts in Libya, via Twitter)

Main Headlines

 Monday

Tuesday

Wednesday

Thursday

 Friday

 Saturday

 Sunday

Good Reports

Good Read

Interview

 Plus

 Photo Gallery

A published list of the Coptic victims killed by IS in Libya

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Finally here are Jayson’s Casper’s prayers for Egypt

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Orange is the New Black

Originally posted on salamamoussa:

The Christians of Egypt are indistinguishable from their Muslim Brethren. Both belong to the land and are bound by close historical ties that transcend the patterns of religious confession. It was this simple fact that made the foreign rulers of Egypt in the 1300s demand that Copts wear only black, otherwise there would be no way to mark them as targets for mob violence.  Clothing color as a social signifier is hardly unique to medieval Egypt. Armies, sports teams, company workers and others choose distinctive colors to emphasize unity and differentiation from others.

Orange is the color of the American prison system, and consequently of captured terrorists. The deluded souls at ISIS (The Islamic State of Iraq & the Levant) have adopted it as the distinctive dress of the innocent victims of their barbarity. Such is the depth of their confusion that they see parity between those who committed no…

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Lessons for Sinai from Yemen

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(Egyptian air force chief adel Hafez with air force pilots in Yemen. 1964.

wikimedia photo) 

I wrote this piece for The Atlantic Council’s Egypt Source, hope you like it

Following the recent major attacks by militants that killed at least twenty-seven people, mostly soldiers, in Sinai, Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi made two important decisions. He has established a unified military command east of the Suez Canal to fight radical groups in the Sinai Peninsula. He has also pledged $1.3 billion to develop the impoverished peninsula. Both decisions are well overdue. Egypt’s military leadership needs to shift its de-facto mindset from fighting conventional wars and readjust to the evolving reality of a growing insurgency in the Sinai Peninsula. In that context, a particularly important past military intervention is worth remembering____ Nasser’s Vietnam____ or Egypt’s war in Yemen.

 More than half a century ago, in 1962, Egypt’s President Gamal Abdel Nasser made a bold decision to send Egyptian troops to Yemen to support the Yemeni Republican coup d’état against the ruling Imam. Yemen’s complex civil war was not a conventional war by any stretch of the imagination. It was essentially a wide counter-insurgency operation that involved fighting many tribes in harsh desert landscapes. In his book, Nasser’s Gamble, author Jesse Ferris describes the challenges that faced the Egyptian military in Yemen:  “The tactical disposition of Egyptian forces was unenviable. The diffusion of forces in small garrisons across the desert or in the mountains rendered Egyptian units ever vulnerable to surprise attacks.” Ferris continued, “The principal military counter-measures were aggressive patrolling and preventative ambushes, neither of which was practiced sufficiently.”

Sound familiar? Ferris’s words can easily be used to describe the evolving reality in Sinai, but with an added urgency. Sinai is not the distant Yemen; failure or even partial success, is not an option.

 Initially, the Egyptians arrived in Yemen with Sana’a as their focus. It took them a while to understand that the actual battle was outside Sana’a, in Yemen’s hostile terrain. Similarly, the Egyptian Army’s initial response to rising militancy in Sinai was the mounting of one operation after another to “eradicate sources of terrorism.” The over-confident tone of successive army spokesmen reflects a deep underestimation of the enormity of the task___ just like 1962’s Yemen adventure, in which Nasser aimed for a quick, decisive victory that did not, of course, happen.

 Yemen’s war between the royalists and nationalists had gone on for years, draining Egypt militarily and economically. It left the country vulnerable, and arguably, indirectly contributed to Egypt’s defeat by Israel in 1967. In his latest speech, Sisi acknowledged that the battle against Jihadists will be a tough one, a late admission of the bitter reality. Unrealistic expectations can erode public support and help the militants project an image of invincibility.

 The structure of Egypt’s armed forces has not changed since 1968—until now. Nasser formed the Second and Third Field Armies following Egypt’s defeat by Israel in 1967. The Second Field Army is based in Ismailia and is responsible for the northern part of the Suez Canal region. The Third Field Army is based in Suez and is responsible for the southern part of the Suez Canal region. Following the peace deal with Israel, responsibility for Sinai was allocated to both the Second and Third Field Armies, with North Sinai under the former, and the South under the latter. This geographical allocation is not an ideal counter-terrorism approach because militants are never confined to geographical regions. Therefore, creating a separate military command makes sense.

 A new unified military command unit is now under the command of Osama Askar, the previous head of Third Army, who has been promoted to Lieutenant General. Despite the relatively peaceful conditions existing in South Sinai, Askar has a long record of fighting militants in Sinai. In July 2013, he announced that his troops had seized nineteen Grad rockets allegedly smuggled into the country by Hamas. He was also hailed as the mastermind behind an operation that killed 16 militants in February 2014. Some saw Askar’s promotion as a subtle way of punishing the Commander of the Second Army, General Mohamed El Shahat, who was not picked to lead the new unit, despite the fact that North Sinai is directly under his command. Sisi, however, seems careful to avoid any resentment among army cadres, by making the new unit separate from both the Second and Third Armies and appointing a new commander of the Third army, General Mohamed Abdella, instead of keeping it under the command of Askar.  In other words, the new counter-terrorism command will supervise both the Second and Third Armies, instead of replacing them, which may suit army ranks that may be wary of fundamental changes.

 However, if a lesson is to be learned from Yemen, the new military command should extend beyond Sinai and the Suez Canal to include the North and West command. In early 1963, Egypt’s army extended its operations to tackle pivotal Yemeni Royalist supply points from the north, such as Najaran in Saudi Arabia, and Harib, near the Omani border. Now, in Egypt there is increasing evidence that Libya has become a new supply route to militants in Sinai. It was also implicated in the shooting down of an Egyptian Air Force helicopter by Sinai’s Islamic militants with a portable surface-to-air missile in January 2014. Moreover, there are now ISIS-affiliated groups in Libya, Sinai, and Gaza, and joint co-operation between the three entities is not unlikely. This evolving new reality needs a robust approach from the leadership in Cairo.

 Currently, Egypt’s focus is mainly on creating a buffer zone between Sinai and Gaza to stop the underground tunnels that were built over many years and used by militants to smuggle arms and fighters. Nonetheless, focusing on Gaza and the tunnels is not a wise approach because tunnels are only part of the problem. Egypt has to prevent Sinai from being a storage depot of smuggled arms from Libya and Sudan. Jesse Ferris highlighted in his book that as long as the supply of money and arms from Saudi Arabia [the patron of the Royalists in Yemen’s war] was guaranteed, it would be a matter of months before they regrouped and resumed their insurgency.

 Meanwhile, civilians in Sinai continue to suffer. Sisi’s pledge to develop the region is important, but it is a Catch-22 situation for him. There is no security without development, but development is impossible in hostile villages. Again, back to Yemen: in 1962 Egypt established a group dedicated to handling relations with tribes. A similar establishment is needed in Sinai, and it should liaise with Lieutenant General Osama Askar.

 It took six years for Republicans backed by Nasser to gain ground in Yemen. Egypt cannot afford six more years of ongoing insurgency in Sinai. The war in Yemen was about Egypt’s regional prestige; the war in Sinai is about Egypt’s survival as a functioning state. The stakes are much higher, however: Sinai is not Yemen. It is much smaller in size and population. The objectives of the counter-insurgency task can be achieved, provided past lessons are heeded.

Posted in Best Read, Egypt, Gaza, Israel, Middle East, Sinai | Tagged , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Egyptian Aak 2015 – week 6 ( Feb 2-8)

Football massacre

(Sunday’s football match riots. Photo via AP)

Main Headlines

 Monday

Tuesday

 Wednesday

Thursday

 Friday

 Saturday

 Sunday

 Good Reports

 Good Read

 Plus

Video

Finally here are Jayson Casper’s prayers in Egypt

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Another casualty in Turkey’s war on journalists

Originally posted on Human Rights in Turkey:

The news today that Dutch journalist, Frederike Geerdink, is being prosecuted under anti-terror statutes is, sadly, unsurprising.  The prosecution of journalists in Turkey, is after all, hardly a rare occurrence; seldom does a week go by when a journalist in Turkey is not subject to prosecutionBut as I noted in an earlier blog on the case, the targeting of a foreigner suggests that the Turkish government is “increasingly unhindered by Western criticism.”  External checks on Turkey’s internal repression seem less and less effective.

At the heart of these prosecutions are an increasingly politicized judiciary and a series of laws which make it easy to target voices perceived as critical to the state.

Fréderike Geerdink Fréderike Geerdink

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