Jan 21 2014

Egypt: Towards an Algerian Scenario

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By Dalia Ghanem-Yazbeck, research analyst at the Carnegie Middle East Center.


343110_Egypt-demonstrationsIt is hard to watch the events unfolding in Egypt today without drawing a parallel with the Algerian situation in 1990. The images of demonstrations and clashes between Egyptian security forces and the Muslim Brotherhood are eerily reminiscent of those carried out by the Algerian People’s National Army (APNA) against the Islamists and supporters of the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS). Will history repeat itself, in Egypt this time?

The armed conflict that took place in Algeria in the 1990s has root causes dating back to the 1980s, and even further, to the Algerian independence in 1962. During the 1980s, Algeria lived the “Berber Spring” (1980), followed by riots in Constantine (1986) and finally the riots of October 5, 1988. During these riots, the people expressed their discontent with the political and socio-economic situation, as have the peoples fuelling the so-called “Arab Spring” since December 2010. Indeed, how can one not be reminded of the Algerian youth of October 5 1988  in the streets of Didouche Mourad and la Grande Poste when seeing young Egyptians in Tahrir Square? Both yesterday’s “hittists” (from the Arabic word for wall “hit”, colloquial term describing young unemployed Algerians who lean against walls all day) or today’s Egyptian “aawatliya” (unemployed), chose any representation of the government as their main target. Both groups expressed their dissatisfaction, their social and cultural suffocation, and their “mistrust” of leaders which they saw as “profiteers of the system” whose policies generated poverty, corruption and cronyism.

In Algeria, the events of October 1988 led to economic and political reforms, the most notable one being the adoption of a multiparty system in the Constitution of 23 February 1989. Egypt’s January 25 revolution led to the removal of Hosni Mubarak and the victory a year later of the Islamist Mohamed Morsi.

It goes without saying that Algeria is not Egypt. The Egyptian situation differs from that of Algeria in the 1990s in that the army’s removal of Morsi followed massive popular protests that accused the elected president of highjacking Egypt’s revolution. In Algeria, the disruption of the electoral process did not enjoy the same legitimacy given that the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) wasn’t in power and was seen as the “saviour” who would put an end to more than thirty years of National Liberation Front (FLN) rule.

However, these differences do not mean that there isn’t a chance that the Egyptian situation could evolve similarly to the Algerian scenario of the 1990s: indeed, as was in Algeria, there is a “rupture” between the Army and the Islamist movement. The situation is especially concerning in Egypt because the Muslim Brotherhood had won the election fairly. Consequently, they consider that they are within their political rights and deem it their duty to fight for the power that was taken away from them.

The removal of the legitimately elected President Morsi is now deemed a catalyst of sustained violence. Hardliners within the Muslim Brotherhood are violently reclaiming what was forcefully taken away. It is important to recall that in Algeria, the disruption of the electoral process allowed the radical wing of the Islamist movement to strengthen its deep conviction that the only possible solution was to take up arms. In their eyes, a peaceful political process with the “taghout” [apostate] and “moustabid” [tyrant] would prove vain. The imposed end of the Algerian electoral process generated deep disappointment, resulted in a proliferation of armed jihadi groups, among them the GIA (Armed Islamic Group), and a conflict lasting over 10 years ensued, accounting for 150,000 deaths and some 6000 missing.

The similarities between Algeria and Egypt don’t stop there: the two armies’ strategies in dealing with Islamists follow a similar pattern. Additionally, with the introduction of a curfew and the restoration of the emergency rule, one notes a particular choice of terminology. Egyptian authorities speak in the manner of their Algerian counterparts, by describing the protestors as “terrorists”. In Algeria, the military spoke of an ‘anti-terrorist’ struggle and ‘total war against terrorism’; in Egypt, the army headed by General Al-Sissi speaks of a ‘strong answer’ in its ‘fight against terrorism’. The Algerian national public television network and part of the mass media, repeated the slogans “we will defeat terrorism” or “all together against terrorism” both in Arabic and in French. Currently in Egypt, private and public television channels depict a permanent banner reading “Egypt fighting terrorism” in English and Arabic. This terminology was institutionalized on December 25, 2013 when the Egyptian government through his vice-Prime Minister, Hossam Eissa, declared the Muslim Brotherhood and its political showcase FJP (Freedom and Justice Party) a “terrorist organization”. This indicates that members of the Muslim brotherhood are now under the anti-terrorist law promulgated in 1992 that can lead to the death penalty.

The repression of Egyptian security forces as well as the arbitrary executions and torture of prisoners are playing a key role in the escalation of violence in Egypt. By dint of intimidation and harassment, a significant number of Muslim brotherhood members and members of the Islamist movement in general, will be inclined to establish or join armed groups to satiate their thirst for vengeance. Sinai is witnessing the birth of various armed groups that are launching waves of attacks against security forces. That was the case on October 7 2013, in the town of El-Tor where a Police headquarters was attacked, killing 4 people and injuring more than 50. On the same day, an army convoy was attacked in Ismailiya (East of Cairo), killing 6 soldiers. The latest attack targeted the Police Headquarters of Daqahleya (Mansoura)  and led to the death of 15 people and injured more than a hundred.

A further similarity between the Egyptian and Algerian armies is illustrated by the fact that both demonstrated an underlying common political strategy. This consists of decimating the Muslim Brotherhood leadership, as proven by the arrest of the supreme guide, Mohamed Badie. As in Algeria where FIS leaders such as Hachani, Madani and Belhadj were arrested, decimation of the Egyptian leadership implies a strengthening of party hardliners and Salafi groups already established in the Sinai desert, essentially harming those who are in favor of negotiations. Decimation of the leadership means creating an acephalous organization whilst eliminating the possibility of negotiating. With the dangerous presence of Al Qaeda in the Maghreb in general and in Egypt in particular (with its branches Ansar al-Jiha and Ansar Beit al-Maqdis in Sinai), the Muslim Brotherhood’s dissolution and its criminalization as a “terrorist group” is offering the most radical members a viable reason to go underground and engage in jihadism.

One thing is certain, by killing the “first” 800 Islamists in Rabia’a Adawiya encampment in 19 August 2013, the Egyptian army offered the Muslim Brotherhood their first martyrs. It is difficult to foresee what will happen in the near future. The need to avoid a total radicalization of the Islamist Movement in Egypt and a unification of armed jihadi groups under one umbrella reminiscent of the GIA in Algeria in the 1990s seems crucial. The political actors need to find a peaceful and workable solution that can respect the will of all segments of Egyptian society including the Muslim Brotherhood. An “eradicative” solution as suggested by General Amr: “We are 90 million Egyptians an there is only 3 million of Muslim Brothers. We need six months to liquidate or imprison all of them. This is not a problem; we have already done in the 1990s” is inconceivable. It will lead to a civil war and Egypt, like Algeria, would live its “black decade”. A clean break with the past will prove difficult but by ending waves of arrests and violent repression, releasing President Morsi, decriminalizing the Muslim Brotherhood and giving it a legal and clear status, negotiations between the two parties could be conceivable.


Dalia Ghanem-Yazbeck is a research analyst at the Carnegie Middle East Center. She is a political scientist with expertise in jihadism, political violence, extremist violence, and terrorism, with a focus on Algeria.

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Jan 20 2014

Syria: At Geneva II, Something to Fight For

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By Ivonne Lockhart Smith, International Policy Analyst at a law firm in London.


016e1307fa3981258f8fa38e1beb16fdd9f2c5261c6b7c18b1ab3852ef76c8bfOn 22 January ‘Geneva II’ talks between the Assad regime and the opposition will commence in Montreux, Switzerland, with Western stakeholders hoping that they will lead to a breakthrough in Syria’s worsening security and humanitarian crisis.  Reviving this paralyzed process, which was inaugurated in June 2012 (in the ‘Geneva I’ talks) but which never really took off, is of paramount importance for the future of both Syrians in desperate need and the stability of the Middle East. 

However, meaningful commitments on the Syrian political process are unlikely to result from this UN-mediated process. Washington and Moscow have had to apply sustained pressure merely to bring the opposition and the regime to the same table, and the political will of either party is notable by its absence.  One third of the factious 120-member National Coalition of the Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces rejects the talks, and jihadist groups continue to erode the control of Western-supported rebels on the ground. And above all, fundamental discrepancies prevail as to the purpose of the talks. Assad affiliates declare that the talks are to discuss countering terrorism, while for the opposition they are about the removal of Assad. In this regard, the establishment of a transitional post-Assad government with full executive powers – the only outcome remotely of interest to the opposition and foreshadowed by Geneva I’s Six-Point Plan– is unfeasible as long as the government continues to hold its ground against the rebels.

There is, however, some hope for progress on the humanitarian front, specifically an improvement in the delivery of life-saving aid.  Getting such aid to those who need it most has been obstructed amidst Assad regime’s attempts to restrict food and other vital supplies to rebel-held areas. Indeed, the government has made the safe passage of humanitarian aid convoys conditional on locally brokered ceasefires, usually involving surrender. International leverage should be exerted to bring an end to this policy.

In the absence of international mediators to broker fair terms for the cessation of military operations, and monitor their compliance, the prospects for the estimated 245,000 people who remain unreached in besieged zones are bleak. In Geneva (where negotiations will take place towards the end of the week following a mostly ceremonial inauguration in Montreux), Russia and the US as the most influential players could in theory use their leverage at the highest level of office to ensure the unfettered and unconditional delivery of aid.

President Putin’s power over his protégé in Damascus has been demonstrated by Syria’s compliance with the disposal of chemical weapons.  It is therefore capable of swaying Assad to stop the regime from imposing sieges and creating conditional and brief truces in rebel-held areas. However, it is unclear to what extent Moscow might be interested in investing diplomatic energy in this, given that its global standing is less on the line than it was in relation to the chemical weapons dossier. Moscow’s appetite for concrete outcomes would ultimately stem from a strategic calculation that pushing the Assad regime to cede ground in certain areas around the table in order to mitigate the exacerbation of Islamic extremism outweighs the benefits of unconditional support for its ally. Insofar as commitments are made regarding humanitarian aid, getting these to work would require forceful action to ensure compliance.

The opening of humanitarian corridors and the establishment of unconditional ceasefires will only be possible if the Russian and the American governments commit first to impose outcomes on the respective parties, and potentially even invest military assets in doing so. How would international monitors otherwise do their job? Or how would humanitarian corridors be protected from artillery bombardments or small arms clashes, ensuring that vital assistance reaches its targets? Western governments struggle to find the answers to these hard questions, and even more so to gather support for coercive action – if necessary – from their domestic constituencies.

American officials, eager to put these questions to one side in order to gain traction on the political front, would still have to face them if the process is to be more than well- intentioned. The American electorate’s level of opposition to the use of force (or anything which resembles it) was evidenced most vividly in the aftermath of the Syrian government’s chemical weapons attacks in September last year. Paradoxically, even though this rejection of military options is why U.S. Secretary Kerry has invested significant political capital in making a Geneva II conference happen, he may have to be prepared to consider the potential threat of coercive methods (or the tactical use of military assets) as essential to the process if it is to make any progress at all.

In the case of Syria, the 2012 Geneva I process essentially foundered as a result of the lack of enforcement, and if Geneva II is to work this lesson should be taken to heart.  Back in 2011 and early 2012, ceasefires were not held.  Neither the UN nor Arab League monitors were able to make the parties comply in the absence of robust backing from the Security Council in the form of sanctions or agreement on how to implement safe zones supported by the use of military assets. If such options have been ruled out by the White House now, then the prospects for a meaningful outcome at the talks in Switzerland are scant.

Deep-seated distrust, absence of political will, and the entrenched violence on the ground will make it difficult for the talks this week to shape any transitional process. There is also the danger that international stakeholders will use this meeting and any agreements that are reached at it to mask the lack of real progress in solving the conflict. However, if more effective delivery of humanitarian assistance to the more than 9.3 million people in Syria in need of such assistance can be achieved, this is worth fighting for. For Western governments and the UN, hope remains that diplomacy may this time work. Washington should be ready to back this hope with all necessary means.



Ivonne Lockhart Smith is an international policy analyst at a law firm in London and has an MSc in Comparative Politics from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

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Jan 15 2014

China’s Potential Mediation Role in the South Sudan Conflict

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By Laura Barber, PhD Candidate in International Relations at the LSE.


Photo credit: Reuters/Petar Kujundzic

Photo credit: Reuters/Petar Kujundzic

Talks are still ongoing to reach a ceasefire in South Sudan, where nearly 10,000 are estimated to have been killed since the eruption of fighting between President Salva Kiir’s government troops and a rebel faction loyal to former Vice-President Riek Machar on 15 December 2013.

China has found itself directly affected by the conflict. Its leading national oil company, the China National Petroleum Corporation (CNPC), is the most heavily invested foreign company in the young nation’s oil sector. China currently imports approximately 70% of Sudan and South Sudan’s oil (although production has fallen by at least 20% since the fighting began).

Facing an increasingly critical domestic audience regarding the safety of Chinese citizens abroad, the Chinese government’s primary concern has been with the safe evacuation of over 300 Chinese workers from South Sudan’s oilfields. But there is also growing concern within Beijing’s foreign policy-making establishment regarding the conflict’s impact on broader regional stability, with over 31,000 South Sudanese having fled the country into neighboring states since the deadly clashes began.

It is increasingly apparent that Beijing’s leadership is aware that it has a direct role to play in the resolution of the conflict. Specifically, China’s Special Envoy for African Affairs, Zhong Jianhua, has offered to mediate between both sides and stated his intention to establish direct contact with the rebels “to express our will and help achieve a ceasefire”.[1]

This is deeply significant, given China’s deep-seated foreign policy principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other states, which in recent years has become increasingly difficult to implement in practice when its own interests abroad have come under threat. But from Beijing’s perspective, a direct mediation role would not constitute ‘interference’ in South Sudan’s internal affairs, as China is adamant that it would only intervene if both sides requested it.

Chinese mediation efforts between conflicting parties, including engagement with rebel movements, are not unprecedented in Sudan and South Sudan. In 2008, at a time when the negotiations seeking to end violent conflict in Sudan’s Darfur region were stalling, China began to understand that to become effectively involved in any conflict resolution efforts, it must listen to and engage with all the key players.

The then-Special Envoy for African Affairs Liu Guijin began, albeit informally and on an ad hoc basis, to pursue a more inclusive mediation approach: which included, for the first time, talking to players apart from the ruling elite in Khartoum. Although China’s role in the process was limited, the fact it was engaging at this level at all was significant.

Liu met informally with the leaders of the two main factions of the Darfur rebel group, the Sudan Liberation Movement. According to a senior Chinese diplomatic source, Liu encouraged one of the factions to keep the safety and security of local people as its top priority by directly negotiating with Khartoum and abandoning its insistence on preconditions to political dialogue.

Currently, a key stumbling block to the signing of a ceasefire agreement between the rebels and the government in South Sudan is the rebels’ continued insistence on the prior release of 11 political detainees in Juba. This is despite the fact that the detainees themselves have told the Intergovernmental Authority on Development (IGAD) mediators that their status shouldn’t be an impediment to reaching a ceasefire agreement.[2]

Continuing Liu’s mediation approach in Darfur, his successor Zhong Jianhua has a key role to play in the current crisis in South Sudan. Through direct mediation efforts, Zhong could further the efforts of his U.S. counterpart, Donald Booth, to encourage the rebels to agree to an immediate ceasefire without preconditions. Such an initiative could be bolstered through Beijing’s efforts in Juba and through the UN Security Council’s calls on President Salva Kiir to release the detainees to the custody of the IGAD and enable their participation in an inclusive negotiation process.

It is crucial not to overstate the extent and depth of China’s potential involvement in the resolution of a crisis far beyond its borders. Nevertheless, in its efforts to ensure the protection of Chinese citizens and – critically – the continued flow of oil in the Sudans, China will certainly remain engaged in supporting the IGAD-led peace process.

Moreover, China’s leadership is aware that an enhanced mediation role in resolving conflicts will also boost China’s credentials as a ‘responsible power’ and demonstrate its stated commitment to African peace and security. China is likely to deepen its cooperation with the U.S. and other Western states in resolving conflicts where it shares interests: in this case, stability in South Sudan and the region which is achieved through politics instead of violence.

This was highlighted on 10 January by clear consensus within the UN Security Council on condemning “external interventions” that would only serve to exacerbate the conflict.[3] This is undoubtedly welcome for Beijing, reaffirming, as it does, that state sovereignty and avoiding military intervention – which remain at the very heart of Chinese foreign policy – are maintained above all.

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