Monday, January 31, 2011

Assessing the Future of Israel-Egypt Relations

There has been legitimate concern from Israel that if the Mubarak regime is overthrown, the state of Israel-Egypt relations is likely to take a turn for the worse. This assessment is accurate. However, policymakers should take two factors into account which bring nuance to this conclusion.

The first is that the same Mubarak regime which has held generally good relations with Israel is the same regime which did very little about the anti-Israel views of the Egyptian public. It's no accident that Mein Kampf and Protocols of the Elders of Zion is available at book kiosks in Egypt, while the anti-Mubarak newspaper Addustour is often censored. The regime's policies work in Israel's favor, but certainly not because it is a fan of Israel.

Which leads to the second point. Egypt and Israel collaborate based on a confluence of strategic interests, not because they like each other. Both Egypt and Israel have stated an interest in containing Hamas, and maintaining security in the Sinai. These interests are the basis of Egypt's foreign policy. While the tenor of domestic politics will almost certainly change if Mubarak is unseated, Egypt's foreign policy interests will not. This is not to say that policymakers should "black-box" Egypt and consider its domestic politics irrelevant (just ask these really smart political scientists). However, if Egypt's foreign policy interests are held stable, domestic changes are only likely to affect foreign policy within a certain order of magnitude.

There can be little doubt that relations between Israel and Egypt are likely to take a turn for the worse in the coming weeks and months. However, policymakers must seek to understand as accurately as possible what this change will look like as they quickly respond to developments in Egypt. Relations will deteriorate, but any assessment that this deterioration will be catastrophic is likely an overstatement.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Why I Can't Support the Egypt Letter

Academics are circulating an open letter to President Obama which calls for undertaking "comprehensive review of US foreign policy on the major grievances voiced by the democratic opposition in Egypt and all other societies of the region." It calls on the President to "publicly acknowledge those reforms [you seek] will not be advanced by Mubarak of any of his adjutants."

The letters' signatories are some of the most intelligent and insightful Middle East scholars in the United States. They produce first class scholarship and make great advances in better understanding the complexities of the Middle East. My concerns have nothing to do with the signatories on this letter, and I greatly respect their opinions.

But I have three hesitations about the text of the letter.

First, the letter calls upon the US government to "approach Egypt through a framework of shared values and hopes, not the prism of geostrategy." Asking a government not to consider geostrategy would be like asking a doctor not to consider the risk of infection while operating. Governments deal in terms of geostrategy, and they should. It matters what Jordan and Syria think when the US speaks to Egypt. Policy recommendations must be put in policy terms. The letter would be better if it explained how promoting shared hopes and values advanced US geostrategic interests.

Second, many of the recommendations in the letter not related to geostrategy are steps the government has already taken. The letter calls for a "comprehensive review of US foreign policy on the major grievances voiced by the democratic opposition in Egypt."

This is already occurring, and it's evident from the shift in US rhetoric on Egypt in the past six days. On Tuesday Secretary Clinton stated, "Our assessment is that the Egyptian Government is stable and is looking for ways to respond to the legitimate needs and interest of the Egyptian people." Today, she stated, "What we are focused on now is a transition that will meet the needs of the Egyptian people and that will truly establish democracy, not just for one election." This is a dramatic shift from a full vote of confidence in President Mubarak to rhetoric calling for a transition. It indicates that a review of US foreign policy is already very much under way at Foggy Bottom and at the White House.

Third, the letter does little to inform the policy discussion on Egypt. Nothing in the letter is particularly new or cutting-edge. Most of it has very little to do with the academy. A letter urging Egypt to restore freedom of speech in Egypt would be much more topical to the academy, where the free exchange of ideas underlies innovative ideas and new ways of thinking. It gives me immense confidence that Middle East academics realize that they are not isolated, impartial observers of violence and suffering, and consider their responsibilities as people with the potential to ameliorate the human condition in the Arab world. But I am concerned that the letter was not written in terms of pragmatic policy prescriptions, but rather vaguely asks the President to "embark on a new course towards peace, democracy, and prosperity for the people of the Middle East."

That Middle East scholars wish to communicate with policymakers is a positive step which bodes well for creating pragmatic, informed, wise policies for the United States. But each of the above hesitations gives me pause about the extent to which the letter accomplishes this goal. I urge revision of the letter to communicate specific pragmatic policy positions. Effectively communicating these positions is not only an imperative for those who study the Middle East, but also key to advancing the interests of our country and the rights of the people of the Middle East whose passion, dedication, and perseverance inspire our work.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Note to Governments: Al-Jazeera Matters

Throughout the protests in Egypt, Al-Jazeera has almost totally defined the narrative of the international community. With internet mostly shut down in Egypt, Al-Jazeera has been the main source of news. Twittering remains ubiquitous, but many of the tweets are summaries of news reported on Al-Jazeera.

This phenomenon is not new. In the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the "Al-Jazeera effect" became well known as the cause of much woe from American war planners. And in Israel's Operation Cast Lead, Al-Jazeera reporter Ayman Mohyeldin (who you've almost definitely seen reporting from Cairo if you've been watching al-Jazeera for the past 48 hours) was one of the few foreign journalists reporting from the Gaza Strip. Al-Jazeera was able to garner significant pressure against Israel in that conflict from the Arab world and the international community.

In short, governments can no longer ignore a simple truth: Al-Jazeera matters.

As events continue to unfold in Egypt, Al-Jazeera will be spinning them in a powerful new way which no government to date has successfully been able to counter. Israel should closely study the failure of Egypt's government to respond to Al-Jazeera. As one of Al-Jazeera's main targets, Israel is not likely to be ignored by the channel any time soon. In assessing Egypt's PR failure, it should note the following three mistakes:

1) Refusing accountability: While President Mubarak's speech echoed the Western rhetoric of reform, he and his government took no responsibility for failing to secure economic prosperity for Egypt and severely limiting freedom in the country. Al-Jazeera prides itself on holding governments accountable and loves an interview in which it can embarrass a government official. Governments need to be able to say "I'm sorry" to Al-Jazeera.

2) Buck passing to vague actors: President Mubarak blamed violence at yesterday's protest on "infiltrators." No one seriously believes this is the case, and the identity of these mysterious infiltrators is unknown. On top of the lack of accountability, passing the blame to vague actors ("Iran and Syria" in Israel's case) looks defensive even if it's true. Al-Jazeera can sense it, and so can its viewers.

3) Speaking to, instead of with, the reporter: Al-Jazeera is not fair and balanced, period. It doesn't claim to be. So the senior NDP official speaking to an Al-Jazeera anchorwoman this afternoon should have been under no illusions that she was going to totally school him (which she did). Unlike certain Western outlets, Al-Jazeera is not going to mindlessly repeat what governments say, especially if it disagrees. The model of engaging with al-Jazeera should be one which considers the interviewee and the reporter on equal footing, rather than the traditional top-down model. Speakers need to stay engaged with the reporter, build rapport, and respect him or her as a sentient human being rather than a talking head.

Managing the role of al-Jazeera and other pan-Arab satellite channels is a skill which governments will need to learn. Because if the past 48 hours have shown anything, it's that Al-Jazeera is a powerful actor, and it is not going away anytime soon.

Friday, January 28, 2011

Mubarak MIA?

President Mubarak, originally scheduled to speak on television around 6pm local time, has not been seen or heard from. No one is quite sure where he is, or whether he's still in charge. Commenters on Al-Jazeera have said they'd be surprised if he lasts the week in Egypt.

Having followed these protests since they first began a few weeks ago, it has been an unbelievable day for both Egypt and the Middle East. Today has seen the breakdown of order in the capital, the police joining with protesters, burning the NDP party headquarters, invading the State Television Headquarters, and making President Mubarak's speech so irrelevant as to not warrant delivery. Business elites are fleeing the country by private jet, Gamal Mubarak is out of the country along with his family, and commenters have opined that the National Democratic Party is over in Egypt.

The coming hours will see even more changes and surprises. Stay tuned. This is just the beginning.

Egypt Updates: Clinton's Remarks and Israel's Role

Clinton's Remarks

Coverage of Secretary Clinton's remarks just a few minutes ago seem to be playing relatively well, with people pointing out that it's the first time the US has used such harsh language about Egypt.

One thing to keep in mind is that Clinton's comments are aimed not only at Egypt but at other regimes as well. If the U.S. abandons the Mubarak regime too abruptly it would be seen as a sign of no confidence for other Arab governments facing protests. This would limit the U.S.' influence on these issues which may break in the next week or so.


There's been some discussion of Israel's role in the situation, so let me make a two quick points:

1) Regime change will be bad for Israel. The Egyptian public does not generally support good relations with Israel, and any government which represents their interests is likely to take a much firmer line against Israel. This will hurt Israel's relations with Egypt, and will also limit its maneuvering options on Gaza, where Egypt has played a key role in disrupting Hamas and in prisoner swap negotiations.

2) Israel is not the reason the U.S. has been deliberate and cautious in its support for the protesters. The major U.S. priority right now is stability. Egyptian regime change is likely to cause instability in a number of countries in the Middle East but Israel is certainly not one of them. Additionally, while regime change is likely to cause a headache for Israel, it's not likely to cause violence. That is not necessarily the case in other states in the region.

Demonstrations in Cairo

Al-Jazeera posts the following picture on their website of demonstrators in Cairo (screen grab from @sultanalqassemi):

Unconfirmed reports indicate that police have started joining the protesters. This is very bad news for the regime. Information out of Egypt is coming largely for Arab satellite channels right now. The internet should be re-connected in Egypt at 5pm Cairo time, or 10am Washington time.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Egyptian Internet 404 Not Found

Reports out of Egypt and confirmed by the Associated Press are that much of the internet has been shut down in Egypt. Activists in both the Middle East and the United States are mounting a campaign on Twitter for Americans to pressure the White House and congress to pressure Egypt to lift the ban.

This move by the regime has two objectives. The first is to limit the ability of activists to organize. Tuesday's protests were largely organized over Facebook and other social media sites. By denying the activists a communication tool, the regime hopes to limit their organizational ability. Given the widespread publicity about the protests scheduled for tomorrow, this is highly unlikely to be effective.

Secondly, the shutdown is intended to slow the information coming out of Egypt. Given that policy elites are getting much of their information from Twitter, the shutdown will slow the response of the international community, giving the regime time to re-establish control, and delaying the immediacy of the impact casualties will have.

Egypt, Yemen, and the United States of Awkward

Three big stories this morning from the Middle East:

Mohamed el-Baradei, former head of the IAEA and presidential candidate in the last elections is en route back to Egypt for tomorrow's protests. His arrival is important for two reasons. The first is that he is shaping himself as a figurehead for regime change, often seen a critical component of success in such movements. Second, Baradei has strong international legitimacy as the IAEA chief who oversaw UN response to the Iranian nuclear program and urged caution. Politically, el-Baradei does not enjoy the same popularity within Egypt, but the international community is likely to support him, which makes a difference.

Secondly, the Muslim Brotherhood has stated it will participate in Friday's protests. It does not intend to play a leadership role but it will mobilize supporters. This is a big deal because it represents an established political trend in Egypt fusing with the popular protests. Some fear exists that the Brotherhood will use the protests as a springboard into a leadership role. The concern is warranted but it is more likely than not that the Brotherhood will remain out of the spotlight for fear of political retribution by the Mubarak regime.

Thirdly, large protests are taking place in Yemen against President Saleh who has held power in Yemen for over 32 years. Yemen is already an unstable country with a serious insurgency problem, and these protests are not likely to help the governments efforts to reign in insurgency.

What all of these events share in common is that they put the United States in a rather awkward position. Given that Egypt's government is the number 2 recipient of US foreign aid, and that Yemen has become a major US focus for combatting al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP), it will have to respond very carefully to events. Secretary Clinton's tenuous statements may play as wishy-washy in the Western press, but they are smart policy. Supporting the opposition or the protesters in either Egypt or Yemen is a risky strategy that could harm US interests in the region. At the same time, supporting the dictatorial regimes of Middle Eastern states flies in the face of democratic and liberal ideas that are the foundation of the United States and its foreign policy. The State Department and the Obama administration have successfully walked the careful middle ground (Marc Lynch concurs re: Obama). But they will have to continue to do so in the coming days.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Egypt Updates

Update 7:15pm EST 26 Jan 10:

The President's son Gamal and his family have left Egypt for Britain. (Original Arabic article).

Protesters have called for more demonstrations on Friday, after prayers.

Protesters set fire today to a government building in the Sinai.

The army has opened fire on protesters in the Suez.

The government blocked ad-Dustour and el-Badil, in addition to Twitter and Facebook.

Stay tuned, and stay safe.

On the DC Egypt Buzz

Blake Hounshell has an interesting post up today on the Passport blog of Foreign Policy. In it, he argues that the American foreign policy community should stop focusing on the US with regards to the ongoing violence in Egypt. The point is a good one. What is occurring in Egypt has nothing to do, directly, with the United States.

But the questions Hounshell lists at the end of his post are also very relevant questions for American policymakers to be asking and talking about. The protests may not be about the US, but they certainly impact the US. It's stuff we should be talking about.

There's little we can do in the short term to make the situation better, but there's a lot we could do to make it worse. Talking about the situation as it impacts the US is a necessary and useful step for policymakers to take because the of the importance of the very questions mentioned in Hounshell's post.

And he's also right that the best move at this point is to keep our mouths shut.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Times of Transition

There's never a dull moment in the Middle East.

In Egypt, about 15,000 protesters marched in Cairo today, and protests continue into the night. The protests appear to have been organized on Facebook as part of a Day of Rage. The primary thing to watch for in Egypt will be the reaction of the Mubarak government. It will likely be strong, but could backfire should it capture the attention of the Arab world and international community. Given the foreign aid the US gives to Egypt (overshadowed only by US foreign aid to Israel), and tonight's State of the Union speech, the US is not likely to play a major role in what happens over the next few days or weeks.

In Lebanon, protests broke out over news that the new Prime Minister would be the Hizbullah-backed Najib Miqati. The news is mixed. Now that the government is officially Hizbullah-aligned, the party will have more control over Lebanese policy. However, it will also bear more responsibility. The international community and US will need to be careful to deal with Lebanon in a way which legitimizes good governance, but de-legitimizes the radical elements of Hizbullah's agenda.

In the Palestinian Territories, Al-Jazeera's release of the Palestine Papers is likely to de-legitimize the status quo elites in the Palestinian Authority and will likely damage the peace process. Given the blatantly anti-Israel nature of the documents and the coverage surrounding them on both Al-Jazeera English and The Guardian, Israel is not likely to be reaping much benefit either.

Why are these events getting the blogosphere and the twitters all hot and bothered? Because much of it is unprecedented. What's going to happen in the future? Honestly, no one really knows. If someone tells you otherwise, it should send up a red flag. Stay tuned, readers.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Lebanon and Tunisia Analysis Roundup

Lebanon and Tunisia Analysis Roundup

Middle East Discussion Group (MEDG), Young Professionals in Foreign Policy

January 18, 2010

The YPFP Middle East Discussion Group focuses on political, security, sociological, and cultural trends in the contemporary Middle East and North Africa as well as the United States' relationship with and role in the region.

Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia

Western Analysis:

The Key Players in Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution (Christian Science Monitor)

Tunisia: No Domino Effect, but a Dilemma Over Arab Democracy (Time)

Anatomy of an Autocracy (Foreign Policy)

Tweeting Tyrants Out of Tunisia (

Middle East Bloggers Hail Change in Tunisia (BBC News)

Tunisia’s Lessons for Washington (Jerusalem Post)

After Tunisia, is Egypt Next? (The Atlantic)

After Tunisia, the Start of an Arab Awakening? (Global Post)

The First Twitter Revolution? (Foreign Policy)

Why Tunisia's Revolution is Islamist-Free (Foreign Policy)

Arab Leaders to Grapple With New Order Post-Tunisia (Reuters Africa)

U.S. Had Helo Deal with Ousted Tunisian Dictator (

A Twitter Snapshot of the Tunisian Revolution (Tech Crunch)

It’s Neither a Wikileaks-Revolutions Nor a Twitter-Revolution #sizibouzid (ReadWriteWeb, in French)

Pan-Arab Analysis:

Timeline: Tunisia's Civil Unrest (Al-Jazeera English)

US Ignored Tunisia Corruption (Al-Jazeera English)

Is Tunisia Following in Turkey’s Footsteps? (Asharq al-Awsat)

Tuniziation (Asharq al-Awsat)

Tunisia’s Tone of Defiance (Al-Jazeera English)

In Cairo, Cynicism Instead of Revolution (al-Ahram)

Tunisia: Was it a Revolution? (Asharq al-Awsat)

Why did the Government Fail to Win Over the Tunisians? (Asharq al-Awsat)

Tunisia: A Media Led Revolution? (Al-Jazeera English)

Tunisia and the Democratic Alternative (Dar al-Hayat)

Ben Ali's Confessions (Dar al-Hayat)


Mona Eltahawy Blog

A Tunisian Girl Blog

Ibn Kafka Blog


TunAnonymous News Network


List - Click here




















@Hussam_Arafa (Arabic)

@abdallahmhiri (French)

@karim2k (French and English)








Please direct inquiries on Tunisia to this group member:

Tara Chandra

Private Foreign Policy Consultant

Special Tribunal On Lebanon Issues Indictment

Western Analysis:

Factbox: Lebanon Tribunal (Reuters)

Hariri Tribunal: UN Prosecutor Issues Sealed Indictment (BBC News)

Lebanese Government Collapse: A History of Missed Opportunities (The Guardian)

Amid Power Vacuum, Tensions Rising in Lebanon (Global Post)

Obama’s Misguided Lebanon Policy (Middle East Online)

Fears of Violence Rife Ahead of Hariri Assassination Indictments (France24)

The Other Shoe Drops in Lebanon (Foreign Policy)

No Victors in Lebanon (Foreign Policy)

Hezbollah's Nuclear Option (Foreign Policy)

Fear of War as Beirut Leaps into the Unknown (The Guardian)

What Next with no Government? (NOW Lebanon)

Pan-Arab Analysis:

Lebanon Cauldron Boils (

Who Caused the Initiative to Collapse? (Asharq al-Awsat)

U.S. France, Allies cannot allow Hizbollah to Deny Justice to the People of Lebanon (Ya Libnan)

Beirut Edging to Tribunal Showdown (Al-Jazeera English)

Analysts: Obama can do Little to Help Stability in Lebanon (Beirut Daily Star)


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@SalmanOnline (Arabic)







Please direct inquiries on Lebanon to these group members:

Ghassan Schbley

Strategy Analyst

James Stocker, Ph.D

Graduate Institute of Geneva

Sunday, January 16, 2011

Nasrallah and the STL

The Special Tribunal for Lebanon's indictment is, by many accounts, expected tomorrow. In anticipation, Hizbullah Secretary General Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah gave a widely-publicized speech today in which he took a decidedly nationalist tone, saying the indictments were intended to hurt Lebanon and making three key demands, all regarding Lebanon:

1. Withdraw Lebanese judges from the panel.
2. Withdraw Lebanese funding from the tribunal.
3. Cancel Lebanon's agreement with the tribunal.

The tone of his comments indicates Hizbullah's anxiety over the content of the indictment, and an attempt at damage control. If the indictment blames Hizbullah it would isolate the group politically in the wake of the Hariri assassination which was largely a point of unity for Lebanon. Hizbullah has said it does not intend to start another civil war over the indictment but there is still a significant chance of violence in Lebanon in the next 24-48 hours.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Lebanon On The Brink

What Happened

News of Hizbullah's withdrawal from the Lebanese government rocked the Middle East on Wednesday. Taking the opportunity of Prime Minister Saad Hariri's visit to Washington, D.C., the party and its allies withdrew 11 ministers, enough to topple the current government coalition. Hizbullah had threatened action in the looming shadow of an indictment from the Special Tribunal on Lebanon (STL) which is investigating the assassination of PM Hariri's father, ex-PM Rafik Hariri, in 2005. The indictment is expected some time in February, and is rumored to blame Hizbullah.

What it Means

Hizbullah's participation in the government gave them some level of interest in the viability of the political system and the use of non-violence to resolve conflicts. While Hizbullah intended its participation mostly as a spoiler, the shifting character from militia to half-militia half-political party opened an opportunity to detract from Hizbullah's ability or interest in using violence. The withdrawal from the government signifies a closure of this opportunity.

Secondly, the move is a demonstration of Hizbullah's power in the looming shadow of the indictment of the STL. Hizbullah is demonstrating its ability and its willingness to cause problems for PM Hariri, who will now enter the indictment phase with a weakened coalition and under threat from Hizbullah.

Why It's Dangerous

By withdrawing from the government, Hizbullah is posturing for the indictment. It is signaling not only that it can cause violent trouble but that it intends to do so. This threat is credible.

This in turn is dangerous because it's a case of Hizbullah backing itself up against a wall. Iran acted similarly in creating its nuclear program under the political umbrella of fighting US domination. Such moves are sometimes effective, but they are always dangerous. The indictment is virtually impossible to stop. When it comes out and blames Hizbullah, Hizbullah may react violently not because violence is in its immediate interest but because it's backed into a corner and must follow through to remain credible. Using brinksmanship in the Middle East is playing Russian Roulette with the stability of the region.

It's also dangerous for Hizbullah because the major opposition of the US to funding the Lebanese government was Hizbullah's participation. Their departure lowers the cost of US investment in the Lebanese government (though not necessarily the Lebanese Armed Forces, or LAF).

What the US Should Do About It

Given that Hizbullah is blaming the US and Israel for the indictment's accusations, an overt show of US support would not be the most effective and might even backfire. Using proxies such as France and Saudi Arabia, both of whom have vested interests in a stable Lebanon, the US can effectively promote its interests while not taking blame and allowing itself to be scapegoated for Hizbullah's own actions. Secretary of State Clinton today showed excellent understanding of this point in seeking a global consensus on Lebanon. It will be significantly harder for Hizbullah to blame the US and the international community than it will be to blame the US alone.

However, even if the US executes this strategy perfectly, it is not at all guaranteed to prevent violence in Lebanon. If anything, it will be the country and the region's collective memory of its bloody past that will allow cooler heads to prevail.