Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1271, (19-25 November 2015)
Wednesday,19 September, 2018
Issue 1271, (19-25 November 2015)

Ahram Weekly

Eyes on Syria, Libya and beyond

The Paris attacks are bound to produce new European policies on immigrants, refugees and Muslim communities, diplomatic sources tell Dina Ezzat

Al-Ahram Weekly

As Paris tries to recover from the horror of last Friday night, the French capital is waking up to a new pressing debate on collective and national EU policies on receiving immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees. All European states are now expected to review their positions on the migrant crisis.

“The fact that the suspected assailants in the attacks in Paris are essentially French citizens, even if of Arab origin, is coming as good news for us. We deeply feared it would be a group of Syrian refugees, which would have made our lives very hard, even here,” said Ramy, a Syrian refugee who recently made it to Sweden.

Ramy left Syria over a year ago, “when things were getting really bad.” He came to Egypt, where he took a job to provide for himself and his family while waiting to be accepted by Sweden.

He is just settling in and feared he would have problems. “Of course, because there is not such a large Arab or Muslim community here things are not as tense as they might be in France or Belgium,” he said. “But still, during the weekend after the attack I declined to leave the house and just sat before the TV waiting for news.”

Ramy’s sigh of relief is not shared by Ashraf, an Egyptian who has been working and living in Belgium for the past seven years. Ashraf’s wife and daughters are veiled. He asked them, during the first 48 hours following the attacks, to “stay at home and not even step out for any reason.”

Ashraf lives far from Molenbeek, the Brussels suburb and hub of Salafi Muslims where the attacks in France are said to have been organised, after having been plotted in Syria.

Still, he has heard through acquaintances within the Arab and Muslim communities that there is a great deal of tension there.

“I think there is a fear of a possible show of anger from the people themselves — apart from the concern of police searches. This is what I hear,” he said.

Ramy and Ashraf spoke before the Tuesday afternoon arrest of three suspects in Germany, reportedly including a Syrian refugee.

They both spoke over the phone to Al-Ahram Weekly and declined to be quoted with their full or real names. They agreed that they might be over-reacting, but they said that at this point it is better to be safe than sorry, because there is no telling how things will unfold for foreign residents, whether long-term or recently accommodated refugees.

In Cairo on Sunday afternoon, French Ambassador to Egypt Andre Parent cautioned against jumping to conclusions, both about the kinds of measures his country, and maybe other European states, might take on the matter of refugees and about the status of legal migrants in the country.

“Too early to tell and we should not be assuming things or following misleading rumours,” Parent said at a presser at the French Embassy.

Parent also cautioned against assuming there would be harassment of French residents of Arab or Muslim origin.

“I think, overall, we have seen a great deal of wisdom and composed reaction and I don’t think we should expect any unfortunate developments. This has been the case for the most part since the attacks on Charlie Hebdo in January of this year,” he said.

The statements of Parent are for the most part compatible with the line key French news channels and dailies have been adopting. It is also compatible with the main line of discourse that French President François Hollande, who declared that his country is “at war”, has been using, with vocal and repeated distinctions made between Islam and extremism.

But Hollande is not the sole decision-maker of how things will go on the legal front — much less on the popular front.

The leaders of right-wing parties in France, particularly Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front, have not hesitated before lashing out at the policies of the French government that allowed for the accommodation of a large number of refugees, predominantly from Syria.

They openly asked for these policies to be reversed and for the refugees to be taken away from the heart of French cities and villages before having as many of them as possible removed from France altogether.

The discourse of the French right was echoed all across Europe where right-wing parties, especially in Germany, are escalating their attacks with the objective of closing the doors of Europe in the face of asylum seekers.

Calls are also escalating in support of putting more restrictive regulations and surveillance on the operation of mosques and other Muslim activities in European territories.

A source in the Muslim community in Paris said that there is definitely a sense of “vigilance” in the Muslim community. He spoke of firm instructions given by religious leaders of the Muslim French community on the conduct of mosque preachers and sermons.

He also spoke of continuous and direct cooperation between leaders of the Muslim community in all of France, not just Paris, and investigating authorities, out of what he said was “our true commitment as French citizens who deplore these attacks and lament the loss of lives.”

At least four of the more than 140 victims of the attacks are said to be of Arab or Muslim origin.

The assailants, however, are mostly Arab Muslims: Abdelhamid Abaaoud, Salah Abdelsalam and his brother Brahim and Samy Amimour.

Amimour had been to Syria to join the war of radical Muslim militants against the army of President Bashar Al-Assad and declined to join his father who went on a trip to Syria to try and retrieve his son.

“This is a very sad and repeated story. This is the story of many of the young men who were brainwashed into going to Syria. And although we put them under surveillance when they come back, obviously more would need to be done,” said a French source who asked to remain anonymous.

He added that regulations are currently being considered to improve the quality of surveillance of young men and women (the official estimate is that there are close to 150 such men and women) and to impose entry and exit regulations on anyone suspected of being associated with the war in Syria.

Meanwhile, France, which has been heavily bombarding suspected Islamic State (IS) headquarters in Syria, has been intensifying diplomatic pressure for a political settlement to be reached to end the close to five-year-long crisis in the country.

“Obviously, terrorism has been there before the situation of Syria and obviously the appearance of IS in Syria dates back only to 2014, but clearly IS offers a serious shift,” Parent said in his press briefing in Cairo.

In Vienna, a meeting on Syria was given firm momentum with developments in Paris. Sources close to the meetings in the Austrian capital told the Weekly that it has become clear to all concerned parties that the situation in Syria cannot be left unattended any longer, and that firm political action is required soon before Syria turns into an endless source of terror attacks against Western capitals and Western targets overseas.

The same sources say that the fact that Russian President Vladimir Putin is suffering the shock of the killing of more than 200 Russian citizens in a suspected terror attack on a plane carrying Russian tourists from Egypt’s Sharm El-Sheikh is adding a new resolve to the will of Western countries to combat terror, “at the source and the roots,” as one senior European diplomat put it.

On Tuesday afternoon, Moscow made a unilateral announcement that the Russian plane was indeed downed in a terror attack. The same sources spoke of an expected increase in collective measures on the military, security, intelligence and political fronts, to “do the expected job of protecting” respective citizens.

One of these diplomatic sources said it is now clear beyond doubt that Russia will force Bashar Al-Assad to accept an Omani proposal for privileged asylum and that the military action against IS in Syria — and maybe also Iraq — will escalate in the coming days.

European diplomatic sources that spoke to the Weekly from several capitals and in Cairo say that their countries have no illusions that Syria alone is the problem.

“Libya is also a key problem. In fact, over 90 per cent of the refugees who arrive to Europe from Africa are coming from Libya,” said one of the sources.

Sources close to the Antalya meeting of G-20 leaders that took place earlier this week, without the French president, said that there was a consensual agreement among all leaders in the Turkish city that prompt action is required.

European sources speaking to the Weekly refer to a multi-faceted scheme both for the eastern Mediterranean line of migration and for the central Mediterranean line.

The case of the eastern Mediterranean involves both Syria and Iraq, with priority given to Syria. At issue is a base for a political settlement, proper accommodation measures for refugees with effective integration and anti-radicalisation schemes, and considerable financial assistance to neighbouring countries to help them better host refugees pending their return to Syria following the end of the civil war and the elimination of the IS threat.

To eliminate IS, the same sources say, action would have to target their strongholds out of Syria, with one source suggesting that several countries in the Arab Mashreq have already been infected with IS cells.

“We cannot be seriously talking about combating IS in Syria without having to worry about the increasing IS presence in Sinai, which is to blame for the Russian plane crash,” he added.

For the central Mediterranean line, essentially Libya and other African countries, development and better border management is high on the agenda.

In all cases, there is a growing realisation that a firmer but also more down-to-earth approach must be taken against radicalisation.

According to a well- informed European source, the Saudi monarch, who was present in Antalya for the G-20 summit, made a clear commitment that his country would pursue specific measures to reduce radical preaching across the Muslim world, including Muslim communities in Europe and in Africa.

“Of course, this is very long term because after decades of the radicalisation of Islam it would take also decades to have Islam de-radicalised,” he said.

Meanwhile, Western sources in Europe and the US spoke of resurfacing calls to give moderate Islam a better chance as the only effective antidote to radicalism.

“It is not very clear yet how this would happen. I mean, we know that we would need to start with the de-radicalisation of Muslim communities in Europe. But we also need to see what we will be doing with Muslim countries and the Muslim communities in Africa and also Asia,” the same source said.

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