Monday,12 November, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1358, (24 August - 6 September 2017)
Monday,12 November, 2018
Issue 1358, (24 August - 6 September 2017)

Ahram Weekly

White turban, black turban

Ahmed Kamel Al-Beheiri reviews the future of the region between Ankara and Tehran


اقرأ باللغة العربية


In April 2003, the Iraqi state fell to an American invasion. The consequences were the preface to all that the region is now seeing in the way of breakdowns at every level. But the most important and dangerous consequence was the transformation of conventional conflict between states to a conflict between ethnicities, creeds and sects, of which there are many in the Arab world. By 2003 the countdown to sectarian conflict breaking out had begun in an environment that lacks the minimum conditions for societal cohesion.

In the absence of a unifying national project, the lack of citizenship drove members of the same sect to one or another regional party in search of an edge over the other sects. The most important of these are the Sunni white turban in Ankara and the Shia black turban in Tehran; and commentators have analysed the political situation in the Arab world in terms of the interests of these two capitals. But it is well to avoid such a generalisation even if it is not too far from the truth, since it ignores aspects of the two turbans as it were, some of which demonstrate they are an integral part of national identity.

In an address to a large crowd of supporters at Tahrir Square in Baghdad on 4 August, for example, Muqtada Al-Sadr gave numerous messages in support of a national, as opposed to a sectarian, identity. Al-Saqdr expressed the need for a national state based on the concept of citizenship. He called for fighting corruption and a democracy that rejects the notion of sectarian quotas as well as disarming armed militias including those that support the state in its struggle against terrorism, the Popular Mobilisation Forces, in favour of the national Iraqi army. Addressing regional parties, especially Iran, Al-Saqr also emphasised the importance of an independent national Iraqi stance.

All of which demonstrates the possibility of a genuine national orientation regardless of the sect making up any given constituency. But to what extent might Cairo play a role in endorsing such a movement? In the last six years, Cairo has avoided supporting any of the various armed sides in crisis states in the region. Its motivation has been the rejection of armed conflict, which can only increase regional instability and undermine the cohesion of the national state. Maintaining this position, Egypt was the last to acknowledge the fall of Muammar Gaddafi, for example, under the rule of the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces. Its intervention in the Libyan crisis was minimal, with some vessels and planes to secure the border.

The same is true of the Syrian crisis, which is one of the points of difference between Egypt and the Gulf states on the one hand and Iran on the other. This has enabled Egypt to constitute a middle ground for various parties in conflict, with Iran pressuring the United States to ensure that Egypt should attend the Lausanne meeting on Syria in 2016. Likewise, the Gulf parties and Russia accepted Egypt’s role as a mediator, especially of the eastern Ghouta ceasefire, whose initial success Cairo led with the support of most parties.

Judging by this, Cairo is in a position to play a role in building a national orientation whose central tenet is citizenship and Arab identity, to which it can draw numerous parties and groups. Such a role might be the last line of defence against the growing influence of regional parties in Arab affairs.

The mobilisation of citizens, both Sunni and Shia, within a national state identity is the correct tactic to confront Turkey and Iran, in other words.

And for such a process to bear results Cairo’s relatively neutral role is essential. Such an object also protects Egypt’s national security and makes Cairo an effective political player now after the erosion of its historical role over the last 40 years.

This is the real challenge for Egyptian diplomacy at the current juncture, and facing it will require a range of tactics and flexible, broader perspectives.


The writer is an expert on terrorism affairs at Al-Ahram Centre for Political and Strategic Studies.

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