Saturday,23 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1361, (21 - 27 September 2017)
Saturday,23 February, 2019
Issue 1361, (21 - 27 September 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Monitoring the Kurdish referendum

Egypt is carefully monitoring this month’s referendum on the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan, reports Dina Ezzat


The Kurdish parliament backs the independence referendum on 25 September
The Kurdish parliament backs the independence referendum on 25 September

Egypt is carefully monitoring developments leading up to the referendum on the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan scheduled to take place on 25 September.

One informed government source told Al-Ahram Weekly that Cairo had informed the leaders of Iraqi Kurdistan “with whom we have always kept very close relations” that Egypt believes that “more time and thought should be given to the idea of independence.”

Over the past few months, the source said, “several envoys have visited the Kurdish capital Erbil” to urge the leaders of Iraqi Kurdistan to examine options and to assess the situation on the ground.

The Kurds, a non-Arab ethnic group, number between 25 and 35 million people spread out across four countries in the Middle East but without a state of their own.

“There seems to be a great deal of determination on the side of the leaders of Kurdistan to move ahead with the planned referendum. This is something they have been thinking about and openly talking about for quite some time,” the source said.

Egypt, he added, had also been discussing the matter with officials from the Iraqi government in Baghdad. There was a clear Egyptian position that “it is better for all Iraqis to work together on keeping the territorial integrity of their country and forging a united future in which they can all share the wealth of a united Iraq,” he said.

The upcoming referendum on the independence of Iraqi Kurdistan is problematic for Cairo because on the one hand Egypt cannot endorse the independence of a part of Iraq and on the other hand it cannot defy the wishes of the leaders of Kurdistan.

“It is a very sensitive matter at many levels,” the government source said. He explained that if the door were to be opened to the separation of Iraqi Kurdistan then this could also mean that the Kurds of Syria, already talking about a federal arrangement in Syria, might follow suit.

“This would mean the fragmentation of two Arab countries,” he said.

He added that “the possibility of an independent Kurdistan could prompt serious regional hiccups, with both Turkey and Iran planning to intervene on the ground in Iraq. We are already aware of movements by both countries.”

Senior officials in Ankara and Tehran have already warned against any potential separation moves by the Kurds of Iraq, with the prime minister of Turkey and the head of the Iranian National Security Council in Iran going on record with direct threats.

Despite its apprehensions about the move and its assessment that it might be difficult to convince the Kurdish leaders in Erbil to drop the idea, Egypt has not taken a strong position.

“Our policy has always been to maintain good relations with all the factions in Iraq. We did this during the rule of [former Iraqi president] Saddam Hussein when we offered refuge at one point to Kurdish leaders in Cairo,” said a former diplomat who had handled Arab affairs at the Foreign Ministry.

This policy, he added, continued after the ouster of Saddam, and “it included the Sunnis, the Shias — despite their association with Iran in a way that we have always seen as potentially problematic — and the Kurds in Iraq.”

Keeping good relations with the Kurds has been “a strategic goal for us because this means we have channels of communication with the Kurds across the four countries in which they live, Iraq, Syria, Turkey and Iran,” the diplomat added.

The Kurds number around 12 to 15 million in Turkey, (about 20 per cent of the overall population), six million in Iran (less than 10 per cent), 4.7 million in Iraq (15-20 per cent), and more than two million in Syria (15 per cent).

They have largely preserved their culture, languages and clan-based social structures. Large expatriate communities of Kurds exist in Armenia, Azerbaijan, Germany and Lebanon. Although predominantly Sunni Muslims, some are Christians and their political structures are often non-denominational.

According to the government source, “Egypt is not going to antagonise the leaders of the Iraqi Kurds when it seems that their march to independence is hard to stop.”

“It does not have to happen now or in the near future, but it could happen at some point and it would be a grave mistake not to have friendly relations with them,” he argued.

Egypt, he suggested, had been “very opposed to the division of Sudan into two countries, but it went along with the inevitable and has been maintaining good relations with the newly independent South Sudan.”

The current state of affairs in South Sudan and the complex relations between the new state that gained independence in 2011 and its northern neighbour have been going through various difficulties.

“The referendum on Kurdish secession, non-binding as it is, could set the stage for a possible separation of Kurdistan from the rest of Iraq, and this could be the beginning of a potential war between Iraq and the Kurds, not just over the separation, but also over natural resources including oil and water,” the source said.

He added that the fact that the leaders of Kurdistan were determined to include the oil-rich area of Kirkuk in the referendum was already indicative of what might come.

Egypt, the source said, has been supportive of a UN appeal for a delay in the referendum for two to three years pending negotiations between Baghdad and Erbil. It has also been supportive of a Saudi initiative to mediate a political deal between Baghdad and Erbil.

But Cairo does not have high expectations. “There have been many calls from across the world for caution, asking the leaders in Erbil to give time to political mediation. But the facts on the ground indicate that even if the non-binding referendum is temporarily put off at the last minute, or if its results are shelved for a while, the Kurdish leaders in Iraq are unlikely to give up the dream of an independent Kurdistan that could inevitably include the Kurdish parts of the three neighbouring countries,” he said.

Egypt, argued political science professor Nevine Mossaad, cannot endorse the independence of Kurdistan from Iraq.

“From a strictly legal perspective, Kurdistan has never been a territory that Iraq has occupied. The Kurds are part of the ethnic diversity that Iraq like other neighbouring countries enjoys,” she said.

Independence referendums in the past have traditionally required the consent not just of the party pursuing the separation, but also the other party making up the rest of the country, “and this is certainly not the case with Baghdad.”

Iraq’s Supreme Court has already ordered the suspension of the referendum.

Mossaad argued that the issue requires more attention from Cairo. Egypt should go beyond its low-profile diplomacy and make a public statement of its determination to support the territorial integrity of Iraq, she said.

It cannot look on while Israel openly supports the disintegration of Iraq through its support for the Kurdish move towards independence.

One Iraqi diplomatic source in Cairo said that Baghdad was “disappointed” at Cairo’s “failure” to use its clout to dissuade the Kurdish move towards “the disintegration of Iraq”. He praised efforts by the Arab League to support Iraq’s territorial integrity during a recent visit to Iraq by the organisation’s secretary-general, Ahmed Abul-Gheit.

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