Sunday,19 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1204, (3-9 July 2014)
Sunday,19 August, 2018
Issue 1204, (3-9 July 2014)

Ahram Weekly

Chaos ahead?

The region is on the threshold of chaos, former Egyptian foreign minister and chair of the constitutional drafting committee Amr Moussa tells Dina Ezzat

Al-Ahram Weekly

It has become hard for any Egyptian politician to examine the situation on the home front without a close, and more often than not apprehensive, look at regional developments, especially in the Mashrek and the Gulf.

This is specifically the case for a man who has been closely engaged in foreign policy for all his working life like Amr Moussa, successively foreign minister, Arab League secretary-general, presidential candidate, and chair of the constitutional drafting committee.

Today, Moussa sees plenty of reasons to worry over regional stability and the impact of growing instability on Egypt that is going through its own rocky transition. “It is a tough situation; there are no two ways about it. There is a very disturbing regional scene all around us and very close to us,” Moussa said with unmasked apprehension.

A diplomat and politician who has spent a good part of his 20 years as foreign minister and Arab League secretary-general attending to the crisis in Iraq since the invasion of Kuwait in the summer of 1990 and the fall of former president Saddam Hussein in 2003, Moussa now sees an Iraq “that nobody can be certain will survive possible division or even fragmentation.”

Ahead of the US-led invasion of Iraq in the spring of 2003, Moussa, then Arab League secretary-general, tried every diplomatic trick available to block the invasion. He visited Iraq and tried to convince Hussein to make concessions and he tried to lobby regional and international support.

However, the decision of former US president George W. Bush had been made: Hussein would have to go. Even so, Moussa made a last appeal by saying that the invasion of Iraq would “open the gates of hell” in the entire region. Since then, Iraq had not seen a day of stability even though freed of the brutal dictator that had taken it onto the path of chaos.

This week, Moussa is distressed at the news suggesting that the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki is failing despite considerable regional and international support, both military and intelligence, to curtail the advance of the radical Islamist group the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS). Statements coming out of Iraq suggest that its very cohesion may now be at stake.

“It is a very serious moment in the history of this country. It is a very serious moment in the history of the entire Mashrek,” Moussa said, adding that “the region seems to be staring hell right in the face.”

According to Moussa, the entire Mashrek is at serious risk. Particularly at stake, as Moussa sees things, are Iraq and Syria, with the latter still trying to fight off the radical groups that have taken over the originally purely Syrian call for greater democratisation.

This well-informed politician and diplomat is not sure that the currently developing story of “division and fragmentation” is strictly national or regional. He is not willing, either, to limit the developments to Iraq and Syria, seeing the danger of the radical groups spreading to Libya and the Maghreb. Foreign schemes should not be excluded even when the core of the problem might come from the “unfortunate mismanagement of state affairs” internal to these countries, responsible for many a political disturbance across the region.

Moussa, who had recently favoured internal engagement in Egypt, including in the preparation for the parliamentary elections due this autumn, over assuming an international position on the Syrian crisis, said that it had become “futile, really futile, to try to approach one part of the problem away from the rest, because things, or rather the problems, have become so interwoven.”

“It is no longer possible to just talk of the situation in Syria; you can also not just talk of the situation in Iraq; the whole situation needs to be addressed in an integral and forward-looking approach,” Moussa said.

Moussa would not agree that the situation is more problematic in Iraq or in Syria. In both cases, he diagnoses mismanagement and diplomatic lack of engagement. He also sees the failures of declining Arab intervention.

This former Arab League secretary-general who saw the beginnings of the Arab Spring from his office in Tahrir Square with the Tunis demonstrations and who warned at the time that the Arab Spring would not stop in Tunis is now convinced that the call of the Arab peoples for democracy is unstoppable, but argues that there are signs that the momentum for democratisation has lost direction, essentially under the influence of either embedded or induced ethnic and radical tendencies.

Iraq, for Moussa, is a case in point because of the influence of the “avoidable ethnic bias” that has been exercised by the prime minister who clearly failed to bypass his own Shia favouritism and thus left the Sunnis and Kurds of Iraq in a state of distress.

Moussa would draw a clear line between the exercise of ethnic bias, as in the case of Al-Maliki, and the exercise of terror by the radical groups, as in the case of ISIS, and he ventures further to refer to the radical groups “exercising terror attacks in Sinai” and in Libya. However, when all is said and done, Moussa says that ethnic bias and radical group terror have worked in favour of one another.

“We are in a region that is facing fragmentation either on an ethnic basis, and we have seen the splitting of Sudan already and we are possibly looking at the division of Iraq, or as a result of the intervention of radical militant groups with which there is no way to reason. This is to say that we need to think clearly about how to deal with these two crucial problems both in the short and long term — before it is too late, really,” Moussa said.

The time has come, Moussa stressed, “for the Arabs to rework the regional order with an eye on new problems and on the aspirations of the Arab peoples both for democracy and stability because the peoples of this part of the world do not have to be doomed to take one and leave the other. It is not impossible to have both democracy and stability if things are managed in the right way.”

The new Arab regional order, Moussa says, has to have an eye on the other countries in the region: Israel “which is still occupying Arab territories and is still blocking the fair settlement of the long plight of Palestinian people,” and Turkey and Iran whose interests and influence cannot be overlooked.

“Take, for example, the case of developments in Syria and Iraq. On this you need to have a conference with representatives from the UN, the Arab League, the US and Russia, Iran by virtue of realism and Turkey by virtue of geography and also the European Union and both Egypt and the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC). There must be a firm and clear analysis of the problem and the possible answers,” Moussa said.

The new regional order cannot just be political, Moussa argued. He is convinced that the economy is as important as politics today in deciding the norms and paths of international relations. But the economy, he added, should be approached with an eye on one of the most pressing demands for this entire region — development — the “twin of democracy” in the eyes of this politician.

For this to happen, Moussa argued, Egypt would have to be more present in regional affairs but “maybe later rather than sooner.”

Moussa, despite his recognition of the hard path of democratic transition during the last three years since the 25 January Revolution, is of the opinion that the contribution of Egypt is a prerequisite for any permanent and sustainable arrangement for regional stability – be it in relation to the developments in the Arab Mashrek, the Arab Gulf or in the Maghreb.

“Realistically speaking, we need to get done with some pressing internal developments before we move on to assume the regional role that we are fit to have and that is essential for the balance of this region,” Moussa said.

Moussa is convinced that Egypt is finding its way onto the right path, and that despite some remaining tests, especially in relation to the combat against terror, the parliamentary elections and economic issues, it will not be too long before Egypt is fully re-engaged in the making of a new regional order that is “made to the measure of the countries of this region, that is predominantly Arab, and that is not the result of foreign influences or schemes.”

Egypt could well start to play a role in some specific areas, especially since some of the larger regional crises, especially in Syria, Iraq and Libya, have a direct influence on developments in Egypt. “I am thinking of the influx of militants and arms that are designed to subvert the efforts of the state to restore stability,” he said.

Moussa is also convinced that stability in Egypt is essential for larger regional stability. “It is hard to ignore the influence of developments in Egypt on the rest of the Arab world at the political level; for example, the success of Egyptians in ending the attempt of the Muslim Brotherhood to challenge the basis of the modern state in Egypt and the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood have sent a clear message, I would say, to the Muslim Brotherhood in Tunis on the need to avert attempts at political monopoly.”

 “As a result, we have seen a mood of accommodation on the part of the Islamists in Tunis that was missing before the ouster of the rule of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt,” he argued.

Moreover, Moussa added that it was important to augment cooperation between Egypt and Algeria, the first foreign destination of President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi last week, on curtailing the influence of radical Political Islam groups in Libya, to which Egypt and Algeria are neighbours to the east and west.

“This cooperation would help the Libyan authorities face up to the challenges of radical Islamism, as it would shield both Egypt and Algeria from the spillover effects of these groups that are not content to stay in Libya but are also working to target Libya’s neighbours,” Moussa suggested.

Moussa argued that the political developments in Egypt that followed the ouster of Morsi had had an impact on Libya that was manifested eventually in the recent legislative elections whereby the share of Islamists dropped significantly. 

Meanwhile, Moussa argued that the North African cooperation to curtail radical Islamism would need to expand with an eye on developments in the Sahel and Sahara zone that are also proving fertile ground for expanded radical Islamism.

In 2011 when finishing his second term as Arab League secretary-general Moussa appealed to Arab leaders to consider the changing times and developments on the ground. He appealed for the start of a “wider Arab neighbourhood policy” that he hoped the Arab League would assume in pursuit of expanding regional cooperation and stability and protecting Arab regional interests.

The proposed scheme that Moussa had in mind included Iran and Turkey, on the strict basis of non-interference in Arab affairs, East Africa, the Sahel and Sahara countries, Asian countries that are neighbours to the Arab Gulf states, and, if a comprehensive and fair peace is achieved, “something that the Israeli intransigence is making very hard to get,” also Israel.

Today, despite his unmasked apprehension on the fate of the Arab-Israeli negotiations, causing US envoy Martin Indyk to resign late last week, and despite his apprehension about the chances of stability and cohesion in some Arab countries, Moussa is convinced that this “wide neighbourhood approach” should be started soon.

“When I proposed the idea, it was taken with much exception, especially from Cairo. I remember that former president [Hosni] Mubarak made it clear that he did not like the idea. But at any event the way things have unfolded since that time have given priority to internal developments in Egypt as in several other countries,” Moussa argued.

With the upcoming return of stability in Egypt, Cairo is set to be the locomotive of this scheme.

“For sure, Egypt has the stature and the political clout and diplomatic apparatus to work on this scheme and to make it happen,” Moussa said. Regarding the question of who would be in charge, he said that “this is something that the president and the foreign service and national security bodies will have to decide. However, it is a national security priority for Egypt to again assume its regional status as the taker of important initiatives.”

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