At the Tuesday, February 21 event at the Center for American Progress, the assembled panelists discussed the opportunities for re-setting US-Egypt relations under the Trump administration. Discussing the recently released report with findings on how Egyptians feel about the future of their country, Nancy A. Youssef, Senior National Security Correspondent at Buzzfeed, moderated the conversation between Daniel Benaim, Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress, Mokhtar Awad, Research Fellow at the George Washington University Program on Extremism, and Eric Trager, Esther K. Wagner Fellow at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
Benaim discussed the main takeaways from the report, which engaged a variety of Egyptians in discussing the new moment for US-Egypt relations with Trump and Sisi at their respective helms. Sisi remains preoccupied with security threats and desires a strategic relationship with the United States to better address these issues. Because of his overwhelming concern to maintain stability after 2013, Egypt lacks a long-term plan or sense of direction. Although it will by and large escape the fate of its Arab neighbors and is tired of unrest, Egypt has become brittle from repression and faces major gaps in governance.
Benaim fears that a closer relationship between Trump and Sisi could enable Sisi’s repressive instincts rather than direct attention towards Egypt’s political and economic shortcomings. Trager likewise found contemporary Egyptian politics bleak as Egyptians see no alternative to the Sisi government, which has decreased in popularity due to economic decline and the sense of drift pervasive throughout the country.
However, closer ties between the two countries also present a chance to benefit citizens on both sides of the Atlantic. Benaim said that with deeper cooperation Trump has the opportunity to address human rights and governance inside Egypt and increase transparency within the military and Sisi’s government. Trager was also interested in seeing how Sisi will manage domestic problems in 2017 in preparation for the 2018 elections.
Awad shifted focus to the security landscape within Egypt and the policy implications of the existing threats. Although not as dire as in other Middle East countries, terrorist attacks have been escalating gradually over the last three years. The major threat theaters are the northeastern Sinai, the Nile Valley, and the Western Desert. In Sinai, the Egyptian military has become more successful at prosecuting insurgents, but still lacks a centralized agency that focuses on counterinsurgency strategy, making it difficult to address the consistent attacks in the area. Unrest in Libya impacts the Western Desert demanding increased border security and changes in Egypt’s policy towards its neighbors. In the Nile valley area, violence has escalated and become increasingly sophisticated since 2013, largely stemming from radicalization within prisons and radicalized groups aligned to factions within the Muslim Brotherhood.
While Sisi is good at keeping the Brotherhood is check, it is unclear whether there is a plan to leverage the government’s control over the organization to reach a final settlement with reconcilables within the Brotherhood to abandon violence and repent. Trager added to this discussion by cautioning against navigating the Brotherhood as a singular organization but rather a global movement, some of whose affiliates practice or endorse terrorism.
While the US-Egypt relationship under Trump could position Sisi as an effective counterterrorism partner, both panelists advocated discretion in applying a terrorist designation to the Brotherhood. They focused instead on identifying radical elements of the organization to better combat violence, rather than condemning the Brotherhood overall, which could lead to greater alienation and the inability to reach a final settlement.
- Challenges to the Yemeni Peace Process | Monday, February 13 | 10:00am – 11:30am | The Atlantic Council | Register HERE Please join the Atlantic Council for an on-the-record discussion with H.E. Khaled Alyemany, Yemen’s permanent representative to the United Nations, to discuss challenges and opportunities in the Yemeni peace process. In March 2015, an Arab coalition led by Saudi Arabia intervened in Yemen at the request of Yemeni President Abdrabbu Mansour Hadi to reverse an offensive by Houthi rebels allied with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh who was ousted following mass protests in 2011. Almost two years into the conflict, we will assess the main challenges and opportunities in the peace process and the prospects of a sustained political settlement to end the war as well as the role the United States could play in bringing that to fruition.
- Afghanistan: Prospects for 2017 and Beyond | Monday, February 13 | 12:15pm – 1:45pm | New America | Register HERE With his inauguration as President, Donald Trump is the third president to command American forces in Afghanistan. Yet Afghanistan continues to receive little attention in public debates over policy. More than 15 years after American forces first entered the country in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, what are the prospects for the Afghan government and people and how will Donald Trump shape American policy towards Afghanistan?
- Yemen at a Crossroads: The Role of the GCC in 2017 | Monday, February 13 | 6:00pm – 7:30pm | Persian Gulf Institute | Register HERE Please join PGI for a discussion on Yemen and the Gulf Cooperation Council’s (GCC’s) role in the country for the coming year. We will begin with opening remarks by three individuals with unique experiences in the region followed by a group discussion -that includes you! It will be moderated by PGI President Shahed Ghoreishi and will feature PGI Research Director Robert Bonn. The event will also include time for networking and further discussion in a more informal setting at the end. The bios of our panelists are below. Please reserve your tickets soon because space is limited in order to promote a quality group discussion. We look forward to seeing you there!
- The Arab World Upended: Revolution and its Aftermath in Tunisia and Egypt | Tuesday, February 14 | 12:00pm – 1:00pm | Woodrow Wilson Center | Register HERE As Egypt marks the sixth anniversary of the overthrow of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, The Arab World Upended undertakes to track the similarities between the 2011 uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt and the great Western revolutions. It also seeks to explain why the two Arab uprisings experienced such vastly different outcomes and examines the likely enduring legacies of these first two major Arab revolutions of the 21st century on the politics of the entire region.
- Iraq and the GCC: New Realities in Gulf Security | Tuesday, February 14 | 1:00pm – 2:30pm | The Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington | Register HERE This AGSIW panel will discuss the state of relations between the Gulf Cooperation Council countries and Iraq. How do Gulf countries view Iraq’s evolving regional role? What role might they play in reshaping Iraq’s domestic landscape, particularly the crucial struggle against the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant, and bolstering its political stability? Besides counterterrorism and trade, what other opportunities for cooperation and strengthened ties can be explored? Can Iraq reassure GCC states regarding its relationship with Iran, or even use them as a counterweight to Iranian pressure? Could Baghdad help mediate between Tehran and its GCC rivals? What is the Gulf interest in the Kurdish question, and its impact on other regional concerns, including Syria? How does American policy factor into these and other questions?
- Challenges and Opportunities for US-Iraqi Relations in the New Era | Wednesday, February 15 | 9:00am – 10:00am | Woodrow Wilson Center | Register HERE Fourteen years after the American-led invasion, Iraq remains a fractured country and stability continues to be an elusive goal. The Kurds in the north are threatening secession while neighboring Iran is projecting its influence to Baghdad. Meanwhile, Iraq is the site of one of the most intense fights against ISIS where Iraqi troops, assisted by American special forces, are slowly working to recapture Mosul. As an oil and gas rich country, Iraq is also an important player in the world energy markets and more strategically significant to the United States than many other states in the region. Complicating the U.S.-Iraqi relationship is the recent White House executive order that temporarily bans Iraqi citizens from entering the United States. Experts will discuss the future of U.S.-Iraq relations within the context of a new American administration.
- UN Human Rights Chief on His ‘Impossible Diplomacy’ | Thursday, February 16 | 4:30pm – 6:00pm | United States Institute of Peace | Register HERE Zeid Ra’ad Al Hussein, a Jordanian career diplomat and leader in international criminal justice, serves as the seventh United Nations high commissioner for human rights. He led in the creation of the International Criminal Court and in the framing of the world’s legal definition of “crimes against humanity.” On Feb. 16, the U.S. Institute of Peace will host Amb. Zeid as he receives the annual Trainor Award from Georgetown University’s Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. Amb. Zeid will speak on “The Impossible Diplomacy of Human Rights.”
Authors and experts convened last Wednesday to launch of the report Carnegie Endowment Arab Fractures: Citizens, States, and Social Contracts and the future of Arab regional order. The first panel included Amr Hamzawy, Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment and Bassma Kodmani, Co-Founder and Executive Director at the Arab Reform Initiative. Perry Cammack, Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment acted as moderator. The second panel included Hafsa Halawa, an independent political analyst and lawyer, Mehrezia Labidi, member of the Tunisian Assembly of the Representatives of the People, and George Abed, Distinguished Scholar in Residence at the International Institute of Finance. Marwan Muasher, Vice President for Studies at the Carnegie Endowment acted as moderator.
Cammack discussed the broad themes of the report, which aims to understand the Middle East based on the experiences of people in the region expressed in a survey of more than 100 Arab intellectuals. They assessed the top regional challenges to include authoritarianism and corruption. Cammack said that the report operates within three main frameworks—the citizen, state, and institutions to better examine these challenges. The authoritarian bargain and prevailing social structures have collapsed post-Arab Spring, and new social contracts must be developed for the future.
Kodmani commented on Arab resilience and institutions as well as Syria in particular. She sees the onus of leadership in Syria now falling on society, especially youth, to manage diversity and unify the country after conflict. Local governance within communities works well, so she advocates negotiating a decentralized political system (not de facto partition). By grooming national leaders at the local level, government can be reconstructed with greater transparency and accountability. Kodmani sees the new social contract and a new balance with the army and security forces, so people feel protected by trusted security forces.
Hamzawy discussed the situation in Egypt, in which deep distrust of institutions and lack of social services have led to a revival of pockets of activism in unions and associations, universities, and among Egyptian youth. Although many have lost faith in the formal political arena, Hamzawy expressed hope in the new wave of activism and demands for a new social contract in which government is held accountable and citizens participate in the decision-making process.
Asked to assess what went wrong in Syria and Egypt respectively, Kodmani said that opposition figures failed to incorporate the younger generations into the movement, so the vision of the initial protests was never realized. The opposition was subsequently radicalized and militarized while youth turned to civil society organizations. She believes democracy could make government accountable to the people and incorporate mechanisms to combat corruption. In Egypt, Hamzawy said that an obsession with identity politics obscured the need to build democratic institutions and effect substantive policy change, resulting in an empowered military apparatus taking the reins in 2013.
In the second panel, Labidi discussed the progress Tunisia has made in building trust between the state and citizens. Many citizens feel ownership in the new system and do not want to abandon it or give it up. This translates into a spirit of consensus and participation. Although there are still difficulties, such as economic development and infrastructure building, Tunisian youth and previously marginalized regions now have a stake in the system.
Abed suggested that in states such as Saudi Arabia, oil revenue allows the government to pay its citizens in exchange for carte blanche political power, but with declining oil prices the people will start to ask questions and demand more accountability. Similarly, countries with a history of anti-colonial struggle and failed industrial nationalization must reckon with what Abed called a second Arab awakening as more people demand liberty, dignity, and transparency.
Speaking about Egyptian youth, Halawa said that civil society must balance conversations about governance with debates over identity and visions for Egypt’s future. Egyptians underestimated the entrenched nature of the country’s institutions and do not trust them. Thus, the problem is not political engagement but rather the disconnect between civil society and politics, called “the trust deficit,” which deprives Egypt of any real drivers of change.
The panelists were asked how best to engage the next generation in a way that will create change and how national and civic identity might play into this dynamic. Halawa said that there is only a bottom up approach, getting civil society actors to buy into the system and further explore what civic engagement means and how it’s expressed. Labidi said Tunisians must still define a unifying national identity that prevents fighting among themselves. Abed remained doubtful that regional governments recognized human rights as natural rights, and hoped that governments could be built to protect these rights for their citizens.
President Trump’s Executive Order affects a minor portion of international travelers, and is a first step towards reestablishing control over America’s borders and national security.
This in essence is the administration’s defense of the President’s executive order barring citizens of seven Muslim-majority countries from the US. It completely misses the point.
First: the US already has control over its borders. Vetting of refugees is intense. Vetting of people who get visas and green cards is as well. I suppose there are ways of tightening things up, but it could have been done without presidential executive orders and worldwide publicity inimical to US interests. I know of no evidence that immigrants or refugees pose a serious national security threat.
Just as important: the executive order’s main impact is on people with no intention of traveling to the US, first and foremost the world’s rapidly growing population of 1.6 or more billion Muslims, including 3.3 million who already reside in the US. They will view the order as unjustified and prejudicial, causing at least some to be disillusioned, alienated, hostile, and even radicalized. It will help ISIS and Al Qaeda recruit and inspire retaliation. If I understand correctly, Iran and Iraq have already responded by blocking the entry of Americans.
The ban is in fact part of a long history of barring immigration: by Chinese, Jews, anarchists, Communists, Iranians, and HIV positive people. In almost all these cases, the bans have proven useless, regrettable, unconstitutional, or immoral.
The current ban is likely all of the above. Immigrants from the countries in question (Syria, Iraq, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen) have conducted no terrorist attacks in the US since 9/11, though Somalis born in the US have been accused of plotting them. The odds of the ban blocking someone plotting such an attack are essentially zero. They might be higher if people coming from the United Kingdom, France, Germany, Belgium, Turkey, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and other allied countries (not to mention Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Tunisia) were barred, but Trump won’t block them for fear of the reaction.
The administration already appears to be regretting that the ban blocked Iraqis who had supported the US military. The President’s indication that Christians will be given priority in the future is clearly unconstitutional, but of course any court decision on that question might be years in the future. Singling out Christians will, as Michael Hanna suggested this morning in a tweet, put them at heightened risk throughout the Middle East, where some Muslims will regard the favoritism as aligning Christians politically and militarily with the US. “Do no harm” is the moral imperative most of us like to see applied in international relations. Or at least do more good than harm. The administration ignores that dictum at its peril.
The courts last night blocked application of the ban to people who have already arrived at US airports. But it remains in effect for 90 days for those who have not yet reached US shores. Airlines are blocking people with passports from the countries in question from boarding, even if they have valid visas or green cards.
In other words: the demonstrations last night at airports were great, but Trump continues to cause real harm to American interests and ideals throughout the Muslim world. Our European allies recognize this and are protesting, sometimes loudly. But it is up to Americans to get Trump to reverse his foolish and counter-productive decisions.
PS: Fareed Zakaria says it well:
- Powerplay: The Origins of the American Alliance System in Asia | Tuesday, January 24 | 3:00pm – 4:30pm | Woodrow Wilson Center | Click HERE to Register Join the Wilson Center’s Hyundai Motor-Korea Foundation Center for Korean History and Public Policy and Asia Program as Georgetown University professor and CSIS Korea Chair Dr. Victor Cha discusses his newest book, Powerplay: The Origins of the American Alliance System in Asia. Dr. Cha investigates the origin of American alliances in Asia, how the system has changed over time, and what must be done to navigate a complex new era of international security. Looking from the time of Truman and Eisenhower, through the Cold War, and into today, he offers a compelling perspective on U.S.-China relations that pays heed to historical and contemporary contexts alike, and argues that the U.S. must maximize stability and economic progress amid Asia’s increasingly complex political landscape. Joining the conversation are Ambassador Stapleton Roy, Founding Director Emeritus of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States, and Dr. Andrew Yeo, Associate Professor of Politics at the Catholic University of America.
- Understanding ISIS and its Followers | Tuesday, January 24 | 5:30pm – 6:30pm | AEI |
Click HERE to Register In March 2015, The Atlantic magazine ran a cover story titled “What ISIS Really Wants.” The author was Graeme Wood, journalist, correspondent for The Atlantic, and lecturer at Yale University. His reporting and research on ISIS has now become a book, “The Way of the Strangers: Encounters with the Islamic State” (Random House, 2016), which examines the origins, plans, and followers of ISIS. In this Bradley Lecture, Mr. Wood will discuss his firsthand encounters with ISIS’s true believers, which will help clear away common misunderstandings about this distinctive variety of Islam. Please join us for Mr. Wood’s first public lecture on the book in Washington, DC. A reception and book signing will follow.
- Libya Beyond ISIS: Prospects for Unity and Stability | Wednesday, January 25 | 10:00am – 11:00am | Carnegie Endowment for International Peace | Click HERE to Register Despite a successful campaign this summer against the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Sirte, a war-weary Libya is still wracked by mounting internal divisions, and its United Nations-backed unity government remains fragile. Jonathan Winer, who has served as the U.S. State Department’s special envoy for Libya, will reflect on his tenure in a tumultuous period, Libya’s prospects for the future, and what the next U.S. administration and the international community can do to help.
- The Iran Deal Under Trump | Wednesday, January 25 | 11:45am – 1:30 pm | Hudson Institute | Click HERE to Register During the campaign, President-elect Donald Trump promised significant changes to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, centered around a repeal of the Iran Deal. Will he deliver? How would a repeal impact such a highly unstable region? What would it mean for future nuclear nonproliferation efforts? The Hudson Institute will host a panel of experts to analyze the fate of the Iran Deal and examine potential changes to U.S. policy in the Middle East under the incoming administration. Moderated by Suzanne Kianpour of BBC News, the panel will feature Michael Pregent, Hudson Institute adjunct fellow and former U.S. intelligence officer, Trita Parsi, an award-winning author and president of the National Iranian American Council, and Gary Samore, executive director for research at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. This event will be live streamed on Hudson’s homepage.
- Iranian Attitudes About US-Iranian Relations in the Trump Era | Wednesday, January 25 | 3:30pm – 5:00pm | Atlantic Council | Click HERE to Register The Atlantic Council’s Future of Iran Initiative and the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland invite you to a panel discussion on Iranian public opinion toward the United States following the election of Donald Trump. The event will present new public opinion data gathered since the election on Iranian attitudes toward domestic and international economic and political issues. In particular, the event will explore current Iranian attitudes toward the recent nuclear agreement, potential changes in US policy toward Iran, the upcoming Iranian president elections, and Iranian economic policy. The conversation includes Ms. Sanam Naraghi-Anderlini, Co-Founder and Executive Director at the International Civil Society Action Network, Dr. Ebrahim Mohseni, Research Scholar at the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland at the University of Maryland, and Dr. Paul Pillar, Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Center for Security Studies at Georgetown University.
- Islamists movements in the MENA: Adaptation and divergence | Thursday, January 26 | 6:00pm – 7:30pm | The Elliott School of International Affairs | Click HERE to RegisterIn the post-Arab uprisings political landscape, Islamist movements across the Middle East and North Africa are adapting in unique ways to face challenges from the evolution of Salafi-jihadist movements to local insurgencies and repression. Some – like Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood under President Sissi – have faced severe domestic and regional repression disrupting their organization, ideology and strategy. Others have found new opportunities, whether in formal politics or as members of military coalitions. These structural changes have produced an intriguingly diverse array of responses at the ideological, strategic and organization level.This panel, including Khalil al-Anani, Doha Institute for Graduate Studies, Monica Marks, University of Oxford, Jillian Schwedler, Hunter College CUNY, and Eva Wegner, University College Dublin, will seek to address timely questions such as: what explains the variation in the ways in which Islamists have adapted to these new challenges and opportunities? To what extent have Islamist parties, movements, members or intellectuals engaged in significant strategic adaptation, ideological rethinking, or internal reorganization? What are the appropriate historical or cross-national comparisons to make sense of the current political moment?
The Atlantic Council yesterday introduced a book by a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center, Geneive Abdo, titled A New Sectarianism: The Arab Spring and the Rebirth of the Sunni-Shia Divide. Abdo was interviewed by Joyce Karam, Washington Bureau Chief of the Al-Hayat newspaper, and the conversation was broadcast on CSPAN.
Abdo‘s book focuses on the aftermath of the Arab Spring and how the divide between Sunni and Shia factions has widened since 2011. She specifically studied Egypt, Yemen, Iraq, Syria, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia. The divides undermine already unstable states and may lead to more conflict in the future.
Abdo explained that while many of the revolutionaries of 2011 were optimistic that all the various factions would come together to build a better government—particularly in Egypt—in reality, every faction wanted dominance more than peace. Radical factions took advantage of the chaos to take power and left more moderate factions behind. The competition for dominance over religious messaging is still increasing.
The Sunni-Shia divide has increased as Saudi Arabia and Iran have tried to co-opt the respective Sunni and Shia causes throughout the region. This rivalry between Saudi and Iran comes at the expense of the majority of Sunnis and Shias in the region, who identify more with their own unique brand of Shiism or Sunnism rather than the Iranian or Saudi brand. For example, many Arab Shias feel that Iran controls the Shia who dominate the Iraqi government, which therefore does not represent the Iraq’s interests. The divide between Sunnis and Shias is further exacerbated by intra-Shia and intra-Sunni conflicts throughout the Arab world.
Abdo considers Saudi and Iranian meddling in regional affairs highly detrimental to the pursuit of peace in the Middle East. For example, the Arab Spring in Bahrain was initially a joint Shia-Sunni effort against the government. However, once Saudi Arabia intervened, the conflict became Sunni Bahranis and Saudis versus Shia Bahranis. As a result, Shia Bahranis are virtually silenced in public discourse, to the detriment of the country.
Despite the general animosity between Sunnis and Shias in the region, many governments have avoided uprisings by warning their people that their country could become like Syria. In Morocco, Abdo met individuals who were unhappy with their government, but do not dare protest for fear that Morocco could become the next Syria. Even the Syrian government has been using this tactic. Bashar Al-Assad has often reminded Syrians that as bad as his rule is, it’s better than ISIS rule—if Assad were to leave, the alternative could be much worse.
Too often, according to Abdo, Washington analysts overlook radical tweets and Facebook posts because they are in Arabic or because they are not considered to be reliable. However, radical anti-Sunni or anti-Shia tweets are widely disseminated and significantly contribute to sectarian hatred. The anonymity of social media allows information and ideas to spread without the burden of individual responsibility.
Though Abdo was hesitant to speculate on how a Trump administration would affect the Sunni-Shia divide, she expects Trump to be much tougher on Iranian interventions than Obama was. But his hyper-focus on countering violent extremism will not leave much room for paying attention to sectarian reconciliation in the region.
When asked if she sees any room for Saudi-Iranian reconciliation, Abdo said that a real peace between these two countries is unlikely. Both Saudi and Iran benefit from the regional rivalry, so it is unlikely that either country will take any steps towards rapprochement. Additionally, there is little that the US can do to encourage these regional rivals to reconcile—the best that we can do is work with them and around them.