Friday bulletin

Some especially relevant news: Stoning Beit Sidioca, Mauritania at the Arab Summit and the world system, Erdogan as a human being and a Muslim, who won’t be in Algeria’s election and questioning Egypt’s “leadership.”

  1. Protesters chanting slogans against the reinstatement of Sidi Ould Cheikh Abdallahi have gathered outside the former Mauritanian president’s house yesterday. Scuffles between Sidioca supporters and opponents led to slight injuries. Some threw stones, threatening the former president if he considers returning to Nouakchott. Quite a spectacle, lead by pro-coup leaders (a senator from an obscure region). The scene is out of character for Moorish political culture, and I have been told that FNDD members roughed up some of the organizers of the march. Many of the participants, as the photos on Taqadoumy show, were poor black African Mauritanians who were told they would be going to support Abdel Aziz, but not that they would be taking part in an organized stoning of Sidioca’s home .
  2. Meanwhile, in Qatar, the Mauritanians announced that they would be first to act against Israel, freezing their relations with Israel. So did Qatar. The point was to embarrass the Egyptians and the Saudis — who were not present (neither was Mahmoud Abbas: Note that this was the first time that Hamas has presented itself as the only representatives of the Palestinians [دولة فلسطين] in an international forum.). Hamas thanked the Mauritanians for the decision. The Syrians cut off their indirect talks with Israel as well. The Iranians have congratulated the Mauritanians for their fortitude. This is probably as far as it will go, but if it goes any farther, expect a lengthy post on where Mauritanian foreign policy will go (or be made to go) as a result. [See #4 below.] It boils down to support Mauritania will be getting from Libya and Qatar. I think the emphasis might end up falling on Qatar, because of that country’s long term financial ties with Mauritania and their lack of open hostility towards the junta (in contrast to Libya; though this may mean that the Libyans end up having to pay up more either proportionately or in real terms).
  3. Flowing from this, the junta made its first ambassadorial appointment since the coup, naming Mohamed Vall Ould Bellal as Ambassador to Qatar. This is probably part of the compensation Mauritania is receiving for supporting the resistance at the summit. Still, the Israelis expect the speedy return of their Mauritanian ambassador.
  4. A high level Chinese delegation met with Gen. Abdel Aziz in Nouakchott, pledging “cooperation and friendship in 2009” and agreeing to help expand the Chinese-built Friendship Port. The junta hopes to build strong links with China, Iran, Syria and Venezuela as a means of avoiding “Western harassment”. This should not be difficult to do with China or Syria. Mauritania already has strong ties with China that have never been shaken by policy changes and Syria will taken almost any new friend. The other two will likely welcome the junta with open arms, but their ability to provide the kind of cover the Mauritanians want will be limited for some time because their agency and prestige are tied to the price of oil. Now is a bad time for the Mauritanians to decide to make this kind of shift, from West to East, in their policy. Oil prices are low and the eastern axis is wobbly: Russia will not be quite as ambitious in the next several months unless oil prices spike sharply (and they have repeatedly condemned the coup and their lack of consistency should worrying to those who have taken power illegally; It’s safer to stick with the Chinese), Venezuela is in the same boat (its even inviting Western firms back in), Iran and Syria should be somewhat reliable in the near term, Iran more so than Syria (but it is not as if Mauritania has ever had exceptionally bad relations with Syria, though the Iraqi Ba’th movement historically out did its Syrian counterpart in Nouakchott). Iran’s ability to do anything for Mauritania at an international level will be limited for at least the short term — but that is not so much the point, after all — the Mauritanians want domestic and financial assistance and it is possible for them to offer this. Still, these are states with money and they are the states that are least likely to shun the junta out of hand. And what the Americans or Europeans do? Apparently, not much. This shows, though, that the structure of the world system matters in a big way: Abdel Aziz would not have been able to contemplate making these kinds of maneuvers five or ten years ago because the international system lacked the multiploarity it now possesses and the American/EU role was too strong. The junta has been able to shrug off the Europeans, even as the EU was led by France, the Africans (the broad implications of which must be noted in light of Guinea) and has managed to wiggle a place for itself in the Arab context. The junta is quite desperate for international support, and it knows how and where it can get it.
  5. Notice that Erdogan’s language is also forceful. Erdogan has said  that if “They say my criticism is harsh, I assume it is not as harsh as phosphorus bombs or fire from tanks … I am reacting as a human and a Muslim.” He has also called for Israel’s UN membership to be canceled if they continue to ignore pertinent UN resolutions. This is neo-Ottomanism at work, and it is where Turkey will be for the foreseeable future. Turkey is spreading its hand in the Middle East, partially the result of the slow down in its EU membership efforts and partially the result of very serious and expanding security and economic interests in the Gulf and Levant, to say nothing of North Africa (in Algeria in particular).
  6. For Algeria: I wrote last month about rumors that Lamine Zeroual might run in the April elections: This is not the case, as I suspected and determined in Algeria. Said Sadi and the RCD as a whole will boycott the election, calling it merely a base for “national humiliation”. The RCD also refused to support the parliamentary resolution in support of Gaza. In this it was alone. The reasoning? That the resolution represented “alibi activism” and was removed from Algeria’s broader institutional and social crises, which in the RCD’s view deserve more attention. He also added that the resolution was not prepared with the participation of all parties and would therefore be disingenuous. While Sadi has a point, I doubt this will help the party gain broader traction in the country, especially given that Algerians almost uniformly support the Palestinians heads or tails (days ago, El Khabar was reporting about Palestinians in Tebessa dying of broken hearts after hearing about the Gaza slaughter) and that failure to do so does not help any political movement, except in the most hardline Kabyle quarters.

A general question for discussion: It seems that over the last decade, whenever anyone has looked to Egypt for leadership in the region it either provides none or fumbles. Is it still justified to call Egypt “a [or the] leader in the Arab world”? Is that perception accurate, in a geopolitical and political sense, not in a cultural one: Whether Arabs still watch Egyptian serials or listen to Egyptian pop music is of no interest here. Instead, does Egypt still have the capacity, will, and competence to project its political influence into the broader Arab world, particularly in times of crisis?


13 thoughts on “Friday bulletin

  1. fi fi fi

    You wish you were misri.

    On a serious note I, unlike many other Egyptians, do believe Egypt can no longer be called the leader of the Arab world due to its internal decay (poor economic situation and a civil society that is nearly dead which has produced a severely ignorant population). Places such as Qatar have enough economic clout and political maneuvering to exert influence (they even have been able to forge better ties with Israel up until now then Egypt has).

  2. In so far as there is a leader of the Arab world nowadays, it’s got to be Saudi Arabia. Egypt does have influence, but mostly as second-fiddle to KSA, or in regard to Gaza. When it comes to independent influence on Palestine though, Syria clearly beats Egypt, and even puny Jordan is not far behind.

  3. Kal,

    I have been following what is going on in Mauritania, wondering whether the General will cut them ou keep them, the Mauritania-Israel ties. “Knowledgeable” analysts are guessing like here: no cut, but freeze until soon. Probably to put s

    The thing which is scaring me is the involvement of Iran with the junta. I have in front of me an interview of Tzipi Livni in the January 19 issue of Newsweek where she indicates in the question from the journalist Weymouth:

    Question 1: Is the idea that Egypt will now take a more active role in stopping the smuggling (of weapons into Gaza)

    Livni: This must be stopped by Israel or someone else. In six months Hamas has changed the range of its missiles from 20kilometers to 50 kilometers. This now threatens 1 million israelis. We need to know that at the end of this military operation, we will not facethe rearmement of Hamas

    Question 2: Do you see the hands of Iran behind it?

    Livni: Oh, yes, clearly. When Hamas started, the missiles were made in the Gaza strip. Now they are professional, coming from Iran.

    So my question is why the junta would like to associate itself with the Iranians in a battle they can barely influence. Condemning and freezing the relations (or cutting them if they want) would be better than exposing th country to this never ending middle east game. Cutting for instance some ties with Saddam brough lot of relief to the country: increased support from WB/IMF, debt relief and better economic growth.

    Reading today that again AQMI is threatening to blow something, despite the freezing of the relations with Israel. Seen that in a local web media. Anyone has heard about this tory?

  4. As for the Arab World, it is unfortunately correct to assume that the Saudi rule, would it be only because they can afford it and because of their symbolic hold on the holy sites. I say unfortunately, because, from a Western point of view (mine), I believe their influence is a bad one, all in all.

    As for the more restricted Palestine issue, I believe that Egypt has a lot more influence than most people think (especially in the Arab world). I think that today’s truce shows once again that, beyond the wailing of the Arab street and the hysterical condemnations from all around the Muslim world, Egypt’s government (as illegitimate, corrupt and tyrannic as it may be) has still clout, relevance and efficiency. They were the only ones actually able to apply enough pressure on both sides to get a cease fire. Would have they be able to do so if they had severed all ties to Israel, as requested from them? No. Would the Arab League and all its ridiculous meetings had been able to get the same results (or better)? Of course not.

  5. alphast — I don’t think the ceasefire had much to do with Egyptian pressure. Rather Israeli pressure on Hamas, and European (mostly) pressure on Israel, as well as Israel’s realization that they couldn’t achieve much more without raising the stakes (occupying central Gaza, camps etc). And perhaps they didn’t want to carry the battle into Obama’s big day, too.

    It was Egyptian mediation, though, once both parties came to the table, and Egyptian pressure on Hamas was probably significant.

  6. Got to say, btw, that the most surprising thing about this whole conflict is how the Arab scene blew up. Qatar placed itself much more firmly in the “nationalist” camp than ever before, by hosting the Doha summit and trying to embarrass Riyadh, and other state were forced to publicly commit to one side or the other.

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