Hello, and welcome to the Dispatch for November 15 to December 9!
We’re running a week or so late after the Thanksgiving holiday, but I’ll try to get us back on track for the last dispatch before the New Year and my 2012 roundup.
The conflict in Gaza came to an end on November 21 following a cease-fire negotiated primarily by Egypt. Both sides claimed victory, though several large issues, including long-term security agreements for Israel and an end of the embargo on Gaza were left to be fleshed out later. A week later, at the request of the Palestinian Authority, the United Nations General Assembly voted to confer Nonmember State status on Palestine, implicitly recognizing Palestine as a state. Following the vote, which the US and Israel lobbied heavily against, Israel announced the resumption of development on a settlement east of Jerusalem. The new settlement, called E1, is highly contentious, as it would effectively cut the West Bank in two.
The conflict in Gaza and the UN vote are certainly bad news politically for Israel, but the Israelis haven’t shown any particular sensitivity to the opinions of either the UN or Europe in the last few years. Even under President Obama, who has been notably cooler to Israel than Bush was, America is still a staunch Israeli ally, which means Israel has the backing of the most powerful military, economy, and diplomatic apparatus in the world, and that’s frankly unlikely to change no matter what Israel decides to do. Hamas has claimed victory in the Gaza conflict, and in some way, demonstrating the ability to generating enough international pressure on Israel to force a ceasefire can be considered a victory, but the fact is that what the Israelis demonstrated is that Hamas is absolutely not a military threat to Israel. The E1 settlement in the West Bank renders a functioning state there almost impossible, further neutering the PLO. From a purely tactical standpoint, Israel is in a much stronger position now than they were a couple weeks ago. My guess is that the Israelis are willing to allow the clock to count down for a while — there’s no benefit to Israel in any real negotiations right now, and they’re clearly not under any serious threat from either region, so the best move for now is no move.
In the long run, though, Israel has to come to terms with the Palestinians somehow. There are two real solutions: the two-state solution and reintegration. The Israelis are gradually, settlement by settlement, destroying the viability of the two-state solution, which leaves reintegration as the only real option. The Israelis are deeply opposed to this — the Israeli populace has been shifting to the right in recent years, and one of the core demands for negotiations is that the Palestinians recognize Israel not just as a nation, but as a Jewish nation. Fully including the Palestinians in the political process, though, would mean more than a third of Israel’s voting population would be Palestinian; it’s hard to see how Israel could then hold onto its ideal of a Jewish nation. The only other option is an apartheid-style tiered state, a disturbing outcome for a country formed in response to an attempted ethnic cleansing. Israel scored a short-term victory by cutting the West Bank in half and further suppressing the Gaza Strip, but the Israeli people will face some very existential questions in the not-too-distant future.
On November 22, President Morsi issued a decree declaring himself above judicial review and declared that the courts could not dissolve the Constitutional Committee. The move sparked immediate anger and protests from the liberal and secular opposition, as well as several high-level resignations. In response, Morsi has pressed to hurry the process of drafting the new constitution, presenting the draft on the 29th of November and promising a referendum on December 15. Protests have continued, with clashes in the street between liberal groups and supporters of Morsi’s party, the Muslim Brotherhood, that have caused several deaths and hundreds of injuries. On December 8, Morsi rescinded most of his decree, but still stuck to the Dec 15 date for the referendum and made a veiled reference to martial law to protect the poll. This did not mollify the protestors.
President Morsi massively overplayed his political hand, but the decree merely highlighted the existing state of Egyptian politics: without a constitution or a parliament and with the military seemingly under his control, Morsi is a de facto dictator. I don’t think he intends to stay that way - he has seemed genuinely interested in establishing a new Egyptian State, albeit one with an Islamist bent - but for now, Morsi is the Egyptian State. That said, there simply isn’t enough trust in the Egyptian political system for the Nov 22 edict.
The liberal factions leading the protests are by no means a majority in Egypt, and many of them are old-guard members of the Egyptian elite, not the youth who led the revolution in the early days. The Muslim Brotherhood’s estimate is that the majority of Egyptians who vote will support the Brotherhood, and it’s likely a good bet, if for no other reason than the Egyptian people are tired of chaos. The protests have been a surprisingly large show of force, though, and I think the secularists have realized that if they’re not a majority, they can be a spoiler in the streets - a rare breath of power for a group that’s been almost entirely shut out of the revolution they started.
The wildcard in Egypt is the military, who have largely stayed uninvolved, aside from a small show of force outside the presidential palace. Until the recent protests, it seemed as though Morsi had gained the upper hand over the military, but if the chaos worsens in the streets and the police are unable to retake control, we may see moves from the military - I suspect the last couple weeks have already seen some awkward negotiations between Morsi’s faction and the military leadership.
There are now three dangers in Egypt: The first is that Morsi does as many leaders under threat do, and attempts to consolidate his power further. He already has the mantle of state, and the Muslim Brotherhood is by far the largest political faction in the country; if he can tighten his hold over the military, whose current leadership already owes him their position, the secularists fears of a new dictatorship could be realized. The second danger is the military itself - while it has stayed off the streets so far, if the chaos continues, the military may decide to seize power again, using the protests as an excuse for “securing the nation.” The third is that the secularists may decide their best option is to shake the board up again, and the best route there is in creating enough chaos to provoke the military onto the streets again. The next event to watch is the constitutional referendum on the 15th; until then, the country is holding its breath.
On November 11, ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States, agreed to a plan to send 3,300 fighters into Northern Mali to wrest control of the region from Islamist militants. While the African Union is still trying to get funding for the mission and the head of UN Peacekeeping operations said any real intervention is unlikely for at least another 9 months, the growing consensus seems to have caught the attention of the occupying militias - the head of al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb, one of the invading militias, released a message urging Malians to reject “foreign fighters” on their land, while on December 5, representatives from the main Islamist militia Ansar Dine, the Tuareg rebel MNLA, and the Malian government sat down for preliminary talks. The glacial pace of the international response and the Malian government’s willingness to negotiate, however, have lead disaffected Malians in the North to start forming militias in preparation for an attempt to remove the invaders themselves.
I’ve expressed skepticism before over peace talks in Northern Mali, and I’m still not sure what the aim is. For the Malian government, negotiating with the Islamists and the Tuaregs doesn’t seem likely to restore their control of the region. The Tuareg rebels may have some legitimate (and longstanding) grievances, but their role in precipitating the crisis - and, frankly, the fact that they already lost a power contest with the Islamists - doesn’t exactly give them a big claim on the territories right now. As for the Islamists, they’re a group of unwanted foreigners who exploited a local ethnic conflict to create a new base of operations in which they’ve destroyed priceless artifacts, terrorized the local population, and generally made a nuisance of themselves – they have no standing whatsoever for any claim on the territory, nor should one be granted to them. The negotiations are a severe sign of weakness from the parties promoting them. The sole purpose of the peace talks now is for the militants to try to undercut efforts to organize military action against them.
With the ECOWAS military action the better part of a year away, the action in Mali will have to come from other actors. The most dangerous of these are the civilian militias, the only group who seems eager for battle. The history of civilian militias in open conflict tends to be one of war crimes and chaos. The Islamists have also shown themselves a reasonably capable force, so the prospects of a successful counter-attack by lightly trained civilians seems somewhat grim. The bigger concern is what becomes of a large, armed, civilian militia after the crisis is over. The second possibility is that the Tuaregs will join forces with the Malian army in exchange for some autonomy or power- sharing deal. The Malian government seems interested in this option, and the Tuaregs have little left to lose, but combining two rather ineffective fighting forces doesn’t make an effective one. The final option is that either another regional power or a western government decides the risk of a new al- Qaeda base in northern Africa is too dangerous and takes unilateral action. The Malian government wouldn’t accept this sort of intervention, but they’re apparently not in a position to dictate what happens inside their borders anyway.
US and other western intelligence agencies raised alarm this week over signs Syria had begun mixing the precursors for chemical weapons. President Obama warned once again that use of chemical weapons would likely prompt a military reaction from the US.
The pressure is increasing on the Assad regime. The rebels have shown they can shoot down the Syrian jets and helicopters, they’ve all put neutralized the government’s tank columns, and the regime hasn’t been able to field an effective infantry force for months. The war is becoming an existential threat to the Syrian regime, and without some credible exit strategy for Assad, the choice will become one between war crimes and death. The danger now is that there is no real cohesive opposition with whom to develop a ceasefire or transition; even if the Assad regime would agree to an exit, there’s no government in waiting. Anarchy in a country with a massive supply of chemical weapons and a civil war increasingly sectarian in nature is an extremely dangerous prospect.
Thanks for reading, and my best for the week ahead!