(Reuters) – The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and its ideological affiliates in the Arab Spring uprisings has stoked fears among Gulf Arab governments that the United States may one day abandon its traditional allies as it warms up to Islamists.
While the ruling families in the Gulf are currently vital U.S. allies who buy large amounts of American military hardware and facilitate a significant U.S. military presence, some are apprehensive Washington may apply pressure on them to accommodate Islamists who could end up challenging their exclusive rule.
In a number of colorful online outbursts, Dubai’s outspoken police chief Dhahi Khalfan has warned of an “international plot” to overthrow Gulf systems of government with Western complicity. The Brotherhood, manipulated by the United States, is working to take over the Gulf by 2016, he said.
“Today the Americans are mobilizing the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab nation, for the benefit of America, not the Arabs,” he wrote on his Twitter account on Sunday. “There is an American plan that has been drawn up for the region.”
Though Khalfan insists his tweets are his personal views, analysts and diplomats say they reflect largely unspoken concerns among the United Arab Emirates’ ruling elite about the regional popularity of the Islamists and the possibility that the West will sympathize with them as political underdogs.
They also reflect fears among the region’s Sunni Muslim rulers that, despite being Sunni itself, the Brotherhood is soft on their arch enemy Shi’ite Iran. Egypt’s Islamist President Mohammed Mursi tried to dissipate such fears at a Tehran conference last week by condemning Iran’s ally Syria and urging attendees to back rebels trying to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad.
Despite pockets of Western-style liberalism in cities like Dubai, most Gulf ruling elites seek to project an image of Islamic conservatism.
So the threat they see is not religious or social but political: the Brotherhood advocates playing by the rules of parliamentary politics as a path to government, threatening inherited rights to rule and state-backed clerical establishments.
An opposition movement that gains ground in Gulf states could perhaps find the U.S. administration newly disposed to speak out in its favor.
Such an opposition has already emerged in the UAE, where more than 50 Islamists linked to Brotherhood thinking have been arrested since late last year. So far Washington has kept mum.
“While the U.S. security umbrella protects the UAE against threats from Iran, Washington would be much more reluctant to support a widespread crackdown against a local opposition movement,” said analyst Ayham Kamel of the Eurasia Group.
“This is making the political leadership in the UAE much more nervous about domestic threats,” he said.
The Brotherhood also has potential to draw support from Gulf Arabs who may see their countries’ foreign policies as overly pro-Western and are concerned about the social influence of their large Asian and Western expatriate communities.
SEEKING U.S. REASSURANCE
Washington was initially hesitant to openly support the uprisings that toppled Tunisia’s Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, partly because of concerns they could bring Islamists to power.
President Barack Obama’s administration has since overcome its reluctance, and has made extensive efforts to engage Egypt’s Brotherhood over the past year.
Analysts say Washington is simply pursuing realpolitik given the new power centers in the region.
“I don’t think the West is keen on having a bunch of Islamists coming to power in the Gulf anytime soon,” said Michael Stephens, researcher at the Royal United Services Institute based in Doha. “It’s more the case that Washington is working with who they can work with, because Islamists are in power and they have to be dealt with.”
U.S. officials said privately that they addressed the Gulf’s concerns last year after Mubarak fell and that subsequent conversations have not focused on the issue. They declined to go into specifics.
“Gulf governments realize both the United States and Iran will want to have relations with the new regimes,” said Ghanem Nuseibeh, senior analyst with Cornerstone Global. They just needed to be reassured that those regimes’ gain was not their loss, he said.
Diplomats said they were confident that building good ties with the Brotherhood was unlikely to strain the long-term strategic relationship between the U.S. and Gulf states.
“They (the Gulf states) need the Americans to protect them against Iran. Iran is the biggest worry for them in the whole region right now,” one Gulf-based Western diplomat said, asking not to be named due to the sensitivity of the issue.
YES, BUT …
Still, rumblings persist.
Saudi Arabia, which has long seen itself as insulated from political Islam because of its promotion of more conservative Salafi Islam, is feeling less secure these days, said Abdulaziz Alkhamis, a London-based Saudi analyst.
“After the Arab Spring they (the Islamists) are rising again. They start to use Islamist political rhetoric to gain publicity in the Gulf, especially Saudi Arabia,” he said.
Prominent clerics such as Awadh al-Garni and Salman al-Odah, viewed as sympathetic to the Brotherhood, have become more outspoken, cheering Islamist gains in social media.
Brotherhood-linked Islamists are well-established in Kuwait, where parliamentary politics is most advanced in the Gulf. And in Bahrain the government has drawn closer to the Minbar party, another group inspired by the Brotherhood, as it shores itself up against a protest movement dominated by Shi’ite Islamists.
The angst over what the United States plans for the region is at its most public and visceral in Bahrain, whose government Obama has urged to enter dialogue with leading Shi’ite opposition group Wefaq, citing the group by name.
Sunni clerics and commentators in official media regularly raise the fear that Washington, currently at odds with Tehran over its nuclear program, is plotting to create a Wefaq-led government in a regional reordering of power that would open a new page of cozy ties with Iran.
TV presenter Sawsan al-Shaer denounced a “Satanic alliance” between Tehran and Washington in an article in the al-Watan daily last month, claiming Wefaq was a “Trojan horse, used by the U.S. administration and Iranian regime to redraw the region.”
The wild card in the region is Qatar. It has actively promoted the Brotherhood and its affiliates, giving them coverage widely seen as positive on its satellite broadcaster Al Jazeera.
At an early stage in the uprisings Doha stuck its neck out much further than other Gulf states in its support for protests in Egypt and Tunisia, and then rebel movements in Libya and Syria, supporting those among them close the Brotherhood.
Earlier this year the Dubai police chief railed against Sheikh Yousef al-Qaradawi, a popular Brotherhood-linked Egyptian cleric based in Doha who criticized UAE policy towards Islamists on Al Jazeera. Khalfan threatened to arrest the cleric if he ever entered the country.
Alkhamis said opinion in Saudi Arabia was split over whether Qatar’s close links to the Islamists was a smart move to keep a close eye on a rising movement whose historical time has come, or a ruse to sow discord for its neighbor and sometime rival.
“The Qataris say that if we don’t have the Brotherhood (operating) openly then they will go underground and that it’s not against Saudi Arabia, but the Saudis are not happy with this,” Alkhamis said pointing to Qatar-backed Islamist seminars. “Some think the Qataris are not an honest friend, but have an agenda.”
(Additional reporting by Andrew Quinn in Washington and Raissa Kasolowsky in Abu Dhabi; Editing by Sami Aboudi and Sonya Hepinstall)
- Dubai police chief warns of Muslim Brotherhood threat (dailystar.com.lb)
- Egypt’s Outreach to China and Iran Is Troublesome for U.S. Policy Makers (jafrianews.com)
- ‘Brotherhood’ threatens Gulf (arabtimesonline.com)
Why Revolutionary Sunni Islamism is the World’s Greatest Strategic Threat and None of it is Moderate
No, it sure isn’t the age of Aquarius or of Multicultural, Politically Correct love-ins. It’s the age of revolutionary Islamism, especially Sunni Islamism. And you better learn to understand what this is all about real fast.
(Shia Islamism, important mainly because of Iran and especially because of its nuclear ambitions, is number two on the threat list. But that’s not our topic today.)
Focusing on the Sunni revolutionary Islamist tidal wave, the foundation of knowledge is that there are three types and they are all bad, very bad. A lot of people are going to be misinforming you about this and getting others—never themselves, of course—killed.
Sometimes people ask me why I use the phrase “revolutionary” Sunni Islamism. The reason is to remind everyone that this is a revolutionary movement like those of the past that seek to use a variety of strategies and tactics–of which violence might be only one–to seize, hold, and use state power to transform societies.
Some ask why I use the word “Islamism” and the reason is because this is a specific, conscious set of organized political movements. However theology is related to this issue the problem is political, not theological. Anyone who watched over decades as I have how the radicals had to sell the idea that “jihad” today meant picking up guns, cutting off people’s heads, overthrowing governments, and assembling mobs of thousands screaming for death and destruction, would have no illusion that they had an easy time of it.
This didn’t happen because somebody just pointed to some verses in the Koran and everyone said: Oh, now I get it! We must seize control of the world and kill everyone else. They murdered or intimidated into silence Muslims who disagreed with them. Even today hundreds of millions of Muslims oppose revolutionary Islamism. And if you don’t play it smart to have those people as allies–some out of mutually cynical self-interest and some as true brothers who want to live in freedom just like you do–and help them save their lives and countries you will never achieve anything.
To understand al-Qaida, which of course goes under many names and regional local groups, is simple. It has one strategy: kill! Its only tactic is terrorism. It is like those nineteenth-century revolutionary movements that always failed and for which the Marxists had so much contempt.
These small groups were always persuaded that if the workers would only be roused to a general strike or that enough officials would be assassinated the revolution would come like a nuclear explosion. Now, these movements always failed but sometimes they laid the basis for others to succeed. Remember, the People’s Will helped launch the Russian revolutionary movement; an anarchist assassinated an American president; the Serbian state-sponsored terrorist cell set off World War One in 1914, and of course al-Qaida created September 11.
Al-Qaida and its various versions in Morocco, Gaza (the Palestinian Resistance Committees), Iraq, Somalia, Europe, Yemen, and a dozen other places is dangerous because it can stage terrorist attacks. In a place where no government exists—like Somalia—it might conceivably seize power. But al-Qaida is not the great threat of the twenty-first century. It is a problem for counter-terrorism and relatively lightweight counterinsurgency.
They may be the worst guys but they are not the West’s main global strategic problem. Everybody who isn’t basically a supporter of an al-Qaida group hates al-Qaida except for the Taliban which is really sort of a similar version. Why? Simple. Because al-Qaida wants to overthrow every regime (they do play a little footsy with Iran but even that’s limited). Oh, and they also loathe Shia Muslims which makes for even more enemies and fewer potential allies.
It is “stupid” to have no friends because that means everyone has a motive to get you and nobody has a reason to help you or give you safe haven. Doesn’t sound like brilliant strategy, right? But there’s more.
Al-Qaida, although the name means in Arabic “base,” ironically, has no political base. It sets up no real mass organizations; it doesn’t do social welfare work capable of rallying whole countries behind it. There is no way that hundreds of thousands or millions of people will rally to its cause. Imagine someone in 1917 saying in Moscow, “Forget about those moderate Bolsheviks. It’s the anarchists we have to fear.” In other words, they are in a distant third place.
But even al-Qaida can be used by the Brotherhood. Look at what happened: an al-Qaida group stormed into an Egyptian base, killed lots of soldiers, stole a couple of vehicles, and attacked the border with Israel.
True, the Egyptian regime (that is, the Brotherhood) attacked and killed some of the al-Qaida people. After all, these terrorists had murdered Egyptian soldiers. But what did the regime tell its people? That Israel was behind the attack. Israel had murdered Egyptians. And therefore there is more reason than ever to hate and wage war against Israel. This is how Middle Eastern politics works. And that’s one reason why the Brotherhood—as it incites to hatred and violence even as it kills the even more hateful and violent—will never be moderate.
Then there are the Salafists, a word coined only recently in part as a pretense to pretend that the Muslim Brotherhood is moderate. But this also does describe a distinct set of groups, for example the Palestinian groups Jaish al-Islam and Jaish al-Umma. Egypt is the place where the Salafists developed in a most sophisticated fashion. But it’s important to understand why that happened. Indeed, that point is central to comprehending what’s going on now.
In the 1970s, when President Anwar al-Sadat made the mistake of letting the Brotherhood return to public life in practice, he threw fear into them. Advocate violence in Egypt; come out too openly against the regime; even become too successful and back to the concentration camps you go!
So the Brotherhood leadership, elderly and many of whom had been tortured and seen their colleagues hung, played it cool. They had no illusions about underestimating the strength of the regime. Yes, they said, the day of revolution will come but meanwhile we are in a long-term stage of da’wa, organize and educate. Patience is essential. Don’t make the regime too mad. Yes, hooray for killing Israelis and Americans! But at home keep the murders to a few too boldly open secularists.
There were, of course, young men who were too impatient. “Our leaders are cowards. They have betrayed the true word of Islam! Let us organize for a more imminent revolution, maybe even take up arms right now and shoot down the evil regime’s officials.” And they even gunned down Sadat himself. There were many such groups—one, Islamic Jihad, joined up with al-Qaida—but they had different views, mixes of strategies, and leaders. Some were almost sects with charismatic shaykhs.
Now they have blossomed forth, eager for violence and instant revolution. Their al-Nour party—which only represents part of this complex mix of groups that may or may not cooperate—got about 20 percent of the parliamentary vote.
Is the Brotherhood their friend or enemy? Should they raid police stations and blow up pipelines or not? Should they set up morality patrols and beat up young men walking with women and also women who aren’t dressed as the Salafists wish? There are many different views.
Sometimes the Brotherhood uses the Salafists as a convenient excuse. If Islamic Jihad lobs rockets and mortars at Israel, well—wink, wink, nudge, nudge—that isn’t the fault of Hamas is it? At times, the Salafists can furnish the Brotherhood with the needed storm troops though I would not suggest for a moment that the Brotherhood owns the Salafists. They are definitely two different groupings, but their interests can blend and the “radical” Salafists provide the “moderate” Brotherhood with a convenient excuse when one is needed.
One thing is clear though: the Salafists’ goal is the precise, exact same as that of the Brotherhood. The only question is how fast to go, how radical to talk, and how much violence to use.
And another thing is also clear: neither in Egypt, nor in Tunisia, nor in Gaza (where the Brotherhood is called Hamas) will the Salafists overthrow the Brotherhood people. We can be less sure about Syria where the balance of forces is not yet so clear.
Finally, we come to the Brotherhood. The Brotherhood is the Communist Party of Islamism. And you don’t have to take it from me; that was an idea expressed by the moderate, anti-Islamist brother of the Brotherhood’s founder.
The Brotherhood wants a Sharia state. It would like a caliphate (run by itself of course). It wants Israel wiped off the map and America kicked out of the Middle East. It wants women put into second-class citizenship and gays put into their graves. It wants Christians subordinated or thrown out. It wants all of these things.
And it will pursue these goals with patience and strategic cleverness. One step forward, one step back; tell the Western reporters and politicians what they want to hear. Pretend to be moderate in English while screaming death curses in Arabic.
These are the people who are coming to power. They hate their Shia counterparts generally and will kill them also at times. They will drag down their countries’ economies. Ironically, they will succeed in making Israel relatively stronger as they beat and burn and tear down; as they set back their countries economic advancement; as they kick half the population (the female) down the stairs.
They will lose. Just as the Communists did; just as the Nazis did; just as the Fascists and Japanese militarists did. But how many decades will it take? How many millions of people dead and injured? How much human potential and natural resources wasted?
And will Western policy make easier the ultimate triumph of moderation, moderation that includes millions of anti-Islamist Muslims and also includes lots of Middle Eastern Berbers, Kurds, Turks, Iranians, Druze, Christians and—yes—Israel. Or will the West make things harder, longer, and worse?
Of victory, I have no doubt. Of Western good sense, all too much uncertainty.
- A Layman’s Guide to Revolutionary Sunni Islamism, the World’s Greatest Threat (jewishpress.com)
- Al-Qaida websites vow ‘destruction’ of SEAL member outed by Fox News (dailykos.com)
- Al-Qaida: We’re returning to old Iraq strongholds (kansascity.com)
- Syria: Al-Qaida’s New Playground (pbs.org)
- Al-Qaida’s surge spells further turmoil for Iraq | Hayder al-Khoei (guardian.co.uk)
- Turkey: Turkish Opposition Says Government Ignoring Presence of al-Qaida (ionglobaltrends.com)
- Al-Qaida claims deadly summer attacks in west Iraq (dailystar.com.lb)
(Reuters) – Dubai’s chief of police has warned of an “international plot” to overthrow the governments of Gulf Arab countries, saying the region needs to be prepared to counter any threat from Islamist dissidents as well as Syria and Iran.
The comments by Dahi Khalfan, one of the most outspoken security officials in the United Arab Emirates, follow the detention in the UAE since April of at least 20 dissidents, according to relatives of the detainees and activists.
“There’s an international plot against Gulf states in particular and Arab countries in general…This is preplanned to take over our fortunes,” Khalfan told reporters at a gathering late on Wednesday marking the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
“The bigger our sovereign wealth funds and the more money we put in the banks of Western countries, the bigger the plot to take over our countries…The brothers and their governments in Damascus and North Africa have to know that the Gulf is a red line, not only for Iran but also for the Brothers as well.”
Most of the detainees since April are Islamists, targeted by an official clampdown amid concern they may be emboldened by the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in other Arab countries such as Egypt.
UAE Interior Ministry officials have not been available to comment on the arrests. Last week, UAE officials announced that authorities were investigating a foreign-linked group planning “crimes against the security of the state”.
“I had no idea that there is this large number of Muslim Brotherhood in the Gulf states. We have to be alert and on guard because the wider these groups become, the higher probability there is for trouble,” Khalfan said on Wednesday.
“We are aware that there are groups plotting to overthrow Gulf governments in the long term.”
The rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab world poses a serious threat to Gulf states, Dubai’s police chief said, as he warned of an “international plot” to overthrow Gulf rulers.
Dahi Khalfan, one of the most outspoken security officials in the United Arab Emirates, also accused Shi’ite power Iran and its ally Syria of interfering in the Gulf states, most of which are ruled by Sunni Muslim monarchies.
At least 20 dissidents, most of them Islamists, have been detained in the UAE since April, according to relatives and activists, amid concern they may be emboldened by the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood in other Arab countries such as Egypt following popular protests.
Gulf Arab states are also wary of Iran which some governments suspect of stirring up unrest in their countries and harboring expansionist ambitions.
“There’s an international plot against Gulf states in particular and Arab countries in general … This is pre-planned to take over our fortunes,” Khalfan told reporters at a gathering late on Wednesday marking the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
“The bigger our sovereign wealth funds and the more money we put in the banks of Western countries, the bigger the plot to take over our countries.”
Last week, UAE officials announced that authorities were investigating a foreign-linked group planning “crimes against the security of the state”.
“I had no idea that there is this large number of Muslim Brotherhood in the Gulf states. We have to be alert and on guard because the wider these groups become, the higher probability there is for trouble,” Khalfan said.
“We are aware that there are groups plotting to overthrow Gulf governments in the long term.”
“The brothers and their governments in Damascus and North Africa have to know that the Gulf is a red line, not only for Iran but also for the Brothers as well.”
He did not mention other countries, but some Gulf Arab leaders have implicitly accused the United States, a key ally, of supporting Islamists including the Brotherhood as they came to power over the past year in Egypt and Tunisia.
The Gulf states have also been alarmed by pro-democracy protest movements closer to home in Bahrain and Yemen.
Khalfan’s comments have caused controversy in the past. Last month Egypt’s Foreign Ministry summoned the UAE ambassador to clarify statements by Khalfan on Twitter that were an “attack on Egypt”, according to Egyptian state-run media, which did not cite the remarks that caused offence.
The police chief said on Wednesday that his tweets on local and regional politics were personal and did not necessarily reflect the views of the government of Dubai.
(Reporting by Mirna Sleiman; Writing by Andrew Torchia; Editing by Pravin Char)
- ICM worried over fallout from ‘sabotage cell’ bust (arabtimesonline.com)
- UAE urged to free arrested Internet activists (thehimalayantimes.com)
- UAE Govt afraid of the Arab Spring , speeds up the crack down against the Revolutionaries (jafrianews.com)
- Is West’s Dubai Playground Threatened by Islamist Radicals? (ibtimes.com)
Another off-shore oil and gas find buries even deeper the old joke that Moses took the wrong turn. Stepping into the Red Sea a good sign?
By Tzvi Ben Gedalyahu
An Israel energy company announced Sunday it has discovered an off-shore energy field that may even surpass previous finds in terms of the possibilities of developing commercial grade oil.
Israel Opportunity Energy Resources LP announced that its Pelagic licenses indicate 6.7 trillion cubic feet (TCF) of gas and 1.4 billion barrels of oil. By comparison, the previously announced Tamar and Leviathan off-shore fields contain an estimated 9 and 17 TCF of natural gas. The amount of commercial oil, if any, has not been finalized, but estimates of possible oil in the Leviathan field have been downsized to 600 million barrels.
Discoveries of oil and gas have made outdated the old joke that Moses took the wrong turn from Egypt, leading Israel to sand and leaving oil for the Arabs.
After being chased by Pharaoh to the edge of the “Sea of Reeds,” which often if not correctly is called the Red Sea, Moses asked Heaven to save them, and He replied to step into the sea, which then was split by winds, allowing the Jews to cross and then burying the army of Pharaoh when it followed.
Stepping into the sea now can be seen in retrospect as a sign of the treasures buried under the sea.
“The quantity of gas discovered in the licenses, and the high probabilities, make it the third largest offshore discovery to date,” according to Israel Opportunity chairman Ronny Halman, quoted by Globes.
He added, ”This quantity guarantees Israel’s energy future for decades, and makes it possible to export Israeli gas, and boost the state’s revenues without worrying about gas reserves for domestic consumption.”
The five Pelagic licenses cover half a million of acres of sea approximately west of Haifa. One of the licenses is estimated to have a 27 percent chance of success.
“We are preparing for the first well,” Israel Opportunity CEO Eyal Shuker said. “For the logistics, we’ve rented port storage and operations space, we’ve begun ordering drilling equipment, including drill heads and casings, and we’ve secured most of the agreements with Israeli and foreign services and equipment providers for the well. The operator, AGR, has already brought a skilled team to Israel to manage the operation.
The new discoveries make it more certain of a virtual revolution in the Israeli economy, with anticipation that Israel will be energy self-sufficient in three years and soon after will be able to export gas and possibly even oil.
The Tamar and Leviathan energy fields are being developed, and the infrastructure work has added thousands of skilled jobs to the labor market. Exporting energy probably will strengthen the shekel and help make it one of the strongest currencies in the world.
- Israel sees gas prospects beyond energy (upi.com)
- Turkish Factor In Leviathan and Aphrodite ‘Energy Wars’ (stratrisks.com)
Posted by Michael Klare at 7:42am, May 10, 2012.
There has been much discussion recently about the Obama administration’s “pivot” from the Greater Middle East to Asia: the 250 Marines sent to Darwin, Australia, the littoral combat ships for Singapore, the support for Burmese “democracy,” war games in the Philippines (and a drone strike there as well), and so on. The U.S. is definitely going offshore in Asian waters, or put another way, after a decade-long hiatus-cum-debacle on the Eurasian continent, the Great Game v. China is back on.
While true, however, the importance of this policy change has been exaggerated. At the moment, as it happens, the greatest game isn’t in Asia at all; it’s in the Persian Gulf where, off the coast of Iran and in bases around the region, the U.S. is engaged in a staggering build-up of naval and air power. Most people would have little idea that this was even going on, since it rarely makes its way into the mainstream and even less often onto front pages or into the headlines. The Washington Times, for instance, has been alone in reporting that, for the U.S. military, “war planning for Iran is now the most pressing scenario.” It adds that the “U.S. Central Command believes it can destroy or significantly degrade Iran’s conventional armed forces in about three weeks using air and sea strikes.”
Most of the time, however, you have to be a genuine news jockey or read specialist sites to notice the scale of what’s going on, even though the build-up in the Gulf is little short of monumental and evidently not close to finished. It’s not just the two aircraft carrier task forces now there, but (as the invaluable Danger Room website has reported) the doubling of minesweepers stationed in Bahrain, as well as the addition of minesweeping helicopters and coastal patrol boats that are being retrofitted with Gattling guns and missiles. Throw in new advanced torpedoes for Gulf waters and mini-drone subs; add in newly outfitted units of F-22s and F-15s heading for bases in the Gulf to make up “the world’s most powerful air-to-air fighting team.” And don’t forget the major CIA drone surveillance program already in operation over Iran (and undoubtedly still being bolstered).
And then, of course, you would have to add in what we don’t know about, including — you can be sure — the strengthening of special operations activities in the region. It’s the perfect build-up for a post-presidential-election war season. After a failed war in Iraq that left that country ever more firmly allied with Iran and another failing war in Afghanistan, you might think that the Pentagon would want to back off. Well, think again. To adapt the famed mantra of Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential run, “It’s the oil heartlands of the planet, stupid.” And as TomDispatch regular Michael Klare, author of a new, must-read book, The Race for What’s Left: The Global Scramble for the World’s Last Resources, points out, we’re now entering an era when “war” and “oil” may become synonymous. (To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest Tomcast audio interview in which Klare discusses global energy conflicts, click here or download it to your iPod here.) Tom
Oil Wars on the Horizon
by MICHAEL T. KLARE
Conflict and intrigue over valuable energy supplies have been features of the international landscape for a long time. Major wars over oil have been fought every decade or so since World War I, and smaller engagements have erupted every few years; a flare-up or two in 2012, then, would be part of the normal scheme of things. Instead, what we are now seeing is a whole cluster of oil-related clashes stretching across the globe, involving a dozen or so countries, with more popping up all the time. Consider these flash-points as signals that we are entering an era of intensified conflict over energy.
Six Recent Clashes and Conflicts on a Planet Heading Into Energy Overdrive
From the Atlantic to the Pacific, Argentina to the Philippines, here are the six areas of conflict — all tied to energy supplies — that have made news in just the first few months of 2012:
* A brewing war between Sudan and South Sudan: On April 10th, forces from the newly independent state of South Sudan occupied the oil center of Heglig, a town granted to Sudan as part of a peace settlement that allowed the southerners to secede in 2011. The northerners, based in Khartoum, then mobilized their own forces and drove the South Sudanese out of Heglig. Fighting has since erupted all along the contested border between the two countries, accompanied by air strikes on towns in South Sudan. Although the fighting has not yet reached the level of a full-scale war, international efforts to negotiate a cease-fire and a peaceful resolution to the dispute have yet to meet with success.
This conflict is being fueled by many factors, including economic disparities between the two Sudans and an abiding animosity between the southerners (who are mostly black Africans and Christians or animists) and the northerners (mostly Arabs and Muslims). But oil — and the revenues produced by oil — remains at the heart of the matter. When Sudan was divided in 2011, the most prolific oil fields wound up in the south, while the only pipeline capable of transporting the south’s oil to international markets (and thus generating revenue) remained in the hands of the northerners. They have been demanding exceptionally high “transit fees” — $32-$36 per barrel compared to the common rate of $1 per barrel — for the privilege of bringing the South’s oil to market. When the southerners refused to accept such rates, the northerners confiscated money they had already collected from the south’s oil exports, its only significant source of funds. In response, the southerners stopped producing oil altogether and, it appears, launched their military action against the north. The situation remains explosive.
* Naval clash in the South China Sea: On April 7th, a Philippine naval warship, the 378-foot Gregorio del Pilar, arrived at Scarborough Shoal, a small island in the South China Sea, and detained eight Chinese fishing boats anchored there, accusing them of illegal fishing activities in Filipino sovereign waters. China promptly sent two naval vessels of its own to the area, claiming that the Gregorio del Pilar was harassing Chinese ships in Chinese, not Filipino waters. The fishing boats were eventually allowed to depart without further incident and tensions have eased somewhat. However, neither side has displayed any inclination to surrender its claim to the island, and both sides continue to deploy warships in the contested area.
As in Sudan, multiple factors are driving this clash, but energy is the dominant motive. The South China Sea is thought to harbor large deposits of oil and natural gas, and all the countries that encircle it, including China and the Philippines, want to exploit these reserves. Manila claims a 200-nautical mile “exclusive economic zone” stretching into the South China Sea from its western shores, an area it calls the West Philippine Sea; Filipino companies say they have found large natural gas reserves in this area and have announced plans to begin exploiting them. Claiming the many small islands that dot the South China Sea (including Scarborough Shoal) as its own, Beijing has asserted sovereignty over the entire region, including the waters claimed by Manila; it, too, has announced plans to drill in the area. Despite years of talks, no solution has yet been found to the dispute and further clashes are likely.
* Egypt cuts off the natural gas flow to Israel: On April 22nd, the Egyptian General Petroleum Corporation and Egyptian Natural Gas Holding Companyinformed Israeli energy officials that they were “terminating the gas and purchase agreement” under which Egypt had been supplying gas to Israel. This followed months of demonstrations in Cairo by the youthful protestors who succeeded in deposing autocrat Hosni Mubarak and are now seeking a more independent Egyptian foreign policy — one less beholden to the United States and Israel. It also followed scores of attacks on the pipelines carrying the gas across the Negev Desert to Israel, which the Egyptian military has seemed powerless to prevent.
Ostensibly, the decision was taken in response to a dispute over Israeli payments for Egyptian gas, but all parties involved have interpreted it as part of a drive by Egypt’s new government to demonstrate greater distance from the ousted Mubarak regime and his (U.S.-encouraged) policy of cooperation with Israel. The Egyptian-Israeli gas link was one of the most significant outcomes of the 1979 peace treaty between the two countries, and its annulment clearly signals a period of greater discord; it may also cause energy shortages in Israel, especially during peak summer demand periods. On a larger scale, the cutoff suggests a new inclination to use energy (or its denial) as a form of political warfare and coercion.
* Argentina seizes YPF: On April 16th, Argentina’s president, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner, announced that her government would seize a majority stake in YPF, the nation’s largest oil company. Under President Kirchner’s plans, which she detailed on national television, the government would take a 51% controlling stake in YPF, which is now majority-owned by Spain’s largest corporation, the energy firm Repsol YPF. The seizure of its Argentinean subsidiary is seen in Madrid (and other European capitals) as a major threat that must now be combated. Spain’s foreign minister, José Manuel García Margallo, said that Kirchner’s move “broke the climate of cordiality and friendship that presided over relations between Spain and Argentina.” Several days later, in what is reported to be only the first of several retaliatory steps, Spain announced that it would stop importing biofuels from Argentina, its principal supplier — a trade worth nearly $1 billion a year to the Argentineans.
As in the other conflicts, this clash is driven by many urges, including a powerful strain of nationalism stretching back to the Peronist era, along with Kirchner’s apparent desire to boost her standing in the polls. Just as important, however, is Argentina’s urge to derive greater economic and political benefit from its energy reserves, which include the world’s third-largest deposits of shale gas. While long-term rival Brazil is gaining immense power and prestige from the development of its offshore “pre-salt”petroleum reserves, Argentina has seen its energy production languish. Repsol may not be to blame for this, but many Argentineans evidently believe that, with YPF under government control, it will now be possible to accelerate development of the country’s energy endowment, possibly in collaboration with a more aggressive foreign partner like BP or ExxonMobil.
* Argentina re-ignites the Falklands crisis: At an April 15th-16th Summit of the Americas in Cartagena, Colombia — the one at which U.S. Secret Service agents were caught fraternizing with prostitutes — Argentina sought fresh hemispheric condemnation of Britain’s continued occupation of the Falkland Islands (called Las Malvinas by the Argentineans). It won strong support from every country present save (predictably) Canada and the United States. Argentina, which says the islands are part of its sovereign territory, has been raising this issue ever since it lost a war over the Falklands in 1982, but has recently stepped up its campaign on several fronts — denouncing London in numerous international venues and preventing British cruise ships that visit the Falklands from docking in Argentinean harbors. The British have responded by beefing up their military forces in the region and warning the Argentineans to avoid any rash moves.
When Argentina and the U.K. fought their war over the Falklands, little was at stake save national pride, the stature of the country’s respective leaders (Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher vs. an unpopular military junta), and a few sparsely populated islands. Since then, the stakes have risen immeasurably as a result of recent seismic surveys of the waters surrounding the islands that indicated the existence of massive deposits of oil and natural gas. Several UK-based energy firms, including Desire Petroleum and Rockhopper Exploration, have begun off-shore drilling in the area and have reported promising discoveries. Desperate to duplicate Brazil’s success in the development of offshore oil and gas, Argentina claims the discoveries lie in its sovereign territory and that the drilling there is illegal; the British, of course, insist that it’s their territory. No one knows how this simmering potential crisis will unfold, but a replay of the 1982 war — this time over energy — is hardly out of the question.
* U.S. forces mobilize for war with Iran: Throughout the winter and early spring, it appeared that an armed clash of some sort pitting Iran against Israel and/or the United States was almost inevitable. Neither side seemed prepared to back down on key demands, especially on Iran’s nuclear program, and any talk of a compromise solution was deemed unrealistic. Today, however, the risk of war has diminished somewhat – at least through this election year in the U.S. — as talks have finally gotten under way between the major powers and Iran, and as both have adopted (slightly) more accommodating stances. In addition, U.S. officials have been tamping down war talk and figures in the Israeli military and intelligence communities have spoken out against rash military actions. However, the Iranians continue to enrich uranium, and leaders on all sides say they are fully prepared to employ force if the peace talks fail.
For the Iranians, this means blocking the Strait of Hormuz, the narrow channel through which one-third of the world’s tradable oil passes every day. The U.S., for its part, has insisted that it will keep the Strait open and, if necessary, eliminate Iranian nuclear capabilities. Whether to intimidate Iran, prepare for the real thing, or possibly both, the U.S. has been building up its military capabilities in the Persian Gulf area, deploying two aircraft carrier battle groupsin the neighborhood along with an assortment of air and amphibious-assault capabilities.
One can debate the extent to which Washington’s long-running feud with Iran is driven by oil, but there is no question that the current crisis bears heavily on global oil supply prospects, both through Iran’s threats to close the Strait of Hormuz in retaliation for forthcoming sanctions on Iranian oil exports, and the likelihood that any air strikes on Iranian nuclear facilities will lead to the same thing. Either way, the U.S. military would undoubtedly assume the lead role in destroying Iranian military capabilities and restoring oil traffic through the Strait of Hormuz. This is the energy-driven crisis that just won’t go away.
How Energy Drives the World
All of these disputes have one thing in common: the conviction of ruling elites around the world that the possession of energy assets — especially oil and gas deposits — is essential to prop up national wealth, power, and prestige.
This is hardly a new phenomenon. Early in the last century, Winston Churchill was perhaps the first prominent leader to appreciate the strategic importance of oil. As First Lord of the Admiralty, he converted British warships from coal to oil and then persuaded the cabinet to nationalize the Anglo-Persian Oil Company, the forerunner of British Petroleum (now BP). The pursuit of energy supplies for both industry and war-fighting played a major role in the diplomacy of the period between the World Wars, as well as in the strategic planning of the Axis powers during World War II. It also explains America’s long-term drive to remain the dominant power in the Persian Gulf that culminated in the first Gulf War of 1990-91 and its inevitable sequel, the 2003 invasion of Iraq.
The years since World War II have seen a variety of changes in the energy industry, including a shift in many areas from private to state ownership of oil and natural gas reserves. By and large, however, the industry has been able to deliver ever-increasing quantities of fuel to satisfy the ever-growing needs of a globalizing economy and an expanding, rapidly urbanizing world population. So long as supplies were abundant and prices remained relatively affordable, energy consumers around the world, including most governments, were largely content with the existing system of collaboration among private and state-owned energy leviathans.
But that energy equation is changing ominously as the challenge of fueling the planet grows more difficult. Many of the giant oil and gas fields that quenched the world’s energy thirst in years past are being depleted at a rapid pace. The new fields being brought on line to take their place are, on average, smaller and harder to exploit. Many of the most promising new sources of energy — like Brazil’s “pre-salt” petroleum reserves deep beneath the Atlantic Ocean, Canadian tar sands, and American shale gas – require the utilization of sophisticated and costly technologies. Though global energy supplies are continuing to grow, they are doing so at a slower pace than in the past and are continually falling short of demand. All this adds to the upward pressure on prices, causing anxiety among countries lacking adequate domestic reserves (and joy among those with an abundance).
The world has long been bifurcated between energy-surplus and energy-deficit states, with the former deriving enormous political and economic advantages from their privileged condition and the latter struggling mightily to escape their subordinate position. Now, that bifurcation is looking more like a chasm. In such a global environment, friction and conflict over oil and gas reserves — leading to energy conflicts of all sorts — is only likely to increase.
Looking, again, at April’s six energy disputes, one can see clear evidence of these underlying forces in every case. South Sudan is desperate to sell its oil in order to acquire the income needed to kick-start its economy; Sudan, on the other hand, resents the loss of oil revenues it controlled when the nation was still united, and appears no less determined to keep as much of the South’s oil money as it can for itself. China and the Philippines both want the right to develop oil and gas reserves in the South China Sea, and even if the deposits around Scarborough Shoal prove meager, China is unwilling to back down in any localized dispute that might undermine its claim to sovereignty over the entire region.
Egypt, although not a major energy producer, clearly seeks to employ its oil and gas supplies for maximum political and economic advantage — an approach sure to be copied by other small and mid-sized suppliers. Israel, heavily dependent on imports for its energy, must now turn elsewhere for vital supplies or accelerate the development of disputed, newly discovered offshore gas fields, a move that could provoke fresh conflict with Lebanon, which says they lie in its own territorial waters. And Argentina, jealous of Brazil’s growing clout, appears determined to extract greater advantage from its own energy resources, even if this means inflaming tensions with Spain and Great Britain.
And these are just some of the countries involved in significant disputes over energy. Any clash with Iran — whatever the motivation — is bound to jeopardize the petroleum supply of every oil-importing country, sparking a major international crisis with unforeseeable consequences. China’s determination to control its offshore hydrocarbon reserves has pushed it into conflict with other countries with offshore claims in the South China Sea, and into a similar dispute with Japan in the East China Sea. Energy-related disputes of this sort can also be found in the Caspian Sea and in globally warming, increasingly ice-free Arctic regions.
The seeds of energy conflicts and war sprouting in so many places simultaneously suggest that we are entering a new period in which key state actors will be more inclined to employ force — or the threat of force — to gain control over valuable deposits of oil and natural gas. In other words, we’re now on a planet heading into energy overdrive.
This article originally appeared on TomDispatch.
- Tomgram: Michael Klare, Why High Gas Prices Are Here to Stay (tomdispatch.com)
- Easy Oil Vs. Tough Oil (integralpermaculture.wordpress.com)
- WAIT: Does The New Israeli Coalition Mean War With Iran Is More Likely Or Less Likely? (businessinsider.com)
Egypt has denied licenses to eight US-based non-profit groups, saying they violated the country’s sovereignty. Many states are concerned that foreign government-backed NGOs are really agents for their sponsors, rather than independent action groups.
Among the organizations banned from continuing their work in Egypt are the Carter Center for Human Rights, set up by former US President Jimmy Carter, Christian group The Coptic Orphans, Seeds of Peace and other groups.
Egyptian authorities warned that if the NGOs try to work without a license, Cairo would “take relevant measures”.
Local media speculate that the rejection may be temporary, and licenses could be granted later, after the presidential election due on May 23 and 24.
Monday’s move revives a crackdown by the Egyptian authorities on foreign-funded NGOs, which recently provoked a serious diplomatic row with long-term ally US. In late December 2011, security forces raided offices of a number of groups suspected of receiving money in violation of Egyptian legislation.
In February, prosecutors charged 43 people with instilling dissent and meddling in domestic policies following last year’s mass protests, which resulted in the ousting of President Hosni Mubarak. Among them were citizens of the US, Germany, Serbia, Norway and Jordan.
In March, an Egyptian court revoked the travel ban for 17 indicted Americans following Washington’s threat to withdraw $1.3 billion annual military aid to Cairo. The decision provoked a wave criticism of the ruling military council in Egypt. Many activists accused them of betraying national interests under American pressure.
But shortly after the suspected Americans left the country, Cairo’s prosecutors decided to target more people allegedly involved in the case, who were not in Egypt when the charges against their colleagues were made. Egypt asked Interpol to issue “red notices” for 15 NGO workers, including 12 Americans, two Lebanese and a Jordanian.
On Monday, Interpol’s French headquarters announced that the Egyptian request had been turned down, because it contradicted rules that strictly forbid the organization “to undertake any intervention or activities of a political, military, religious or racial character.”
Not so non-government
There may be a good reason why national governments in troubled countries mistrust US-funded NGOs. For instance, NATO’s intervention in Libya was partially justified by exaggerated reports of human rights organizations alleging that Muammar Gaddafi’s forces committed crimes against humanity and breached international law in other ways, reports RT’s Maria Portnaya. After the war some of them admitted to giving ungrounded reports.
Powerful NGOs like Human Rights Watch or Amnesty International are supposed to be objective monitors and not take sides, but in reality they “enter into an excessively cozy relationship with for example the United States government, but also other powerful Western allies, over Libya and over other issues,” John Laughland from the Institute of Democracy and Cooperation told RT.
This is what happened in Libya and is now happening in Syria, he added.
“The equivalent, if you like, of the Libyan League of Human Rights, which is called the Damascus Centre for Human Rights, has played exactly the same role. They’ve alleged crimes against humanity. They’ve called for safe havens, and armed intervention in that country. And they are quite clear political lobbyists, who are trying to secure a military intervention against Syria along the lines of the one approved last year against Libya,” Laughland explained.
Another example is the group behind the Kony 2012 initiative. The California-based NGO Invisible Children is calling to stop the use of child soldiers and is promoting peace in the Ugandan civil war. But the same organization provided Uganda’s authorities with intelligence that led to the arrest of several regime opponents, as a US embassy cable published by WikiLeaks revealed.
“I’m willing to believe that was not the one time that Invisible Children provided information to the Ugandan authorities. What else do we not know, in terms of their relations with the Ugandan Government?” asks Milton Allimadi, Editor-in-chief of the Black Star News.
The viral video calling on a campaign to stop Joseph Kony’s Lord’s Resistance Army appeared just months after President Obama decided to send 100 US military advisors to the region to help local governments remove Kony “from the battlefield”. Some human rights organizations criticized the move, saying among those receiving American aid is South Sudan’s People’s Liberation Army, which is known to exploit child soldiers just like Kony does.
NGOs are not currently held accountable for the information they publish, no matter how much collateral damage false facts may cause. Critics say some of those organizations actually pave the way for conflict rather than advocating peaceful solutions.
- Egypt Denies 8 US NGOs Permission to Operate in Country (voanews.com)
- Breaking news: the Bahrain Centre for Human Rights – MEA 2012 nominee (thoolen.wordpress.com)
- US is inciting Unrest through NGOs working under the cover of Human rights & Democracy in Egypt (jafrianews.com)
- US warns Egypt over detained NGO workers – CBS News (cbsnews.com)
Submitted by Tyler Durden on 04/22/2012 15:49 –0400
Two months ago, we warned that while the world had decided to blissfully move on from last year’s topic #1, the MENA revolutions, and specifically the massive power vacuum left in their wake, things in the region were far from fixed. Quite the contrary, and as we added back then “it is very likely that the Mediterranean region, flanked on one side by the broke European countries of Greece, Italy, Spain (and implicitly Portugal), and on the other by the unstable powder keg of post-revolutionary Libya and Egypt, will likely become quite active yet again. Only this time, in addition to social and economic upheavals, a religious flavor may also be added to the mix”. Yet nobody cared as after a year of daily videos showing Molotov Cocktails dropping like flies, people had simply gotten habituated and needed some other source of excitement. Nobody cared also when a week ago Art Cashin warned that the hidden geopolitcal risk is not Spain but Egypt. Today, Egypt just reminded at least one country why perhaps caution about the instability caused by having a military in charge of the most populous Arabic country and the one boasting “the Canal”, should have been heeded after Egypt just announced that it is cutting off its natural gas supplies to Israel, which just so happens relies on Egypt for 40% of its energy needs.
Egypt’s energy companies have terminated a long-term deal to supply Israel with gas after the cross-border pipeline sustained months of sabotage since a revolt last year, a stakeholder in the deal said on Sunday.
Ampal-American Israel Corporation, a partner in the East Mediterreanean Gas Company (EMG), which operates the pipeline, said the Egyptian companies involved had notified EMG they were “terminating the gas and purchase agreement”.
And judging by the sound and fury emanating from Israel the move was hardly expected:
The company said in a statement that the Egyptian General Petroleum Corporation and Egyptian Natural Gas Holding Company had notified them of the decision, adding that “EMG considers the termination attempt unlawful and in bad faith, and consequently demanded its withdrawal”.
It said EMG, Ampal, and EMG’s other international shareholders were “considering their options and legal remedies as well as approaching the various governments”.
Before the sabotage, Egypt supplied about 40 percent of Israel’s natural gas, which is the country’s main energy source.
Suddenly Israel may have bigger things to worry about that whether or not to leak its Iran invasion plas on national TV:
Israeli officials have said the country was at risk of facing summer power outages due to energy shortages.
Companies invested in the Israeli-Egyptian venture have taken a hit from numerous explosions of the cross-border pipeline and are seeking compensation from the Egyptian government of billions of dollars.
Ampal and two other companies have sought $8 billion in damages from Egypt for not safeguarding their investment.
Furthermore, if the Egyptian move is indeed an escalation in strategic alliance shifts in the region, it could have truly huge implications:
The Egyptian decision is a potential blow to the country’s ties with Israel, already tested by the toppling of Israeli ally President Hosni Mubarak a year ago.
Egypt was the first of two Arab countries to sign a peace trety with Israel, in 1979, followed by Jordan in 1994.a
Has the country’s endless warmongering calls for a preemptive war against Iran backfired epically? We won’t know for a while, but what we do know is that any government left in the power of military elites, is, how should we say it, unstable… for the simple reason that a military regime tends to require war to remind people why it is in charge. And the Egyptian “transitional” military government appears pretty much set to become permanent. Again from Reuters:
Ex-foreign minister Amr Moussa, a leading contender for Egypt’s presidency, said on Sunday he would give the military a voice in key policies via a national security council, a move to reassure ruling generals about their status after a power transfer.
Moussa, a self-described liberal nationalist whose main election rivals are Islamists, also said Egypt needed a president with lobbying skills to work effectively with the Islamist-dominated parliament and other institutions after decades of autocratic government.
Which means add one more election to the already surging roster of short-term catalysts now including France, Greece, Germany and, as of yesterday, the Netherlands:
Egypt’s presidential vote that starts on May 23-24 will mark the final stage of a transition to civilian rule from generals who took charge after Hosni Mubarak was ousted last year.
Unfortunately for Israel, either outcome will likely be a choice between a rock and a hard place, as the country appears to be rapidly alienating its one core catalytic long-term ally in the region.
Moussa, 75, said the national security council, to be chaired by the president, would include senior cabinet ministers plus top military officers. It would have a broad national security brief, he told a news conference.
“It has to consider all issues pertaining to national security and not only issues of defence or war, etc, but issues like water, issues like relations with neighbours,” said Moussa, a former head of the Arab League.
“(The council) will be a power house on those issues of major priority for the national life,” he added.
Other candidates, including one Islamist, have made similar suggestions but Moussa’s proposal and his plans as a whole are more detailed than most.
The army has said it will hand over power and return to barracks by July 1, leaving the new president in charge.
But various comments from army officials, usually in private, or from the military-appointed cabinet have indicated that the military wants a longer term role in protecting broad interests that range from businesses to national security, and wants to guide state affairs that could impact them.
The only question Israel may want to answer now is whether it wants to get cozy with Russia, whose nat gas it may suddenly be very, very attractive. And for that to happen, it means a huge softening in its anti-Iran tone, which in turn will have a huge impact on regional geopolitics, and specifically the risk of war in Iran, and thus the price of Brent. All of this, of course assumes, Israel does not immediately retaliate against Egypt, recently a big recipient of US aid, not to mention tear gas, and start a pre-emptive two front pre-war…
- Egypt ends gas deal with Israel, stakeholder says (dailystar.com.lb)
- Egypt cancels natural gas deal with Israel (haaretz.com)
- Egypt kills energy deal with Israel, key component of peace accord (atlasshrugs2000.typepad.com)
Dressed in army fatigues and armed with AK-47s, they wore the long beards of the hardline Islamists who are increasingly a law unto themselves in this part of Egypt.
Quietly, barely noticed by outsiders fascinated by upheavals in Cairo and other Arab capitals, they are building a presence in Sinai that might offer a new haven for anti-Western militancy at the strategic junction of the Mediterranean, Africa and Asia.
When finally one of the men broke a silence that hung heavy on the barren plain, it was to explain to a reporter their demands: for the government to release five comrades jailed for bombings of tourist resorts in Sinai more than six years ago.
“We are ready to die under tanks for this,” he said, refusing to give his name and saying little else beyond muttering Islamic mottos as he toured the positions the militants had established to surround the base, inconveniencing dozens of troops from the Multinational Observer Force, a unit set up in 1979 to monitor Egypt’s U.S.-brokered peace treaty with Israel.
Under a rare rainy sky on a Thursday night in March, the men would only speak with the permission of a man they simply referred to as “sheikh”. A wolf’s cry pierced the otherwise tranquil scene outside the remote base that is home to foreign peace observers including Fijians, Americans and Spaniards.
Not a shot was fired in anger, however, and the next day, the group lifted their eight-day siege. It was not because they feared arrest or attack by the authorities. But instead they had secured their demands. The government agreed to free the men accused of being part of a group which carried out the 2004 and 2005 attacks that killed some 125 people at the Red Sea beach resorts of Sharm el-Sheikh, Dahab and Taba.
It was a scenario unthinkable a year or so ago.
But with Hosni Mubarak‘s removal from power after three decades, government authority has collapsed in much of Sinai, leaving a vacuum where Islamist militant groups are flourishing, posing a security risk to Egypt, neighbors including Israel, and the Suez Canal, the busy waterway linking Asia and Europe.
In Sinai, an arid peninsula the size of Ireland but home to fewer than a million people, groups at the extreme fringe of the Islamist spectrum are expanding, even as Islamists long outlawed by the state enter the political mainstream in Cairo, where they now dominate parliament and are poised to enter government.
In towns where police stations have stood deserted since Mubarak was swept from office after a popular revolt, hardline Islamists are imposing their own authority. They are preaching a strict interpretation of Islam that has brought with it religious intolerance of a kind that shocks even some of the more conservative forces in the Muslim world.
Hardliners were blamed for bomb attack last year on a shrine revered by Sufi Muslim mystics – the kind of attack more familiar in restive Pakistan Egypt.
Though some of the militants here appear to be inspired by al Qaeda, experts do not yet believe the network is operating in the peninsula that separates Africa and Asia. But as time passes and the Egyptian state in far-off Cairo struggles to assert itself, there seems a growing risk they may align more closely with the global movement now led by Ayman al-Zawahiri, himself an Egyptian, though long assumed to be based abroad.
Egypt has already paid an economic price for lawlessness in Sinai – a pipeline exporting natural gas eastwards to Jordan and Israel has been blown up 13 times in the last year.
There are fears the economic impact could run deeper still. With its Red Sea resorts, Sinai’s southern province is one of the main assets of a tourist industry that employs one in eight Egyptians and would be hit hard by more insecurity.
“I’d say there is genuine potential for this threat to grow and become a much bigger issue than it is now,” said Henri Wilkinson, head of intelligence and analysis at the Risk Advisory group.
“I suspect al Qaeda … sees great opportunity in Sinai.”
“SOMETIMES VIOLENCE IS THE WAY”
For now, militant Islamist influence has been restricted to mostly impoverished towns in northern Sinai. Some are drawing on the example of groups that made Egypt a pioneer in the world of extremism as they seek to impose their vision of Islamic law.
One group calls itself Al-Tawhid wal Jihad, the name first taken by al Qaeda’s affiliate in Iraq. Blamed for the Sinai bomb attacks in 2004 and 2005, the group was accused last year of launching an attack on a police station in the town of el-Arish in which five members of the Egyptian security forces were killed.
Another is Takfir wal Higra, a name first heard in Egypt in the 1960s when the country emerged as a breeding ground for militant Islamist ideas that spread beyond its borders and supplied ideological fuel for al Qaeda and others.
Takfir wal Higra believes that even Muslims, if they do not share its beliefs, are infidels. The group’s influence has grown in northern Sinai in the last year, locals say. “Sometimes violence is the way to achieve your objectives,” said a man in his 30s who joined the group a year ago.
He comes from a mountain village outside el-Arish, the main town in northern Sinai where residents have long complained of neglect by the Egyptian state.
Wearing a short beard, jeans and a black jacket, the Takfir wal Higra recruit declined to be named as he recounted stories of how members of the group from one family had forced their parents to separate after declaring their father an infidel.
“I am ready to participate in blowing up the pipelines … attacking police stations,” he said. But when pressed about his goals, he appeared uncertain, blending vague talk of freeing Jerusalem from Israeli control with the idea of establishing an “Islamic emirate” in the Sinai Peninsula.
In Sheikh Zuweid, a few kilometers (miles) from the border with the Palestinian Gaza Strip, that idea appears to have become a partial reality.
A newly renovated but empty police station in the town’s central square is a powerful symbol of the collapse of state control. Slogans daubed on walls declare Sinai an independent Islamic state.
THE POLICE LEFT, AND NEVER CAME BACK
“The police left the city on January 29, 2011 at 4 p.m. heading to Cairo and never came back,” said Saeed Eteg, a liberal political activist from Sheikh Zuweid, recalling the day the state disappeared at the height of the uprising against Mubarak.
Sheikh Zuweid is a collection of mud brick buildings connected by a network of predominantly dirt roads. Locals say both state neglect and the collapse of traditional structures of tribal authority have allowed the spread of hardline influence.
Here, clerics apply their own interpretation of Islamic law at sharia courts independent of the state. “Decisions are for Allah alone,” declares a banner outside one of the courts.
“People need someone to solve their disputes and they found the answer in religious courts,” said Hamden Abu Faisal, a Salafi cleric who doubles as a judge in Sheikh Zuweid.
The Salafis are Muslims with a puritanical approach to their faith inspired by the official Wahhabi ideology of Saudi Arabia. Their brand of political Islam is a step removed from the more pragmatic, modernist Muslim Brotherhood, the biggest party in the Egyptian parliament, which is more moderate in its approach.
A Salafi group, the Nour Party, is the second largest party in the parliament following Egypt’s historic free elections late last year. It eschews violence in pursuit of its goal of tighter application of sharia religious law in the country of 80 million.
But even the Nour Party is beyond the pale for some in Sheikh Zuweid. Mohsen Abu Hassan, a member of the party, says he was declared an infidel by one young man, a member of Takfir wal Higra, during an election campaign rally in the town last year.
“There is a phenomenon we must confront,” Abu Hassan, now a member of parliament in Cairo, told Reuters.
“We shouldn’t turn a blind eye.”
A pile of rubble at a local shrine bears witness to the lengths to which zealots will go to impose their vision on how religion should be practiced here. On May 15 last year, five men blew up the shrine revered by Sufi mystics, whose beliefs are viewed as heretical by the puritanical Islamists.
A white flag raised by the Sufis flutters over what is left of the shrine of Sheikh Zuweid, viewed as one of the earliest Muslims in Egypt and after whom the town is named.
“WE DON’T FEEL LIKE EGYPTIAN CITIZENS”
Abdel Wahab Mabrouk, governor of North Sinai province, says religious groups are behind the trouble but denies the presence of al Qaeda or what he described as other “terrorist elements”.
But Israel is worried. It is building a barrier along its 266 km (165 mile) border with the peninsula. One Israeli officer described the frontier today as “a hot border”. Last August, Israel blamed Islamist militants from Sinai for attacks which killed eight Israelis. An Israeli counterstrike which left five Egyptian border guards dead did nothing to ease tense relations.
Israeli authority held sway in Sinai after it captured the region in the 1967 Middle East war. A theatre for more tank battles in 1973, the peninsula was restored to Egyptian control by the 1979 peace agreement brokered by the United States.
One of Israel’s concerns is that its Palestinian enemies in the Gaza Strip, including the governing Hamas Islamists, could use Sinai as a back door for attacks on southern Israel.
But the ideas spreading in Sinai could also present a threat to stability in Egypt itself and to Hamas, which looks to the Muslim Brotherhood for ideological inspiration and which has waged its own war against al Qaeda-inspired militancy in Gaza.
As in other waves of Islamist militancy that have swept Egypt in the past decades – it was Islamist gunmen who killed peacemaking President Anwar Sadat in 1981 – experts believe heavy-handed police tactics have only made the problem worse.
The security forces’ campaign to find the culprits in the 2004 and 2005 Sinai bombings has left a bitter taste. Police staged mass arrests, even rounding up suspects’ wives to force them to hand themselves in.
“THE MOTHER OF ALL PROBLEMS”
For the most part, South Sinai is a different story from the northern region. Bedouin in the mountainous south on the Red Sea maintain a nomadic lifestyle that differs to the urban development in the north, where many have settled in towns along the Mediterranean coast and have mingled with outsiders from Egypt’s Nile Valley heartlands and from neighboring Gaza.
Yet in southern Sinai, which is more sparsely populated than the north, Bedouin have similarly been alienated by years of state neglect and oppression. They too are staging acts of rebellion, though not in the Islamist form found in the north.
Seeking the release of jailed relatives, Bedouin have kidnapped two Americans, three Koreans and two Brazilians in the last two months, believing it is the only way they can get the Cairo government’s attention. They did not ask for ransoms and all were released unharmed after talks with the authorities.
The Bedouin say traditional tribal structures in the south have guarded against the infiltration of violent militant ideas. But their grievances against the state are just as profound.
The Bedouin say they have not felt the benefit of the income brought by tourist resorts such as Sharm el-Sheikh, which have given many thousands of jobs to Egyptians from the Nile Valley.
“We don’t feel like Egyptian citizens,” said Sheikh Ahmed Hussein, a member of the Qararsha tribe, one of the biggest in the southern Sinai. A government report compiled in 2010 said a quarter of all Sinai’s population of some 600,000 did not carry a national ID card. The Bedouin, who make up the bulk of that number, are not allowed to own land or serve in the army.
Sensing the urgency of the problem, the military-appointed government of Prime Minister Kamal al-Ganzouri has taken action in the few months since it took office in November.
Seeking to alleviate tensions, Ganzouri has ordered the retrial of those imprisoned after the Sinai bombings. He also ordered the revival of development projects in the region, including a railway and a canal to supply water to central Sinai.
Abdullah Abu Ghama, a member of parliament from Sinai, says it cannot come too soon:
“The state has to speed up the process of development,” he said. “If not, the mother of all problems will occur and extremists will increase in numbers.”
- Al-Qaeda Grows in Sinai (nationalinterest.org)
- Militants attack Egypt gas pipeline for 12th time (seattletimes.nwsource.com)
- Is al-Qaeda Growing in Egypt? (theatlantic.com)
- Israel-Egypt peace in jeopardy (cbsnews.com)
- Saboteurs Attack Gas Pipeline Near Israel-Egypt Border (cbsnews.com)